Harley-Davidson Softail Slim Road Test
By Trevor Hedge
Harley-Davidson has nipped and tucked its Softail to create the ‘new’ Softail Slim. Put simply, it’s a new model that underneath is essentially much the same as the rest of the Softail line-up; it sports a clever new look harking back to yesteryear which is quite pleasing to the eye. Unlike most of the Harley line-up that grows bigger over the years, the Slim tries to focus the main styling element as the engine. I think it succeeds.
A narrow rear hoop has allowed designers to sculpt a diminutive rear mudguard which, thanks to the Softail’s hidden rear shock, allows the Slim to offer a minimalist bobber look while still managing to provide 109mm of suspension travel.
The suspension is improved from earlier bikes, and on the highway works quite well but once into bumpy backroads it can still be quite vicious. The bump stops are not hit as hard as they once were, and it does take a fair hit to smack you in the rump. Rear suspension compromises are not news to anyone familiar with Harleys, it is a drawback they wear in order to preserve ‘the look’. The Softails in this regard are better than their Dyna or Sportster stablemates, but still the drawbacks of form over function can still be felt.
I have to hand it to Harley. Where most companies generally tailor a test route to the strengths of their particular product on test, Harley take us on routes that put their bikes so far out of their comfort zones it’s not funny. Our 400km loop saw us scythe through corner after corner via what in most countries would be referred to as goat tracks, but they comically refer to as roads in NSW. It was the least suitable route for the bikes one could imagine this side of Eastern Creek go-kart track, but I still managed to enjoy myself, despite having to book the earliest acupuncture session available on my return home.
The 41mm forks worked reasonably well and despite the front tyre being as fat as the rear, the Slim steered nicely. Cornering clearance is poor but the footboards do fold up as they scrape and with practice the bike can largely be kept off the deck by adopting a different riding style.
The single 292mm disc and four-piston caliper couldn’t muster enough stopping power to really tax the forks but combined with the equally sized rear disc, the Slim still pulls up fairly well for a motorcycle on the wrong side of 300kg.
Like all Harleys, prodigious use of the rear brake is mandatory for any serious stopping power. ABS is standard for the Australian market and works fairly well without cutting in too early. It’s there in the background should you hit a particularly slippery patch or get into bother and doesn’t detract from the riding experience.
Unlike some of Harley’s other model range, Softails are fairly smooth at idle with the long-stroke 1690cc twin thudding away pleasingly beneath you. Once underway, the big twin is really quite a gem.
I must admit to having a quiet laugh at how smooth the latest generation Harley engines are. Back in EVO (1984-1999) days the Japanese opposition dumbed down the engineering on their machines to try and de-engineer some character into their powerplants. These days Harley’s Twin Cam 103B engines really go about business quite sweetly while still exhibiting plenty of bass style beat that the marque is so famous for.
Belt drive helps transfer the prodigious torque (132Nm @ 3250rpm) to the back wheel in the smoothest possible fashion. Stronger dampers in the latest generation drivetrain help provide a nicer throttle-to-back-wheel connection than earlier models; that feeling of elasticity in the middle is long gone and the result makes for more pleasing getaways with virtually no driveline lash.
Likewise, the latest generation gearboxes are much more cooperative than their forebears. Neutral can still be painful to find, however.
Overall, I rate the Harley drivetrain pretty much bang-on for this type of motorcycling. With the latest active-exhausts they even sound pretty good straight off the showroom floor.
Unfortunately you can virtually watch the mild steel inners of the muffler ends rust before your very eyes. Corrosion could also be seen in other areas of what were essentially brand new motorcycles on test. Perhaps this is also a Harley character thing reminding you that their bikes are made of iron and steel… That withstanding, such a poor finish would never be acceptable on a Japanese machine and a Harley owner shouldn’t have to accept it, either.
The low seat is well padded and the riding position – while a little strange at first – works well enough but might be a little too compact for a tall rider. The view over the minimalist bars to the retro styled and black painted headlight nacelle a pleasing perspective from the cockpit. Despite your chest being opened to the wind by the riding position, the low perch helps protect the rider from most of the windblast at highway speeds.
I did find the switchgear a little hard to use due to bulky switch-blocks making the reach to the buttons with a gloved hand, quite a stretch.
Like most Harleys, the Softail Slim is best suited to city work and short weekend runs. If you want to venture further check out Harley’s touring line-up (Road King / Street Glide etc.) as they remain by far the best mounts in the H-D range, and are genuinely good touring motorcycles. The rest are best left to urban pursuits where their impeccable low-speed handling and easy parking manners really are quite brilliant. The rear cylinder can be a bit of a crotch cooker if stood at a standstill for any length of time which is really the only drawback to the bike if used in heavy traffic.
Bikes likes the Softail Slim are also incredibly practical for shorter folk with a slammed 605mm seat height, making it the lowest in mainstream motorcycling, this side of a low-capacity scooter. It doesn’t hurt that they look pretty damn good too, both from the side and from the rider’s perspective while onboard, accompanied by a pleasing soundtrack. This is why, despite their shortcomings, a ride on a Harley almost always ends up being an enjoyable experience.
Don’t expect to pick up at the traffic lights though; the Slim has no room for a passenger…
Specifications – Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
- Displacement – 1,690cc
- Engine Type – Air-cooled four-stroke, v-twin
- Bore x Stroke – 98.4 x 111.1mm
- Compression Ratio – 9.6: 1
- Induction – EFI
- Transmission – Six-speed
- Final Drive – Belt
- Dimensions (LxWxH) – 2,395mm x 990mm x 1,100mm
- Wheelbase – 1,636mm
- Seat Height – 658mm
- Ground Clearance – 114mm
- Fuel Capacity – 18.9 litres
- Kerb Weight – 317kg
- Rake (Caster Angle) – 31°
- Trail – 147mm
- Front Suspension – 41mm telescopic fork, 130mm travel
- Rear Suspension – Horizontal shock absorber, coil over, 109mm
- Front Brakes – 292mm single disc, four-piston caliper, ABS
- Rear Brake – 292mm disc, two-piston calipers, ABS
- Warranty – Two years, unlimited kilometres
- RRP – $26,995 ride away
- – Sweet drivetrain
- – Very low seat height
- – Looks good
- – Great in the city
- – Rear suspension struggles with bumps
- – Corrosion issues
- – No touring bike
- – No pillion seat