First Ride: 2019 Harley-Davidson FXDR 114

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THESSANOLIKI, Greece – One hundred new motorcycles in 10 years. For some manufacturers, that’s a lifetime of new models. But this is the plan for Harley-Davidson, the Milwaukee-based bike maker that’s been around for more than a century and, up to just this last decade, its lineup kind of showed it. With an ageing rider base, the company knows it has to change.

So, in case you missed it, Harley recently announced it’s branching out its next models from just the cruiser and touring varieties into electric, adventure, street fighter and even small-displacement entry level rides. These are expected to start showing up by around 2022, but before that, the company started getting serious in updating its current lineup. Last year, it introduced the new Softail, with vastly improved frames, suspensions and a smooth Milwaukee Eight V-twin. And now, it’s released the 10th version of that Softail, the sport-oriented FXDR 114.

Well, let’s take ‘sport’ as a relative term; if you’re dragging your knee on this forward-foot-controlled cruiser, it’s likely the bike is also sliding on the pavement with you. But there’s no question the FXDR is the most aggressive of the Softail lineup, with specific engineering catered to better performance.

For example, the mounting point for the rear monoshock was changed from other Softails to give it more ground clearance for better lean angles, though with 32.6° right and 32.8° left, there were many times my boots dragged on the ground in tight twisties. The shocks – front single cartridge, rear free piston, coil-over monoshock with 43 mm stroke – are firm and predictable in turns. They may not soak up the bumps, but at least they take the jolts out of your arms. The rear is also adjustable for preload.

Most notable for performance, however, is how it was lightened. The swingarm, for example, is made of aluminum and is around 4.6 kilograms lighter than those in the other Softails; couple that with aluminum wheels and the use of lighter composites for fenders and bodywork, and the FXDR comes in at 303 kg ready to ride. No lightweight by any means, but compared with other Harleys, it’s a veritable sportbike.

It all comes together in a bike that, while maybe not be ideal for twisty tarmac, is at least much more capable at spirited twisties than a cruiser should be. Yes, with those big tires (120/70ZR-19 front, 60W 240/40R-18 rear), the bike needs to be pulled into a lean harder than you would a more sporting ride, and yes, you’ll find yourself scraping the pegs (or your boots) sooner than you’d like, but it also stays solid and, again, predictable in turns.

The riding position, however, is decidedly not sportbike. Not quite comfortable, especially after about a half hour in the saddle, it’s more like a yoga position, sitting on a thin mat with arms and legs outstretched in front of you – let’s call it the Downward Hog (copyright, Neil Vorano). I know there are more limber riders out there who would appreciate the look, and so does Harley – the FXDR was designed with those people in mind. “[The riders who buy the FXDR] want the bike to be reasonably comfortable, but there’s a compromise they’re willing to make,” says Ben Wright, the chief engineer on the Softail project. “It’s not just that the bike looks cool, but it’s how you look on the motorcycle and how you feel, so they’re willing to compromise on the positions.”

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I’ve got very few faults with that 114-cubic-inch Milwaukee Eight V-twin. The only engine available on the FXDR (other Softails can be had with the 107 V-twin), its 119 pound-feet of torque, hitting its apex at 3,500 rpm, seems limitless, right from a stop, with a smooth and linear powerband. With just 91 horsepower, though, it starts to feel breathless around 140km/h – at which point the bar ends start buzzing with disapproval. No matter, this isn’t a highway tourer, it’s more of an around-town cruiser and stoplight racer, and thankfully that seat is dished to help keep your butt in it under heavy acceleration. On these twisty yet glass-smooth tarmac roads in northern Greece, you really need to be careful of that throttle exiting curves – more than once did the rear end slip out with a less than judicious twist of the wrist, even with the massive 240 Michelin Scorcher rear tire.

And that also highlights a serious omission from these – and in fact, almost all – Harleys. Only its three-wheeled Trike has traction control, a technology found on almost every new bike today. Wright hinted that a traction control system wasn’t ready by the time the bikes were launched, so we may well see that tech on future models – and considering the prodigious torque available here, it might be a good idea.

But overall, this FXDR 114 is a quality offering from Harley-Davidson, for someone looking for a distinctive ride with butt-clenching acceleration and competent handling. While it may not be as big a departure as an electric powertrain or dual-sport motorcycle (or the click bait that provides), it is tangible proof of improvement and a moving forward for Harley’s bread-and-butter cruiser.

The FXDR 114 is in dealerships and starts at $26,499.

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