Recently ridden: Harley-Davidson Milwaukee Eight

Forget what you know, or think you know, about Harley-Davidson big twins.

By Mark Hinchliffe

The new Milwaukee Eight V-twin is going to change a lot of your perceptions and negate some of your objections to buying one.

If the 2013 Rushmore Project updates on the Touring line-up were like man landing on the moon, the introduction of the Milwaukee Eight is like man landing on Mars – a giant leap for Harley-kind.

Of course, it all starts with the engine, which will shortly filter down into Softail and Dyna models.

The dual-spark, single-cam engine is 15 percent more powerful, with 10 percent more torque. It is also more refined and sophisticated with less vibration and heat radiating on to the rider and pillion. And it’s so much more than just a bigger engine.

Together with a new clutch and upgraded suspension, this is now one smooth ride with sharper handling.

At the world media launch in Washington state on the Pacific north-west coast of the USA, Harley execs referred to comprehensive and potential customer market research that explored what people wanted and expected from a Harley.

Thirty-four-year Harley-Davidson veteran and boss of this project, Alex ‘Boz’ Bozmoski, said the Milwaukee Eight models were “driven exclusively by the core customer and potential customer”, with customer focus groups in seven countries.

“A lot of people who wanted to come to the brand wanted the idle shake reduced,” he said.

But it wasn’t as easy as just balancing the rubber-mounted engine.

“Conquest customers loved 100 percent balance, but core customers didn’t like it because it didn’t feel like a Harley,” he said.

They tried several different degrees of balance and eventually reached an agreeable compromise.

“We ended up at 75 percent balance where core customers said ‘it feels refined but still feels like a motorcycle’, and conquest customers were saying ‘I get it. I like this feel’,” Boz said. “It’s the happy place between our core customers and people who wanted to come to our brand.”

When we fired up the bikes outside our hotel in Tacoma, Washington, we were amazed that the initial ignition thump had all but disappeared. It had been refined in the previous model, but now it is almost gone.

Then the bike settles into a pleasant 850-rev bass hum, rather than a lumpy, uneven rumble. It still sounds like a Harley, just more refined.

Then we flicked up the kickstands and noticed the mirrors weren’t blurry. So we fed it some revs and the whole machine didn’t shake and shudder.

It still felt like a Harley, yet with all those quirks gone – and all the reasons some people ridicule the iconic brand.

And then we clicked it into first gear and guess what? No major ka-thunk. It just went in with a definite, but more subdued, clunk.

We rode out of the car park, around a few corners, and stopped at a red light and guess what? It went into neutral with ease. First time. It’s still a Harley, but not as we know it.

The riding position immediately felt a little more conformable because my knobbly knees weren’t waving in the wind and didn’t bang on anything except the tank, thanks to the slimmer primary and air cleaner.

Then we hit the concrete freeway out of town in pouring rain and guess what? The back wheel locked into the longitudinal grooves and just spun up for about 100m in a straight line. It was the first time I’ve ever thought a Harley really needed traction control.

There is so much power and torque in all revs and such a connected and direct feeling to the throttle, thanks to a new ECM, it now even needs traction control in the dry. We asked the execs if it would be coming and they didn’t say no, but they didn’t say yes or when.

The Milwaukee Eight has lashings of torque everywhere on the dial. Roll-ons are so easy you don’t have to drop a gear for overtaking. The only problem with the smoother engine is that you hit the rev limiter more often because you are not getting the same amount of feedback evident in the previous 103.

However, we pretty quickly got used to it and ran it in a gear higher than normal and often didn’t bother swapping cogs for corners.

Harley claims that they have reduced radiated heat from the engine on to the rider and pillion by precision oil- or liquid-cooling the heads, tucking the rear exhaust outlet and moving the catalytic convertor further back.

Despite mild weather and the lack of any heavy, slow-moving traffic, it did feel slightly cooler with the heat dropping down lower and further back into the bike. Hot climate riders can also option up with a fan that blows the heat down and away from the rear cylinder.

Harley has also updated the suspension with higher-quality and easily hand-adjustable shocks and linear front springs with double-bending valves to control oil flow on the compression and rebound strokes.

The new emulsion-technology rear shock absorbers offer 15 to 30 percent more pre-load adjustment, with a single knob to hydraulically adjust pre-load by hand. No special maintenance or tools required. A visible gauge on the shock means you don’t have to count clicks.

Harley product guru Paul James said that, once set, the pre-load “will not leak down or require further adjustment” like the previous air shocks.

“This is as good a shock as some of the aftermarket shocks customers have been fitting,” he said. “This is as big a deal as the new motor for some customers. We had to acknowledge that other countries don’t have smooth roads like we do.”

The front suspension features new Showa SDBV technology that delivers the “damping performance of a racing-style cartridge fork with linear damping characteristics and reduced weight”.

Simply put, it now keeps its wheels on the ground with some manners.

The Rushmore Touring models have always been a sharp-steering tool, but now they are even more precise. While there used to be a slight delay from initial steering input to actual turning, the Touring models now steer quicker and lighter.

The Road Glide, in particular, has lightning fast steering and will flick from side to side so easily, you could almost forget you are on such a heavy beast if it weren’t for that massive front way out in front of you.

Increased cornering confidence stems from the improved front-end grip afforded by the wheel staying on the ground more of the time.

Paul said there was now so much more tyre contact with the road that they had to retune the ABS.

On the comfort level, the rear doesn’t slam through the divots and the front doesn’t jackhammer through the grips. Mind you, this is America and finding a bumpy road or pothole can be difficult, so we don’t really know how well it will cope with Aussie roads.

The new suspension has the same amount of travel so the static lean angle hasn’t changed, however, I suspect the dynamic lean angle has improved. Solid, low-speed compression damping on the new forks and rear shocks meant it took a good hard effort to grind the floorboards and there was also less unpredictability on when they would touch down.

Apart from the engine, clutch, suspension and paint schemes, the only other change to address was the niggling issue of panniers falling off. The solution was simple: replace the clips with a screw-in locking system that anchors them properly.

As usual, a host of accessories is available, now including a new custom bagger range with wrap-around front fenders, dropped saddlebags and more wheel options.

Paul said there were also more audio, fit and comfort options available to personalise the bikes.

This Milwaukee-Eight Touring range is certainly going to challenge perceptions and smash criticisms. And as the new engine filters down into other models, it will negate some people’s dislikes about Harley in general.

Harley-Davidson Milwaukee Eight

  • Power: 69kW (107) and 75kW (114) at 5000rpm
  • Torque: 151Nm (107) and 168Nm at 3250rpm
  • Bore x stroke: 100mm x 111.1mm (107), 102mm x 114.3mm
  • Displacement: 1745cc (107), 1868cc (114)
  • Compression ratio: 10.0:1 (107), 10.5:1 (114)
  • Fuel system: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI).

Prices

Touring

  • FLHR Road King $33,995 (was $32,495)
  • FLTRXS Road Glide Special $36,495 ($34,750)
  • FLHXS Street Glide Special $36,750 ($34,995)
  • FLHTK Ultra Limited $39,995 ($38,250).

CVO

  • FXSE CVO Pro Street Breakout $42,495 ($42,495)
  • FLHXSE CVO Street Glide $48,995 ($47,995)
  • FLHTKSE CVO Ultra Limited $52,495 ($50,995).