2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Launch

Photos: Riles and Nelson

In August, we told you about Harley-Davidson’s new Softail lineup, an ambitious step forward into the future for the MoCo.

At the end of the month I flew down to California to ride the eight new models with a pack of journos. We spent two days aboard the machines, meaning I wasn’t able to get much time aboard any individual bike. However, it was enough time for some first impressions of the new bikes, and enough time to evaluate Harley-Davidson’s efforts as a whole.

Here’s the skinny:

The changes

The big news is that Harley-Davidson has killed off the old Dyna line and updated its Softail lineup. The eight new bikes all get a new frame (a wide version for fat-tire models, a narrow version for skinny-tire models). There are also three different rake angles, depending on the model, ranging from  28 to 30 to 34 degrees.

This frame is probably the biggest key to the whole product update, as it allowed  Harley-Davidson to achieve several design goals on the new bike.

The new bikes are all lighter; most are more than 20 kg lighter (the Fat Boy has gone on a serious diet). The redesign also allowed Harley-Davidson to optimize the frame for its Milwaukee Eight engine (oil-cooled in these models, with the cooler tastefully hidden in the frame’s downtubes). The Milwaukee Eight itself was re-designed for the bike, with a dual counterbalancer cutting down vibrations — a necessary move, now that the engine is hard-mounted to frame, for rigidity.

The frame is the key to all the improvements on the new Softail line.

There are two versions of the Milwaukee Eight available for these bikes; the 107 cubic inch version is standard, but some models can be upgraded to a 114 ci version.

Improved handling was a big part of the MoCo’s re-design plan, and along with the stiffer frame and lighter weight, Harley-Davidson also updated the rear suspension. There’s a monoshock in back, instead of the previous dual-shock system on the older Softail models. H-D’s designers also made sure preload adjustment was far more accessible on the new bikes, so owners can dial in their own settings (some bikes have remote adjustability, some have under-seat adjustment).

This handlebar clamp-mounted speedo is a pretty small feature in the grand scheme of things, but it tidied up the front end of several of the new models quite nicely.

The front forks are also new, with the dual-bending valve technology that was first introduced in touring models in 2016. The Fat Bob goes a step further, with more up-to-date USD forks.

Other changes include new tires for these machines, sourced from Dunlop. All eight models get LED headlights, but oddly, only the Deluxe gets complete all-around LED lighting. A few models get an interesting digital gauge built into the handlebar riser clamp.

The results

Before getting into the machines model-by-model, I can tell you the across-the-board changes are for the better.

My seat time aboard Big Twins is limited, but I did a Toronto-Arizona-Toronto trip on a Switchback a few years back, and I can still remember that disconcerting feeling of a flexi-frame combined with a noodly front end — and that was the Dyna platform, supposedly Harley-Davidson’s performance chassis. The old Softail was worse.

The oil-cooled 107 ci version of the Milwaukee Eight now has a dual counterbalancer, to reduce vibes in the solid-mount Softail chassis. It is a noticeable improvement.

The new chassis and suspension are remarkably improved. Our route last month took us through about 500 kilometres of mountain riding in California’s Angeles and San Bernadino national forests. Although these tight twisties were not the typical place you’d expect to hoon around on a Harley-Davidson, the bikes were able to handle it with much more composure than the outgoing platforms. Mid-corner wiggling was minimal. However, it’s worth pointing out the California roads we took during the launch were mostly very smooth, and a romp through some typically potholed Canadian byways might reveal some shortcomings of the suspension and frame.

But although the basic Softail platform is a big improvement, there’s still significant variation among the eight new models. Here’s a closer bike-by-bike look:

Old-school mini-apes and sensible footpeg placement made the Street Bob a lot of fun.
Street Bob

This bike has the lowest price point of the new Softails; it’s the next step up from a Sportster, and as far as styling goes, there’s not a lot of difference except the new engine. Harley-Davidson’s marketers say this bike is aimed to bring in riders from competition-oriented motorcycles, and that it’s customization-friendly. As it comes, with mini-apes, fork gaiters, and the riser-integrated speedo, it already has plenty of trimmed-down retro feel, and I think the only downside visually is the flat paint.

On the street, this machine is a hoot, mostly. Blasting through the desert straights and the more sweeping corners, it makes you feel like Peter Fonda, on a date with destiny. It’s light for a Big Twin, and has a real-world mid-peg seating position, so it’s much easier to move around. The only real issue I had was with the angle of the bar ends; their positioning made tight-quarters maneuvering feel awkward, like my elbows might bang into my rib cage. That’s an issue with individual rider fitment, though, and other riders could find this isn’t a problem.

MSRP for the Street Bob is $ 17,999; other details are here.

The Softail project manager described the Low Rider as a bit of a sleeper, and I think he was right. It was much more fun to ride than I expected.
Low Rider

The updated Low Rider surprised me. Visually, I thought the bike was a bit of a dog’s breakfast, with a weird pullback on the handlebar and a tank-mounted gauge cluster with a revolting profile. Because of its name, I assumed the machine would run out of ground clearance quickly, dragging pegs through moderately curvy roads.

This wasn’t the case. In fact, the Low Rider was one of the better-handling bikes on the launch; the footpegs and handlebar combined to create an upright riding position, with your body mass centralized and plenty of leverage potential on the grips. The bar ends might have interfered with a highly-aggressive riding style that needed a lot of upper body movement, but due to group ride dynamics, I wasn’t able to find out if that was the case. (Darn those slowpoke Americans! – Ed.) However, I felt as if the Low Rider would easily handle a decently extra-legal pace through the mountains, and would like to get some more seat time on it to evaluate it more properly.

You can debate about the bike’s aesthetics; some riders may like the AMF-era lines. If that’s the case, then this machine offers not only decent handling and power, but also some interesting retro appeal, and may prove to be one of the best sellers in the new lineup.

MSRP for the Low Rider is $ 18,999; more details here.

The Softail Slim lost about 15 kg, but still felt porky through the corners, thanks to riding geometry.
Softail Slim

The Softail Slim looks like it should be a fun little scoot, but nobody I talked with on the launch was in love with the bike, and it didn’t work for me.

I suspect the bike suffers from a combination of two setbacks: the handlebars have a mucho weird bend and the floorboards look cool but touch down too easily. It’s disappointing, as the bike looked like it should have handled more easily than it did. It’s certainly a visually appealing machine, but it was one of two bikes that really didn’t work for me. Your results may be different, especially if the handlebars fit you better than me.

The bike did lose about 15 kg when Harley-Davidson upgraded the lineup, but there’s still room for improvement on this motorcycle.

MSRP for the Softail Slim is $ 19,499; more details here.

The Fat Boy was another machine that was held back by weight and geometry in the twisties. I would have liked to try this bike in its natural habitat, to assess it better.
Fat Boy

The other bike that disappointed me was the Fat Boy. This machine lost a significant amount of weight for 2018, and I rode the version with the new 114 ci engine, but the improvements still weren’t enough, in my opinion.

While the chassis was planted and never got squirmy, the Fat Boy did not inspire confidence in the truly twisty parts of the ride. This was partly due to the massive rear tire, and partly due to the floorboards’ propensity for scraping. The Fat Boy would also benefit from dual disc brakes, in my opinion.

Although I wasn’t sad to get off it, I would have liked to ride this bike on a road better-suited to its handling.

MSRP for the Fat Boy is $ 24,799; more details here.

Let me be clear here: this is not a bike I would buy with my own money. But it outperformed my expectations.
Breakout

My expectations for the Breakout were low. With its massive 240 rear tire, raked-out front end and forward controls, I expected a scrape-fest.

However, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as I expected. With a steady hand on the super-wide bar, cornering lacked any drama, as long as you picked your line carefully. I’m not saying this machine is what I’d pick for the twisties, but it was surprisingly better than I anticipated, and if I owned one, I wouldn’t be afraid to go for a spirited backroad hustle from time to time. If you go with the “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” philosophy, this bike is more capable than it initially looks.

While it would be ill-suited for the back roads world I ride in, I could understand an urban dweller’s interest in this flashy bike, especially now that it’s not quite as awkward in the corners.

MSRP for the Breakout is $ 22,999; more details here.

I enjoyed the retro feel of the Deluxe, but preferred the Heritage, with its windshield and bags.
Deluxe

This was another surprise. I didn’t expect much of the Deluxe, with its retro land-barge looks. And while the triple headlight up front made front-end turn-in a little more abrupt than I liked, this machine handled the twisty bits surprisingly well. If a cruiser must have forward controls, I’m a big fan of floorboards, as they allow you to keep your feet tucked back further, only moving them up if you want to change gears or use the rear brake. As long as the boards are set high enough to avoid too much scraping, they’re a good compromise. And if you hang your heels off the back of the boards (like I do), your boots offer an early warning system if you’re running out of ground clearance.

The Deluxe benefits from a sensible handlebar and a 20-kg weight reduction. I personally like the retro looks, and Harley-Davidson figures that this machine might turn out some serious sales numbers in the near future. Although it’s never been a big seller in the past, the new Sons of Anarchy spin-off series features a lot of machines in this mold, with fishtail pipes and other ’40s touches. If the Mayans TV show is a sales influencer like the original Sons series, we may see a lot more of these on the road in coming years, especially on the west coast.

MSRP for the Deluxe is $ 22,499; more details here.

The Heritage is not as agile as some of the other new models, but it does feel and look like a classic Harley-Davidson, with improved handling and engine.
Heritage

To me, this rose above even the Street Bob and the Deluxe as the quintessential classic Harley-Davidson. It felt like the natural evolution of that Switchback I rode to Arizona, a basic tourer without any extras (except those black nickel studs on the seat and bags — yuck!). Riding along, you know you’re on a cruiser without any pretensions. When you get off the bike and take a look at it, it really does ape classic Harley-Davidson designs from the 1950s.

Despite its bulk, the Heritage was still easier to corner than some of the other Softails, due to its sensible tires. I actually enjoyed riding the bike, as it required a bit more concentration than some models, but it never alarmed me with unexpected floorboard dragging.

The model I rode had the 114 engine, and with the windscreen, I was able to hear a bit more top-end noise from the engine than I expected. I also noticed that upshifts were a bit clunkier, perhaps due to the extra torque. Or maybe this was a bike the journos had already administered a stiff beating to? Either way, it wasn’t objectionable; if anything, it added to the old-school cruiser feel.

Some riders did complain about the windshield height, saying it was too short. Again, this is a matter of personal fitment. The windshield pops off quickly without tools, if you want to ride without it.

MSRP for the Heritage is $ 22,999; more details here.

The Fat Bob was the favourite bike of most journos on the launch; pity I was not able to ride it for long.
Fat Bob

And now, for the bike that left everybody impressed. The Fat Bob, with its USD forks and dual-disc front brakes, isn’t exactly a svelte canyon carver, but in the right hands, it could definitely hang with those bikes. It’s more muscle bike than cruiser; it has more ground clearance than the other Softails, and despite the goofy enduro-tread tires, didn’t have any squirrelly tendencies. The mid-pegs and wide bars made it easy to fling through corners. I wouldn’t say it handled like it was on rails, but it didn’t embarrass itself at any time. I never made it scrape its pegs, and none of the other bikes left me behind while on board this.

Put some decent rubber on this machine, and I think you’d have a very fun bike, especially if you got it with the 114 engine. Unfortunately for me, it was the first machine I got aboard, so every bike afterwards felt like a step backwards. I would have liked more time aboard it, but it wasn’t to be.

MSRP for the Fat Bob is $ 21,299; more details here.

The California roads we took during the launch were very smooth, and that might have hidden some suspension shortcomings. I would like to test the new bikes on Canadian roads for a realistic appraisal.

Conclusion

Harley-Davidson isn’t just spewing marketspeak: the new Softails really are superior bikes to the previous models. The suspension works better, the chassis is noticeably tighter, and the engines are smoother with more horsepower output.

Whether the MoCo faithful respond to these improvements is another question. The bikes still look like Harley-Davidsons, but they definitely ride a little differently than the outgoing models, and some outraged consumers may stage some silly buyers’ revolt. But it’s the same every time Harley-Davidson improves its bikes: there’s moaning and whining, but the changes are generally well-received.

As for me, there were a few models I enjoyed riding, and a few I didn’t (which I suspect would be true of any consumer). Although the Fat Bob was the standout from a performance viewpoint, I’m not sure that I’d pick this one, if it was my own money. If I want a rough-and-tumble naked bike, there are higher-performing machines available at lower prices.

Instead, if I was told to pick one and take it home, it would likely be the Heritage. Although it wasn’t as nimble as the Low Rider and doesn’t have the stripped-down, old-school hot-rod feel of the Street Bob, it was the model that, to me, truly imparted the Harley-Davidson experience. Riding the Heritage, I was perfectly happy to ride at a relaxed pace, and if I’d wanted to ride back home instead of squeezing myself into economy class, the Heritage would have filled the bill nicely. And that’s what I want from a Harley-Davidson: not corner carving, not a bar-hopper, but a stable machine that can eat miles comfortably.


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Craig Ballantyne

I love anything to do with Harley Davidson and have two beautiful children and a beautiful partner. In my spare time i like building websites and love anything to do with the internet.

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