Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide
No matter what you think about the fluff-and-puff lifestyle that surrounds this brand, you've got to hand it to Harley-Davidson for holding its course with the flagship Ultra Classic. Sure, The Motor Company has the means to reinvent the whiskered granddaddy of two-wheeled touring-and it will do just that for '09-but who would its buyer be? H-D riders are investing in an experience, not just a vehicle, so the statutes of modernization don't apply.
Conversely, we applaud Harley for knowing how to quietly slip some high-tech upgrades into the parts bin-like the new ABS option we were pleased to find on our test unit. The application is masterfully discreet in order to protect the Ultra's traditional styling, but definitely improves the bike's manageability in a straight-line stopping situation, especially for untrained riders.
Louvers and wings allow the Ultra rider to fine-tune the cockpit environment.
Over the years the Electra Glide platform has seen other tactfully applied improvements, yet not enough to keep it up-to-date in terms of usability or excitement. The once-interesting Twin Cam 96, for example, seems wimpy compared to the Honda six and Triumph triple. Yeah, it's only a V-twin, but so is the Victory and that bike keeps up just fine.
Is the Harley merely outdated or an out-of-the-box classic? That's a question that can only be answered by its pilot and depends largely upon his or her frame of mind. As Russell said, "If only they'd told me, 'Relax, you're on a Harley,' I would have been able to enjoy the Ultra sooner. The key is not to force it, because it will protest." Sometimes, the protestations are loud-say when you're knee-deep in a bumpy sweeper and the frame starts flexing like an 800-pound door hinge. Ride the same sweeper unhurriedly and you might not induce a wallow at all. And so went our circuitous tour. Every time we exited a winding section of road, the Honda, Triumph and Victory riders pulled over to wait for whoever was trundling along on the Harley.
The Ultra Classic embodies the typical Harely-Davicson experience, transporting its rider
But put the bikes in a low-speed environment-say a parking-lot or lane-splitting situation-and the Harley's short wheelbase allows it to outmaneuver the other full-dressers. Let's just say the Victor McLaglen guys aren't going to be swapping their 'Glides for a fleet of Visions anytime soon.
The Ultra also has an advantage in the luggage department. While its trunk might not hold as much as the Gold Wing's, the simple, foolproof latches and convenient, open-from-the-side lid make it very efficient. The saddlebags are also super easy to use, employing a soft-hinge, top-loading lid instead of the more trendy clamshell design that's more likely to dump your stuff roadside during a mid-trip rummage. The Ultra's saddlebags aren't easily detachable like the also classically styled Rocket III Touring's bags, but are lockable and well protected from tip-overs.
In the cockpit, the rider will find a visceral environment conducive to the more primitive experience for which Harleys are famous-"that noise" and the engine throb are far from accidental. Harley's manta ray-shaped, fork-mounted fairing looks like it's been around forever, and it has, right down to the analog instruments reminiscent of a '60s muscle car. It's even got a chrome cigarette lighter.
Windshield reviews vary according to each rider's height and preference, but none of us were a fan of the Ultra's stock screen, especially after being spoiled by those on the Gold Wing and Vision. The Harley does have a nice auxiliary air-management system, however, which dramatically changes cockpit temperatures. In the stereo war, the Ultra's CD/AM/FM/WB/CD/MP3 system took a backseat to the luxo-dressers due to lack of amplification; buzzing at high speed; and smaller, crowded controls. The cruise control switches also aren't very glove-friendly, leaving us to wonder if that's why so many Harley riders opt for fingerless gloves.
The bike's spacious seat, narrow handlebar (by touring standards) and medium-size floorboard combination is roomier than the Gold Wing's engine-driven arrangement, but nothing near the Barcalounger-like seating of the Vision.
The 2008 Ultra Classic comes with two wheel options and a raft of color choices, including some two-tones and a mildly accessorized 105th Anniversary Edition. Also timely, the Harley logs in with very impressive fuel efficiency and range (37 mpg/222 mi.), so figure that into the bike's $20,695-$23,270 MSRP.
Off The Record
Jamie "Wrong Turn" Elvidge
I fell hard for the Vision at its press launch last year in Iowa. So much so that I stole it away for a two-day, eight-state Iron Butt ride. I still love the Victory for all its "wowness" and it's way more comfortable than my couch, but what I didn't get riding through the Great Plains was California-style curves. It'll get you through without too much dancing, but it does feel its size-unlike the Gold Wing, which never feels burdensome underway. The Ultra is a classic's classic, like a man's man: fun to have a beer with, but not the one I'd want to marry. And the Rocket III Touring? Love that motor, but mostly for ripping around. When you get the Triumph rolling at touring speeds, the advantage of all that torque is left at the last on-ramp, so it loses some appeal as a long-distance tourer.
Age: 42 Height: 5'10" Weight: 135 lbs. Inseam: 34 in.