2023 Harley-Davidson Road Glide CVO and Street Glide CVO Review
More than just exclusive paint, accessories, and extra cubic inches, the 2023 CVOs point to Harley’s future.
Harley-Davidson’s CVO line has always been for the company’s biggest fans, the riders who want the best that is available for any given model year and are willing to pay a premium to get it. Typically, the CVO line comes with exclusive paint and accessories along with other choice upgrades like a premium sound system. For the powertrain, Harley historically graces the CVO with the largest production units available, which will typically start to become standard a model year or two on. Of course, that means that the next CVO needs an even bigger engine. Lather, rinse, repeat. Well, this year, besides bumping the displacement up to 121 cu. in. from the now paltry 117 cu. in. of the previous year, other huge changes were mixed in, giving an advanced look at what we predict the bulk of the Milwaukee-Eights will be like in the not-to-distant future. If the fact that the 2023 Harley-Davidson Road Glide CVO and Street Glide CVO models both feature this new mill weren’t enough, there are a plethora of other changes to the bikes. So, let’s get started.
2023 Harley-Davidson Road Glide CVO and Street Glide CVO
Harley-Davidson’s Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) typically provides its most devoted riders exclusive materials and first cracks at new features. For 2023, the CVO Road Glide and Street Glide give a crystal ball view of where the company is going from styling to handling to performance perspectives, and it is impressive.
Editor Score: 87.5%
- Powerful, quick-revving Milwaukee-Eight VVT engine
- Noticeable reduction in rear cylinder heat
- Finally! Decent suspension travel for improved comfort and handling
- Brembo brakes deliver considerable stopping power
- Impressive TFT and technology integration
- It will take time for all this goodness to trickle down to the non-CVO models
- I’m reduced to picking out the tiniest of flaws
Meet the Milwaukee-Eight VVT 121
When I first saw the Milwaukee-Eight way back in late 2016, I knew that Harley had big plans in store for the engine, but I never expected the changes that have been announced for 2023. While some people may be attracted to the 121 cu. in. displacement and the increase in power and torque it provides, the big news lies in the three letters. The Variable Valve Timing (VVT) performs an important service for the M8 by broadening the powerband. The VVT advances and retards the cam timing infinitely over a range of 20° of camshaft rotation. The ECU uses this range not only to improve torque management, but also to improve fuel economy when compared to the same engine with static valve timing. According to the Motor Company, this efficiency can add up to as much as a 3-5% improvement in range. (Not that you or I will ever achieve that “standard drive cycle.” We’ll be too busy exploiting the broader powerband.)
The camshaft that is having its timing infinitely varied is of a higher performance variety. The profile provides a higher lift and longer duration to the valves for, yes, increased power and torque. To handle these new specifications, the valvetrain uses high-capacity lifters and beefier valve springs to ensure durability under the increased load.
Those higher-lifting valves control the flow of gasses into a reshaped combustion chamber. Low-profile valve seats combine with the new combustion chamber shape to form an improved squish band for a cleaner, more powerful fuel burn. Oval intake ports aided by a new contoured aluminum intake manifold, which offers a more direct path from the 58mm throttle body (up from 55mm), aids in this increased combustion performance. Finally, the combatants are compressed to a 11.4:1 ratio (up from 10.2:1 in the 2022 Milwaukee-Eight 117 engine) before exiting the ring via a muffler that has increased in diameter to 4.5 in. from the previous 4.0 in.
The bump in compression was aided by, among other factors, improved knock detection and by the Milwaukee-Eight’s new cylinder head cooling. First, new channels for coolant to flow around the exhaust valve area were created, and the route for the coolant was completely revamped. An electric motor now circulates the coolant through the rear cylinder head first, concentrating the cooling effect on the jug that runs the hottest (due to the reduced air flow) and has the most effect on rider comfort (due to its proximity). Then the coolant goes to the front cylinder’s head before heading to the radiator that is tucked away at the lower front of the engine. Previously, the coolant path split and ran to the cylinders in parallel rather than in sequence. Finally, the radiator’s fan directs the flow of the heat under the engine to aid in rider comfort.
Ride-by-Wire Throttle and Associated Technology
Along with the mechanical changes, the M8 121 VVT has a whole raft of electronic improvements. For the first time in Harley’s Grand American Touring line, Ride Modes make an appearance, giving the rider five options: Road, Sport, Rain, and two Custom. Each ride mode has its own recipe for power delivery, engine braking, and electronic Rider Safety Elements’ intervention in the form of:
- Cornering Electronically Linked Brakes (C-ELB)
- Cornering ABS (C-ABS)
- Cornering Traction Control (C-TCS) with modes
- Cornering Drag Torque Slip Control (C-DTSC)
Road mode has slightly reduced throttle response and, oddly, attenuated mid-range power compared to Sport mode, and both modes have their own C-ABS and C-TCS settings, with Sport setting on the less intrusive side. Rain mode reduces throttle response “significantly,” while engine braking is reduced and C-ABS and C-TCS are set to their maximum. My experience was that I preferred the power and nanny settings of Sport mode, but I liked the throttle response of Road. The beauty of this system is that I was able to, in short order, set a Custom mode to my liking.
The first step in improving a bike’s performance and handling is always (or should be) reducing weight. Harley worked hard to do this on the CVOs, to the tune of 35 lbs. for the Road Glide and 31 lbs. for the Street Glide. Although some of this reduction came in large chunks, like the 7 lbs. saved in the triple clamp via a new liquid aluminum forging technique. In other places, the savings is measured in grams and ounces. For example, the gas tank now uses a lighter-gauge steel than before.
While the frame itself remains largely unchanged, the CVOs’ suspension received a lot of love, starting with the 47mm Showa inverted fork. Capable of 4.6 in. of travel, the fork is significantly stiffer than the previous standard fork, which will pay dividends in better feel while braking and cornering. However, the big news is that the range the twin shocks now have to work with is 50% greater compared to the prior model year. Yes, the Road/Street Glide now has a full 3.0 in. of suspension travel.
Preload for the bike is handled in a clever way. First, the right shock (which requires the saddlebag to be removed) has the baseline preload set. A hydraulic adjuster in front of the left saddlebag allows the preload to be fine-tuned to account for an additional 100 lbs. of cargo or passenger. Both shocks also offer rebound adjustment, but the saddlebags must be removed to perform the task.
Up front, braking is handled by Brembo radial-mounted, four-piston calipers, squeezing 320mm discs – just like modern sportbikes. The axial-mounted rear Brembo caliper utilizes four pistons acting on a 300mm disc. As someone who remembers the days of Harleys with wooden-feeling brakes that required Popeye-like forearms to operate, this is a welcome change that can be appreciated at every stop.
While a bike’s fairing gives a signature look, and both the Road Glide and Street Glide have distinctive profiles, it plays a more important role on a touring bike, being tasked with protecting the rider from the elements without trapping them in a stagnant bubble of still air. Harley’s engineers addressed these seemingly contradictory goals with a combination of computational fluid dynamics, wind tunnel testing, and good old-fashioned seat time. The result is a new aerodynamic system for addressing the rider’s needs at speed.
Key to this approach is what Harley calls a floating windshield, with a large space below it to promote a laminar airflow. The result in the company’s “subjective” wind tunnel analysis is a 60% reduction in helmet buffeting. Additionally, there is an adjustable vent that, thanks to a clever vane, can direct the airflow up or down to fine tune it to account for different heights or simply direct cooling air at the rider. Aside from those benefits, the vent also minimizes the low pressure zone behind the fairing that can make the rider feel as if they are being pushed forward from behind. The lower body is also accounted for with adjustable vanes on the edges of the Road Glide fairing and the Street Glide fork. On our ride, these proved quite useful at directing air towards my legs and lower torso. When combined with the cooler-running rear cylinder, the CVOs’ cockpits are significantly cooler when you want them to be.
Although both bikes’ distinct profiles remain recognizable, they have been thoroughly updated. New signature lighting will inform cognoscenti of which bike is approaching, and the old, stalk-mounted turn signals have been swapped for LED signals built into the fairing for a more modern and attention-getting look (which is the whole purpose of turn signals).
With the 2023 CVOs, Harley introduces the Skyline OS. On the inside of the revamped fairings, a 12.3-in. diagonal TFT offers 90% more viewing space than the previous BOOM! Box GTS screen. Naturally, the screen is touch sensitive and works reasonably well with gloves. (An aside: I had trouble working the screen with my gloves while moving, but no problem at a stop. Perhaps I was simply more forceful with my taps then.)
The impressively wide TFT takes, not just center stage, but the whole stage. The analog dials of just last year are no longer present. However, the design of the instrumentation on the screen, with its big, analog-looking tachometer and speedometer, will feel instantly familiar to Harley touring bike owners. In between the dials is a map or an info screen. Harley has even included a couple of other, less traditional screens that highlight different information for different tasks. I’ll let Harley PR explain the modes:
- Cruise: The most traditional presentation depicts a separate speedometer and tachometer with satellite gauges for fuel level and engine temperature. Minimal widget info may be contained within the tachometer.
- Sport: Intended for performance riders, this view places a dial tachometer in the middle of the display with a digital speedometer in its center. This view expands spaces for widgets to give the rider the opportunity to display more information.
- Tour: Intended for long-haul riders and displays on center a navigation map and turn-by-turn instructions from Apple device projection or the embedded navigation display. Widget information can be displayed to the right of the map, or the rider can change to Full View to expand the map over more of the display area.
What are widgets, you ask? They are tiny windows within the display for showing very specific information. On the Cruise screen, the rider can toggle through the widgets by hitting the trip switch to reveal: Compass, TPMS, Outside Temp + Range, and Trip-A/B + Avg. Fuel. The Sport and Tour screens’ expanded real estate makes the following widgets available: TPMS + Target Inflation, Trip-A/B + Compass + Avg. Speed + Trip Time, Outside Temp + Date + Range + Engine Temp, Playlist/Station View.
Navigation is handled one of two ways. First, the built-in GPS software can take care of the duties, and riders familiar with the Harley-Davidson Ride Planner website will be happy to know that their routes can be transferred via the H-D app. The Skyline OS can even update its firmware from the app. Riders, like myself, who prefer to use their iPhone for local navigation because of the ease of getting directions with one click from emails, texts, and websites will be happy to know that Apple CarPlay is fully supported. Unfortunately, Android Auto is not supported because, according to Harley, it no longer supports motorcycles. Thanks Google.
Skyline OS also supports all of the major connection protocols you expect from modern electronics: Bluetooth, WiFi, HomeLink (for garage remotes), AM/FM/DAB, and HD radio digital broadcast. And we haven’t gotten to the sound system yet.
Naturally, the audio on the CVOs is big, in the form of a Stage II Rockford Fosgate system featuring a new 4-channel, 500-watt RMS amplifier. On the receiving end of those watts, are a pair of Stage II 3-way 6.5-inch fairing speakers, which can handle 150 watts each. The Stage II 3-way 5x7-inch saddlebag speakers handle the same wattage. If that’s not enough, Harley-Davidson Genuine Motor Parts & Accessories will set you up with Rockford Fosgate Stage III 6x9-inch saddlebag speakers that will drop in without modification to the saddlebag lid.
Finally, on the Road
Harley-Davidson gathered the moto-press in Milwaukee to sample the CVOs and see how they performed. I had the chance to ride both the Road Glide CVO and Street Glide CVO to gather initial impressions on the bikes. Since the ride was, strangely, prior to our press briefing, there were several features that I didn’t know to check out (mostly in the infotainment system), but half a day’s ride on a bike is really more of an appetizer than a full meal.
That said, I have to admit the CVOs were a revelation. Back when I started scribbling about motorcycles, way back in the Dark Ages before Twin-Cams roamed the earth, I could never understand why anyone would choose to ride a bike with a vibration-prone engine, wooden brakes, and poor handling. During my ride through the countryside of Wisconsin, I kept flashing back to the old Harleys I used to reluctantly review to the polished touring rig I was astride. Gone are the days of agricultural criticism. Yes, the Road/Street Glides are big, heavy touring bikes, but every aspect of their performance points to them being thoroughly modern motorcycles – without excuses.
The Milwaukee-Eight VVT 121 revs quicker and more smoothly than any other Harley Big Twin I’ve ever ridden. Shifting from neutral into first no longer results in a loud clang that might frighten the horses. Shifting at speed still has a relatively long throw, but it is much smoother. As I said above, my ideal ride mode would have the throttle response of Road mode and the full power delivery of Sport. Pull the VVT’s tail in first gear, and you better be ready to shift or you’ll hit the limiter almost immediately. Second gear only gives you a little more time. Loafing along at highway speed, the V-Twin cadence is the same as it ever was – a great platform for racking up the miles.
What speeds up, must slow down, and the CVOs’ brakes are more than up to the job. Fast stops don’t require the grip of a professional arm wrestler, like in days of old. Instead, two fingers draped over the adjustable (!) front brake lever get the job done. While the roads were mostly smooth on the ride, the bumps I deliberately rode over pointed to the positive effect of the increased rear suspension travel. More miles and some time on the broken streets of LA are needed to fully explore this change, but for now, I’m impressed.
Handling of these big bikes is as good if not slightly better than it ever was with these models. However, I still prefer the more planted feeling of the Street Glide with its lower grips and fork-mounted fairing. (For more on this topic, see: Harley-Davidson Fairing Comparison: Ultra Touring Glide-Off) Another reason I prefer the Street Glide fairing is that the TFT touchscreen is closer to the rider and easier to manipulate. However, the Road Glide’s new adjustable over a 27° range handlebar does intrigue me, and I would like to spend more time riding with the bar in a couple of different heights to see how it affects the feeling of connection to the front wheel. Regardless, both bikes can be hustled down a winding road transitioning from floorboard to floorboard with relative ease.
Wind and weather protection are much improved. I spent some time playing with the vane on the new windshield vent, and I could tune it so that there was almost no buffeting around my helmet at highway speed or send more air at my chest around town. I could see how helpful this vent would be for riders of different heights to adjust the airflow to suit their helmet’s location as I could induce some buffeting with certain vane adjustments. Very cool.
Speaking of cool – or at least, not hot. The change in the rear cylinder’s cooling was noticeable from the saddle both on the highway and (especially) around town where rear cylinder deactivation undoubtedly plays a role. However, the temperature was only in the low 80s, and I will reserve judgment until I’ve had to negotiate LA traffic on a CVO.
One updated area that I surprisingly didn’t mesh completely with was the redesigned seat. I was told that a good deal of attention was paid to the rider’s position in the seat and how the rotation of the pelvis could either increase or help combat the cruiser slouch that can lead to lower back pain at the end of a long day in the saddle. I applaud Harley’s efforts in this regard. Unfortunately, my coccyx and the back of the seat didn’t play well together. I didn’t hear anyone else comment on this. So, it may be a peculiarity of my relationship with the seat back. Also, while considering the seat construction, the design was also influenced by the desire to keep the seat height at a comfortable 28 in. despite the increase in rear suspension travel. The narrowness of the front of the saddle helps the seat feel even lower.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t even turn on the audio on either bike. I don’t like blasting music when I ride, and would rather listen to tunes inside my helmet. So, even if I had tested the stereo, my opinion wouldn’t be worth much, anyway.
The TFT display, though, is well thought out. Unlike the BMW R18B, which uses a large, wide TFT in addition to analog instruments, the Skyline infotainment system rightfully eschews the analog for digital representations. This ties the whole dash together in one seamless swath of screen flanked by the big Rockford Fosgate speakers. While I made extensive use of the widgets, I only got to test the Cruise screen, as I wasn’t aware of the others. One feature I really liked about this view was how you could toggle the display in between the tach and speedo to show information, a map, or nothing. Very cool. For travel, the larger map on the Tour screen would be quite useful when navigating the continent.
Into the Crystal Ball
I don’t need to be a genius to see that some of the technologies that are only available this year on these two CVO models will trickle down throughout the Harley-Davidson model line. Ever more stringent EPA regulations will likely result in the cooling system being adapted for other Big Twins, and the VVT’s broadening of the Milwaukee-Eight’s power delivery makes including it on other models a no-brainer. Hopefully, the suspension and braking upgrades will make it to other models, too. Time will tell.
For now, only riders willing to fork over $42,999 for a Road Glide or Street Glide get access to these unique features. Oh, and they get some pretty slick paint and standard accessories, too. For me, the short day of riding these two bikes has only wet my appetite for more. They make me want to travel. Harley’s engineers who have been with the company from its distant past to its current iteration of the CVOs must be pretty proud of themselves for how far they’ve taken their company’s motorcycles. And they should be. I’m intrigued as to what the Motor Company has in store for future models after sampling the two newest CVOs.
2023 Harley-Davidson Road Glide/Street Glide CVO Specifications
Road Glide CVO: $42,999 Street Glide CVO: $42,999
Milwaukee-Eight VVT 121, air/liquid-cooled 45º V-Twin, single cam actuating four valves per cylinder via pushrods and hydraulic valve lash adjustment
Bore x stroke
103.5 mm x 117.5 mm
Compression / fuel
11.4:1 / premium unleaded
115 hp at 4,500 rpm (claimed)
139 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm (claimed)
Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Mechanically actuated 10 plate, wet Assist & Slip
6-Speed Cruise Drive
Three-phase, 58-amp system (754W max power @ 13V)
Belt, 32/68 ratio
Sealed, maintenance-free, 12V, 28-amp/hour, 405 cca
LED low and high beam
Mild steel; tubular frame, two-piece stamped and welded backbone; cast and forged junctions; twin down tubes; bolt-on rear frame with forged fender supports; MIG welded
47 mm Inverted
Dual adjustable emulsions suspension with remote preload adjustment on the left shock, and threaded preload on the right shock
32 mm, 4-piston fixed dual radially mounted, 320mm disc
single axially mounted, 300mm disc
Rake / Trail
26.0° / 6.7 in.
3.50 x 19" Combo Cast Laced
5.0 x 18" Combo Cast Laced
130/60B19 M/C 61H
180/55B18 M/C 80H
Road Glide CVO: 862 lb. Street Glide CVO: 838 lb. (claimed)
2023 Harley-Davidson CVOs
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