Living with the Harley-Davidson Low Rider S - Long-Term Review

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Categories: Positions, Reviews, HFL

Living with the Low Rider S - Long Term Review

Harley-Davidson's FXR was introduced in the 1980s as a stripped down, modern version of the larger FLT touring bike. Designed to be a competitor against hot 4-banger imports of the time, it was the first modern rubber-mounted H-D that wasn’t a full-sized bagger. It had less vibration, more performance, and a smoother ride than any other available H-D offerings out there at the time –– all in a small-ish, nimble package.

Like history, Harley repeats itself. The Low Rider S is a stripped-down version of its larger S models. The smallest bike with the biggest engine. It’s the second model to recently get the S treatment, but the first Dyna to offer the Screamin' Eagle 110 cu. in. V-twin.

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The Low Rider S was something we were begging for when we first rode the Fat Boy S and Softtail Slim S last year, these were formerly the smallest S models available. When I mentioned how cool it would be to see a Dyna S, an H-D rep responded “yeah, wouldn’t that be nice,” with a perfect smirk.

I rode the Fat Boy S and the softail Slim S models at the H-D lineup media launch in Portland last year. Fun bikes, but they still lacked overall performance (e.g., handling, brakes, etc.) and (in my opinion) aggressive ergonomic position, both inherent in a Dyna. The softails with floorboards also had absolute crap lean angle and no mid-control offerings. I could see their appeal, but nothing about those bikes screamed "fun." Nor were they overly terrible. They’re smooth, powerful, and comfortable, but ultimately bored me.

It makes perfect sense that Harley-Davidson has now released the new Low Rider S. It fits within the S model lineage, but could also be considered a resurgence of the FXR line. Not a bad association to have, considering the FXR was/is one of Harley’s most popular models ever, built at a time when Japanese competitors were stealing market share from the bar and shield. Now, in a time when H-D’s customers are slowly growing old, dying, or moving to other brands, the Low Rider S is the performance-happy, mile-hungry bike coming for your youth.

You might have seen reviews immediately following the press launch a few months back. We weren’t able to make it and jumped at the opportunity to instead see the blacked-out beast sitting in our driveway for a month. Well, not always sitting in the driveway; we racked up just shy of 2,000 miles on the Low Rider S.

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Those aren’t only canyons-on-the-weekend miles, we put it to the everyday test, too: back and forth to work, as well as mountain and highway miles. We even used Harley-Davidson’s new performance toy as a grocery getter. With that said, here’s why we love and hate the new Low Rider S.

What is The Low Rider S?

You know the old-timer-good-ol-days talk of when muscle cars ruled the roads? One of those stories that always intrigued me was about Tasca Ford designing the Ford Cobra Jet factory-built drag car. They simply used stock Ford parts and special ordered their own combination. Harley appears to have drawn on this experience as inspiration for the Low Rider S.

All the important goodies are direct part numbers in a Harley catalog, from the engine, to the specially ordered wrinkle black finish, to the “premium ride” front and rear suspension –– even the wheels. The only item that’s exclusive to the Low Rider S is the seat. The rest of its parts can be found in the accessories catalog or other models.

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The Ride

The first rumblings of the bike made me believe this was to be nothing more than a Dyna with a big motor. Big whoop, right? Well, fortunately it’s far more than that.

The standard Dyna Low Rider misses the mark just a little bit. Late last year, I asked H-D for a Dyna Low Rider loaner to ride to work, around town and so on –– as I've now done with the Low Rider S. I liked the Dyna Low Rider, but had expected it to leave me with an uncontrollable urge to run down to the local dealership, sell my cars, tools (no actually I’ll need those) and every piece of clothing I owned, in order to buy one. Sadly, I still own my clothes and just bought a van; the bike didn’t fill me with the excitement I expected it to.

Instead, it was an overall plain-feeling motorcycle. FXRs and Dynas have been my favorite motorcycles, but this stocker left me cold. Maybe I had set the bar too high? Meanwhile, other H-Ds suffer a lack of front end feel, rough riding rear suspension, limited handling, and occasionally lackluster power. Some will say that’s being overly critical, but you get the idea.

The new Low Rider S, though, has a list of goodies that seems to tackle each individual problem.

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Competitors aside, the Low Rider S comes standard with the upgraded components to counteract those shortcomings. Lack of feeling in the front suspension is solved by “Premium Ride” front forks. The previous lack of rear suspension grip? Again, a set of $600 “Premium Ride” shocks takes those problems away.

Although, it wouldn’t be a Harley if it didn’t drag. Damn it, it’s so close.

The Engine

You don’t buy this engine for raw power, but instead comfort, smoothness and torque. There’s plenty of torque in every gear, in every condition. Horsepower is for the track, torque is for fun. Many riders don’t seem to know the difference in power delivery, but the way power comes in is important to how a bike rides. In terms of track performance, the Screamin' Eagle 110 is good, not great. In terms of street riding, however...

One word can describe the Screamin' Eagle Twin Cam: torque. In any condition, in any RPM, there’s ample torque. It’s smooth and comfortable at 80mph-plus. You could use the aftermarket to build a homemade engine with as much torque (115 ft-lbs) as this one, but it’d be very hard to compete with the reliability, smoothness, and easy starting of Harley's iconic V.

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The torque delivery really comes alive a few hundred RPMs short of redline. That's right where torque starts to fall, but horsepower is still climbing –– roughly 5,000 rpm. It can be frustrating; the limiter is like running a sprint but tripping as your second wind hits. The engine's never-there second gust of power is a smack-your-head-against-the-bars kind of tease.

In my time with the Low Rider S, almost every freeway entrance ramp involved at least one bounce off the limiter. Our friends at Rusty Butcher say they can bump redline to north of 7,000 rpm on stock, out-of-the-box Sportsters. I'm not sure exactly where I’d increase the Low Rider S redline to, but I’d aim for at least 1,000 rpm above stock. At least the Screamin' Eagle accessory ignition adds 600 rpm (read below).

I really love this engine, but it lacks in punch-me-in-the-face performance. I expected something to snap me off the back. The engine makes more than enough power for anything you’ll be doing on the street –– legal or otherwise –– but it could stand to have more. And on that, enter Harley-Davidson accessories.

Harley offers a 117-cu.-in kit, but I’d opt for an aftermarket ignition, possibly a cam, tune, and definitely exhaust. You already have plenty of cubic inches, adding even more won’t give you that head-snapping performance. Though, admittedly, it would definitely up the power.

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There’s the Screamin' Eagle tuner, which, according to a Harley-Davidson representative, “allows the user to adjust spark and fuel to a certain extent. As far as RPM limit, the tuner calibration will take the stock 5,600 rpm cut-off to 6,200. There is no adjustment beyond 6,200 rpm.”

The aftermarket offers higher redline, but that may be enough.

From the butt-dyno you can feel the overall difference from the 103, now standard on most of Harley-Davidson's big twins. The 110 in the Low Rider S is just as smooth, with no real major drawbacks of a big thumping engine.

The engine did have a very slight surge in steady RPM. With a large performance engine, it seemed as though the tuning was for wide-open or idle; anything between was to be sacrificed. Harley wouldn’t give me a definite answer as to the cause or if this is even something others have experienced. To me, it seemed it was the ignition flipping between advanced and retarded at the sour spot in RPM. Again, that's something an aftermarket ignition could probably solve.

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Electronics

I was surprised to learn afterward that the Low Rider S is a throttle by wire (which may explain the RPM surge I was experiencing). It wasn’t noticeability different, but I can foresee limiting factors. Harley-Davidson did this to make it easier tp add cruise control, but in Los Angeles – where I'm based – that’s hard to use, so I didn’t play with it much.

The ABS always worked fine when needed and didn’t seem nearly as intrusive as expected. I very rarely felt the ABS activate.

The Harley-Davidson Factory Security System with siren is standard on the Low Rider S, along with a key fob. There’s no ignition switch; just carry the keyfob in your pocket, hit the kill switch, press the starter button, and you’re off. Don't ever lose that keyfob; if you so much as move the bike without the key, signals will flash before all hell breaks loose. The system, while very annoying when you’re towing the bike, works great.

The Seat

The only unique component to the Low Rider S, the seat caused my butt to slide perfectly into place every time I jumped on the bike. My butt is made for that seat. However, it’s certainly lacking in depth of foam and became uncomfortable on long rides.

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Controls

I know the dash is very FXR, in line with Harley’s style, but damn it, I hate having a dash. Notably, this is one of the very rare Harleys that features a separate tachometer. Most Harley-Davidsons won’t advertise redline, which I think is an odd thing to hide, but it can't be hidden on the Low Rider S. The tach was, in rare occasions, helpful, but you have to take your eyes off the road to look at it. The speedo was a little more helpful, but again, it’s an inherently flawed design to keep this info so far out of the line of sight. I accept, though, that this may just be preference on my part.

Hand and foot controls were not all that unique. Hand controls were comfortable-ish, with the standard rubber black grips and powder-coated black levers. The clutch pull is hard and often took a whole hand; that's Harley way. But it was far more comfortable and manageable in traffic than a high-performance aftermarket option. Clutch engagement, meanwhile, was spot-on, allowing for easy maneuvering through tight lanes.

Brakes

Yes! The dual-disc front-end did wonders in terms of stopping power. Firm and responsive with good feedback.

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If I Bought One

It doesn’t need a new cam, filter, and pipe to get there, just a little less muffler. Pipes are a no-brainer, but it’s funny because most Harley-Davidson owners take on Stage-1-style kits before leaving the dealership. With the Low Rider S cone-filter, that’s half your kit right there. So, changing the pipes to something with a little less restriction would improve the good sound to great. And no, I’m not talking about knocking out the muffler all together –– just enough to have a throaty sound. Follow that with a tune and the bike would be very happy. Also, as mentioned above, raising the limiter with an aftermarket ignition.

Rear shocks need immediate replacement. I really like the standard Premium Ride shocks, and would hate to replace them as they’re $600, but they simply need to be much higher. This is why you see so many Harley stunt riders with jacked-up Dynas.

Once tires are toast, I’d swap them to the Metzeler ME888, and drop the Michelins that are on it. They're not bad in any way, but not overly great.

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The Bad

Thinking of the bigger picture of motorcycling, and thinking about Harley outside of Harley’s world, the bike has some minor setbacks. The clutch is heavy, heavier than other Harleys and much heavier than any competitor. The ride height is a major drawback in terms of lean angle –– a penalty the bike suffers for the sake of its looks and accessibility to shorter or newer riders. It's a Harley, so of course it’s a little heavy. That’s something that’ll never change.

While I actually like the Gloss Black Heavy Breather Performer Air Cleaner, it is a little ‘90s. You can decide if you like it or not. I did ride in the rain with it, without issue. The bars could stand to be a little taller, but that’s a minor critique that obviously won't apply to everyone.

Overall

I expected something, but I didn’t know exactly what. Something like being bungie-corded to a Big Block V8 while listening to Henry Rollins at full blast. Instead, I received a well-balanced, smooth-riding motorcycle that I initially felt like a letdown. Until I rode it a second time, then a third, then a fourth... every time I mounted the bike, it felt more comfortable, aggressive and overall one of the best H-Ds I’d been on.

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Harley did a great job at producing a bike that’s an out-of-the-box performer in multiple categories. I’ve ridden almost every bike in H-D’s current lineup and can tell you what changes I’d make to each and every model. For the Low Rider S, that’s a more difficult question to answer. It’s one of Harley’s best bikes to date. A weekend warrior and long-termer.

Questions/Comments I’ve Heard

  • "No storage!" –– Yes, but I’ve ridden a few sportbikes/nakeds that I couldn’t fit a pair of gloves into the rear underseat compartment.
  • "Handling sucks, it’s a typical Harley." –– The suspension is on-point, but the drag greatly limits the bike’s potential. Raise ride-height in the rear and you have a wonderfully handling motorcycle.
  • "That fairing doesn’t do anything." –– It’s not a full fairing, no. But it does help a lot and is noticeable on the highway. Admittedly, it’s more for looks than function.
  • "Is the engine noticeably better?" –– Yes… slightly, but not just in performance. Honestly, you could probably create a bike with as much power for less money out of a 103 with bolt-ons, but the 110's smoothness and easy torque is on-point.
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Stats

Engine:
110ci Scream Eagle Twin Cam

Torque: 115 ft-lbs @ 3500 rpm – it isn’t surprising peak torque is that low, but hp keeps climbing after that and up to redline (according to other Scream Eagle 110 dyno charts)

Suspension and Brakes:
Dual-disc front brakes are rare on Dynas, making this a special feature – 300mm up front and 291mm single out back. 49mm single cartridge “Premium Ride” (Holy $€*!! look at how big those forks are). "Premium Ride" emulsion rear shocks

Lean Angle:
29.5-30.5 degrees

Rake:
30.5 inches

Seat Height:
26.6-27 inches.

Curb Weight:
674 pounds

Cosmetics:
Convertible fairing (Harley calls this a “speedscreen"). Gold Aluminum wheels (I love 'em). Wrinkle finish (A must for a cool Harley)

Exhaust:
Tommy-Gun duals mufflers with drilled black heat shields (Pretty cool)

Suspension Travel:
Front: 5.1 inches (awesome). Rear: 2.13 inches (they’re great shocks, but that’s awful travel)

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