2017 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight – Ride Review
A Tale of Two Cylinders: My Time with Dorothy, the Forty-Eight
My first and only experience on a Harley-Davidson – up until two months ago – was on the company's LiveWire electric bike. Remember that one? H-D wanted to see if its crowd was interested in an electric bike. The answers it got from that experiment are a little fuzzy but at least it doesn't seem to have abandoned the idea just yet. Personally, I liked the bike but even as someone who wasn't terribly familiar with the brand it didn't seem like I a “true” H-D.
READ MORE: We Ride Project LiveWire | RideApart
Anyway, point is: I had spent a long time hoping that one day I would be able to kick my leg over a Harley and see why folks become so devoted to this historically rich bike manufacturer. Then RideApart Director Chris Cope sent me an email asking if I was interested in reviewing a Forty-Eight. I said of course – of course. I love any- and everything that has two wheels. Even though Harley has never sparked an “Oh! I want one” reaction from me, I was still excited to get the opportunity.
To that end, I need to post the following disclaimer: I’m a sportbike rider and racer. If you’ve read any of my stuff in the past, it’s pretty obvious. With that being said, hopping on a cruiser is a… refreshing experience, no? It's also a learning experience. And one of the first things I learned about the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight was:
Long Distances are Not the Forty-Eight’s Forte
When I mentioned to Chris that I planned on flying into to Los Angeles to pick up the bike and ride it back to San Jose, where I live, he gave me some very sound advice:
"My personal advice is to put the bike on a truck if you can (remember it will be heavier and have a longer wheelbase than your sportbikes)," he said. "[The Forty-Eight] is a really fun bike, but it may not be the best idea to have your first Harley experience consist of a 350-mile haul on one. This isn't a touring model and the suspension will reflect that fact."
I thought about what he said for a few days, but then decided against following it even after looking at the specs. He was right about the suspension.The front has non-adjustable 49mm forks with 3.6 inches of travel, whereas the rear is equipped with preload-adjustable emulsion shocks with 1.6 inches of travel. Holy guacamole, Batman*! And Holy endangered species, Batman—the tank is small! Only 2.1 gallons! But then I thought: “No worries; my FZ-09 has a pretty small tank (3.7 gallons) and gets great gas mileage. H-D is claiming 48 mpg. It won’t be so bad."
I'll admit I wavered. For a few days I considered taking the truck down, but I didn't. And I’m glad I didn't because: A) the truck only gets 5 to 9 miles per gallon; and B) who rides a Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight 350 miles? Not a lot of (sane) people, one would assume. So I knew it would make a good life experience.
The Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight first hit the market in 2010 and got its name from the year that Harley created its first peanut tank – 1948 – which was used on a 125-S model. That tank is what catches the eye initially, and the rest of the bike flows and curves around it. What also made the tank pop out even more on this particular model was the color: Candy Hot Rod Red Flake. It’s absolutely stunning. Seeing the Forty-Eight in person made me realize that pictures don’t do it justice; you just have to see it in real life to really appreciate the looks.
I was taken back by how “small” the Forty-Eight is in real life. I was expecting the Forty-Eight to be much bigger and a bike that I would need to constantly muscle. But no, at 551 lbs, this bike is much lighter than other H-Ds. Also, on paper the seat height doesn’t sound that low (27.3 inches), but again, in person it was a different story. When I sat down it was a tad disorienting.
Taking off on the H-D was comical. I totally looked like a newbie rider. I kept my feet out while rolling out of the parking lot because I had instinctively tried to put them down instead of forward.
"This isn’t a sportbike," I reminded myself.
Once that idea sank in, I popped my feet on the pegs and hunched my back to get my hands positioned on the far-forward 'bars. Holy sh** (not a Robin exclamation), I immediately hated every inch of it. This clamshell riding position – both feet and hands forward – didn't feel very natural. What made things 10 times worse was where the mirrors were placed: right below the handle bars. I understand why H-D put them there (where else would they go?), but, man, I wish they were bigger and more adjustable. I had the Forty-Eight for almost two months and never managed to adjust the left mirror, so that one was forever useless.
The mirror issue provoked great anxiety as I tackled LA’s highways – already jam packed at 10:30 a.m. I slowly made my way between cars since I couldn’t really see behind/beside me. And I wasn’t entirely sure of how much width I really needed to get the H-D through. The body is relatively narrow but the 'bars are wide. Making this experience even more miserable were the turn signals. I like that they were self-cancelling, but disliked their placement. If you've never ridden a Harley-Davidson the company chooses to have the signals operated via different switches: press a switch on the left to indicate left; press a switch on the right to indicate right. (The exception to this is the Street Rod, which uses a more standard single-button set-up on the left grip –CC)
I really didn't like this system. I had to temporarily let off the throttle to hit my right side signal. Eventually, after several weeks of experience, I was able to brush it with my thumb without letting up, but I still wish it was easier to access.
Eventually, the traffic cleared as I made my way north. And soon I was able to see what the Forty-Eight’s 1202cc Evolution V-twin engine had to offer. I don't want to sit here and complain about a bike that many people love but, well, I wasn’t a fan of the vibrations. I didn’t like sitting at a stop light due to how bad this bike vibrates. But I realize this shaking is a Harley thing. Some people feel this sensation is what defines a Harley, and to ride one you just have to accept it for what it is.
Picking up gears was pretty smooth and the Forty-Eight was quick to get up to highway speeds. However, once I got over 85 mph there was a little bit of a wobble, so I never felt like pushing my luck to find out exactly what the Forty-Eight was capable of. Also, hitting rough pavement was painful due to the beyond stiff front suspension.
Still, I got settled in with the bike as I moved along and occasionally glanced down to admire the color. Did I mention this thing was stunning? It really was. It reminded me of Dorothy’s shoes from The Wizard of Oz, so I decided to name the bike Dorothy. It was a name that suited her quite well at that moment, since she was taking me home.
Dorothy and I hit some twisty roads heading into Los Olivos. She wasn’t so bad going into these not-too-tight corners; the riding position made a little more sense here. And the bike even induced a smile. I love being out and about on two wheels. Even though Dorothy wasn’t my typical kind of ride, I embraced the roads, my surroundings, and the thrill that riding a motorcycle brings.
I saw my fuel light blink on, but figured I’d make it to town; I naively believed that this bike would produce the claimed 48 mpg. Nope. Ridden with any sort of enthusiasm, Dorothy will manage something closer to 40 mpg. Right as I hit 81 miles on my odometer she sputtered to a stop. Of course, I was in the middle of nowhere with spotty cell reception.
This gave me a chance to experience one of the "benefits" of being a Harley rider: there are lots of others like you, and they're usually happy to stop and help or, at the least, commiserate. I was stranded on the side of the road for no more than 5 minutes with my thumb out when a fellow H-D rider stopped to assist. His name was Todd and he was on a carbureted Harley, which was great because we were able to siphon gas out of his tank and pop it into mine by unplugging the carb feed line and pouring gas into an empty water bottle. We carefully made our way to the next gas station, about 10 miles down the road. I’m forever grateful to him for helping me out.
The incident made me more on the cautious side; from then on I would stop once I had clocked up 60-ish miles of riding.
Life with Dorothy
Getting back home would have taken me five to six hours on my FZ-09; this trip with Dorothy took 8.5 hours due to the running out of gas fiasco and multiple stops. But I didn’t really mind too much. She got me home and I was ready to get to know her even better on my own turf. Over the next several weeks I mainly used Dorothy for commuting because, well, that’s all you can really do with a tank that small.
Even though I'm not a “true” H-D rider, I researched some rides hosted by a local H-D group so I could meet some of the folks who know and love the brand. I couldn’t take part in any of them, though; they went too long without gas stops. I would have been stuck on the side of the road again, siphoning gas from someone else's Harley.
So, on local roads was where she stayed. Things weren't always great between us. I tried to figure out better ways to hit the turn signals but couldn’t. I constantly dragged foot pegs just getting on the freeway. I still dealt with a little wobble here and there. And I was underwhelmed with the braking.
The good news, however, is that I went from hating the body positioning on the bike to not minding it much. That was helped by the fact the seat’s super comfy. Also, I got a bazillion compliments on her. As I mentioned earlier, this bike is a looker. So, when co-workers stopped in their tracks to check her out, I felt cool. And as every motorcyclist knows, coolness can often beat discomfort.
I also liked that the Forty-Eight comes with quieter stock pipes than you would think. So many Harley riders choose to make their bikes sound obnoxious that I hadn't fully realized they don't come that way. They sound good stock; there's no need to change things.
READ MORE: Let's All Tell Harley-Davidson What to Do
Overall, I did bond with Dorothy and really didn’t mind riding her despite the presence of things that drove me a little crazy. She’s a motorcycle – an iconic American-branded one at that. I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to take her in and see what she was all about. And, well, that's where the story ends. The ride back down to Los Angeles was uneventful since I had learned a lot from my first excursion. Indeed, with the benefit of knowing what I was getting myself into I actually made it down within the six-hour range.
Not My Type
What kills me about the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight is the price point. If you've ever looked at one of these Sportsters and thought, “I need a Dorothy in my life,” it’ll cost a pretty penny. The Forty-Eight starts at US $11,299, but you need to add more to get Dorothy With The Good Paint. That bumps the price up to $11,749. Want ABS? That'll be another $795. That works out to be $12,544 (without state taxes and fees), which I think is too much. Honestly, I think my complaints about the Forty-Eight would be a lot less severe if the price tag weren't so intense.
During my time with the bike I tried desperately to figure out what the point of the Forty-Eight is. I mean, why would I or anyone else buy this bike? Yes, you technically can ride it 350 miles – the engine has no trouble keeping up – but it’s not the ideal purchase if that’s something you want to do frequently. I couldn’t take her on group rides because I’d have to stop every 60-70 miles. So, I guess she’s a good city cruiser? But even in around-town riding she can frustrate; I couldn't go to the gym on it because there's no place to fit a gym bag.
The Forty-Eight is a popular model, though. So clearly not everyone sees things from my perspective. If I were dead set on getting one I'd definitely buy used. The bike received an upgraded suspension for the 2016 model year but beyond that has hardly changed since its 2010 release. You can pick one up in the 5K to 7K range.
Ultimately, my experience with Dorothy taught me that I'm not really a cruiser girl. That's fine; I realize there are plenty of girls who hate sportbikes. And even though cruisers aren’t my style of bike, I’m glad I rode the Forty-Eight. It’s different and gave me insight into a genre of motorcycle that so many people cherish and love. And I'll admit, I can’t help but thinking about Dorothy every now and then – she sure looked good in my driveway.
*Here’s a list of exclamations made by Robin in the Batman TV Series.