By Bryan Harley

Little conveniences make the difference

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. If true, then die-hard Harley Road Glide fans should be ecstatic right about now because The Motor Company is bringing back its popular bagger after a year’s hiatus. We got wind the Glide was making a comeback after scoring spy shots, then confirmed many of our editors' assessments about the motorcycle in our 2015 Harley-Davidson Road Glide First Look article. Now we’ve had a chance to form initial riding impressions after spending a day in its saddle riding around the Black Hills of Sturgis.

Harley used the year it was out of production to put the Project Rushmore treatment on the revised Road Glide. This includes outfitting it with the High Output version of the Twin Cam 103, the updated engine receiving new cams and a high-flow airbox. Harley claims the High Output treatment bumps the 100 lb-ft of torque generated by the 2013 Road Glide Custom with the standard TC103 up to 104.7 lb-ft at the same 3,250 rpm. The bike we tested in the Black Hills is the 2015 Road Glide Special equipped with Harley’s Reflex Linked Brakes and ABS that launched on the 2014 touring models. Just like last year’s Street Glide, the front end received a stockier 49mm fork with larger sealed steering bearings to go along with stiffer triple clamps.

Changes also include updating its signature Shark-Nose fairing inside and out. Externally, Harley narrowed the fairing 1.75-inches and moved it back 2-inches, rounding out its edges to make it more slipstream, and equipping it with a tri-vent system. Scoops next to the headlights and a channel formed in the center of the fairing control the flow of air back to riders. Front and center inside the fairing is a 6.5-inch touchscreen, as the 2015 Road Glide Special is equipped with Project Rushmore’s high-end entertainment, navigation and communication package. The pair of 5.25-inch speakers have a touch more wattage and are mounted in a contained enclosure in an attempt to improve sound quality. Even the bars are a bit different, Harley placing them 5.5-inches closer to the rider and bending them down a little to reduce wrist fatigue. The hand controls sport a new wrinkle too: small joysticks used to toggle through windows and adjust volume instead of the former buttons.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the comfortable perch and riding position. From contour to padding, the Road Glide Special’s saddle is well-cushioned. Set 26.1-inches above the ground laden with a rider, footing is solid at a stop for a six-foot-tall rider. Which is a good thing considering the 2015 Road Glide Special carries a lot of heft – 849 pounds to be exact, according to Harley-Davidson’s scales. Its footboards are placed forward enough to allow for plenty of stretching room, while the new bar location places our elbows down and our wrists and forearms almost level to the plane of the horizon. Admittedly, we were on and off the bike all day, but comfort on the Road Glide Special is premium.

A large part of this has to do with the wind-deflecting fairing. It’s wide and tall enough to push most air around riders, and with all vents closed, wind brushes the crown of our head but doesn’t jostle it around. With all three vents open, air funnels back to riders mid-face, a steady, refreshing stream. A small push-button below the smoked windscreen makes it easy to open and close the top vent while in motion, but the ones that control the airflow coming from the center of the fairing are down and in a bit and are better adjusted at a stop. While we couldn’t discern any improvement in aerodynamic efficiency in the front fairing, we can say the venting system works as prescribed.

The new placement of the bars provides a solid platform for leveraging lock-to-lock and the 2015 Road Glide is easier than ever to steer. Though the fork is larger, steering isn’t heavier and any weight gains in the fairing are supported by the frame. If anything, the new fork stiffens up the front end with more resistance to bottoming. The convenient placement of the bars, low seat height, and frame-mounting of the front fairing facilitate slow-speed maneuvers. Which is a good thing, because traffic in Custer State Park kept us at a crawl for much of the afternoon, as did the one-lane tunnels and 15 mph switchbacks. When we did get a chance to pick up some speed, the FL chassis is very composed at lean with 0.2 inches more ground clearance than before. The stable chassis keeps the bike true to the line you’ve chosen, but make no mistake – it’s a big, heavy bike, and there’s a lot of mass in motion. The front end of the 2015 Road Glide Special also sees a slightly larger cast aluminum front wheel, the new Enforcer wheel an inch bigger at 19 inches.

The stability and predictability of the bike’s handling is partly due to the fact that the Glide continues to utilize a single-spar steel frame with a rigid backbone. Its rear suspension and engine mounts are unchanged as well. The rear shock is air-adjustable, the air valve on the 2015 Road Glide located in the same spot between the saddlebag and rear fender, but a separate air pump is required. The 2015 Road Glide Special we tested bumps up the convenience factor a notch with a hand-adjustable knob. Combined with the slightly stiffer front end, the Road Glide’s suspension provides a very composed and comfortable riding experience.

On the freeway back to Rapid City, we’re able to bang through some gears and tap into the power of the High Output Twin Cam 103. Gear engagement is solid and reliable, as the gear ratios of the six-speed transmission remain the same as before. The High Output TC103, meanwhile, has an identical 3.87-inch bore and 4.38-inch stroke as its predecessor, but compression has been bumped a fraction to a 9.7:1 ratio compared to the TC103. There is a difference in the powerband, though; the initial hit is a tad less urgent than we recall while midrange definitely feels meatier. The Glide still possesses above-average push on the low end and pulls back up from low rpm admirably without lugging, but throttle response on the low end felt a tad slower. The midrange surge is strong, boosting roll-on power in the fast lane, but there’s no over-rev on the top end, which still signs off abruptly at redline. In stop-and-go traffic on a hot summer day, we noticed a bit of heat on our right leg coming from the back end of the big, round air cleaner. In the meat of the powerband, however, its 2-1-2 dual pipes still sing a sweet, bass-filled song you can feel in your chest.

In the braking department, the 2015 Road Glide continues to use dual front discs and a single rear, all with 32mm 4-piston fixed calipers. The dual Brembo units provide a firm bite on the front with consistent, even power. The 2015 Road Glide Special we were on has Harley’s Reflex Linked Braking System that bases its level of intervention on speed sensors and toner rings monitoring signs of wheel slippage. The front and rear brakes are linked electronically, so the system works both front-to-back and back-to-front. If braking pressure is even, the system offers little assistance. But if, for example, you stomp the rear in an emergency braking situation, the Reflex System is going to pump the ABS on the rear and incrementally engage the front automatically. Likewise, if you grab a handful of front, it will automatically activate the rear thanks to a proportional control valve. The Reflex System doesn’t come on until riders reach 25 mph, but the ABS is quicker to intervene than our personal preference, its engagement exhibiting a noticeable pulse in the pedal.

In addition to the Reflex Linked Braking System, the 2015 Road Glide Special is equipped with Harley’s premium “infotainment” package. At the heart of it is a 6.5-inch touchscreen mounted centrally within the front fairing. Below it reside twin analog speedometer and tachometer gauges. The top-shelf Boom! Box 6.5GT infotainment system sees the addition of both nav and Harley’s Smart Security System, a proximity-based key fob used to enable the alarm system and start/stop the bike. The Harmon/Kardon package integrates audio, communications and navigation, and can be controlled by audio prompts when paired with a wired headset. With so much technology and so many buttons to push, there is a learning curve, and spending a little time thumbing through the owner’s manual will be required to utilize them all. But the new joysticks on the hand controls are easy to use and will make the process a little more tolerable. The media storage doors on each side of the inner fairing flip up while a convenient USB resides inside the right door. The dual 5.25-inch speakers above them pump out clear sound until ambient noise at higher speeds, from rushing wind to rumbling pipes, begin to wash it out. While the gauges are ample-sized, well-lit and easy-to-read, the gear indicator, located in a little digital window of the analog speedo, is small and less visible. We did notice that if the sun is up high directly behind a rider, it will reflect off the 6.5-inch screen and make it difficult to read.

Another notable addition to the 2015 Road Glide Special is the Reflective Optics of the new headlights, said to provide better punch and spread than the Daymakers, which already impressed us when they debuted on the 2013 CVO Road Glide Custom. Harley reps explained to us how refraction breaks up light, something that’s reduced with the new Reflective Optics. We didn’t ride at night, so we’ll have to take Harley’s word for it until we get more seat time.

Harley took a popular motorcycle and honed it in to make the riding experience that much better. This ranges from more power to play with to an updated braking package. The ventilation system works as prescribed while the new Shark-Nose fairing sports a more aerodynamic design. Overall, it's attention to the small conveniences that help differentiate it from prior models, from the joysticks used to operate the audio system to the saddlebag latches that are a cinch to operate and access, even while seated. It has the versatility to be a daily rider or, thanks to upright ergos, an all-day comfortable seat and generous saddlebags, it can be a competent long-distance traveler as well. Of course, all of this comes with Harley’s unparalleled factory paint and fit-and-finish, so neither form nor function is compromised. With everything in the right place and easier to manage, riders can focus more on tapping into the new Road Glide’s powerful engine and riding confidently thanks to its responsive braking system, all while enveloping themselves in the signature rumble of Harley’s bagger. Count us among those who are glad to see the Shark-Nose back.