A Harley Softail Optimized for Performance
Who wants a sporty Harley? It’s a question that’s been asked since time immemorial, or at least since the 1950s. The original Sporty Harley, the Sportster, was supposedly considered a precursor to the modern superbike. Its continued presence in Harley’s lineup is a testament to its success.
In the late ’70s, ol’ Willie G tried to get in touch with the Sportster’s roots, while tapping into a trend with the Cafe Racer. It was a total flop, but—like most flops—has a dedicated cult fan base to this day. The Super Glide Sport was a modest success at the turn of the century (again, spawning a cadre of dedicated fanboys), while the VRSCR Street Rod (not to be confused with the current Street Rod) was a V-Rod spinoff that went absolutely nowhere. Some would say the tumultuous couple decades of Harley’s ownership of Buell says much the same thing: It’s a niche within a niche.
Which brings us to the FXDR 114. It looks like a stripped-down custom, popular the last decade or so. It cuts a profile like a cut-down Fat Bob: more bobbed, one less headlight, pipes tucked in more.
But, despite starting with the bigger version of H-D’s Milwaukee Eight motor (bored and stroked out for seven more cubic inches over the base model), and despite being cruiser (ish), the bike was designed for performance.
Story and Photos by Billy Bartels
Design Philosophy of the 2019 Harley-Davidson FXDR 114
Mass centralization, pioneered and championed at Buell, meant putting all the weight as close to the center of the chassis as possible. An aluminum subframe and swingarm make the back as light as possible. Cruisers tend to have a rear-weight bias, so the more weight removed from the back, the better overall handling you’ll have. The 2:1 pipe is similarly tucked up and in, not extended to the rear of the bike. The massive muffler, paired with the big high-flow airbox makes the most of what the 114 pushrod twin has on tap.
The other reason for the high and tight pipe is lean angle. Although it may resemble a pro stock drag bike, some very smart designer at the Motor Company thought to make this motorcycle want to lean over, as well. Plentiful suspension travel helps to absorb bumps, but also lifts the chassis up off the tarmac a bit, while the forward pegs are lifted from their position on most Softails.
The higher pegs make for some challenging ‘rider triangle’ issues, so, unlike the dropped-to-the-weeds seating on most Softails, the FXDR has an actual built-up area between the seat and frame, which gives some packaging space for electronics. On the third side of that triangle are the clip-on bars, to get the right ergonomics, while setting the right tone for the bike.
Comfort and Controls on the 2019 Harley-Davidson FXDR 114
So, about those ergos; just like most bikes with forward pegs, you’re going to want to be on the high side of 5’8” (or at least be long of limb) to ride this bike comfortably without modification.
The seat height, not so high at 28 inches, still puts you in reach of a hot pipe and slightly wide spread to the ground. A particularly short-limbed tester couldn’t relax into the supportive pocket while on the go and stay in touch with the pegs (and, more importantly, controls) at the same time. For taller folk, it’s an aggressive position, but the seat cups the derriere well. The feet are on the high side, but not uncomfortably so. The massive air box is a presence, but not an intrusive one… unless you’re on the shorter side.
If you’re familiar with Harley-Davidson’s switches, this one is basically the same, with burly buttons crisply controlling all the usual equipment. Self-canceling turn signals, each on their own side (instead of a single joystick), horn relatively accessible (and reasonably loud), and a button above the horn to scroll through the tiny display. It may be small, but the LCD screen is well laid-out and contains a wealth of information, including a tachometer.
Since this model only comes with a keyless ignition (you’ll still need one for the integrated fork lock), flicking it to life is as easy as flipping the kill switch on and thumbing the starter. It comes to life with a raspy roar, and shakes merrily (but not too much) in the frame. H-D claims it’s the fastest thing they’ve ever made, but we wonder if that includes the V-Rod and the VR1000 superbike? In any case, the motor is very eager, and with that somewhat raked-out front end, it’s a little unruly at parking lot speeds or getting underway from a curb. On uneven surfaces, this is exacerbated by the monster rear tire hitting every pavement ripple and stone with its massive contact patch. Above 5-7 mph, everything is just peachy, and the FXDR is ever the gentleman.
Power and Handling on the 2019 Harley-Davidson FXDR 114
Power hits right off the bottom, and pretty much goes uninterrupted to the higher reaches of the rev range. While the top end is better than most Harleys, it lets you know that you should shift with sound and vibration, even without looking at the tachometer. Out on the road, it’s clear that it’s geared a little taller than most H-Ds. Almost all of their bikes are at exactly 3000 rpm at 80 mph, this one clocks in at 2800. I don’t blame them at all, as that bottom end is so stout, you might as well have access to it. Most back-road riding can be done in second and third, the wide powerband making shifting fairly optional; it’s all about what you want your ride to sound like. And the exhaust note is pretty sweet.
On the open road, the tall gearing meant swapping into top (overdrive) gear was pretty optional, and not all of us did it. As it’s pretty smooth at cruising velocity, it was again more about aural stimulation (or gas mileage) than necessity. Even with a little hooliganish riding on this thing, it still clocked in at over 44 mpg. Speaking of the open road, there’s not much that can handle both Los Angeles’ twisty back roads and rough, fast freeways without a suspension adjustment or just slowing down, but this bike comes close. In the set up we rode, it was fantastic on curvy mountain roads, and only a little jarring on the choppy expansion joints; delivering plushness and control at both ends. The fix is an easy-access knob under the right side of the seat to soften it up for the big hits at 80 mph.
We spent a lot of time testing on the scorched backroads above Malibu, riding past the cinders of people’s former dream homes, and one thing we didn’t have to worry about was igniting anything ourselves with sparks from hard parts dragging. The cornering clearance is quite good, allowing for fun times when things get twisted.
The long, torquey bike is only okay in very tight stuff. At low speeds, it feels reluctant to turn in, and a little floppy. But above about 20-25, it handles like a dream, and the faster the better. It’s rock solid when leaned over at speed, even when hitting a bump it recovers quickly and holds a line. The four-piston brakes (with floating rotors all around) do a great job of slowing the beast, but it works best when you make it flow from corner to corner. It comes standard with ABS, which one tester had an issue with, since he prefers to have more control, but it’s not over-reactive, so you barely know it’s there. Like most H-Ds, the transmission is fairly clunky. This one took a bit to find neutral, but never miss-shifted either.
Customizing Options for the 2019 Harley-Davidson FXDR 114
Like most motorcycles from Harley-Davidson, you’re probably not going to leave it as-is and just ride it, so, as usual, there’s a raft of accessories. But more importantly, since there aren’t a bunch of plastic covers and hidden piping like on some cruisers, it’s easy to change stuff up. That rear fender was a perfect example. Trying to show off a big, sticky piece of rubber and also keep water and road sludge off of the rider is a tough compromise, but, as big as the fender is on this thing, you still get stuff on your jacket if the road is wet. But if you don’t care about that, the whole fender and license-plate assembly comes off fairly cleanly, so you can mount the legally required stuff up under the tail section, like on a sportbike.
If you want to make it a two-up motorcycle, you can buy a (tiny) seat and pegs from Harley’s accessory catalog, but that’ll set you back $400+. Other than that, the bike is pretty stacked with optional equipment (ABS, keyless ignition, LED lighting that looks like a smile) so there are no add-ons other than a color option for $400.
Will the Market Respond?
The big question is not if the bike works (it totally does), but whether Harley-Davidson can actually sell it this time around. I, for one, have loved the least successful ones the most. As a child, I lusted after the Cafe Racer that sat (and sat) at the local Harley dealer my dad worked at, and as an adult I bought the 2006 Street Rod. The happy exception was the Super Glide Sport, which was in the range for seven years. The FXDR is anything but a sleeper; it basically screams badass.
After a couple decades of custom motorcycle shows, the ‘R cuts a familiar, yet exotic, profile. It’s one of those bikes that fellow motorists and pedestrians comment on, point at, stare at, and ask you what it is. Maybe this one is different. In the past, it was Harley following a trend that was out there, this time, it took its Softail chassis and optimized it for performance. It’s a different genesis than their bikes usually take. As always, they cleaned up the details, and made it look good, but, unusually, that seemed like an afterthought.CN