This New Road Glide Ultra Brings It All To The Table

by B. P. Goebel 

Harley-Davidson certainly benefits from being able to keep models alive for more than a few years. When a model is continued for decades, a high level of both technological and aesthetic refinement is possible. The classic frame-mounted fairing (called the shark nose fairing) on the Ultra draws stylistic cues from its past. The cast wheels of the past have been updated visually with a very interesting slotted, turbine look. For the purists, spokes are still available. As par for the Harley-Davidson course, the Ultra exhibits super fine fit and finish. The paint is deep and there are multiple layers of clear coat on top. All of the not inconsiderable chrome is drippy thick. The NVH department has been hard at work making sure that the only noise, vibration, and harshness that ever gets relayed to the rider is exactly the way and the amount they want them to feel. And some of it is probably patented. Every surface and everything you come in contact with has a quality feel. After a hundred plus years already, why not build it right for posterity? The Ultra exudes quality and a heavy solidness that is also lightness. But more on that later.

In keeping with its mission of eating miles in comfort, the Ultra has all day, long distance ergos. The riding position is similar to a well-appointed, upright and supportive easy chair. Seat height is 29.1inches high, but can feel higher because of the width of the seat and the weight of the machine. The seat is soft, yet still resilient enough for all day comfort. The creepy traditional H-D kickstand takes a little getting used to. In certain situations, the bike feels like it is going to rock off the side stand. But it never does. It is a long reach to the kickstand tab for the short of leg. Aftermarket to the rescue. The stainless steel bars were close to perfect for me, but the rest of the bike fit so well that I was already thinking about the Harley-Davidson accessory catalog options that would home in on the ultimate position for my body proportions. The nice thing about the H-D aftermarket world is that it’s all already been figured out. Someone else went down that road before you and made a product that fits the bill perfectly. By properly setting up the Ultra and squirreling enough smoked almonds into the myriad fairing pockets, you are a Camelback and a catheter away from never needing to stop. Your passenger is also swaddled in comfort with adjustable height floorboards and their own easy chair wrap around backrest/armrest that has its own independently controlled set of speakers. The fairing has removable vented lowers for when summer finally arrives. My time with the Ultra was spent mostly in the rain. The Rain Glide has great weather protection. While at speed in heavy rain, only the toes of my boots got slightly wet.

The luggage capabilities of the Ultra are impressive. The 2.26 cu-ft capacity saddlebags are familiar in style but have been redesigned. The Transformer-like mechanism requires the use of two hands for opening and closing but doesn’t let the lids fly off on the highway like they used to. When open, the lid forms a useful table or ledge. The trunk box is cavernous but the hinge mechanism, while simple, can get caught when closing the box. All the luggage hardware feels sturdy and precise.

What cockpit would be complete without instrumentation? The Ultra has plenty of things to keep you informed. H-D has kept the Ultra old school by keeping the speedo, tach, fuel, oil temperature and thermometer gauges analog and only conceding to fashion with the digital odometer/trip meter. There are buttons for stereo operation/speaker selection/mp3 navigation, cruise control and intercom.

The shining star of the electronics package is the pounding 80-watt, 4-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo system. It has AM/FM/weather band, CD, mp3, CB and intercom. The stereo goes loud enough to hurt your ears. With a helmet on. At 80-mph. The weather feature was pretty handy. I was riding along when I heard weather sirens going off. I remembered the Ultra had the weather band and I was able to adjust my course to completely avoid getting wet. The mp3 feature lets you plug your mp3 player into a 1/8 female stereo jack on the stereo face. The mp3 player then goes into a compartment on the fairing. The Ultra sports the now de rigueur, proximity-activated, key fob style H-D Smart security system that makes keeping your bike where you left it a mindless proposition. The miles don’t need to stop when the sun sets. The headlight is hella bright with current reflector technology. It is not as easy to outride the headlight as it used to be. The horn is so loud that I scared myself.

All engine configurations have a special throb, pulse or cadence. Each has its own heartbeat. The beat of the 45º V-twin must have some correlation with Fibonaccis’ number, the Golden Ratio or the rhythm of the universe or something, because it does something to you. It is at once calming and exhilarating. It is charismatic and smooth. It is a motor configuration that you need to try if you have never tried it. It is just right. This is not just hyperbole. Try one.

The Ultra comes with the air-cooled Twin Cam 103cu inch (about 1687cc) motor. Torque is the word of the day-102 ft-lbs delivered at 3,500 rpm. The red line is about 5,500rpm. A horsepower figure is not listed on the Official Website. H-D recommends running hi-test fuel to keep everything running snappy. In 2009, the FL models got an extra engine mounting point, to further enhance which vibrations get to the rider. And it’s only the best ones. Gone are the days of your eyes bouncing in their sockets timed to the forward/backward oscillation of the whole front of the motorcycle. At idle, the Twin Cam 103s’ auditory signature can be best explained as a gooshy, oiled, smoothness. Even the sound oozes quality. The synergy of a super refined, flawless low speed fuel injection map that delivers linear, precise power output, a wide, easy pull (for H-D) clutch lever, and a seemingly 4-inch wide friction zone make for easy, smooth, controlled starts. At 888-lbs fueled and ready to ride and more than eight feet long, the Ultra can feel train-like under acceleration. You feel that presence when you accelerate. The engine and gearing are well matched to the weight of the machine and will rip you up to real world speeds fast enough to get an inexperienced rider in trouble fast. Blatting (the propulsion aspect, not the aural component) out of a 35 mph corner and WFO up to speed makes me feel like the guy on the cover of the Meatloaf Bat Out of Hell LP. Haha, HeHe, HoHo. Almost as good as it feels and sounds on hard overrun. I am easily amused.

To deal with Big Twin engine heat, H-D developed the EITMS or engine idle temperature management strategy that deactivates the rear cylinder at idle speeds. When the hand-finished 6-gallon gas tank hits reserve, the odometer starts counting backward giving the miles that remain in the tank. With a mixture of fast highway and very spirited city driving I got about 33mpg. One by-product of the excellent chrome is the gas cap cover. It is a hemispherical cover that reflects an image of you riding the bike with arms seemingly hugging the bike and the world.

The 6-speed Cruise Drive transmission is very tight, almost crisp in its firm actuation. The heel shifter lets, as men and women have been doing for decades, the sizable weight of your leg do the shift instead of the relatively weak range of motion of the ankle. Shifting is moderately fast using the heel shifter, helping to sustain that wall of acceleration that is so addictive. The heel shifter does, depending on your boot size, locate your foot on the floorboard when stopping and starting. On this fresh bike, it was difficult to find neutral. This tendency should decrease as the miles rack up.

Remember that H-D ran 130 section rear tires until fairly recently? The 2009-model year saw a major redesign of the frame and swing arm. Both components became stiffer allowing for wider tires that deliver more force into the frame. It now runs a 180 in the rear. It is much more stable. If you haven’t ridden one of the new H-D products, its new solidity/stability is a major surprise. As I rode into the park parking lot in a black riding suit, on a black-faired bike with double whip antennas, I fueled a flurry of furtive activity from the stoners in their cars. This reminded me of the long time use of the big frame FL platform for law enforcement. This choice makes sense, as the FL is a great handling bike. Outwardly it looks terribly heavy and cumbersome. In fact it is highly, highly maneuverable for its size. When they designed this platform, to get it to handle well, they did some geometry jiggery-pokery that put the forks in a non-traditional location behind the steering head. This makes the slow speed handling sublime and light as a feather, and higher speed maneuvering all day effortless. The maneuverability does take a large amount of skill on the riders’ part, as this is a vehicle that weighs almost half a ton. And you hold up at stops. That being said, one shouldn’t fool one’s self that this is a good first motorcycle for an inexperienced rider (garbage in-garbage out). This is an expert’s motorcycle. Rock solid and stable at speed it can shred miles at an impressive rate. Newly converted sportbike riders beware as the floorboards tip up nominally before hitting the 33º grind angle. The Ultra has air-adjustable suspension that allows precise adjustment for different riding situations.

Whoa duties are performed by 4-piston, dual disc Brembo brakes. They are powerful. Braking pressure is minimal, allowing for 2-finger braking if you have strong/large hands. ABS is in effect front and rear. The ABS mechanicals are hidden inside the wheel hubs to keep that look. You can really feel the rear ABS helping you out in normal riding situations when you are braking over pavement ripples. This used to send the rear end into fits. No longer. This is good, ‘cuz they give you a big ‘ol car pedal to mash on.

The 2011 Harley-Davidson Road Glide™ Ultra is listed in the H-D lineup as a touring motorcycle. It kills miles with amazing alacrity. And you never break a sweat. Especially if you remember to check the weather band. And, thanks to Donahue Harley–Davidson for lending us this truly fine machine to test, I now have all these new friends that never waved at me before.

Donahue Harley-Davidson in nearby Sauk Rapids has Road Glide Ultras starting at $22,499 depending on appointments.

by Dave Soderholm

“You’re going to ride home…in this?” asked the sales manager from Donahue Harley Davidson in St. Cloud, staring outside.

“Well, yeah. Of course I am….”. Trying outwardly to show an air of professional confidence, all the while wondering if I was up to taking this gleaming, $23,000 890-lb 2011 Road Glide Ultra home in one of the biblical rainstorms that made May in Minnesota so much fun. I shouldn’t have worried. Even though I saw Noah float by in his ark, both the Road Glide and I arrived home safe and sound. The Ultra was reassuring and a real sweetheart from the word go.

The Road Glide Ultra is one of two new Harley Davidson models for 2011 (the other being the 883 Sportster SuperLow). The Ultra is the top end flagship, the full-blown, fully decked out touring version of the Road Glide line. Harley took the Road Glide bagger and added several options to come up with the new “ultra” model. Happy owners can enjoy vented fairing lowers, King Tour Pak (top trunk, rear seat pad / arm rests / rear speakers), and the Powerpack (Brembo 4-piston ABS brakes / TC 103 engine / Key fob Smart Security System). It also comes with a redesigned touring seat, an 80-watt Harmon-Kardon Advanced Audio System, cruise control and the distinctive twin headlight shark nosed fairing. That’s a lot of stuff, and it’s all yours for the retail price of $22,499.

Let me talk about the TC103 engine first. Those snubbing their noses at this “antiquated” push rod two-valve, air-cooled engine are sadly missing out on one of the greatest street engines of all time. Harley has been building versions of this engine for over one hundred years. It’s got the details superbly nailed down by now! The family tree of this latest TC (twin cam) design started in 1999 as the TC88 (1450 cc). In 2007 it became the TC96 (1584 cc) and for 2011 it has become the TC103 (1690cc). The TC103 was previously available only in the Ultra Exclusive CVO line.

This Twin Cam 103 engine is all about torque. Great gobs of torque. The dyno figures say it puts out 66 bhp @ 4,800 rpm and 83 lb.-ft of torque @ 3,300 rpm. Beginning at 2,000 rpm, you have well over 75 lb.-ft of twist available already. What does this translate to on the road? Amazing, effortless launches and overkill torque at real life street speeds. The engine simply shrugs off the prodigious weight of the bike, passengers and luggage like the Incredible Hulk. Cruising at whatever speeds you feel comfortable with is absolutely child’s play for it. Throttle tip in and roll on is excellent and there is a perfect gear in the 6-speed cruise drive transmission for all riding conditions. In 6th gear, the bike just purrs down the road. Once you roll away from a stop, vibration is non-existent. This is one of the most soulful, soothing, easy going street engines I have ever had the joy to ride with. It has the rousing deep Harley baritone bark to it. It’s really music to the ears – even with the stock pipes on it. Even fuel mileage is respectable – in this case 41 mpg. The only negative issue I had was that engine heat could get pretty noticeable at low speeds. Not unbearable, but enough to perceive. The bottom line overall though, is that it’s a marvelous engine and driveline.

Obviously with such great go power and over a half-ton of bike, passengers and cargo, the Ultra needs even more capable whoa power. Fortunately, the binders are up to the job. Harley turned to Brembo – yes, that Brembo, to cook up some sano looking black and silver 4-piston ABS calipers to help with the conversion of kinetics to heat. The ABS circuitry is hidden, which keeps a clean look to the custom wheels. Both front and rear brakes worked great at all times, with good feel and power. With all that weight on the rear tire, the rear brake is also very functional in feel and effect. Fortunately, I never invoked ABS on my rides, so I can’t comment on its effectiveness with the Ultra.

The Road Glide Ultra’s chassis compliments its easy-going engine. Totally revised by Harley-Davidson in 2009, this provides a noticeably better-handling line of Harley touring bikes – tracking much better through corners by those who have ridden both frame versions. Keeping the fact in mind that it weighs almost 900-lbs fully-fueled, the Ultra rolls through corners quite nicely. It’s not a sport, or even a sport touring bike in the corners, but ridden confidently, by an experienced pilot, it represents touring bikes very well through the turns. Suspension at both ends is well damped with the rear being air-adjustable for varying loads. Only the biggest bumps get through to the rider or passenger. It really does glide down the road – pun fully intended!

Helping the easy going handling is the frame-mounted fairing. Regardless of your opinion on the looks of batwing (Electra Glide) vs. the shark nose (Road Glide), the frame-mounted fairing takes a lot of weight and wind off the bars. This allows the Road Glide to have light and neutral steering, from a walking pace all the way up to freeway speeds. In addition, avoiding the input to the handlebars from the wind, which afflicts the Electra’s bat wing fairing, allows this thing to track like Haley’s comet at speed. At low speeds, The Road Glide is well balanced with light steering, but you never forget how much it really weighs when trolling around the parking lot. This is not a bike for a newbie for sure.

While gliding down the road, you will notice other things about the Ultra. The first is that this touring beast has the best seat in the industry. I never, and I mean never, had a comfort issue with this seat regardless of the mileage I was at on the trip meter. It is somehow pillow soft and fully supportive using some amazing magical combination of foams molding to your happy rear end. I had no back or bum soreness whatsoever. This is really how all seats for motorcycles should be made. The next thing you’ll notice is how ergonomically fabulous this bike is. The reach to the bars is j-u-s-t right. The seat to floorboard (nice big floorboards by the way) distance and position is j-u-s-t right.

Passenger comfort is, well, j-u-s-t right. Wind protection is excellent, with little buffeting until over 75 mph – and even then, it was mild. All hand and radio controls are easy to use without taking your eyes off the road. I did have one issue with the mirrors. They were vibe-free at speed, but gave a fabulous view of my shoulder and forearms. The positioning on the handlebars is fine, but the mirror stalks are ridiculously short.

Let me also mention the premium Harmon-Kardon audio system. With four speakers and 80 watts, it comes through loud, proud and clear, even at speed with a full-face helmet. It has am/fm, CD, CB, weather band and MP3 input. Radio reception is great and the MP3 input insures you never run out of podcasts or music to listen to. Two MC helmet headsets come standard to plug into the audio system for the rider and passenger with the passenger having full auxiliary control of the radio from the rear if needed. That of course could develop into a little radio wrangling among Ultra couples, but it really completes the audio package.

What this all adds up to is a bike that is amazing at inhaling the horizon with minimal stress and supreme comfort. Never have I ridden on such a superlative, comfortable distance machine. This thing magically warps time and space – somehow transporting you into the distance and future. One time during my testing I looked down at the trip meter shocked at how far I had already ridden, still amazingly comfy and fresh. During that same ride, I was gliding along, cruise control engaged, thinking how good life is, when Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” came on the radio. How fitting and satisfying that was at that Zen-like moment. My next thought was, “Milwaukee, you done good!” I seriously felt like I could have effortlessly and proudly rode to Maine and back at that moment; that’s the kind of bike this is.

In the end, I was sad to see the Ultra leave my garage. As a touring machine, it is exceptional. Harley has produced a bike equally capable to its touring competition from Germany and Japan. In addition, the Milwaukee boys gave it something the competition lacks: soul.

Dave’s Wife’s First Reaction: “I’d ride with you to Duluth on that!”


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