Common Tread

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S: First ride review

Jun 20, 2016

I’ve given Harley a lot of guff over the years for overstyling its bikes. But when it’s time to eat the crow, man, I’m big enough to pull up a chair and dig in. So pass the salt…

With a cool, understated appearance and the kind of ballsy performance to remind power aficionados of classic FXRs, the new Low Rider S is the most satisfying Harley-Davidson this jaded moto-journo has ridden in years.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
Some scenic New Hampshire cruising: taking the Low Rider S for a test ride at Laconia Bike Week. Photo by Jon Langston.

The Low Rider joins the Softail Slim and the Fat Boy in Harley’s “S” series of motorcycles that aims to lower the average age of the typical Harley owner. And with H-D’s strongest engine rubber-mounted into its lightest Big Twin frame, the Low Rider S is likely the most fully realized bike of the three. Like the other S-series bikes, the LRS features H-D’s Screamin’ Eagle Twin Cam 110 engine, upgraded suspension and brakes, and a more aggressive riding position, thanks to a new seat and controls. But it’s the Dyna platform that brings out the best in the S. I borrowed an LRS from H-D’s demo fleet at Laconia Bike Week and spent the morning trying to find my disappointment in yet another highly stylized Harley.

Couldn’t do it.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
That Heavy Breather air intake draws the eye and dominates the look from the right side of the Low Rider S. Photo by Jon Langston.

Almost immediately, I felt as if I were riding a stripped-down, surefooted Dyna with a supercharged motor — pretty much the intended effect. The 110-inch (that’s 1,801 cc, kids) V-twin makes a claimed 115 pound-feet of torque at 3,500 rpm — plenty of power by anyone’s definition of a cruiser — while still somehow getting slightly better mileage than a Twin Cam 103 (according to Harley). The Heavy Breather intake not only looks great, but also does just what its name says it will. Paired with Harley’s six-speed Cruise Drive transmission, it’s easy to get the Low Rider S to 50 or 60 mph in just a few seconds — and even easier to dial it up to 80 from there. And from bottom to top of the rev range, the Fat Bob-inspired two-into-two exhaust sounds fierce.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
The riding position, strong brakes and good handling make the Low Rider S about the best choice among Harleys for a winding New Hampshire back road. Photo by Jon Langston.

As a guy who’s been lucky enough to ride and review his share of Harleys over the last 10 years or so — as well as cover a swath of H-D’s Big Twin competition — it’s extremely gratifying to see The Motor Company address its most common gripe by stepping up engine performance within the stock model lineup. This is a Harley with guts, people, boasting not just knuckle-popping acceleration, but also impressive top-end speed. (Still, with a rev limiter set at 5,500 rpm, you’re in no danger of forgetting that this is, indeed, a cruiser.) For aficionados daydreaming of the halcyon days of the FXR — and they are legion — Harley has something new to stoke your imagination in 2016.

Low Rider S front brakes
Triple disc brakes and ABS come standard on the Low Rider S. Photo by Jon Langston.
The nitro-charged Premium Ride emulsion shocks (“inspired” by Showa) feature enhanced compression and rebound damping, and their grace under pressure left me, yeah, shocked to find the Low Rider S boasts only 2.13 inches of rear-wheel travel. The 49 mm single-cartridge forks provided plenty of feel while smoothing out Laconia’s snow- and salt-abused back roads. I encountered plenty of potholes, frost heaves, and tar snakes, and not once did I skitter up front or bottom out in back. Braking is excellent, as well, with triple-disc action, including dual 300 mm jobs up front with floating, four-piston calipers. As with the rest of the S line, ABS is standard on the Low Rider S.

But it was more than just the upgraded engine and superior suspension and braking that made my ride feel supercharged. Taller riders might not appreciate the eager riding position, and I can imagine my 33-inch inseam growing weary of the sharp knee bend imposed by the mid-controls and 26.6-inch seat. But the slight bend of the drag bar had me posture-perfect for the type of riding this motorcycle demanded. Grinding around the twisties in the Lakes Region near New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the LSR was a surprisingly agile Big Twin that reveled in being flung hard and flicked about. More than once, I felt the front tire lift slightly off the ground when throttling out of a curve but at no time did I feel on the verge of losing control. Nor did I drag the pegs (much), thanks to a 30-degree cornering angle. This Harley-Davidson handles phenomenally — possibly the first time that sentence has ever been typed.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S rear
Despite limited travel, the rear shocks work well. The Motor Company took the same approach many custom builders do to clean up the rear fender and mounted the license plate to one side. Photo by Jon Langston.

But there’s more to the Low Rider S than performance and handling. Those gold, five-spoke cast aluminum split wheels hearken back to The Motor Company’s resurgent days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, as does the gold bar-and-shield tank badge. The clipped rear fender and side-mounted license plate are nice custom touches. Sure, the cafe-style front cowl is slightly SOA-trendy, but it really does buck some of the wind off the rider’s chest. The fact that it’s completely unadorned with electronics or wiring, though, makes it clear H-D engineers fully appreciate that a great many owners will want to immediately chuck it.

Harley-Davidson XLCR
Grizzled H-D vets shouldn’t begrudge the Low Rider S its hip countenance. Remember how you felt about the XLCR back in 1977? Harley-Davidson photo.

Despite its stripped-down, throwback appearance, the standard creature comforts — ABS, anti-theft system, and cruise control managed by a small, nondescript unit under the left grip — place the Low Rider S squarely in the modern era. But at $16,699, it’s $2,300 more than the stock Low Rider and by far the priciest Dyna (with the exception of the convertible Switchback). So is it worth it?

Undoubtedly. Considering what you get for less than $17K — a 110-cubic-inch Harley with ABS, cruise control, a keyless security system, and premium components – I think it’s the best value in the Dyna family, as well as the best performing (and arguably the best looking). Plus, it’s a bona fide original. You could score a somewhat-comparable Victory for a couple grand less, and a UJM knockoff would surely save you a bundle. But none of those cruisers will offer these modern upgrades as standard equipment, and most of them couldn’t keep up with the Low Rider S — on the street or the (Sunset) strip. Aftermarket farkles might bring them close in appearance, but you’re not fooling anyone. At the end of the day, no other motorcycle has the panache of a Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
Nice bike. Can I keep it, Harley? Photo by Jon Langston.

So spend less — even on an Iron 883, Nightster, or the new Roadster — at your own peril. You’ll never have more fun on a Harley-Davidson than you will on the Low Rider S.