The little things make a big difference

Messing with the recipe for success is a high-risk endeavor. There’s a reason people eat comfort foods. And there are reasons people ride Harley-Davidsons. The company’s recipe for making V-Twin motorcycles is steeped in familiarity. Even people who don’t ride can identify one by its exhaust note. But sometimes adding new flavors to proven recipes can heighten the overall experience.

Harley-Davidson has been working on its formula for a top-shelf touring motorcycle for nigh 50 years, the platform powered by air-cooled V-Twins ever since they threw electric start on the 1965 Duo Glide and started calling it the Electra Glide. The Batwing fairing protecting riders out front has been around almost as long, introduced by The Motor Company in 1969. The tourer has been the chicken fried steak and country gravy for Harley-Davidson with modest revisions until 2009, when it did away with the welded single-piece frame for a cast single-spar, rigid-backbone frame. Harley took it even further this year with its Project Rushmore, a fervent revamping of its popular touring package that shook up the status quo.

By now, the fact that Harley liquid-cooled the cylinder heads on a handful of tourers as part of its Project Rushmore is well-documented. It also redesigned the iconic Batwing fairing, installed a linked braking system, went with high-end, voice-activated infotainment system and overall honed the bike in to be as rider-friendly as possible. How did those changes transfer to real world practicality though?

Line up the three bikes and crack their throttles, and the Ultra Limited pulls hard, the type of torque that tests the mettle of your shoulder sockets. Harley treats riders to an abundance of immediately accessible torque. The power continues to flow through the midrange and above, and it’s in this area the Harley separates itself from the Voyager with its shorter powerband. The Victory, with its bit of over rev, keeps pace up top. But the evenness of the Harley powerband can’t be beat as the High Output Twin Cam 103 is the most responsive engine in our V-Twin tourer test.

Throttle response is snappy, and the HO Twin Cam 103 powerband has no flat spots. Riders don’t have to shift it as much as the Kawasaki, whose powerband is shorter, and the H-D V-Twin has so much torque down low it picks back up better than the Victory. It is noticeably more powerful than the standard Twin Cam 103 we recently tested on the 2014 Harley Heritage Softail Classic. Its lightweight pistons and a new camshaft have been designed to deliver that low-end punch. A higher-flow airbox and a higher compression ratio, bumped up to 10.1:1 from 9.6:1, are part of the High Output package claimed to give the Ultra Limited’s engine a 10.7% increase over the stock TC103.

“The power didn’t disappoint, great bottom-end and midrange pull and plenty more up top if you should need it. You can’t beat the sound of a Harley either,” said test rider Jason Abbott.

As for the new liquid-cooling system, unseasonably cool temperatures in the week we were testing in SoCal meant heat wasn’t an issue. We did get caught in stop-and-go freeway traffic, but what warmth there was coming off the cylinder heads was welcome because of the chill in the air. Harley has targeted the correct area with its system, though, as only the heat-producing cylinder heads get the liquid-cooled treatment while the lower crankcase continues to utilize traditional air and oil cooling.

I do know that I pushed it and the Ultra Limited responded. I rode it hard through LA traffic, keeping rpm and speed up for hours while fighting to be on time to a press event in Long Beach, shooting gaps between cars and splitting lanes when I had to get out of Temecula. The Ultra Limited impressed with its freeway prowess, not only in the urgency with which it gets up to the speed of traffic but also in the roll-on sitting at the ready in the lower revs. The throttle is crisp and responsive – twist and it’s there. Once the arteries of LA traffic quickly clogged, the Ultra Limited has the maneuverability to adjust for the split second decisions riders have to make to keep in motion under these circumstances.

When all avenues of forward motion were obstructed, we put our confidence in the Ultra Limited’s Reflex Linked Brakes with ABS. Brakes on prior Harley tourers have left us wanting, from a lack of power in the front to its hard-pulsing ABS. Now the Ultra Limited is equipped with new floating Brembo brake calipers and dual 300mm discs, the units providing a stronger initial grab and more outright stopping power than before. Even though it has a linked braking system, front and back still work independently up to 25 mph. Under normal braking conditions, it leaves the job of bringing the big bike to a halt to the rider. It only intervenes when it’s mashed on hard, and even then the average Joe isn’t going to notice it working but will benefit from shorter stopping distances. The ABS still pulses at the lever, but even it feels a bit more refined as the pulse isn’t near as disconcerting.

Whether we were on the highway or twisty backroads, the Ultra Limited is comfortable and composed. Stability on the front has been improved thanks to a stouter 49mm fork with stiffer triple clamps that replaced the old 43mm one. The redesigned, more aerodynamic Batwing front fairing helps, too, with the new design sheltering a rider’s hands better in addition to reducing turbulence. The addition of the “slipstream” vent allowed Harley to trim down its windscreen 3.25 inches without subjecting riders to excessive buffeting. The windscreen sits just below our field of vision, and while the Voyager’s windscreen is the tallest and most effective, its top lip sits in that nebulous spot where riders are peeking either over or under. The Harley’s windscreen effectively channels wind to the crest of a rider’s helm while the pocket of air in front of them remains fairly still. The fairing lowers have been redesigned, too. They can be opened to further curtail engine heat, and like the Victory, there are two small wind deflectors at the base of the front fairing that channel air to the rider’s chest when open. As mentioned, it was cold during our test, so we spent more time ducking behind the fairings than opening up their vents.

With the shortest wheelbase of the bunch at 64 inches and a front end with the tightest rake of 26 degrees at the steering head, the Ultra Limited steers fluidly as it holds to the edges of its traction. Thanks to a deep-seated center of gravity, it transitions with the same smoothness it exhibits in turns. On the open road, a well-cushioned seat, natural riding position and reduced buffeting equate to easy miles in the saddle. Fellow tester Jason Abbott said the rider’s triangle provided a “more connected feel to the bike” and its manageability at slow speeds couldn’t be beat in this test. It doesn’t quite match the maneuvering of the road-hugging Victory at speed, considering the Cross Country Tour and its two-piece, sand-cast hollow aluminum frame was the most stable of the bunch at lean, but the Harley isn’t far behind.

Of the three bikes in the test, the Harley had the smoothest shifting clutch. H-D swapped the cable-actuated clutch from before for a new hydraulic arrangement. Even though it has stronger clutch springs now, pull at the lever is firm with little discernible change in effort. Pull on the Victory is lighter, but it’s clutch engagement overall is noisier and rougher around the edges. The Harley’s helical-cut gears and a heel-toe shifter gear combine for the smoothest shifting, quietest transmission of the three. Abbott commented on how “solid” the transmission felt. The one complaint we had is a shift lever that’s in fairly tight to the bike, requiring foot placement to be a conscious effort.

It will also take a concentrated effort to learn the ins and outs of the Harley’s entertainment, communication and navigation systems. While the basic instrument layout is the same for all three motorcycles, with inner fairings consisting of two large analog dials for speedometer and tachometer readings between two smaller gauges, the Ultra Limited sees the addition of a 6.5-inch touchscreen mounted below the primary dials. While the screen can be navigated by touch, an optional factory headset is available for $189.95, which allows riders to pair to their smartphone using Bluetooth in order to control the radio, receive phone calls or access the GPS via voice commands. System commands come through loud and clear in the headset, and the bike’s stereo system, which consists of four 5.25-inch speakers, pumps out clean, loud sound when not being overridden by navigation prompts. A small cubbyhole called the bike’s "Jukebox" has a USB connection to make hooking up your phone a snap. And while dialing in the bike’s electronic nuances will require a little reading of the instruction manual, a lot of the functions are intuitive and can be learned simply by pushing buttons. The control housings feature new joystick-style knobs that are easy to twiddle with the thumbs and make toggling through menus simpler than ever before.

“The instrument panel looked the best and was the most informative. Bar controls felt like quality pieces, they both functioned well and look good. Maps were helpful while traveling. Bluetooth was a big plus for radio and phone use. Fairing had plenty of storage compartments and featured both a USB and standard outlet. The heated grips did a great job of keeping my hands warm on the cold days we rode. I was surprised to see the Harley didn’t come with a heated seat as well,” concurred fellow tester Abbott.

While the look of the upgraded instrument panel is what you’d expect from a top-notch tourer, the list of rider conveniences Harley installed on the Ultra Limited didn’t stop there. The bike’s Daymaker LED headlight and LED fog lamps project wide and far. The Tour-Pak topcase and saddlebags have both been tweaked, and even though the sleeker design looks smaller, they’ve actually increased in capacity (the bags hold 4.7 cubic feet each). What’s even better is the convenient one-touch lever the bags come with now. The latch on the Tour-Pak has been refined, too; it’s not as flimsy as it once was, and the lock is now located in the center of the latch to keep riders from scratching up the paint on the topcase. To enhance the passenger’s experience, the seat is now an inch wider and an inch deeper and has more lumbar support. Saddlebag guards have been moved, too, allowing for a bit more leg room. These bikes are made to ride two-up, so addressing the needs of the passenger as well is paramount to its success on the sales floor. Its long-distance credentials are boosted by a Tour-Pak luggage rack and bag liners that come standard.

And it is the sum of these parts that separates the Ultra Limited from its competitors. In a niche where engine output and storage capacity are close across the board, it’s the little things that make a difference, like the new lever releases on Ultra saddlebags to a leather swatch stitched between the passenger seat and backrest that minimizes the rush of air up a passenger’s back. We applaud The Motor Company for listening to riders' input and addressing just about every conceivable grievance they might have had with this tourer. It does come in as the most expensive of the bunch at $25,899, but the paint and polish on the Harley can’t be beat. At this price point, the Ultra Limited is all-inclusive, a wonderful combination of power, handling, braking and comfort. Throw in the fact that it comes standard with more rider amenities than most motorcycles and sports unmatched fit and finish, and you’ve got a tasty recipe for the most refined touring machine in this test of V-Twin tourers.