2017 Harley-Davidson Road King Special FLHRXS First Ride Review

John Burns
by John Burns

Harley’s new Street Rod was our excuse to go to Daytona last week, but while we were there we got to ride The MoCo’s new Road King Special too. Okay, so, yeah, the Street Rod was a bit underwhelming, but it would be fun to sit all the commenters heaping abuse upon H-D for that bike on one of its FLs for about a 10-minute ride. I think it would shut most of them right up. Well, actually it probably wouldn’t. I think we’ve all learned how hard it is to unseat deep-rooted preconceptions lately.

2017 Harley-Davidson Road King Special

Editor Score: 91.5%
Engine 19.0/20
Suspension/Handling 13.5/15
Transmission/Clutch 9.0/10
Brakes 9.0/10
Ergonomics/Comfort 9.0/10
Appearance/Quality 9.5/10
Desirability 9.5/10
Value 8.5/10
Overall Score91.5/100

Harley has this type of bike so dialled, it’s easy to forgive them their dysfunctionality in some other arenas. The Road King is the base-level FL model (the FLs being the touring models), and as such we could’ve seen the RK Special coming, since there are already Street Glide Specials, Road Glide Specials, etc. This is the bike for people who want a naked bagger and don’t care about a stereo or Infotainment. Purists! (H-D offers various optional windshields.)

It is altogether fitting and and proper that Harley should so honor the Road King, as it’s been one of the company’s biggest sellers since its 1994 introduction. The new bike is to the original as an Airbus A380 is to a DC-3. H-D product planner Paul James points out that, in a recent dealer-customizing competition, almost everybody chose an RK as the starting point. It’s a blank slate, a clean canvas…

And the best thing about the new Special is its Milwaukee Eight 107 engine. The new eight-valve Twin felt pretty sporty when we sampled it in a Street Glide in our Bagger Brawl a couple of months ago. With a few less pounds to haul and no fairing to push, the ’King really scoots when you give it the gas.

Sixty-five mph in top cog is just about 2400 rpm, about 500 rpm shy of the Milwaukee Eight’s 102-pound-feet Dynojet-measured max torque; 100 smooth mph from here comes up quickish, no downshift required. (The ’94 Road King would barely do 100.)

In addition to that powerful and smooth-running V-Twin, Harley’s stylists ganged up on the King, slathering it in darkness and leaving just enough chrome to set off the engine architecture. Otherwise, a black fork topped by a big black headlight nacelle and nine-inch mini-ape handlebar lead the “gleaming locomotive rolling through a trainyard at midnight.” That goes with black hand controls (with internal wiring), triple clamp, mirrors, turn signals, engine covers, mufflers… and black turbine wheels, including the 19-inch front mit low-profile tire.

Stretched saddlebags, which actually do hold a bit more stuff, add to the long, low look, though suspension is the same 2.15 inches as the standard Road King and the ’Glides. On bumpy pavement, that’s not always enough, but the bike’s upscale emulsion shocks do a remarkably good job anyway. On smoother slab, all the FLs are veritable chariots of the gods, and in exchange for the minimal wheel travel you get to sit on a seat just 27.4 inches from the pavement, which is actually pretty swell when you’re climbing on and off a lot.

That rear fascia panel fills in the space between the bags and the bike for a custom, finished look. The 180/55-18 Dunlop tucked up under there lets the King handle better than you might expect.

Up front, the new 49mm Showa “dual bending valve” fork serves up 4.6 inches of well-controlled travel. As we learned on the aforementioned Street Glide, these things go around corners surprisingly well, and in fact H-D specs say the RK will lean a degree further to each side than the Street Glide: 32 degrees to the right and 31 left – and more than that if you don’t mind scraped up floorboard edges. The Special’s low-profile Dunlops give it a really solid, taut feel: Shame we couldn’t find any curvy roads in Florida to give them a better work-out.

Triple 300mm disc brakes, the front two clamped by Brembo four-piston calipers, provide more than enough solid, two-finger braking power through the comfortable blade-style front lever, and are equipped with standard ABS (as well as H-D’s Smart Security System). The rear brake’s right where your foot expects it to be when you want it. The clutch is light and progressive; the six-speed box shifts fine, mostly without need of the clutch in the higher gears. The H-D faithful would think they’d been cheated if first gear didn’t clock in with the traditional reassuring clunk.

Housing a dual halogen headlight in a blacked-out vintage nacelle is an excellent blending of old with new.

Another nod to modern functionality is at your left thumb, a one-button cruise control that works as seamlessly as any in the business. With that in place, I’m fully down with the minimalism of the rest of the bike.

For long days, you can’t beat floorboards that let you turn the other cheek (I use the passenger mini-boards too). A heel/ toe shifter doesn’t hurt. The seats on these bikes are some of the best stock seats I have ever placed glutes upon (though taller riders felt a bit locked in on the Street Glide).

It was only in the 60s on the my day in Daytona and I experienced no heat issues on the RK, but it’s good to know on hot days, Harley has anticipated and addressed the heat issue that plagues some of its competitors. The 107 “features a precision cooling strategy that targets a flow of oil around the hottest areas of the cylinder heads,” in an engine designed with reduced heat absorption compared to the Twin Cam. EITMS, Engine Idle Temperature Management System (a.k.a. parade mode), is enabled when you roll the throttle past closed, and cuts fuel and spark to the rear cylinder when you’re stuck in traffic. The exhaust is repositioned and the catalyst is positioned to route heat away from the passenger, idle speed is down from 1000 to 850…

Rubber engine mounts mean no vibration.

What else? You’ll never need to adjust the Milwaukee Eight’s eight valves… its electrical system puts out 50% more juice at idle… that six-gallon tank should give well over 200-mile range…

If you’re getting the impression I’m fond of this bike, you’re right. It’s got that classic look that attracts love wherever you go, yet you can flog the snot out of it like a large naked sportbike and not be at all disappointed in its performance; 102 lb-ft of torque at 2900 rpm is its own bull-in-china-shop kind of fun.

At the same time, those easy-open saddlebags, low seat, excellent low-speed handling, and quiet demeanor at low throttle openings make it a great grocery-getter, kid dropper-offer, commuter, and social gathering conveyance. And with the cruise control, excellent comfort and ability to add a windscreen, I’d happily go anywhere tomorrow for a week on the King if I didn’t have to sit here pounding this computer all the time.

Actually I’m off to the south of France this afternoon to ride the new Ducati Monster 797, but I could really go either way. Am I getting old?

2017 Harley-Davidson Road King Special

+ Highs

  • Minimalism without the masochism
  • What Harley does best, it does better than anybody
  • Fabulously functional and a breeze to ride

– Sighs

  • I could do without the mini-ape, but that’s just me
  • Passengers may not love their part of the seat
  • Everybody wants to tell you about their Harley

2017 Harley-Davidson Road King Special Specifications

MSRP$21,999 Vivid Black; $22,449 Charcoal Denim, Olive Gold; $24,399 Hard Candy Hot Rod Red Flake
EngineAir-cooled OHV V-Twin; 4 valves/ cylinder Milwaukee Eight 107
Displacement107 cu in (1746 cc)
Bore x Stroke3.937 in. x 4.375 in. (100 mm x 111.1 mm)
Compression Ratio10.0:1
Fuel SystemElectronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Final driveBelt
Front Suspension49mm inverted Showa dual bending valve fork, no adjustment; 4.6 in. travel
Rear SuspensionDual premium emulsion shocks; preload adjustable (by hand), 2.15 in. travel
Front BrakeDual 300mm discs, 4-piston calipers; ABS
Rear Brake300mm disc, 4-piston caliper; ABS
Rake/ trail29.25 degrees/ 6.9 in. (175mm)
Wheelbase64 in. (1625mm)
Seat Height27.4 in. (695 mm), unladen
Fuel Capacity6.0 gal. (22.7 l)
Dry weight781 lb. (354 kg), claimed
WheelsBlack, turbine cast aluminum
Front tires130/60 B19 61H
Rear tires180/55B B18 80H
Color OptionsVivid Black, Charcoal Denim, and Olive Gold
John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 70 comments
  • Ron Hayes Ron Hayes on Mar 30, 2017

    Three years ago, Tom Roderick stated that if Harley produced a bike like the Yamaha Roadliner, they would sell them by the truck load. Has it finally happened?
    The RK looks like a beautiful replacement although at 6 foot 3 other RK's feel small and tight.

  • Bubba Blue Bubba Blue on Jun 26, 2017

    "...almost everybody chose an RK as the starting point. It’s a blank slate, a clean canvas."

    Not quite. It would be blanker and cleaner if HD offered the touring platform in a standard. No bags, regular size nacelle, no engine bars, no highway lights, 2 into 1 exhaust. (The Special doesn't have a highway light bar like the regular Road King anyway). So, that's what I'd like.

    Btw, these things are getting way too expensive. For the price of a Road Glide Special you could get a new Camaro.