By Bryan Harley

A good but not perfect motorcycle

Fork tubes thick like Popeye’s forearms, black chunks of Dunlop rubber underfoot, a low-slung solo seat and vintage bars give the 2014 Harley Softail Slim a brawny disposition. At 23.8 inches fully laden, its seat indeed sits low, the bike’s capacity to easily get two feet firmly planted on the ground extending to a wide range of riders. The seat doesn’t have the same lip in the back as the Gunner, its contour suiting our test riders better without the bun-numbing effects.

The rider’s triangle is compact, with our 6’1″ Managing Editor, Bart Madson, admitting he felt cramped at the controls, specifying that “part of my issue with the ergos was the air cleaner cover, which crowded my right leg.”

The exhaust note coming from the shotgun exhaust is rich and soulful, a saxophone solo at Preservation Hall. The harmony is provided by a pushrod-driven Twin Cam 103B that delivers a healthy punch of torque low in the rev range in a powerband that’s fairly consistent top to bottom. On our DynoJet 200i, the Slim’s TC103B put out 84.66 lb-ft of torque at only 3,000 rpm, hitting its peak of 67.80 horsepower at 5,300 rpm. Even more impressive is the fact that it produces more than 80 lb-ft of torque from 2,500 to 3,800 rpm. We love the way the engine can pick back up from virtually nothing without bogging down, registering 71.20 lb-ft of torque at only 1,700 rpm, while on the freeway it doles out plenty of passing power.

While the H-D Twin won the efficiency battle against the Gunner with a 35.97 mpg average, it lost the horsepower wars on the dyno to the Freedom 106. Vibrations from the counter-balanced engine are noticeable at idle but minimal at speed. However, its rear cylinder head did generate heat on the inside of the rider’s right thigh. The gap between the seat and tank, a deliberate design exercise, exacerbates the heat situation.

“The Victory has a little more power everywhere than H-D’s 103. That said, I dug the Harley sound more, particularly on acceleration. I also found the fueling and throttle response smoother on the H-D,” adds Madson.

With its low seat height and compact 64.4-inch wheelbase, the bike balances on a low pivot point as well, making it manageable at slow speed parking lot maneuvers. It can also cut a tighter U-turn than the Victory. Once the pace picks up and the roads start to wind, a stout, stubby fork set at a 32.1-degee rake angle and chunky front tire make for weighty steering. With the Softail Slim, you have to be smooth and deliberate on turns, as the floorboards touch down easy and often.

“Handling-wise, the Harley’s floorboards offer almost zero cornering clearance. Riding our favorite curvy back roads here in MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ, I was slowing down to a virtual crawl for many corners and still scraping hard. Those floorboards really do baffle me on a bike as low to the ground as the Slim,” states Madson.

Rolling through the first few gears, you hear the clunk of the Gunner’s tranny over the sound of the Harley every time it shifts. The Softail’s Six-Speed Cruise Drive Transmission engages reliably and does so smoother and quieter than the Victory, albeit with its own degree of clunkiness. Coupled with its spot-on fueling and lighter clutch pull though, the Harley is easier to launch.

Springtime means local roads are still recovering from a winter’s worth of sanding and plowing, the leftover pockmarks providing a good basis by which to judge a motorcycle’s suspension. The thick FL fork of the Softail Slim has 5.1-inches of travel and does an admirable job of keeping the front of the bike composed and the wheel planted firmly. The two coil-over shock setup on the rear meanwhile provides a great hard tail look, but a solid jab to the kidneys is delivered when you square a pothole because there’s not much travel on the rear and the springs compress quickly. The majority of the time, the suspension working in unison provides a comfortable ride, but the rear is set a bit soft for a 225-pound rider.

When it comes time to scrub off speed, braking on the Softail Slim is a mixed bag. There’s little bite or power on the front brake. A four-piston caliper does its best while clamping down on a single 11.5-inch rotor, but it’s tasked with the job of stopping 700-plus pounds in motion. The rear brake feels a tad stronger upon initial application, but the unit we tested had the added safety net of the optional ABS. The ABS is tucked away neatly within the hub of the rear wheel and takes a solid stomp on the brake pedal to activate. During braking tests it did exactly what it’s designed to, as it helped keep the Harley upright, shortened braking distance and made the bike easier to control.

“The Slim can’t match the Gunner in initial braking performance, with the front offering a weak bite and wooden lever feel by comparison. However, I did appreciate the H-D’s ABS. While the system is far from refined in its application on the Harley, it’s much appreciated when applying forceful stopping power on big heavy bikes like these,” surmises Madson.

In its quest to keep the bike stripped down and simple, Harley kept the bars of the Softail Slim clean by running wiring internally and by mounting gauges on the tank instead of the bars. The gloss black “Cat’s Eye” console sits high enough on the tank that the round analog speedo is viewable in motion at its position just below the horizon level. The numbers in the speedo face are large enough to read at speed, while a small digital display window at the bottom of the dial provides a handful of useful information, foremost the gear indicator and rpm display. A toggle switch runs through basics like two trip meters, a clock, an odometer and the like. The grievance we have with the secondary display is it sits so low that it isn’t easy to see because of its size and location. The bike does have a helpful fuel gauge in the faux gas cap on the left side of the five-gallon Fat Boy tank though.

“The Softail Slim is certainly more traditional than the Victory. I enjoyed its wire-spoke rims and the fit and finish was better in my estimation, but I  liked the Gunner’s more contemporary lines too,” concludes Madson.

Low-riding, profiling, the 2014 Softail Slim is a solid choice to patrol the city beat thanks to its low-speed mannerisms and muscular disposition. Its transmission shifts smoother and the ABS package proved its effectiveness. We like the way its Twin Cam 103B generates power from below 2,000 rpm and hits freeway speed in two gears. But in our impromptu drags, it was already falling behind the Gunner before the first shift, going from 0-60 mph in 5.74 seconds. By the time it hits that speed, the Gunner is already 0.5 seconds out in front. It took the Slim 14.74 seconds to do the quarter-mile, reaching a speed of 92 mph. At this juncture, the Victory is checking out with a 0.61-second lead. Granted, these bikes aren’t about top-speed, but a little extra power is always appreciated, especially on urban jungles like LA’s 405 freeway.

Our bigger concern with the Softail Slim is its dragging floorboards and the way they limit the motorcycle's cornering prowess. As Madson put it, “It pretty much hinders the Slim from much more than straight-line, stoplight-to-stoplight boulevard riding.” On a positive note, the Harley’s fit and finish is top-notch, but this also comes at a premium. As stated, the package we tested with grey colorway and ABS bumped MSRP up to $17,094, four grand more than the Gunner. But pricing isn’t the sole reason we give the Gunner the edge in this match-up. Instead its a livelier engine, sharper handling and well-sorted suspension that earn the Victory a win.