2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback. The mid-sized FLD model features quick detach hard saddlebags and windshield.
Please click on images for larger view.
When most of us daydream about motorcycle touring and hitting the open road for places and experiences unknown, images of iconic Electra Glides, Road Glides and Gold Wings are usually up front in the picture. For good reason, the motorcycles we tend to flock to for the long haul are large, stable, and equipped with ample storage space. Fairings and windshields not only protect riders from weather but reduce fatigue by blocking the 60-,70- whatnot-mph wind. Throw in a comfy seat, and maybe an audio system and all that’s stopping you from the Grand American Adventure is time and cash. No real problem there. But, what if all of that bodywork, upper and lower fairings and assorted covers, geegaws and doodads are obscuring your view of the complete and total scene? Maybe you’re missing out on some of the experience. Has riding comfort and amenities gone so far as to take away from the experience?
Today’s Baggers are quite amazing, with full-on audio systems better than most home theaters, comfort, heated this and that, ABS, traction control, GPS, bells, whistles and some XYZ thrown in. That’s all great but aren’t there times when you don’t want to muscle around 800-plus pounds of motorcycle? Or needing help when you mistakenly parked headfirst on a 1-degree slope and you couldn’t back your bike up? While we get accustomed to regularly riding such big bikes, sometimes it feels like work.
If you get a chance throw a leg over asmaller bike sometime and you may be surprised. Not a lot of men or women look forward to a two-up, fully loaded Bagger-trek on dirt roads, sand or even just meandering through the morning commute. It’s hard to fathom that most of us believe a 1,200cc motorcycle engine, like most Big Twin Harleys carried for 70+ years, is “small.” Unfortunately, there haven’t been many motorcycles offered that have the amenities and features we desire but in a more nimble, easier to handle package. And, as you know, adventure bikes (like BMW’s GS, a Multistrada, even the sadly defunct Buell Ulysses) and sportbikes with saddlebags, AKA sport tourers don’t count here.
|Switchback with windshield and saddlebags ready for a night run. |
Switchback with windshield, bags removed.
For everyone that has waited for a less bulky, purpose-built Bagger, Harley-Davidson has the 2012 Switchback. Based on the Dyna platform, the FLD in H-D nomenclature is a scaled down motorcycle that as Harley puts it, is a custom touring and cruiser motorcycle in one package. The Switchback, with her Road King-like appearance, carries the DNA of the company’s past "Convertible"optioned model offerings with removable saddlebags and windshield. However, unlike the past FXR-CONV, FXDS or FXDX quick changers this machine has a more distinct identity. Those other machines were more or less base models with the windshield and bags more an afterthought. While the Switchback shares its frame with the rest of the Dyna family it looks and feels more like a custom touring motorcycle belonging in the larger, and more expensive, Touring family.
Just as our beloved Baggers are agile, powerful and reliable, there are still tradeoffs and shortcomings such as a lower power-to-weight ratio or extra, felt heat from the bodywork. Between brands there are compromises, loyalties and priorities that are often more emotional than logical. This is especially our tribe, where the battle of form versus function is won surprisingly often by the cool factor. It’s not enough to have a plush ride, reliability, power and tons of space- we’re willing to beat ourselves up with slammed suspension and cut-down windshields. For versatility, there is always the Road King that strips down from evening gown to bikini in seconds, but there is not much we can do about the saddlebagsand the ‘King has no audio. So many choices, yet most are cut from the same fabric.
Coming in at an MSRP of $15,999 the Switchback is more affordable (by $1,500), and weighing in at 718 pounds is roughly 100 pounds lighter than the Road King yet vastly more accessible, nimble and quicker. In a matter of seconds the FLD can change its appearance and purpose with the removal of the quick-disconnect fork-mounted windshield and saddlebags requiring no tools.
|To remove the saddlebags, open lid and locate the dial (knob). |
A more detailed look at the locking dial.
|With a simple twist the mechanism is undone and the bag slides off its docking points. |
|The docking points on the bike slide into the areas shown with arrows. The left saddlebag (on the R here) has clearance for the belt drive.
|A close-up look at the latching mechanism from the rear. |
|The three docking points for the saddlebag are indicated with arrows. These remain on the bike when the bags are off.
The bottom of the saddlebag is secured to the bike with a chrome support.
The idea and ease of removal is reminiscent of the current CVO Softail Convertible where Harley’s engineers and designers attended to the function and appearance of the saddlebag docking mechanism and the area behind the saddlebags. After opening the saddlebag, a quick turn of a dial releases the latching mechanism holding the saddlebag onto its three mounting points; two small, chrome docks on the fender strut and another located down low on the rear fender. The windshield employs the familiar steel and rubber grommet attachments on either side of the nacelle that covers the triple trees and upper fork tubes. The system securely holds the windshield in place yet allows instant removal.
Like its bigger siblings the Switchback’s engine and transmission are rubbermounted to the frame to isolate vibration from the rider. The mighty Dyna earns its FL initials from the 41.3mm conventional forks designed specifically for this motorcycle; the left leg has a cartridge-style damping mechanism for a more controlled and comfortable ride. Harley designed a unique set of variable diameter lower fork legs to keep the bike’s proportions in check and give clearance to the front, full-coverage fender. The design of the fork legs makes the top of the fork tubes wider than the axle area. Considerable engineering effort went into making these look right but also function just the way the designers and engineers intended. It would have been very easy for H-D to save time and money and just bolt on existing lower legs and call it a day. It goes to show that the company is doing what they think is best for this bike, not what’s easiest or cost effective. In a similar fashion, the new two-piece headlight nacelle is a work of art and a welcomed site for technicians and home mechanics alike. Unlike the often unwieldy and multipiece vertically split nacelle on other models the Switchback’s is horizontally split for clean line and ease of assembly.
The badgeless fender mounts closely to the low-profile 18-inch front wheel that carries a single floating rotor clamped by Harley’s Brembo designed four-piston brake caliperit’s is more than enough to haul this girl down. The distinctive five-spoke cast aluminum wheels on the Switchback feature “spokes” that twist from the center to the silver edge of the wheel. Unlike a solid forged wheel, the casting process leaves much of the interior hollow, reducing unsprung weight that equates to increased handling performance on the road. A full coverage rear fender sits atop a 17-inch five-spoke wheel with a modest 160mm Dunlop tire. Slowing down the rigidly mounted rotor is H-D’s 2-piston caliper that is less likely to lock the rear wheel compared to a 4-piston unit. Moving to the other side of the wheel, we find a 66-tooth belt pulley that links the drive belt to the transmission’s 32-tooth pulley.
We’ll mention the ABS here as well and as you’d expect it works as advertised. The technology has been around long enough that manufacturers have it pretty well dialed in to where it works when it should and stays out of the way when you don’t want the computer assisting braking. As with the other models with ABD Harley utilizes a practically invisible system where the tone ring monitoring wheel speed is embedded within the wheel bearing. The only indication of ABS on any of the H-D’s is a single wire-bundle appearing from under the caliper. There is no unsightly ring attached to the wheel as with every other motorcycle manufacturer. All of the Dynas have the ABS option and it must be ordered as part of H-D’s Security Package with alarm and remote, self-activating key fob. The single unit ABS module is stealthly concealed under the battery box on the right side of the motorcycle. As with the rest of the bike, most of the wiring is concealed within the frame.
|Ready for the Highway |
|Stripped down for the Friday Night Cruise
There is news on the electrical front as well with a simplified Local Area Network-style wiring (HDLAN, for Harley-Davidson LAN) system that links the ECM (the bike’s brain; made smaller this year but smarter!), ABS module, a new Body Control Module (BCM), handlebar controls and instrument cluster. The system employs new short-throw and waterproof handlebar switches debuteing on last year’s Softail and undoubtedly and more than likely will be on all future H-D models. If you seek more information, the HDLAN is based on the automotive industry’s CAN (Controller Area Network) technology. In simplistic terms, the HDLAN unites all of the bike’s systems into a loop and can incorporate multiple computers for various bike functions as well as improved diagnostics. Tell this to the next person that decides to tell you how Harley is stuck with ‘50s technology. The BCM’s purpose was to reduce the number of wires needed on the bike and integrate the various modules that different systems rely upon, such as Turn Signal Module, and the Security Module. It’s like an electrical command canter that acts like a relay while reducing potentially dangerous high-current wires throughout the bike. There should be less electrical failures and blown bulbs and the system can run LED’s without any load equalizer. The BCM has other functions and we will dedicate more space to this and other technologies at another time.
As with H-D’s Touring bikes and other Dyna models, the Switchback employs a traditional swingarm with two vertically mounted shocks. The “cigar tube” chrome covered shocks are nitrogen charged shocks with dual rate springs and five steps of preload adjustment. A chrome beltguard contrasts nicely against the black swingarm, frame and wheel. The entire package is reminiscent of time past with the nostalgic rear fender, full front mudguard, shocks, nacelle and windshield, right down to the retro badges on the beautifully-shaped 4.7 gallon gas tank.. Side by side, the heritage of the Switchback’s tank, badges and gauge console takes me back to the original 1971 Willie G. Davidson designed Super Glide masterpiece.
This is all pretty exciting and we haven’t even gotten to what the Switchback feels like. While you’ll likely hear the haters saying things like, “Nice Road Queen,” to other unnecessary gender references the Switchback only appears small next to bikes that are, frankly, huge. Although the dimensions of the motorcycle benefit riders that are more diminutive, the seating compartment doesn’t feel cramped at all. The seat height is exactly the same as a Street Glide but it’s more narrow, allowing shorter legs firm access to the ground. Don’t let numbers tell the story when it comes to bikes; you must sit on them all as many factors affect the feel and safety of the bike. The seat height here compared to the much bigger Street Glide is a good example and the bikes are nowhere near similar in size or seating position. Out of the box, the Switchback is more comfortable to ride (and much quicker) because it has a thicker, more comfortable seat and actually more rear suspension travel than the bigger Glide.
We’re getting closer to the meat here but first the controls and cockpit are worth mentioning. After way too long Harley may have used up its supply of the infamous Buckhorn handlebar and other varieties that put many rider’s wrists at an awkward angle. All kidding aside, the Switchback comes from the factory with a stainless steel Mini-Ape handlebar that is very comfortable. Imagine closing your eyes and putting your arms out where you’d think the perfect handlebar setup is (vroom vroom noises accepted), and that’s the feeling of these bars. The whole look from the seat is exceptionally executed with the kind of quality that Harley is known for. From the shape of the tank to the hand-finished paint on the tank leading to the slightly pulled back riser setup and that nacellewe have to give props to the H-D design and P&A departments here. The stylized, beefy and chrome dash houses a five-inch speedometer containing a multifunction LCD display with a tachometer function as well as tripmeters, miles to empty, and even gear position. The console is flanked by the right side fuel cap and a relative gas guage on the left side of the tank. A low fuel warning light alerts the rider when there is a bit less than a gallon of fuel remaining in the tank.
With Power Comes Freedom. With Freedom Comes Everything
The less cluttered, primary side of the motor. The 103 in these bikes features black and silver elements for contrast. The third mention its 103ci is displayed on the clutch inspection cover.
At the heart of this new motorcycle is Harley’s 103 cubic inch Twin Cam motor with a few standard features to keep it happily purring along. The big-bore Twin Cam’s cylinder heads are equipped with automatic compression releases that reduce strain on both the starter motor as well as the battery. To handle the reported arm stretching 100 lb-ft of torque H-D added a slightly heavier clutch spring to the basket. That sweet torque peaks right where you want it as well, at 3,500 RPM. However, clutch pull is still light. Those that have never ridden a Shovelhead, Ironhead or early EVO have no idea how easy and smooth the current clutch pull is. Not to be harsh but I hear complaints about modern H-D clutch pull and how hard it is. If this is you, please consider a Prius (or possibly a scooter) as you probably shouldn’t be riding a big and powerful motorcycle. The clutch works flawlessly to click through the Six-speed Cruise Drive transmission and neutral was about as easy as could be to findfrom either First or Second gear. A tip if you didn’t already know: neutral is infinitely easier to find from Second gear with a gentle toe tap than going down to First and then up (our ankles don’t have as much fine control going up either). It’s less steps as well unless you are already in First. But, there’s barely ever a reason you should be downshifting to the very short-geared 1st anyway when approaching a stop. A 2-into-1 exhaust pipe on the right side is another reminder of Harley’s heritage dating back to even earlier than that first Super Glide.
Initially thinking the Silver Pearl paint was a bit dull that changed as the bodywork picks up all of the surrounding colors. In this case sunset.
The Silver Pearl paint shines when lit up at night.
This newest Milwaukee offering is perhaps the best all-around motorcycle Harley-Davidson has ever produced. We have no data yet, but this bike is perhaps the quickest pushrod Harley made to date. It’s so much fun to ride that we barely saw 30 miles per gallon due to the right wrist problem we experienced (claimed fuel economy is 42 mpg). No matter what we threw at it the chassis remained stable and the brakes, albeit on the hard side, worked as needed to haul it down. I’m sure the FXR riders reading this are rolling their eyes right now, but try the Switchback before you decide. I’ve been trying to get H-D to test the two bikes in various ways to prove or dispel the mythical FXR status. Technology has come a long way from the original 35mm toothpick fork tubes on the FXR; the later 39mm with the slightly beefier triple trees were still not optimal. Depending on which model and year FXR, ground clearance may be in its favor as the Switchback was designed to be low and the floorboards touch down sooner than on the bigger Touring bikes. (I don't want to slight the FXRT in any way. That machine was ahead of its time. It's unlikely the styling would be accepted by the masses any better today though.)
Ooh! What lines. She's a beauty. Before riding her I wasn't very interested, then after our bonding time together thought I could live with the looks and change what I wanted. Now, I may be in love.
From the outset in the design process, Harley intended for this machine to ride and handle well. Testing and considerations of parts in relation to the function of the whole motorcycle and not just a sum of isolated components, was taken very seriously. Frontend geometry, wheel and tire specs and inner fork components were chosen and tested to work together as a unit. The package strikes a balance between high-speed stability and low speed manners; with ease of use and light steering achieved as well. At triple digits the motor and chassis was not giving up yet the bike was easy to throw into a corner no matter how slow the bike was moving.
Don’t mistake the positive comments above to reflect perfection. That’s impossible. Is the Switchback the greatest Touring motorcycle on the planet? Surely not. The best cruiser? Nope. Sportbike? Um, no! But, it’s comfortable, looks good with tons of top quality hardware and parts, has arguably the best iteration of Twin Cam motor yet (yes, better than the Twin Cam 110. We’ll get to that another time), and versatility.
To keep the proportions of the bike the way they wanted, a compromise was made with the size of the saddlebags. That’s surely my biggest and only noteworthy complaint; the bags are small. But again that’s comparing them to the bigger FL models. Many other branded Touring bikes have bags that look big but have a useless shape inside and don’t hold enough. My laptop wouldn’t fit into the waterproof and lockable saddlebags. That’s a consideration if you want a commuter bike and that sort of thing is important to you. With that said there aren’t many cruisers that have bags this nice and they are useful for a lot of other things and provide a safety margin for your gear. The ability to straddle the two worlds of Boulevard profiling and hitting the open road is the huge appeal here. If you’re riding solo the saddlebag issue is a moot point. Even on the big bikes I “pack like a woman,”* and have a bag strapped to the rear seat.
A note to the Harley engineers reading this is please make the kickstand shorter. The bike needed to be leaned over far to the right to get the kickstand to clear the ground. And, as you may have guessed, the bike had to be leaned past center-right when retracting it as well. While not a dealbreaker for experienced riders, this is an issue of potential consequence for weaker or less experienced riders. To avoid confusion, the bike sat fine on the stand due to the notch and lock kickstand mechanism.
The differences in size, weight, power and price between the Dynas and Sportster has gotten so small I see no reason to ever buy a Sporty. However the Switchback may convert quite a few that had their heart set upon one of the big FL’s, particularly the Road King, and still have enough money left over for a nice vacation or P&A to personalize the bike. Audio is a big deal these days and it’s not hard to find it for the Switchback if that’s what you want. Harley added audio to the similarly outfitted CVO Softail Convertible this year as well.
This bike should appeal to experienced riders and riders with skills that want something faster, smaller and more nimble than the other Bagger offering out there, as well as the younger demographic Harley is courting and the still young at heart. The Switchback fills a much-needed niche with a bike that has great power, styling and quality out of the box along with comfort and weather protection thrown in. Seek out Harley-Davidson demo rides this summer or ask your local dealer. Try them all and then decide for yourself.
Click HERE to get more information on the 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback.
*Bandit, ca. 2004
2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback (FLD)
Type and Displacement: Air-cooled, Twin Cam 103
Valvetrain: Pushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinder
Bore x Stroke: 3.875 in. x 4.38 in.
Displacement: 103 cu. in. (1690 cc)
Compression Ratio: 9.6:1
Fuel System: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Exhaust: 2-into-1 chrome exhaust with straight-cut muffler
Fuel Capacity: 4.7 gal. (warning light at approximately 0.9 gal.)
Oil Capacity (w/filter): 3 qts.
Primary Drive: Chain, 34/46 ratio
Final Drive: Belt, 32/66 ratio
Clutch: Multi-plate, wet
Transmission: 6-Speed Cruise Drive
Weight, In Running Order: 718 lbs.
Length: 92.8 in.
Wheelbase: 62.8 in.
Seat Height: 26.1 in. with 180 pound rider; 27.4 in. without
Ground Clearance: 4.3 in.
Rake (steering head): 29.9°
Fork Angle: 28.9°
Trail: 5.84 in.
Lean Angle: Right/29°, Left/29°
Frame: Mild steel, tubular frame; rectangular section backbone; stamped, cast, and forged junctions; forged fender supports; MIG welded
Swingarm: Mild steel, rectangular tube sections, stamped junctions; MIG welded
Forks: 41.3 mm fork with 20 mm cartridge damping and triple rate spring
Shocks: Nitrogen charged 36 mm monotube damper with 5 step preload adjustable dual rate spring
Tires and Wheels
Front: Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series D402F, 130/70B18 63H
Wheel: 18 in. x 3.5 in., Black 5-Spoke Cast Aluminum with highlighted rim
Rear: Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series D401, 160/70B17 73H
Wheel: 17 in. x 4.5 in., Black 5-Spoke Cast Aluminum with highlighted rim
Front: 4-piston fixed caliper,
Rotor: 11.8 in., floating, uniform expansion rotor
Rear: 2-piston caliper
Rotor: 11.5 in., fixed uniform expansion rotor
Anti-lock Braking System: Optional
Reported Power: 100 lb-ft. @ 3500 RPM
Claimed Fuel Economy: City/Highway, 42 mpg
Charging: Three-phase, 40-amp system (493W @ 13.5V, 2000 RPM, 540W max power @ 13.5V)
Headlight: (quartz halogen) 55-watt low beam, 60-watt high beam
Indicator Lamps: High beam, neutral, low oil pressure, engine diagnostics, turn signals, low fuel warning, security system(optional), low battery, diagnostics
Warranty: 24 months (unlimited mileage)
Colors Vivid Black, Ember Red Sunglo, Brilliant Silver Pearl
MSRP: $15,999, Black; $16,384, Color
Security Package Option with alarm, key fob, ABS $1,195