First Ride | 2012 Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback & Night Rod Special

The Motor Company Reintroduces Versatility and Mods Up the Rod

2012 Dyna Switchback
Helmet: AFX FX-95
Jacket: Alpinestars Quantum
Boots: AlpineStars Afrika XCR
Gloves: ICON Super Duty

Harley-Davidson’s 2012 lineup may not have the bang of multiple introductions, but since the firm releases new models year-round, that comes as no surprise. As far as cruisers are concerned, there are still more fresh designs than most companies manage in a single season. The big news for 2012 is the Switchback—H-D’s conception of a light tourer aimed at older, younger, and female riders. The new lineup also includes updates to several other models, including the Night Rod Special and the Fat Boy, both of which I got to ride.

Also huge this year is the fact that just about all the Big Twins get upgraded to the Twin Cam 103 motor. Previously found standard on just the Electra Glide Ultra Limited (but also available as an upgrade option), the bigger mill is now included on all the big bikes except the Dyna Fat Bob and Dyna Super Glide Custom (because those two are regarded as “entry level” big bikes, which H-D sees as an effective bridge between the Sportster and more expensive offerings).

Retro Switch Hitting

So Harley finally makes a touring cruiser. I know you can argue that in the full swing of the current bagger revolution, Harley not only produced touring cruisers but invented them, but I’m convinced that they simply created custom touring bikes. Unlike most metric bikes, Harley’s baggers are not scaled-up cruisers, but rather scaled-back tourers, based on a heavyweight FLT chassis that has its roots in the early 1980s.

The Switchback (despite its modern-sounding name) is a true throwback. Harking back to the 70s, this Dyna Glide-based bike takes both its styling cues and touring amenities from the decade of bell-bottoms and stagflation. Back then, bikes were just starting to specialize into dirt, street, sport, etc, so a touring bike was a standard road bike you outfitted for touring. By taking their middle-of-the-road Dyna chassis, and adding a windshield and hard bags, Harley’s done just what Harley did back then with their catch-all FL Big Twin chassis.

While the Heritage Softail was designed to remind us of 1950s hardtail touring rigs, the Switchback goes next-generation in the retro-bike alternate universe, proudly displaying chrome-covered shocks in front of its hard bags, and sporting a smaller version of the large touring shield that H-D has used for decades. Though the Switchback shares considerable styling cues with the larger Harley touring machines, it’s mostly window dressing. The enclosed front headlight nacelle has a family resemblance to the one on the Road King, but unlike the larger bike’s vertical split, this one splits along the side to give the rider an uninterrupted reflection of the sky.

Like the Heritage, the FLD is pretty light on actual touring amenities. Just the shield and locking bags are the main additions to a run-of-the-mill Dyna Glide, though there is a new-to-Dyna display to jazz up the cockpit. The switchgear and display, now standard on Softail and Dyna models, will scroll through RPM/gear, clock, two tripmeters, odometer, and fuel level, on the opposite side of the starter button...unlike the old days where you had to hunt around for a button on the gauge itself. ABS and a passive security system are now bundled as a $1200 option on all Dynas, and are obviously desirable add-ons for a touring bike. ABS is stashed in a nondescript box beneath the right side cover (as on all Dynas so equipped).

Unlike the pricier Road King ($1500 extra), the FLD will fit a wider variety of riders, who may not be into the heft (over 100 lbs more) of the Road King. Besides the lighter-weight chassis, extensive use of aluminum throughout helps tip the scales a little less. The luggage, though of a similar design to the ‘King’s, is about 25 percent smaller, both in volume and weight capacity. Harley says market research led them to believe that the Switchback will appeal to riders looking for less bike than a touring Harley, as well as those that are more economy-minded. We’re fully on board with the first, but the economics of picking a less-capable bike for not even $2000 less don’t seem to add up.

The really cool part of the Switchback is the styling that evokes the past. The five-spoke wheels look like something American Racing might have built for a Camaro, while the headlight nacelle, bubble-top saddlebags and especially the diamond-shaped tank logo, is pure 70s H-D. But while the little touches are pure nostalgia, the overall look is like a baby Road King, which I’m sure was intentional as well.

The styling may be retro, but thanks to modern technology, this light tourer can convert to a full-on cruiser in seconds. Personally, I think it looks even better stripped than dressed. Until now, there was no option in the Dyna line of rubber-mounted engine bikes for a model with this kind of retro style—floorboards and that full-fendered muscular look. Softails mimic the hardtails of the 50s, but this is the only current Harley that recalls the 60s and 70s.

One of Harley’s bigger design challenges was packaging this convertible-ness. Other H-D touring models look awful without their bags; since the frame that holds them is also the exhaust support, you have to leave it all in place. Getting the hefty 2-into-1 pipe mounted stably required a redesign of the transmission case to cantilever the muffler into place via an aluminum bracket. Then they had to mount the bags, which are hung on a trio of burly (yet discreet) chrome mounts on the fender mount and fender. Once you figure out the process, it takes seconds to flip back and forth from one mode to the other.

So I’m sold on the looks and the concept… but what about the FLD’s ride quality? That part of the equation could best be described as “vanilla.” The standard 103 cubic inch motor is impressive, with a nice bottom-end hit of torque that keeps feeding in as the revs increase. As the Switchback is definitely the lightest 103-based machine I’ve ridden, it gets up and moves. That said, it’s very easy to control, and never scary. Braking is also robust, though less so than on the dual-disc equipped Harleys.

Ergonomic layout is fairly middle of the road, but unlike many brands that insist on positioning the bars uncomfortably close for long-armed folk, the Switchback found a happy place for me as well as smaller riders (though the bar looks like a cross between an ape hanger and a drag bar). The FLD’s footboards fit a variety of riders as well, generally speaking, and the seat is somewhere between the big, plush couch of a tourer, and the stripped-down bucket of a custom, with good support, and a nice taper at the front for shorter folk.

Suspension is solid, offering a good mix of comfort and damping. While this may sound like a milquetoast statement, it’s actually a revelation to be saying anything positive about what Harley considers one of its “lowered” models. Note to H-D: Please, upgrade your other lowered bikes with the cartridge-style fork and emulsion shocks found on the Switchback, and I will stop writing bad things about your shocks. And my kidneys will forgive you.

Going around corners on the Switchback is where you definitely realize you’re not on a Glide. The big FLs feel substantial, and have a very low center of gravity. Though it’s not any taller, the Switchback feels it, and drops into corners without the same controlled confidence of the larger machines. It’s not a bad sensation; it just feels more like you’re on top of the bike than down in it. The ‘Back is better in faster corners, but still doesn’t settle in as solidly. Again, nothing dramatic, just not rock-solid like an FL.

I encountered a few other niggles as well. The new switchgear offers less feedback than the old unit, with a more modern “click” that sometimes fails to register. I used to love H-D’s self-canceling turn signals, but now they seem to take forever to turn off. On the upside, the exhaust note from the stock pipe is robust, but never annoying, and the bike is smooth as silk when running down the highway. The small (for a) touring seat gave me all-day comfort, and the footboards and rear pegs were well positioned to allow for some options while on the road.

Its hook is that it’s not only a decent Touring Cruiser, but also a distinctive Cruising Cruiser as well. If the FLD mimics a 1970s FL with all the gear on, it does an even better job with it off. While still carrying the lightweight feel of a Dyna, the full fenders, semi-bubbly tires, fully enclosed chrome shocks, and flat stance recalls a nicely-restored Shovelhead. It’s not an era H-D has fully embraced in designs past (Harley spent years distancing itself from the AMF period), so it’s nice to see that look come back.

Harley’s last few attempts at crossover-touring Dynas went rather poorly, with the functionally sound but aesthetically awkward Dyna Convertible and T-Sport models. Because styling fundamentals were nailed so thoroughly on the Switchback, expect this go-round to be very different.

Euro-style Rod

As Harley claws its way back to profitability, it may find that it owes a debt to foreign customers who pulled it through the hard times. While the American market was floundering, sales kept growing in Europe and in other parts of the globe. And while the V-Rod was never a runaway success Stateside, Harley-Davidson’s forward-looking power cruiser is a hit on more distant shores. So love it or hate it, just realize that this bike isn’t really aimed at you.

Mix a heaping dose of Americana with a dollop of Porsche and maybe some Blade Runner and you have the update for America’s Hot Rod. For a company that banks so much on heritage and history, having an aesthetically modern model in the stable is an oddity; we heard from the younger group of engineers and designers involved with the V-Rod that it took many long meetings to get the brass to agree to a significant redesign. But redesign it they did.

I should really say V-Rod re-do, as the base V-Rod is no more. This year’s 10th Anniversary edition bike is just a silvered-out Night Rod Special for a $700 premium, (though it costs less than the original V-Rod did a decade ago). That Anniversary bike will only be produced this year (roughly 1500 units), while the re-done NRS will soldier on.

On the surface, not much seems changed about the Night Rod, but details make the difference, with subtle styling changes, and more practical updates. A big change is that, just like on a sport bike, the Night Rod Special now has a tail section. Sure, H-D calls it a fender, but the upswept expanse of plastic sure looks like it might have come off one of the H-D superbikes from the 90s. A happy side effect of a tail section instead of a fender is that you can actually see the fat 240-section tire under it. Don’t let the tiny flush-mounted taillight fool you either; it’s an LED, and it’s bright. There’s also a revised headlight mount, and some contrasting coatings on the engine.

From an ergonomic standpoint, the bars and forward controls have been moved back (3 inches and 1.25 inches, respectively) for less of a stretch. There are mid-mount/rear-set pegs available as accessory add-ons too.

Performance-wise, the engineers concentrated on handling. The old conventional fork has been swapped for an inverted unit, while the rake has been decreased by two degrees. The rear suspension has been re-tuned to match the changes. The new, spindly wheels are significantly lighter than the old ones, to the tune of 4.8 lbs. up front and 3.8 lbs. in the rear. Unsprung weight is the enemy of suspension, while handling is often slowed by rotating weight, so this one simple fix helps both of those issues significantly.

I’ve been a fan of the V-Rod since its inception, but I can’t state enough how much this new version puts a smile on my face. From the raucous exhaust note, to the way it rips off the line or around corners, it’s just a super-fun bike. It doesn’t hit off the bottom like the new 103, but once you get past the motor’s bottom end it sends a long-lasting wave of torque to the rear wheel that is both controllable and offers more power than most people will ever need on the street.

It helped that the press introduction was held in the twisting ski-resort roads near Park City, Utah, but this bike is fun just about anywhere. Ergonomics went from being a little stretchy on the old model, to spot-on perfect for my 6-foot frame. And the handling was more refined than I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing on a Harley.

It’s not some superlative (the biggest, greatest, or most) anything, but this new Rod is a well-engineered, extremely fun bike. Though not in the outright sporty league of the Ducati Diavel I wrote about a couple issues ago, it’s actually more fun (and easier) to ride.

In Other News…

Another notable change in the lineup is that the Fat Boy and the Fat Boy Lo will now share a middle-of the road handlebar. In our test of the Lo a couple of years ago, the big stretch to the controls was felt by even the tallest of us, and the shorter riders were frustrated that a bike that otherwise fit them so well would flub the handlebar placement. Meanwhile, taller riders felt a bit cramped on the wide, close bars of the standard Fat Boy.

Now, both bikes have a bar that splits the difference… and works well for 6-foot me. I spent some miles on a Fat Boy Lo and found it to be a pleasing ride, even more so now that it sports the 103 motor. The seat is thin, but well shaped, and good for even a fairly long ride in the countryside.

The rest of the Softail family also gets the higher-feature switches/display that were introduced earlier on the Blackline (and now, the Switchback). Tubeless, spoked rims are available on most bikes in the lineup, and all Sportsters now ride on Michelin Scorcher tires.

Finally, the closeouts: for 2012, the Street Glide Trike, all Rockers, and all Springers have been discontinued from H-D's lineup. CR

H-D Switchback H-D Night Rod Special
Base Price $15,995 $15,299
Type 45-degree air-cooled pushrod V-twin 60-degree liquid-cooled DOHC V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1690cc, 98.4x111.3mm 1250cc, 105x72mm
Compression 9.6:1 11.5:1
Transmission 6-speed 5-speed
Final drive Belt Belt
Overall length 92.8 in. 93.1 in.
Wheelbase 62.8 in. 67 in.
Wet weight 718 lbs. 670 lbs.
Seat height 27.4 in. 26.7 in.
Rake/trail 29.9 degrees/5.84 in. 34 degrees/5.6 in.
Front tire 130/70-18 120/70-19
Rear tire 160/70-17 240/40-18
Front Brake 300mm disc, 4-piston calipers 300mm dual discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear Brake 292mm disc, 2-piston caliper 300mm disc, 4-piston caliper
Front Suspension 41.3mm fork; 3.86 in. travel 43mm inverted fork; 4 in. travel
Rear Suspension Dual shocks, preload-adjustable; 2.13 in. travel Dual dampers; N/A travel
Fuel capacity 4.7 gal. 5 gal.

First Ride | 2012 Harley-Davidson Dyna Switchback & Night Rod Special - Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine