Initial impressions of the King of the Road
Working deep within the Motor Company's hallowed hallways and offices, a small group of men and women have the task of building super-Harleys. Officially known as Custom Vehicle Operations, or CVO for short, this group of eager and excited engineers and designers break out the slide rules, CAD programs and H-D's parts bible to design the Screamin' Eagle (SE) line of bikes. Each year for about the past decade, the CVO teams dug deep to produce limited-production factory custom and performance motorcycles. Of the four 2008 CVO models, two are touring machines: the SE Road King and the SE Ultra Classic Electra Glide (featured in the July 2008 Baggers).
This is the fourth time the MoCo has chosen the Road King platform for a power, accessory and shine makeover. Aside from the visually appealing package, the exclusive highlight of this motorcycle has to be the 110ci Twin Cam A motor. Those extra cubes can be felt from the moment you thumb the starter. Even with a higher-output starter along with electronic compression releases in the cylinder heads, there's a bit of a crunch upon initial start-up. The engine often took several revolutions (3 seconds) before ignition occurred. At idle up to about 1500 rpm, the rubber-mounted motor shaking in the chassis was enough to make my eyes cross. While sitting at a red light, I found it most pleasant to rev the motor a bit above idle to quell the vibes. However, once moving, the bike never let motor vibes get through. This has to be the most fun-to-ride, air-cooled motor H-D has ever made.
Claimed torque is reported as 115 lb-ft at 3000 rpm. It's easy to feel that 20-plus percent increase in power compared to the 96-inch Twin Cam. Aside from the granite and chrome motor finish that's exclusive to CVOs, there are other parts of the motor that received special attention. The 110, besides getting 1/4 inch of extra bore per cylinder, also received forged pistons and wrist pins. Air/fuel passes through high-flow intake ports and humongous 2.08-inch intake valves into the improved combustion chamber. A large-capacity, crossover dual exhaust system has a very deep rumble. It's hard to believe they passed the noise police standards, they sound that good. They work, too, as the Road King has the highest power rating of all the 110-equipped bikes--a result of the pipes.
All of that power is transmitted to the Cruise Drive six-speed transmission through a stronger, hydraulically activated wet clutch. Like previous iterations of the juice clutch, it's a bit on the stiff side and actuates very closely to the handlebar. I've seen many a person stall out these bikes due to the funky off-idle clutch feel. Once the bike is up to speed, the clutch felt good and handled the power without slipping.
On the open road is where this bike shines. With the primary and transmission gearing, the motor is pulling 3000 rpm at 80 mph in sixth gear. That's exactly where the powerband is on this motor, and it accelerates briskly without downshifting. Anything under about 60 mph and a downshift is the best way to get going in a hurry. All of the '08 touring bikes received the cableless electronic throttle control, where a hidden electric wire sends a signal (via the ECM) to a motor in the throttle body to control airflow and injector operation. It works best once you're at cruising speeds but is very sensitive and abrupt at slower speeds. The pull is a little harder than the traditional cable system and takes some practice to get really smooth throttle control. One area where the new throttle system was less than stellar was off idle. If the throttle was rapidly "opened" at idle, there was a lag before motor rpm increased. If I kept the motor at 1500 rpm and whacked the throttle, the motor spun up very quickly. The culprit may be the EFI map (usually lean for emissions reasons) at that rpm or possibly something inherent to the throttle body/motor operation at idle rpm.
Handling is superb for a big bike like this. It feels much smaller than its dimensions would lead one to believe. Although the SE RK is an inch shorter than the standard Road King, the CVO version has almost 1/2 inch more ground clearance. Suspension was tight and predictable, without the squishy unnecessary nosedive we've encountered from other H-D touring bikes. This is important, as the dual four-piston Brembo front calipers are absolutely amazing. They're almost too good and require attention when applying the binders. Feel and modulation is soft and natural, albeit a little bit grabby. It takes some practice to unlearn how to brake with a fistful of force. Although the bike is equipped with antilock braking technology, I never engaged the passive system. It only operates under full-braking, lock-up conditions, like in the rain or gravel. A nice upgrade is the Dunlop radial tires that keep the bike planted and stable under all riding conditions.
Fit and finish are top-notch on this bike. Chrome accessories are everywhere the eye looks, from the Ironside collection accessories to the forged aluminum wheels. On the instrument side of things, a custom, tank-mounted, spun-aluminum gauge, electronic speedometer/tachometer with odometer and two resettable tripmeters keep track of the pace. Other info that's displayed is engine diagnostics, low-fuel warning, cruise control, security system, battery, sixth speed and ABS operation. Indicator lamps integrated into the top handlebar riser display high-beam, neutral, low oil pressure and turn signal status. Even the frame and swingarm were color-matched to the rest of the bike. On the sheetmetal, lighter blue ghost flames lay deep beneath the cobalt blue finish. At different viewing angles, the graphics come and go.
For the past two weeks, the SE Road King has been put through its paces in a mostly urban environment with at least a 50-mile daily freeway trip. It's been a commuter, a weekend cruiser and a grocery hauler. It's worked very well in a congested traffic atmosphere, feeling nimble and powerful--it's great to have the ponies to get out of trouble but equally important to have amazing brakes when the time comes. It's a refined machine, but we'll reserve touring judgment for the next article as we take the big King on a road trip, packed and gassed.