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THROTTLE JOCKEY SUSAN CARPENTER

This is entry level? OK, but you'd better hold on

September 12, 2007|SUSAN CARPENTER

Big Dog's got a brand-new motorcycle for 2008. Predictably canine in nomenclature, it's called the Mutt.

Having spent a day aboard Big Dog's latest, I'd say it's a Rottweiler-Labrador mix -- fierce and powerful but also friendly and coordinated. With its 682 pounds powered by a throbbing 117-cubic-inch S&S V-twin motor, this manageable ProStreet isn't quite the novice bike it's billed as, though it is the puppy of Big Dog's five-model lineup. With a 37-degree rake to the frame, 6-inch stretch along the backbone and 250 mm rear tire, it has the least threatening geometry. It also has the lowest price tag: $24,900.

Big Dog, in business since 1994, is the world's largest custom motorcycle manufacturer. Even so, the Kansas company will be making just 3,500 bikes this year. That's down from a peak of 4,900 in 2005.

Clearly, the number of riders who are willing to tap their declining home equities for a $30,000 toy is experiencing a major downturn, so custom shops have to get smart if they're going to stop hemorrhaging sales back to the manufacturer they initially won them from -- Harley-Davidson. In Big Dog's case, that means two things: upping the reliability of its rides and broadening its customer base.

On the reliability front, the company has started tracking warranty claims to pinpoint technological weak spots, which have, in the year they've been watched, mostly involved the electronic harness controller. Later this year, Big Dog will also set up a Technician Education Program to train mechanics in its proprietary systems throughout the year, instead of annually.

As for finding new customers, Big Dog is branching out to the more modest end of the market with lower priced and easier-to-ride models like the Mutt, which company reps say is the first of a small handful of entry-level bikes it will roll out over the next two years.

All Big Dog bikes use the same torque-y 1,916 cc, 45-degree V-twin motor, so an entry-level Big Dog is about a reduction in dimensions, not power. In terms of height and length, the Mutt is more like a pug. It's short. It's also the narrowest bike in the Big Dog lineup. Not that you'd want to run it on a balance beam. The bike is still 8 1/2 feet long and a little challenging at slow speeds, though the Balance Drive, which moves the final drive to the right side of the bike, distributes its weight more evenly.

One of the major developments for 2008 Big Dogs is the electronic fuel injection, which was only available on one model last year -- the Bulldog. This year, it's available on the K-9, Pitbull and Mastiff. The Mutt, meanwhile, has the old-school Super G carb. While the Mutt meets EPA emissions standards and is now available everywhere else in the country, it won't be sold in California until January, when a backing plate is added to the carburetor to meet the state's evaporative emissions requirements.

Another new 2008 development on all Big Dog models, including the Mutt, is the clutch, which was redesigned in conjunction with Baker Drivetrain for easier shifting and a 50% reduction in pull effort. It's still stiff enough that I felt a little like Capt. Hook at the end of my day's ride, but it's more supple than the 2007 Big Dog I rode. It's also easier to find neutral, thanks to a neutral detent system that readily locates that soft spot between first and second as you coast to a stop.

Long red lights aren't the best environment for an air-cooled bike like the Mutt, but they're certainly good for the ego. The bike's 80-spoke wheels, chunky chrome controls and, at least on the bike I was riding, tribal tramp-stamp paint job on the stretched and squared tank were flat-out eyeball magnets. The Mutt may sound like some mangy, flea-infested mongrel, but its grooming is worthy of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

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susan.carpenter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2008 Big Dog Mutt

Base price: $24,900

Powertrain: Air-cooled, S&S 45-degree V-twin, Super G carburetor, BDM balance drive, Baker six-speed transmission.

Displacement: 117 cubic inches, or 1,916 cc

Bore and stroke: 4 1/8 inches by 4 3/8 inches

Rake: 37 degrees frame, 2 degrees tree

Stretch: 6 inches backbone

Seat height: 24.25 inches

Dry weight: 682 pounds

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