Rider readers often ask us to compare distinctive bikes such as the Harley Electra Glide and Honda Gold Wing, which makes us wonder if they’ve ever looked closely at either one. Here are two bikes for long-distance travel that could hardly be more different — choosing between them shouldn’t be any tougher than picking soup or salad. Riders who want a six-cylinder turbine-like rocket with sleek styling, LCD displays and modern controls and amenities — even an airbag if you wish — would naturally choose the Wing. Those who want something more down-to-earth and traditional, with more laid-back power but gobs of V-twin torque, feel and sound, an array of analog instruments and Americana styling with floorboards, heel-and-toe shifter, etc. should choose the Harley.
Sure, there are a few areas where these bikes share a pretty level playing field –comfort, luggage, sound systems — and others where one clearly has an advantage regardless of your preference for modern or traditional. One of the latter areas would be the Gold Wing’s excellent handling (though it comes with its own set of trade-offs, such as tire wear and reduced luggage capacity from the wide rear tire and swingarm). Other luxury-touring bikes such as the Victory Vision and BMW K 1200 LT also tend to have better handling than touring Harleys. To address this disparity, for 2009 H-D has given its entire FL family a bump up in the handling department with a new frame, swingarm, wheels and tires. It has also made an effort to reduce the amount of felt engine heat with a redesigned exhaust and other trickery. The 2009 Ultra Classic Electra Glide tested here is at the top of the FL lineup, and the result of the changes to it are more maneuverability and luggage capacity and less heat in traffic, at the cost of a little more weight and some highway ride quality.
For 2007 Harley increased engine capacity once again in its air-cooled, fuel-injected, OHV, 45-degree V-twin to 1,584cc, or 96ci. At the time, however, the Touring models hadn’t received a chassis upgrade since 1998. The new beefier one for 2009 is based on a single-spar, rigid backbone frame that Harley says supports an increase in load capacity of 70 pounds and incorporates a fourth rubber-isolation engine mount that contributes to rigidity and helps reduce vibration at idle. A stronger new swingarm also improves handling, as does a 2-inch-wider, 16- x 5-inch rear wheel and 1-inch-larger-diameter 17-inch front wheel and new tires. Trunk and saddlebag capacities are up five pounds to 20 pounds each, and a higher Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 1,360 pounds increases total load capacity on our fully fueled 886-pound test bike (which has ABS as its sole option) to 474 pounds. That’s about 36 pounds more bike weight overall than our last Ultra, and 64 pounds more load capacity.
Thanks to the new frame and improved handling, the only time you notice the additional weight is while accelerating. With 66.4 horsepower at 4,900 rpm our 2009 test bike makes about four more ponies at the rear wheel than our 2008 model, and torque is up about a lb-ft as well, to 78.5 at 3,600 rpm. Still, hauling just the Ultra and rider around with the same power as Harleys weighing two-thirds as much tends to be more of a leisurely than arm-straightening experience. Add the weight of a passenger and that additional luggage and you’ll quickly understand why Harley-Davidson sells so many performance enhancements for its engines. The only time the lack of power is a genuine downer is while riding two-up and fully loaded, maybe getting stuck behind a slow truck on an uphill grade. In this case you’ll need much more time to pass than you would on more powerful machines. And the Harley still requires premium unleaded and doesn’t get especially impressive fuel economy — we averaged about 34 mpg, for a range of approximately 202 miles from its six-gallon tank.
A lower final-drive ratio for 2009 of 32/68 vs. 32/66 in the belt final drive helps keep acceleration adequate, and the six-speed Cruise Drive gearbox shifts cleanly and easily with the traditional “clack.” Clutch and brake levers are large, manly and lack adjustment, though I was able to manipulate both just fine.
Current and former Electra Glide pilots will be impressed with the 2009 bike’s newfound cornering prowess. There’s a full degree of additional lean angle both left and right, the first thing I noticed when I started tossing the big bike around in the curves. Instead of dragging the floorboards or sidestand in every corner, you have to work a bit to find the limits now, and the slight increase in steering trail, larger front wheel and wider rear tire have eliminated the dartiness of the previous model. Steering effort has stayed at about the same low level, though you always feel that big fairing mounted on the handlebar. In sweeping corners and in a straight line the bike is solid and stable now, with none of the hunting about that at times (as in crosswinds) made the previous one feel like you were riding on a slippery surface.
With Harley’s input Dunlop engineered some new tires for the FLs, which incorporate Multi-Tread technology so they wear longer in the center and stick better on the sides. The bike rolls cleanly side to side on the new 130/80-17 up front and 180/65-16 rear. Contributor Clement’s ongoing tour test should give us an idea if the new rear tire wears longer and more evenly than those that tend to flatten in the middle.
Some of the Ultra’s more planted feel comes from recalibrated suspension. With so little travel to work with — still just 4.6 inches in the fork up front and 3 in the dual rear air shocks — Harley naturally made it stiffer at both ends to accommodate the additional weight of the bike and higher load capacity. While compliant and functional in corners and on bumpy messed-up roads, the cost is some harshness on small repetitive bumps and rippled road surfaces. The rear suspension can also bottom quite rudely if you’re caught off-guard by a pothole or other large bump. Inflation range in the air shocks is 0-50 psi, up 15 psi max. Fully loaded with rider and passenger and luggage, Harley calls for 45-50 psi.
Harley has made its convenient side-opening Tour-Pak trunk easier to adjust this year, though most riders will just move it back the available inch or so and leave it there. Stock rider and passenger accommodations are plush and comfortable, with well-padded seats and a large passenger backrest. Harley says rider seat height is the same at 30.7 inches, but my butt says the new frame has raised it about an inch as I’m on tiptoes at stops. Some comfort limitations can rear their heads when you start squirming around — up front the sloped rider seat likes to hold you in one spot, and while floorboards and heel-and-toe shifters are easy on your python-skin cowboy boots and minimize vibration, they don’t let you solidly plant your feet in different positions. In back the average passenger rides right up against the rider, which is great for courtship and cold weather but otherwise confining. Passenger floorboards flip up and are adjustable up and down but are well forward, so your copilot has to take care not to kick you in the back of the calves at stops.
Combined with the scooped fairing lowers with storage pockets that are standard on the Ultra, that classic Harley batwing fairing provides excellent wind protection up, down and to the sides. Most riders will want to cut the windscreen down or get a shorter one, as stock it’s very tall and you have to look through it. A pair of adjustable wind deflectors on the bottom of the fairing allows the rider to block or direct air up to his or her midsection, and an ingenious pair of adjustable vents in the lowers can cool off the ride considerably when desired.
That’s a good thing, too, because the Twin Cam 96 engine bay still puts out a lot of heat, even though for 2009 Harley has moved the exhaust crossover pipe from behind the rear cylinder to under the frame, and rerouted the rear header forward before it curves back around the gearbox. The new, paired midframe heat deflectors also do their best to direct heat around your legs. On a cool day you no longer notice any real heat, or welcome the warmth unless you’re stuck in traffic. When it’s warm outside, though, in normal mixed riding conditions or idling for extended periods you’ll definitely wish the engine put out less heat, particularly under your right thigh. To address this Harley has added rider control to what was formally available only as a one-time ECU flash program.
The new EITMS, or Engine Idle Temperature Management System, is controlled by rolling the throttle past closed to the stop. Wait five seconds, and under the right conditions the cruise control indicator light will flash green, telling you that the rear cylinder is no longer receiving any fuel. As soon as you give the bike any throttle the cylinder begins to fire normally again, so it only works while stopped at idle. It’s pretty hard to tell EITMS is even on, in fact, except of course by the decrease in heat. By making the rear jug essentially an air pump, it cools pretty rapidly, and while it’s still more effective to simply get underway again, it does help when you can’t. With the bike idling in my garage I can feel the change in temperature with my hand 3-4 inches away from the cylinder when I turn the system on and off, so it does make a solid difference. One still wonders how long it will be, though, before Harley is forced to adopt liquid-cooling on its big twins.
Triple disc brakes with opposed four-piston Brembo calipers haul the Ultra down in a hurry, though we’d really like to see some adjustment for the front brake lever, and that automotive-style rear brake pedal takes some getting used to. Harley’s anti-lock brake system is a bargain $795 option as it works pretty well in a panic stop, though shorter cycle times might prevent the jerkiness and pulsing feedback at the lever and pedal from the ABS when it’s engaged.
A lot of nice bells and whistles are standard on the Ultra and very desirable, such as electronic cruise control, an 80-watt four-speaker CD/AM/FM stereo sound system with passenger controls (it cranks, even at speed with the rider wearing a full-face helmet), CB/intercom, luggage liners, auxiliary passing lamps and gorgeous new 28-spoke cast-aluminum wheels. The full set of chrome engine and saddlebag tipover guards are an especially nice touch.
Additional options abound, of course, including GPS, a security system and a myriad of paint colors and combinations. By beefing up their chassis and running gear, Harley-Davidson has brought the FL Touring bikes’ handling into the 21st century, without sacrificing the 20th-century style and tradition that makes motorcycles like the Ultra so popular with touring riders. We’ll have more on this luxo-machine when Clem turns in a tour test on his ride from California to Milwaukee for Harley’s 105th anniversary.