Who says a motorcycle can’t project an aura around its rider? You can’t help but feel a sense of class riding Harley’s Heritage Softail Classic. Ours is a regal ride, pearl paint and polished chrome that reflect the world passing by in its sheen, spinning spokes and whirling whitewalls. A drumming exhaust note declares your approach long before you arrive at a destination. It’s a cool customer cruising between the avenues of trendy Huntington Beach stores, skateboarders gliding by in front of surf shops as people fill the umbrella-covered tables of sidewalk cafes. We sit high in its saddle feeling like a king on his throne as we comfortably cruise down California’s palm tree-lined boulevards.
It is in the stop-and-go of city traffic that the Heritage Softail Classic shines. The first thing you’ll notice about it compared to the Chief Vintage is how much smaller H-D’s cruiser feels. A peek at the spec sheet discloses that the Harley has a 3.7-inch smaller wheelbase and is nine inches shorter in total length. The Heritage Softail Classic also tips our scales 90 pounds lighter than the Indian cruiser. The rider’s triangle on the Harley cruiser is much more compact, riders situated relaxed and upright in its saddle. The bike’s floorboards are forward and a rider’s legs are almost parallel to the backbone but it doesn’t stretch you out as much at the Chief Vintage. The bars on the Heritage Softail Classic are higher and in closer than the Vintage and have a wider range of motion. Dawes called the Heritage’s seat “This big cushy Barcalounger looking thing but it works really well,” adding “It’s comfortable, it supports your butt, the passenger seat presses on your lower back a bit and that can get a little uncomfortable, but there’s room to move around. It doesn’t lock you into place like the Indian seat.”
Once situated in the Harley’s compact rider’s triangle, launching the bike is facilitated by a clutch pull that is firm but not overly stiff. Even though its bars are up, they are easy to negotiate as the front end on the Heritage Softail Classic has less weight to it. Despite having a couple more degrees of rake on the fork, a more compact wheelbase and good centralization of mass give the Harley lighter steering. This makes it easier to handle at low speeds and allows for sharper U-turns when cruising around town.
“Right when I got on it, I was surprised by how light that bike actually feels for how big of a bike it actually is. It doesn’t feel long, it doesn’t feel big, it feels low to the ground and the center of gravity is real easy. It’s got this really light handling which was a big surprise for me because I didn’t expect that at all out of that bike,” agreed Dawes.
Out of town and in the twisty stuff, the ’14 Heritage Softail Classic is quicker to turn-in and transitions with less effort than its bulkier counterpart. It’s primary deficiency in turns are floorboards that scrape easy and often so riders get much less lean angle to play with as the Indian sweeps deeper.
“Cornering clearance – there is none. The floorboards, they look pretty high, but you dip that thing into a corner and it starts dragging almost immediately, it’s pretty crazy. I mean it looks cool, sounds cool, you’re throwing sparks everywhere and people are looking at you like you’re a cornering bad-ass, but it limits the speed at which you can ride around a twisty mountain road. Granted, it’s a Heritage Softail and you’re not going to be ripping it up anyways, you want to cruise, but when you want that extra cornering clearance, it’s not there for you,” lamented Dawes.
Despite its lack of lean, the 2014 Heritage Softail Classic is a bit more composed on the road thanks to suspension that is dialed in almost ideally. Spring rates on the thick fork keep the front firmly in contact with the road as it ranges through a generous 5.1-inches of travel. The hidden horizontally-mounted rear shocks on the rear are equally adept at absorbing bumps in the road while riders remain comfortably shielded and in control. As Dawes said, “The suspension, it’s pretty much spot-on for a cruiser. It’s not too harsh, not too sluggish, not too soft. It’s pretty much like the Goldilocks of suspension for this type of bike,” in the sense that it’s dialed in just right.
And while its low-speed handling and slick suspension set-up are better than the arrangement on the Chief Vintage, the Twin Cam 103 comes up a bit short in comparison to the Indian powerplant. Aesthetically, it’s a thing of beauty, stout pushrod tubes against black powder-coated heads offset by machined cooling fins and chrome rocker covers. The undersquare mill features a healthy 3.87-inch bore hammering down at a 4.374-inch stroke so you’d anticipate an arm-wrenching jolt of low-end torque. And indeed, a peek at the spec sheet shows that you do have a 70.68 lb-ft to play with as early as 2000 rpm. But glance at the Indian’s chart which shows it’s pumping out 92.69 lb-ft at the same 2000 rpm. Overall the Harley’s powerband is very even, strong but not intimidating as it builds up to its 82.26 lb-ft peak at 3200 rpm. Both motorcycles are geared to top out in first just below 45 mph while second gear gets riders up to freeway speed as it signs off at approximately 64 mph. But the Indian will definitely get up to that speed with more enthusiasm. Once up to speed, the Harley’s counter-balanced TC103 operates smoothly as riders drop the transmission into its six-speed “cruise drive,” but the bike did demonstrate a little buzz in the tank at higher rpm before hitting the shift point. Shifting down, the Heritage Softail Classic demonstrates a generous amount of engine braking. Overall though, the output of the Harley engine felt subdued compared to the torque-rich punch of the Indian Thunder Stroke 111.
“It’s a really flat, mellow power band. Usually, think Harley motor, you think character, but the Indian motor actually has more character. It accelerates well, it’s got plenty of power, it just doesn’t have a rush or a hit to it, it kind of just builds,” agreed Dawes.
While its engine didn’t match up, the six-speed gearbox on the Harley is slightly more refined than the transmission on the Indian. Gears engage just a tad smoother and quieter as the Indian transmission is a bit rawer. It only takes a quick push on the heel/toe shifter to run up and down the Heritage’s mechanisms and overall gear ratios are very close, but Harley has had more years to fine tune its gearbox and it shows. One thing the Harley lacks is cruise control, a standard feature on the more expensive Indian Chief Vintage, a feature we believe should come stock on a bike equipped with bags, a windscreen and capable of light touring.
The greatest area of disparity between the Harley and the Indian though is in the braking department. Both cruisers come with anti-lock brakes, the Harley’s system unobtrusively integrated into the wheel hub. But grab a handful of front brake on the Heritage and you don’t get much bite or power out of the four-piston calipers. The Harley also sources a single disc while the Indian uses a dual arrangement on the front. Riders really have to squeeze the brake lever to get the calipers to dig in and provide any feel. A big brake pedal for the rear provides better feedback and the rear unit bites more aggressively than the front, but it doesn’t take much for the ABS to kick in. When it does, it pulses much faster than the Indian and pushes hard in the ball of a rider’s foot while its impact on braking distance is minimal. Both Justin and I agreed that we’d like to see more power to the front while cutting back on the rear’s ABS a bit.
“It feels like you’re pulling on a block of wood, the front brake lever. You can squeeze on it really hard and it doesn’t do much. You’ve got to really rely on the rear brake. Rear brake, it’s got more power, it’s got more feel, the ABS though kicks in pretty soon on it. Too soon. You’re relying on that rear brake to slow you down, so you’re pressing on that rear brake and you get into the ABS and it kicks back on your foot pretty quickly,” concurred Dawes.
While there is notable disparity in the braking department, the two compare favorably in curb appeal. The Heritage earns its name with time-honored styling cues, from nostalgic chrome laced wheels wrapped in wide whitewalls to its studded seat and bags. Chrome trim dresses up everything from its front fender to its auxiliary lights. And the depth of Harley’s paint is unparalleled. The Heritage Softail Classic has a detachable windshield whose height is quite a bit shorter than the Indian. The cutoff line of the windshield sat right across Dawes’ line-of-sight causing him to either look up and over or slouch a tad to peer under. I’m a bit taller so it wasn’t an issue for me. Wind protection is excellent and rider buffeting is nominal, but the fact that it’s fork-mounted means air channels created by other vehicles in front of you create a little buffeting in the bars. Instrumentation is relegated to the essentials, highlighted by an analog speedo centrally located on the big tank-mounted console. The dial doesn’t rise up quite as steeply as the cluster on the Indian so it’s not quite as easy to see. The “low fuel” gauge, embedded in the faux gas tank cap to the left of the console, requires riders to take their eyes off the road, especially as it drops in to the far left corner as it gets closer to “E.” The bike’s leather saddlebags add to its “Heritage” bloodline and are just big enough to cram my backpack and computer in, but that’s about all. Plastic clasps cinch them closed, but there’s no way of locking the bags.
Billed as a boulevard cruiser, the 2014 Harley Heritage Softail Classic excels at exactly that. With a compact rider’s triangle, tight overall design, and easy-going characteristics at parking lot speeds make it a great bike to cruise locales like Huntington Beach. It’s got upscale good looks when you pull into Duke’s on the pier for lunch. We expected a bit more punch from its 1690cc engine, but admit the power of Indian’s 1811cc V-Twin left us jaded. We’d definitely like to feel more power from its front brake and less intervention from the ABS on the rear and would dearly love a bit more lean angle. Overall though the big cruiser is a refined, dignified member of the Softail family, traits which are easily projected upon its rider as well.