2017 Harley-Davidson Road King review

Dec 03, 2016

In many ways, I might not be the right person to review this Road King.

I know, that seems improbable, right?

It should not be difficult to figure out what type of bikes I spend my money on. Is it possible that I can even give a review on this machine that’s even remotely unbiased? One of our readers recently described me —rather colorfully — as a “fat, lazy Harley apologist.” Perhaps my outspoken critic ain’t far off the mark.

On the other hand, I’ve also spent many hours, both planned and unplanned, rectifying foibles of the MoCo’s products. I’m intimately familiar with the machinery, and the people who buy it. In that respect, perhaps the pendulum might swing too far in the other direction — I’m hypercritical of anything The Mothership does. I scrutinized the new Big Twin from the moment I learned of its inception, and I haven’t really stopped.

The verdict is actually very similar to most of our reviews. I found flaws as well as shining bright spots, and I think I can identify who is going to fall in love with this machine, as well as those who will detest it. Fortunately for us riders — and the MoCo — the former will outnumber the latter big time. Let me tell you why.

1941 FL
The new-for-1941 FL, packing the big 74 ci OHV motor. A couple of add-on items made this quite the machine for sightseeing. Harley-Davidson image.

The bike

Late in 1940, a Harley-Davidson big-bike buyer faced the same dilemma 2016 riders do: Should I spring for this big, new engine in my bike? (The FL was the new single-cam OHV 74 ci high-compression engine. The big mill would come to define the model range right through the present day.) According to a 1941 order blank, the FL ordered with Deluxe Solo option group came with (among other things) a jiffy stand, trip meter, air cleaner (as opposed to air horn), De Luxe Saddle Bags, exhaust shields and chrome on the bars, headlight and instrument panel. Flip the order blank over, and you could add in a De Luxe Buddy Seat and a windshield. $452.95 bought the most capable touring motorcycle Harley-Davidson offered at that point. (It should be noted, perhaps, that $452.95 is equivalent to $7,439.10 in 2016 money. Seems a far cry from the Road King's $18,999 MSRP. Special thanks to Chris Haynes for maintaining that site.)

Today, in 2017, a buyer looking for that same combo — a new single-cam Big Twin with saddlebags, windshield, and room for two — can buy a bike in nearly the same configuration: the Road King. Sure, the bikes got upgrades over the years. In 1958, rear suspension was added, and in 1965, electric starting became standard, but the basic recipe of a big, heavy roadburner with room for personal effects lives on in the Road King. (That’s the FLHR in Harley’s alphabet-soup-ese.) Uncharitably, you could call it the peasant-model touring bike in Harley’s lineup, or you could dig a bit deeper and surmise that perhaps this is the most traditional, straitlaced bike they have to offer.

Road King
The 2017 Harley-Davidson Road King. RevZilla photo.

The Road King is an anachronism. It eschews the frivolities of touring for the rider who enjoys riding, not being distracted. It is comfortable and sturdy without being lavish; solid and reliable, with few extra amenities. There is no stereo, no fairing, no garish lighting, no fancy wheels, and no gauge package.

I spent a few thousand miles aboard a Billet Silver Road King. (That color runs an additional $450. The base price is for Vivid Black only.) I was reminded yet again how very useful and competent Harley Touring bikes are in the right setting. I also was reminded that there are some things Harley still doesn’t seem to have mastered.

Testing the Road King

Commuting 125 miles a day was a cinch on the big King. I’ve always been a fan of the Harley tourers due to their ability to cover ground without wearing my body out, and I’ve always believed their dimensions have a lot to do with that. They are long (the 64-inch wheelbase is unchanged from last year), low (28.2-inch seat height!), and heavy (791 pounds, up 11 from the outgoing model). They’re also able to keep the weather at bay with a standard quick-release windshield. (It’s 20 inches tall, which surprised me. I could barely see over it. I prefer to look over the ‘shield, rather than through it.) I'll have a bit more to say about that windshield later.

Engine
I need more testing time, but this part of the Road King seemed to be unflustered by everything I threw at it — and I wasn't cutting it any breaks. RevZilla photo.

I talked lots about the ins and outs of the new engine, the Milwaukee-Eight, but actually living with it day to day has proven to be rather different than its predecessor, right from startup. As Harley has made their engines larger and compression has risen over the years, the starters have had an increasingly difficult task. Starting on our house 2013 Street Glide with a 103 ci engine seems iffy, at best. I mean, you know it’s gonna start, but it just sounds like the bike suffers from emphysema. That’s no longer the case on the Road King. The new starter is more powerful and the engine is now fitted with automatic compression releases, which really eases the load on things.

The engine idles away smoothly. I know H-D tried to retain the “characteristic shaking,” but even at idle, this baby is noticeably smoother than older Big Twins. Between rubber mounting, higher idle speed, and the new heads, “potato-potato” is not quite the song the new engine sings. There’s some vibration, but it’s pretty low-key. The rubber-mounted horn shakes like a dog crappin' peach pits, but it's just for show. The counterbalancer really smooths things out.

Twisting the throttle removes the last doubts that this is a new breed of engine. The Road King will never be described as “fast,” but it boogies. One night on the way for wings, I kept up with Spurg as he happily flogged the BMW R nineT Scrambler through Philly. In fact, the stock Road King will actually pull the barest of power wheelies. My old Electra Glide Sport — forerunner of the RK — sure wouldn’t do that, even after engine work. Up top, the engine has power; it doesn’t just sign out like the old ones would do.

Brakes
These Brembos ain't fancy, but they get the job done. RevZilla photo.

Brakes are largely unchanged from previous years. Stainless lines feed the juice into three four-piston Brembos, which in turn clamp onto 11.8-inch rotors. Feel is all Harley, as these are not oversensitive in the least. (Read: You gotta put some muscle into it.) The Rushmore redesign of 2014 brought us Reflex linked brakes. The Reflex system links the brakes only after speeds of 20 to 25 mph are reached. (If they’re linked and you drop under that speed, they stay linked.) Harley claims the brakes “dynamically optimize front/rear brake balance.” I think they feel vague, at best. I had no idea what the brakes were doing in any situation where I was hot-doggin’. Linked brakes still baffle me. I meet a lot of riders in my line of work, and literally never once have I heard someone praise linked brakes. Happily, ABS is optional. It costs $795. I don’t give a rip about ABS, especially on something like the Road King where the focus is not on maximum stopping ability, but I recognize it’s something a lot of people want. Linked brakes and ABS come together. You cannot split the options, so it's both or neither.

Suspension and handling are topics that deserve more than just a mention here. Harley put a fresh suspension design on the Touring bikes this year — it’s still dual-bending valve, but it’s claimed to be an all-new design. The bending valve setup has a damping valve that opens proportionally to the speed of the fluid running through it. This is a change from a fixed orifice size drilled into a damping rod, a design Harley clung to for many years. The rear of this bike is sporting emulsion shocks. That’s normally not a selling point, but they beat the tar out of the old air-over-oil setup.

The result is much better than previous iterations. No more bottoming out! I got this big pig airborne a few times and hit square-edged pavement, and it never once bottomed. There’s also a remote preload adjuster on the left side, which makes adjustments a snap. (It’s graduated, too, so you can mark a setting and return to it.) The aftermarket still offers way better suspension than this, but it’s such an improvement over the joke Harley used to call rear shocks. The front feels OK. Just OK… the front wheel tracks better. I think the low-speed damping is too soft, and high-speed was too harsh. (Note that I am talking about the speed of the suspension action, not the motorcycle speed.) In fairness, when riding this bike appropriately (I treat press bikes the same way you treat a rental car), the suspension was luxe and plushy, like Pop-pop’s Caddy.

Footboards
I ground down the floorboards. (#lemmysharpeningservice) RevZilla photo.

Speaking of riding like a roughneck, I ruined a set of floorboards. And floorboard mounts. They’re probably fine if Pop-pop is taking the bike for a leisurely jaunt, but not for me. This is not a Moto Guzzi MGX-21 — you run out of lean angle fast. (You’ve got about 32 degrees to work with.) After I got everything ground down, I seemed to be OK dipping the King into a turn, but hard-chargers will wince every time they start showering sparks for the first thousand miles. It’s obviously worst in low-speed scenarios. And you’d best pay attention to the floorboards scraping, because the next item you’ll hear is the floorboard mounts scraping, and those have no give. I high-centered a few times, and you will, too.

There is talk that next year a new “common core” chassis gets unveiled. I can’t speak to it, but a frame update sounds about right, time-wise. Hopefully it’s more than a rumor and this bike will improve that much further next year. A Harley-Davidson representative declined to comment on their future products, but a simple Google search turns up talk of the new frame.

One of the other model-specific pieces on the Road King is that windshield. It’s quickly detachable. Remove it, and you are rewarded with a very light, nimble front end. It’s too much fun to flop the Road King over on its side, sharpen the footboards (again), lather, rinse, and repeat. Windshields also have this odd acoustic thing about them where they tend to reflect strange noise back to the rider, so counterintuitively, removing the shield makes the bike seem a lot quieter, even at speed.

Bag lids
One-touch saddlebag lids, a 2014 Rushmore update, work so well they make me a little weepy. You can even reach into the bag while you're piloting the bike! (Not recommended, of course, but it's possible.) RevZilla photo.

Road King highlights

The Road King is wonderful to ride. It's intuitive. It's roomy. It is solid and inexorable. Harley’s way of improving incrementally over time means that things are often new, but still very familiar. Take, for instance, the saddlebags. Same great look, but the one-touch latch handles from 2014 make getting into and out of the panniers a joy. The separate lock makes this arguably the best set of integrated bags I can think of. And they’re huge. Rain gear, new bike project paperwork, my kid’s backpack, his portfolio, his lunch, my hoodie, spare socks, and his contacts all piled in with no major qualms one morning on the way to work and school.

The engine has been improved so much. It’s perky and fun and has enough snarl to sound exactly as you’d expect. The Milwaukee-Eight is a damn fine mill. If these hold together without grenading in any way, H-D has hit a home run with this thing. And you know they built it to just get bigger, so ridiculously sized V-twins are probably on the horizon in coming years. It’s happy to be beaten, or it can lumber right along. At 80 mph, it spins just a shade over 3,000 rpm.

Switchgear
Switchgear from the Rushmore update with flatter button profiles and noticeably shorter switch throw (no doubt due to a lack of mechanical switching) is a detail that's easy to overlook, but one a rider is likely to appreciate unconsciously thousands of times. RevZilla photo.

The other things I appreciate are so small, but they make a huge difference. For instance, look at the switchgear on a Harley-Davidson. It’s all class. With the Rushmore redesign, even the buttons were re-worked to fit the hand better. They even have less travel. It probably sounds stupid to even notice it, but how many times do you turn on and off the turn signal over the course of owning a bike? Shouldn’t that be a really quality piece? Another button addition for the Rushmore bikes was flash-to-pass. Good Lord I love flash-to-pass, and with that new mill, you need it. Little refinements like this are the hallmark of H-D, and between Rushmore and the new mill, this bike just feels so modern — but still unmistakably Harley.

Cruise control is still awesome. Harley has the best I’ve used on any bike, and has for many years.

Primary
I still can't get over how slim H-D made that clutch section of the primary. RevZilla photo.

The slimmer primary means shorter riders can stand more upright, and taller ones will feel more stable when standing. Our bike had a Screamin’ Eagle air cleaner installed, but that offered lots of leg room — much appreciated. Fit and finish was out of this world, too — if you see something shiny on a Road King, it sho’ ain’t plastic, no sir. Chromed metal represents a significant cost that many buyers look past. All that glitters ain’t real chrome.

Road King lowlights

Well, ground clearance just sucks. It always has on these bikes. You run out of lean angle waaaaay before you run out of tire. I wrecked the floorboards and the mounts.

Board mounts
Once I got the footboards whittled away, I started on the mounts. RevZilla photo.

Those tires, Dunlops (D408F on the front, and a D407T on the rear), stink too. I mean, they are OK mileage-wise, and their dry weather grip is acceptable, but wet-weather performance is awful. Cornering is actually not terrible, but when the bike was upright, I slipped and slid on a variety of surfaces: gas station tank filler caps, toll booth scale strips, and lots of painted road markings. In the first two gears, Hot Rod Lem enjoyed grabbing a handful of throttle to initiate a good rolling burnout, but that’s not a good thing. These tires are junk in wet weather. I think the problem is the “Multi-Tread” technology on the rear D407T; the center section designed for long wear puts the bike on ice skates in wet weather.

Stink-o rear tire.
These tires are a disaster. Yuck. RevZilla photo.

The seat is horrible. Standard Harley. They know we replace them, and they ain’t spending any money on them. Specifically, there are two huge ridges you can feel right on your butt bones. The padding is not thick enough to make them unobtrusive.

Lamps
The Road King's headlights were not the famed Daymaker LED, but the halogens were excellent on both high and low beams. The passing lamps were also useful for filling in the area in front of the front wheel. Some re-wiring or re-programming to enable their use with the high beam would make this a formidable setup. RevZilla photo.

Though lighting on the Kingy was generally awesome, the passing lamps need to be reprogrammed or re-wired to run with high beams. Yes, I know H-D cannot legally sell the bike that way. No, I don’t care, and need them anyway. Deer don’t follow the rules of the road. In the same vein, the dedicated hazard lights button is nice, but Harley spent 20 years training us to hit both turn signal indicators (Harley uses a button on each bar for right and left signals, for you metric riders) to get the emergency flashers to actuate. It would have been nice if they had programmed that logic into the new system for old dogs like me who take a little while to learn new tricks.

Reflector
In 2,500 miles or so, we started losing the left fork leg reflector. If that's the most serious longevity issue we can expect from this freshman engine, I'm pretty optimistic about its future. RevZilla photo.

Next up? Keyless ignition, otherwise known as the “security option.” It costs $395 and our bike had it. This is nothing new for Harley, but this system has sucked for years, and still does. It works great — until it doesn’t. If you forget your fob, or it craps out on you on the road, there’s this stupid, complicated procedure we’ve all been using for years where you fart around with the turn signals punching in a code, and God help you if you bought your bike used or didn’t program in your own code. If you’ve got the optional siren ($94.95), forget it. You’ll be making so much noise that everyone will assume you’re stealing the thing (ineffectively) as you try to get your bike to start. My idea of bike security involves a chain, double-aught buck, and the confidence to know that the thief will get tired of kicking it long before he figures out what the sequence is to start it. Harley, just give me a normal key-actuated ignition, please. 

Oh, and regardless of the keyless ignition, you still need to carry a key if you wish to lock your saddlebags. The security option is the worst-executed feature of the bike. At least it’s optional, but good luck finding a dealer who ordered a Road King without this; it’s de rigeur these days. At least the Road King has a “normal” non-locking fuel cap. Ask me how far you can get on a Street Glide with an unlocked ignition, no key, and a locking fuel cap.

Fuel

Speaking of gas, The Road King demands 91 octane fuel (R+M/2). That’s a bit of a turn-off, because it’s not cheap! The bike is equipped with a fuel gauge, a fuel light and a low-fuel countdown indicator in the speedo. I’d generally squeak in about 175 miles of mixed riding before the low-fuel light did its thing. It would start a countdown at 50 miles, adjusting on the fly to riding style. I hovered right around 190 miles total on a tank — a little less if I was hot-doggin’, and a little more if I was being a good boy. Six gallons is the claimed tank capacity, and I think about 0.8 gallons go unused if you run it down to sailboat fuel. A 200-mile range is fine with me, personally, but some may consider it low for a tourer.

Outta gas
I was getting a bit nervous at this point. Fortunately, this was shortly before I was running on sailboat fuel and I found some gas. RevZilla photo.

Under hard beating, the Road King turned in steady fuel mileage of 37.5 mpg or so. I personally don’t give a shit about fuel mileage on a bike, but that’s pretty damn good, considering the size of the engine and the weight of the bike. However, 37.5 mpg is also a far cry from Harley’s claim of 45 mpg, which they admit is optimistic. (See number five on this list.) "LO RNG" appears on the ticker if you dip under 10 miles of range. LO RNG is RL BAD. Still, with a miles-to-empty counter, a fuel light, and an analog gauge, if you manage to run out of gas, it's your fault.

Competition

You could stack this up against a lot of products, but if you’re a traditionalist, there are only a few options: the Road King, an Indian Springfield, or another Harley dresser. Compared with the other models in the Touring range, the Road King is short on features — but that’s the point. So while a rider might cross-shop an Electra Glide Ultra Classic, he’s probably well aware that that bike carries a heftier price tag. A related bike might well be a Heritage Softail Classic, too, for the buyer who's into a vintage look and doesn't prize ride quality or touring ability as much.

The Indian Springfield has an MSRP of $20,999, but the price is closer to the Kingy than you think. Let’s compare gloss-black models (even though ours is silver, the base paint scheme on both bikes is black.) Our modestly equipped model, with ABS, and security, similarly equipped to a base Springfield, checks in at $20,189. When I reviewed that bike, I stated pretty plainly that it was better than the then-current Road King, and I stand by that assertion. I think the Road King is dead even with the Springfield now. I think the Harley has a slightly better engine, and the Indian has slightly better suspension. Braking is a draw.

I’ll make this article incendiary: If I was buying a new dresser, I’d pop for the Road King. (Maybe I’m being a fat Harley apologist again.) The engine doesn’t hide behind some historical bushwah: it’s an OHV engine and it’s damn proud to be. The Indian Thunderstroke is a phony, albeit a beautiful one. Though it apes a flathead, it’s not. The aftermarket for the Road King will dwarf whatever exists for the Indian — though in fairness, you’re more likely to need it on the Harley. The Road King doesn't need much, but it needs more stuff to be “right” than the Indian. But the biggest motivator, for me, is that it is a Harley. It is still made here in America by my fellow Pennsylvanians. It’s not an homage to Harley’s earlier bikes; it’s the same heavy tourer they’ve always been producing. Harley-Davidson is America, and America is Harley-Davidson.

FLHR
The 2017 Harley-Davidson FLHR. RevZilla photo.

Stuff to change

Our bike was equipped with a Screamin’ Eagle High-Flow Air Cleaner ($184.95), Street Cannon Mufflers ($449.95), End Cap Kit ($149.95), and Pro Street Tuner ($299.95), for a grand total of $1,084.80. I like most of these modifications, but I think I’d elect to purchase from the aftermarket. I’ve raved about the Vance & Hines Fuelpak FP3 before, and I feel it offers a bit more flexibility. Mufflers are a bit muted for my taste. Nearly anything aftermarket would be louder. The air cleaner is just a matter of what excites you visually. I’d also dump a new saddle on this bike, as mentioned. I’m a pretty staunch LePera man; a Maverick Daddy Long Legs gave me additional room and feels much better on my amply padded bottom.

In the future? This bike would get a new cam. I love swapping cams; it's the fastest way to change an engine's personality. I’ve got my eyes open for ones coming down the pike already.

Is it fair that we have to go dump $1,500 into this bike to make it “right?” Of course not. But it’s expected. If you have a Harley, you modify it. Stock Harleys are like unicorns and honest politicians: they don’t exist.

Conclusion

The Road King has plenty of all-new parts on it, while being more of the same, and that’s not bad. It’s the same Harley some of us know and love, but better. Will the Milwaukee-Eight have the longevity I expect? I’m skeptically optimistic. I said it before, and I said it again: riding these dressers with this engine has just made me salivate over the prospect of a nice light Dyna packing this new engine.

Maybe they’ll send me a prototype model. I would think an apologist might be pretty high on the list.