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2019 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special review: Wild hogs can't be broken

I guess I kind of get the Harley thing now.

It's easy to make jokes about Harley-Davidson, but it's a company that's very good at what it does: Building big, heavy and gorgeously-made motorcycles.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

No name in American motorcycling looms as large as Harley-Davidson, the longest continually operating motorcycle brand in the States. While it's experienced its share of problems over the last decade or so, it's continually working on updating and innovating.

This last bit is especially true with the introduction of Harley's Reflex Defensive Rider Systems (RDRS), which it launched on 2019-model-year touring bikes like the Street Glide Special. RDRS includes things like lean-sensitive antilock braking, traction control, linked brake systems (more on this later), tire pressure monitoring and more.

While many of these features are becoming increasingly common on bikes from both European and Japanese brands, they've been slow to trickle up to the big, heavy American baggers and cruisers like the ones that Harley is famous for making.

This new RDRS system, coupled with the fact that I, as someone who writes about motorcycles, have never experienced a Harley-Davidson was enough to convince me that I needed to give the Motor Company's finest an honest try. After a couple of weeks with Harley's 2019 Street Glide Special, I have to say that I'm coming away from the experience significantly more impressed than I thought possible. The bagger/cruiser life might not be for me specifically, but I can totally understand the appeal.

All mod cons

What is it about the Street Glide that makes it such a special machine? On paper, it's anything but impressive. It's got a massive 114 cubic-inch Milwaukee Eight engine that produces just 90 horsepower. That's around half the output of the Aprilia Tuono I rode last year, yet it comes from an engine that's some 700 cubic centimeters larger.

However, it's not like anyone chooses a Harley because it makes big power. No, they pick it because it makes vast amounts of torque, and indeed, the air-cooled 114 does just that. The big twin puts out a commendable 123 pound-feet of torque at absurdly low engine speeds. 

In fact, the whole engine is about keeping those revs low. It redlines at around 5,500 rpm, making the motor feel more like a diesel than a conventional motorcycle engine. That low-effort torque makes riding the bike relatively easy at anything above parking lot speeds, which is good, because the bike is heavy, as is the clutch. There is so much torque that you can almost set off from a stop in first gear without adding any throttle.

With the Milwaukee Eight 114, it's all about that torque.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

While the engine feels effortless, the six-speed transmission feels appropriately old school. By that, I mean that it's got a relatively long throw between gears and each gear arrives with a decidedly agricultural (but very satisfying) thump. Neutral is easy to find, which is always a blessing in traffic, especially since bumper-to-bumper situations seem to be where the Street Glide is least comfortable thanks to its bulk, heavy clutch lever and the sheer amount of heat that the engine gives off.

For such a big and bulky motorcycle, having good brakes is obviously incredibly important, and I will admit to being surprised (in a good way) by the stoppers on the Street Glide. The Harley-branded, Brembo-made calipers and master cylinder provide adequate stopping power and a reassuring amount of control at the brake lever. The brakes on the Street Glide are linked, which likely had something to do with the solidity I feel. 

Unlike most typical motorcycle braking systems, the front and rear brakes on the Harley share a hydraulic circuit, much like in a car. This reduces the chance of locking up one wheel in a panic-stop situation and is excellent for lazy riders like me, who typically ignore the rear brake in most normal riding scenarios.

The Street Glide's suspension is decidedly less plush than I had expected, but the upside of that was that the bike handled much better than it probably should have. That said, this isn't exactly what you'd want to take up on Angeles Crest when your friends are all on sport bikes. The rear suspension is adjustable, though that will require you remove the rear bags, and the front is a nonadjustable (but chonky) right-side-up fork configuration.

The bike's seating position is odd at first if you're unfamiliar with a feet-forward cruiser-style control layout. The movements that you make to find the rear brake or kick up into another gear take a lot of getting used to, but the concept of "floorboards" rather than foot pegs is something I can get behind. The position is much less fatiguing on longer rides, and since that's what the Street Glide is all about, that's a good thing.

It's not your typical motorcycle cockpit, but it's packed with easy-to-read analog gauges and a huge touchscreen.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

The hand controls on the bike are laid out unlike any other bike I've ridden. Unlike most brands that give you a single switch to control your turn signals, H-D has individual buttons for left and right signals on each respective control pod. It's weird, and I never really get used to it, but bonus points to the brand for making those signals self-canceling. My Street Glide also packs cruise control -- something I love to see on motorcycles that are designed to pile on the miles -- and the system is decidedly easy to use.

The bike has a surprising number of infotainment features that not only include a foam-lined and USB-equipped cubby for your phone, but also built-in navigation and a decidedly bangin' stereo that are accessed through a large, easy-to-read LCD screen mounted below the traditional gauges.

That comfort and convenience tech feels a little out of place on a motorcycle that's so mechanically old-school. Still, it never detracts from the experience, and you don't have to use it if you don't care about stereo or navigation. Other convenience features include the big, deep bags that are affixed to the side, which provide ample space for things like bags of cat food and last-minute Christmas gifts. One thing that should absolutely be standard on a bike at this price point, but isn't, is heated grips. They're available as a dealer-installed accessory, but that's not good enough on a motorcycle that nears $30,000.

It's the freeway or no way

So, what is it like to ride this big, matte-black slice of Americana? Surprisingly awesome, though for me, it doesn't really feel like riding a motorcycle. The Harley doesn't offer an involved ride in the way that most modern bikes do, though it's not really designed for that. It's exciting enough in a stoplight drag race with your buddy; the sound is excellent and everything about the bike feels exquisitely built, but it's more like driving a much less stable and more exposed car than it is a motorcycle.

If you do decide to push it in a corner and lean the bike over with any exuberance, you're going to start scraping stuff. The Street Glide is a long, low bike with low-mounted exhausts, and it's kind of just par for the course. That being said, the bike feels incredibly stable in longer corners and is basically unflappable on a straight road at freeway speeds.

One problem that I have with the Street Glide (though this is by no means the only bike with which I've had this issue) is wind buffeting. The massive batwing fairing does an excellent job of keeping the wind off my body, but the cut-down windscreen is just the right height and angle to cause the wind to buffet my helmet at speed, which gets old fast. An adjustable windscreen would be nice, but I've got a weirdly long torso, so I doubt this is an issue most people would deal with.

Yes it's called a "batwing fairing" and the reasons for that should be relatively obvious.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

Acceleration is predictably strong, with torque being available any time you ask for it. It's pretty fun to bang up through the gears, but shifts come fast, thanks to the bike's 5,500-rpm redline and six-speed box. As I mentioned previously, the transmission is totally unsophisticated but feels great to use, even though the clutch is kind of a bear. After an hour or so riding around town in traffic, my left hand and wrist are basically done.

As you'd expect, the big 114-cubic-inch engine is a thirsty beast, but thanks to the Street Glide's six-gallon gas tank, you won't find yourself having to fill up too terribly often. This is a welcome change from Roadshow's long-term Indian, which I end up having to gas up almost every time I go out for more than an errand or two.

These six gallons of fuel contribute to the Street Glide's bananas curb weight, something that I find myself always conscious of. The bike does not like moving around at low speeds and requires real effort at the bars when you're parking. Putting the bike onto its side stand was always a pucker-inducing experience too, but thankfully it never let me down. Dropping the Street Glide (and especially the Street Glide Special with its all-black look) would absolutely leave you with a sore back and an even more sore wallet.

After spending a couple of weeks with Harley's large adult son, I find myself in a position that I didn't expect. On the one hand, I absolutely get the appeal of H-D's big tourers. In sixth gear at 70 mph, you feel like the king of the road. On the other hand, I understand entirely why younger riders aren't flocking to these bikes in ways that maybe they did in the past, and that's even before the cost is taken into account.

For me, riding a motorcycle is about the thrill. I'm not an adrenaline junkie or anything, but riding a bike, even in town, is fun and exciting because I feel involved. I know that if the bike turns, I have to countersteer, while also managing two separate brakes and the throttle. I feel like I'm a part of the machine. With the Street Glide, I never really feel like that.

That brings us to the issue of cost. Frankly, it's a lot. Before spending this time with the Street Glide, I always wondered how Harley could justify asking nearly $30,000 for its touring bikes. But now, seeing the care and attention to detail with which the bikes are built, the materials used and the components that are unique to the brand, I get it. In some ways, it's like buying a mechanical watch instead of a quartz one. The mechanical watch is demonstrably worse at what it does, but it's a beautiful and intricate little machine, whereas the quartz watch is just another product.