Harley-Davidson Softail Slim | First Ride

Making Weight

They say: "A modern ride with unmistakable old-iron attitude."
We say: "Unmistakably."

Harley-Davidson can’t seem to help reinventing the past. Cruising on a euphoric high from its latest financial report—new bike sales were up 10 percent worldwide in the last quarter—The Motor Company decided to celebrate its good fortune by unveiling two reinterpretations of the glory days.

The bike we rode first, the Softail Slim, harks back to the post-war 1940s—when returning GIs took a hacksaw to their chunky baggers, paring them down to the bone to create bob-jobs, or bobbers.

Black components blanket the cruiser world for 2012, and stripped-down is trumping chrome these days, so the Slim obliges with an even more—wait for it—old-school look. This newest Softail is minimal in a retro way, with details like brief fenders and a narrow rear end that clearly conjure up the post-war vibe. Harley should have dubbed this bike the “Slim-Lo”—its 25.9-inch-high seat is the lowest on a production Harley.

The Slim’s subdued look incorporates Harley’s now ubiquitous combination stop/turn/tail lights and a side-mounted license plate for a clean and simple rear end. The elemental profile was no accident, says Senior Designer Casey Ketterhagen: “We put a Softail on a diet. Scale down the rear with a narrow tire, and the heart of the bike—the motor—once again becomes the focus.”

Because it’s a Softail, the twin rear shocks are hidden out of sight within the lower frame rails, but the rear fender struts are left uncovered, exposing the forged steel. The love-it or hate-it design exercises continue with a thin, formed-leather strap bisecting the fuel tank, plus polished covers and a round, gloss-black air cleaner contrasting the black powdercoated engine. If the Slim is indeed meant to be styled after the homebuilt customs of the ’40s, I’d say mission accomplished.

Having a seat in the Slim’s tuck-and-roll patterned solo saddle means dropping your butt waaay down, and swinging your arms up and out to the new “Hollywood” handlebar, denoted by its wide bend and cross brace. With that street-scraping seat height and rider floorboards, the Slim should fit a wide range of riders—though not necessarily comfortably.

Thumb the starter button and feel the rigid-mounted Twin Cam 103B V-twin shudder to life below, counterbalancers working to minimize the shakes. Release the heavy-effort clutch (which should be lighter if the Slim really is aimed at female riders), engage the heel/toe shifter to the usual Harley clunk, and roll on the throttle to a perfectly mellow cruising speed. For all its lauded torque (98.7 lb.-ft. at 3000 rpm), the 103 cubic-inch mill is well-matched to the Slim’s six-speed Cruise Drive tranny, and there’s ample power on tap, especially down low.

Handling is a mixed bag. As you’d expect, the Slim steers heavy, taking its time to negotiate all but the mellowest sweepers. The relatively narrow Dunlop blackwall tires track well, and the bike rides in a stable and well-balanced manner at all speeds. With 700 lbs. to tow, you won’t be calling it a power-cruiser, but you can feel the results of the Slim’s liposuction compared to other Softails when you blip the throttle. In any case, that’s probably a good thing, because the Slim’s brakes aren’t exactly high-performance. The single four-piston caliper does an adequate job of slowing the front wheel, while the two-piston unit out back works comparably. Fortunately, ABS is available as an option.

Suspension travel is usually the first thing to be sacrificed on a machine this low, but I was pleasantly surprised to feel only the hardest-edged bumps. The Slim’s 4.3 inches of rear-wheel travel should still qualify as the bare minimum, but frankly it’s more than some Harley models (the Blackline, for example, has just 3.6 inches).

And for all its stripped-down aesthetic, the Slim tucks in some pretty trick details. Period styling cues include a shapely “cat’s eye” tank console with a retro-cool speedo face and half-moon rider floorboards. The subtly louvered headlight nacelle is finished in gloss-black, and the wire-spoke 16-inch wheels boast gloss-black rims and hubs.

The styling, fit and finish are typically excellent for Harley-Davidson, and there’s no question this bike will appeal to Boomers looking to recapture the past, as well as the younger, rougher set. I found it to be an engagingly pleasant ride.

There’s nothing particularly innovative about the Slim; it’s solidly built and attractive, but with an MSRP of $15,499 (in black), it’s also the least-expensive Softail. Harley-Davidson has made a good business out of re-imagining the past, and doing it very well.

Tech Spec

Is it a bobbed Softail, or a Softail bobber?

Harley-Davidson Street Bob, Victory High-Ball

Price $15,499
Engine type a-c 45-deg. V-twin
Valve train OHV, 4v
Displacement 1690cc
Bore x stroke 98.4 x 111.1mm
Compression 9.6:1
Fuel system EFI
Clutch Wet, multi-plate
Transmission 6-speed
Claimed horsepower na
Claimed torque 98.7 lb.-ft. @ 3000 rpm
Frame Tubular-steel double cradle
Front suspension Showa 41mm fork
Rear suspension Twin Showa shocks with adjustable spring preload
Front brake Brembo four-piston caliper, 292mm disc, optional ABS
Rear brake Brembo two-piston caliper, 292mm disc, optional ABS
Front tire MT90B-16 Dunlop D402F
Rear tire MU85B-16 Dunlop D402
Rake/trail 31.0°/5.8 in.
Seat height 25.9 in.
Wheelbase 64.4 in.
Fuel capacity 5.0 gal.
Claimed curb weight 700 lbs.
Colors Black Denim, Ember Red Sunglo
Available Now
Warranty 24 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact Harley-Davidson Motor Co.3700 W. Juneau Ave.Milwaukee, WI 53201414.343.4056 www.harley-davidson.com

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars
Harley-Davidson re-imagines the past—imagine that!

The Twin Cam 103 engine comes standard on all Softail models, and offers a claimed 6 percent more grunt than the Twin Cam 96 it replaces.
A tank-top speedometer and warning lights leave the handlebar unfettered for an unobstructed forward view, but you do have to look down to check your speed.