Words: Greg Leech; Pix: Lou Martin
You simply have to hand it to Harley-Davidson.
We all know that things are far from rosy in the Land of the Brave. Bugger it, let’s not muck about and just call it as it is… The joint’s a smoking wreck when it comes to auto manufacture, with US car makers going to the wall in a big way since the dreaded Global Financial Cock-up descended to rock the foundations of worldwide free-enterprise market economies. It’s getting better and it has to be said that there is some real light at the end of the tunnel over there, with Chrysler one of the major stars and other makers claiming to be at full production capacity, but it’s a long, long tunnel.
The wheel seems to have done its turn at Harley-Davidson too. While H-D shares in the US took a bit of a tumble recently due to a worry based around demand, the H-D outlook is pretty good, with a 44 per cent jump in profit in the first quarter of 2012.
Harley reckons that an unusually warm winter and spring weather in many parts of the US might have prompted some purchasers to spend early, pulling forward some sales.
What does all that mean? Well, while there is room for optimism, for the mob from Milwaukee to come out with a new model (in fact, four new models) at a time when it has had to bite the fiscal bullet harder than Chinese arithmetic – piffing heritage-strong, but logistically problematic MV Agusta and, bringing a tear to many an eye, shutting the doors on iconic sportsbike arm Buell along the way – is a feather in the Yankee Doodlers’ weary cap. Yes, hard but effective decisions were made in the H-D boardroom.
Enter the Softail Slim.
Harley claims the impetus for the Softail Slim came from it being a smidgeon concerned that its Softail range was beginning to appear a little wheezy and overweight.
What is certainly true, is that a key component to H-D’s market allure has been the sheer size of that imposing Twin Cam engine. According to H-D, housed in the brand’s bigger offerings the donk was becoming a little lost, visually speaking. All that seems like a pretty thin reason for launching a new model, but it allowed the brand to offer a pretty austere level of standard spec that dovetails very neatly into the current craze for hot-rod styling. You know, it’s a ‘Want not much? Have we got the bike for you!’ kinda thing.
The Slim cashes in on the unbridled (and indeed a little unexpected) success of the brand’s retro bobber Forty-Eight, which has taken the role of top dog for H-D in the Aussie sales charts. Once again, that model represents very clever thinking – effectively lifting the entry-level offering above the cheap and cheerful end of the Sportster range. New buyers, spending more money per unit, in a tough economy. More corporate cleverness, right there.
Prior to that, the brand’s Fat Boy held top-selling-bike status around the globe for many years, lending weight (or shedding it in this case) to the doctrine that set the wheels in motion to produce the Softail Slim. Okay, it’s a whole lot skinnier, but in fact, the bike shares the Fat Boy’s front end and 16in front wheel.
START YOUR ENGINES
So, what the hell is this thing?
As we said, the styling is reminiscent of American bikes from the 1950s.
Power comes from the brand’s all-seeing, all-dancing, air-cooled, fuel-injected, 1690cc, 45-degree twin that is now standard across the entire Softail and Touring model ranges.
Suspension sees a 41.3mm non-adjustable fork and the rear features standard Softail fare, cleverly hidden for that hardtail look. You get a six-speed ’box with Harley’s signature belt final drive. The ’box is quite sweet (gone is the ‘bag-o-spanners’ that beset Harleys of yore) and the ratios are about right.
The bike is a single-seater, in keeping with its minimal approach, so if you can’t pull a bird or bloke, don’t despair. For mine, the seating position is a little ergonomically odd for longer journeys. While the low seat height of 658mm, nicely-placed wide ’bars (with their very cool-looking curved cross brace) and forward controls totally suit the genre, you have to grip with your hands to hold yourself in position, and that simply becomes tiresome. And, because all your weight is taken on your butt, a decent road irregularity forces the wind out of you like a holed lilo.
With a wheelbase of 1636mm, this is a big fella. Toss in rake numbers of 31 degrees and trail of 147mm and the formula is there to make the bike as stable as the Southern Aurora. The big front Dunlop D402 hoop – at 144/90B16 it’s larger than the rear jobbie, a 130/90B16 – gives the bike real presence, and is happy enough to turn in when it looks like it shouldn’t. In short, handling and steering are delightfully predictable; the bike tips in and holds a line very well indeed. Those stepping up in capacity will appreciate that, as will those that dislike flighty manners. A big tick there.
Brakes are pretty good, with a 292mm disc and four-piston caliper at the front and a similar-sized rotor gripped by a two-piston caliper at the stern. Front braking and its application are very dependent on the dimensions and geometry of the front-end. The fact is, if there was a whole lot more stopping power there, the thing would be locking up like a Greek bank. In this case, ‘adequate’ is a compliment. ABS is standard fare, and that is a very welcome addition to any motorcycle, in my book.Dry weight is 304kg. Yes, deep breath, the ‘Slim’ tag is a bit of a fib. While the marketing aim is weight-watching, the numbers suggest the bike ate both Jenny and Craig. Truth is, it doesn’t matter, because the big powerplant pulls like blazes, and clearance stops any weight-related silliness on a lean. As H-D offerings often are, the Slim is dynamically very sound.
There’s not a great deal of clearance, which manifests in a necessarily relaxed ride. There’s plenty of rubber left when the boards touch down, so a big slide isn’t on the cards, but it can be a little disconcerting when arriving a touch hot in a hairpin. Of course, the bike was never designed for spirited sports running and will probably spend more much time boulevard cruising than boonie scratching. In its natural habitat, it performs well.
All this becomes second nature, and the bike can be hustled along pretty well simply by harnessing its strong torque. We don’t have horsepower figures (historically near impossible to get out of H-D), but the torque figure of 134Nm (98.7ft-lb) at 3000rpm is all you need to know. That’s a big number, and it serves the bike extremely well, allowing brisk corner exits from the very bottom of the rev range. Once you grasp the theory, the bike’s dynamics make sense.
There’s a nice tank-mounted speedo, this time complete with digital tacho (which is a little hard to process on the move due to its tiny size), fuel-range countdown, clock, twin trip metres and an odometer.
Finish is neat and of a high quality, and it really is a very pretty thing. You’ll take this bike to your favourite bike haunt and gather a crowd, and, really, who doesn’t like that?
Buyers are going to have to wait a little while to own a Slim. While demonstrators are indeed gracing dealerships as we go to press, bikes will be available from September 2012.
The price is steep, there’s no getting around that. To get into this pared-down, street minimalist thing at big-bore level, you’ll be heading to the bank and girding your loins. All this low-key, less-is-more attitude stops in a cloud of dust when you part with the $26,995 (rideaway). There’s not a whole lot of ‘less’ about that. Once again, very canny market analysis from the Milwaukee mob.
So, if you want to look uber-cool, like your riding kinda relaxed and are looking to buy into the look of the moment, the Slim has a lot going for it.
Type: Air-cooled, two-valve, 45-degree V-twin
Bore x stroke: 98.4mm x 111.1mm
Compression ratio: 9.6:1
Fuel system: EFI
Final drive: Belt
CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame: Tubular-steel cradle
Front suspension: 41.3mm fork, non-adjustable
Rear suspension: Monoshock, non-adjustable
Front brakes: Single 292mm disc with four-piston caliper
Rear brakes: Single 292mm disc with twin-piston caliper
DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Claimed dry weight: 304kg
Seat height: 658mm
Fuel capacity: 18.9lt
Max torque: 134Nm (98.7ft-lb) at 3000rpm
Bike supplied by: H-D Australia
Warranty: 24 months, unlimited kilometres
*Manufacturer’s rideaway price