The Road King, Road Glide and Street Glide are some of Harley-Davidson's best-selling models. Built on the big-boned touring chassis, however, these baggers are also an awful lot of motorcycle for smaller riders. Sensing an opportunity for a scaled-down alternative, Harley created the Switchback from the fine-handling, twin-shock Dyna chassis. Boasting a claimed ready-to-ride weight of 718 lbs. - a full 100 lbs. less than the Road King -this all-new model makes the bagger experience accessible to a wider range of riders.
Unlike The Motor Company's bigger baggers, however, the Switchback is a convertible. Like its name suggests, a removable windscreen and quick-release saddlebags allow the owner to switch from tourer to cruiser in less than 30 seconds. Turning a dial inside each sealed, locking saddlebag and then sliding the case up and back quickly pops it off. Removing the scratch-resistant Lexan windscreen is even easier: Friction-fi t to four rubber mounts, it just pulls forward and off. The Switchback is like having two bikes in one.
With or without its touring accoutrements, the Switchback looks great. Designer Tony Pink cited the early '60s Duo-Glide for styling inspiration, and that influence is evident everywhere from the full fenders to the vintage-looking tank medallion, twin "cigar-tube" shocks and traditional 2-into-1 exhaust. The massive headlight nacelle is another obvious historic reference, and it's now horizontally split to provide an unbroken-and occasionally mesmerizing- reflection of the blue sky passing above you. It's a timeless, classic look, if a little unembellished compared to the comparatively bedazzled Road King.
A new Twin Cam 103 engine powers the Switchback, just like all 2012 Harley-Davidson Big Twins except for the price-conscious Street Bob and Super Glide Custom. Stroke remains the same as the Twin Cam 96 (4.375 inches in Harley-speak), but bore increases from 3.75 to 3.875 inches to provide a 7 cubic-inch displacement increase. More cubes, along with a slightly higher (9.6:1) compression ratio, increase peak torque from 94 lb.-ft. to a claimed 100 at 3500 rpm. Other engine improvements include an automatic compression release to improve starter life, as well as stiffer clutch springs and a higher-capacity engine compensator to manage the increased power. All 2012 Dynas (and Softails) additionally benefi t from improved electrical architecture with a smaller ECM, a smarter, faster CPU and less complex wiring.
The press intro took place in Park City, Utah, at an average altitude above 6000 feet, making it diffi cult to gauge any increase in power. The Switchback felt as strong as any TC96 we've ridden recently, however, so we'd expect that increase to be more apparent at lower elevations. Like all recent Big Twins, the TC103 runs fl awlessly-even at altitude there were no hiccups-though the bigger motor does have a more pronounced character. Larger pistons and higher compression create more noticeable engine braking, so the new engine doesn't seem as transparent as the TC96. The TC103 also seems to throw off slightly more heat, mostly radiating off the primary cover on the left and the rear header on the right. You barely notice the stiffer clutch pull-Harley says effort has only increased from 15 to 17 lbs.-but neutral is almost impossible to locate in the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission. Hopefully, this will improve after more break-in miles.
Chassis components are likewise all-new and designed specifi cally for the Switchback. Vintage-looking suspension pieces conceal modern internals. The non-adjustable, 41.3mm Wide Glide fork utilizes a cartridge style damping unit in the left leg, while the nitrogen-charged, immersion-damped shocksincorporate preload-adjustable dual-rate springs to deliver a smooth ride over a wide variety of road conditions.
Relatively low weight and reasonably aggressive geometry make the Switchback surprisingly fun to ride on twisty roads. Suspension travel is short but adequate and exceptionally well-tuned, while carefully balanced rake and trail deliver light, responsive steering. Available lean angle of 29 degrees is slightly less than the bigger baggers' 32, but there's enough to entertain even an experienced rider before inevitably burying the floorboards on a fast, sweeping road like Utah's Highway 210 climbing up through Little Cottonwood Canyon to the Alta and Snowbird ski areas.
The riding position is compact by Big Twin standards, with a trendy, stainless-steel mini-ape handlebar on pullback risers making for an easy reach that accommodates even riders under 5-foot-6. The stepped king/queen saddle is deeply contoured and offers excellent comfort and support-no aftermarket assistance necessary-and features a narrow neck to ensure that shorter riders can still plant their feet firmly at a stop. Full-length, vibration-isolated floorboards give plenty of options for foot placement, though we wish a heel/toe shifter were standard. The windscreen, sitting just below the sight line for this 5-foot-7 rider, delivers excellent optics and blocks wind quite well, only buffeting above 75 mph-essentially a non-issue for most Switchback riding scenarios.
Not only is the Switchback easier for an even wider range of riders to handle, it's also affordable for a Harley-Davidson. The base price of $15,999 is thousands less than the touring-based bagger models, and more attractive to new riders anxious to enter the Harley family. The optional security package, which adds an excellent anti-lock braking system along with an electronic immobilizer, is now available on all Dyna platforms for an additional $1195. Versatile, convertible and surprisingly capable on the open road, the Switchback is a solid addition to the Harley-Davidson lineup. Well-built with plenty of power and great handling, this new model has everything it takes to switch new and unconventional customers into faithful fans.