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2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S – First Ride

The latest addition to Harley's Softail family may be one of the best

“Is it better than the Street Bob?” – This has become my de facto question when examining pretty much any big V-twin, but especially those in the Harley-Davidson Softail line-up.

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You may be aware that I love the Street Bob, probably – I’ll admit – to an unhealthy extent. It’s a bike that speaks to some part of my soul I don’t fully understand. But more than that it is a bike that, to my mind, captures the very essence of Harley-Davidson better than almost all the company’s other bikes. That’s not to say there aren’t “better” bikes, ie, bikes better suited to doing something other than riding around in “angry monkey position,” laughing like a lunatic. A good example of such a bike is the 2020 Low Rider S.

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
For those who are fans of Harley’s alphabet soup model designations, the Low Rider S is officially known as an FXDLS

The eleventh Softail to join the line-up since it was completely overhauled two years ago, the Low Rider S is pitched as a “performance” model. That’s a claim some may need to take with a grain of salt – after all, we’re talking about a 308-kilogram motorcycle with a 1,615-millimeter wheelbase – but there’s no doubt the bike can thrill. Heaping servings of face-punching torque are to be had with a simple twist of the wrist, and dual front discs help provide more stopping power than you’ll find on just about every other Softail, save the Fat Bob and FXDR.

That latter model is a good one to reference here because to my mind the Low Rider S is the bike the FXDR is trying to be: sexy, powerful and a hell of a lot of fun to ride.

Some Numbers

Starting Price: £15,825
Monthly Payment*: £300.69
Engine: 1868 cc Milwaukee Eight 114 V-twin
Power: 92 hp at 5,020 rpm
Torque: 155 Nm at 3,000 rpm
Seat Height: 690 mm
Tank Capacity: 18.9 liters
Weight: 308 kg

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
The Low Rider S corners well and encourages you to ride with license-threatening enthusiasm

First Impressions

The Low Rider was first introduced in 1977 as an offshoot of the Super Glide platform. Over the years it’s fallen in and out of Harley’s line-up, wearing multiple chassis and being driven by four different powerplants: Shovelhead, Evolution, Twin Cam and, now, Milwaukee Eight. The first time we saw the Low Rider S (not to be confused with the Low Rider Sport of the 1990s) was in 2016, in the form of a Dyna** powered by a 1802cc Twin Cam 110 – a larger engine than the standard Twin Cam 103 found in most of Harley’s bikes at the time.

Despite having a different chassis and engine, the modern Softail Low Rider S looks similar to the machine introduced in 2016, with 1970s-esque blacked-out styling and, as the name suggests, a low seat; there are just 27.1 inches between your butt and the ground. Though, it has to be said that’s far from the lowest butt perch in the biz; you’ll find lower seats elsewhere in the Softail line-up, and Indian prides itself on offering seats that go even lower. All the Softails have roughly the same chassis, but are split into two subgroups based on the size of rear frame. The Low Rider S finds itself in the same group as the Heritage Classic, Sport Glide and my beloved Street Bob. Based on my glowing praise for all three of those models you can probably guess where this review is going.

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Aesthetically, I like the Low Rider S but I’ll admit I’m not hopelessly in love with it. As the owner of a Triumph Bonneville T120 Black I have come to realize that the black-on-black-on-black look is played out. It made sense 10+ years ago, when we were rebelling against the chrome excesses of previous eras, but now it’s starting to feel silly. Gold rims help but not quite enough. Harley does offer the option of paying more to get the Low Rider S in what it calls Barracuda Silver but I think that looks awful; I’d rather the AMF-era*** color schemes of the standard Low Rider. 

I’m also not a fan of the decision to put the speedometer and tachometer in the tank, the latter of which you will never, ever see while riding – especially if you wear a full-face helmet. A number of the people I was riding with challenged my criticism, claiming you never really look at the clocks anyway. But that’s hooey. I am always checking my speed. Perhaps those other guys aren’t riding through areas plagued by traffic cameras.

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
The Low Rider S has a narrow profile that makes it excellent for slipping through rows of traffic

Still, the Low Rider S is a good-looking machine, with a more put-together sense than the markedly more expensive FXDR. The Low Rider S differentiates itself from the standard Low Rider in the presence of a greater capacity engine, dual front discs, stiffer front fork and reduced front rake (28 degrees vs the 30 degrees of the standard). In that latter sense it is similar to the Fat Bob. However, throw a leg over and the ergonomics remind me a little bit of the Street Bob (that’s a good thing), but more comfortable. Not quite “angry monkey,” more “perturbed primate;” raised bars and mid-set pegs make for a riding position that is aggressive, but not so much you couldn’t stay that way a while. The seat is cosseting and knees are not too severely bent for a 6-foot-1 rider.

Looking forward, the speedometer is largely out of view and your lower peripheral vision instead picks up the wasted space behind the bike’s headlight fairing. The clocks could have gone here. Instead you get a flat panel that I suspect many riders will choose to festoon with stickers. Alternatively, I suppose the space would do a good job of hiding a handlebar-mounted sat-nav. I also suspect the panel could be removed to create a place to stuff your gloves after a ride. Because Harley will fight to the death on this particular hill, indicators are still operated by two separate buttons: one on the left grip, one on the right. I hate this aspect of Harleys, but it wouldn’t stop me from buying one.

Engine, Performance and Handling

Like all current Softails, the Low Rider S has keyless start. Press the starter and the bike shudders to life with a quick mechanical wheeze followed by the bassy thud of massive pistons in motion. The sound is distinctly Harley, but – thanks to Euro rules – unlikely to upset your neighbors (you’ll need to invest in a Stage 1 kit if you want to do that). What I really like about the Milwaukee Eight engine in stock form is that it has a good growl but not one that ever grows tiresome. I rode all over the UK and Europe on a Street Bob a few summers ago and never failed to be in love with it.

The Milwaukee Eight really is one of the best engines in motorcycling right now. The debate rages as to whether the 114 of the Low Rider S really delivers noticeably more power than the 107 of a Sport Glide, but either way a twist of the throttle delivers walloping torque. It’s the way of things that environmental regulations have resulted in a whole lot of bikes suffering snatchy throttles in recent years, but it’s not something I’ve noticed on a modern Harley-Davidson big twin. This is a point of pride with the company, which says that the engine’s massive size means a lot of effort had to be put into getting fueling just right. You’d kind of expect them to say such a thing, though. Whatever the case, it all works.  

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
The Milwaukee Eight V-twin that drives the Low Rider S is a thoroughly enjoyable powerplant

The bike moves with power and enthusiasm well beyond legal limits. Well, most legal limits; you won’t be able to pass 140mph Audis on the German autobahn, but in all other real-world applications there’s plenty of booming go. And the aforementioned dual front discs mean there’s also a good amount of whoa. The stiffer front forks still dive just a teeny bit more than some might like when pushing aggressively, though.

The trick, of course, is to remember the Low Rider S isn’t a sportbike; you don’t just go hell for leather into a corner, jam the brakes and fire out. I’ve ridden with good riders who are better at not showing their math but generally the trick of hustling a bike this big through tight corners is steadiness and forethought. The low center of gravity, weight, long wheelbase and never-too-stiff suspension of the Low Rider S means it’s stable as hell in those corners – you’ll never hear this bike described as skittish – but it can create a few “oh shit” moments if you screw those corners up. The bike’s 33.1 degrees of lean on each side is quite reasonable, but if you go into a corner too hot and too wide you’ll be wishing for more as the scraping arc of your turn drifts ever closer to the edge of the road.

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This is especially true on sketchy roads. Beyond standard ABS there are few rider aids on the Low Rider S. No traction control, cornering or otherwise. No riding modes. No Dynamic anything. Remember, too, that cruiser tires still haven’t reached the level of a good sport-touring tire. What I’m saying here is that the universal advice of “Don’t ride beyond your limits” applies to the Low Rider S just as much as it does to every other motorcycle ever made. But the power and usability of the engine, and confidence-boosting steadiness of the chassis/suspension, may dupe you into thinking those limits are further away than they actually are.

Also the caveat of press rides applies here. I was chasing a professional rider on a bike that I do not own. I would never ride as hard by myself on a motorcycle I had spent my money on. It’s fair to say that the limits I discovered on the Low Rider S will never be approached by a solid 80 percent of owners (and it’s equally fair to say that better riders than myself will be able to push those limits further).

Meanwhile, on the sort of roads that most people associate with traditional Harley-Davidsons – wider routes with broad, gentle curves or long straights – the bike is amazing. Pony up the additional dough for cruise control, strap on some Kriega bags and this thing is ready for all kinds of long-haul adventure. Folks with particularly bad knees may want to splash out on some highway pegs, but for me the riding position is all-day comfortable. And the weather protection provided by that tiny headlight fairing is surprisingly adequate, keeping a lot of windblast off the chest and the head in clean, undisturbed air. A Heritage Classic or Sport Glide is the better choice for those keen to do a lot of touring, but the Low Rider S impresses with its ability to get you to the nice roads that are nowhere near your house.

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
The Low Rider S has an aggressive stance that encourages you to hustle, but feels comfortable enough for all-day rides

Bells and Whistles

Out of the box, ABS is about all you get from the Low Rider S when it comes to technowhizzbangery. A USB port for charging phones is to be found in the headstock. You can pay extra for cruise control (and heated grips), but that’s pretty much it. For many people, that’s a selling point. I’d personally like traction control, but I do appreciate the fact Harley hasn’t attempted to shoehorn in some kind of an app.

Remember when Triumph launched the Scrambler 1200 and the British brand spent a surprising amount of time in its press release explaining that the bike could connect to a GoPro? Yeah. At least Harley isn’t trying to sell you a bike on the basis of its being an excellent camera mount for vlogging. 

Verdict

The Low Rider S ranks up there at the top of the Softail line-up, serving as an excellent application of the platform. This is a bike you can ride hard, use regularly, or cover big distance on. I love it. After spending a day riding the thing I was inclined to declare it the best of the Softails. But then, right at the end of the day, I got a chance to hop on a Street Bob. And I started laughing maniacally.

So, back to the question I posed at the very start of this review: is the Low Rider S better than the Street Bob? Is it worth the additional £3,530 for a bigger engine, bigger tank, better suspension, better brakes, more lean angle, more comfort and (slightly) more weather protection? Truth is: I don’t know. If an alcoholic tells you that a certain whisky is delicious, is it actually delicious, or does he just think that because he’s got a problem? My deep, abiding love for the Street Bob may be a sign of mental illness, so you should not trust my judgment here.

I’d personally still choose the Street Bob. But I can very clearly see how and why most sane individuals would disagree with me, and if their prices were the same I’d probably go for the Low Rider. Probably. Maybe… OK, I might not. So, let’s just settle on this: the Low Rider S is a hell of a motorcycle. It’s expensive, as are all Harleys, but if you’ve got the money, honey, it’s worth your time. Throughout its history the Low Rider has been one of Harley’s most popular models; it’s easy to understand why.

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
There’s no escaping the fact the Low Rider S is an expensive machine, but for those who have the means it is money well spent

The Three Questions

Does the Harley-Davidson Low Rider S fit my current lifestyle?
It would be challenging to maneuver a thing of this size and weight in and out of my garden gate every day, but not impossible. Beyond that there’s no reason it couldn’t take over everyday duty, carrying me to work, squeezing through gaps in traffic, exploring local roads on good days and serving as the object of road trip daydreams.

Does the Harley-Davidson Low Rider S put a smile on my face?
Yes. The bike looks good, sounds great and performs brilliantly. I don’t think a diehard Harley hater is going to be converted by this bike, but anyone who approaches it with an open mind is going to walk away happy. 

Is the Harley-Davidson better than my current bike, a 2019 Triumph Bonneville T120?
Yes, though I wouldn’t say so unequivocally. I feel arguments could be made for the Bonnie even though it’s less powerful and (somewhat) less characterful. If money weren’t an issue I’d personally go for the Low Rider S, but I might regret it when I found myself paying for maintenance. The Low Rider S service intervals are every 5,000 miles; the Bonneville T120’s are every 10,000.

2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S
2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S

Rider Stats

Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Weight: 168 lbs
Build: Lanky

Helmet: Shoei RYD
Jacket: 55 Collection Hard jacket
Jeans: Pando Moto Boss 105 Indigo Reg
Gloves: Aerostich Competition Elkskin Ropers
Boots: Red Wing Spirit Lake


* 60-month hire purchase with £1,500 deposit at Harley’s offered rate of 9.9 percent APR

** If you are new to Harley-Davidson, from roughly 1990 to 2018 the brand’s big twins ran on three basic chassis set-ups: Dyna, Softail and Touring. In 2018 the Dyna platform was dropped and the Softail platform radically transformed to provide better-performing motorcycles. 

*** Again, for those unfamiliar with Harley-Davidson history, from 1969 to 1981 the company was owned by AMF – you know, the company that makes bowling balls. This is largely considered the darkest time in the brand’s history and the low quality of the products made during those years is at the heart of all the negative things you hear about Harley-Davidsons now.