What is it about Harleys, anyway?
If you ride a Harley, you don’t need to answer this question any more than you need to ask it. You get it. A competing brand could poop cinnamon-apple crumbcake and leak single-malt scotch on your driveway and you still wouldn’t want it. There are a startling number of American buyers—around half the total streetbike market—for whom the shopping process begins and ends in Harley-Davidson dealerships and only Harley-Davidson dealerships. And while I want these fine folk to read my little test, I wrote it for the rest of us. Does building a motorcycle in Milwaukee (or Kansas City or Pennsylvania) imbue it with some kind of magic a bike from, say, Minnesota (not too far from Wee-scon-sin, for Pete’s sake!) can never possess?
I got thinking about this while riding Victory’s 2011model lineup in Colorado a few months ago. With time just on the Victory products, it was easy to become convinced they were the best game in town, with good handling and ground clearance, smooth, tourquey powerplants, and seamless engineering. And you can’t beat the pricing. But that’s no way to compare a bike, so I requested a 2011 Victory Cross Country (which I didn’t get to ride much at the intro event) and a new-for-2011 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra Classic for the MD crew—boss-man Dirck, new intern Jonathan Bole and me—to test.
Cruiser-spotters in the audience may have noticed that technically, the Ultra is a dresser, not a bagger like the Victory. With its frame-mounted fairing, big windscreen and standard Tour-Pack trunk, it’s more fully equipped than the Vic—and at $22,499, spendier than the $17,999 Cross Country. That’s not exactly comparing appletinis to appletinis, is it? Well, tough. We wanted to take two high-profile models and not do a straight-ahead nuts-and-bolts comparo, but rather try to see if we could get to the essence of each brand, its ka, as the ancient Egyptians might say. Or maybe we just wanted some seat time on a $23,000 motorcycle. Because we can.
Whatever our motivation, the Ultra is a cool bike to look at and ride. That Road Glide fairing dates back to the 1980 model year, and while some may find it oddball with those twin headlamps and blocky presence, it’s a favorite starting point for customizers and even H-D’s Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) unit. A frame-mounted fairing says “touring,” yet it’s been a long time since the Road Glide model came from the factory with the Tour-Pak. So for 2011, H-D gave unto us the Road Glide Ultra Classic, complete with not just the bigger trunk, but an integrated 80-watt sound system, wind-cheating fairing lowers, 4-piston Brembo brake calipers (with ABS), an extra-comfy Electra-Glide-style seat, and as icing on the cake, the six-speed, 103 cubic inch (1690cc) Twin-Cam motor the Electra Glide Ultra Limited got for 2010. It offers 10 percent more torque than the 96-cubic inch engine the Road Glide had last year, thanks to 7 more cubic inches and a small bump in compression.
Said motor is mounted in the new-for-2008 touring chassis, a major improvement over the older bikes. With a heavier, stiffer frame and swingarm, carrying capacity is bumped up, and the squashy, wallowing feel many (including myself) noticed in the older bikes diminished.
Victory’s Cross-Countryisn’t quite a full-fledged tour machine—but it’s darn close. We first told you about the bike last year, but I didn’t get a chance to ride one until I rode the 2011 Victory line-up in Colorado a couple of months back. I was impressed by Victory’s Touring bikes, with their sand-cast aluminum monocoque frames, smooth 106-cubic-inch, six-speed motors, impressive cornering clearance and precise, stable handling. Such polished products showed Victory’s (and by extension, parent company Polaris’) commitment to staying in the cruiser market, despite H-D out-selling them by something like 40 or 50 to one. Along with the full-dress Vision (which arguably would have been a better comparison with the Road Glide) and the more simply equipped Cross Roads, the Cross Country—with a batwing-style fork-mounted fairing, 25-gallon capacity locking hard bags and integrated sound system—is an able touring companion, even though it lacks the massive capacity of a King Tour-Pak equipped H-D.
So to even things out, we had our Cross Country test unit equipped with Victory’s new accessory trunk. At $1745, the trunk’s pricetag is startling (and also brings the Vic’s MSRP up to $19,744, much closer to the H-D), but you get a lot. It has a big capacity at 17-plus gallons and is pre-wired with a 12v power socket and speakers for the rear speaker stereo system. It’s also designed to mount easily in a minute or two—no tools required—to either the Cross Roads or Cross Country without requiring a special mounting kit, and dealers can set up the locks so you only need one key for the entire bike.
Our trip would take us on a near-600-mile roundtrip from the deserts north of Camp Pendelton to the chilly Central California coast—plenty of time on fast-moving, bumpy freeways to test these bikes where they’re designed to travel. These are land barges – big, heavy machines that can carry mass quantities of riders and gear (the Cross Country can carry around 530 pounds, the H-D 472—for reference, my Ford Focus is rated at around 750) in comfort all day long. But which does it better? Is the Harley past its prime? Does the Victory lack the soul Harley riders want from their machines?
If a bike has to be styled right, it has to feel right, and that feel is going to mostly come from the engine. Both bikes have lots of character, making it a tough choice. The Harley’s 103 is a great powerplant. It starts easily, runs without a hitch even when it’s cold, and gives the rider enough power to keep things interesting; passing uphill in overdriven sixth gear at freeway speeds, even with a passenger, is no trouble at all. The transmission is as smooth and easy-shifting as this kind of transmission can be, and points go to the Harley for having a heel-toe shifter, a must with the big moving parts inside that shiny case.
The Victory’s motor has the criterion for its intended mission. The revvier, sportier nature of the four-valve, sohc 50-degree V is immediately noticeable as soon as you let out the clutch (interestingly, both bikes exhibited jerky clutch behavior on initial engagement, making smooth starts challenging—probably a simple issue to fix), and it’s a tribute to how good the Victory’s redesigned-for-2011 transmission is that shifting felt as good as the H-D (if a little more notchy) even without the optional heel-toe shift kit installed. The bike’s weight means that even though there is ample torque—around 90 foot-pounds at the back wheel, according to the online dyno charts I’ve seen—it doesn’t exactly leap out of corners, but it does feel a little more peppy and free-revving than the Harley. And of course, like the Harley, shifting is optional, with usable power from idle to the 5500-rpm (ish) rev limit. But the solid-mount engine transmits a buzzier vibe to the rider than the rubber-mounted H-D, making the bike feel oddly less refined and more pedestrian than the Milwaukee unit.
As far as chassis goes, the difference is clear: if you like to drag your floorboards, the Victory gets the nod. The Cross Country is 88 pounds lighter, and that’s not just because of the lack of similar standard luggage. The Victory uses cast aluminum all though the chassis, not steel tubes and castings. The resulting lighter, stiffer frame components as well as more sophisticated suspension parts like the inverted fork and air-adjustable (you’ll need to carry a small bicycle pump with you), linkage-equipped monoshock help the Vic a lot when the roads start to twist and turn. The radial tires grip nicely, and there’s enough cornering clearance for even mildly insane riders to enjoy themselves without scraping the floorboard feelers. And at low speeds, the Victory is noticeably easier to handle, with a lower seat, lower center of gravity and a more compact feel (although oddly, the Victory has a longer wheelbase).
What’s surprising is how well the Harley holds its own. It also has ample corner clearance, though the bike moves around a bit more on its steel chassis and suspension. You can also feel the bar flexing on its rubber mounts, but the bike is stable in high-speed sweepers and can be pushed much farther than you’d think prudent. But you never forget you’re piloting a half-ton of union-labeled iron, not a 600-class sportbike. Riding it fast is reminiscent of Bluto driving that menacing parade float in the final scenes of “Animal House,” except you’re much less likely to get arrested.
Speaking of arresting, the brakes on both of these bikes—both the four-piston setup on the Victory and the swanky Brembo tackle on the H-D—work similarly well. You won’t worry about doing accidental two-finger stoppies, and you do need to plan ahead, as these are 800-pound plus machines, but both systems deliver good feel and surprising power. Just be prepared to use more digits and leave more following distance than usual.
That’s how they do as sportbikes, but what these bikes are really for is gobbling up miles on the superslab, and it’s tough to argue they’re not well-suited for that. In this test, the Ultra has the clear advantage because of the Victory’s stylish shorty windscreen. It looks good, but the result is turbulent windblast that dribbles your head like a basketball over 65 mph. All the testers noted it, and Jonathan even thought it’d be better with no windscreen at all. Every screen makes some turbulence, but this is really bad for a touring bike, and it surprised me, as I rode a Cross Country the month before and hadn’t noticed. Turns out I was riding a bike equipped with accessories from the Victory catalog, including a taller windscreen ($350) at the press event, and the turbulence, for me at least (I’m 5’7”), was far less noticeable. An even taller “flip” windscreen ($190) is also available. I should note that after our road trip we installed the optional taller screen on the Victory (see the photo) and the buffeting issue all but disappeared.
Aside from wind protection, these bikes have the luxury features you’d expect. The H-D is the most loaded, as it’s a flagship model. The 80-watt, four-speaker Harmon-Kardon audio system gets the nod—it’s more audible at high speeds wearing a full-face helmet and earplugs and is a little easier to use. It also has intercom jacks (two headsets are included) and CB capability. Nav and iPod compatibility are optional. The PowerPak—shorthand for a three-way combo of the factory-installed 103 big-bore kit, keyless security system and ABS brakes—is also standard on the Ultra, as is cruise control. The seat is redesigned for 2011, with a narrower front section (helping short-legged riders like me feel more secure at stops) and improved bolstering for more lower-back support. All three of us noted the comfy seat, and it’s a fine place to spend a day, but the Victory’s saddle, with firmer foam, may be better on the long haul. Passenger comfort, especially on the H-D, is very good—the bike is heavy enough so the rider won’t really notice the passenger is there until he complains about having to listen to an endless loop of “This American Life” podcasts.
The under-$20,000-Victory is nicely equipped, too. The sound system works well—with the optional trunk’s speakers working and the tall windscreen it’s close to the H-D system’s volume and clarity—although it loses points because the handlebar buttons are a little harder to use (that goes for the cruise-control buttons as well). But the ergonomics are hard to fault: manageable for shorter riders, roomy for taller folk like Jonathan, who liked the big floorboards. Luggage capacity is outstanding, with a little more room in the wide-opening saddlebags (make sure they’re latched before you take off!) and room for everything else in that big trunk (including two helmets). My only real complaint about that trunk emerged after I realized how practical the H-D tour-Pak’s side-opening feature is; if there’s something (or somebody) on the Victory’s passenger seat, you can’t open the trunk lid.
At the end of the day, what you’ll notice most about whichever bike you’re riding is how far you’ve traveled on it. Fuel range is good, with six-ish gallon tanks and fuel economy that’s in theory at least in the 40s; we turned in 30-ish mpg numbers, but we were in a hurry. Cruise at a 65-mph pace and you can put well over 200 miles between fuel stops. And you’ll be wishing you had a bigger tank, as the smooth motors, comfy seats and decent sound systems make riding on one of these better than riding in a car, even on the Interstate—but you knew that already.
And now, this is the part of the test where we try to figure out which bike is better. But what does “better” mean? It’s clear the Victory is technically better, with its modern styling and engineering. But does that mean your touring experience will be better? That’s not so clear. It’s a nicely planned, engineered, styled and built product that does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It need make no excuses for performance, handling, comfort, reliability or value—something an American motorcyclist can proudly say came from his country. Is that enough to beat the Harley at its own game?
No. The Ultra wins this comparo, but not by much. It’s not a new design styled and engineered to feel like grandpa’s bike—it is grandpa’s bike, except it’s been refined and souped up to do away with all the drawbacks a Harley might have had in the past. It rumbles like an H-D, sounds like an H-D, and looks like an H-D. If you don’t like Harleys, that’s a problem. If you do, the Road Glide Ultra Classic’s comfort, refinement and useful features mean there’s no reason (other than missing out on a whole universe of great motorcycles) to look at anything else.
The manufacturers provided Motorcycle Daily with these motorcycles for purposes of evaluation.