It is an icon. It has been making motorcycles for longer than any other company in the world. It is a name that bikers revere -- not for the fastest bikes in the world, not for the most unusual, not for the most accomplished -- it is just revered. It is Harley Davidson.
Having said all that, the grand old lady of biking has been as hard hit by the economic downturn in recent times as anyone else. So in a bid to attract more people into biking, it began to look at women. And at Asia, where there are more billion people than anywhere else, but who are smaller in body.
Enter, Harley India. Or the other way round — enter India, Harley. With offerings from its full range, and an assembly plant near Delhi to make the bikes more affordable to the local worshipper — a route that will soon be followed by another hallowed name in biking, Triumph of the UK — the Hog show was on.
Harley Davidson's range begins with the Sportster series. What is entry-level about these is primarily the engine-size - 883 cc V-twins, fuel-injected, belt-driven, (still) hulking cruisers — and the price. There are three siblings; we got to examine the middle brother, Iron 883.A front suspension with gaiters, a solo saddle, foldaway side-mounted licence plates, 13-spoke wheels, the patented Harley sound.
All very attractive, but will it deliver?
The seat on the bike we've got is a custom retro, with barely any padding. Ouch. The original is much better! But the height is comfortable, the position not bad, so let's get going.
Press the self-start, and the roar literally blasts you out of your somnolence. This is one vehicle that is going to turn heads. Put it in gear, push off, and — pleasant surprise, this is frisky!
The five gears briskly take you up to 100 kph before you start fidgeting in your seat. No, this seat is NOT for long rides. The handlebar is more or less straight, making the seating position scream for a nice padded butt-rest. But... back to the ride.
Push the machine beyond 100, and its nakedness starts to tell. The engine is more than willing, but the arms are not happy. A windshield would be a good idea, even if it will make the ride stiffer. It is available as add-on, as are pillion seat and back-rest. Just keep toting up.
The unit that Harley has given us has other modifications as well, one of them being a Screaming Eagle air filter (far right) that shovels in more air. The company says it adds a good 7-8% power, and we are willing to believe. But what is the actual engine power? Harley does not tell.
At 90-100 kph, our steed is happy. Pushed to above 120 (one cannot look at the speedo much, the wind is unsettling) the rider feels a need to decelerate. A short, mad, burst at full throttle… the case for a windshield is strong! It more or less levels out beyond 140 kpg. Buzz down... 80 kph on the highway, 60 kph... the ride is very fine. Except the potholes. Top end power is, well, not there. Sports bikes will leave it flat. But then it's a CRUISER...
Little niggles: the horn button is positioned above the indicator switch, which takes a little getting used to. Also, the indicators are split — left thumb for left indicator, right thumb for right indicator. Kinky? The good part about them is that they cancel automatically after a turn, with even the slightest of banking. Big niggle: The front shocker seems tuned to the prairies that pass for roads in the great US of A. Potholes and speedbreakers are cruelly felt.
The Iron's younger sibling, the Superlow, appears to have better shock-absorbing talents, and costs a full R1 lakh less — but it is also about 2 cms lower on ground clearance. "There are issues with speedbreakers," as one showroom staff wrily admitted.
The third 883 sibling is the Roadster, the bulkiest of the trio. It is also Rs. 1 lakh-plus costlier. The three put together have been the foundation of Harley's success (so far) in India. The company this year started to put together some more bikes in the India plant, lowering prices — the Street Bob is probably the cheapest 1,600-cc bike in India.
An attempt to reach out to the faithful, or moving on with an eye the rearview?
The badge of honour is there. The engine is supercool, no doubt. The seat is just an aberration (customisation is a whole Harley way of life — and business, mind!). So is it a good idea to buy this bike at Rs. 6.6 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi)?
The problem, mainly, is lack of competition. Only the Korean Hyosung, being put together by Garware Motors (who sold that right to Pune-based DSK on Wednesday for a pittance) has a no-badge cruiser, but that is in the 650-cc range, and costs about the same. True competition will come when the Triumph show begins. Sadly, it too starts in the 650-cc range. Equivalent engine machines to the 883, going by numbers announced so far, will be at least Rs. 1 lakh pricier.
If you want a cruiser, go for it. If you can wait, just take a look at Triumph before you decide. And don't get carried away when they offer you add-ons. Decide with the mind, not the heart.