Updated: Jan 11, 2020
Harley has been hyping their new Milwaukee Eight motors with more torque, less vibration and their Mount Rushmore upgrades for the past 2 years. They also claim a new upgraded suspension on their touring bikes.
Do these “radical”, “new” changes really live up to the Harley Hype Machine?
I decided to evaluate that and answer several other questions for myself. I also wanted to provide readers a fresh perspective different from the professional review magazines. They often get flown to terrible locations (you know like sunny Southern California, Monte Carlo or Greece) to participate in big motorcycle reveals and write “unbiased reviews”. I'm picturing first class tickets, Tipperary's served by models and some sliced smoked cheese I couldn't pronounce without asking Siri.
While they will tell you they don’t let the lavish trip influence their reviews; I rarely see them write anything overly critical. They undersell the less positive aspects of the motorcycle with softly written code language like, “could use more adjustment” or “would benefit from more refinement”. What they don’t say? “It’s the same crap they sold you last year”... “there is virtually no difference to prior years, save your money”.
Some of my favorite YouTube review writers like The Missenden Flyer are very candid and I appreciate their reviews. Rider Magazine is usually pretty straight forward and tells it like it is (see below) so thank you for that!
Here’s some backstory and what I’m comparing.
As a point of reference; I have 10’s of thousands of miles on motorcycles. I’ve owned and ridden all types of bikes since I was 13. My first personal motorcycle was a Honda 3 wheeler.
It is probably the most dangerous motorbike ever made. After a short run many were recalled and the line was discontinued. Too bad, it was also one of the most fun rides on the planet! An absolute wheelie machine.
My other personal bike at 16 years old was a Kawasaki 454 LTD.
I thought I was pretty cool at 16 riding to school in Southern California on a cruiser motorcycle. Truth be told, the 500 was probably a little bit big for me at the time and I still had a mini mullet; so I wasn’t as cool as I thought.
Over the years I’ve owned 1/2 a dozen Harley’s, several triumphs, a few BMW’s a couple Yamaha’s and ridden every other brand made. I’ve spent a fair amount of time on KTM’s and Ducatis. My tastes have ranged from nakeds, cruisers, touring bikes and classics. Currently, I own a BMW K1600, a BMW R Nine T and a Triumph Bobber.
For this review, I rented a 2019 Street Glide Special with the 107 motor and all the standard SGS features. I previously owned a 2016 Street Glide Special. I'll give you a good comparison of the K1600 and my prior 2016 Street Glide.
Here is my primary question. My 2016 Street Glide; while a fun, comfortable great on straight aways touring bike; it had a terrible suspension. The 2.1 inches of travel were not enough to soak up the pavement on anything other than glass like asphalt. Any broken road, grooved highway, or minuscule imperfections in the road caused the bike to bottom out creating a jarring, slamming interruption of the zen like cruise I was enjoying only seconds earlier. No amount of blasting AC/DC from the fairing speakers could overcome the brutal assault of my skeletal structure.
Yes; I had the suspension set appropriate for my height, weight and gear. No; adjustments made no difference ultimately.
Now, to it’s credit; the 2016 didn’t become uncomposed. I wasn’t in fear of suddenly losing control or wrecking my 800lb behemoth. It was just a consistent, rough, distracting uncomfortable ride. Especially for a bike that cost north of $22k and is claimed to be the worlds best selling touring motorcycle.
Certainly it’s HD’s best selling touring motorcycle.
So I set out from San Diego on a 2018 rental HD to see if Harley’s changes were indeed worth the price to dip my toes back into those warm comfortable but expensive Harley waters.
I also thought it was a perfect opportunity to compare it to the K1600 BMW.
A bike I had specifically purchased 6mos after selling my last Harley [2017 Dyna Lowrider S] seeking to move very much away from the Harley cult.
Me and a fellow long term enthusiast, who will not even acknowledge there are other brands besides Harley, took a route from north San Diego up to Julian and back.
For those unfamiliar with this area it’s a perfect motorcycle run that gives you the best of everything. There’s minimal freeway, hills, gliding curves, a few switchbacks, awesome scenery and a quaint little country town that has all kinds of great food. Weather was dry, a mix of sunny overcast and about 73 degrees.
I threw a leg over the SGS and immediately recalled that familiar Street Glide rider triangle. Swing the bike up and I hefted 800 pounds of weight, but the low center of gravity always helps the bike feel manageable. It felt especially low given my time spend recently on the K1600.
I toured through the controls, adjusted mirrors, turned on the radio, set up the route in the navigation, signaled my fellow rider and we were off.
First thing I evaluated was the vibration. Harley claims the new Milwaukee Eight has significantly reduced the vibration felt through the bike to the rider, especially at speed. I have to say, this in generally is a yawn to me on the touring bikes.
I’ve never been bothered by vibration on Street Glides, Road Glides or Road Kings. Yep it’s there. Many Harley aficionado’s will raise a fist to the sky and say it’s just part of the HD experience. How dare you even consider lessening it. They are the same crowd who threw violent shade on the V-Rod claiming the motor wasn't a "true Harley". Spoiler alert-it's been reinvented in all their new lines of bikes like the naked.
I’m one of those who believes in the vibration. Although full disclosure: my first Harley was a VRod. I suffered 2 years in the clamshell strain before selling it. The vibration on my LowRider S got old quick, especially on a longer ride. But on SGS? It’s never annoyed me.
So is the M8 better, different, improved? Yeah, maybe a little. I’d say it’s about 10% smoother at speed. I don’t think a new rider on Street Glides or HD touring bikes would ever notice. You have to spend significant time on both bikes to feel the difference and know what it is.
Is it better and more palatable for new HD riders? Probably.
Would it sway me to upgrade to a newer model vs an older model. No way. It’s not significant enough to make me feel different riding the bike.
Second thing I paid attention to while riding; the power. The new 107 vs the 103. Don't forget, I also had the 110 in my LowRider S, so another comparison (although obviously different weight etc).
How much more torque and power did I feel? Again: I have to say negligible. There is a little more power, but given the 800+ pounds of these bikes, the increased power is absorbed by weight. It’s hard to put a number on this, I’d ballpark a 5% increase regardless of the quoted numbers by Harley. By the way, I've also ridden the 114 and I'd still say improved but not drastic.
Top end speed has a little more length through the power band and if you’re riding at 100 on a Street Glide; maybe this matters to you. As I cycled through the uphill twists on our way to Julian, the Street Glide handled itself well. I never had to hunt gears; it always had enough torque to pull me up through the curve smoothly and effortlessly. It also had ample engine braking to keep me from smoking breaks as I came down the hill.
But so did my 2016.
Again; would I wait and buy a 2018/2019 or upgrade? Emphatic no. I’d absolutely stick with an low mileage 2016-2018 and save money. Now if it’s a $1500 difference between a used and a new; I’d spend the $1500. But if it’s $3500+? Nope.
Third thing to consider; the suspension. So Harley claims an “all new Showa suspension”. It’s lighter weight, which should make the steering less sluggish and closer to the Road Glide which also benefits from a frame mounted fairing.
The real stat that matters though; it still only has 2.1 inches of travel.
It might have a new brand name setup, but physics are no different. So how did it do? In a word terrible. I can honestly say I noticed no improvement at all. Zilch. The 2018 fought its way over imperfect road ways like your great grandmother scrubbing dirty clothes over a 1800's washboard. It bounced, slammed, jostled, bottomed out and crashed through the 2.1 inches with unbounded glee at every opportunity.
Mind you, this road is not some unmaintained, rough shod country road. It’s a well traveled, adequately maintained 2 lane highway that curves through the San Diego county hills. I’m not exaggerating when I say I got home and found severe bruising in places, ahem, where you don’t want bruises. I mean broken blood vessel type bruising.
This really is a major disappointment. The major thing that holds the HD Touring bikes from being really good at their claimed purpose is the lack of travel in the suspension. I know you can spend $2000 and upgrade it, but really? On a $29k (msrp) TOURING bike? It’s really an unacceptable design flaw by HD.
So ultimately the upgrades to me are not better in any significant way to a 2016 Street Glide Special.
How about the K1600? This is where things get interesting. Very different visually, very different designs, but same claimed purpose.
The K1600 has an inline 6 cylinder motor. Yes, basically a Honda Accord motor is sitting in your motorcycle frame.
It’s also delivering 165hp.
It’s got a flawless shaft drive, tons of torque and more than 6 inches of suspension travel. Dual sets of floating ABS activated disc brakes, traction control and a suite of electronics create maximum performance.
Seat height at its lowest setting is higher by about 3 inches vs the Street Glide. The K1600 has a more upright position with knees and feet directly under you. No, you can’t achieve the flying OB-GYN position hardcore Harley riders seem to think is comfortable. Instead you ride very stately, but comfortable with absolute control as your weight is centered and under you, especially for cornering.
Ultimately there is no comparison. In feature and performance categories; the BMW completely obliterated the Harley. It’s faster, more responsive, corners better and the adjust on the fly air suspension is like driving a Cadillac with 2 wheels. It’s one of the reasons why Motorcycle Magazine named the BMW K1600B, Bagger of the Year in 2017 and 2018.
Here’s a list of the things the BMW K1600 has standard that the Harley doesn’t offer:
Electronic adjustable windscreen
Electronic adjustable suspension
Electronic adjustable preload
Electronic One touch locking and alarm activation
Multiple ride modes
Saddlebags that can accommodate a full helmet
Hill Start Control *HD offers in 2020
Speed Shift (clutch less shifting)
Heated seat and passenger seat (separate controls) *HD aftermarket
Cornering ABS, traction control etc *HD offers in 2020
So it probably sounds like I'm bashing the Street Glide. Yes, a little. But you have to ask, what makes the Street Glide a world renown, instantly recognized and heart palpitating purchase year after year since it’s introduction?
Whether you like chrome or blacked out, want to ride at 90+ or cruise at 30 miles it does so and looks great doing it. It has all the core elements you need to cruise short or long distances; wind protection, saddlebags, a comfortable (ish) seat and a versatile motor.
Another important fact: my wife emphatically prefers to ride the street glide vs the BMW. She appreciates the BMW, but she will pick the street glide every time without hesitation. Depending on how much you like your wife, this matters. I like my angel and I like her happy on back of my bike.
In 2020 Harley decided to join the 21st century and improved their touchscreen interface, added electronic rider safety features and even included hill start. Although still well behind technologically; these are great first starts at catching up to foreign bikes. I've tested the new screen, its more responsive, easier to use and has many additional features (like bike monitoring etc).
Somehow, in almost any setting; the Street Glide just works. It’s in a timeless class all by itself; relentlessly nostalgic.
It’s a growling 2 wheel, explosion driven, rolling work of art. BMW will never be able to replicate that.
Ultimately is the 2018/2019 Street Glide much different to ride from past versions? In my opinion; No. Is it better in performance, comfort or handling than a BMW K1600? I laugh that you’d ask that and No. Is it worth the $29k msrp? No, I'd save money and buy a post Rushmore 2016+ with low miles.
Facts, stats and value be damned; I’m right now shopping for a Street Glide again.
It will probably be a 2019 with low mileage because I want the new safety features. I''m at that point when I sling my leg over 866 pounds of screaming iron, I'll take all the help I can get.
So somehow Harley reels me in again, even though on paper there is no logical sense to it.
Harley has survived a century on creating an emotional tie to their bikes and embedding it as a lifestyle.
It just works.