By David Soderholm
The 2017 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited is the pinnacle of the Harley-Davidson touring line (excluding the limited CVO models.) It’s a design that’s been polished and refined for decades. Last reviewed by us in 2011 (Road Glide Ultra), big changes in the engine, suspension and on board infotainment package warrants another look by MMM. That and the fact that we had just ridden Indian’s equivalent means we need to incorporate a comparison into this also. (See last month’s issue – 182 – for complete coverage of the Roadmaster.)
The biggest news for 2017 is the new Milwaukee eight 107 ci engine. This engine now powers all the touring bikes in the line-up. Its oil cooled on bikes without fairing lowers and liquid cooled on bikes with lowers that hide the radiators. It’s gone from two valves to four, and gained a counter balancer in the transition. That all means it runs cooler, barely oscillates at idle, still has the “potato potato” cadence and runs smooth regardless of rpm. This is one excellent running, refined sounding and thoroughly modern power plant. The new eight has great torque and the four valve heads mean the power just keeps pulling hard right to red line – a revelation in a Harley touring engine. It’s an absolute walk off home run by the engine department at HD. Great job!
Suspension also received a thoroughly modern makeover this year. A new light weight 49mm “dual bending valve fork” and new hydraulic preload adjustable Showa rear shocks are worked into the new suspension package. Think of the front as a new cartridge fork and the rear as a much higher quality set of shocks than previously used on HD touring bikes and you get the idea. It’s a much better package to ride and works well to provide quality bump absorption.
Handling has certainly benefitted from the big suspension upgrade. This is most obviously evident when running through corners with medium to large bumps on them. In the past you would have quite a big weave and wallow as the front and rear suspension each encountered the bump. This tendency is greatly reduced, though not entirely absent. Straight line bumps are absorbed without complaint from chassis or rider – especially combined with the amazing seat this thing ships with.
The cockpit is first rate. Settle into the couch of a motorcycle seat and revel in the stunningly good ergonomic perfection that only comes from continued refinement over decades of time. All switch gear has a high quality chunky solid feel and seems to move on well-oiled micro bearings. Switches are exactly where you move your fingers to find them and sight lines are excellent. Air flow in the cockpit is perfect. There is no buffeting from the NACA duct equipped front windshield. Heat from the engine is a non-issue, even in stop and go traffic. Refinement is found everywhere. Even the luggage hinges and latches are redesigned to be smooth operating and easily used with one hand. It’s a small thing, but this bike’s many small things add up to a fantastic feeling of quality and refinement. Nothing gets in your way of covering thousands of miles.
Sitting on the dash is HD’s version of a digital infotainment system. It’s a 6.5 inch touch screen compatible LCD screen with multifunction capability. Bluetooth, GPS, NAV, Sat and regular radio are all included. Sound on the system is outstanding and is helped by the complete lack of turbulence in the cockpit. Menu systems aren’t always intuitive or easy to navigate however. Handlebar controls for the system are excellent, and after some time are easily used to navigate the many functions while keeping your eyes on the road.
In the end, this is a massively refined, but still character filled touring machine that does the bar and shield company proud. The project Rushmore refinements that customers told HD they wanted were implemented to bring this bike into the modern age without losing the classic feel of an HD machine. I can’t help thinking this is a result of the challenge brought on by Indian right across the border. How do they directly compare? Let’s see…..
The Indian comes equipped with the 111 ci. 2 valve Thunderstroke engine which was their launch engine when Indian returned. It has fantastic clutch and throttle smoothness. The Indian is a super smooth running torque filled V twin. It has serious lunge from the bottom that effortlessly propels the big Roadmaster but runs out of steam in the upper rpms. The Harley comes with the new four valve Milwaukee eight. The eight in the Harley has slightly less of a torquey lunge, but pulls great right through the midrange and up to red line. It sounds smoother and less mechanical than the Indian. Heat is very well controlled. It’s a fun, nostalgic, and modern engine to use and listen to and never fails to put a smile on your face.
If the Harley takes a win in the engine department, the Indian takes a win in the chassis and handling department. Ridden through the same stretch of rough corners the Indian glides through and asks for more. Both ends absorbing the undulations and tracking solid front to rear. Through the same corner, the Harley is less linear in steering and less unified in its tracking. You get a wag through the turn where the Indian is linear and solid all the way.
Another win for the big Indian. It’s bigger infotainment unit has many more functions. It’s placed higher in the dash. It has better clarity and brightness with its high definition screen and is much faster in response time and touch sensitivity. Its menu system is more logically organized and easier to navigate. Overall, it’s a joy to use. The Harley has better handle bar controls and more clarity from the sound system. It also seems to have better FM radio reception. Not that the Indian’s is bad – just not as good at hanging onto stations from distance. Bluetooth and smart phones make this mostly a moot point anyways.
Refinement and Ergonomics
Both bikes are fantastic in this category. The Harley is definitely better in the ergonomics department. It’s obvious that they have been at this game a long time. Controls are perfectly placed and dialed in. Almost every switch and control is where it should be for easy access and function. The Indian is the equal of the Harley in fit and finish, if not slightly better. Remember that they are both excellent and this is probably the closest category of all.
So who wins? Can you make a wrong choice with these two? Well – no you can’t. Whichever you buy, you will be eminently happy with your thoroughly American tourer. Engine guy – HD. Handling or tech guy – Indian. I’d probably pick the Indian myself just because of the uniqueness of it. It doesn’t look like every other bike the company has produced in the last 20 years like the Harley does. But that Milwaukee 8 is one heck of an engine…..and so refined. Dang, like I said…..you can’t go wrong.
By Tim Erickson
Engage conversation with any motorcycle riders assembled in a coffee shop and you’ll exhaust hours talking together about Harley-Davidson’s plight in recent history – plant closures, layoffs, competitive pressure and the company’s experiments with other “modern” engine platforms with limited sales success and return on investment – think V Rod. While the V Rod remains in production and Harley executives insist on its success, it is a niche vs. mainstream motorcycle positioned as a muscle cruiser. There is ample speculation that the R&D tab for the 60-degree liquid cooled v-twin housed in the V Rod’s long, low chassis was at one time planned to expand to other models – in short, it was an enormous development expense that required dealer discounts in its initial production numbers.
Similarly, the company’s other recent ventures did little to attract and expand the customer base for Harley-Davidson. Its ownership of bike brand MV Agusta, and subsequent sale little more than a year later, was an investment failure. The storied Buell brand was shuttered under Harley’s ownership in 2009.
These venture efforts reaffirmed that Harley was in a tight spot – the company has little room for risky new product introductions among its heritage-based demographic. The HD product line must look and sound like authentic Milwaukee iron to appeal to its masses: the core group of motorcycle owners that pay Harley’s bills.
Enter the Milwaukee Eight: a precise blend of technology, brand heritage, increased output and regulatory compliance wrapped into a 45-degree pushrod configuration. Though it doesn’t betray the heritage look with its exterior pushrod tubes and air cooling fins on the heads, this isn’t a refresh – the engine was a clean sheet design using no carry-over tooled parts. On its motorcycle product pages, Harley boasts its engine heritage with “iconic look, distinctive sound and massive torque make them instantly recognizable.”
We spent an October week aboard a $28,049 MSRP two-tone dressed 2017 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited logging several hundred miles through urban jungle and its rush hour commutes, as well as scenic byways and isolated county highways to get acquainted with the new powerplant and ensure that it satisfies all the marketing boasts. And most importantly, that the new mill strikes a chord with its core, target audience.
The Milwaukee Eight: Technology Improves Performance
The Milwaukee Eight comes in two displacements and two cooling variations for a total of three configurations. The 107 ci (1750cc) has two cooling options: oil cooled heads and liquid cooled heads, the latter going to the full dresser models with lower fairings. Our Ultra Limited was so equipped. There is also a CVO specific power train with displacement punched out to 114 ci, also with liquid-cooled heads.
As compared to the previous generation 103, the 107 has increased power output not just from the +4 cubic inches, but also from the 4-valve heads that move 50% more cubic volume. The extra displacement is in bore only (100mm vs. 98.4mm in the 103) as stroke is unchanged. In a move to simplicity and fewer moving parts and rotating weight, the new Milwaukee Eight uses a single, chain-driven cam vs. the Twin Cam designation that was promoted on prior power trains.
The net result of larger displacement, less friction and a bump in compression ratio from 9.7 to 10:1 is the most powerful stock engine in its history, claiming 113.6 pound-feet of torque at 3250 rpm.
Less power train noise allows the rider to appreciate more the exhaust notes from idle all the way through the rev range where forward thrust builds quickly. Though more valves are playing in the engine topside, the use of lighter spring rates contribute to the noise reduction, as well as the single cam design is less mechanized clatter.
Delivering the increased power output to the wheel still requires a heavy hand on the clutch lever compared to other bike brands, though among the changes to the power train is an advertised reduction between 5-10% of lever effort. This reduction may be hard to quantify unless comparing side by side to the former.
It should come as no surprise that the Ultra excels in creature comfort. Rider and passenger are treated to exceptional saddle comfort, though the rider’s seat pan and cushion plop the operator into a single position. Footboards are placed ideally for a comfortable bend and easy reach to the ground, and the bars are a commanding angle for good control of the steering inputs as well as the numerous controls for the normal controls, as well as for the cruise and infotainment switches.
Both left and right grip controls have thumb toggles for navigation through the features of the 6.5-inch full color touch screen display with navigation and Bluetooth. It’s also voice-controlled. A compartment in the fairing secures away your phone or iPod, complete with a USB to charge and integrate play lists or audio streaming blasting through the 75w per channel audio system. The full feature info panel monitors all the bike health conditions, too.
Smoother, Quieter & More Power
The smoother engine was evident when we first fired the engine. There is still a big twin shudder in the bars and elsewhere felt in the chassis, but there is no mistaking the smoother engine at its 850 rpm idle. Once underway and off idle, all pulses but the melodic exhaust thump disappear, meaning clear, shake-free views of the mirrors and instrumentation. The rev range remains free of vibration until the rider is near red line on the tach.
We appreciated the increased torque on hilly county roads where the bike held speed while we had the cruise control engaged. In places that would labor the engine more on prior models and drop a mile an hour or two, the 107 pulled and held speed with little rpm change. The torque will benefit riders touring under full weight, carrying passengers, top gear acceleration and when passing.
We felt an infrequent, occasional off-idle jolt that was felt through the chassis at slow speed, when closing the throttle in first and second gear, stop and go traffic. It wasn’t a major jolt, but it was undeniably there. We cast blame on EFI fuel mapping confusion in a perfect storm of throttle position, engine rpm and low road speed.
Though the 2017 Ultra is headlined with the new engine, there was considerable effort to improve the ride quality with new suspension. Instead of an air pressure setting for rear spring preload that required constant attention, there is a hydraulic spring adjuster now – set and forget it. Up front, a new valve stack in the forks improves road contact and feel with better progression from minor to major impacts. We never felt uncomfortable from harsh suspension action or suspension-related chassis behavior.
We also noticed the improvements to engine heat management. Some of this is due to the narrower engine design and new, more rearward position of the catalytic converter, but the adjustments to variable ignition timing and knock sensing that help lower exhaust gas temperatures can’t be ignored. The specified attention to reducing engine heat to riders will be appreciated most in slower urban settings but should also keep rider and passenger cooler on the open road.
Better Than Ever
The 2017 Ultra Limited’s upgrades are more than skin deep. It’s not often that a package comes together that creates enough reason to upgrade or consider this touring machine when previously overlooked. With the new engine performance, chassis changes and full complement of technology, the 2017 Ultra Limited is ready to take new travels to far-away places in greater comfort, power and convenience than ever before. If the $26,999 starting MSRP is too rich, check your used market – there should be plenty from prior owners to go for the upgrade.