Road Test: 2017 Harley-Davidson Road King - Headstrong

13 April 2017
Story: Greg Leech Photos: Spencer Leech

A big road trip tests a few things. It’s all very well running round for a coupla hundred kays and giving a test bike back without having to ever fill the tank. But we reckon you gotta try to really use and ‘live’ with a bike, get the feel for it, then report with a degree of authority. There’s a few outlets in these here parts that might wanna take a bit of notice of that comment, but I don’t want to come off all bitter about that. No, instead, let’s look at the bike that they reckon is a game changer, in a market that offers quite a few choices nowadays.

The Road King is arguably THE iconic modern-day Harley-Davidson ever since the designation’s first appearance in 1994. In fact, the bike back then was the direct descendant, and the replacement of the Electra-Glide Sport. It had big American boots to fill, and if you’ve seen the average Stateside biker, you’ll realise that’s about size 15 and steel capped.

Clearance is reasonable and the bike can be hustled along. Just pick your line and commit.

That bike started a phenomenon and the Road King is now the choice of hot dog, low-slung boulevard riders when it comes to the H-D range. It has a tonne of street cool, but holds high regard among tourers. That puts it out on its own in the H-D family and the brand knows it. It really is the definitive H-D bagger. Peer-group market pressure? You think?

Of course the big news surrounding the new bike is the ninth incarnation of Harley-Davidson’s mainstream big twin donk — the ‘Milwaukee-Eight’. Harley’s traditional 45º V-twin is now bigger (1745cc from 1690cc) and gets new heads with four-valves and oil (in the Road King) or liquid (full dressers) cooling. Torque is up a claimed 11 per cent, power is boosted and it’s also smoother and more economical. A pretty comprehensive suite of engine improvements, you’ll agree.

It's a big thing, but once on the move all that weight drops away.

The King’s front suspension uses Showa Dual Bending Valve (SDBV) technology and gives you 117mm of travel; bigger pistons improve dampening performance over the range of suspension travel. It’s less bumpy and that travel helps hard braking.

Emulsion rear shocks provide 15-30 per cent more preload adjustment and adjust with the turn of a single knob, with no tools required. Again, there are new bigger pistons.

As far as bells and whistles go, the 2017 Road King is the same as the Twin Cam-powered 2014 jobbie, which copped a bunch of improvements directly from Harley’s ‘Project Rushmore’ program. Hard panniers and the Plexiglas screen deliver touring comfort and practicality but there are otherwise few of the whiz-bang bits (stereo, cruise control etc) that the US bikes land standard. I guess we like it a bit more minimal over here and that must make H-D exec smirk, just a little. “It’s what the market demands” is what they’ll tell you publicly.

Top Left: Note cruise control switch. Works efficiently and was a big plus on the long test journey. Top Middle: Tidy switchgear is standard fare.Top Right: The new engine boasts its capacity proudly. Bottom Left:That badge. Still carries huge credibility in the cruiser scene. Bottom Middle: That's a lot of bling to polish on Sunday morning. Bottom Right: King tank instruments scream H-D. Small ancillary digital readout offers scroll-through info, but is very hard to read on the move.

YEAH, YEAH, START IT WILLYA!

All that stuff is fine, but how does the thing put the palaver to the pavement? Glad you asked. The big trip to Wollongong and back was always going to call on the King to deliver on the ‘Tourer’ tag. It would be asked every hard question on a run like that. Would the big guy’s crown slip, or could it happily continue to reign from the H-D throne room?

The route got us off the dreaded Fume Highway as soon as possible, across the high country into Cooma and the back roads into the magnificent NSW south coast. From there we ran on in to the ’Gong, but even that coast road offers pretty decent touring as well. Too many coppers and a bit of traffic, granted, but nice winding running and the traffic offered the chance to look at the bike in that sort of environment. See.? Comprehensive huh. Find that on your dotcom hipster URL. Woops. I did it again, Britney Spears style.

Screen remained in place for the entire trip. It might not win a beauty pageant, but it carved a swathe through half the bug population of eastern Australia and was greatly appreciated for it.

Packing enough gear for a five-day trip took a little clever Tetris-style work with the hard panniers. They look huge, but because there is no give anywhere, hard items take up more space than they possibly should, clothes, shoes, toiletries, marital aids etc are fine. Two-up touring for any length of time would see them pushed pretty hard I reckon, particularly if your partner is a drag queen, but I guess that’s in the minority. I do like the new single-latch opening and closing deal and they are easier to remove now thanks to a clever threaded axle arrangement.

The seating position is good indeed. I wondered how it would last on a big ride. And I rode home non-stop other than fuel, so if numb-arsery was gonna come through at all, it had every chance. This was a revelation for me. Superb. Really. And I have not always thought that about H-Ds. Not by a long chalk. I dunno who is doing the ergos over there in The Land of the Brave, but I’m sure he’s 178cm tall and 85kg fat, because the thing fit me like it was built for me.

It’s a pretty cumbersome brute at standstill and you need to be on your balance game. After all, there is 374kg of the big beast. In fact, I plopped it on to a crash bar outside the shopping strip at Narooma. Luckily there was an aged pensioner there to help me get it back up. Otherwise I’d still be there. Just remember to back into a downhill parking spot. Or grab a big bottle of steroids and hit the gym. Hard.

There’s a Plexiglass removeable screen. It’s pig ugly and I was tempted to leave it off, mainly because the King looks deadset cool without it. After some introspection, I opted to leave it in place and I’m glad I did. The number of suiciding insects of varying colour, size and guts-volume on a trip like that is staggering and the thing does an admirable job of splatting them before impact with your nice new jacket and lid. Of course, the associated wind protection is a big bonus as well. Short town trips would see me leaving the screen at home though. My ego is too fragile to have it in place continuously.

The Road King look is handsome. We would be opting for lower bars from the huge H-D range of add-ons and the screen would get the Big A around town. Then, you will pull. Guaranteed

Now. The big question. That new engine. Two words. Huge improvement. There’s a stack more punch from the bottom and the balancing sees it smooth out to a soft buzz in the vibe department. It is actually very refined. There’s still the potato-potato thing in the rhythm of the revs, but its nigh-on perfect in regard to harshness and vibration.

The box is better. Gone are the bag of spanners that beset so many older Milwaukee models. It’s more positive and, while the ‘clunk’ is still there to some extent, you don’t have to work at changes. Down one, hook out to pass a truck and it’s hard not to grin. You can slingshot this big fella like so much sports tackle in real world overtakes and that had me smiling like a woman when Donald Trump leaves a room.

There’s ABS as standard and I love that. In my opinion, ABS is the single most significant improvement in motorcycling in the last 25 years. And, if you hear anyone claim that they can outbrake ABS, get new mates. That’s a fistful. I locked the front once coming in a little hot to a downhill left-hander. The bike was back under control before my knuckles had a chance to un-whiten. Good stuff there.

Crash bars came in handy when the bike plopped on its side in a car park. No damage, other than to fragile editor-ego.

SO WHAT’S THE VERDICT?

The Milwaukee Eight is a revelation. It’s an easier bike to ride now, simply based around the engine’s extra boogie and the quiet manner in which it goes about its business. This has not been about creating a rocket. It’s been about coming up with a user-friendly and sophisticated powerplant. It’s right on the money.

The King has long been my favourite H-D. That 2100km has only served to firm that view. On the other hand, you are parting with a whole lot of dollar for this one. H-D knows that, and frankly, in the past, I’d wonder whether you were getting full value for money.

You have a right to expect primo kit at that quid, and now, you get it. Big thumbs up from me. And my drag queen partner.

He's got a sniff of home and he's off.

THE 2017 ROAD KING GOOD BITS

  • All-new Milwaukee-Eight 107 and Twin-Cooled Milwaukee-Eight 107 engines (varies by model)
  • All-new front and rear suspension
  • Six-speed Cruise drive transmission
  • Electronic throttle control system with cruise control standard on all model
  • Reflex Linked Brakes with ABS available on all models
  • LED Daymaker headlights (on select models)

 

EIGHT WAYS HARLEY RECKONS THE NEW ENGINE IS BETTER

  • More power - bigger cylinders, four-valve cylinder heads and dual spark plugs deliver 11 per cent more torque and more power throughout the rev range with no net weight gain.
  • Better fuel economy.
  • Heat management - precision oil or water cooling for cooler running and consistent performance, from stop-and-go traffic to highway speeds.
  • More passenger comfort. Positions for the rear exhaust pipe and catalytic converters provide a more comfortable ride.
  • More charging power. A charging system with 50 per cent more power at idle to make easy work of the demands modern touring features put on an electrical system.
  • Smoother running. The counter-balancing system, rubber mounts, lower-idle speed and dual knock sensors for more precise timing control and smoother running from idle to top gear.
  • Less maintenance. The valve train requires no adjustment no matter how many years or miles you ride.
  • Narrow primary. The narrower primary drive gives your left foot a straighter, easier reach to the ground for an easier lift-off and more control at stoplights.

 

SPECIFICATIONS

ENGINE

Type: Air and oil cooled, four stroke, single cam, four valves per cylinder, pushrod V-twin

Capacity: 1746cc

Bore x stroke: 100mm x 100mm

Compression ratio: 10.0:1

Engine management: Electronic sequential port fuel injection

PERFORMANCE

Maximum torque: 150Nm at 3250rpm

TRANSMISSION

Type: 6-speed Cruise drive

Primary drive: Chain

Final drive: Belt

Clutch: Wet, multiplate

CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR

Frame: Mild tubular steel with two-piece stamped and welded backbone

Front suspension: Showa 49mm Dual Bending Valve

Rear suspension: Emulsion shock, adjustable spring-preload

Front brakes: 320mm floating rotors, four-piston calipers

Rear brake: 320mm fixed rotor, four-piston caliper

Front tyre: 130/80-17; Dunlop Harley-Davidson D408F

Rear tyre: 180/65-16; Dunlop Harley-Davidson D407T

DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES

Rake: 26 degrees

Trail: 170mm

Curb weight: 374kg

Seat height (unladen): 716mm

Wheelbase: 1625mm

Fuel capacity: 22.7lt

ETCETERA

Price: 33,995

Colours: Vivid Black, Billet Silver, Superior Blue/Billet Silver; Black Hills Gold/Black Quartz, Laguna Orange, Hard Candy Hot Rod Red Flake

Test bike supplied by: Harley-Davidson Australia

Warranty: 24 months, unlimited km

 

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