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Road Test 2017 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited | Bike Tests | Latest Tests

The world of long-haul motorcycling is an ever-expanding genre: adventure, adventure touring, sports touring… And then there’s granddaddy of them all – touring. Proper touring, the sort that needs a mail redirection at your local post office, the type that requires motorcycling’s equivalent of the Big Mac. When it comes to one with the lot, few are as well equipped as the big boy of Harley-Davidson’s touring range, the Ultra Limited. This is one big-ass machine designed to get you from point A, straight past points B and C and onto point D in style and comfort, and with a sense of elitism that can only be experienced riding a Harley. For 2017 the Ultra Limited has received Harley’s much-touted new twin-cooled 107cui Milwaukee Eight engine as well as a host of suspension upgrades designed to allow you to go stronger for longer. We took the big girl on a road trip to see if the new American mill can lug around more than half a tonne while dealing with Australian roads and weather conditions.

Harley-Davidson’s 2017 Touring model range consists of the Road King, Street Glide Special, Road Glide Special and Ultra Limited. The last of these is instantly recognisable by its sheer size, which is further enhanced by the large topbox that doubles as a pillion back rest. It looks a like a lounge chair with speakers built into the arms. Despite being the big daddy of the Touring range, the Ultra Limited is fitted with fork-mounted fairing similar to the Street Glide, not the larger chassis-mounted fairing of the Road Glide. At 413kg, another 12kg probably isn’t going to break the camel’s back – but nor does it help.

The biggest change for the entire 2017 touring range is the introduction of Harley-Davidson’s new Milwaukee-Eight power plant. The 1745cc (107ci) in air-cooled form has been fitted to the Road King, Road Glide and Street Glide models, but the Ultra Limited has received the twin-cooled mill with the slim radiators hidden inside the lower-leg fairings. It’s not the first time the Ultra Limited has added water. In 2014 the launch of Project Rushmore saw the Ultra Limited powered by a twin-cooled version of the Twin Cam 103 engine.

As has become customary, H-D is not quoting power figures for the new Milwaukee-Eight engine, and it doesn’t need to. It’s always been about the torque with the big-bore, long-stroke V-twin engines. The new four-valve heads are fed by a 55mm throttle body with a redesigned exhaust system. The results is greater efficiency and claimed torque of 152Nm at just 3250rpm, an increase of 14Nm over the Twin Cam 103 and 2Nm over the air-cooled model at the same revs.

Also new is an upgraded suspension package for the unchanged touring frame. Externally, the fork appears to be the same 49mm Showa unit fitted to the 2016 model, however, internally there’s new valve-bending technology for improved damping characteristics. Harley technicians claim the new system adds firmness to the initial stroke part of the travel stroke, offering the performance of a cartridge-style fork, but with less weight.

More suspension upgrades can be found at the rear, with large-piston emulsion-style shocks replacing the sometimes tricky air-adjustable preload units. Anything that requires a manual hand-pump to adjust is not a great idea in my book, and I have heard the odd horror story about owners using a service station pump on their rear shocks only to accidentally blow the the seals. Harley-Davidson also claims the change to hydraulic shocks has increased the preload range.

If you think the Ultra Limited looks like a big bike as the approach it, wait until you climb aboard. If you are intimidated by large, heavy motorcycles then this bike is probably not for you. But if you keep an open mind, you’ll find that the low 740mm seat height allows most riders to plant two feet firmly on the ground with leg extension to spare. Some care still needs to be taken in tight spaces as this is a 400kg plus motorcycle that’s just short of 2.5 meters long. Sitting on it and moving it, is easier than trying to push it around.

The new Milwaukee-Eight engine comes to life with ease. While most manufacturers strive for smoothness in their engines, that pop and rattle of the big American V-twin at ignition is part of the whole experience Harley riders expect and demand. And while this one is noticeably smoother at start-up and idle, the engine note from the stock exhaust is noticeably meatier than the Twin Cam 103B engine. Idle also feels considerably lower.

There’s still an audible clunk when first gear of the six-speed box is engaged, but not every time, or as severe as on earlier models. This is due to the new hydraulic torque-assist clutch which provides a lighter feel and has also removed some of the agricultural feel from the six-speed gearbox. While that loud drop from neutral into first gear is often criticised, I actually missed it on the Ultra Limited and often found myself kicking the heel-and-toe shifter while waiting at the lights to make sure first gear had been selected. But once you get the green, the slip-assist clutch with increased grab-point feel and the bike’s low-down torque make pulling away child’s play.

The Ultra Limited may be designed for touring duties, but one of the most impressive things about this highway heavyweight is its low-speed stability. You sit in the bike rather than on it, and the low centre of gravity provided by the rider’s body weight and the big V-twin engine makes negotiating the urban jungle a lot easier that you’d expect. Check out the look of horror on drivers’ faces as you effortlessly lane filter through the tightest of gaps.

Once on the freeway, reaching the 110km/h limit is simply a case of twisting the throttle and watching the needle on the analogue speedo rotate around the face of the dial at the same pace as the tacho. At just 3250rpm, the 1745cc donk is already producing its full compliment of grunt and is asking for another gear. Choosing to twist the throttle and push the revs beyond 4000rpm to the 5500rpm rev limiter is not as productive as going up a gear a riding the fat wave of torque – you need to retrain your brain when you ride a big V-twin cruiser. At just 2500rpm in sixth gear you are sitting on 110km/h with the engine under even less stress than the rider who by this time probably has their favorite tunes blasting out the five-speaker BOOM! entertaining system.

The Ultra Limited is designed as a highway hauler, but throwing a motorcycle at a twisting and turning ribbon of tarmac is always the best – and funnest – way to test it. The improvement in ride and handling offered by the new suspenders is instantly noticeable. The bike now feels more connected with the road, especially at the front end. Lean angle is only 32º, but you don’t need to scrape the footboards to coax it around a bend in the same fashion as the raked-out Breakout model. The 26º rake and 170mm trail work well until you really start to push your luck a bit; that’s when you feel like it’s beginning to lean on the front tyres. You can’t force a big bike like the Ultra Limited into a corner. The best approach is to use its weight as an advantage allowing the bike to flop into the apex of a bend with counter steering. I was once told to that the best way to ride a Harley is to sit on it like a sack of potatoes, and that’s a good description of its relaxed riding nature. While it’s by no means quick steering, it has little trouble changing direction and is rewarding when punted a long at a fair pace.

Initially the bumps and undulations of our typical Aussie country roads seemed to be a little too much for the new suspenders. At speed, both ends struggled to keep pace when falling into dips and potholes. As the fork is non-adjustable, I went in search of a solution at the rear. Removal of the left-hand pannier proved far simpler than the 2016 models thanks to redesigned fasteners, and once it was removed the preload knob was easy to access and use. A few turns improved the suspension dramatically, and I was back on the road within five minutes.

Brakes have often been seen as the Achilles heel of the American marque. The Ultra Limited is fitted with four-pot Brembo calipers clamping a pair of 320mm discs up front, and a single 320mm and four-piston caliper at the rear. They are equipped with ABS and linked, providing greater safety for less-skilled riders who tend to favour the rear brake. Even with just a single rider aboard, the stoppers are trying to pull up more than half a ton, so rear brakes will never achieve the task, especially in an emergency stop.

Pulling the big girl up requires a decent squeeze on the front and rear brakes simultaneously. Liberal use of the rear brake also helps pull the bike into and through corners given the absence of engine braking from the low-revving engine. Add a pillion and a full complement of luggage and you need to get into the habit of giving both levers a decent squeeze. But no matter how much I punished the brakes, they felt just as effective at the end of a ride as at the start. That’s what I want from a braking package: consistency.

Riding on a plus 30º day was a good chance to evaluate the new exhaust system which has been designed to run cooler and disperse the heat into areas away from the rider. The new four-valve head is designed run cooler and the catalytic converter has been relocated to just behind the front footboards. Despite the changes, there was still a noticeable amount of heat rising from the engine when stuck in heavy traffic, and a noticeable hot spot in the exhaust system behind my right foot. Back at the 60-80km/h range it didn’t take long for the heat to dissipate. The Ultra Limited’s fairing is fitted with a number of air vents, which can be closed if the weather turns nasty. The stubby screen on the batwing fairing is another Project Rushmore triumph. It won’t block your view, but offers enough wind deflection to eliminate wind buffeting at all speeds. You still get a healthy dose of fresh air smashing you in the face, but it’s not the annoying air turbulence created by some screens. The big highway honker is also equipped with XX litres of lockable storage.

Harley-Davidson no longer has a monopoly on big tourers. They now come in metric and imperial sizes with Honda, Victory and Indian all offering their own interpretation of a two-wheeled Winnebago. For $39,995 ride away the Ultra Limited sits between the Indian Roadmaster ($40,995 ride away) and Honda Goldwing ($39,999 + ORC). While it’s $1000 less expensive that than the Roadmaster, it does lack heated grips and heated seats as standard.

Motorcycle behemoths are not to everyone’s liking, but there is no denying they attract plenty of attention wherever you park them. Just make sure that it’s not on a hill nose down to the gutter – they are a bastard to push backwards.

ALL THE COMFORTS OF HOME

When you are racking up big miles solo or with you significant other comfort, entertainment and information need to high on your list of requirements. The Ultra Limited features Harley-Davidson’s BOOM! BOX 6.5GT infotainment system that delivers 25 watts from each of its four channels. The 5.25-in. speakers can be upgraded to 6.5-in.

The stereo supports Bluetooth connection and features a USB port located in a handy phone holder built into the dash. The full colour infotainment system has a touch screen that can be navigated with a gloved finger, or via miniature thumb joysticks.

The system even has voice activation for your music, phone and GPS if you don’t mind shouting at your motorcycle. The GPS system is easy to use, but is beginning to look a little dated and can be hard to see in bright sunlight. If you have trouble hearing the audio instructions things can get a little confusing. It’s still better than having to pull over and check your phone or a street map.

BUGGER PACKING LIGHT, PACK EVERYTHING

The Ultra Limited’s top box and hard case panniers hold offer 133 litres of storage and, in addition to the easy-opening lid locks introduced as part of Project Rushmore, the mounting system has also been updated to make removal and installation a lot easier. The lid of the top box opens sideways approving access. There is enough room for two people to go two-up touring in style. A little zip up bag located in the top box is a great place to store easy to lose items.

PHOTOGRAPHY AYY LMAO