2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim - Road Test

The Motor Company pares down the Softail.

Road Test: 2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

Road Test: 2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

Some words only appear in print; you seldom hear people speak them. "Brandish" is one. Nobody ever says, "Is that a banana you're brandishing?" or, "Don't brandish that thing at me!" Another one is "harken." I've only heard the word a couple of times, once at a Renaissance Fair and once at lunch with Hoyer, but Harley reviews are fairly littered with harken. Nothing harkens like a Harley. The original H-D Softail appeared in 1984, when the FXST harkened back to the old hardtails by looking like them but not feeling like them, thanks to a pair of lay-down shocks cleverly hidden beneath the gearbox to provide actual suspension movement. Just like now. The Softail (®) was a great idea then and it still is 29 years later.

Another word currently in vogue is iconic. Many things are lately said to be iconic, but a thing that really is, is Harley's Fat Bob gas tank—whose halves are still squeezed out all these millennia later by the same huge machine in York, Pennsylvania. Then there's that V-Twin engine, which is also iconic enough to have spawned a whole slew of imitators over the last 30 years or so. The latest counterbalanced Twin Cam 103B is a highly evolved unit, but it nearly takes a Harley enthusiast to immediately differentiate it from the Evolution engine that preceded it (and ran from 1984 to 2000). The similarity is no accident. That tank fits that engine like a U.S. Army helmet fits Gen. Patton smoking a cigar, like Marilyn Monroe's legs fit a skirt blown up by a subway vent. Instant Americana.

The problem with all that harkening and iconicism, of course, is that you're really not at liberty to change any of it. The mostly open-minded Ducati crowd still wants to flay Pierre Terblanche for designing a Ducati superbike (999) that didn't look just like the 916. Try to imagine the uproar if Harley built a bike with a new fuel tank. They might as well include a free Communist Party membership with purchase and an Obama Birth Certificate. (To its credit, H-D did build the V-Rod, which many H-D people still refuse to acknowledge.)

With fuel tank, engine and frame, then, pretty much set in stone, what’s left for the H-D stylist to style? Plenty! The Softail Slim gets a “new” handlebar (brought back from H-D’s past) called “Hollywood” because it has a curved, dirtbike-style crossbrace you can hang lights and kewpie dolls and things on (actually a great place for your iPhone or GPS mount today). Just below that and atop the tank, the Slim gets a “cat’s eye” tank console with a big speedometer and retro-design dial.

Speaking of retro, there’s a small, Pulsar watch-looking LCD rectangle set in the bottom of the face that serves as odometer, tripmeter, tachometer and gear selector as your left thumb sees fit. It would’ve been high-tech in ’84, which furthers the retro theme unless you think of 1984 as the recent past.

Moving downward, your dogs rest on “Half-Moon footboards,” whose rubber pads float on rubber donuts. Moving rearward, you can peek through the intentional gap left between the tuck-and-roll solo seat and gas tank to make sure the solid-mount engine’s still there. Yup. (A cool option your dealer can activate is Engine Idle Temperature Management Strategy, which cuts fuel and spark to the rear cylinder at idle to keep your crotch cooler.) And no, your passenger didn’t fall off, she was never there: You’ll have to add your own passenger carrying parts from the ample Parts & Accessories catalog.

Code name for the project was “Slimfast,” the “Slim” portion of the name coming mostly from the narrow, bobbed steel fenders, snugly fitted over chunky 16-inch Dunlop D402 biasply tires. The rear carries minimalist combo’d stop/turn/taillights and a sidemount license-plate bracket for a clean rear fender. (The Slim probably looks more stripped-down and minimalist in Black Denim. But with the contrast of the nice red paint on our test Hog, it sort of looks to me like somebody stole the trim off the back of your bike.)

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

Another amazing thing about H-D is how it’s managed to keep the riding experience basically the same throughout all these evolutions. Like dining at McD’s, you can always count on that H-D sound and feel—old-fashioned but somehow modern, in a good way. You still get a little pushrod clatter mixed in with your primary-chain whine, intake whoofle and patented potato-squared exhaust. Still just enough clank between gears, still the same slick friction in the throttle tube and clutch cable—not to mention the same friction-style starwheel throttle-lock cruise control that’s been in use since 1974 and works awesome for crossing Kansas. Still the same palm-tree reflections cruising past in the big black headlight shell. Tradition’s a good thing in a rapidly changing world.

For a long time, there wasn't much to compare a Harley to, but strangely enough, this Softail Slim feels a lot like the new Victory Judge we tested just last month. Why shouldn't it? Wheelbases, weights, 25.5-in. seat heights and 16-in. tires sizes are all nearly identical, and Slim trickings: Tuck-and-roll seat, "cat's eye" tank console, Hollywood handlebar with FL-style fork shrouds and black headlight shell, TC 103B (1690cc) power—and a lack of any cogent concluding statement save a DOT-mandated reflector. Victory's Sunset Red isn't far from H-D's Ember Red Sunglo. The main difference is that even though the Hog's new Twin Cam 103B makes more power than the last TC 96B, it doesn't have quite the snap of the Victory's 106-inch eight-valve engine, an impression backed up by the dyno: The Slim made 88 foot-pounds of torque (at 3200 rpm) to the Judge's 96 (at 2900).

At the same time, thanks to their low-revving nature, both bikes are faster than they feel; the kid on the GSX-R600 had to use way more revs than he'd anticipated to outrun the Hog leaving a couple of lights on Pacific Coast Highway. It wouldn't hurt either the Harley or Victory to quicken throttle action to give more, sooner. It would go a long way toward making them "faster;" even though their throttles are only a quarter-turn (many bikes have less), it feels like a long twist to WOT on both but it's worth the trip, especially on the Harley, which doesn't have quite as much off-idle grunt as the Victory. Some would argue that what you gain from the H-D powerplant is a level of refinement that the mechanically harsher Victory can't match. But the Vic takes the stoplight drags.

Though the Slim and Judge line up closely on the spec page, the musclecar-inspired Victory might compete more directly with H-D’s V-Rod machines, particularly the Muscle.

The Slim is soft of spring, and those 4.3 inches of rear-wheel travel are more nicely damped than you’d expect (though you’ll still struggle to do a pull-up every time you see a speed bump coming). It is a comfortable bike and not in much of a hurry, with footboards that call it a night about 10 p.m. and start dragging the pavement when things are just getting good (it’s still far better than the Sportster Low). The Hollywood handlebar puts the grips close enough and at a comfortable angle, though it’s a bit wide for stress-free lane-splitting. The seat is comfortable but short enough that it locks you into a single position that might get you fidgeting on a long ride. If you’ve ridden an unfaired Big Twin (or most any cruiser), you know the drill: Up to about 80 mph (and 3000 rpm) on a nice day, the world’s your oyster. Beyond that speed, your oyster’s rapidly losing its freshness and you’re chewing sand.

Our Softail is equipped with ABS (part of the $1195 Security package) on its single 292mm front disc/four-piston caliper and 292mm rear disc/two-piston caliper. The lever span is non-adjustable and, true to Harley brake tuning, it takes a fair bit of effort on hard stops. The rear has a lot of power and makes a major contribution to reducing stopping distance. When you give both brakes a manly squeeze, the Softail’s ABS works great and slows the bike seriously quickly: Here’s hoping your foot’s up front covering the rear pedal when Muriel turns left across your bow.

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

In general, the Slim’s a happy, fun motorcycle to ride slightly aggressively, but it’s also a bike that’ll be able to find the barn on its own with little rider input when it’s been a long night.

With the Slim as the latest Dark Custom, the idea seems to be to bridge the Sportster gap with pared-down, less expensive Big Twins. Harley built plenty of Sportsters when the Economic Downturn was getting started, but sales of less expensive bikes vs. others in the line didn't increase. And as things come back toward normal, people keep buying their beloved Big Twins. In 2011, H-D says it sold about 92,000 touring bikes, about 91,500 customs (non-FL Big Twins) and slightly fewer than 50,000 Sportsters. At $15,499 in Vivid Black, the Slim ties the FXS Blackline in the most-affordable-Softail competition, but things add up in a hurry when you add our bike's Red Sunglo paint, Security package and California emissions equipment. Suddenly we're at $17,279 (subtract $200 for 49-staters)…and I personally feel it's still missing one key piece of iconic equipment which would really help me harken: The original Softail came with a kickstarter. How cool would that be?

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim Dyno Chart

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim Dyno Chart

#### SPECIFICATIONS
GENERAL
List price:|$17,079
Manufacturer:|Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Inc. 3700 W. Juneau Ave. Milwaukee, WI 53201 www.harley-davidson.com
Customer service phone:|414/343-4680
Warranty:|2 years/unlimited mi.
MOTOR
Type:|air-cooled, four-stroke V-Twin
Bore x stroke:|98.4 x 111.1mm
Displacement:|1690cc
Compression ratio:|9.6:1
Valve train:|ohv, two valves per cylinder, hydraulic adjusters
Valve adjustment intervals:|not required
Carburetion:|50mm throttle body
Oil capacity:|3.5 qt.
Electrical power:|540w
Battery:|12v, 19ah
CHASSIS
Weight-tank empty:|670 lb.
Weight-tank full:|702 lb.
Fuel capacity:|5.0 gal.
Wheelbase:|64.2 in.
Rake/trail:|31.0°/5.8 in.
Seat height:|25.5 in.
Ground clearance:|4.8 in.
GVWR:|1160 lb.
Load capacity (tank full):|458 lb.
FRONT SUSPENSION
Manufacturer:|Showa
Tube diameter:|41.3mm
Claimed wheel travel:|4.7 in.
Adjustments:|none
REAR SUSPENSION
Manufacturer:|Showa
Type:|twin shocks
Claimed wheel travel:|4.3 in.
Adjustments:|none
TIRES
Front:|MT90B16 Dunlop D402
Rear:|MU85B16 Dunlop D402
PERFORMANCE
1/4 mile:|12.96 sec @ 100.45 mph
0-30 mph:|1.4 sec.
0-60 mph:|4.2 sec.
0-90 mph:|9.4 sec.
0-100 mph:|12.5 sec.
Top gear time to speed: 40-60 mph|6.2 sec.
Top gear time to speed: 60-80 mph|7.2 sec.
Measured top speed:|115 mph
Engine speed at 60 mph:|2238 rpm
FUEL MILEAGE
High/low/avg.:|37/36/36 mpg
Avg. range inc. reserve:|180 mi.
BRAKING DISTANCE
From 30 mph:|32 ft.
From 60 mph:|131 ft.
SPEEDOMETER ERROR
30 mph indicated:|29 mph
60 mph indicated:|58 mph
2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim in-action

Senior Editor Blake Conner aboard the 2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim in-action

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim right-side profile

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim side profile

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim right-side profile

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

Harley Softail Slim handlebars

H-D Softail Slim Hollywood handlebar with FL-style fork shrouds and black headlight shell

H-D FLS Softail Slim fuel tank and dashboard

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim "cat's eye" tank console

2012 H-D Softail Slim fuel tank

Softail Slim side view of "cat's eye" tank console

2012 H-D Softail Slim engine profile

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim TC 103B (1690cc) power

H-D FLS Softail Slim engine close-up

The Softail Slim's Twin Cam 103B makes more power than the last TC 96B

H-D FLS Softail Slim seat

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim tuck-and-roll seat

H-D FLS Softail Slim exhaust pipes

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim exhaust pipes

2013 H-D FLS Softail Slim rear fender

Softail Slim's DOT-mandated reflector on rear fender

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim in-action

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim in-action

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim

2012 H-D FLS Softail Slim

2012 Harley-Davidson FLS Softail Slim