2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback Review: Touring and Cruising

Truth be told, after viewing the first pics of the 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback, my initial impressions were anything but positive.

The only things that appealed to me were the five-spoke rims that harked back to my obsession for Steve McQueen’s 1967 Mustang Fastback in Bullit.

But as for the rest of this Switchback, questions lingered. Why would Harley design a miniature Road King? Those bags…that windshield…that beautiful headlight…but all built on a smaller, Dyna chassis?

The mind quickly swung in a different mood, though, following two weeks and 1000 miles of every type of riding from the daily commute to day trips.

Why? One trip to my favorite twisties and it was obvious that this was no Road King. This Harley had some talking to do, which was evident as it easily propelled me through a few turns on my self-named “Mountain Course” that I ride daily.

Except for bottoming out the floorboards, and the lack of optimal stopping power, this new creation from The Motor Company had the sportiest handling of any other Harley currently offered across the bagger line…and I’d argue even the other Dyna models offered, such as the Super Glide and Street Bob.

This was also my first experience with the new 103 that was introduced in the 2010 Electra Glide Ultra Limited; the V-Twin performed well, although more horsepower would be welcomed in stock form. But again, that chassis allowed for some serious riding, even when the comfy floorboards were shooting sparks 10-feet back…

First some background. Due to the popularity of Harley’s uber-expensive CVO Convertible, The Motor Company decided on offering the same kind of versatility to go from tourer to cruiser but on a machine that’s affordable to the general public.

Harley designed the Switchback on the smaller, less-expensive Dyna chassis, which seems to be an effort to gain more popularity with that under-35 crowd that Harley would like to have riding its machines.

After adding some hard bags, the 2012 Harley Switchback was born, the name implying that the rider can switch from a light tourer (emphasis on light) to a stylish boulevard cruiser and back again. This switchback happens quickly, and I mean quickly – the classically-styled windshield and hard saddlebags can literally be taken off in under a minute without tools. No joke…my best time was around 45 seconds.

While we’re discussing these “switchback” items, I might as well explain them. The windshield is nothing new to Harley; the classic shield attaches to the forks via four grommets, and stays in place due to resistance.

For my 5’11” stature, the screen offered great protection from the elements, with little wind buffeting at highway speeds. But this was mostly with a ¾ helmet on; when I wore a full-face helmet, the wind buffeting was much worse, tossing my head around sporadically, especially at speeds over 70 mph.

I enjoyed the protection so much that I actually used the windshield about 80-percent of the time I was testing the 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback. That, and the fact that once you remove the windshield you expose one of the most beautifully-designed headlights of on modern Harley. Yeah…it’s so beautiful it’s hard not to want to just stare at it while riding, hence the enjoyment of actually riding with the windshield; I simply didn’t want distractions.

The other “Switchback” items are the hard saddlebags, which are crafted of durable ABS plastic. The removing system is genius – slide the bags into their guides, and from the inside of each one  simple crank the knob to lock them in place. Removing is just as easy.

The color-matched bags are also lockable using the ignition key, and don’t interfere with luggage due to the lid’s design. But capacity is sparse; the bags swallow a combined 30 liters. They work well for minimal travels, but plan on packing light. To get a grasp of space, one bag barely swallows a size 42 Harley-Davidson FXRG leather jacket.

But likely the jacket won’t spend much time in those bags, considering the bike’s sporty-chassis. The 2012 Switchback was built on a platform that’s very similar to the older Super Glide Convertibles, a machine that like the other dynas of its time were known for their nimble handling.

This agility is mostly due to the setback fork angle, which is 28.9 degrees, and shorter wheelbase. The Switchback actually features a highway-happy 29.9-degree rake, but the fork angle is setback a bit for better handling. Technical jargon aside, these elements allow this bagger to handle very un-Harley like, even when your passengers are tensing up around turns at 65 mph.

Another attribute to the agile handling is the weight factor – the 2012 Harley-Davidson Switchback tips the scales at around 725 lbs. wet with the optional ABS, substantially lighter than the Road King’s 810-lbs. wet weight.

The other attribute is where all the handling work is handled – the suspension. The 41.3mm cartridge forks with triple-rate springs provide for an un-cruiser like 3.86 inches of travel that assists in the sharp handling, well sharper than all other baggers in Harley-Davidsons 2012 lineup. But with this low suspension travel, the ride can become a bit harsh on bumpier roads.

The forks are high-tech, featuring conventional damping in the right fork leg, but a more advanced damping in the right leg. Out back don’t let those cigar tubes fool you; underneath lies Nitrogen charged 36 mm monotube damper with five-step preload adjustable dual rate springs.

These springs also provide for a harsh ride due to only 2.13 inches of travel, especially when you have them adjusted to the stiffest (5) setting. Remember to bring a spanner wrench along if you’re riding the twisties and then heading to pick up the significant other…he or she will be able to ride much longer if you lighten the preload on the springs.

Although a bit stiff for a cruiser, I welcomed the suspension due to spending most of my riding time aboard sport bikes on country roads that beg for throttle mid-corner. But one thing I didn’t welcome in these situations was the brakes.

This was by far the biggest letdown on the 2012 Harley Switchback. This bike was made to move, and with the added horsepower of the 103 and agile chassis, riders who enjoy riding at speed will may be slightly disappointed with the Switchback’s single front 300mm disc brake squeezed by a four-piston caliper and single 292mm disc squeezed by a four-piston caliper out back.

Heading into turns at speed, it took much pressure to load up the front tire under braking. My usual two fingers on the fonrt-brake lever always turned into three within 20 minutes of riding the twisties.

But while riding the bike how it was designed to be ridden, at cruising speeds, the brakes perform decent if used 50/50 at all times. But dual discs would be more than welcome, and if that Switchback was in my garage, that would be the first upgrade.

As stated before, the Switchback I tested had the optional ($1,000 extra) ABS. The system performed well, and it was impossible to lock up the tires while slamming the brakes at speeds up to nearly 80 mph.

Although the ABS is nearly flawless, with minimal chirps while engaging, I’d bypass that $1,000 option and upgrade to a set of dual discs up front. But this ABS system is welcoming for the motorcycle community; it simply takes those hairy moments out of some biker’s lives, especially the novice.

This brings us to the TC103 ci (1690 cc); Harley installed the new Twin Cam103 engine in all 2012 Dyna, Softail and Touring models, except for the Dyna Street Bob and Dyna Super Glide Custom.

The engine shares the same stroke (4.38 inch) as the Harley’s TC96, but has a larger bore (3.875) for the added displacement, which bumps the compression ratio to a 9.6:1. The increased displacement can be felt, but the performance was not as drastic as I initially assumed, especially considering the lightweight of the Switchback.

Don’t forget, though, these impressions were built upon a bone-stock bike. I’m sure with a few upgrades this 103 engine can vastly outperform the TC96.

One thing that performs very optimal on the Switchback’s engine, just as the other newer Harleys, is the Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI). The throttle response was crisp, and throughout the test, the ESPFI didn’t present one hiccup. And this engine exhales out of a sleek two-into-one exhaust pipe, one that provides enough noise while cranking, but enough quietness while in relaxed-cruising mode.

The power of the 103 combined with the lightweight of the Harley-Davidson Switchback also makes for great fuel mileage. I was averaging around 38 to 40 mpg, and this was mostly while banging gears through the twisties.

And the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission hooked to the maintenance-free belt shifted smoothly, regardless of what situation was at hand. The Switchback mostly remained in fourth and fifth gears on the backroads, with sixth gear only engaged at highway speeds over 70 mph.

These low gears were needed to smooth out the vibrations; the 103 presents a bit more vibrations at idle than the TC96, even with the rubber-mounted engine. These vibrations lessen more and more until you hit the 3,500-rpm sweet spot or above on the 103, which is where I found myself wanting to be 100-percent of the time. At these rpms, the engine smoothes out and those mirrors are clearer than ever.

And while glancing through those mirrors, your body will remain in utmost comfort. The Switchback’s relatively low 27.4-inch seat height paired with the easy reach on the “mini apes” provides perfect ergonomics. These two factors, combined with comfortable floorboards that allow for many foot-position changes contingent on mood, create that comfort known throughout the Harley world.

This comfort combined with the handling and the bit of extra power of the TC 103 over the TC 96 creates one enjoyable machine. Sure, my initial impressions may have been thwarted by a few pictures of the 2012 Switchback, but these impressions quickly became futile.

I’m sure if the Switchback arrived with dual disc brakes up front, and a bit extra horsepower, it’d be a welcoming addition to the garage.

2012 Harley-Davidson Color Options/MSRP*:

  • Vivid Black / $15,999
  • Brilliant Silver Pearl / $16,384
  • Ember Red Sunglo / $16,384

*The $1195 Security Package Option bundles Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) with Smart Security System with proximity-based, hands-free security fob.

Photography by Jamie Biscotto


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