2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim First Ride

April 4, 2012
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
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Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

The fatty Dunlops are ultra grippy and the TC 103B of the Softail Slim doles out a healthy amount of torque early and often.
Trimmed down front to back, the 2012 Softail Slim has a super low seat height, compact ergos and rider floorboards. It’s ‘Hollywood’ handlebar with a cross-brace harks bark to bobbers of the ’40s but its performance is modern-day thanks to a capable 1690cc V-Twin and sticky Dunlops.

Harley-Davidson realized eons ago motorcycles whose back ends are clean and uncluttered like a rigid but don’t deliver Mike Tyson-like kidney punches when riders hit potholes at speed are prized possessions. So The Motor Company, with an assist from one Bill Davis, learned how to neatly tuck a couple of small rear shocks horizontally within the frame rails and hide them out of sight so their motorcycles would look like a rigid without the teeth chattering ride. This style of motorcycle turned into a best-seller for H-D so the company trademarked the name Softail. The first FXST hit Harley dealers’ showroom floors in 1984 and the Softail has been a staple for the company since.

Fast forward almost 30 years and the company offers no less than six different Softail models for 2012, from the dressed up Heritage Softail Classic to the popular Fat Boy. The most recent addition, though, is the 2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim, a trimmed down version of Harley’s classic Softail cruiser that was introduced to the public a couple of months ago in SoCal at the popular biker hangout, Cook’s Corner. Harley-Davidson Senior Designer Casey Ketterhagen, who also helped design the Blackline Softail, was once again invested with design duties on the Slim. Ketterhagen has a background in hot rod cars and likes to strip bikes down to essentials, a background that proved to be useful in the development of the Softail Slim which Harley sought to pare down like bobbers of old.

Approaching the Softail Slim for the first time, the cruiser appears very compact and stout. At a laden 23.8 inches, its low-slung solo saddle ties for the lowest seat height among Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but even without sitting in the saddle, it looks extremely low at 25.9 inches. No space is wasted in the 64.4 inch wheelbase, and even though this expanse is only 0.1 inch shorter than the Fat Boy’s, it looks much more compact thanks to its meaty Dunlop tires. It has 4.5 inches of ground clearance, the lower tubular frame rails skirting the ground 0.6 inches lower than the Fat Boy. While a beefy FL fork continues to hold down damping duties up front and features a cut-down FL fender to expose the chunky Dunlop, the rear has also been slimmed down with the addition of a narrower 16-inch tire and a bobbed fender. The tidy look of the rear is complemented by the small bullet-shaped turn signals that serve as stop lights, turn signals and running lights. Its combination stop/turn/taillight looks great but being tucked in tight to the fender like they are, they sacrifice visibility, as noted by our videographer who trailed me during testing. Self-cancelling turn signals are a bonus, though!

The 2012 Softail Slim looks sharp in Vivid Black. The Softail Slim features a Cats Eye console with an electronic speedo with a retro-style face.  The Hollywood handlebar complete with a cross brace allows for a wide sweep and easy steering.
(L) The Softail Slim has the signature Fat Boy tank which holds five gallons. (M) The Softail Slim features a ‘Cat’s Eye’ console with an electronic speedo with a retro-style face. (R) The ‘Hollywood’ handlebar allows for a wide sweep and easy steering.

Plopping down in the Softail Slim’s saddle, the rider triangle is very compact. For a six-foot-tall rider, the bars are easily within reach and the forward-mounted half-moon floorboards leave our legs comfortably perpendicular to the bike’s backbone, but our feet are situated at the top of the floorboard. Truth be told, the ergos are a bit tight for a rider my size and the layout and design of the seat made my lower back/upper butt area numb after about an hour in the saddle, but pressure points are going to vary for riders of different stature. The low seat height does situate riders down in the bike so wind blast on freeway jaunts doesn’t become a factor until between 70-75 mph. The stock settings of the Softail Slim would suit smaller riders perfectly though, as the ground is easily within flat footed reach at stoplights and Harley offers a pull-back riser for the Slim in its Genuine Motor Accessories catalog that moves the handlebar back two inches without having to change control cables and lines.

The slimming of Harley’s latest Softail aims to make the bike’s “Big Twin” a more prominent feature of the motorcycle. It’s hard to ignore the Twin Cam 103B as it’s one of the bike’s strong points as the 1690cc mill gives the Softy a hot rod attitude. The quintessential Harley V-Twin character is provided by big 3.875 inch cylinders drumming at a long 4.38 inch stroke. With its direct mounting to the frame the rider is directly connected to its lumping cadence. At idle, the counter-balanced Twin Cam 103B puts out noticeable vibes, but if you’ve ever ridden a Harley full dresser, it’s nominal in comparison. As with H-D’s bigger bikes, these fade as soon as you get the bike in motion. In its return to the basics, Harley eschewed the chromed-out treatment on the Softail Slim for less flashy, black powdercoated cylinder heads and polished covers instead of chrome. The rocker covers topping the cylinders are all polished up, but otherwise the engine compartment is deliberately dark, including the small round air cleaner.

Thumbing the electric start button, the Softail Slim drums to life as a sweet note bellows from the over/under shotgun exhaust. Our test occurred during Daytona Bike Week and there must be something about being within view of Daytona International Speedway that inspires people to drive like idiots on International Speedway because trying to pull out it’s like NASCAR between stoplights the way cagers and bikes are dodging and weaving. We don’t need much excuse to crack a throttle, so we kick the Slim down into first, ease out on the compliant

We took the 2012 Harley Softail Slim out for a shakedown on The Loop during Daytona Bike Week.
We took the 2012 Harley Softail Slim out for a shakedown on ‘The Loop’ during Daytona Bike Week.
The 2012 Softail Slim comes in Vivid Black  Black Denim or Ember Red Sunglo and lists for  15 499  Black  or  15 884  Color .
The 2012 Softail Slim comes in Vivid Black, Black Denim or Ember Red Sunglo and lists for $15,499 (Black) or $15,884 (Color).

clutch lever, and unleash some of the claimed 98.7 lb-ft of torque the 103B provides. The Dunlops hook up sweetly as the Softail Slim’s engine doesn’t disappoint, getting us up to traffic speed at 45 mph in first gear before it hits the rev limiter at about 5700 rpm.
Kicking up into second gear, again the majority of power is down low in the rev range with solid mid before tailing off on top. By then the bike is at freeway speeds, 65 mph, and you’ve got four more gears to play with. There’s ample power for the platform, capable of barking tires in second gear without much effort, making for a spirited ride.

Must be getting soft in my old age or the Harley tranny is growing on me because its engagement didn’t seem as abrasive on the Slim. Yes, there’s still a thunk you both feel and hear when the gears engage, but the shifts are deliberate and reliable, and as long as I’m not missing shifts, I can deal with little mechanical nuances as long as the gears don’t wear too fast. The belt final drive consistently delivers power to the rear without lash, no small feat considering the TC 103 distributes max torque below 3000 rpm. And while we didn’t have any problems with the performance of the wet multi-plate clutch itself, we couldn’t get the toe of our boot underneath the lever of the heel/toe shifter, which made shifting a challenge at times. We were able to wedge it under by raising our heel and the situation could easily be fixed by swapping out foot controls, but the stock heel/toe shifter doesn’t provide much room.

After pulling out of the Speedway, we spent the day logging 145 miles on the Softail Slim while cruising around Daytona Beach, heading out Ormond Beach to “The Loop” before riding to Destination Daytona. Florida is flat and curvy roads are an endangered species, but we found a few turns on a rural country road where we finally got to test the handling of the Softail Slim. With 31 degrees of rake, 5.8 inches of trail and a 64.4 inch wheelbase, the Slim handles predictably and its front end is stable. The Dunlop D402s are very grippy and keep the front end planted in turns. It steers easily and is capable of executing U-turns within one lane. Gotta give some of the credit for the bike’s easy handling nature to the slick Hollywood handlebars. Not only do they look tight with their wide bend and cross-brace, styling cues ripped straight off of 1940s-style bobbers, but you can really crank those bars in. They’ve got excellent clearance above the tank and sweep side-to-side with minimal effort. Along with its power, the Softail Slim’s handling is definitely one of its strong points. It’s only limitations are its floorboards which scrape early and often because being slung so low, the Softail Slim has limited turning clearance.

In the past, Hollywood bars were teamed with a Springer fork. On the Softail Slim, a fat FL fork with “beer can” covers substitute for a Springer. With 5.1 inches of travel, the stout fork deflects all but the harshest hits from the rider. The Softail set-up on the rear, comprised of two coil-over shocks, blew through its 4.3 inches of travel easier than the front with a 225 pound rider aboard. The suspension overall provides a well-sorted ride for a bike that sits so low to the ground.

When it comes time to scrub off some speed, four-piston calipers on the front clamp down on an 11.5 inch rotor with a solid initial bite and decent power. Keep the pressure applied and the front will fade near the end, but give the back pedal a dab and the tandem has no difficulty reining in

The 2012 Softail Slim has a classic 5.0 gallon Fat Bob tank with a black cats eye console.
Harley kept the bars of the Softail Slim uncluttered by using minimal gauges and by mounting them in the ‘Cat’s Eye’ console on the tank.

the 700-pound bike. The unit we tested came equipped with the optional ABS system, which is unobtrusively hidden within the wheel hub. We liked the fact that it took a pretty good push to engage and for the most part didn’t interfere in situations where ABS intervention isn’t needed. Anti-lock brakes are offered as part of the “Security Package” that includes the H-D Smart Security System. The system is based on a hands-free key fob that automatically arms and disarms the vehicle security functions when riders are within a certain radius of the bike.

Harley kept the bars of the Softail Slim clean by using a minimal amount of gauges and by mounting them on the tank. The gloss black “Cat’s Eye” console sits high on the tank and the round analog speedo is mounted just below the horizon level. Its numbers are large enough to read at speed, and its retro speedo face means you’ve got to mentally multiply the number next to the needle by ten. A toggle switch runs through the basics like two trip meters and a clock, but we found the gear indicator/rpm display the most useful of the lot. It does sit in a small digital display window at the bottom of the speedo and isn’t easy to see but comes in handy nonetheless.

The classic Fat Bob tank has a faux gas cap on the left which serves as fuel gauge for the five-gallon tank. In the 145 miles we put on the Softail Slim we averaged 33.87 mpg, but some of that was burnt up along with the back tire in a few smoky burnouts and some heavy-handed launches. Softail Slim designer Ketterhagen said they deliberately “left a gap between the nose of the seat and tank so the rider can see the top of the motor.” But this also exposes the rider’s inner thigh to heat coming off the engine as the gap leaves the back cylinder head exposed and it burnt my right thigh a couple of times.

With its ultra-low seat height, tight ergos, easy-handling nature and manageable power, Harley’s latest Softail expands its demographic so there’s enough variety within the one model line to suit just about all riders. The Softail Slim has an aggressive stance and torquey engine to go along with strong styling cues, from fatty, spoked down tires to its cool throw-back handlebar. Riders will appreciate its ability to turn on a dime and the fact that they can lean it over confidently. We don’t mind that it has less flash and more dash because the 2012 Softail Slim melds a touch of old with new. It’s rich in Harley character, from its vibey V-Twin to its characteristic sound, and at $15,499 it ties with the Blackline as the most affordable of the Softails, all which should work in its favor on showroom floors.