When introducing a new motorcycle, many manufacturers lead off with all the technical marvels they’ve packed into their latest offering. Harley-Davidson often begins with talk of the style of its new motorcycle and how it ties to the company’s history. Being one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world certainly says something about the success of the motor company’s development model.
So, when the representatives at a Harley new model press briefing mention styling first, it should come as no surprise. Reintroducing a model that was first released in 1977 (at Daytona Bike Week, no less) after it has been on a five year hiatus, Harley naturally calls upon the bike’s past heritage (by, maybe, introducing it at Bike Week) before outlining how it’s been modernized with a more powerful engine and a refined chassis.
In the Heritage Department, the Low Rider wears some unmistakable styling touches that were featured in the original FXS model of the Low Rider. Take a gander at the polished headlamp visor or eyebrow (as it was referred to in the press briefing). The polished fork and the tiny front fender carry a family resemblance. How about those split five-spoke aluminum wheels, featuring both machined aluminum and wrinkled black paint? Hey, the engine gets the same wrinkle paint, machined metal look, too. The chromed 2-into-1 exhaust has the same bad attitude of the original. Yep, theme duly noted here.
The Low Rider has always been about hot-rod-styled performance wrapped in an attention-getting chassis (most recently the Dyna chassis) that just so happens to fit shorter riders. However, when addressing the FXDL’s past style, Harley’s engineers gave themselves some technological challenges to puzzle over. The biggest task was the desire to have the Low Rider fit riders ranging in height from 5’1″-6’1″. Yes, an entire foot difference in height. Most American riders don’t know that, although the Low Rider has been shelved domestically for the past five years here, it has continued to sell – and sell well – in the Japanese market. Since Japanese are typically shorter than Americans, the size spread begins to make more sense.
The Low Rider was designed to fit every body size between a Japanese female who measures in the 50th percentile of height for a Japanese woman while the 6’1″ top end of the equation settles in at the 90th percentile height of American men. So, the FXDL is supposed to fit riders ranging from a mid-sized Japanese woman to an above average height American man. Considering the variables of arm, leg, and torso length, this is an astonishing challenge. To find out what the needs of riders in the market for a bike like the Low Rider were interested in, Harley used the same customer-focused process they developed for Project RUSHMORE.
The puzzle presented by the Low Rider is really a question of ergonomics. How does a single motorcycle accommodate such differing body types? In the end, Harley did it with some good old American ingenuity, the key of which was the all-important rider triangle. The handlebar, seat and pegs constitute the primary contact points with the rider. Within these points the physical limitations of the differing body sizes needed to be accommodated. If the pegs were in a fixed location (though ultimately two inches forward from their previous location), then the points available to change by the riders themselves were the grips and the seat. Both were addressed in simple but clever ways.
Using computer models, the design team was able to overlay the two extremes of the rider triangles onto the chassis in order to calculate the range that the two variables needed to support. Once those were determined, the trick was to make the bike easily adjustable. For example, Harley could have sold the Low Rider with a seat option for shorter and taller riders. Many manufacturers do this. Instead, a seat was created with a means of changing its size to fit smaller riders.
The FXDL’s seat has a spiffy chrome Harley badge inset into the lumbar section of the seat. However, what looks like a nice styling touch is really a cover. Lifting the seat reveals two screws positioning the badge. When these are unscrewed, mounting points under the badge are exposed that secure a bolster which moves the back of the seat 1.5 inches forward. Reaffixing the badge holds everything neatly in place. This mode of adjustment is much more convenient for both the customer (who isn’t forced to make a choice at the time of sale) and the manufacturer (who only needs to build and track one seat).
The handlebar position is given infinite variability within a 2.4 in. range thanks to a clever riser assembly. In an arrangement that looks somewhat like dog bone risers (only bent about 60 degrees), the adjustment comes from clamps located just above the triple clamp. Then the risers themselves pivot forward and rearward through the range of adjustment. Atop the risers a pair of clamps hold the handlebar itself. Adjusting the bar position is as easy as loosening two allen bolts and adjusting the tilt of the risers. Once they’re tightened in position, loosen two handlebar bolts and rotate the handlebar until the grips are in the desired location. Total time is just about two minutes!
To a 5’11” rider, having the risers in the foreword-most position feels a little like the reach to a drag bar. In the full rearward position, the grips feel a bit too rearward to the same rider. Fine tuning to find the sweet spot takes seconds. Adjusting the seat only takes a phillips head screwdriver though this only moves the rider forward. The seat height itself is a modest 25.4 in. The narrowness of the front of the seat gives the rider the feeling of an even lower seat.
The upgrades to the Dyna chassis focused on the suspension bits. The stated goal was to find the right balance between riding comfort and control. Given that the FXDL is viewed as a performance model, when the conflicting goals conflicted with each other, the nod was given in the direction of control. Both the fork and the shocks have tri-rate springs. The initial rate is quite soft to address rider comfort over smaller road irregularities. The next two rates are progressively firmer, allowing better control over larger bumps. In the 49mm fork, the firmer spring rates also minimize brake dive into the 5.1 in. of travel, giving the rider more confidence during aggressive braking.
Visually, the shocks are striking with their black body and springs capped with chrome. The firmer of the three spring rates are directed more towards handling. If the springs are too soft, the bike will be wobbly under cornering forces. Too firm and the ride will be overly harsh. The adjustable rear preload is designed to move the suspension to the firmer spring rates earlier as the Low Rider is asked to carry heavier loads. With only 3.1 in. of travel, the rear suspension doesn’t have a lot of room to work its magic. Still, in our day’s ride on the Low Rider worked well in a variety of riding conditions.
While never feeling harsh for a 170 lb. rider on the interstate, highway or around town, truth be told, the roads we covered in rural Florida were pretty smooth, so it’s hard to get a feel for how the FXDL will behave in bumpier environments. Will the shocks bottom easily, like other Dynas we’ve tested? We did manage to navigate the eleven corners in the entire state of Florida, and again, with this limited sampling, the only thing holding the Low Rider back in corners is ground clearance typical of cruisers. The pegs drag, giving the rider some warning – a particularly important one on the right side, where the leading edge of the muffler can touch down hard. Steering response is good for a big, heavy cruiser regardless of whether we were changing lines mid-corner or changing lanes on the freeway. We look forward to get a unit for a proper test in the future.
One area that the fun factor is immediately apparent is the Twin Cam 103 engine, which is standard in most Dynas. We’ve sampled this 103/Dyna combination before and have always come back impressed. The exhaust note is throaty for a stock unit. The engine’s rubber mounts quell most of its vibration even at elevated highway speeds. The torque curve means that, if you’re feeling lazy as you roll through one of those quarter-mile-wide towns you find on rural highways, you don’t really have to downshift and can chuff through the reduced speed zone before rolling back up to speed.
The Low Rider’s dual 300mm front discs deliver whoa-power when you need it. The four-piston calipers offer plenty of feel and ease of modulation. Steering under braking is easy, thanks to the fork and the carcass shape of the Michelin Scorcher tires. The two piston caliper and 292mm rear disc are unremarkable, simply getting the job done without any fuss. The optional $795 ABS on the model tested worked as you’d hope it would – unobtrusively. However, the location of the brake pedal leaves a lot to be desired. The pedal is difficult to operate because it is slightly below the foot peg and almost requires that the heel be lifted off the peg. The smoothness of the pedal surface exacerbates the problem in the wet where, without a heel hooked on the peg, the rider’s foot can slip off the pedal. It’s hard to believe that the same company that created the clever handle bar risers on the Low Rider is responsible for the brake pedal.
Overall, our short time with the Low Rider revealed a bike that has tons of attitude and the performance to back it up. With a base price of $14,199 in Vivid Black, the FXDL is cool looking, but you owe it to yourself to pop for the two-tone Brilliant Silver/Vivid Black or the stunning Amber Whiskey/Vivid Black for $14,929. The 2014 Harley-Davidson Low Rider has made an entry into the market that is worthy of the original model. Go try this bike’s attitude on for size.