The top of the luxury-touring segment has been ruled by an unlikely trinity comprised of Bavarian, Japanese and American manufacturers. While the Gold Wing , with its horizontally-opposed six, has long been the standard, BMW’s sharp K1200LT, with its Inline Four, has also developed a devout following, especially in the European market. For the longest time this left one marque with the distinction of being the only American V-Twin alternative. Harley-Davidson long stood unopposed in the V-Twin luxo-touring niche with its Ultra Classic models. Then Victory shook things up last June with the release of its Vision Tour, also powered by a big bore American-made V-Twin. And so the competition for bagger buyers with the biggest bucks is now even more cutthroat.
But does Harley-Davidson really have anything to worry about? Though it’s powered by a V-Twin, aesthetically the Ultra Classic Electra Glide and the Vision Tour will never be mistaken for twins. The Ultra Classic has earned its moniker by being just that – the epitome of classic-styling. It’s like mama’s cooking, warm and familiar and always the same. Harley buyers want their Bat-Wing fairing out front, they want that familiar shake at idle of the Twin Cam 96, and pay generously to hear the patented palpitations from dual crossover pipes. And there’s the intangible allure of ‘Harley Heritage’ that goes along with ownership, a fierce loyalty that runs deep, a fan base that likes the security of sameness.
Don’t think though that classic styling means antiquated engineering. On the contrary, the 2008 Ultra Classic has more technological goodies than any of its forebears. This includes Electronic Throttle Control, an Isolated Drive System, new Brembo brakes , ABS and sophisticated ESPFI. These aren’t your carb-fed chuggers of old. With the 1584cc Twin Cam 96 providing its pulse, the ’08 Ultra Classic is the best of both worlds, old school charm sprinkled with a generous portion of 21st Century technology. But it has lost its birthright as the only American V-Twin luxury-touring bike.
Victory Vision now owns a claim to that distinction as well. Victory entered the fray in 2008 with its 1731cc Freedom 106/6 V-Twin. Externally, the Vision shares more traits with its Japanese and European counterparts, with full-body sculpted fairing, less chrome and lots of buttons to push. Beneath the fairing, the Vision Tour is much different than the Ultra as well, with its engine serving as a stressed member of the frame, a frame that forgoes the typical cruiser arrangement for three large castings. It’s got a long list of tech goodies aimed at the iPod generation – options like XM satellite, Victory Tourtech GPS, a 10-disc CD changer, and standard fare like communication systems and a plug-and-play port for the aforementioned Apple device. The gang from Minnesota strayed from any ‘classic’ conventions with its Vision, and has put all of its marbles in the modern-styled American V-Twin luxury-touring bag.
We’ve been wanting to put the Victory Vision to the test since we first laid eyes on it. Seeing how everybody and their mother has already featured the bike, we decided a head-to-head comparo was due.
Since Victory introduced its Vision Tour in June last year, we couldn’t wait to get our grubby mitts on one. But seeing as how the bike has already been featured in every motorcycle publication, we wanted to up the ante. Can you say “Comparo” time? So what better bike to do battle against than its foremost competitor, the 2008 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide? In our clash of American V-Twin luxury-touring titans, we flogged the behemoths over the hills of Ortega Highway in So Cal, cruised the beaches of Malibu and took the road less traveled over the San Gabriel Mountains to determine which bike would earn the title of “Best American Luxo-Tourer.” To borrow a line from Mills Lane, “Let’s get it on!”
The battle began escaping L.A. on the 405. No lane-splitting here. A trip to the scales saw the ‘svelte’ Ultra Classic Electra Glide tip the scales tank empty at 815 lbs, while the portly Vision made the needle climb to 850 tank empty lbs. With the Vision’s handlebar width in the area of 44 inches, this dynamic duo amply takes up a lane on its own. But sit back in the ultra-plush leather bound comfort of the Electra Glide Classic Comfort-Stitch Seat and worries are few. The Ultra Classic’s seat is one of the most comfortable I’ve sat on. Victory put in a good effort itself, with 4-inches of rider comfort in a cleanly-constructed leather saddle. But the Vision’s saddle rubs on the inner thighs if you’re doing a lot of shifting, which was inevitable in the stop-and-go grind of the L.A. freeways. The Ultra Classic provided more cush for the tush, and since these bikes are built with membership in the Iron Butt Association in mind, our point for best posterior protection goes to the Harley.
Squeezing in the light action of the Ultra Classic’s cable-actuated clutch, kick it down into gear, roll on the electronically-controlled throttle and feel it clunk into first. In fact, the first three gears of the 6-speed Cruise Drive transmission were pretty clunky. This was especially noticeable during slower takeoffs. It’s not so bad if you can open it up quickly, but not so good running light to light.
Try to use the same amount of grip pressure on the Victory’s clutch lever and you’ll come up short. The hydraulic clutch has a heavy lever pull. Ease it out and it doesn’t engage until the end of the lever throw, which sacrifices some in launching the bike. Kick it into the first of the six gears on the constant mesh overdrive transmission and you’ll also be greeted with a clunk, but nothing to the degree of the Ultra Classic, and mainly in first gear.
Could this be the changing of the guard? While the Ultra Classic stood alone as the only American V-Twin luxury-touring bike for the longest time, its title has been in jeopardy since Victory released its Vision Tour model last June.
One of the first things we noticed was that these two bikes do not build power in the same manner. On the Ultra Classic, you get a strong initial hit, with more than 70 lb-ft of torque coming on early at 2000 rpm. Keep it in the 2000-3500 rpm range, and you’ll get the most out of the pushrod-activated valves. Venture much out of this range, and the engine has a very electric, characterless power delivery. The ECT also has a slight pause in roll-on acceleration, and try not to drop rpm too low in sixth gear. I let the bike drop down to 62 mph at 2200 rpm in sixth and waited with the throttle wide until it built back up to cruising speed.
And though the Victory’s clutch engagement late in the throw cost it a little off the line, a short first gear makes up for it in the big bike’s launch. The 106 cubic-inch Freedom engine is also pushing out almost 10 more ft-lb of torque than the Twin Cam 96. It’s going to give you more power, longer. Sixth-gear on the Vision Tour is very tall and allows for low rpm at freeway cruising speed without as much sacrifice in power. The direct relationship between the Vision’s throttle in setting the engine’s single overhead camshafts into motion is more responsive than the Harley’s ETC activating its pushrods. The one detractor from an otherwise stellar performance by the Vision’s powertrain was when its tranny popped out of gear when accelerating hard in the upper rpm range, but this only happened on a couple of occasions and was definitely the exception instead of the norm.