2017 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra First Ride Review

A new engine is just the start of the em-better-ness.

It's not really expected that a full-boat tourer like Harley-Davidson's Road Glide Ultra would have a sporting bone in its voluptuous body. (And, no, we're not shape shaming here.) Stable, serene, able to bang off mile after mile of secondary road and interstate…yes, that's the mission.

So imagine my surprise when the Ultra, under the spell of the new Milwaukee-Eight engine (click here to see Harley's All-New Milwaukee-Eight) and a host of chassis refinements, gleefully tucked itself into the first turn at Blackhawk Farms Raceway, where H-D decided to give all of four journalists a quick preview of the 2017 touring machines. We weren't there to race, and HD product development man and XR1200 racer Paul James led us around at a respectable (but still respectful) pace for most of the morning. We were given tasks at the last corner like a standing start and roll-ons to keep those of us with poor impulse control from turning it all into hot laps.

And yet the venue didn't diminish the Ultra's credentials. From the moment you start the Milwaukee-Eight engine, it's clear there's something different. It doesn't do the familiar clank-wheeze-chuff-fire routine. Instead, it comes to life quickly and settles into a short span of high idle before chugging down to 850 rpm. Gone is the shaking at low revs, often referred to as a poodle passing a peach pit. (Oh that poor poodle.) The M8's counterbalancer keeps the quivers to a minimum but doesn't eliminate the completely.

2017 Road Glide Ultra
Harley's 2017 Road Glide Ultra gets it going at Blackhawk Farms.©Motorcyclist

The next thing you notice is the new clutch, which feels significantly lighter than even the hydraulic unit on the Twin Cam 103. This slip-and-assist function has been spreading all over motorcycling, with mixed reviews in the early applications. Some of these can have very abrupt engagement points or, worse, change their character depending on how much power you’re trying to get to the back wheel. Harley’s version is very smooth and progressive, and took me no time to get a complete feel for. You can even bang a few downshifts and go all gorilla at the lever without chirping the rear tire. Not that you ever would on a bike like the Road Glide.

Then there’s the excellent ride-by-wire throttle, which has the engine do almost exactly what you want it to. Harleys have an advantage in that the engines have a lot of flywheel and not much happens quickly, but H-D has polished its RBW to a high sheen. There’s no lag when asking for more power, and nothing untoward should you quickly uncrank the throttle grip; in fact, the driveline is commendably tight from stem to stern.

After that? While the Milwaukee-Eight, in 107ci form for the basic Ultra, doesn’t feel crazy torquey just off the bottom, it revs with some vigor and holds onto power right up to the 5,500-rpm redline. The TC103, in contrast, falls off fast beyond 4,500 rpm, making the last grand to the limiter a matter of more noise than useful thrust. I didn’t see any useful dyno graphs for the new engine, but I’d bet it holds the torque curve flatter higher in the rev range than the 103. Plus the added displacement and other updates give it a claimed 10 percent boost in peak torque.

2017 Road Glide Ultra
Sure it's big and luxurious, but the RGU has predictable handling and vastly improved brakes and suspension for 2017.©Motorcyclist

As ever, the Big Twin feels tall geared and very relaxed at the top end of realistic highway speeds. Now, though, it has enough torque that I offered to one of the engineers that six ratios might truly be overkill. He didn’t think a move back to a four-speed box was likely even after I pitched it as cooly retro.

Retro describes the chassis performance from the previous Ultra, but not the new one. Two areas came in for close scrutiny, the suspension and brakes. As before, the Ultra uses a version of Bosch’s ABS with active brake-force distribution. But the previous setup had a few kinks in the application, so that, sometimes, you’d roll to a stop and find yourself needing slightly more braking effort. Add just a touch of pressure to the brake pedal or lever, and the actual brake force would jump up far enough, quickly enough that you’d make your passenger wonder about your skills. Happily, that lack of linearity and predictability is gone daddy gone. A move to the latest generation of Bosch controller and careful recalibration of the system has eliminated that issue.

2017 Road Glide Ultra fork
You'll get a better ride out of the touring models this year because of this fork, a cartridge-type system from Showa. A set of deflecting-disc valves provide much better damping control than a conventional damping-rod fork.©Motorcyclist

After that, suspension. Harley has moved to a cartridge-style fork and new emulsion shocks for all the touring models, and they’re a massive improvement. For starters, the air shocks, prone to leaking down and hardly modern in design, have been ditched in favor of actual spring preload adjustment. One shock is fixed, with the one behind the left saddlebag has a handy hydraulic preload adjuster with unusually broad range. Tip the saddlebag back, twist the dial for your load, and you’re set. Even better, those shocks have much better control than the old ones. Gone is the mid-stroke indecision, gone is the tendency to bottom harshly. The ride is still soft, but the suspension uses the stroke effectively and is much more compliant over small bumps. I’m eager to try the Ultra out on real roads to see how it deals with concrete highways and botched expansion-joint repairs.

2017 Road Glide Ultra rear shock
In what you'd call a shocking development, Harley has given its touring models real shocks. These emulsion-type shocks from Showa have a single spring preload adjustment (on the left shock) but much improved damping over the ancient air-spring shocks used previously.©Motorcyclist

The shocks are much improved and so is the fork. Showa has come up with a novel approach to fitting flexing-disc damping control. It’s not a conventional cartridge arrangement, but what it most resembles is the long-running Race Tech Emulator, which converts a damping-rod fork to have cartridge-like damping character. In this case, a pair of deflecting-disc valves reside in a chamber placed atop a conventional looking damping rod. They take over some of the rebound and compression damping so that the fork doesn’t have the harshness of a pure orifice-controlled device. But it’s also simpler and probably less expensive than a conventional dual-cartridge setup. There’s no adjustment for the fork, and no way to change damping settings at either end. Maybe some day…

The Road Glide, like all of Harley’s touring bikes with a frame-mount fairing, benefits from getting a lot of mass off the fork tubes, so it changes direction better than you expect a 900-plus-pound motorcycle to do, and has remarkably linear steering feel through the stock Dunlop tires. Cornering clearance felt limited to me at the track, but that’s not much of a surprise considering that such a venue is a long way from the bike’s intended mission. That the Ultra was actually quite a lot of fun for several stints at the track says a lot.

2017 Road Glide Ultra engine
At the heart of the Road Glide Ultra is the new Milwaukee-Eight engine, making 10 percent more power with improved fuel economy. It's also less likely to roast your inner thighs, thanks to extensive heat-mitigation tactics.©Motorcyclist

Does the Milwaukee-Eight transform the Ultra? Not quite, but in every area—especially in terms of braking and suspension quality—the new machine is a clear step forward from its predecessors. It’s entertainingly quick, well mannered, and comfortable. Harley hasn’t changed the fairing or any of its variable aerodynamics (though sets of vents you can open or close), and all the over-the-road boredom-killers remain, including BOOM! infotainment, cruise control, plus seats, and awesomely good standard three-bag luggage. And to the untrained eye, the Road Glide Ultra doesn’t look a lot different this year. And that might be the biggest knock against it. The change in appearance is subtle even if the performance updates aren’t.

2017 Road Glide Ultra
The Ultra gets the full-dress treatment, as always, including wonderful hard saddlebags with one-touch latches and a sumptuous passenger perch.©Motorcyclist