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Harley-Davidson's Sports Glide Returns After 25 Years

Rich Duprey, The Motley Fool

Probably no single motorcycle model can reverse Harley-Davidson's (NYSE: HOG) sliding sales -- not even the iconic Sports Glide, returning to the company's lineup after a 25-year absence. While it does have the potential to bring in some additional sales, as it gives riders a big bike feel while still being sporty enough to have fun with, there remain hurdles that may be too high for the company to surmount.

Big things in small packages

When Harley-Davidson killed off the Dyna this past summer by folding it into the Softail line, it was an indication that the company felt that having a single platform that could perform multiple functions was the way to grow sales. The Sport Glide fits neatly into that dynamic.

Harley-Davidson Sport Glide

Image source: Harley-Davidson.

First introduced in 1982, the Sport Glide was the offspring of the Super Glide, but featured a frame-mounted fairing, hard saddlebags, and a powerful V4 engine that was originally produced for Harley's Project Nova -- concept bikes to be built around various muscular engine configurations. Unfortunately, the full potential of the project was never realized as funding was cut for it after AMF, which initiated the project, ultimately decided it would not be profitable and cut funding for it.

At the time, Dynas were fast becoming a key facet of the Harley image, and the Sport Glide was seen as expendable. It was discontinued in 1993.

A second chance at life

The new iteration of the Sport Glide being built on the reinvented Softail frame looks to be filling the Dyna's void, blending a suitability for both touring and cruising into a single good-looking bike.

The Sport Glide is dark and foreboding, from its blacked out Milwaukee-Eight 107 engine (pushing 108 pound-feet of torque) to the black mufflers, yet it looks like its also ready for ripping around town with its new, low-slung mini-fairing (designed to deflect wind around the body), and detachable rigid bags.

The Sport Glide has inverted front forks, and features the Softail's new rear monoshock suspension, which connects the swingarm to the frame beneath the seat and allows riders to customize the fit. The bike also has all the gee-whiz technological amenities common to most bikes these days, like keyless ignition, cruise control, and LED lights everywhere.

Importantly, it's low-slung enough with a seat height under 26 inches and forward-mounted foot controls positioned for smaller riders.  It's clear the Sport Glide is designed for what Harley hopes will be its new, winning demographic.

Smiling men and women by their motorcycles

Image source: Getty Images.

A new appeal

Today's average rider is younger, more often urban, and more likely to be a woman, and the budget-busting price tags of Harley touring bikes have left it scrambling to attract those customers to its brand. To achieve its stated goal of bringing 2 million new riders to Harley-Davidson and the sport, the company has an ambitious plan to develop 100 new models over the next 10 years. The Sport Glide is the ninth such new bike introduced, and it ticks off a lot of the boxes to help it appeal to its new target demographics.

Harley-Davidson's problem these days is, of course, a dearth of middle-aged male riders buying big bikes. Sales hit a five-year low last year, and over the first nine months of 2017, U.S. sales were down another 8% year over year.

While the Sport Glide is a start, it may not be enough. Starting at just under $18,600 it's still expensive. It sits a good $4,000 above the Street Bob, the least expensive bike in the Softail lineup, and right beside the most expensive ones, like the Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, and Breakout. It is, however, priced well below the touring bikes and CVOs with which it shares some styling lines.

Harley-Davidson has problems no single bike can fix -- nor can 100 of them, for that matter. The Sport Glide certainly looks like a worthy successor to the Dyna and offers a blend of speed and style that can be attractive. But it appears Harley is continuing to indulge its penchant for pricing itself out of a declining market. That suggests the company won't be turning around anytime soon.

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Rich Duprey has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.