2012 H-D FLD Dyna Switchback Motorcycle Review

Harley-Davidson is casting a wider net for younger customers. And its latest lure is the FLD Dyna Switchback, which amounts to the lightest and least expensive bagger in the lineup. For under $16,000, a customer can ride out on a touring bike that weighs less than 700 pounds and boasts a user-friendly seat height of 26.1″. Clearly, the folks in Milwaukee have aimed this bike at new, and perhaps less experienced, riders.

But don’t be fooled by first impressions. The FLD Dyna Switchback is a bona fide bagger, a motorcycle that will hammer out the miles during a cross-country ride, yet as the name suggests, it can readily switch to around-town mode. You essentially get two models in one, thus the name Switchback. Best of all, you can make the switch in less than a minute if you’re deft with your hands; the lockable saddlebags and Lexan-base windscreen utilize Harley’s patented detachable mounting system so each component pops off and on in seconds. About the toughest part of the conversion is finding a secure place in the garage to store the bags and windscreen so that they won’t get scratched or dinged.

I had the opportunity to put about 1,300 miles on the Switchback, riding our Ember Red Sunglo test bike (also available in Vivid Black or Brilliant Silver Pearl) from Park City, Utah, to Sturgis, South Dakota. You can read in our sister publication, Motorcycle Bagger, about how the bike performed during a tour, but for now, my biggest observation is this: the more I rode the Switchback, the more I appreciated what it has to offer. By the end of the week I found myself defending the bike’s honor — this is not a baby bagger. This is a real motorcycle, folks, one that even a seasoned rider like myself, who has nearly 50 years riding experience, can enjoy.

But for the doubting Thomas who contends that this Dyna-based bagger really isn’t a bagger, let’s draw up a few historical facts that will help position the Switchback as a real motorcycle, not just a beginner’s bagger. Among the styling features that Harley-Davidson pointed out during its presentation are its chromed tube shock absorbers that purposely resemble those on early Duo-Glides, considered the world’s premier touring model in its time. The first Duo-Glide was offered in 1958, so let’s use that as a benchmark.

The Duo-Glide checks in with a 60″ wheelbase and weighs 648 pounds. The Switchback’s specs are 62.8″ and 696 respectively — both more than the manly Duo-Glide’s figures. Top speed for the 1958 model is 100 mph; I cruised across Wyoming’s wide open stretches at 90 mph aboard the FLD, and its big 103″ engine could have easily sustained 100 mph had I made the request. We won’t even get into the vibration factor; those 74″ Pans are notorious earth shakers. I can go on, but you get the point. The Dyna Switchback is bigger, and offers more and better performance than an early Duo-Glide in practically every way.

Despite my spirited riding habits, our Switchback averages 43.8 mpg, nearly 2 mpg above what Harley-Davidson advertises!

So let’s cut to the chase to discuss the Switchback’s most alluring feature, the detachable bags and windscreen. The windscreen uses the familiar detachable mounting system, and the bags have three proprietary rubber-grommet mounting points to isolate the bags from vibration. A quick twist of a knob inside each saddlebag releases its latching mechanisms. Slide the bags rearward for removal and you’re good to go. The grommets on the lower fender mount popped out on our test bike’s right saddlebag, so be vigilant here.

Visually, the saddlebags resemble those on the larger FL models, but in truth they have about 75 percent of the storage capacity. Like the familiar FL bags, the FLD’s bags have top-loading lids that lock using the bike’s ignition barrel key. The lids use a different latching mechanism than the standard FL bags, too. To close you swing the lid in, down, and then back toward you before securing the latch. They’re watertight and hold a surprising amount of gear. The saddlebags also necessitated the 2-into-1 exhaust system. Stacked or staggered pipes would have interfered with the saddlebag placement. It’ll be interesting to see what the aftermarket delivers as replacement pipes.

In terms of rider comfort, the Switchback has full-length floorboards for your feet, what Harley-Davidson describes as a mini-apehanger handlebar on pullback risers, and a two-up seat. In addition to the low seat height, the rider’s chair is contoured so that most vertically challenged riders can place both feet on the pavement at stops. I’m a shade taller than 5’8″, and I found the seat’s front taper to be excessive; a long stint on the interstate proved too uncomfortable because there wasn’t adequate thigh support for me.

But for back road riding, the Switchback’s saddle was fine, and I could move from side to side for weight transfer when cornering. Moreover, the FLD’s suspension proved to be compliant, with damping rates in the cartridge fork and nitrogen-charged shock absorbers matched closely with their corresponding spring rates. The rear springs have five preload adjustment points, too. I set my bike’s preload on number three and with a full load (including a strap-on trunk that I placed on an optional quick-detach sissybar/luggage rack); the Switchback felt surefooted and steady through the turns. You’ll probably want to dial back the spring preload a notch when riding without a load.

The Switchback has the same 29 degrees of steering rake found on most other Dynas, but additional trail was factored in to improve straight-line stability. Even so, the bike is easy to maneuver in tight places and at low speeds. Moreover, steer-in for turns is precise and predictable, and the net result is a bagger that’s easy to ride under practically every condition you’ll encounter, and there’s none of the headshake that’s common on Electra Glides.
Like all Dynas, the Switchback’s 103″ engine is rubber-mounted. Even so, I noticed vibration in the floorboards — more than I’ve experienced in a larger FL, but not enough to hinder the ride. There’s no heel/toe rocker shift lever, though. The Switchback has only a toe shifter, but the payoff is that you have more room to place your left foot on the board. The most comfortable foot placement for me was to wedge the sole of my boot just ahead of the ankle onto the rear of the board. This seemed to minimize the vibration factor to my feet.

Single front and rear disc brakes proved enough stopping power, but for riders looking for the safest stopping performance, Harley offers optional ABS as part of the Security Package Option bundle that includes a hands-free security key fob for the Switchback. Our bike was so equipped, as evidenced by the small black box beneath the battery box. Fortunately, I have never had occasion to use the ABS, but my experience in the past tells me that this option is worth the additional $1,195. No doubt the Switchback is going to be popular among new riders and women who want their own baggers. But in truth, the FLD is a model that is suited to a wide range of riders, from beginners to experienced saddle tramps. It’s a bagger whose time has long been overdue. AIM

NEW BIKE REVIEW By Dain Gingerelli

Story as published in the December 2012 issue of American Iron Magazine.