The Road To Funky Town | 2012 Victory Hard-Ball vs. 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback

A Pair of Oddball Baggers are two of the year’s best

Let’s just start by saying right up front: This is not a traditional shootout where the contestants are a pair of highly focused motorcycles, fit only to pair up with each other. These are a pair of completely unique motorcycles that somehow fit a similar place in the constellation of bikes out there, despite their differences. We picked these two because, when both came out in the last year, neither had any natural competitors.

Their obvious similarity lies in that they each use a gimmick; the Victory Hard-Ball with its ape hangers on a touring bike, and the Harley-Davidson Switchback with its convertible capabilities that can take it from dressed (shield and bags) to stripped, in under a minute. In addition, they serve the similar role of a stylish, midrange tourer. Despite their very different looks and target audiences, there’s more that lumps these two together than drives them apart.

How are they the same, you might ask? Well for one thing, this was the rare test where not one of our testers complained about either bike in terms of fit. The huge-looking Victory Hard-Ball fit our two sub-5 ft.8 in. testers just fine, while the tall guys stepped off of the Harley-Davidson Switchback with a smile on their faces as well. Both are a hoot on a curvy back road, both can also pound respectable miles on the open road with about the same comfort, and both will capably carry a passenger with an equivalent modicum of comfort. The designers of both of these bikes need to teach a clinic to other makers on how to fit a variety of body styles.

But one glance at the two bikes will tell you that how they got to this point is completely different.

Victory is looking to cash in on the hardcore bagger craze with the Hard-Ball, a turnkey solution to riding a badass custom bagger. It represents a step in the evolution that started when Harley released the Street Glide seven years ago as a factory custom tourer. Obviously the bars are a focal point, but the theme continues to a “murdered-out” black theme throughout, highlighted with red pinstripes all the way to the black, laced rims. The deluxe rockabilly hotrod look is perfectly married to the elongated lines that Victory is known for.

Harley-Davidson’s Switchback, on the other hand, is an attempt to connect the company’s midrange, all-purpose Dyna line, and the pricier and fuller-featured Touring family. It looks like a shrunken version of the Road King retro tourer, but a closer look reveals a number of subtle styling cues from the Motor Co’s 70s Shovelheads, from the exposed chromed-out shocks, to the tank badge. The propeller-looking wheels could have come out of a 70s automotive aftermarket musclecar catalog.

The two bikes are three grand apart in MSRP, but add the extras we had on our Switchback (ABS, security, paint), and that figure is halved. The large gulf is perhaps due to the differing missions of the two bikes; the Switchback is designed as an entry-level, budget tourer, while the Hard-Ball is a premium custom version of the Cross series bikes. Despite this, we were still mystified that the only piece of legit touring electronics carried over to the Hard-Ball from the similarly priced Cross Roads was the cruise control. Meanwhile the H-D makes do with just an old school thumbscrew throttle lock. But the Switchback packs more information into its tiny little digital display, with one more tripmeter and a range-til-empty readout the Hard-Ball lacks.

First Run

Settling into the saddle on both are very different experiences. The Switchback, with its low seat height, and low center of gravity, was decidedly friendlier. The wide seat straddles the line between supportive and cushy. The bar is high-ish, but magically positioned so that short-armed riders can still reach it easily, while taller folk aren’t forced to slouch. That’s likely due to the floorboards, which taller riders could stretch out on comfortably. As on the Touring models, the Switchback makes a compact space work for a variety of frames. The difference is that the Dyna chassis plants the rider closer to the ground; even our shortest-legged rider had daylight under his butt at a stop.

Most of us took one look at the Hard-Ball and prepared for pain. But if the Switchback performed magic, the Hard-Ball worked a miracle. The floorboards are even bigger and even more adjustable for differing body shapes. The seat helps too, with a nice, flat and neutral platform, which allows a good deal of movement. Short riders thought it featureless, but narrow (allowing good ground access), while a taller rider sitting back a little on it got a nice lower back support and a wider platform to plant themselves on. The extreme-looking ergonomics were a non-factor, and we were all smiling because of how cool we knew we looked.

While it would seem that with the convertibility factor, the H-D would have an advantage in amenities, that versatility comes at a price. Sure, the detachable windscreen gave us protection the Hard-Ball only offers as a $400 add-on, but the battle of the bags was won by Victory. We’re normally unabashed fans of Harley’s luggage latching system (at least on the touring models), but these units are pale imitations. For one thing, they rattle when empty. Ours had 6000 miles on it, and the bushings in the bags were already starting to go. The cavernous bags on the Hard-Ball could probably fit twice as much stuff in one bag as both on the Switchback, and close easier too. True, the weather stripping on one of the Hard-Ball’s bags started to come off, but that might have been from overuse compared to the Harley. But at least the Switchback comes equipped with a fork lock, unlike the Hard-Ball.

Another severe contrast between the two bikes came in the motor department. While both fire readily, with a familiar V-twin rumble, in character, the two engines are miles apart. The Victory Freedom 106 is a big, powerful lump on Quaaludes. It has endless pulling power, but very lazy throttle response. The Twin Cam 103 in the Harley is much more immediate and visceral, possibly aided by the fact that it’s carting around so much less weight. At low speeds the H-D is way more playful, but the advantage goes away as speeds increase, as the Victory’s seemingly endless torque just keeps on pulling. The Hard-Ball’s motor was also smoother, especially at idle, when the H-D practically jumps around in its rubber mounts.

Though both torquey motors are well-matched to their six-speed transmissions, each had their issues. The Harley comes with fat, non-adjustable “ergonomic” levers that one of our smaller testers thought were hard to reach, coupled with a fairly high-effort clutch. Harley’s chunky and clunky transmission is pretty predictable, but is not easy to find neutral on at a stop. The Victory has a lighter pull, but pulses through the lever on downshifts. It also has a variable amount of shift lever pressure for a shift, and bounced out of second gear on a regular basis.

The Nitty Gritty

Handling came down to a matter of preference. Objectively speaking, the Victory had a big cornering advantage, even with those huge floorboards. Despite similar-sized front tires and fork rake angles, the bikes had a different feel in navigating through corners, and this contrast in feel made one of the biggest differences in our test. Unsurprisingly, the riders who preferred the Switchback also preferred its handling, and the same is true of the Hard-Ball. The direct action/leverage over the front end counteracted the longer wheelbase and weight of the Victory for some, while others preferred the lighter-weight Harley. To be clear, this was not a size thing, just differing riding styles. That said, all riders, despite their preferences, enjoyed riding both bikes quite a bit.

Suspension, the kissing cousin of handling, offered another contrast in design styles. Harley-Davidson made a concerted effort to put more technology into the suspension of the Switchback, to get a low seat height while maintaining ride quality. However, our test got off to a rough start; the bike was delivered with the suspension set to full soft in the back, so that even our lightest riders were bouncing through corners. That said, it was super-smooth on LA’s rough freeways, and when we bumped up the preload a bit, it was very plush on choppy surfaces as well.

While the H-D did more with less, the Victory did more with more. While not as plush on rough highways, it used its longer travel to advantage on slower roads, absorbing bumps nicely. The Hard-Ball is proof that you don’t need to slam a bike into the weeds to turn heads, though aesthetically the back end looks like it rides high. Also, the Hard-Ball’s preload is easily (and infinitely) adjusted via an air valve under the right side cover, while the Switchback is dependent on an old-fashioned spanner wrench. Despite only being adjustable at the rear (and only for preload), both bikes did an admirable job of damping, even at differing spring pressures and in different conditions, with the Harley balancing it out the best.

Both of our test vehicles came equipped with an Anti Lock Braking System (ABS), and both needed it to some degree. The Switchback’s has a nice initial bite, and is very responsive, but harder application only brings marginal results. The Hard-Ball was no better despite having steel braided lines and dual discs. The initial bite on the Victory is non-existent, and a firm pull is required to get the bike to slow rapidly. ABS helps because you know you’re not going to overcook it, and can even kick in more rear.

Weighing In

Through a solid week of testing, we came to a stalemate in balancing the two bikes’ vastly different approaches; the suave intangibles of the Hard-Ball versus the design chops and value of the Switchback. We can’t even tell you to go with the one that fits you, as our two most veteran riders both picked against type.

With the Switchback, Harley-Davidson’s got a winner. They’ve tried Dyna-based baggers in the past, but even the versatile Dyna Convertible and T-Sport were both just utilitarian-looking versions of the base Dyna. The Switchback, with its unique retro vibe (the only current H-D to recall the AMF 70s), and excellent execution is finally the realization of that concept. Still, a running theme among our testers and even passersby, is that it’s just not that exciting to look at—at least sitting next to a Hard-Ball.

The Hard-Ball is a custom version of a touring bike, taking a bold step into unknown waters. It’s a premium product, and priced like one. One might think Victory missed the mark on pricing, considering the level of equipment offered, but perhaps it’s right on the money. When you don’t have a legion of customizers doing styling work for you, you take bold steps on your own to get to where you envision your product to be.

Because we're in the habit of picking a winner, we'll pick the Hard-Ball. Not the least because a bike should be evocative as well as solidly-designed. But in the end, what we picked matters not a whit, because every one of our testers agrees; if either of these bikes pricks your fancy, you can't go wrong. CR

Riding Positions

Ricky Talbot
:: 5 ft. 7 in., 162 lbs., 31-in. inseam

At first I didn’t understand why we were comparing these two motorcycles, and I kept switching my allegiance back and forth between the two. The Victory, being big for a guy my size, is actually easy and fun to ride. It was a little stretch for me to reach the controls, but the brakes, gearshift and handling all felt pretty smooth, manageable, and enjoyable. With its old school rat rod look, it’s a pretty sweet looking ride.

But the Harley fits me perfectly—from how easy it was to reach the controls, to how I settled into the seat and to how confidently I can maneuver at low speeds, to how comfortably I can park it.

It seems like they had me in mind when they designed this motorcycle. I really like the removable bags and windshield, plus the Switchback has power to spare. While both motorcycles are a powerful and fun to ride, I have to choose the Harley—it’s the best-fitting cruiser I’ve ever ridden.

Damon Rutledge
:: 5 ft. 7 in., 162 lbs., 31-in. inseam

First of all, the Victory looks like a badass bike—the black with red pin stripe combo is a great color scheme. I have never ridden a bike with ape hangers before, so that was a new experience, and one I really enjoyed. The Switchback had lots of power and is a beautifully-styled bike. For a day ride, just cruising on this nice classic machine with traditional lines was a great feeling. I was also impressed with the versatility of the bike; though personally I think removing the saddle bags makes the bike look like Frankenstein, with the two bolts sticking out of the side. Still, it is beautiful machine. My choice between the two, however, is hands-down the Victory. I had a lot more room to spread out on it, and the ape hangar handlebars sealed the deal for me. Another reason the bike appeals to me was the extremely large rear end, but that’s another article for another magazine.

Billy Bartels
:: 6 ft., 193 lbs., 33-in. inseam

Out of our collected testers, I’m pretty sure I’ve spent the most time on bikes with apes. So I’m pretty comfortable on the Hard-Ball, and can attest that it’s a well-done version of the genre.

But, while the Switchback’s riding position doesn’t exactly do it for me, everything else does. I like the responsiveness of the engine and brakes, the convertibility, the predictable transmission, and the subtle old-school look. The things I like more about the Switchback are the things that are harder to change, things that have to do with the character of the bike. Riding position and comfort are easily fixable via seat and bars, and even foot controls aren’t too hard to change.

With the $1500 I’ll save by getting the Switchback, I’ve got plenty left over to change the bars and seat to whatever I want. But none of my changes will be of a very bike-altering variety—the Switchback is my new favorite Dyna to ride with or without bags. So, while I like the Hard-Ball for the very good bike that it is, and I applaud Victory for having the cojones to take that idea to production, I have to pick the Switchback.

Andrew Cherney
:: 5 ft. 7 in., 155 lbs., 30-in. inseam

It’s another episode of pick your poison; two bikes, that except for having saddlebags, otherwise couldn’t be more different, in terms of size and attitude.

I was immediately drawn to the Switchback for the reasons you’d expect—it’s more compact, much lighter, and—the big bullet point—not as pricy. It looks confident in its own skin, without being in your face.

With the Hard-Ball i’m thinking, that’s a Sons of Anarchy prop, no way I’ll be comfy on that thing. But one ride, and sure enough, visions of going mano a mano with Jax Teller were dancing in my head. The fantasy was bolstered by real-world ride quality too, with surprisingly easy steering that inspired confidence, with good input and feedback, and solid ergos. Mainly though, it’s just a flat-out fun ride. On the down side, instrumentation is bare bones, and it’s hard to understand the steeper price tag of a supposedly “stripped-down” bike—especially when the fuller-featured Cross Country is the same price.

But there are some intangibles you feel with certain bikes. And the Hard Ball has it in spades.

SPECIFICATIONS

2012 H-D FLD SWITCHBACK 2012 VICTORY HARD-BALL
BASE PRICE $15,999 (as tested, $17,579 w/paint, ABS, Security) $18,999
COLORS Black, silver ($385), red ($385) Black
STANDARD WARRANTY Two years, unlimited miles Two years, unlimited miles
ENGINE
TYPE Air-cooled 45° V-twin Air/oil-cooled 50° V-twin
DISPLACEMENT, BORE X STROKE 1690 cc, 98.4 x 111.3mm 1731 cc, 101 x 108mm
VALVE TRAIN OHV, pushrod-actuated SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
COMPRESSION RATIO 9.6:1 9.4:1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI EFI
TRANSMISSION 6-speed 6-speed
FINAL DRIVE Belt Belt
CHASSIS
OVERALL LENGTH 92.8 in. 104.4 in.
WHEELBASE 62.8 in. 65.7 in.
WET WEIGHT 718 lbs. 758 lbs.(dry)
SEAT HEIGHT 27.4 in. 26.25 in.
RAKE/TRAIL 28.9°/5.84 in. 29°/5.6 in.
WHEELS 5-spoke aluminum Laced steel spokes
FRONT TIRE 130/70-18 130/70-18
REAR TIRE 160/70-17 180/60-16
FRONT BRAKE 300mm disc, four-piston caliper Dual 300 mm discs, four-piston calipers
REAR BRAKE 292mm disc, two-piston caliper 300mm disc, two-piston caliper
FRONT SUSPENSION 41.3mm cartridge fork; 3.85 in. travel 43mm inverted fork; 5.1 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Twin preload adjustable shocks; 2.13 in. travel Single, air-adjustable shock; 4.7 in. travel
FUEL CAPACITY 4.7 gal. 5.8 gal.
INSTRUMENTS Fuel gauge, tachometer, speedometer w/digital odometer, dual tripmeters, clock, range-to-empty, gear indicator Speedometer w/digital fuel gauge; tachometer,tripmeter, clock, gear indicator