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Harley-Davidson Blackline Review
Bike tested: Harley Davidson FXS Softail Blackline
Price OTR Mumbai: Rs. 15,00,000/- (estimated)
There’s some marketing-driven concept somewhere to begin with and like any other mainstream motorcycle maker, a key part of Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson’s (H-D) current business strategy is to attract a wider range of bikers with innovation. Currently, H-D offers 32 models and with new innovations coming in at regular intervals, bikers tastes ranging from traditional to urban can now find a model to fit their idea of a bike. Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson also realizes that it needs to increase its market share in new territories besides attracting and tapping the emerging youth markets. And as part of the youth wooing strategy, in 2007, H-D created the “Dark Custom” line-up using the Softail platform. And since 2011, H-D has been specifically targeting the segment with its distinct lean, matte-finished bobber look and this new chapter is called the ‘Blackline’.
What’s the concept then?
The Harley Davidson Blackline was created as a ground-up project using heritage cues and blending it with cutting edge engineering for performance and handling. “Lean as wire, hard as iron, and dark as a tar road at midnight,” is how H-D describes the new addition. To us, technically it’s a variation of the high-end Softail series, but the Blackline has several features that give it its standalone character. Despite a familiar profile, the finish of the bike is unique. There’s more than just a splash of powder coating treatment on the frame or other key components such as swingarm or wheels. It’s called “Black Denim” and the silky matte finish complements the polished anodized rims or chrome accents. Although, the front end comes direct from the FX, its sign-off is the new “Split Drag” handlebars, which are mounted directly on to the top yoke.
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H-D’s senior industrial designer-cum-stylist, Casey Ketterhagen was responsible for the overall presentation in this bike. Although the Blackline began as a side project for Ketterhagen, Harley’s team of 12 designers all had their input, including some from the legendary Willy G Davidson for a perfect in-house custom look. While Ketterhagen tried to emphasise the importance of the bike’s proportions by wanting it to look like “a person just riding a motor”, he has actually created a new marketing mantra for the brand. According to Ketterhagen, the mantra has been achieved in the way the bike has been re-engineered and detailed without being ostentatious. There’s also a bit of softness – when you consider subtle graphics in place of the usual 2D badges, minimalistic usage of chrome and since black is the main colour, the bike appears low and sleek. The Softail’s five-gallon fuel tank is virtually naked as it’s been stripped of its traditional instrument console and in place is a garnish. Some changes to instrumentation is also noted where the handlebar yolk mounted analogue speedometer is augmented with a miles-to-empty LCD readout [it replaces the old fuel gauge that looked like a filler cap at the top of the tank’s left side].
You could say so. And to assure anyone familiar with the Softails, that the Blackline was different, an element of hooliganism has been thrown in. The Softails’ rear mudguard has been placed quite low which in turn has helped bring the seat height down to 26.1in [the lowest two-up seat offered by the Milwaukee brand]. Similarly, the mirrors are pushed inboard and the upper triple clamp yolk was made as thin as possible without compromising the bike’s structural integrity. The minimalist theme continues with a relatively narrow 144mm tyre,[from the pre-’08 Touring platform, we think], and is sort of a middle order when you consider tuner-modder’s obsession with fat tyres. Meanwhile, the rear mudguard is signed-off with Harley’s usual combination of stop/tail/turn lamps and the rear struts holding the mudguards are left in their raw forged metal finish and also powdercoated matte black.
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Up front, the bike’s stripped-and-lean theme is complemented with the wide spacing of the FX 41mm fork tubes that make the 5.75in headlight look a bit tiny. There’s a small gap between the seat and the fuel tank which exposes the top of the frame, contributing to the bike’s feel of openness. Rear passenger’s might miss the cozy grip.
Just like other Softails, Harley’s counterbalanced new Evolution 1,584cc 45° air-cooled V-twin TC96B engine powers the Blackline through a six-speed transmission. The engine is solidly mounted to the bike’s frame which to an untrained eye gives rigid-style illusion. A simple yet ingenious design has ensured that the rear end of the frame actually acts as a swingarm completed with hydraulic cleverly hidden shock absorbers behind the transmission. H-D says the Blackline boasts of a design of a vintage hardtail frame but offers the benefits of a modern suspension system. As with the rest of the bike it boasts a fresh two-tone look. Its lower end is powdercoated gloss black, accented with silver powdercoat on the cylinder heads with machined highlights. Chrome brightwork is provided on its derby and timing covers and its simple, round air cleaner, followed by chrome over/under shotgun exhaust.
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Riding Impressions – Although, the seat height is low, the Blackline’s forward-biased riding position is best described as aggressive and should suit most short riders like me. This is because you have to engage a fists-forward reach to the narrow and fixed internally wired handlebar. The riding position worked surprising well at highway speeds, as it also offered a surprising amount of wind protection from its high front end despite the absence of any wind deflector or bikini fairing. Due to its comparatively reduced rolling mass, the Blackline also accelerates faster than the other equivalents and equally as pleasing is the exhaust note emitted from its twin chrome mufflers and the soft action of the transmission and clutch. The wheelbase stands at 66.5in while the rake angle is laid down to 30° and this allows quite a bit of stability, however, as is typical of Harley’s slammed cruisers, lean angles when cornering are limited to just 24.4° to the left and 25.9° to the right, but that doesn’t mean outright cornering fun is restricted.
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With 125 Nm of torque available, throttle response is spot-on for this 294kg bike, which certainly adds to the wow factor. But the surprising bit is that despite its raked-out geometry and 21in front wheel, the way the Blackline devoured bends equally matched its stately ship-like and balanced qualities on the straight bits is something riders will genuinely appreciate. And despite its rigid appearance, the rear-suspension travel is useful at 3.6in, while braking duties are competently handled by 4-piston calipers biting on 292mm rotors front and rear. Our test bike also had Anti-lock brakes and H-D’s Smart Security System. The front end of the bike is a bit heavy and the weight can be felt during short turn-ins such as U-turns. Additionally, the bike’s stability at high speeds is also atypical of what one is used to encountering in this class. While we are aware that there are no less than eight iterations of the Softail, the chassis and suspension of the Blackline appeared different – actually quite agile and flexible. While we clocked over 300km in a variety of mountain roads, highways and urban riding, the wide, supportive seat ensured long-haul comfort.
I also liked the way H-D has streamlined the operational switchgear, which is now much more svelte and user-friendly. The hazard warning lamp is now a one action switch and the mode switch on the left-hand switchgear to toggle through all the functions on the small LCD display inset are welcome measures.
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Verdict – In the US, H-D sold more bikes in the 18-to-34 year-old segment over the past two years than the total sales of Aprilia, BMW, Ducati, Triumph and Victory combined. H-D has successfully created a standalone iteration of the Softail family which fuses the iconic styling of the 70s with cutting edge efficiency of 21st century engineering. The stripped and lean Blackline is a nice example of back to basics approach with affordable pricing. Harley-Davidson is expected to bring this model to India soon (within a year).