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Multi-Bike Review of 2006 Harley-Davidson and Buell Models

A two-lane mountain road curves through the San Bernardino National Forest, snakes around switchbacks, then juts out over fog-filled canyons. It's a great place for winding out the gears. Here in California, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company invited a couple of dozen female motojournalists to help them get the word -- ride --out to other women.

But motorcycles, like any vehicle, are not gender-specific. One chooses a motorcycle for their ride style, fit, handling, power, and visceral appeal -- all of which are equally important to men or women. Like all Harleys, they are canvas for the individual desire to accessorize and customize.

Here's what a few of Harley-Davidson 2006 models and the new Buell Ulysses felt like after a few hours in the saddle. For your reference, I'm five-foot-seven, my inseam is 34 inches, and my sleeve length is 30 inches. I've been riding, mostly cruisers, for 19 years. Your mileage, and priorities, may vary.

XL 1200L Sportster Low

All around, Sportsters are great motorcycles: plenty of power in the 1200cc rubber-mounted Evolution motor to challenge any state's speed limit, in a low and easy-handling chassis. The entire line of H-Ds and Buells have a revamped transmission; the gears are made of new alloy and combined with a new ramp-and-spring clutch, make for smooth shifting. The clutch lever pull is reduced in distance, and grabs a little sooner, but seems to require just as much effort; it's still pretty stiff. Despite all the rubber mounting, counterbalancing and reengineering, there is still some mild vibration through the hands.

There's lots to like about a 4.5 gallon gas tank, since you can't really chase sunsets with the big dogs on a 2.2 gallon peanut. Harley's built some great brakes, from the test panic stop to the red lights. However, the self-cancelling turn signals didn't perform as well as touted for lane changes. H-D staffers advised me not to bungie my bag to the bike, "cause it messes up the paint." (Crashing with a backpack could mess up your spine. Saddlebags are available.) A stronger rider would find this adequate for most regular transportation, and still find a reason to go for joyrides. A less experienced rider would enjoy the power in more open conditions, and long trips.

FXDLI Dyna Low Rider

It's the thirty-fifth anniversary of the SuperGlide, and all six 2006 models have beefed-up frames and 49mm front forks around a 1450cc, fuel-injected TwinCam 88¨.

The Low Rider's excellent ergonomics start in a stock saddle which cradles surprisingly well for a really smooth and comfortable ride. Sitting up straight, the sight lines of the road are wide open, posture gentle on the neck and wrists. Inseams under 32 inches will be very comfortable, longer legs might like to relocate the controls a bit forward, or add highway pegs. The 672 lbs. is balanced sweet and low, this bike handles like a dream, flicking gracefully through wide mountain curves and tight corners. All around, it was my favorite ride of these selections.

Here, too, the clutch is much easier to pull. A men's size 8 boot was too big to get under the too-long peg to shift up, but it's an easy shift down. Once I got a toe in, the 6-speed transmission shifted very smoothly. The brakes are good and grippy, so squeeze smoothly.

FXDBI Street Bob

This is a curious effort. Back in the day (an expression meant to refer back a generation or two, not five years), a true bobber would have weighed significantly less than 643 lbs. Stock, a solo-seated Street Bob has fewer bells, whistles and color options than the other Dynas, for about $2,400 less. The new black is: Black Denim, which is to spray-can flat-black as new black denim is to old. The Street Bob is nearly identical to Low Rider, except for a degree more fork angle, and a few chassis components -- truly a matter of personal preference. The Bob's stock wheels are laced, the Low Rider gets cast mags. The tall handlebars were comfortable; though not quite as well-suited for the switchbacks as the Low Rider's, they didn't diminish the overall ride; the same good bones are there.

On general principal, the concept of an accessory collection for a bobber is an oxymoron. However, Harley has provided plenty to bolt on. My demo model wore a windshield a bit taller than the rise of the apehanger handlebars, which didn't work well with a full-face helmet and sunglasses. The 'Bob's got enough stop- and go-power to handle whatever you want to haul down the highway, so go ahead and add the saddlebags and a duffel bag, but it looks way cool stripped down.

FLHX Street Glide

The Street Glide: An ElectraGlide as road warrior, or a stripped-down bagger with a few knowing winks at comfort? Either way, it's really comfortable for cruising the interstate, throttle wide open for hours.

Up front, the shorty windscreen is just enough for three seasons. The mirrors are smoothly integrated into the batwing fairing. This rarely-used but beautifully practical form, which covers the hand grips, offered very noticeable protection over too-thin gloves on a cold day. Hard saddlebags are roomy and the hardware is sturdy, the absence of bagger-like tail pack maintains a smooth and balanced overall look without greatly sacrificing carrying capacity. Except for a tank badge, the bodywork is devoid of ornament or sculpted line. Bike painters will find this an irresistible opportunity, but this bike looks stunning in one color. This meant for a taller, longer legged person, easily enough for 2-up touring or an especially comfort-minded solo. Riders shy of inseam will spend a bit of change to modify, but a worthy investment.

A colleague claimed he spent most of a day learning to operate the radio on the Street Glide. I dismissed this warning, and missed a David Bowie's 'Space Oddity' for not knowing how to raise the volume. Sound quality on this 40-watt Harman/Kardon is great, and with a little practice, adjustments get easier. The whole gizmo could be a lot simpler, though. The rest of the instruments are nice and big; easy to read in black and white.

Bigger and wider than Sporties, Dynas, and V-Rods, the FLHX require more effort through twisty little forest roads. Over-revving the TwinCam 88¨ engine, brings a really nasty buzz to the hand grips. This Glide's meant for the taller folks, someone a little longer of leg and arm would hit the shifter and brake more easily; they were a little too far forward for my 34" inseam. Like all the other bikes, the kickstand is hard to find from the saddle. Some engineer forgot the principles of leverage, and made the stand too short; the bike leans over a bit too far to come back up easily. But its 776 lbs. are incredibly well-balanced, even my chopper-ridin' buddy Betsy Huelskamp had nothin' but grins for it.

XB12X Ulysses

The Buell side of H-D bills the Ulysses XB12X as an 'Adventure sport bike.' It's an interesting blend of dual-sport utility with race bike prowess. With a 103-horsepower, 1200cc engine, a wet weight of 498 lbs, and an exo-skelatal frame that holds 4.4 gallons of gas, Ulysses was built to go the distance on paved or unpaved roads. It's even able to traverse three-to-four feet of water without stalling.

The engine is cooled by fan, which whines loudly even on cool days (under 60F) of highway running. It may be noted that the Harely-Davidson full-face helmet prevents the rider from hearing it.

At first, Ulysses' seating position put my weight on my wrists. Between balancing my weight and the brutal handlebar buzz, 40 miles left me screaming in pain. When I found the correct posture, the XB12X became fun to ride; powerful and torquey through the mountains and freeway. Sitting 33.1" tall in the saddle is very nice for seeing over traffic; a virtue betrayed by fad and fashion. The mirrors, widely placed on long stems, work well. All this had very strong appeal to an unrepentant NYC lane-splitter.

A little too much reinventing went into the controls, there's no intuitive pattern, and far too much deviation from the common standard. Why yellow for run? While gearing has been improved throughout the H-D/Buell lines, Ulysses' tiny shifter is not easy to find. Then, even at a crawl, two fingers on the six-piston front brake causes the front suspension to dive hard.

The single-piston rear brake barely offers enough resistance at 25 mph to slow the bike. The drag is imperceptible at a crawl, and the pedal's too tiny. Maybe that's cool on the racetrack, but it's deadly in the street, where pavement texture and material are so inconsistent. I'd hate to test those brakes on a greasy toll plaza in the rain, and slide across a few painted lines or tar snakes. Hey, if they're happy selling 10,000 Buells a year, keep chasing -- and narrowing -- that ever-fickle niche. This is a race bike in dual sport gear, best left to more trained and experienced long-legged folks.

The bigger picture

For many years, H-D has been an active participant in the United Nations' process of developing global standards for motorcycle construction. The big advantage to the motorcycle industry is a homogenized manufacturing platform in every market, reducing overhead. The disadvantage for customers, the riders, is reduced variety.

Yet that a manufacturer takes the trouble to redesign so many required components of a motorcycle for almost every model in their line is not only counterintuitive economically, it becomes a real safety issue.

Ignition keys, given their relative importance, should be placed in a spot visible and reachable from the saddle, not mounted in places like the neck of the frame or behind one's behind. Some, but not all bikes, have self-cancelling turn signals, another element that could be standard across the platform. Conversely, if, across thirty-five models, fourteen can be produced with either fuel injection or carburetors, why can't you order seats and handlebars instead of paying to replace ill-fitting ones?

Other components are so redesigned for the sake of the next new model that form negates function. Mounting the teardrop-shaped mirror wide end out, would permit a much greater field of view. Wide end in, my shoulders block most of the view. On every bike, kickstands were well-balanced, and sturdy, but impossible to find. They were usually tucked too far under the primary and didn't have a tab long enough for a boot to catch. Fuel gauges are nice, but as false filler caps, they're useless since they can't be seen from the saddle.

Harley's really trying to reach out to women, but I'm not sure that women really want a bike just because it looks so cool and you can add all kinds of bling to it. The point is, after all, to ride. It's not just fun, it's 50 miles to the gallon and the best view over the canyons. . .