Truth be told, there are few differences between the bike on these pages and the 2007 we reviewed here a year ago (Hot Bike Baggers, May/June 2007). But there is something about the fully loaded beast that keeps us coming back for more. It's been said that the mid-teens purchase price for a Harley is just a down payment, but with Harley's Screamin' Eagle line, they feel more like complete bikes, waiting for your final personal touch.
All of them possess Harley's competitively sized and powered 110ci Twin Cam engine, which is really the motor the whole lineup should be toting ... at least the touring bikes. The stock Ultra (there's irony in those words; in the '90s, the Ultra was the limited-edition upgrade model) under the weight of all of its bells and whistles feels a little doggy, not accelerating with the authority we would like. On the other hand, the 110-powered SE Ultra feels not arm-stretching but very authoritative; you crank the throttle to a satisfying growl as it pushes you gently back in the seat.
There are a few new tricks in Harley's hat this year. An integrated key/lock opener is a nice touch. Last year's model required that the bike ignition be on to use the electronic bag locks, while the new one locks and unlocks straight from the remote on the key, even when the bike is parked. It's a sweet thing to be able to hit a button while walking up to the bike to fetch some doodad you forgot in your bags rather than fumbling around for keys.
"Willie Wings" (the translucent fairing-mounted wind deflectors) are also new this year and are also standard on the base Ultra. They do their job well, as we did the test in the sweltering jungle of South Florida. The wings direct an adjustable flow of cooling air to your over-weather-protected body or, in "closed" mode, will actually enhance the fairing's wind-blocking ability. Combined with heated grips and seat, the Willie Wings really extend the temperature range of whatever clothing you're wearing. Florida in March goes through fairly wide swings from the 40s to the 90s, so only stopping to adjust clothing once was a nice luxury.
There was one thing that some would see as a downgrade but we see as all good. The last two years, the SE Ultra had a leather-wrapped Tour-Pak. If you're into the leather scene, fine, but it seemed like the weight of the leather, the rack on top and possibly the extra material to support all of that weight made for a really heavy Pak lid. This year, it's all gone and replaced by a more standard unit.
One thing that kinda went downhill is the rider backrest. This year's model is small and stylish and tucks in tight to the seat, but its tight fitment makes it a pain to remove or adjust.
Three important 2008 updates across the whole touring range were antilock brakes (ABS), electronic throttle control and a larger, 6-gallon tank. The ABS upgrade came with Brembo calipers, and both the system and the brakes are fabulous. Back in the '90s when manufacturers started introducing ABS on motorcycles, it kinda sucked, so it's cool that Harley's first stab at it works as well as it does. For you rear brakers out there, it really shows how much front brake you can get away with using. I'm a really hard braker, and it only kicked in on gravel and when I was trying to get it to activate (i.e., by attempting to lock it up).
The electronic throttle control might have the occasional time when you notice it (and only barely then), but when it really shines is with cruise control. When you activate cruise, it doesn't try to twist the grip out of your hand, it simply takes over; you can let the grip go or hold it where it is, it does not matter. However, you can still override it with the throttle: If you twist past where cruise is set, you accelerate, or if you twist forward a touch (like rolling off the throttle), it disengages. Very instinctual and easy to use.
This year's bigger tank is obviously also a welcome improvement. Some don't like its more bulbous shape, but half the time we can't tell the difference. We expected some really ridiculous range out of the SE Ultra. Unfortunately, between the extra bulk of the bike and the big stroker engine, mileage was on the low side at around 35-40 mpg, which should still yield over 200 miles. However, the "miles to empty" countdown meter is wildly inaccurate, at first giving a very rosy picture then plunging toward zero in a very short span. A small bug, but one that needs fixing.
Speaking of things that need fixing, the hydraulic clutch control that comes on the SE models flat-out sucks. It engages close to the bar, and there is absolutely no way to adjust the engagement point. It's not like it has a nice, easy pull to make up for it either. It seems like it's one of those things that's there just for the "trick" factor, so it really is pointless.
Another high-tech device that needed a little work was the nav system. Having picked up a California bike in Florida, the system had the West Coast maps installed, so it was running blind without the necessary Florida nav CD. If the tiny Garmin units can work this out through greater memory or an easy download, why can't a $35K motorcycle?
The other features of the stereo were great. The 140-watt Harman/Kardon unit had enough volume to overcome the windblast of 80-plus-mph cruising, and the integrated input jack made it a simple thing to hook up my iPod for 30,000 songs' worth of no repetition. If I was tired of listening to my music, there was always the equally infinite variety of XM just a button push away.
Sounds from the powerplant were just as pleasing. Starting in '07 with the Twin Cam 96, the valve train noise from big twins has been far less, and on the CVO models, the upgraded (but still legal) mufflers have a really nice, mellow growl, especially on the gas while accelerating up to highway speeds.
The comfort amenities were much appreciated. We've already mentioned the adjustable heated grips and seat (front and rear); the two other things that stood out were the lower, tinted shield and the adjustable passenger boards. The slightly lower-than-stock shield made for good viewing of the road but not so low that turbulence was an issue. For most of the test, we had a short-legged passenger who was very happy that her footboards could be raised, as the set was pinching in the stock position. The boards are adjustable for height as well as fore and aft.
The other side of all the Screamin' Eagle models is the custom touches. Slathered in chrome, painted details and little custom adornments, the bike is a showstopper with riders and nonriders alike. The paint in Canyon Copper and Stardust Silver is probably the biggestconversation-starter, with most thinking it a pro custom paintjob, not a semi-factory do. There are little add-on pieces like chrome teardrops on the bags, a leather trim on the dash, special gauge faces and Screamin' Eagle nameplates all over the thing. One of the subtle differences that's really nice are the internally wired bars. With the standard '08 electronic throttle, the only controls running on the outside of the bars are the braided hydraulic hoses for the clutch and brake.
Yeah, $34,995 is a lot of cash for a bike, but if this is the stuff you wanted anyhow, it's totally worth it. The Harley CVO bikes are different than the rest, handbuilt by a team on a special line, so it's not just the accessories, it's got potentially better build quality...not that that's a problem with H-Ds. No, it's not as unique as a true custom, but it's definitely not a bike you'll see every day.