You can say whatever you like about Harley-Davidson, but one thing is undeniable: it knows how to spot a trend – and, sometimes, how to start one.
For example, when the (thankfully) short-lived chopper craze hit a few years back, it brought out the Rocker (although, it’s probably safe to say it did not meet expectations). Before that, it was the Crossbones; before that, the Street Bob; before that, the Springer; and so on.
And one of the most popular platforms the company utilizes to revamp its lineup is the Softail. From its inception, in 1984, the Softail has been the starting point for innumerable variations and mutants.
One of the latest is the Slim, or FLS, which debuted last year. As is often the case with Harley Davidson, the Slim is essentially a custom treatment of an existing model; this time around, with an eye on the mystifying retro/bobber/nostalgia/rat bike trend that’s everywhere you look. In a nutshell, the idea seems to be less is more, with wild expensive paint jobs supplanted by hard-core attitude, and the emphasis being placed on presence and innovation rather than how much money you’ve spent.
Not that the Slim can be described as a rat-bike by any stretch. This is a thoughtfully styled, nicely crafted and evocative cruiser that takes you back to the 1940s. Cross-braced handlebars, footboards, beefy front end, bobbed fenders, traditional round air cleaner, cut-down windscreen and oversize tires front and back convey an image of solidity and nostalgia in one hard-to-ignore package. Lee Marvin was riding one like this when Marlon Brando kicked the crap out of him in The Wild One and, if Betty Page were around, she’d look right at home on it.
Power, as ever, is provided by a fuel-injected, air-cooled V-twin that, in this configuration, displaces 1,690 cc and is mated to a six-speed gearbox, with belt final drive and chain primary. This engine still has pushrods, although it’s now equipped with twin camshafts, and torque output is set at 99 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm which, according to my calculations, translates into 56 horsepower. Not much by today’s standards, but in keeping with this type of motorcycle. By way of comparison, Kawasaki’s Vaquero develops 108 lb-ft, and the Yamaha Roadliner is good for 123 lb-ft. This market is all about grunt, as opposed to high-rev, screaming horsepower. Probably not the quickest bike in this market, the 305-kilogram Slim will still take care of business and has buckets of reserve power.
That said, this is not an all-day cruiser. Yes, there is a windscreen, but the seat has zero back/lumbar support and is as small as you can get away with. After an hour or two, it starts to feel like dental floss. This one ain’t built for comfort or speed. I also have mixed feelings about the low Hollywood-style handlebars. They look cool, but tend to spread you out so you catch the wind at any speed more than 50 km/h.
But for short hauls and boulevard cruising, the Slim is on the money. The “half-moon” footboards are a nice touch, and the gear shifter has a traditional heel-toe configuration. Pull in that meaty-feeling clutch, prod the forward lever and the transmission bangs into gear with a reassuring “ka-thud.” High-tech types who insist on cutting-edge engineering and whisper-silent drivetrains would be aghast at the crudity of Harley’s shift mechanism, but I love it. When I change gears, I want the shifter to bang it in there – up or down. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it.
Speaking of short, riders who are inseam-challenged will feel right at home. Saddle height is a brief 615 millimetres, making this one of the lowest-slung bikes on the market – your butt will be closer to the ground than with any of Harley’s other models, and that includes the Sportster and Fat Boy Lo.
It also adds to this bike’s visual appeal. This is one of the sharpest-looking models in Harley’s stable right now – especially in black denim, although three other colours are offered: ember red sunglo, big blue pearl, and vivid black (where do they get these names?).
And here’s something I like: with all its throwback ambience and – er – traditional technology, the Slim is pretty good on gas. It delivers a combined fuel economy rating of 5.6 litres/100 km, which is in Toyota Prius territory. Trust me, the Slim is more fun.
Prices start at $17,829 and you can get an anti-theft security package for another $1,360, which I would recommend.