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The 2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S is the kind of black-and-chrome evil animal a lot of people think of when they imagine what a good Harley might look like. But really, it looks good because it’s not trying too hard.

H-D introduced the West Coast-style Low Rider S in 2017 on the now-defunct Dyna chassis. The formula was pretty simple: pairing a big engine with a sportier ride, blacked-out everything, and bronze wheels. When Dyna production ended in 2018, the Low Rider S went with it. Now, it’s been revived on the more expensive Softtail chassis. The old concept remains the same in the 2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S, which is good because it makes for a pretty neat bike.

(Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson brought me to San Diego to ride its new Low Rider S, as well as eat and stay free of charge.)

The Low Rider S exists because many performance-oriented Harley enthusiasts were already customizing all of these parts on their own bikes, so the company figured, why not buy it as a package deal straight from Milwaukee?

This desirable SoCal/Club-style look finds its way onto the new Low Rider S with a scad of parts. Included in the package is a gloss black air intake, a matte black two-into-two shotgun exhaust, dual disc brakes on the front wheel, a solo seat, a color-matched headlight fairing, and a one-inch diameter motocross-style handlebar on four-inch risers.

The Ride

The weather in San Diego was near-perfect for a group ride. Isn’t it always? There’s hardly any better feeling than a southern California motorcycle ride when the sun is shining. The day’s route took us out of the city on several miles of highway transit to some excellent mountain roads inland. It was a great test of what these bikes will be used for, including a mix of steady-state cruising and light corner carving.

This isn’t a sportbike, but it’s not exactly something you would use to traverse great swathes of the countryside either. It is a Low Rider, and its suspension is too stiff, and its riding position is a bit too folded up for all-day cruising. I rode this two-wheeled rook for about 100 miles total, stopping in the middle for lunch, and my tailbone started to feel the strain about halfway home.

That isn’t to say the literal pain in my ass wasn’t worth it. I’ve ridden a lot farther on a lot less comfortable bikes. It’s all about your mindset, right?

Beginning with the Milwaukee-Eight 114 cubic inch sat right under your soft bits, the single-cam eight-valve engine provides grunty power that will easily move the bike and your butt up to highway speeds in a flash. This engine revs like a diesel freight truck, however, running out of steam well before its 5,500 rpm redline. Harley gave the Low Rider S an almost-1.9-liter two-cylinder with a reasonable claim of 119 lb-ft of torque and 100.5 horsepower.

That power is plenty for this bike’s needs and more than enough to shove you face-first into the great wide open. This is the same engine Harley uses in its large cruiser bike range, and those aren’t exactly underpowered. But considering this “lightweight” Harley still comes in at 650 pounds dry, I certainly wouldn’t want any less power than what is on tap.

This bike’s defining features are a very low seat, mid-controls, and handlebar riser. Ergonomically, that means my legs were bent a bit more than I like, but not in an uncomfortable way, and I had to reach a bit for the bars. It’s an alright seating position that feels fine at first but begins to get old after a couple of hours. Of course, the handlebars can be canted rearward pretty easily, and Harley does offer a forward-controls kit (also in black, natch) if that’s more your bag.

The low riding position and stiffer suspension mean you’re pretty dialed into what you’re feeling in the ride, however. Up front, the rake of the forks has been reduced from the 30 degrees of the standard Low Rider to 28 degrees in the Low Rider S. You can feel the road through the stiffer 43 mm inverted fork, and it responds quickly to lean and bar inputs. At the back, the Softtail’s traditional hidden single-coilover has also been given an angle update to provide a bit more travel (a still-shockingly low 4.4 inches) at such a low ride height. Under the seat is a hydraulic adjustment knob to tweak pre-load to keep up with riding conditions.

While its weight is a bit ungainly at parking lot speeds, most of it disappears when you find a curvy road. With a decently stiff chassis, inverted fork, and lightweight aluminum wheels, the Low Rider S stays planted and stable. The shallow maximum lean angle of this bike means you won’t be putting a knee down, but it’ll hold its own on a series of twisties.

It’s hard to have a bad day on two wheels, but this big brash bomber encourages you to smile, no matter how much you also want to look like a tough guy.

Who’s It For?

Tough guys and wannabe tough guys.

For real, though, it’s aimed at a younger crowd than the traditional Softtail, bringing I’ll-stab-you-in-the-eye-with-a-foreign-object barfight looks to a tame easy-to-ride quasi-sporty HD.

Low rider custom culture began—as so many do—in coastal California way back in the heady days of the 1980s. That was almost forty years ago now, and anyone who remembers it first hand is surely no longer part of “a younger crowd,” but styles from the era continue to stoke nostalgia today.

The Low Rider S was an instant hit when Harley launched the package two years ago. With a more competent chassis and arguably better ergo, the new one should be equally well-liked among buyers. I’m not sure that this bike appeals to an entirely new demographic, but it might pull an existing V-twin buyer upmarket.

I am admittedly quite taken with this Harley. It looks really cool, and that’s what a lot of motorcyclists are looking for in two-wheeled transport. As a younger thirty-something myself, this is one of the few bikes in Harley’s lineup that appeals to my desires. Or well, it would if it weren’t so expensive.

It is also available in silver, but it really needs to be black for the look to work.

What’s Good

As I wrote just a few seconds ago, this bike looks totally badass. Without any semblance of chrome on the thing, it looks like something that wouldn’t be out of place in a SoCal custom motorcycle club straight from the factory line.

There is something about the feeling you get riding this damn thing that makes it unforgettable. You don’t care that it’s loud, that the wind beats you about the head and chest, that its stiff-mounted V-twin vibrates your whole body. Not only can you learn to look past these sensations to focus on its stiff chassis and more-than-competent brake package, but the bike actually encourages you to learn to love them.

You ride on a huge wave of torque on this steel horse. It’s easy to keep the bike in second or third gear for much of the fun road riding because you seldom find the need to downshift. The monster torque will just dig you up out of the corner, and that’s something I dig in a motorcycle.

The gold wheels are absolutely bitchin’. That deserves its own bullet point. I’m a big fan of gold wheels.

What’s Weak

The Low Rider S has a 114 cubic inch motor versus the standard Low Rider’s 107. This is good for power and rideability, but it also means a beefed-up clutch package. The little pull lever to your left is sturdy and unbending, but the force I needed to exert with my index and middle finger was annoying at first and became downright painful throughout the day. Especially at stoplights and in heavy traffic, I found myself desperately seeking neutral to alleviate my digital pain. Which would have been a little better if neutral were easy to find with the chunky shift lever. It is not.

One aspect of the bike’s throwback-for-the-sake-of-throwback that I cannot abide is the tank-mounted gauge cluster. This vintage cue pulls the speedo, tach, and ancillary idiot lights far below the rider’s line of sight. In my case, wearing a helmet with a chin bar blocked sight of the gauges entirely. I was forced to crane my neck downward significantly to get a good look at them, which is not a great thing in a car, and an even less great thing on a motorcycle.

Back in the good ’ol days, fuel tanks were split into two halves to ease manufacturing, and the Motor Company stuck a style plank over the split, which also housed the gauges. Today, there is no such split to make a 5-gallon tank and no such need for a cover.

The bike’s price of $17,999 is, well, I mean, it’s expensive. Admittedly, this is the least expensive way to get a Harley with the 114 cubic inch Milwaukee Eight engine, but it carries a $3,100 premium over the standard 107 Low Rider, and that feels like a big jump to me.

Even more significantly, one-state-over rival Indian offers a similarly radical looking and similarly low Scout Bobber (which weighs about 100 pounds less, though has fewer torques) for just $10,999. I will admit that these bikes aren’t direct analogs, but if you’re looking for a sporty-ish badass blacked-out American V-twin with 100 horsepower that loves to drag footpegs, they’re closer than you might think.

And finally, it’s minor but I’ve complained about it in previous Harley-Davidson reviews, so I’ll mention it here as well, the mirrors are too narrow to be practically functional for this wide-set gentleman. Give me a set of bar-end mirrors, and this would be completely remedied.

Early Verdict

Yeah, I like it. Harley-Davidson purposely brought us to the SoCal home of Low Rider customs for a reason, this is the perfect place to ride one. This is a bike that is perfect for a combination of American southwest roads, from the wide two-lanes of the red rock deserts to the snaking mountain roads of the coastal and Sierra ranges.

I’m not much for horses, but I imagine this is a bit of what it was like for a bowlegged cowpoke to ride the open range. There’s undefinable connectivity with the old world on this bike. It’s an entirely North American sensation, inspired by the flowing west that I don’t believe can correlate to anywhere else. There’s something about seeing everything sprawl out below you from the top of a ridge, or peering up at a mountain range laid out ahead of you, a full view of the road ahead, and nobody on it.

That’s the kind of feeling that this bike ignites within the rider. It’s the good parts of America. The optimism, even the kind that’s perhaps unearned at times. The thought of endless potential. It brings out the best, and maybe a little of the evil, in us.

Throw a leg over one and head for the hills, or the coast, or the massive sprawling desert. Just be sure to stop to stretch every now and again.

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About the author

Bradley Brownell

Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.