Understated American Muscle

Story by Costa Mouzouris// Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles
December 16 2015

You no longer need to buy an expensive CVO model if it’s just the powerhouse of an engine you’re after

Harley-Davidson made some big changes to its touring bikes two years ago, and they were among the biggest changes the highway haulers got since receiving a new chassis in 2009. The firm called this makeover Project Rushmore, and it included some important changes, like adding optional linked ABS, improved turbulence-reducing fairings, new headlights with LED and halogen bulbs, an infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity and optional integrated GPS, and easy-open saddlebag lids (which are the easiest-operating lids I’ve seen to date).

Perhaps more importantly, Project Rushmore also made the high-output Twin Cam 103 engine standard on all of Harley’s touring bikes, as well as on a few select Big Twin models. Harley also introduced the Twin Cooled 103 engine in some of its touring bikes, which added liquid cooling, thus reducing power loss as the engine heated up. This also improved emissions, a task that is becoming increasingly more difficult on a push-rod twin with pistons the size of whisky barrels.

Since big changes don’t come frequently at The Motor Company – about every dozen or so years a new engine is introduced, and it’s about that long before a new platform gets into the line-up – it’s no surprise that Harley’s product planners have let off the throttle a bit for 2016. There are still, however, a few important changes for 2016. Among them are the new Softail Slim S and the Fat Boy S. We had a chance to ride both these bikes in Portland, Oregon, at a multi-model bike launch hosted by the Milwaukee company.

Harley’s Most Powerful Engine

What distinguishes these S models from their respective non-S counterparts is different paint, and an absence of chrome, and they are powered by the Screamin’ Eagle Twin Cam 110B engine. At 110 cu. in. (1801 cc), the Twin Cam 110 is the biggest – and most powerful – air-cooled engine Harley offers in a production motorcycle. Other Softail models, and all Dyna models except the Street Bob, get the high-output Twin Cam 103 engine for 2016.

Previously, the only way to swing your leg over that massive V-twin was to either dish out premium dollars for one of Harley’s low-production CVO models (just over $35,000 for the 2015 CVO Softail Deluxe, for example) or leaf through its extensive accessories catalogue and spend $6,700 on a crate engine, which you’d install yourself or have a dealer install at additional cost. The 110-incher is now available in the standard-production Softail Slim S, which starts at $21,499, and in the Fat Boy S, which starts at $22,899. If you’re doing the math, that’s $4,000 and $3,400 more than their respective S-less brethren, and much less than any of the other 110-inch options.

The Same, Only Different

We’ve grouped these two bikes because beneath the sheet metal they share the same undercarriage. The Fat Boy S has long, skirted fenders, while the Slim S has bobbed shorties. Wheel sizes are different: the Fat Boy rolling on solid aluminum 17-inchers, and the Slim S on 16-inch steel-rimmed spokes, whose rims are painted black. The brakes are also shared, with a single four-piston front caliper acting on 300 mm disc, and a twin-piston rear caliper mated to a 292 mm disc; ABS is standard on both bikes.

One interesting feature included on both bikes is the Engine Idle Temperature Management Strategy (Harley has a long history of using long names to describe things), or EITMS. Although not new – most Dyna and Softail models were already equipped with EITMS – this system shuts off the rear cylinder when idling in hot weather to reduce the resulting barbecuing of your inner thighs. What is different about the new system is the way it’s activated. While the previous version had to be activated by the dealer and worked all the time once activated, this latest system now lets you turn it on or off as needed by simply turning the throttle forward and holding it for a few seconds.

Warm temperatures prompted me to turn on the system in town, and I felt it working, as the engine began loping along on one cylinder at idle. It immediately started running on two again as soon as I twisted the throttle. Although the single-cylinder throbbing was noticeable, I can’t say I felt any cooler – an air-cooled engine with “pistons as big as these still puts out plenty of heat.

S for Sinister?

Visually, the bikes are striking, and it’s not because of gleaming chrome trim or high-gloss custom paint. In contrast to Harley’s CVO models, which are all shimmering in reflective surfaces and garish metal-flake paint, these S twins are menacingly understated.

But these sinister-looking sleds aren’t just about appearance; the real kick in the pants comes when you twist the throttle. Lighter than the Fat Boy S, the Slim S is also relatively light compared with any of the CVO bikes that came with the 110-inch engine; weighing in at 323 kg wet, it undercuts the chrome-laden 2015 CVO Softail Deluxe by 32 kg. This gives it a brutish forward rush when twisting the right grip, regardless of what gear you’re in or at what speed you’re travelling. Because the engine is counterbalanced, it’s vibration-free, even when lugging it in sixth gear at speeds as low as 70 km/h.

Harley doesn’t publish horsepower numbers, but the more important spec is the torque, which peaks at a claimed 109 ft-lb at just 3500 rpm. The spread of torque is so broad, you can almost forget using the shifter on winding back roads and just leave the bike in fourth gear until you hit the highway. That highway stint should be kept short though, because the stylishly ribbed solo saddle is punishingly firm, good for maybe one hour of pain-free support.

Despite the low 665 mm seat height on the Slim S, the ride is plush and comfy, though big bumps will bottom the short-travel suspension, and foot-boards will touch ground in a spray of sparks at a modestly spirited pace.

The biggest difference on the road between the two bikes is in the steering response, which is directly related to the different wheels. The heavier solid
wheels on the Fat Boy S increase steering effort compared with the Slim S, though the difference isn’t as big as you’d expect, since both machines have unusually wide handlebars.

I’m Watching You

But neither of these boulevard cruisers are about scorching back roads (which they just might do if you ride them hard enough to scrape the footboards on the drought-laden west coast); they’re about the short cruise to the café or bar, where you can park and sit on a terrace looking at others looking at your bike. Even though the military-themed Olive Gold Denim paint scheme (that’s what Harley calls it) of the Slim S doesn’t sparkle in the sun, it nonetheless beckons numerous approving glances of bystanders.

These new S models are inspired by Harley’s Dark Custom bikes, which aren’t designated as such because of any anti-chrome movement. They are meant to be stripped-down, bare-bones machines catering to riders who aim to personalize them. During the launch, our hosts offered us a parts and accessories catalogue to take home, though it was just too big to fit into my luggage. Within it, however, there are thousands of accessories, from valve-stem caps to complete engines (as mentioned earlier), allowing you to customize your bike, a practice most Harley riders partake in.

Even though Harley hasn’t made revolutionary changes for 2016, the company knows its products, and better yet, it knows its customers. These two new S models are aimed at enticing young adults (18 to 34), the age group that Harley has sold more bikes to in North America than any other manufacturer for the last seven years. It’s a trend I don’t suspect will let up any time soon. “

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