2012 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim

Making Weight

Harley-Davidson can’t seem to help itself: it keeps reinventing the past. Cruising on a euphoric high from its latest financial report—new bike sales for the Motor Company were up 10-percent worldwide in the last quarter—the design crew in Milwaukee decided to celebrate their good fortune recently by unveiling two reinterpretations of the glory days.

The mid-year release, staged at hallowed Southern California roadhouse Cook’s Corner, marked the second time in the last two years Harley has introduced new models this late in the season, but inside sources say it’s the Motor Company’s way of being more timely in bringing new products to market.

One of the bikes, the Sportster Seventy-Two, taps deep into 1970s-era SoCal custom culture with trick metal flake paint and in-your-face mini-ape hangers (more details on that bike in the BTL section). The other model, the Softail Slim, harks back even farther, recalling the post-war 1940s—when returning GIs took a hacksaw to their chunky baggers and pared them down to the bone.

Since it’s not a 2012 CVO Softail, the Slim gets powered by Harley’s rigid-mounted-but-counterbalanced Twin Cam 103B V-twin (the CVO is powered by a Twin Cam 110B motor). The black powdercoated engine is highlighted with polished covers and a round, gloss-black air cleaner. A six-speed Cruise Drive transmission is standard.

Black components are everywhere for 2012, and stripped-down seems to be trumping chrome these days, so the Softail Slim obliges with an even more—wait for it—old-school look (betcha didn’t see that coming). The newest Softail is minimal in a retro way, with details like brief fenders and a narrow rear end that very clearly conjure up the post-war bobber era. Harley should have dubbed this bike the Slim-Lo—its 25.9 inch seat height undercuts its other subterranean Softy, the much chubbier Fat Boy Lo, and snares the title of Lowest Seat on a Production Harley (another Softail, the Deluxe, shares the honor, according to H-D’s specs).

In stark contrast to its much blingier cousin, the Slim’s more subdued look incorporates Harley’s combination stop/turn/tail lights and a side-mounted license plate for a clean and simple rear end look.

The elemental profile was no accident, says Senior Designer Casey Ketterhagen; “we put a Softail on a diet. Scale down the rear with a narrow tire, and the heart of the bike—the motor—once again becomes the focus.” Because it’s a Softail, the rear suspension (consisting of a pair of coil-over shocks) is hidden out of sight within the frame rails, but the rear fender struts are left uncovered. The love-it or hate-it design exercises continue with a thin formed-leather strap bisecting the fuel tank, and the powertrain is finished with polished covers instead of chrome to contrast with the black cylinders. If the Slim is indeed meant to be styled after the home-built customs of the 1940s, I’d have to say Mission Accomplished.

Having a seat IN the Slim’s tuck-and-roll-patterned solo saddle means dropping your butt waaay down—and swinging your arms out to the widest part of this bike. That would be the new “Hollywood” handlebar (nobody at the launch could say where the name came from), denoted by its wide bend and cross brace. It feels about the same width and pull back as the bar on the Deluxe, so apart from having your keister in the weeds, riding position is pretty similar. With that street-scraping seat height and rider footboards, the Slim should fit a wide range of riders—though not necessarily comfortably.

Thumb the starter and feel the 103 shudder to life below, counterbalancers working to minimize the shakes adequately. Release the heavy-effort clutch (something to refine a bit more, Harley—if the Slim is really being targeted toward female riders), engage the heel-toe shifter to the usual Harley ‘clunk,’ and roll on the throttle to a perfectly mellow, non-stressful cruising speed. In other words, speed demons will come away gnashing their teeth in frustration, but low-key types out for a Sunday cruise should be more than satisfied with the results. For all its lauded torque (98.7 ft-lbs, peaking @3000 rpm), the 103 engine is well-matched to the Slim’s 6-speed Cruise Drive tranny, and there’s ample power on tap, especially down low. Handling is a mixed bag; as you’d expect, the Slim steers heavy, taking its time to negotiate all but the most mellow of sweepers. The relatively narrow blackwall Dunlops track well, and the bike rides in a stable and well-balanced manner, the front end feeling nicely planted at all speeds. With 700 pounds to tow, you still won’t be calling it a power cruiser, but you can feel the results of the Slim’s liposuction compared to other Softails (most notably the Fat Boy) when you blip the throttle. Though the ‘Boy is only 25 lbs. heavier, it feels like much more—perhaps due to its slightly lazier rake. That’s probably a good thing, because the Slim’s brakes (like other Softails) aren’t exactly high-performance. With one brake disc on each wheel, the four-piston caliper does an adequate job of slowing the front; the rear disc gets squeezed by a two-piston unit with similar results. Fortunately, ABS is available as an option.

On a machine this low, suspension travel is usually the first thing to be sacrificed in the name of style, but I was plenty surprised to feel only the hardest-edged bumps leaving their mark out back. 4.3 inches of travel for rear shocks should still qualify as the bare minimum, but frankly, it’s more than I expected (and more than on most Dark Custom models; the Blackline for example, has 3.6 inches).

And for all its stripped down aesthetic, the Slim tucks in some pretty trick details. Period styling cues include a shapely “cat’s eye” tank console with a retro-cool speedo face, half-moon rider footboards (rubber padded) and a side-mount license plate. The subtly louvered headlight nacelle is finished in gloss black, and relatively narrow 90/85-series Dunlops are mounted on wire-spoke 16-inch wheels with gloss black wheel rims and hubs. The styling, fit and finish is typical Harley-Davidson—very good to excellent—and there’s no question this bike will appeal to Boomers looking to recapture the past, as well as the younger, rougher set. It’s a pleasant enough ride.

In case you’re wondering, there’s nothing especially mechanically different between the Slim and the rest of the Softail family—powertrains, for example, are identical, suspension is similar, and even wheelbases are all pretty much the same (except on the more stretched-on Blackline). The Slim also offers H-D’s Security Package Option (a factory-installed option) which bundles the Harley-Davidson Smart Security System with hands-free security fob and Anti-lock Braking System (ABS). Other options include a sprung solo seat and a gloss-black primary cover.

With an MSRP of $15,499 (in black), the Slim rolls in as Harley’s least-expensive Softail, and the lowest-sitting production model in the lineup for 2012. There’s nothing particularly unique or innovative about the Slim; it’s just a solid, attractive well-executed cruiser. But Harley has made a business out of doing just that, and doing it very well. cr