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Harley-Davidson rearms Road King with better suspension and engine

The 2017 Road King might look the same, but there are huge changes behind the traditional facade.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON ROAD KING
Engine: 
1745cc oil-cooled, twin-underneath-cam, eight-valve, 45-degree fuel-injected V-twin, 150Nm of torque at 3250rpm; power output not available.
Transmission: 6-speed sequential gearbox, belt final drive.
Frame: Steel-tube twin-cradle frame with rear swingarm working preload-adjustable twin shocks; unadjustable 49mm telescopic front forks, 26-degree steering rake, 33-degree lean angle clearance.
Price: $37,495.
Hot: The King of Harley's more improved touring range for its lower mass, extra cornering clearance, and cosseting comfort; brilliant new Milwaukee engine doesn't fool around.
Not: Still possesses a powertrain layout from the 1930s; likes to wander at walking speeds; panniers must be removed to access the preload adjuster for the new Showa rear shocks.

We'll remember 2017 as the model year when a heap of good stuff got added to the engines of the Touring model family of the Harley-Davidson range.

The list includes lots of 21st Century motorcycle tech like a ride-by-wire throttle, four-valve cylinder heads with dual-sparkplugs, a balancer shaft, a smaller, slimmer but miles-better clutch, and hushed Euro 4 emission compliance.

Four-piston front calipers improve the brake system, while 49mm Showa forks are tweaked for more comfy ride.

Best of all, none of the above has hurt the character expected of the brand. The new Milwaukee 8 motor might be a quieter, smoother, and more polished performer than any other American-made V-twin that's gone before it, but it still chants 'potato-potato-potato' and looks as bad-ass as any of its predecessors.

READ MORE:
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Harley-Davidson launches first major engine upgrade since 1998

 

Milwaukee 8 engine gets a ride-by-wire throttle, slimmer airbox and four valve heads, increasing torque by 10 per cent.

The $37,495 Road King sampled here gets the oil-cooled version of the new 1745cc, 45-degree Milwaukee 8 V-twin, and the two other members of the new engine family include the partially liquid-cooled 1745cc version fitted to the fully-dressed $43,750 Ultra Limited, and the 1868cc version reserved for hot-rod baggers like the CVO Street Glide (also 'twin-cooled' like the Ultra). All three deliver their highest torque output at an accessible 3250rpm, with 150Nm for the King and the Ultra, and 165Nm for the head-banging CVO.

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As usual, Harley's declining to state the maximum power output for either the two 107 cubic inch versions of the Milky 8, nor for the CVO's bored-and-stroked 114ci unit.

But trust me, this new engine triumvirate represents Harley's greatest leap forward since 1907, the year that founding engineer, Bill Harley, convinced the Davidson brothers to launch a range of V-twins. (For the record, that was a whole year after Indian first grafted an extra cylinder into its bikes, and the same year that a Peugeot-powered Norton won the twin-cylinder class at the Isle of Man using one of the French company's circa-1905 500cc V-twins.)

Seat fit for a King (and Queen), reduced vibration and more compliant suspension widen riding horizons of this Harley.

You notice the improvements from the moment you hit the starter button of the Road King. The slight hesitation and noisy engagement of the starter gears is gone, and the Harley fires up instantly and quickly settles into a steady idling speed. When the oil reaches operating temperature, that idle speed will drop to a limbo-dancing 850rpm, one of the keys to the Road King's cooler demeanour when riding it around town.

Hop on, and the favourable impressions keep forming. When you lift your right foot onto the floorboard, your knee no longer competes for space with the air filter, as the Milwaukee 8 has a much thinner design. Ditto, on the left side, where the redesigned clutch no longer bulges out like a chrome-plated carbuncle. It's a lot nicer to put your left foot down at the lights with the 2017 Road King as your lower leg no longer comes into sometimes-uncomfortable proximity to a hot clutch cover.

The redesigned six-speed gearbox selects first as smoothly and quietly as any BMW, and the operation of the clutch is as rider-friendly as any Honda's. When you release the lever on the left side handlebar, the Road King is virtually stall-proof.

New panniers more securely attached to bike, must be removed for access to the hydraulic preload adjuster.

There's plenty of torque pumping through the powertrain right from idle, and if you haven't matched the clutch lever release with enough throttle input, the new ride-by-wire unit will do the chore for you. It sure makes trickling the Road King through crowded urban roads seem like child's play.

A pity then, that the handling of the Touring frame can be a little wobbly and unstable at speeds below 8kmh. The 17in front wheel of the RK seems to want to wander all over the place when riding at similar speeds to those of a drunken pedestrian. The Ultra and RK are the two highest riding bikes in the Harley range with their 135mm of ground clearance, and the latter seems to need a firm hand on the tiller during car-park manoeuvres.

Things soon settle down when speeds reach double figures, and riding the Road King quickly becomes an exercise of great grace and precision.

The RK's longer rear shocks than a Street Glide place more weight over the front wheel, and the 17in hoop has less inertia than the 19-incher of the SG.

With 26 degrees of fork rake directing the lightest of Harley's touring models, the RK is the bagger in the range that is the most mountain road friendly. It'll lean to a healthy 33 degrees in right-handers before smearing its underparts over the road surface, and the new Showa suspension delivers a compliant ride that is still robust enough to absorb the big hits.

The new linked ABS-equipped brakes are also encouraging of riding heroics, for you can come to a quick abrupt stop just using the foot pedal, or an only slightly-quicker halt when using both brake controls in tandem.

It's the new engine that's the real star however. It rips the bike forward with vastly-improved overtaking acceleration when asked, is as smooth as your favourite whiskey when cruising, and drinks fuel at a much slower rate.

In the Road King application, it currently reaches its most athletic form, as the relatively stripped down equipment levels compared to other Harley tourers and the lack of attendant radiators keeps mass confined to 362kg (Ultra Limited: 398kg).

Buy the CVO SG if you require the bragging rights empowered by the outputs of the enlarged donk, but the extra 18kg of the model will dull some of the effect of the extra 15 Newtons of torque available.

Of all the new Harley touring models, this one therefore remains the King of the Road for me.

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