2011 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra

Road Test Review

Knowing the model names associated with Harley-Davidson’s cryptic “alpha” designations for its motorcycle models can make for quite the trivia contest at parties. Yell out “FLSTSB” and see how quickly that Motor Company tattooed enthusiast in the corner can come up with “Cross Bones,” or associate the Night Rod Special with VRSCDX and so on. I used to have them down, but with the proliferation of models these days, Willie G. once admitted to me that even he can’t keep them all straight anymore.

Two alpha prefixes are as memorable to the touring crowd, however, as H-D’s initials themselves. The first, long-running and best known is FLHT which, among other things today, indicates that the bike is equipped with Harley’s distinctively good-looking yet fork-mounted “batwing” fairing, such as the FLHTCU Electra Glide Ultra Classic. The second prefix is FLT, which came along relatively recently in Harley history, for 1980 on the rebellious Tour Glide. It sported a new frame-mounted touring fairing with twin headlights that won little praise for its styling, but gave the bike more stability and lighter handling than the fork mount. In 1998 the FLT fairing returned with a face lift for the introduction of the Road Glide, got nicknamed the “sharknose,” and started anew the debate over batwing looks vs. sharknose handling.

The playing field was leveled a bit last year with the revamp of the FL Touring frame, swingarm and engine mounting system, addition of 17-inch wheels up front, a 6.0-gallon fuel tank and 2-1-2 exhaust. As a result, all of the FLH and FLT tourers can carry more, handle better, have smoother power delivery and longer range. Still, the difference between the bat and shark remains more than skin deep, and is obvious to anyone who sits behind them on long rides back-to-back. While the batwing has a better windscreen and its pilot suffers less buffeting, muscling that 30-odd pounds of fairing on the fork around corners and keeping the bike going straight in crosswinds can take a toll.

Nevertheless, the Great Fairing Debate has been largely moot for many long-distance and two-up riders, because the Road Glide is the only bike the frame-mounted one comes on, and until now has only been available with saddle bags. Sure, you could buy a TourPak trunk, vented fairing lowers and numerous other Ultra touring amenities for a Road Glide, but that would end up costing far more than just buying an Electra Glide Ultra Classic in the first place. Which many do.

Perhaps fewer now, though, as the new 2011 Road Glide Ultra offers all of the popular Ultra stuff such as the TourPak, engine-guard-mounted lowers, fully equipped four-speaker sound system/CB/intercom and cruise control. Like the new-for-last-year Electra Glide Ultra Limited and select touring models this year, the 2011 Road Glide Ultra also gets Harley’s new “PowerPak,” which bundles ABS and its Smart Security System with the Twin Cam 103, the larger factory 1,690cc version of the air-cooled, OHV, 45-degree V-twin.

A cylinder bore increase to 3.875 inches from 3.750 (stroke is unchanged at 4.38 inches) and higher 9.6:1 compression from 9.2:1 on the standard Twin Cam 96 give the 103’s engine output a satisfying bump. Harley rates the mill with 102 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm at the crank, about a 10 percent increase over the TC96 that allows quicker passes and better hill climbing, especially when riding two-up and loaded. On the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno, our Road Glide Ultra managed to spin up 68 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 85 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 at the rear wheel, a tidy increase of 1.6 ponies and 6.5 lb-ft over our 2009 Electra Glide Ultra Classic test machine. At 874 pounds wet the Road Glide Ultra weighs 12 pounds less than that bike, too.

The extra power gets smartly to the rear wheel without any fuel-injection abruptness or lurching, and this bike has the smoothest power delivery of any Harley big twin I’ve ridden, despite the increased displacement. The start-up “clunk” in the original TC96 was eliminated a couple of years ago, and the Isolated Drive System introduced on the Touring models in 2008 uses rubber cushions in the rear sprocket to damp some of the mechanical noise and vibration from the engine’s torque pulses. Our Road Glide Ultra felt more refined, and was mechanically quieter while accelerating, shifting and cruising than any Harley big twin we’ve tested.

Acceleration from the 103 is brisk and produces a powerful, satisfying exhaust note that should be loud enough for anybody. Its heel-and-toe shift lever seems to leave more room for your left foot on the floorboard now, and the 6-speed transmission shifts smoothly and quietly except when it clunks dropping the bike into gear at stops. Our test bike’s clutch lever feel was linear and easy to modulate most times, though a bit notchy when starting out, as if the cable is dry. Harley has finally gone with a fifth-gear pair that is helical-cut like the rest of the gearbox (except first), so the former clatter and whine at lower cruising speeds in fifth is gonzo. In top sixth gear the bike rumbles along comfortably with ample passing power at the ready, worst case with a downshift to fifth.

All of the “Rubber Glide” Touring and Dyna models with their rubber-mounted engines shake like a Vibra-bed at idle, but the Road Glide Ultra was smooth from low engine speeds to its 5,500-rpm redline, with just enough pulse feeling and exhaust bark to keep things interesting. We could even tell one car model from another in the rear view mirrors (which do need longer stalks, though).

I’ve always liked how the FLTs handle despite their size, and the Road Glide Ultra is no exception. Braking is swift and strong once you’re used to the auto-style rear pedal, and though Harley has sacrificed some smoothness in the standard anti-lock braking system in order to conceal the ABS components, it still performs adequately when engaged.

Last year’s chassis changes are reflected in the bike’s stability at speed in fast sweepers and on the highway, and in its low-effort, neutral steering. The ride is a bit stiffer now—some bumps can be jarring—but Harley has addressed this with better seats and suspension calibration, though the fork still dives too much under braking. Riders who pay attention to the air pressure in the rear shocks (they only have 3 inches of travel after all) and tire pressures will be rewarded with adequate cornering clearance in most situations and a fair ride.

At the 2011 CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations, story next month) launch I had the opportunity to ride a Road King Ultra CVO back-to-back with Street Glide and Electra Glide CVOs. Wind protection is comparable, and there’s simply no contest for steering effort or stability —the Road Glide’s frame-mounted sharknose may not be everybody’s supermodel, but it’s sure easier to live with.

Except for the windscreen atop the Road King Ultra’s fairing, that is, which Harley itself has shown can be much improved upon with the special new curved one on the CVO version. It does a better job of flowing air over your head rather than bashing it around at higher speeds like the stock Ultra’s. Harley says it will be available from the parts catalog for other Road Glides. The aftermarket has addressed this issue as well and we invite Road Glide riders to share your windscreen solutions. Shorter and taller factory ’screens are available, too.

Comfort on the Road King Ultra is otherwise superb for rider and passenger. The pilot gets a natural reach to the grips just below shoulder height, and it has comfortably located, vibration-damped floorboards. The seat is dished with plenty of lumbar support and comfortable enough for all-day rides. It is also manageably low and narrow in front, making it easy to hold the bike up at stops. Passengers get an equally comfortable seat, a backrest with somewhat functional armrests and height-adjustable floorboards well placed for comfort (though they can get in the rider’s way at stops). Mysteriously lacking are grabrails for the passenger (there’s just the usual strap on the seat), and my copilot reported that some strong vibes transfer through the backrest at times.

In addition to taking the weight of the wind protection off the fork and handlebar, the Road Glide Ultra’s fairing houses analog gauges for air temperature, oil pressure, fuel and volts, as well as the sound system head unit, front speakers and a pair of useful compartments with spring-loaded lids. An analog tachometer and speedo with LCD dual-tripmeter/reserve mileage display are on the steering head. More storage pockets can be found in the fairing lowers, which have closeable vents for cold weather—when opened in hot they also help blow away some of the heat from the engine. Harley’s efforts to control engine heat with redesigned exhaust and midframe air deflectors have made a big improvement over earlier models, but the bike can still get quite hot on the right side at times.

For cooler weather with smaller passengers I recommend unbolting the TourPak trunk and moving it about an inch into its forward position—this helps get the passenger a little closer to you and the fairing for warmth. The side-opening trunk lid means that most items, including your passenger, can be left on the seat when it’s opened. The trunk is cavernous, lined with soft woven nylon and easily holds two fullface helmets. The quickly detached saddlebags hold a fair amount, too, and all three bags lock with the bike’s ignition key.

Electronics function superbly without exception on this bike. Cruise control, self-canceling turn signals, 20-wattper-channel CD/AM/FM/WB/CB/intercom that belts out the tunes through four speakers or headsets—it all works great and has easy-to-use bar-mounted controls and a good display, with separate controls on the armrests for the passenger. You can plug in an iPod or other auxiliary device, too. There’s plenty of volume without distortion through the speakers at speed, even wearing full-face helmets, though I do recommend a pair of helmet headsets to take advantage of the intercom system. One headset and a basic H-D multitool come with the bike.

Our Road Glide Ultra test bike had beautiful optional laced chrome aluminum wheels, which require that the functional new Dunlop Multi-Tread tubeless touring tires mounted on them carry tubes. Though they have good locking sidestands, all Harleys lack centerstands, so keep in mind that sticking with the FLTRU’s standard black 28-spoke cast wheels might enable you to temporarily plug a puncture.

As a fully featured touring machine the new Road Glide Ultra succeeds in virtually every way. It is plenty powerful with the Twin Cam 103 for its nearly 500-pound maximum load, comfortable, smooth and refined, yet still exudes gobs of traditional Harley style and sound. Long-distance Harley enthusiasts, your light-steering, stable sharknose Ultra awaits you, and the winding, windy highways and byways of America.