2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback - First Ride

Think of it as the new Bagger Lite.

2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback

2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback

Harley-Davidson has elevated the concept of mix-and-match model making to a high art. Over time, there have been so many variations on so many themes assembled on a few basic foundations it’s a bit hard to keep track. Here’s another: The lightweight touring bike. Actually, Harley’s been down this path before. The idea of a touring bike based on something other than an FL chassis has been explored in the FXRT and the Dyna Glide-based FXDX more than a decade ago.

Now there’s the Switchback. It’s Harley’s only new model for 2012 (outside of the CVO line anyway) and marks an important milestone in the company’s ongoing development programs. How? There was a time The Motor Company might have slapped a few touring parts onto, say, an otherwise unchanged Dyna Glide chassis and called it a lightweight tourer.

Such is definitely not the tactic applied to the Switchback. Instead, Harley’s engineers looked at what this model needed to be, who its key customers were, and made applied changes to the Dyna platform to ensure it hit the target. A primary concern was what you might call accessibility—it can’t be too big, too heavy, too tall, and certainly not intimidating. The Switchback nails these objectives with ease.

According to Harley's stylists, achieving proper proportions took considerable effort. That explains the new saddlebags that, while appearing to be hot off the Electra Glide's assembly line, are in fact special pieces that are around a third smaller and blessed with a clever new quick-detach system. Three chrome bobbins on each side, two on the fender rail and one at the lower bottom edge of the fender, are all you see when the bags are detached. The ABS plastic cases slide onto these mounts and land home with a positive thunk. A release knob inside each bag requires a moderate pull outward to disengage the safety lock. Those exterior latches are scaled versions of the FLTs'. The point is that Harley didn't just slap a set of Electra Glide Ultra bags on the Dyna and step out for an early lunch. Moreover, H-D's Bjorn Christensen, the Ride & Handling Engineer assigned to the Switchback, explained that the bag mounts were tuned to eliminate undesirable harmonics that translated into subtle handling quirks. "The bike never lies," he said, explaining that development didn't stop as soon as engineering got the bags to stay on the bike.

A similar approach drove, of all things, the Switchback’s suspension design and calibration. A low seat height comes in part from limited suspension travel, which is typically at odds with ride quality. You can have it low or have it smooth, but usually not both. Harley’s engineering staff tackled this knotty problem with technology. The 41.3mm Showa fork has a conventional damping rod in the right leg but a more sophisticated damping cartridge in the left. Triple-rate springs make the most of the 3.4-in. travel. Under those chrome “cigar tube” covers live modern nitrogen-charged emulsion shocks (as opposed to the twin-tube setup used widely in H-D’s line) with just 2.1-in. of travel and adjustable spring preload.

What you expect from these specs and get on the road are two very different things. On our ride around Park City, Utah, the FLD gobbled up those pesky small bumps with aplomb. Square-edged irregularities would jiggle the rider but never provide anything like a shock to the hands or backside. Sure, the low stance consumes cornering clearance, so the floorboards drag well before the Dyna chassis shows discomfort, but to achieve the twin goals of a low seat (27.4 in., bike unladen) and a sophisticated highway ride is fairly amazing. Reduced-weight wheels, lovely five-spoke items that evoke the iconic Cragar SS, help with suspension compliance, too.

In other ways, the Switchback seems as well conceived. The quick-detach windshield is sized perfectly for a 5-foot-9 rider—wind turbulence turns ugly only above 80 mph—and provides a reasonable amount of coverage. Your midsection and legs are exposed, but that’s probably a forgivable sin for a bike whose core mission is a 300-mile day, not 700. Styling dictated the smaller 4.7-gallon Street Bob fuel tank, so your stops will be about 180 miles apart anyway. For reasons of weight and cost, Harley fitted the FLD with a single front brake disc, but it’s backed up by a new, more compact ABS system. What the brakes lack in feel it gives back in security. We’d prefer a dual-disc setup but aren’t crestfallen by its absence.

The more we rode the Switchback the more we liked it. Ergonomics tailored to compact riders, including a new handlebar riser for the mini-apes and a seat with a commendably narrow nose, make the bike feel smaller and lighter than it is. The 103-inch engine has near-perfect throttle response and fully acceptable, if not exactly your-beehive’s-on-fire, power. It shakes like crazy through rubber mounts at idle but smoothes completely at highway speed. A low-effort clutch and accurate, if slightly notchy, six-speed gearbox complete the picture. You would expect Harley to have this drivetrain utterly sorted by now, and the good news is that it does.

Also as you’d predict, Harley will have a ton of options and accessories for the $15,999 (in black, $16,384 in solid colors) Switchback. One you should get is the Security Package for $1195. Newly available across the Dyna Glide range, this package includes an alarm and the ABS brakes. Also new for this year, all Dynas get a completely reworked CAN-BUS electrical system that’s lighter and more capable. Progress, even where you can’t see it.

Harley took the 2012 model year as an opportunity to spread the 103-inch love. The big-bore engine is now standard on all Touring and Softail models, and used in all but the two least expensive Dyna Glide models (the Street Bob and Super Glide Custom). Replacing the 96-inch engine for most of the line, the 103 has approximately 6 percent more peak torque than the smaller engine, twisting the scale to the tune of 97 to 100 foot-pounds, depending on the specific model. It gets the extra urge through more displacement, from a 3.875-inch bore (up from 3.75) and a slightly raised compression ratio: 9.6:1, from 9.2. As before, the Twin Cam 103 engine comes in a counterbalanced version for the hard-mount Softail models.