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Harley-Davidson rumbles for a comeback with new Blackline

February 23, 2011 |  3:58 pm

 It’s been a tough couple of years for the motorcycle industry, as U.S. sales rode into a ditch along with the economy.

But manufacturers are rumbling for a comeback, including Harley-Davidson with its newest offering, the Blackline.

The rare Harley to make a midyear model entrance, the 2011 Blackline is an understated badass -- excuse me: minimalist “dark custom” -- that was fast-tracked to fill a gap left by the discontinued Night Train and to freshen Harley’s softail lineup with a long custom.

Its wheelbase is stretched to an oil-tanker-esque 66.5 inches. And the bike feels even longer from the saddle, which is an ultra low 24 inches. This is a machine that will appeal to riders with chimpanzee physiques -– stubby legs and gangly arms -- who like to look like thugs.

HarleyBlacklineThe lines of the Blackline only add to the illusion that riders are sitting in, rather than on, their rides. Jutting out front is a classic, 21-inch spoked wheel, while out back is a modest 16-incher with an even more modest 144 mm tread tire. But don’t be fooled by the numbers. This isn’t a bike for beginners, or even returning riders, despite a starting price of $15,499 and the option of anti-lock brakes.

Its counterbalanced, rigid-mounted 96-cubic-inch V-twin has great off-the-line starting power, with 89 foot-pounds of torque. And I found its four-piston-caliper brakes were more than ample to slow the bike when a sedan cut me off on the freeway, careening across three lanes to catch an exit.

Slow-speed turns on the Blackline are, however, a bit like maneuvering a cement mixer.

What I most liked about the Blackline are the subtle design details, like the blacked-out badge on the tank and a two-tone paint job that mirrors the two-tone colors of the engine. The matte black cylinders with the matte gray heads topped with shiny black rocker tops is a nod to certain panheads and shovelheads from the '50s and '60s.

In an attempt to rip itself off even more as Harley delves deep into its bobber past and declutters this modern-day machine, the speedo has been moved from the tank to the triple clamp. Instead of a gas gauge there is merely a warning light to stop, get gas, keep riding.

2011 Harley-Davidson Blackline

Base price: $15,499
Price as tested: $15,998
Powertrain: Electronic sequential port fuel injected, air-cooled, twin Cam 96B V-twin, pushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters, two valves per cylinder, six-speed transmission
Displacement: 96 cubic inches, or 1,584 cubic centimeters
Maximum torque: 89 pound-feet at 3,250 rpm
Wheelbase: 66.5 inches
Seat height (laden): 24 inches
Curb weight: 682.5 pounds
EPA fuel economy: 35 mpg city/54 mpg highway

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: 2011 Harley-Davidson Blackline. Credit: Harley-Davidson Motor Co.