Reviewed: 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail range

Of all motorcycle manufacturers, Harley-Davidson could be said to be the one that is most resistant to change. With its retro style entrenched long before the current fashion took hold; a dedication, despite numerous subtle updates over the years, to the classic, air-cooled, American vee, plus a legion of devoted followers, particularly in the US, where its ‘Big Twins’ are far and away the largest selling machines of all, the American legend is, perhaps understandably, in no rush to modernize.

Which is why this comprehensive makeover of not just one of H-D’s cruiser twins but of them all, in what Harley describes as its ‘biggest ever model development programmme’, is big, big news.

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To clarify, where before Harley had five distinct families of machines – the Street 500 and 750, its 883 and 1200 Sportsters, the big twin Dynas and Softails – which included models as diverse as the Street Bob and Breakout – plus its Touring family, now it has just four. In other words, the previous twin shock Dynas and Softails have now been combined into one all-new family of Softail machines.

The fundamental change to achieve this is Harley’s all-new Softail frame – the first since the early 1980s. This maintains the characteristic ‘hidden shock’, hard tail look of before, which was previously achieved via twin short-travel shocks mounted horizontally under the gearbox, with an all-new lighter, stronger tubular twin loop affair which now has a hidden, angled monoshock under the seat, pretty much like Yamaha’s iconic LC.

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That basic frame is then modified via three different modular headstocks (giving head angles of 34, 30 and 28 degrees respectively) and two different swingarms (to suit narrow or wide wheels) to end up with a whole new family of Softail machines.

And it all works so well that H-D decided there was no longer any need for its twin shock ‘Dyna’ chassis, so old Dynas such as the Low Rider and Street Bob live on – but as Softails. The overall result is a new, eight-strong Softail family which comprises: the bare-bones, ape-hangered, bobber-style Street Bob; ‘70s chopper-style Low Rider; low-slung, ‘40s-looking Softail Slim, fat-tyred Fat Boy, aggressive hot rod Fat Bob, chrome and white-walled Deluxe, the now ‘40s-looking, screen-and-panniered Heritage and the drag-bike-inspired Breakout.

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And as the differing styles of those bikes suggests, nor are the changes restricted to merely the new chassis. All the new Softails also benefit from the significantly updated (and now four-valve) ‘Milwaukee Eight’ versions of the classic Harley V-twin powerplant, as introduced on the Milwaukee firm’s Touring family last year. Now displacing 1746cc (although four of the new models, the Breakout, Fat Boy, Fat Bob and Heritage, also have the option of the even larger 114ci/1868cc version). And with liquid-cooled exhaust valves fed by a neatly hidden oil cooler between the frame downtubes, this unit is not just around 10bhp more potent than before – it’s gruntier and (thanks to a new balance shaft) smoother, too.

Finally, all eight new Softails also benefit from a complete styling overhaul (with the Heritage and Softail Slim in particular going in a distinctly different, ‘40s direction) with new bodywork, lighter tanks, new wheels (particularly on the now monster truck-wheeled Fat Boy), uprated suspension and fancy new LED lights front and rear and instrumentation.

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Got it? Good. So, although to the layman, some of these newcomers look as distinctly, classically Harley as ever, in truth the changes are massive. Styling is stronger – particularly, as mentioned, with the new Fat Boy – equipment and cycle parts are better and, to a bike, all of them ride better as well.

And the model that probably sums these changes up best is the virtually all-new Fat Bob. Previously a fat-tyred, twin headlamped, aggressive softy of a cruiser (albeit a popular one), with its new chassis, inverted forks, wheels wearing semi-knobbly tyres, both choices of engine and stying rounded off with that striking new letterbox LED headlamp, the new Fat Bob has blossomed into a true hot rod with the dynamics to match. With the sharpest steering of the Softail family (thanks to that 28-degree head) plus decent suspension the new ‘Bob is an angry little scratcher of a Harley that’s also noticeably lighter and stiffer and rounded off with a decent amount of punch – especially in 114ci guise. So, if you were mourning the loss of the V-Rod in Harley’s 2018’s line-up, fear not: the new Fat Bob is more than hot rod enough.

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Best of all, though, this new line-up of Softails collectively suggests that Harley, after more than a few years in the doldrums and with its thunder seemingly well and truly taken by rivals Indian, has again found its mojo. These new bikes are just what we wanted: they’re better looking and equipped, punchier and with a better ride and handling as well. And by ‘better’, we’re thinking around 10 per cent better, all round. And while that might not turn the world on its head or change what most already thought of Harley, it certainly proves they’re back in the ball park with a more tempting line-up than ever.

Specifications

ENGINE TYPE

‘Milwaukee-Eight’ 107 or 114ci pushrod, 45-degree V-Twin, Four valves per cylinder, air cooled

DISPLACEMENT

1746cc (107ci) or 1868cc (114ci)

BORE X STROKE

100 x 111.1mm or 102 x 114.3mm

MAXIMUM POWER

86 or 93hp @ 5020rpm

MAXIMUM TORQUE

145 or 155Nm @ 3500rpm

FRONT SUSPENSION

Showa telescopic forks

SEAT HEIGHT

655-668mm

DRY WEIGHT

286kg to 316kg

FUEL TANK

13.2 to 18.9litres

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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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