2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide - First Ride
Photography by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles
RideApart doesn’t traditionally do the “end of the year bike awards” thing, but I may choose to instigate the tradition just so the 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide can take the prize for Most Improved.
Readers may remember I spent a day with the 2016 "Special" model in early spring, and the tl;dr version of that review is that I was not a huge fan. The bike was cramped, hot, caused physical pain, and - although I enjoyed its hayride-like performance in urban areas - was ill-suited to its stated role as a touring motorcycle. I had wanted to love the Street Glide, feeling a sense of obligation to do so because it is wildly popular in my home nation of Texas, but had come away feeling let down.
For the 2017 model year, however, Harley-Davidson has dramatically updated its touring line-up, replacing the Twin Cam engine it’s been relying on (in one form or another) for the past 17 years with the new Milwaukee Eight, as well as overhauling the bikes’ suspensions.
Needless to say, I was particularly eager to throw a leg over the new Street Glide to see if these changes to the bike would change my attitude toward it.
Getting a chance to spend some time with the new Street Glide wasn’t easy. It is an unquestionably gorgeous, badass-looking machine; no doubt that contributes to its being one of Harley’s most popular models - not just in Texas but in moto-journalism circles.
During Harley’s two-day press event in Washington state mo-jos were encouraged to be good little boys and girls, and share the large fleet of press bikes equally. For the most part, we did. But getting folks to let go of the Street Glide’s ‘bars took an extra level of pleading or planning. On one of the days, Common Tread’s Lemmy had to go so far as to wake up before sunset to commandeer the Velocity Red Sunglo model you see pictured in this article.
The 2017 Street Glide looks almost identical to the 2016 Street Glide but for the presence of the 107-cubic-inch Milwaukee Eight in place of the old Twin Cam 103.
Speaking from a male perspective, there is something about that batwing fairing that connects to the little-boy soul: the part of you that never stopped wanting to pitch for the Astros, the part that thinks being able to juggle or pick up a rattlesnake with your bare hands is the apogee of coolness. I’ll bet Dallas Keuchel can pick up a snake with his bare hands, and he sure as heck looks like the sort of person who would ride a Street Glide.
If he does, the 6-foot-3 starter probably feels pretty cramped. The Street Glide’s ergonomics have not changed for 2017, so the dash still seems too close for those who are long of leg and arm. At 6 feet 1 inch tall, I feel scrunched when nestling into the bike’s pillowy saddle. It’s not awful - if someone gave me a Street Glide I’d learn to live with it - but it’s not ideal.
Many riders, of course, won’t have these quibbles. Harley-Davidson is a worldwide brand, after all, and not all of us come from Northern European stock. For many, the Street Glide will be a perfect fit.
Engine and Transmission
As mentioned in my First Ride review of the 2017 Road Glide, the Milwaukee Eight is the main attraction to Harley’s updated touring line-up. The four-valves-per-cylinder V-twin is both rubber mounted and counterbalanced to help quell vibration while maintaining a distinctly Harley rumble at idle. The bike shakes at stoplights, but not in a bad way.
There is a certain oddity to the fact the shake is deliberate, that Harley-Davidson spoke to hundreds upon hundreds of owners and non-owners determining exactly how much the Milwaukee Eight should shimmy. The Teutonic, stoical part of my brain thinks: “Wait, you could have made an super-smooth engine but you chose not to?!”
But then I remember that the stoical part of the brain rarely plays a leading role in motorcycle-related decisions. Emotion and feel are massively important in motorcycling - Harley-Davidson is just honest enough to admit that. And clever enough to capitalize on it.
The Street Glide is not wholly impractical, however. Along with meticulously working out just the right amount of vibration to keep purists happy while luring new riders, Harley has also improved performance and decreased the amount of heat the rider experiences.
On a dyno, the Street Glide probably still wouldn’t impress those for whom horsepower is über alles, but Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski points out that such numbers can often fail to translate into an enjoyable on-public-roads experience.
“We give you performance all the time,” he said. “A lot of torque, and torque throughout the range.”
He’s right. Heaps of delightful, smoothly delivered torque (Harley claims a peak figure of 111.4 foot pounds) are available pretty much anywhere the tachometer needle happens to be pointing. Meanwhile, Harley doesn’t offer horsepower figures, but my Screamin’ ChrisCope ButtDyno™ tells me the number is in the mid to high 80s. Which is enough to get the Street Glide over the legal speed limit and keep it there.
One of the things that annoyed me most about the 2016 Street Glide Special was its unwillingness to travel at the typical UK cruising speed of 80 mph. That problem is gone; the 2017 Street Glide will cruise comfortably 10 mph in excess of any speed limit in the United States - including rural parts of my home state. Uncomfortably, of course, it will go much faster.
Harley’s claim of reduced heat also holds true. Temperatures during the two-day press ride never exceeded 80F, but that was warm enough to be able to spot the difference. Less sweaty riding is achieved via a number of means: improved ignition timing, cooling in the heads, and relocation of the catalytic converters. The end result is a bike that no longer serves as a roadside cooking device.
The transmission is smoother - less clunky - and clutch pull oh-so-slightly lighter, but a strong left hand is still needed to navigate through stop-and-go traffic. Perhaps Keuchel, a left-hander, really does ride a Street Glide.
Ride Quality and Brakes
Despite maintaining its awkward-to-me ergonomics, the overall Street Glide experience is more pleasant thanks to Harley’s decision to upgrade the suspension on its 2017 touring models. Showa dual bending valve forks tackle bumps from the front while a tool-free adjustable preload system in the rear better ensures individual comfort.
Harley has done away with its old air shock system and replaced it with an easier to understand and more reliable emulsion shock with hand adjuster. A guide in the owner’s manual helps riders determine exactly what setting they should aim for based on weight, number of passengers, etc.
The International Chiropractors Association will probably send hate mail to Harley-Davidson HQ, but everyone else will appreciate the changes.
The improved suspension also affects handling, of course. You won’t be doing any Marc Marquez-style elbow dragging, but corners can now be approached with greater confidence and zip. As long as it’s not raining…
One of the biggest disappointments to be carried over from old to new Street Glide is the choice of tire. The stock long-life Dunlop Multi-Tread Blackwall tires do the bike a disservice in the wet, sending the bike squirreling at even the mention of road markings. It can be difficult to drive a hard bargain in a Harley-Davidson dealership but I would try to get more suitable shoes at the point of sale.
Reflex Linked ABS brakes come standard, with the system electronically determining the correct amount of front and rear brake to use even if you are deploying only one of the braking methods.
Comfort and Features
With the improved suspension, reduced vibration (especially at higher speeds), and reduced heat, the 2017 Street Glide is vastly more enjoyable to ride than it was even a few months ago. It is still a great vehicle for rumbling through urban areas, being seen and admired and sought out by folks who need a rattlesnake removed, but it’s now a viable choice for longer hauls.
Each of the bike’s waterproof hard panniers is large enough to hold at least eight full-size Western Diamondbacks. Maybe more. And all kept in place by a simple latch. More practically, I was able to store my Kriega R20 backpack in a pannier, with enough room left to squeeze in a large bottle of water.
The fairing and stock windscreen keep a good bit of the weather off without causing any head wobble or overly unpleasant buffering. Though, wind noise at highway speed was pronounced enough that my Auritech earplugs weren’t really up to the task.
Speaking of wind, the Street Glide lacks the Road Glide’s spiffy fairing, so back pressure is a (very minor) issue. It’s not an issue that creates discomfort, per se, but riding in wet weather will result in the raindrops-from-every-direction experience.
If one of those raindrops happens to land on the too-tiny digital display housing the bike’s gear indicator it will manage to obscure said indicator from view. That display is housed in the speedometer, which, along with the dashboard’s other analogue dials, looks good but doesn’t really offer information as clearly as I’d like. Maybe it’s simply that I’m aging into Harley’s core demographic, but I feel the dials’ numbers are too small.
The large infotainment touchscreen in the center of the dash is easier to read, however, so you’ll have no trouble tuning in NPR as you roll toward your favorite road house. Speeding through the back roads of Washington state, I chose to blare Sam Cooke, whose rasp I could hear over the wind, through a closed modular helmet while wearing earplugs. I’m guessing that means everyone else in a quarter-mile radius could hear him, too.
Passenger accommodation is sub-par, but, you know: customization. Harley’s all about that sort of thing and fat pockets will allow you to hit the Street Glide with the mightiest of bling hammers.
A quirk of Harley bikes is that leaving the kickstand down will not cause the bike to shut off when it's in gear. So, it's possible to roll off with the kickstand scraping away. It's not an immensely important thing, but just sort of strikes me as odd.
As I say, the Harley-Davidson Street Glide looks damned cool. I am particularly fond of the (admittedly cliché) Black Denim color scheme. There is something about this bike that draws and holds the eye. It’s the sort of motorcycle that makes you appreciate stoplights, so you can sit there staring at the tank, or the curve of the handlebar, or the way sunlight glints off a lever.
You sit there and think: “Man, I wish someone would take a picture of me on this thing.”
Plenty of bikes look cool, but few can stand up to the test of both far and near observation; the Street Glide you can appreciate from just inches away. People put thought into this thing. A rider may disagree with certain stylistic choices, as I do with the gear indicator or kickstand or the use of two turn signal switches rather than one, but I’m willing to bet there’s someone in Milwaukee who could write an entire dissertation on how and why each decision was made.
The build is robust, the hard luggage looks and feels durable, switches and buttons feel as if they will stand the test of time. Regular maintenance will probably result in your being able to pass the bike on to following generations so that they can one day be like Panhead Jim, travelling the country on an 80-year-old machine.
Of Harley’s two fairing-laden baggers I’d rather own a Road Glide. That bike’s ergonomics are better suited to my frame and its weather protection is slightly better. But the Street Glide still takes the Most Improved prize for transforming from a motorcycle that was only good for posing to a motorcycle that is good for posing AND going places.
As a Polaris dork, I wish Victory would put this level of work into the Cross Country.
There is a part of me that looks at how my opinion of the Street Glide has changed so rapidly and thinks, “Golly, isn’t it surprising what two little changes can make?” But, of course, an entirely new engine and an overhauled suspension are hardly little changes.
Perhaps this is part of why Harley-Davidson gets hit by critics as being “stuck in the stone age” or what have you: because the differences can be hard to spot. From across a parking lot, I doubt anyone would be able to tell the difference between the bike I rode in April and the bike I rode in September. Hell, even those of us who are supposedly in the know are easily confused by ultra-subtle differences that Harley employs. When I initially wrote my review for the 2017 Road Glide I referred to it as the Road Glide Special. It took an eagle-eyed reader to help me get things straight.
With the 2017 Street Glide, Harley-Davidson’s giving off the appearance of not having changed since the days when people thought Gallagher was funny (Yes, I know the Street Glide was only introduced in 2006, but the batwing fairing has a distinctive 70s/80s feel to me), but in truth the company has delivered a motorcycle that is modern, high-quality, and good right out of the box - no “Harley Tax” required.
Name: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Slender