Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic vs. Moto Guzzi Eldorado vs. Triumph Thunderbird LT Comparison

American Allies: Three Traditionally Styled Big Cruisers Ready for the Road

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
2016 Cruiser ComparisonTim Sutton

Imagine that you’ve always pined for a certain kind of American-style cruiser. Lots of chrome, classic looks, big engine. Tall bars and floorboards are your thing—leave the dragstrip refugees to someone else. But your mission is a little more complicated than a simple summertime ride around town or to the multiplex a couple of cities over. You want this unashamedly patriotic machine to be capable of some touring and to be practical enough that you’ll use it for commuting occasionally.

And because the cruiser market is already pretty finely sliced, let’s get a little more specific. Your taste runs toward simple Plexiglas windscreens—no full or even half fairings for you—and if there are to be saddlebags, they need to look like they were once part of a cow. Plastic is for pool toys, and fiberglass is for boats. At least that’s how you see it. So now you’re out of the realm of the Harley-Davidson Road King, Kawasaki’s Vulcan Vaquero, and even Moto Guzzi’s California Touring—all bikes that, while compelling, don’t exactly meet your tightly defined criteria for cruiser perfection.

But here are three that do: Harley’s evergreen Heritage Softail Classic and Triumph’s Thunderbird LT. Wait, that’s two. We’re going to cheat just a little here and roll Moto Guzzi’s new-for-2015 Eldorado into the mix with the help of the company’s accessory catalog, which provided the non-removable windshield and the genuine leather saddlebags. Prices, major stats, and performance are close enough that they warranted a closer look and some side-by-side cruisin’ around.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail ClassicMotorcyclist

By most objective measurements, Harley-Davidson owns the world. It makes more bikes every year than anyone outside of India or China and has been making the Softail for more than 30 of them. To say that the Softail is a known quantity somewhat understates the matter. A model that rekindled the “traditional American” profile in Harley’s lineup three decades ago—indeed, it fairly defines the term “heritage”—the Softail has endured with myriad incremental but useful changes over the years. If you think the current bike is the same animal as one made, say, five or eight years ago, you’re in for a shock.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
On the specs sheet, the Softail looks out-gunned technically, but it all works very well.Tim Sutton

First off, the current Heritage Softail Classic carries around the counterbalanced version of the 103ci engine, which is essentially a big-bore version of the Twin Cam 96B, itself not too far removed from the TC88B that allowed Harley to retain solid mounting yet still have an acceptably smooth riding experience. If you’re old enough to remember the pre-B Softails, you probably still don’t have feeling in your hands or single vision. Tall gearing and soft saddles couldn’t mask the avalanche of vibration from the 45-degree V-twin.

For these riders, the current model will be something of a revelation. Quietly, Harley has been steadily improving this platform. Even though it has just one front brake, for example, that lone Hayes caliper provides good feel and sufficient power. On the specs sheet, the Softail looks out-gunned technically, but it all works very well. While the suspension doesn’t have a lot of travel, it’s effective and surprisingly plush right up until you hit something hard enough to test the stops. In contrast, both the Moto Guzzi and the Triumph are “busier” in terms of suspension action over smooth and not-quite-smooth roads.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
A shiny chrome “dog bowl” hub cap counters a single disc brake that’s surprisingly strong and progressive.Tim Sutton

For these riders, the current model will be something of a revelation. Quietly, Harley has been steadily improving this platform. Even though it has just one front brake, for example, that lone Hayes caliper provides good feel and sufficient power. On the specs sheet, the Softail looks out-gunned technically, but it all works very well. While the suspension doesn’t have a lot of travel, it’s effective and surprisingly plush right up until you hit something hard enough to test the stops. In contrast, both the Moto Guzzi and the Triumph are “busier” in terms of suspension action over smooth and not-quite-smooth roads.

Modern electronic fuel injection—ride by wire, even—makes the 103ci engine perfectly mannered. It’s quick to warm up, predictable in its reactions, and even fuel efficient. Despite the cubes, the air-cooled, two-valve mill is not terribly powerful, peaking at a paltry 67 horses and a respectable 86 pound-feet of torque. The heart of the powerband is in the lower third of the rev range, so short-shifting the notchy six-speed gearbox is the norm. Forget, incidentally, about finding neutral most of the time; our low-mileage testbike foiled most efforts to find neutral either on the move or at a standstill. We hope it gets better with age.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Classic H-D instrumentation includes a range meter, digital tachometer, gear position, and even a fuel gauge in the dummy left filler cap. All of which is just below your line of sight while wearing a full-face helmet.Tim Sutton

Dynamically, the Softail is very much in the hunt. Even the suspension, often the target of derision, works well here, remaining compliant over most bumps and bottoming, when it does on occasion, with a muted whump. If the floorboards were higher and the bike had more cornering clearance, it would do well around corners. The steering is light and direct, though the chassis has a few wiggles to share with you.

Everything about the Softail says relax. Find a mellow pace and watch the world saunter by. Enjoy the thrumming of the big engine, revel in its near-perfect throttle response, understand that for a bike to look big it doesn’t necessarily have to be huge. Like the Harley image itself, the Softail’s shadow is longer than its real self.

H-D Heritage Softail Classic  
PRICE $17,749
ENGINE 1686cc, air-cooled 45˚ V-twin
BORE x STROKE 98.3 x 111.1mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.6:1
VALVE TRAIN OHV, 4v
FUELING EFI, ride by wire
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/belt
FRAME Tubular-steel double-cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 41.3mm fork; 5.1-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa shocks adjustable for spring preload; 4.4-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Hayes four-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS
REAR BRAKE Hayes two-piston caliper, 292mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 130/90-16 Dunlop D402F
REAR TIRE 150/80-16 Dunlop D401
RAKE/TRAIL 31.0˚/5.8 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 27.0 in.
WHEELBASE 64.4 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 759/729 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.0 gal.
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 50/38/44 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 220 mi.
WARRANTY 24 mo., unlimited mi.
MORE INFORMATION [harley-davidson.com][]
2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Moto Guzzi Eldorado 1400Motorcyclist

As mentioned, the Eldo is a bit of a cheater in this class. It took $2,470 of Guzzi-branded aftermarket bits to bring the bike to roughly the same spec as the other two—including the real leather saddlebags, short “sport” windscreen, and the necessary mounts. If the accessorized Eldorado’s $18,460 as-tested price tag seems dear, at least it undercuts the similar California Touring 1400 by $30.

If you’re gulping pretty hard at the MSRP, be aware that the stunningly rendered Eldorado comes with a raft of high-tech features, things like cruise control, traction control, ride modes, linked ABS, and rubber engine mounts to keep the fun-loving 90-degree, side-loaded V-twin’s vibes at bay. The concentric-circles instrument panel packs a lot of information—though, sadly, range to empty is not included—and we love the big, analog tach. We also appreciate that Guzzi is really trying to do its own thing here. Miguel Galluzzi-penned shapes are a lovely mash-up of traditional Eldo cues with modern flourishes, from the tank cutouts for the massive cylinder heads to the thick whitewall tires on beefy spoke wheels.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Where the other two engines are fading toward the redline, the Guzzi’s lump continues to pull.Tim Sutton

With the smallest powerplant of the trio, the Guzzi feels as expected: surprisingly revvy and strong, less resolutely focused on pure low-rpm grunt, and more available throughout the rev range. Where the other two engines are fading toward the redline, the Guzzi’s lump continues to pull, riding a nice, flat plateau of torque to a 6,000-rpm horsepower peak. No question, the Eldo’s engine takes home the award for “most exciting” here. Three ride modes help change its personality, but we preferred Touring since the Sport mode tries too hard to make this heavy-flywheel engine act beyond its range; instead of zingy, Sport just makes it jumpy. Two too many espressos.

The chassis plays along with the Eldo’s slight sporting bent by having the most cornering clearance here, uncommonly good suspension quality for the class (plenty of travel helps), and solid handling. Feeling a bit more top heavy than the Harley, the Eldo nevertheless arcs into curves with confidence, brakes with authority (thanks, Brembo!), and takes on the next straight like it means it. Curiously vague low-speed steering and a completely feel-free clutch are the primary demerits; one you get used to, and the other you wish you could.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Brembo four-pot front calipers give commanding stopping power, while the whitewall tires and spoked rims embrace classic styling.Tim Sutton

In this test, we larded up the Goose with factory accessories, and they’re the weakest part of the stew. Few of our riders found comfort behind the windscreen, which, unlike the others, cannot be easily removed. Poor coverage and incredible turbulence for all but our shortest (5-foot-5) tester—not a wonderful combination. Those gorgeous leather bags? Infuriating to use, thanks to the real straps-and-buckles closure (the others have hidden snap buckles) and fussy internal sack that, itself, carries the rain covers because the leather shouldn’t get wet. In time, we came to loathe these bags.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
The Guzzi’s concentric-circle gauge is well placed in the rider’s vision, making the task of checking speed and fuel level less distracting than those bikes with tank-mounted gauges.Tim Sutton

But let’s not let the accessories steal the Eldo’s thunder. This is the most dynamically capable and intrinsically interesting machine of the three, combining classic good looks with real performance and comfort—did we mention it has a terrific saddle and nicely moderate riding position? We love that it’s distinctive in a world of toe-the-line cruisers.

Moto Guzzi Eldorado  
PRICE $18,460 (as tested)
ENGINE 1380cc, air-cooled 90˚ transverse V-twin
BORE x STROKE 104.0 x 81.2mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.5:1
VALVE TRAIN SOHC, 8v
FUELING EFI, ride by wire
CLUTCH Dry, single-plate
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/shaft
FRAME Tubular-steel double-cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Sachs 46mm fork; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Marzocchi shocks adjustable for spring preload; 
4.7-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo two-piston caliper, 282mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 100/90-18 Metzeler Lasertec
REAR TIRE 130/80-17 Metzeler Lasertec
RAKE/TRAIL 38.0˚/5.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 29.1 in.
WHEELBASE 66.7 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 762/730 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.4 gal.
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 45/35/42 mpg (high/low/average)
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 227 mi. (including reserve)
WARRANTY 24 mo., unlimited mi.
MORE INFORMATION [motoguzzi-us.com][]
2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Triumph Thunderbird LTMotorcyclist

We all know a kid who grew up scrawny only to blast through post-pubescence and apply the angst built up from all the ass-kicking he received in school to eating healthy and going to the gym. Classic compensation mechanisms here, but he doesn’t care—he’s going to be the strongest, baddest, meanest guy you know. That’s the Thunderbird in a nutshell.

Triumph isn’t a core member of the cruiser crowd, so when the current Thunderbird debuted in 2009, it had to be the strongest and baddest and, well, biggest of the bunch. Originally sporting a 1,597cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin engine, the T-Bird was bigger than the biggest regular-production Harley by all of 13cc. By 2011, though, Triumph had fitted the 1,699cc “Storm” engine as standard, which kept it ahead in the one-upsmanship game with Harley, whose current 103ci is ever-so-slightly smaller. Take that, bullies.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Instead of torque-drenched aggression, the impression is of restrained civility in equal measure to the impressive torque.Tim Sutton

Size isn’t everything, so we’re told, and it’s certainly true here. While the T-Bird’s engine nearly matches the (surprisingly) high-revving Guzzi for horsepower and whose torque curve rises to a best-in-this-comparo 100 pound-feet, the Triumph never feels that amazing. Partly it’s the bulldozer-class amount of flywheel encircling the engine’s 270-degree crank, and partly it’s the Thunderbird’s almost egregious curb weight of 856 pounds—more than 100 pounds greater than the Harley.

Instead of torque-drenched aggression, the impression is of restrained civility in equal measure to the impressive torque. Roll open the throttle at just about any engine speed, and the T-Bird surges forward with a steady, if joyless, resolve. And while engine vibration is held in check by twin counterbalancers, the package lacks both the Guzzi’s thud-pause-thud sense of low-rpm torque and the surprising high-rpm smoothness of the counterbalanced Harley. Indeed, with the revs elevated, the Triumph’s twin produces a bit of high-frequency sizzle. Fortunately, it’s geared tall enough that you’ll probably never have to experience this sensation, and given the drop-off in torque from the sub-3,000-rpm peak it makes little sense to rev the engine past, oh, 5,000 rpm. (Good luck figuring that out, since the T-Bird has no tach.) Probably because of the configuration, the T-Bird’s engine is a lugger that doesn’t feel like a lugger.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
A simple “analogue” speedo with an inset fuel gauge makes the Thunderbird appropriately retro. Scroll through the LCD with a remote switch.Tim Sutton

Still, the T-Bird is a strong distance runner here—credit its unflappability at highway speeds—a little surprising because the Triumph has a mid-pack wheelbase (65.5 inches, 1.1 inches longer than the Harley’s but 1.2 inches shorter than the Guzzi’s) and a fairly steep head angle. Perhaps it’s the road-hugging weight; except for a tendency to follow longitudinal grooves in the road at lower speeds, the Triumph is an assured straight-ahead machine. Other factors help, including a windscreen that works acceptably well for tall and average-height riders (but poorly for our 5-foot-5 tester), a fantastic seat, and plenty of seat-to-floorboard distance, which allows you to really stretch out. Speaking of which, the Triumph is so physically large that short-limbed riders feel like an infant straining to reach the television controls, which influences our lasting impressions of the LT’s comfort.

Triumph’s standard vinyl saddlebags, which cleverly hide their quick-release buckles, are great. Back-road antics are supported by strong if slightly numb brakes, good cornering clearance, and generally neutral steering. At low speeds, the Triumph’s steering is heavy but predictable. Although somewhat short of gadgets—the Triumph lacks cruise control and traction control, though ABS is standard—the T-Bird never feels cut-rate. It is the least expensive of these three when comparably equipped but is no less for it. All told, it’s a fine platform that we’d like a whole lot better at 75-percent scale.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Modern-spec brakes do their best to stop an 859-pound beast. Unlinked and ABS backed, these brakes could use a bit more feedback.Tim Sutton
Triumph Thunderbird LT  
PRICE $16,999
ENGINE 1699cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin
BORE x STROKE 107.1 x 94.3mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.7:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 8v
FUELING EFI
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/belt
FRAME Tubular-steel double-cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 43mm fork; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa shocks adjustable for spring preload; 3.7-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Nissin four-piston calipers, 310mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo two-piston caliper, 310mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 150/80R-16 Avon AV71 Cobra
REAR TIRE 180/70R-16 Avon AV72 Cobra
RAKE/TRAIL 32.0˚/5.9 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 25.6 in.
WHEELBASE 63.6 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 859/824 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.8 gal.
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 44/35/40 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 232 mi.
WARRANTY 12 month, unlimited miles
MORE INFORMATION [triumphmotorcycles.com][]

Off the Record

Julia LaPalme
ASSOCIATE EDITOR
AGE: 35
HEIGHT: 5'5"
WEIGHT: 135 lb.
INSEAM: 30 in.
When I first fired up the Eldorado, I wasn't sure I would like it. The transversely mounted engine upsets the upright balance of the bike at standstill, and that took a little getting used to. Once it got rolling, though, the Guzzi quickly became my favorite. At 1,380cc, that engine pumps out the most horsepower, giving the Eldorado the best power-to-weight ratio. I enjoyed the ergonomics on the Eldorado too; closer footboards and shorter reach to the handlebars gave the Guzzi a relaxed upright seating position without much (if any) recline. With additional comforts like variable fuel mapping, ABS, cruise control, and a functional windscreen (for my height), this Eldo gives the most bang for your buck.

Brian Hatano
ONLINE EDITOR
AGE: 56
HEIGHT: 5'9"
WEIGHT: 199 lb.
INSEAM: 30 in.
Piaggio designer Miguel Galluzzi nailed the Eldorado's styling, which is soulfully strong yet marvelously simple in its Italian detailing. It comes in with the lowest base MSRP and the highest claimed horsepower, and I found it to be well balanced on the road, smooth shifting and clearly the best handler of the bunch. It's not a traditional cruiser, and that is where the Guzzi earns points. The Thunderbird does everything well, and I respect that in a machine. But stylewise, the T-Bird just doesn't do it for me. Not enough—or the right kind of—pizzazz. Which leaves the Heritage Softail Classic.

The MoCo cruiser is an icon for good reason. Classic styling, brand heritage, and more model-specific aftermarket parts than the other two combined. I love the rigid-looking Softail swingarm (but why hide it with saddlebags!), and with just a few choice bolt-on pieces, I can make this one sound and look even better than it does. It’s no secret that I own a Softail and might be a little biased here, but the FLSTC is the one that checks all the right boxes on my list.

DYNO
Two of these big twins, at nearly 1,700cc each, pound out respectable torque. Harley's approach, as ever, is to bunch torque right off the bottom, peaking at 3,000 rpm and gently tailing off. Triumph, by dint of four-vavle heads, liquid-cooling, and generally more modern design, does a lot more with the same displacement. Moto Guzzi uses a higher rev ceiling to offset its roughly 300cc displacement deficit.

2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers dyno chart
2016 Cruisers Horsepower ComparisonMotorcyclist
2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
2016 Cruisers Torque ComparisonMotorcyclist

ERGOS
Typically for touring-oriented cruisers, the riding triangles are only slightly "clamshelled" because of the tall bars—especially on the Harley—and low-set floorboards. It's not obvious in the numbers, but the Moto Guzzi's footboards are much higher than the others, preserving some semblance of cornering clearance.

2016 H-D Heritage Softail Classic Ergos
2016 H-D Heritage Softail Classic ErgosMotorcyclist
2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
2016 Moto Guzzi Eldorado ErgosMotorcyclist
2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
2016 Triumph Thunderbird LT ErgosMotorcyclist
2016 MC Comparo: Cruisers
Hard To Pigeonhole
Each manufacturer’s approach to the segment differs dramatically, as does the execution. We can say that the Triumph looks and seems a little “me too” even with an unconventional-in-class engine layout, while the Harley keeps one eye on the rearview so that no matter how much development takes place on the Softail platform you’d never know by looking. Guzzi? Well, our friends in Mandello del Lario just keep doing their own thing—not really caring how it’s done in Milwaukee or Hinckley. Fine with us.Tim Sutton