Ever since I've been reviewing motorcycles, Harley-Davidson's Road King has been my favorite Harley model. I'm not a fairing guy. Models like the Ultra just feel too bulky, and top heavy to me. I also like my knees in the breeze, rather than sitting behind a fairing and lowers.
The Road King weighs about 75 pounds less than an Ultra, so I also like the feeling of a lighter bike. Not that the net weight of 826 pounds makes it a lightweight by any stretch of the imagination. But for smaller guys like myself, every pound counts, especially when padding around in a parking lot.
So when I stopped by McHenry Harley-Davidson last fall and the general manager, Gerry Coombs, asked me if I wanted to ride a Touring bike that just arrived in their showroom -- with the new Milwaukee Eight powerplant, I asked for a Road King. So he slapped a plate on the back, and I was ready to roll.
I was anxious to see how this newly redesigned model would compare to the last Road King I'd ridden, a 2015 model. So how did I find the new model versus the old one? I can sum it up in one two words: Much Better.
Not that I wouldn't be perfectly happy with the previous bike, but the new engine and other upgrades just make the 2017 edition, well, much better.
I've written about the Milwaukee Eight motor elsewhere, so I won't go into detail about that. Suffice it to say that the M8 motor is more powerful and you can really feel it on the road. You can lug the engine down to 1,500 rpm in second or third gear (5,500 is redline), crank your right wrist, and the bike just takes off. It has a wide, smooth power band all the way up until about 5,000 revs, where it trails off. And the shake at idle has been smoothed out, too -- just enough to keep the character, but not too much to become annoying.
Don't worry about the sound coming out of the pipes. You get the familiar cadence everyone loves so much, and I think it's even a bit more clean and throaty, especially under hard acceleration. Bottom line: You know it's a Harley coming and going.
The six-speed transmission is retained from past models, and operates the same way, meaning the familiar "ka-thunk" feel when shifting to first gear. All other shifts are clean and easy. Sixth gear is only needed for highway cruising and you won't find yourself shifting past fourth in most riding situations because the M8 engine loves to rev and remains smooth even at the upper end of the tach.
The electronic throttle-control system has quick, crisp response, and the fuel metering is spot on. It's a "grip it and rip it" experience -- so it's just fun to keep in a lower gear to play with. It almost forces you to pull out and pass on a two-lane road, just because you can so easily.
Adding more "go" means it's a good idea to add more "whoa." This year the Road King gets Reflex Linked Brembo brakes with an optional ABS feature, which my test bike had. The front and rear brakes are linked electronically to provide the right amount of braking power to each tire for quicker, smoother, safer stopping, and the ABS makes sure that you don't get any lock-up on slick pavement.
The front and rear suspension are completely new. New fork technology improves the ride quality, especially over the rough and potholed roads around here, as it reacts quicker to keep the front wheel planted for better braking and handling. Out back, the air-adjustable suspension is gone and new, easily adjustable emulsion rear shocks give you 15 percent to 30 percent more pre-load, and they require no tools to adjust. Just turn a knob to adjust the damping performance over the wide range of suspension travel. The convenient air valve is located between the saddlebag and rear fender, so you can tune the ride to your own preferences. Altogether, it makes the Road King ride more comfortably and more composed, whether you're just tooling down the road at speed, or playing in the sweepers and tighter corners.
The specially designed Dunlop tires add to the handling equation as well. There's a meaty 180 mm rear tire and a 130 mm in front, designed with a harder compound at the center of the tire and a softer compound on each side, so you get more grip in the turns and longer tire life when cruising down the highway.
I was sad to see the reinforced leather saddlebags aren't available anymore. I liked the look and shape of those bags better than the traditional hard bags. But I really like the new one-touch lever on the new bags. Easy to operate with only one gloved hand, and they're roomy. The quick-disconnect mechanism inside will make it much easier to remove the bags. Coupled with the quick release windshield, and you'll transform the Road King into a roadster in minutes if you like.
I also appreciate the low 26.5-inch seat height, and with the reduced width primary housing and derby cover, which I experienced last year on the Ultra Low model. It makes it easier for short-legged riders like me to flat foot the ground. The two-up seat also offers better lower back support and is all-day comfortable for the rider, and also looks to be accommodating for your passenger.
One thing I didn't appreciate on the new bike, and it apparently began last year, is the handlebars. They are a different bend than the older models, with the grips being higher up, which I found uncomfortable for me. If I bought one, I would have to see if they could be adjusted downward an inch or two, or I'd have to replace them. Taller riders may not notice. Otherwise, I have no complaints.
The new Road King starts at $18,999 for Vivid Black, $19,449 for a color, $19,799 for two-tone paint, $19,999 for Custom paint, and $21,399 for Hard Candy Custom. No matter what paint scheme you choose, the fit and finish are impeccable.
So whether you're just out for an hour or two ride, or traveling across the country, this new Road King is an excellent motorcycle that can handle the job safely, comfortably and, most importantly, it will keep a smile on your face wherever you go.
• Contact Ken "Hawkeye" Glassman at firstname.lastname@example.org