This article was originally published in Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
It’s a question that has been asked ever since motorcycle companies began offering specialized models: If you were able to own just one bike, which would it be?
The answer, of course, is dependent upon many factors. What kind of riding do you do? Long-distance? Local commuting? Bar-hopping? Two-up or solo?
If you specialize in any of those styles of riding, the choices usually are fairly apparent and easy to decide. But what if you like to do all kinds of riding? What if you’re the type of rider who might commute on your mount all week long, then escape for the weekend to a favorite getaway with your significant other? What if most of your weekends are spent cruising the local scene but you occasionally like to hit the interstates with serious mileage in mind? What one Harley-Davidson will handle all that duty—short-, medium- and long-distance—without leaving you feeling more than a little compromised?
Excellent questions. And to come up with reasonable answers, we staged a comparison between the two Harley models we felt best represented their respective niches in The Motor Company’s lineup: A Road King and a Heritage Softail Classic.
Why those two bikes? Well, think about it: Though both are powered by the Twin Cam 88 engine, the Road King is a product of Harley’s long-standing rubber-mount methodology, while the other represents the company’s brand-new counterbalanced technology. One is based on a time-proven touring chassis, the other on a low-slung cruiser concept. One is from the latter-day institute of twin-shock functionality, the other from the old-school affinity for hardtail-esque nostalgia. And both have just enough over-the-road equipment to make life on the highway pleasant, but not so much as to get in the way of everyday use. Of the entire 24-bike Harley-Davidson line, no other models fit that profile better than these two.
Despite that, these two bikes seldom have been in close competition to win the heart of the same Harley enthusiast. The Road King was smooth and refined, a versatile rendition of H-D’s classic touring platform; the Heritage Softail Classic was a rolling anachronism, fun to look at but, as a long-distance mount, limited by the heavy vibration that all rigid-mount Softails allowed to reach the rider. Two events—last year’s introduction of the Twin Cam 88, and this year’s announcement of the counterbalanced Beta version of that engine—changed all that for the better.
But, however much the Road King might have been improved by the TC 88, it didn’t need a new motor to fix any glaring flaws; the Twin Cam engine simply made a superb bike even better. The Heritage Softail, on the other hand, really needed the counterbalanced version of the new engine; it was a fun, nostalgic machine, but required some new-age thinking to tame its shuddering soul. The old saying that a rising tide raises all boats is true in spades with these two motorcycles.
Okay, but which would best serve your needs if you only could own one of them? To find out, we logged miles on both under all sorts of everyday conditions—to and from work, weekend fun rides and rallies, simple day trips, even a five-day, 1500-mile tour from our offices in Southern California to the high lonesome of Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border. The results were an interesting mix of expected capabilities and pleasant surprises.
Our shorter jaunts revealed that while both bikes obviously force their riders to cope with more weight than a no-frills cruiser, they still perform quite well as everyday workhorses in most situations and for most riders. They’re comfortable, responsive, very utilitarian and not so bulky as to make riding in stop-and-go traffic an exercise in terror. The Heritage does have a noticeable advantage in low-speed agility, though, largely due to its lower-slung chassis. It handles tight turns and parking-lot maneuvers more easily than the taller Road King, which, by comparison, feels more ponderous and top-heavy in those situations. So, when you combine the Heritage’s easier low-speed handling with its lower seat height, it emerges as a better fit for smaller riders and those with short inseams.
There’s no significant difference in around-town engine performance, however, even though our Road King was fuel-injected and the Classic was carburetor-fed. Both bikes are pretty close in weight and have exactly the same overall gearing, so they move on down the road at about the same rate. This would not have been the case with an Evo-powered Heritage, because Softails of that engine generation used taller final-drive gearing that seriously inhibited their acceleration.
Hitting the open road allowed these two similar machines to exhibit other aspects of their personalities. The first day of our five-day tour, for example, was an 11-hour campaign that put the entire engine-vibration issue into clear perspective. The engineers at Harley-Davidson claim the counterbalancing system in the Softails’ Beta Twin Cam motor makes the bikes 90-percent smoother than in unbalanced form, and after logging lots of seat time on the Heritage Classic, we believe them. The Heritage does not offer the rubber-mount Road King’s sense of the rider being completely isolated from the engine; at all rpm, you can feel the power pulses of the Softail’s 88-inch motor through the handgrips and the seat, and above about 75 mph, a small amount of actual engine vibration starts creeping in.
But none of our riders ever complained about the vibration, and some even said they preferred the direct feel of the Classic to the remoteness of the Road King. And at no time was vibration ever a debilitating factor in the distance we could ride the Heritage in comfort. Its feel is enough to remind you that you’re aboard an honest-to-God, 45-degree V-Twin, but never enough to tingle the hands or feet, and the mirrors were always clear and reflected just one image per actual image.
As for engine vibration on the Road King, except for the low-frequency, large-amplitude shaking the entire drivetrain exhibits at idle, the rider feels none. Once the King is in gear and under way, it is still the sovereign of smooth.
Having settled the substantial vibration issue, the virtues of each motorcycle become more salient, such as ergonomics. For five years now, we’ve been harping on the uncomfortable beach-cruiser bend of the Road King’s handlebar, and it’s still as awkward as ever; they’re simply too wide and too low. Upon mounting the King, your first impression is that you’re not sitting on the motorcycle as much as you are sprawling on it.
Accentuating the handlebar location is the comparatively high mounting of the floorboards, which brings the knees closer to the hands than we find enjoyable. What seems like a harmlessly quirky seating position at first, slightly hunched over, becomes annoying after a couple of hours and downright irritating by the end of a long day on the road. After an extended time in the saddle, we found ourselves squirming around, trying to find a comfortable position. The ergonomics also help make slow maneuvers more ungainly on the King than on the Classic.
The Heritage’s designers, though, have the ergonomic puzzle figured out. Its handlebar is shaped more like the handle on a push lawnmower, and it places the rider in a more upright position; and the Softail’s lower floorboards locate the rider’s hips and knees at comfortable angles that allow much more legroom. That perceived roominess helps make the Softail a congenial touring companion, and more maneuverable than the Road King in slow-moving traffic and urban congestion.
What’s more, for two-up riding, the Heritage has a backrest that our passengers found quite comfortable, while the Road King passenger must make do by grabbing whatever is available and hanging on. You can consider that last detail a liability or an opportunity.
Those ergonomics do, naturally, force some tradeoffs. The higher chassis of the Road King allows the bike to boldly attack corners at considerable lean angles without scraping on the highway, whereas the Heritage drags its boards much sooner. The Softail’s lower center of gravity makes that bike more nimble, if noisier, in tight corners, while the taller Road King takes long sweepers like a Starship headed home.
There also are some significant suspension differences between these two motorcycles. The Road King’s supple suspension sucks up small pavement irregularities and cracks very nicely, but also gives the rider the slight impression of being isolated from the road. Some people like that feeling, others prefer more feedback. The Softail is just the opposite, especially at the rear, giving the rider a more down-to-earth, tactile sense of what’s happening down below the water line, but also allowing more asphalt irritants to filter through. Though it boils down to a matter of personal preference, the Road King clearly offers a smoother overall ride.
Power-wise, these two are just as similar cruising the open road as they are chugging around town. Both are significantly faster and more responsive than their Evo-powered counterparts, and they even sound better; later Evos were starting to sound strangled and wheezy, whereas the Twin Cam motors emit a half-decent V-Twin exhaust rumble in stock form. But, aside from obvious differences in feel caused by rubber mounts versus counterbalancers, engine performance with these two is very comparable.
One area in which the Softail completely blows away the Road King is the transmission. The King retains the same clunky H-D gearbox as ever, but the Softail sports the completely upgraded tranny built just for the Twin Cam Beta, and it’s a honey. Shifting is always crisp, clean and quiet, neutral is easy to find, and even the clutch pull is lighter. We expect to see this improved transmission and clutch in all Big Twins soon.
Many other items on these two bikes—including the switches, levers, brakes and lights—are identical, but the saddlebags are quite different. The hard bags that are stock on the Road King and Electra Glides have been our favorites in all of motorcycling. They’re waterproof and easy to access, and the locking system offers a reassuring amount of security. The leather-covered hard bags on this Road King, however, are definitely not convenient, and they have no locks. Instead of the bags being top-loaders, their lids are hinged on the passenger side, meaning they must be loaded and unloaded with the top constantly in the way. Some might prefer the look of the leather-clad bags, but functionally, we find them impractical and are partial to the uncovered type.
On the Heritage, the soft leather bags suffer much the same maladies, and are smaller, as well. Yes, the bags are quaint and have fit the nostalgic image of this thematic model since its inception. But the Heritage Softail is a better motorcycle than that now, and buyers would be well-served were they offered a choice of either these soft leather bags or hard ones with metal latches.
Saddlebag issues notwithstanding, however, the question still begs an answer: Is there a winner here?
There sure is, and it’s the Heritage Softail Classic. It didn’t emerge victorious by a large margin, but our riders unanimously voted it the bike of choice. In concept, it is the very same model that has been in the lineup for years; but in execution it is all-new and all better. Most importantly, its vibration has been dispatched to the point where concerns about smoothness are a thing of the past, and its superior ergonomics distinguish it as the more rider-friendly of the two.
Until we did this comparison, the Road King would have been our choice as the best all-around Harley model. But not now. Both of these bikes are wonderful machines, but in its new incarnation, the Heritage Softail Classic is the one Harley we would buy if we could own only one bike that had to do everything well.
It is the Bike For All Reasons.
What a Difference a Year Makes:
Even Harley-Davidson executives admit it: “We don’t sell a lot of Heritage Classics to long-time riders.”
No matter how much nostalgic appeal the bike possessed, its vibration made it less than attractive for touring or long-distance highway use. Road Kings, in contrast, were generally bought by riders who had more experience with Harleys, who wanted the long road legs that came with rubber engine mounts and the FLH riding position.
So, it was with some shock that I discovered on my tour with Beau Pacheco that the new, Twin Cam Beta-powered Softail rivals the Road King as a touring machine, and in several important ways is better.
First, and most important is the riding position. Several years ago, Harley dropped the seat height on the Road King, and it hasn’t really fit taller riders since. Anyone even close to the six-foot range sits on the bike with legs too high, making the angle between thigh and hip too tight. In contrast, the lower and farther-forward floorboards of the Classic let you stretch your legs out comfortably, while its handlebar allows you to lean back slightly. Plus, the weird bend of the Road King’s bar puts your hands at an unnatural angle and pulls you forward, leading to the strange effect of a cramped riding position on a big motorcycle. At least the Road King has the better seat.
In handling feel, the two bikes couldn’t be more different. The Road King is possessed of a well-damped and slightly remote ocean-liner stability, willing to plow straight ahead through any disturbance, while the Softail is more direct, nimble and requiring a little more attention to track straight down the freeway. Actually, the Softail’s new, stiffer frame has sharpened its steering almost beyond belief; compared to an old Softail, the Heritage has a solidity and immediacy to its handling that was never there before.
Vibration control still separates the machines, but nowhere near to the extent that it previously did. The Road King’s rubber mounts produce the overall smoother package, with a serene isolation while cruising down the freeway, an isolation that the counterbalancers of the Heritage fail to match. But those counterbalancers take away so much of the Classic’s classic vibration that what remains becomes a statement of character rather than a point of annoyance. Under 65 mph, it’s hard to imagine anyone complaining. Even cruising at 80, you can feel a buzz, but it’s not one that’s going to make you think about slowing down or taking an early stop; it’s simply there.
Personally, I’d pick the Heritage Softail for anything other than full-time touring. It’s more comfortable, handles better, and in general is more fun to ride. You could, of course, likely fix the Road King’s riding position with a seat and bar change, and its smoothness will never be matched by a Big Twin with solid mounts. But with the Twin Cam Beta, vibration is no longer an issue, and, shockingly enough, it simply does more things better than the Road King.
|Road King||Heritage Softail Classic|
|High Points:||High Points:|
|Transcendentally smooth||Classic Softail look|
|Windshield offers good protection||Counterbalanced motor is huge improvement|
|Outstanding looks||Transmission shifts smoothly, quietly|
|Excellent ground clearance||Just-right ergonomics|
|Excellent low-speed handling|
|Low Points:||Low Points:|
|Ungainly handlebar||Rear ride a bit stiff|
|Leather saddlebags don’t lock||Saddlebags need locks|
|Footboards too high and far forward||Tires need white sidewalls|
|Passenger seat is minimal|
|Clunky transmission and stiff clutch pull|