Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight review

Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight
It's not the most practical bike, but the Forty-Eight oozes character Credit: Stefano Gadda

Is the latest Harley the king of cool, despite its obvious limitations?

When Harley-Davidson’s design team set out to update the Forty-Eight for 2016, they had a perfect opportunity to remedy the popular V-twin’s most obvious shortcoming by fitting a larger fuel tank. After all, with a capacity of just 7.9 litres – well under two gallons – the “peanut” tank limits range to a paltry 80 miles or less.

Doubtless after much thought, the design team did opt to modify that tiny tank – by adding a series of painted stripes, designed to evoke memories of the Forty-Eight’s Sportster family forebears from the Seventies.

And quite right too. After all, the Forty-Eight is summed-up by its petite petrol-holder, and named after it too: the peanut tank was introduced in 1948, on a suitably small 125cc model called the Hummer, before later being adopted as a cool, minimalist feature by larger models.

The Forty-Eight is all about looking and feeling good. (And if you don’t get that, you’d perhaps do well to look elsewhere and keep your blood pressure under control.)

The air-cooled, 1,202cc V-twin develops a modest 60bhp Credit: Stefano Gadda

These days Harley-Davidson makes quite a few sensible, practical bikes. The Forty-Eight – with its classical triangular profile, fat tyres and single seat also contributing to a cut-down custom look – doesn’t pretend to be one of them.

Those tank stripes are echoed elsewhere: in new seat stitching, slotted exhaust shields, rear sprocket and belt guard. Other detail updates include incorporating the tail-light in the indicators to tidy the rear end. That single saddle is an ultra-low 710mm off the ground, making the bike manageable even for small riders despite its substantial 252kg weight.

Harley could also have updated the air-cooled, 1,202cc V-twin engine, but opted to leave it unchanged. There’s no ride-by-wire throttle, alternative engine modes or traction control. The American firm doesn’t release performance figures but there’s no change to the modest maximum power output of about 60bhp.

Does that matter? Not really. The Forty-Eight is not particularly fast or exciting, but it pulls reasonably crisply and strongly from low revs, changes reliably if sedately through its five-speed gearbox, and cruises at 70mph feeling respectably smooth and long-legged, thanks to its retained rubber-mounting system. Given the upright riding position, that generally feels fast enough. The only engine-related disappointment is arguably the new, Euro 4-complaint exhaust system’s muted sound.

Most of the development team’s effort went into the steel-framed chassis, which is uprated with thicker front forks, linked by a brace, and new rear shocks with progressively wound springs. Handling is good by Sportster standards, though the short-travel rear suspension still feels crude at times, especially over larger bumps – which, with the forward-set footrests putting almost all the rider’s weight through the fairly thinly padded seat, can be spine-jarringly painful.

A real style statement, whichever way you look at it Credit: Stefano Gadda

Enthusiastic cornering soon uses the available ground clearance, long before the fat, Harley-branded Michelin tyres run out of grip. New, lighter 16-inch cast wheels possibly give a slightly more manoeuvrable feel.

Braking is adequate if not outstanding, thanks to single front and rear discs in conjunction with an efficient ABS system.

That’s an example of practical engineering, but it would be a mistake to expect too much of that from what is unashamedly one of the least sensible bikes on the market. Retained quirky features include thumb-operated indicator switches, and mirrors mounted below the handlebars. The rear view is clearer than you might expect, but still partly forearm.

For those who appreciate its uncompromising approach, the Forty-Eight’s idiosyncrasies are easy enough to accept. There are plenty of better-performing, more capable motorcycles than this Harley, many of them costing considerably less than its £9,675 (or £10,075 for the beautifully finished metallic Hard Candy paint option).

That, of course, is missing the point about a bike which, far from apologising for requiring frequent top-ups, proudly advertises its retro-themed rebellion. The Forty-Eight is not a bike for every rider or every occasion, but for short trips it’s a gloriously cool (that word again) and characterful companion. And with that name, nobody can say they haven’t been warned.

Harely-Davidson Forty-Eight

Tested:  1,202cc four-stroke V-twin, five-speed gearbox

Price/on sale: £9,675 (in black; colours £9,875; Hard Candy £10,075)/now

Power/torque: 60bhp approx /71lb ft @ 3,550rpm

Top speed: 110mph (estimated)

Range: 70 miles @ 45mpg (estimated)

Verdict: Boldly designed V-twin cruiser that majors on aggressive street style and character with little regard to practicality – hopeless as an all-round bike but great fun for short trips

Telegraph rating: Three stars out of five


Indian Scout Sixty, from £8,999

Indian’s smaller-capacity, 999cc version of the Scout is a worthy opponent, combining its 72bhp liquid-cooled V-twin engine with a sound chassis, neat styling and a competitive price.

Victory Vegas 8-Ball, from £9,499

Victory might lack the heritage of Harley-Davidson but its Vegas family comprises stylish cruisers with potent, 1,731cc V-twin motors, and the black, entry-level 8-Ball is good value.

Yamaha XVS1300 Custom, from £9,299

Japan’s coolest cruiser is powered by a 1,304cc V-twin motor that produces a flexible 72bhp, and features chopper-derived styling that incorporates a large-diameter, 21in front wheel.

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