2012 Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide Custom

Road Test Review

From the menacing, brushed-nickel skulls on its prow and tank, to the smoky graphics swirling around its sharknose fairing, Harley-Davidson’s 2012 FLTRXSE CVO Road Glide Custom means business. Even the names of its high-end accessories—Agitator wheels, Rumble Collection components and Heavy Breather air cleaner—are street tough. And Mr. CVO’s Screamin’ Eagle Twin Cam 110 V-twin is the Godfather of the family, the most powerful production engine available from the Motor Company. Its arm-straightening torque will make you an offer you just can’t refuse.

Since 1999, Harley-Davidson’s Custom Vehicle Operations has been building factory customs that get noticed by pretty much everyone, like the busty blond who sashayed by at the gas station and remarked “Nice paint job!” as she admired the two-tone Maple Metallic/Vivid Black color scheme. (She no doubt chuckled to herself at the clashing combination of my yellow Shoei helmet and red Aerostich suit.) The dark, glossy paint is best appreciated in bright sunshine, where the bronze metal flake sparkles brilliantly, like a ’70s-era speedboat or El Camino on a summer day. Never have I ridden a motorcycle that’s drawn so many compliments, knowing nods and long, lustful stares.

Each model year, Harley’s Custom Vehicle Operations selects several models, and then adds the Twin Cam 110 engine, exclusive components, premium accessories and innovative paint treatments to create limited-edition motorcycles dripping with curb appeal. For 2012, the CVO lineup includes the Softail Convertible, Street Glide, Ultra Classic Electra Glide, as well as the Road Glide Custom you see here (Rider, November 2011). The leaner, meaner Road Glide Custom replaced the standard Road Glide for 2010, and 2012 is the first year it’s gotten the full CVO treatment. Other FLTRXSE color schemes include White Gold Pearl/Starfire Black and Candy Cobalt/Twilight Blue, and all feature Real Smoke graphics and a color-matched, custom solo Touring seat with a detachable pillion (ours is brown with gold stitching).

Strapped to Jett Tuning’s dyno, the CVO Road Glide Custom belted out 90.5 horsepower and 109.0 lb-ft of torque, with over 100 lb-ft of torque on tap from 2,300 to 4,700 rpm—by far the biggest numbers we’ve ever recorded for a Harley-Davidson. Black powdercoated and rubber-mounted, the 110 ci (1,802cc) V-twin has a bore and stroke of 4.0 x 4.4 inches, a 9.15:1 compression ratio, two pushrod-actuated overhead valves per cylinder and self-adjusting hydraulic lifters. The 45-degree V-twin jiggles your love handles at idle but lopes along smoothly at speed, transmitting very little vibration to the rider. Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection meters air and juice precisely, and a pressurized, dry-sump lubrication system keeps everything well oiled. Power is sent to the rear wheel via hydraulically actuated wet clutch, 6-speed Cruise Drive transmission with a heel-toe shifter and belt final drive. Working the clutch gave my left hand a workout, shifting was clunky in lower gears and finding neutral at a stop was challenging, but gear changes were generally trouble-free.

Aided by Harley’s Electronic Throttle Control (throttle-by-wire), which eliminates unsightly throttle cables, response to the twist grip is immediate and addictive. Dual chrome exhausts, which have black billet end caps with engraved chrome “spears,” rumble mildly at steady throttle but emit a loud report during hard acceleration. On an already loud-n-proud bike such as this there’s just no need to bolt on straight pipes! On the open road, the Twin Cam 110 purrs and spins a mere 2,200 rpm in the overdrive top gear, illuminating a small green “6” on the speedo. The 6-gallon fuel tank has a low-profile console housing a red-illuminated CVO graphic, a flush-mount chrome filler cap on the right side and a chrome, red-illuminated fuel gauge on the left. We averaged 37.2 mpg during this test in a mix of riding conditions with and without a passenger, good for 223 miles on a full tank of premium.

Complementing the exhaust note is a block-rockin’ Harmon-Kardon Advanced Audio CD/FM/AM/WB system, with a 200-watt amplifier hidden in the fairing and MTX Audio two-way, 5- x 7-inch speakers and 2-inch tweeters mounted on the dash. It also comes with an 8GB Apple iPod nano etched with the Bar & Shield logo—a nifty accessory that was notably absent from our test bike—plus iPod interface and a connector and holder in the right-side saddlebag. A button on the left handlebar controls the speed-sensitive volume and one on the right switches between modes, advances tracks, etc. Both my iPhone and iPod Classic worked without any issues, but the FLTRXSE owner’s manual warns that compatibility with anything other than an iPod nano cannot be guaranteed (with my iPod Classic plugged in, I received a warning message that “iPods with hard drives could be damaged,” probably due to vibration). The stereo delivers thunderous sound, loud enough to be heard with decent clarity at 75 mph while wearing a full-face helmet, shield down and earplugs in. On a war horse such as this, I recommend keeping Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in the single-disc CD player.

While certain auditory features of the CVO Road Glide Custom lend themselves to wild-child antics, the bike is actually mild mannered, with responsive handling, comfortable ergonomics and good wind protection. Since 2008, Harley’s Touring models have been held together by a tubular-steel double-cradle frame with a two-piece backbone and twin downtubes, plus a bolt-on subframe and steel swingarm. The stout chassis handles the FLTRXSE’s 847-pound heft and ample torque with ease, delivering a rock-solid ride and nimble handling. The frame-mounted fairing lightens handling feel compared to one that’s fork mounted, and the 28-degree rake keeps steering sharp. Add in generous cornering clearance—30 degrees left, 32 degrees right—and a modest 180-series rear tire, and you’ve got a recipe for an enjoyable ride on any smoothly paved road. Bumpy roads are where things start to unravel, however, because the slammed rear suspension has only two inches of travel. The CVO’s dual shocks, which have 40mm pistons, compression damping in the right shock, and rebound damping in the left with a remote spring preload adjuster, are premium components compared to the air-adjustable shocks found in the $19,499 base-model Road Glide Custom. But regardless of quality, mass and momentum can quickly overwhelm such a limited range of travel, bottoming out on large bumps and bouncing the rider out of the seat. The non-adjustable fork with 4.6 inches of travel offers decent compliance most of the time, but it reacts harshly to sharp-edged bumps.

The CVO Road Glide Custom’s 19-inch front/18-inch rear Contrast Chrome Agitator Custom Wheels increase wheel diameter by 1 inch in the front and 2 inches in the rear compared to the standard Road Glide Custom, raising the seat height by a half-inch and adding a bit more cornering clearance. Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series tires offer good stability, grip and turn-in, but their low profile reduces bump absorption and likely contributes some harshness to the ride. Agitator floating front rotors match the wheels, and all three of the FLRXSE’s discs are squeezed by Brembo 4-piston calipers with braided black stainless steel brake lines and standard ABS. The brakes provide plenty of stopping power but there’s not much feel at the lever and pedal.

From the reach to the internally wired handlebar to the shape and 27.5-inch height of the dished touring seat and the angle of the rubber-mounted footboards, most riders will find the ergonomics of the FLTRXSE agreeable. However, the high footboards and my long-inseam legs put my knees above my waist, forcing my hips into an awkward angle. The removable passenger seat is thick but firm and not very big; after riding on it for several hours, my girlfriend stopped speaking to me for nearly the same length of time. Neither of us had any complaints about the smoked, aerodynamically shaped Wind Splitter windscreen, which provides much better wind protection than the stubby wind deflector found on the standard Road Glide Custom. I felt only mild turbulence at the top of my helmet, but individual results may vary—Editor Tuttle, who is shorter than me, experienced significant buffeting. Road Glide air deflectors atop the engine guards further contribute to a fairly calm cockpit.

The FLTRXSE’s extended, injection-molded, locking saddlebags have a total volume of 2.36 cubic feet. They’re long and deep but narrow; they won’t hold a full-face helmet but they’ll easily hold a folded riding jacket in each side plus small items such as tools. Both saddlebags can be easily removed without tools, but the unsightliness of the denuded bike means there’s no reason to do so except cleaning and on the left side to access the preload adjuster.

Harley-Davidson says its CVO Road Glide Custom offers an “unmatched hot-rod touring experience.” The FLTRXSE certainly has the hot-rod half of the equation nailed, with a big, torquey engine, powerful audio system, stunning paint job and tons of chrome and accessories. And it’s loaded with extras like Harley’s Smart Security System with proximity-based fob, an indoor cover with embroidered CVO logo and a commemorative CVO ignition key in a display box. But the touring half of the equation falls a bit short. Sure, there’s ABS, cruise control, audio and lockable storage, but the passenger accommodations are minimal and the slammed rear suspension and low-profile tires make for a harsh ride on bumpy roads. Life is about tradeoffs, and sometimes sacrifices must be made for style—just ask any woman who swears by her $800 Manolo Blahnik stiletto heels. Owning a CVO bike earns major street cred among Harley enthusiasts, and for a select few those sort of bragging rights are worth the money and a little discomfort.