Harley-Davidson isn't exactly known for innovation. While the majority of players in the motorcycle world tend to push the envelope of performance and technology, The Motor Company has historically taken a different approach to its lineup of heavyweight motorcycles. In place of traction control and electronically adjustable suspension setups, H-D focuses on chrome, paint, tradition and... more chrome.
Nowhere is that strategy more evident than the yearly crop of models from its Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) unit, which has proven to be a rather successful way to entice buyers into its highest priced wares. As such, we shouldn't expect any major adjustments to the basic way of thinking that's proven itself time and time again from the brain-trust in Milwaukee.
That said, there are some meaningful updates for the 2011 model year that we were interested in seeing and hearing, so we saddled ourselves up on each of the four new CVO bikes in beautiful Lake Tahoe for some good ol' fashioned riding impressions. Kick back, throw on your very best leather chaps and read on, Harley fans.
Photos copyright ©2010 Nelson and Riles
Before we dissect each new CVO model, we should note that there are a few consistent themes for the 2011 model year. The most obvious addition from previous years is the new focus on premium sound – and we don't mean the iconic potato-potato sound emanating from the chrome exhausts. Harley has worked with Apple to create a custom integration of the iPod Nano for each of its range-topping models.
The three bikes with integral hard luggage each feature an integrated iPod in the right-side saddlebag, with corresponding controls for the music players on the handlebars and/or fairing. For the lone Softail model, the iPod is stored in the removable windshield and uses a much more simple single-plug non-charging interface.
And now, on to each individual model.
2011 Harley-Davidson CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide
Might as well start at the very top. Internally known as the (deep breath) FLHTCUSE6, the 2011 Harley-Davidson CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide represents the single most expensive model in the company's line-up for 2011. As such, it gets all the goodies, including the air-cooled Screamin' Eagle Twin Cam 110 engine with granite powdercoating on the cylinder heads.
Though this powerplant is the most powerful of H-D's traditional (read: non liquid-cooled Rod) V-twins, we felt it was still a little lacking in ultimate power for the massive 895 pounds of motorcycle it's saddled with. That's especially the case when the gearbox is clicked up into sixth gear, at which point any amount of available acceleration is of the gradual variety. Best to get used to downshifting, which is fortunately not much of a problem. Sure, the clutch is a tad heavy, but the tranny clicks into each successive gear with nary a complaint, and the action is always positive, if a little clunky.
The overall handling is surprisingly good. We approached the massive chromed-out machine with more than a bit of trepidation – remember, this rolling behemoth easily crests a thousand pounds with a full tank and some luggage... not to mention a 200-pound rider plus passenger – but as it turns out, the Electra Glide is a very accommodating mount. At low speeds, there's no masking the bike's massive mass, but from a quick walking pace up things start to feel more secure. As the pace built up further, we found that there's plenty of cornering clearance to allow for a fun ride through the twisty bits of asphalt away from the straight-shot highways of America. And when you do finally scrape, the effect is not jarring.
There's not a whole lot else to say about the actual act of riding the Ultra. The basic platform has been around for a very long time, and ever since the frame was beefed up a few years back it's been a rather relaxing bike to ride. All of that basic goodness still applies. Let's move on.
This bike's iPod integration is the best of the bunch, as you would expect. Controls on the right grip allow the rider to change songs and settings, and the four-speaker, 40 Watt-per-channel Harmon Kardon audio system comes through loud and clear regardless of how fast you're willing to push the Batwing-fairing through the wind. If you don't care to use the iPod, there's also satellite radio, CB Intercom and a CD player.
Rider comfort is improved for 2011 with a new dual-suspended seat that serves to soften the ride for both the pilot and passenger. Of course, that seat is also heated, as are the grips, and there's also a new standard Garmin Zumo 660 navigation system with a straightforward dash-mounted interface directly ahead of the rider. The final cool techy bit added for 2011 is a single-click power locking system for the bike and each piece of luggage.
Perhaps most important to prospective buyers, though, are the styling updates for the new year. Harley is rather proud of its new Contrast Chrome Roulette wheels, and in this case they show up in 17-inch sizes up front and 16-inch at the rear. One color is available for 2011: Black Ember and Rio Red with Flame graphics.
Ready for the price? A whopping $36,499. Yowza.
2011 Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide Ultra
Do you happen to prefer a frame-mounted fairing over H-D's more traditional Batwing fairing? Still want all the goodies that the Ultra series offers? Good news, then. Harley has added a new CVO model for 2011, the Road Glide Ultra.
As its name implies, the Road Glide gets an aerodynamic frame-mounted fairing with dual headlamps and a "cockpit-style instrument display." For what it's worth, we happen to prefer the Batwing, but it's nice that H-D is finally offering the other camp an option.
Other than the fairing, there's not much here that's different from the Electra. Buyers will get the same new bits and pieces as the aforementioned model, including the 110-inch Screamin' Eagle V-twin, six-speed transmission, iPod integration, Garmin navigation system, dual-suspended heated set, etc.
Not surprisingly, the two bikes ride remarkably similarly down the open road, except that steering feel may be a bit lighter with the Road Glide's frame-mounted fairing than the handlebar-mounted Batwing of the Electra series. At low speeds, however, we found the sensation of that long, protruding and stationary fairing up front rather disconcerting... almost as if there was a disconnect between what we were asking from the handlebars and what we were getting from the front tire. It's totally a perception issue, but we'd suggest riders try the bike out to be sure it's not a deal breaker for them.
As with the Electra, there's a Garmin GPS unit on the Road Glide, but instead of being mounted in the fairing, it's placed on the left handlebar on the Glide. We preferred the fairing-mounted location of the Electra, but your mileage may vary.
Colors: Rio Red and Black Ember with Quartzite graphics, Charcoal Slate and Black Twilight with Quartzite graphics and Frosted Ivory and Vintage Gold with, you guessed it, Quartzite graphics. We suggest avoiding that last option (seen below); it makes the Road Glide Ultra look something like a flying two-wheeled RV and was almost universally disliked by the riders we informally polled.
Pricing for the new-for-2011 CVO Road Glide Ultra comes in just below its Electra sibling at $35,999. Yowza again.
2011 Harley-Davidson CVO Street Glide
Next in H-D's CVO pecking order is the Street Glide, which is entering its second straight year of production. It also happens to be our particular favorite of Harley's line of CVO models for 2011... especially when painted up in the available green (actually, Kryptonite) metallic shade seen in some of our images. After all, if you're riding around on a bike that's meant to be seen, you may as well get the one with the brightest paint job, right?
As expected, the Street Glide also gets the 110 cubic-inch powertrain with six-speed gearbox, though it feels just a tad bit more powerful in this slightly less heavy package. Still not what we'd call sprightly, but we'll take what we can get.
Additions to the 2011 model include a new set of wheels, the front of which is now one inch larger than last year at 19 inches. For what it's worth, this is the largest front wheel ever offered on a touring bike from Harley, and it's set off by a new low-profile front fender. We asked if there was any performance advantage to the new hoop... there isn't. The rear wheel measures 18 inches.
We do appreciate the side-fill fuel cap that features an LED gas gauge, though it's pretty tough to see with polarized sunglasses in bright sunlight. Other than that, the biggest news is the addition of the aforementioned iPod integration, which in this case sends its tunes through a 100 Watt-per-channel (two channels) amplifier to six speakers mounted in the fairing. It's plenty loud, though not quite as powerful as the units in the two higher-spec mounts that we already discussed.
Riding the Street Glide was pretty much exactly like riding its two bigger brothers, except that there aren't quite as many options and it's a little less top-heavy due to the the smaller fairing and the lack of a trunk.
Available colors are Black Diamond with Crimson Tag graphics, Autumn Haze and Antique Gunstock, Black Diamond and Inferno Orange and finally Kryptonite and Black Diamond. Price? $32,499.
2011 Harley-Davidson CVO Softail Convertible
And now we come to the Softail. We'll level with you on this one... we feel that the CVO Softail Convertible puts style too far beyond substance. Nowhere is this more true than when the road gets twisty. While none of H-D's CVO models were made for blasts down a winding road, the Softail's rear suspension has been slammed too low to allow for adequate cornering clearance.
Of course, the flip side to that gripe is a seriously low seat height, and we totally understand that some riders are shorter of stature than others. If that's you, this may be your mount – it's seat is just 24.4 inches (laden) off the tarmac below. If not, our suggestion is to either look elsewhere or get used to cranking rear shock preload up as much as possible – and that would especially be true when carrying a passenger or any serious amount of luggage.
Speaking of which, the CVO Softail gets its Convertible name by offering hard leather-covered saddlebags and a front windshield that are easily detachable with no tools. The passenger seat and backrest also exit stage left when not needed. We tried it ourselves and found that the changeover process is relatively painless. And it really does transform the look of the bike, turning the Convertible from a kinda-sorta acceptable straight-line highway mount into a true boulevard cruiser.
In fact, we'd argue that the bags and shield should pretty much be left off whenever possible, as this bike was obviously created with image as the sole matter of consequence. We can still hear the echos of our pegs scraping from our ride, and we weren't pushing hard at all.
One nice feature common to all Softails is the use of the 110-inch Twin Cam B engine, which features balance shafts and therefore doesn't shake, rattle and roll itself into oblivion at every stop.
In addition to the too-low forward pegs, we also found fault with the bend of the welded mini ape hanger bars, though they really do look cool to passers-by.
As we mentioned at the outset, this is the only one of H-D's CVO models for 2011 that uses a much simpler aux-out plug for its iPod connectivity. There are two speakers mounted in a small enclosure below the windshield, and, predictably, the level of sound coming from them is way less than the more fully featured Harmon Kardon setups of the other CVO models.
Colors are Scarlet Red Pearl and Dark Slate Pearl with Metal Grind graphics, Midnight Sky and Candy Cobalt with Blue Ice graphics or Maple Metallic and Roman Gold with Burnished Copper graphics. It can be yours for the price of $29,599.
And so we come to the conclusion of our ride report. If it seems like we've been damning each of these models with faint praise, that hasn't exactly been our goal. In fact, if we were told to choose just one bike on which to criss-cross the entire United States with whatever belongings we could manage, we very well might opt for the 2011 CVO Ultra Classic Electra Glide. As H-D's flagship bike, the Ultra is equipped with everything but the kitchen sink (it didn't quite fit in the fairing...) and it coddles its rider and passenger in comfort while offering sufficient performance and reasonable handling dynamics. It's a fun bike, and it's stunning in person.
That said, we're simply not the target demographic for this line of motorcycles. Our favorite Harleys happen to be the Sportsters and liquid-cooled Rods. But for the few wealthy buyers out there who want a beautiful custom-looking motorcycle with the reliability and warranty of a factory Harley, you could do much worse than riding home on one of these CVO models.
And finally, there really is something special about the sound of H-D's classic 45-degree air-cooled lump bellowing away as the miles roll by. It's classic Americana at its very best, and that pretty much sums up our feelings of Harley's 2011 CVO lineup.
Photos copyright ©2010 Nelson and Riles