My first ride on the 2005 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic was one of those dreaded, droning highway runs on I-95/85 - from the H-D factory in York, Pennsylvania, to the RoadRUNNER offices in North Carolina - and although the plush seat and excellent sound system certainly eased the boredom of Mr. Eisenhower's "broader ribbons," testing the bike's back-road touring prowess would have to wait. Fortunately, breaking free of the office confines around here doesn't require a note from your doctor; it's part of the job description.
Sure enough, the keys to the Motor Company's flagship touring model took up residence in my right front pocket and I was crooning along to the song of the open road almost as quickly as those $ 1 drafts have me heading toward the stage to croak on Karaoke night. My spotty performances aside, the appearance of my new ride, the Ultra Classic, certainly seems to hit all the right notes. The two-tone, silver and cobalt paint scheme and the liberal use of chrome are absolutely striking, and although '05 is stamped on the frame, the same timeless lines that attracted a skinny Elvis Presley in the fifties have crowds lining up today. Its rock 'n' roll allure is contagious. Surveying the Ultra Classic in the parking lot sets my toes to tapping the way they do whenever I hear the King break into the opening lines of "Hound Dog." An involuntary response, it can't be helped.
Settling into the luxurious seat, hitting the starter and hearing the first crack of the big V-twin never fails to stir the juices in my pot of wanderlust stew. To say the bike feels larger than life may be a tad melodramatic, but it's very clear that something very cool is shaking down in Harleyville when the Ultra Classic shudders to life. Despite being somewhat jaded, I have to admit there is a certain soul-tingling sensation emanating from the machine, even when its big V-twin merely sits at idle. There's no denying a certain mystique surrounds this big-jugged Milwaukee beauty, but now it's time to find out just what the crowing is all about. Is it puppy love, or can this hound dog really hunt?
All Shook Up
When Elvis sang, "I'm in love, I'm all shook up" he could have been referring to his many Harleys. Vibrations and Harley-Davidson were synonymous for years, but times have changed and so have Harley's Vs. The latest Twin Cam 88 "vibration-isolation mounted" engine has eliminated the teeth-rattling tremors associated with older models. But that's not to say it's completely thump free - there's still plenty of that burly throb to let you know you're aboard the genuine article. After all, we are talking about two 725cc-sized pistons banging around in those big cans. But really, it's only after hours of non-stop riding that you begin to notice the vibro-tingles, especially in your hands and rear.
As for strength of character, it's hard to top the 88 cubic inch (1450cc) air-cooled twin. The sound and feel is pure Harley-Davidson and it's easy to see why so many riders become so deeply enamored. The Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection makes for effortless start-ups and the engine displays perfect manners from idle to redline. Once a few miles have been logged, though, the overall performance is somewhat disappointing. Throttle roll-ons in all but first gear are a hurry-up and wait affair. There's power there, it just seems to take forever to wick up, and once wound, it isn't going to drop any jaws. Sure, the Ultra can jump out ahead of most any car at a light, but so could my high-school era 250cc dual-sport. As long as you're not in a rush, the torquey twin is great for easing around on a Sunday afternoon, but be careful when deciding to pass that long line of traffic. Despite the engine's chart-topping personality, it is a bit off key in the oomph department.
When riding on the freeway, the big twin feels like it's starting to breathe heavily around 75mph. Granted, it exhibited no ill effects when cranking along at cop-baiting speeds; it just didn't seem very happy doing it. Some of this could be attributed to the five-speed transmission. A sixth gear would add more leg to the Ultra's open road gait. Frankly, the tranny works quite well for just about any other type of riding. The ratios are perfect for just loping along and enjoying the day. Shifts are somewhat clunky in nature and there's an odd occasional squeak when the clutch is engaged at stops, but otherwise the transmission doesn't receive any particularly low marks. It really works quite well and, along with the engine, forms a very user-friendly team. Gone, thankfully, is the he-man clutch pull from the past. Now, snaking through rush-hour traffic is an exercise in exhilaration and not a repetitive workout that only enlarges your wrist.
Treat Me Nice
So the big 88 isn't going to set any land speed records, that's for sure, but how does the rest of the package treat the touring rider? Well, it's my solemn duty to report the Ultra could use some help here too. The 41mm Triple Circuit Damping front forks seem to perform well enough, but the rear air-adjustable suspension had a bad tendency to bottom out on the setting delivered from the factory. Weighing in at a somewhat average 180 pounds, I was surprised I had to fiddle with the suspension's air pressure to smooth out a one-up ride.
Traversing winding roads on any motorcycle is an adventure, but the big Harley can make the experience positively weird if you're not on top of your game. A tour through some of western Pennsylvania's back roads really exposed the machines inherent handling quirks. You really have to ride through corners with a full-blown respect for the road because the Ultra isn't going to let you get away with anything stupid. Leaned into the twists at speed, a wallowing sensation develops that borders on scary. If you couple that with less-than-perfect surface conditions like water or gravel, the UC will have you completely reevaluating your outlook on piloting a motorcycle. I normally revel in dragging floorboards on big bikes, but got over that little tic real quick somewhere outside of Pittsburgh. Thankfully there were no incidents, but several times the gravel shoulder closed in faster than I'd prefer.
Don't expect much help from the brakes either. I've always heard that big Harleys have questionable binders and these put truth to the rumor. In all fairness though, once I got a feel for the machine and developed an understanding for the brakes, I realized they're not as bad as originally perceived. As long as they're used in conjunction and given a good, stout pull, the stopping power is acceptable. But if you're the type who favors one brake lever over the other, you could be in for an interesting ride. The bottom line here is that the Ultra Classic is a big, heavy motorcycle designed with comfort and cruising in mind. If you stay within the bike's limitations, the ride is quite comfortable and perfectly safe.
A Big Hunk O' Love
While the Ultra Classic may have several flaws, there is plenty to love. If a large motorcycle strums your heartstrings, this ride is right up your alley. Weighing some 820 pounds ready to roll, the Harley does have plenty of girth to back its brawny attitude. The crossover dual-exhaust system is quiet yet still sounds off with an air of authority. The removable, vented lower fairings combine with the fork mounted "batwing" upper fairing to do an admirable job of keeping the weather at bay in all but the worst conditions. A 40-watt per channel, fairing-mounted stereo boasts AM/FM/CD player, and a weather band radio along with a host of other convenient features. All of this plays through four speakers and tag-teams nicely with the electronic cruise control to lessen the fatigue associated with those lonely highway jaunts.
The well-apportioned passenger area drew positive reviews from copilot Kathy too. Unfortunately, she was never able to join me on a longer trip but she felt confident over the course of several shorter sessions that she'd be perfectly comfortable with a long haul. The top case makes for very convenient stowage whether you're packing for that extended vacation or out running quick, around-town errands. The side cases look small but actually hold a fair amount of gear if packed properly in the provided custom-fit, soft luggage liners. And after riding through the remnants of Hurricane Katrina, I can vouchsafe that the top and side cases are perfectly waterproof. Too bad I can't say that about the foggy glass on the fuel, volt, oil pressure, and ambient temperature gauges. They all became opaque on humid mornings and in the rain. Another nuisance is the kickstand. It feels loose, something I could never quite get used to, and I always had the impression that the bike could easily roll right off of it. In fact, on one morning when I got off and left the engine running to double-check the garage door, I almost ended up with the bike on the ground. The thumping idle nearly walked it off the stand. That's the kind of scare I want to avoid at 8:00am.
I could honestly sit here and rip certain aspects of the Ultra Classic until I'm blue in the face. Granted, there are several things about this bike that could be improved. But once the dust finally settled, this Harley had simply wormed its way into my good graces. I can't really explain why, nor will I try. Over time, the negatives had become endearing personality traits and the need to compare the Ultra's assets to my known benchmarks of motorcycling perfection had taken a backseat to the fact that the bike just feels good to ride. I can't begin to describe what a joy it is to use this big ol' machine as a daily rider and commuter. Its surprisingly nimble low-speed attributes, downright friendly motor, and easy access cases work as well to and from the office as they do for a long weekend getaway.
A certain attitude adjustment has to be made when riding this bike. For some of us that just takes a little longer. I wouldn't shell out the cash required to own an Ultra Classic, but far be it from me to question anybody who does. This bike is not for everyone. The rider looking for the best touring machine for the money should look elsewhere. But for the rider already inclined toward Milwaukee iron, there is no better touring bike on the market. The merits of these last two dueling statements would make for great pit-stop discussions over barbecue, and were I at the table, I'd have to be the moderator simply because I'm caught in the middle and capable of arguing for either side. Despite the Ultra Classic's numerous foibles, I've found myself just flat out liking this bike and I'm certainly going to miss it when it's gone.
Harley-Davidson FLHTCUI Ultra Classic Electra Glide
Retail Price $ 20,405
Warranty 2 year unlimited mileage
Maintenance Schedule 1000 / 5000 /every 5000 miles
Importer/Distributor Harley-Davidson Motor Co.
Engine Type 1450cc V-twin
Valve Arrangement OHV, 4 valve
Bore x Stroke 95x101mm
Compression Ratio 8.9:1
Carburetion fuel injection
Gearbox five speed
Clutch wet, multiplate
Final Drive belt drive
Frame steel double downtube
Wheelbase 63.5in (1,613mm)
Rake/Trail 29.3° / 6.2in (157mm)
Front Suspension 41.3mm cartridge fork 4.6in (117mm) travel
Rear Suspension air-adjustable shocks 3in (76mm) travel
Wheels & Tires
Type cast aluminum
Front Tire MT90B16 72H
Rear Tire MU85B16 77H
Front Brake twin, four piston calipers Diameter292mm
Rear Brake single 4 piston caliper
Dimensions & Capacities
Seat Height 30.7in (780mm)
Dry Weight 788lb (358kg)
Fuel Capacity 5gal (19l)
Claimed Horsepower (measured at crank)n/a
Top Speed n/a
Fuel Consumption 37mpg
Fuel Range 185mls
Equipment Saddlebags and trunk with custom fit soft luggage, upper and lower fairings, electronic cruise control, am/fm/cd/wb four speaker stereo, 35watt auxiliary lamps
RoadRUNNER Test Diagram
Luggage w/accessories 5/5
Bike for the buck 3/5