For the ones willing to pay Ford Mustang GT prices for a motorcycle.
– Olympic National Park, Washington
Recently Harley-Davidson chose Washington state as the backdrop for the unveiling of its overhauled touring line-up (read our reviews of the 2017 Harley-Davidson Road Glide and the 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide), but the company had considered holding the event a little closer to Milwaukee headquarters: in the St. Croix Valley, on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. Had they done such a thing it would have been daring and appropriate.
If you’re not up on your U.S. moto geography, that’s Polaris turf. When Indian/Victory employees or dealers from around the world visit Polaris HQ in Medina, Minnesota, they are often treated to the gentle curves and forested vistas of the St. Croix Valley. So, as I say, a Harley press launch here would have been ballsy.
But it would have made sense, too, because the new four-valve-per-cylinder Milwaukee Eight puts Harley on equal footing with Indian when it comes to the battle of which big V-twin is best. Nowhere is this more true than with the 2017 Harley-Davidson CVO Limited, which serves as an example of the very best Harley-Davidson has to offer.
Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) models are the cream of the crop in the motorcycling world; some would say there is no higher level of two-wheeled luxury. The CVO Limited is effectively a really, really nice Ultra Limited - a much-loved full dresser tourer that, to those yet to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson, looks a little like a Street Glide with a top box.
For many, especially those unfamiliar with the touring class, the CVO Limited will also look like a land yacht - a two-wheeled version of a 1996 Cadillac Fleetwood. It certainly ain’t tiny; at 8.5 feet (2.59 meters) long and weighing 940 pounds (426 kilograms) wet, the CVO Limited is still smaller than a Smart car, but only just. If you are a fan of enormous bikes, though, it won’t seem that daunting.
I’ve lane-split a Victory Vision through London traffic, so the CVO Limited felt “right” to me. It’s a luxury tourer - the sort of thing designed to carry you and a loved one from one end of the God-blessed USA to the other without inducing relationship problems - so of course it’s big. But it’s not excessive; definitely less of a beast than a Honda Gold Wing.
I’ll admit that the Spiked Olive and Serpentine Green with Carbon Dust paint scheme of the bike I rode didn’t immediately tickle my fancy. The same sentiment is true of the bike’s overall look. I grew up in the Central Time Zone, so the presence of an integrated top box (a.k.a. trunk) on just about any bike makes me think of rotund older men named Jerry who have meticulous lawns and wives called Shirley or Val. Nice folks - good Christians who only occasionally yell at the neighborhood kids for playing baseball in the street - but not the sort a boy grows up wanting to emulate.
That said, it would be hard not to give in to the charm of the green machine’s comfort and practicality.
Throw a leg over, nestling yourself into the I’ll-be-here-all-day seat, and the bike lifts easily off the stand. The CVO Limited is well-balanced, its center of gravity kept low. Hands fall more or less naturally to the ‘bars, and floorboards don’t get in the way of placing both feet on the ground. I’m 6 feet 1 inch (1.85 m) tall, so flat-footing isn’t generally an issue for me, but Harley has put a lot of effort into ensuring folks who aren’t as long in the leg can do the same.
Dominating the lower field of a rider’s vision is a tasteful, well laid out dash featuring analogue dials for fuel gauge, speedometer, tachometer, and voltmeter. I’m not entirely sure a voltmeter is necessary on a modern motorcycle, but, sure, whatever. Below the dials is the 6.5-inch touchscreen display that offers a wealth of info, from tire pressure to satellite navigation. Buttons next to the display offer a redundancy that gloved hands will find useful.
Press the starter and the 114-cubic-inch (1868 cubic centimetres) Twin-Cooled Milwaukee Eight rumbles to life with trademark Harley moxie, albeit slightly more subdued than on “smaller,” less expensive models like the Street Glide. It is a feel befitting of a luxury tourer.
Engine and Transmission
By now you will have heard plenty about the new four-valves-per-cylinder Milwaukee Eight that powers all of Harley’s 2017 touring line-up. You will have heard it runs smoother, quieter, and cooler than the Twin Cam engine it replaces, and that it performs better. But that it maintains a distinct Harley character and Harley focus.
Harley-Davidson Chief Engineer Alex Bozmoski says that in designing the new engine the company felt it was important to “stick to our roots: Stump-pulling torque straight out of the box.”
All this holds true of the 114 cu in (1868 cc) in version that for 2017 is only available on the CVO Limited and CVO Street Glide. The added capacity increases peak torque to a whopping 124 foot pounds (168 Newton meters), according to Harley, and my ButtDyno™ suggests a few horses have also been added to the mix, pushing things toward the 90+ horsepower (66 kilowatts+) range.
I referenced Indian’s Thunder Stroke 111 earlier; no doubt many riders will be eager to know how the two match up. We’ll try to set up a comparison soon, but in the meantime, based on memory, I’d say both engines are more or less equal in real-world feel. The Indian V-twin has a mechanical growl that sounds as if it comes from the bowels of the earth and a power delivery that seems to have to travel the same distance, so Harley takes the prize in terms of throttle response. It’s smooth, not snappy or over-urgent, but immediate.
On a side note, Victory’s rougher, hotter, clunkier Freedom 106 may still just barely edge out both when it comes to WOT riding (that may be emotional memory; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a dyno prove me wrong). That may have something to do with the fact Victory’s touring rigs aren’t Euro 4 compliant.
Adhering to Europe’s stringent emissions standards (which have been adopted by a number of non-EU countries, as well) places an engine on a tight leash. Which may be why it is so easy to bang up against the rev limiter on the CVO Limited.
The bike’s engine is twin cooled (water and oil) but the presence of lower fairing means it misses out on the additional benefit of air cooling, which you notice. Things get particularly bad when stuck in rush hour traffic. Several miles of stop-and-crawl backup outside Tacoma saw my right leg being roasted. Had it not also been raining cats and dogs at the time, I suspect the engine’s heat would have melted the leg of my waterproof trousers.
Shifting through the gears comes easily; the standard heel shifter is unnecessary. Neutral was almost impossible to find on the model I rode but I’m willing to give Harley the benefit of the doubt here and assume it was a one-off problem with that particular bike. Moto-journalists are notoriously hard on press bikes and the other models I rode were fine.
Squeezing the gear lever requires a decent amount of strength, and riding through the aforementioned rush hour traffic caused serious ache. If you ever meet someone who rides a CVO Limited through traffic on a regular basis, don’t get within reach of his or her left hand - that rider will crush your bones in their grip.
Ride Quality and Brakes
All of Harley-Davidson’s touring line-up received a suspension upgrade for the 2017 model year, so the CVO Limited has been boosted to the point where it is basically impossible to have a legitimate complaint. To unsettle this suspension you need to be trying very deliberately and pushing the bike out of its intended field of use. Even when floorboards are scraping, the bike stays planted.
The big Harley is nimble within reason. Certainly its weight is ever-present - you don’t start to believe you’re on a KTM Duke 390 - but getting it to go where you want it to go is easy considering you’re dealing with nearly half a ton of bike. Weight is well balanced; rush hour traffic may have hurt my hand and burned my leg, but I was able to inch along without having to put a foot down.
This, it seems, is something Harley works hard on. Bozmoski says the bike is “great for parade duty,” which is not the sort of thing one normally considers when choosing a motorcycle. But when you think about it, it’s true. When was the last time you saw Miss Illinois on the back of a Triumph Trophy SE?
Meanwhile, the CVO Limited remains balanced and steady far beyond the legal speed limit, despite the aerodynamically disruptive nature of a top box.
Adjusting the rear suspension no longer requires a special tool. Harley has abandoned the air shock in favor of an emulsion shock with hand-adjustable preload. A chart in the owner’s manual lets users know which setting to use for which riding situation, e.g.: solo rider, rider and passenger, rider and passenger with luggage, etc.
Frustratingly, tires have not been upgraded. The CVO Limited runs on the same long-life Dunlops as other touring models, which are fine on dry surfaces but unacceptable in wet weather. Having the back end fishtailing on acceleration and across every little road marking caused me to lose a little confidence, and that’s a shame.
I know I complain about cruiser/tourer tires so much I probably sound like a broken record. But it's a difference that could do so much to change how we view the genre. It's especially frustrating with a bike like this, where Harley-Davidson has put such an intense amount of effort into making everything else right.
The Reflex Linked Brembo brakes with ABS do not disappoint, however, managing to deliver enough whoa to control all the go. According to Harley, the brakes electronically determine the right amount of braking pressure for each tire regardless of whether you’re squeezing a lever or mashing a pedal. I worried this would affect slow-speed maneuvers, that the machine would be trying to out-think me, but encountered no problems.
Comfort and Features
The lyrics of Willie Dixon come to mind here: "Some folks built like this, some folks built like that. But the way I’m built, don’t ya call me fat. Because I’m built for comfort; I ain’t built for speed."
Comfort and features are what the CVO line is all about. Enormous, contoured heated seats ensure both rider and passenger will never know what it means to be saddlesore. Six-level heated grips keep hands warmer more effectively than any other heated grips I’ve ever experienced.
The dial for the grips, by the way - located inconspicuously on the left ‘bar end - is brilliantly placed. It is exactly where you want that sort of feature to be - close to hand when riding - and easy to understand without being gaudy. It is representative of the level of attention Harley-Davidson paid the CVO Limited.
You see it again in things like the lights above panniers that stay on for a few minutes after riding, so you can dig through your stuff in the dark. Or the subtle passenger volume control switch. I’m a sucker for features like this that show real thought.
While we’re going crazy for bells and whistles, I’d like to see an electronically adjustable screen, but the CVO Limited’s old-school stay-in-place set-up works just fine. I experienced no head buffeting, even at spirited pace. Lower fairing keeps the weather off boots and shins but the space between it and the upper fairing allows knees to get chilly or wet in inclimate conditions. Little flaps in the fairing allow a rider to adjust airflow somewhat.
Handlebars would need to be adjusted were this bike mine; a nonstop 130-mile (209-kilometer) run of mostly highway put an ache into my shoulders.
Luggage capacity is capacious, each pannier large enough to hold a Kriega R20 backpack with room to spare. The top box would fit two full-size helmets and a cat. In addition you’ll find compartments in the fairing large enough to hold a phone/wallet/etc. A three-headlight set-up blasts a spread of light so large and powerful its presence can be felt in the middle of the day.
The number of infotainment options is mind-boggling, all pretty easily navigated via the dashboard’s touchscreen or a pair of less-than-intuitive switches on the handlebars. Reaching the system’s GPS map involves too many steps, and the map itself is not as user-friendly as I’d expect, but overall it’s an impressive set-up. Head over to Harley-Davidson’s website for a full look at the spec sheet.
On that sheet you’ll find mention of a “new reverse indicator light,” which suggests the CVO Limited has a reverse gear. That’s not a feature I spotted, so I didn’t get a chance to test it, but it would be useful on such a heavy machine.
The CVO Limited is a tank. A shiny tank with lush paint that sparkles in the sun, but a tank nonetheless. Over the course of the multi-day press ride the lids of its panniers and top box were slammed shut many times by many different people and showed no signs of wear or tear. The latches and knobs that lock cases shut or keep panniers attached are all sturdily built.
Again, all of this is said within reason. It’s not the sort of thing you’re going to use to explore the Kazakh Steppe.
They say a Harley is an investment and I would suspect a CVO model to be doubly so. This is an investment that looks like it will last: 100 years from now people will be riding the 2017 CVO Limited to the Quail Motorcycle Gathering, carrying an iced case of beer in its trunk.
The starting price on a CVO Limited is a buck shy of $41,000, which is more than my gross income last year. It is a very expensive motorcycle. As such, there’s a part of me that questions the point of even doing a review. To my mind, if a person is going to buy a Harley-Davidson CVO model he or she is going to buy a CVO model, by god, and isn’t really going to be influenced by a review.
It’s a purchasing decision somewhat akin to buying box seats at a Minnesota Vikings game. You know damn well there are better-performing teams, more comfortable places to sit, and more affordable locations to drink beer. A person could list “better” ways to spend your money until all the Earth’s air was gone, but your mind would never be changed, because any other thing is not the thing you want.
So it is with a CVO model. For the person willing to pay Ford Mustang GT prices for a motorcycle, nothing else will do. So my opinion on the CVO Limited, my verdict, is probably irrelevant.
But I rode one, so here’s my opinion: for $41,000 I would expect a motorcycle to not have a penny of “Harley tax” on it. I don’t care that a 50-state-legal Screamin’ Eagle Stage III kit will boost engine capacity to 117 cu in (1917 cc), I expect a bike that is pretty much perfect right out of the box. The good news is: that’s what you get with the CVO Limited (as long as you ignore my issues with the tires).
I joke about "Jerry" and "Val" riding a bike like this each summer to visit the John Wayne Museum, but I'll happily admit there's a part of me that wouldn’t mind owning one and joining them on the ride; it is a very good motorcycle.
Name: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Slender
Photography by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles