Earning a reputation for fulfilling open-road dreams of freedom since 1903, Harley-Davidson enjoys mythical status in motorcycling. The one criticism the Milwaukee brand has suffered over the years has been their dependence on aging design and technology, with changes to their original machine being few and far between.
Ironically, it’s the aspects of familiarity and consistency that keep a good number of loyal customers coming back, always knowing what they’re getting—without any surprises. When dealing with such die-hard devotion among a customer base, it can be a risky proposition to impose too much change. For the 2018 Softail lineup Harley-Davidson has managed to infuse a redesign of technical upgrades and increased performance while retaining that illustrious, time-honored Harley allure.
The Softail lineup consists of the Street Bob, Low Rider, Softail Slim, Deluxe, Heritage Classic, Breakout, Fat Boy, and the new, progressive Fat Bob. The Fat Bob, Fat Boy, Heritage, and Breakout are available with either the new 107 cubic-inch or the 114 cubic-inch Milwaukee-Eight V-twin engine. Although the bikes share a base chassis (with varying rake) and engine, they each manage to hold their own in terms of individual character and riding application. In this regard Harley-Davidson is somewhat akin to Mexican food, in that they manage to turn a handful of essential ingredients into different dishes, all of them delicious.
New V-Twins and Chassis
The new Milwaukee-Eight V-twin plants have a refined counter-balance system that noticeably smooths out vibration, leaving just the right amount of the legendary tremors associated with the patented exhaust note. Overall performance has been upped, with the 107 producing a healthy 109 lb-ft. of torque @ 3,000 rpm, and the 114 a stump-pulling 119 lb-ft. of torque @ 3,000 rpm.
Most significant for 2018 is the all-new mono-shock chassis. A total ground-up redesign, the structure sports a cleaner flow to its hefty carbon steel tubes that make it 34% stiffer and 15-20% lighter than previous years. The new chassis has fewer component parts and 22% fewer welds. The increased rigidity helps tame the improved torque of the big cubic-inch V-twins, getting the power to the ground more efficiently due to reduced flex. Engineers have managed to achieve this welcome upgrade without losing any of the classic Softail look.
The reduction of frame flex translates to more responsive handling, with the new chassis possessing a surprisingly precise turn-in, granting the rider increased confidence. The new machines can be trail-braked deep into corners without any tendency for them to stand up. Stability under hard acceleration and during heavy braking has been greatly improved.
Reduced Weight, Better Cornering and Suspension
Overall weight of the Softail line has been reduced between 5 and 35 pounds (depending on the model). This slimming down results in a better power-to-weight ratio, increasing acceleration and overall performance, while also aiding braking. The weight savings are apparent immediately upon pulling the bikes off their side stands. The combination of chassis upgrade and loss of mass has resulted in a much lighter feel overall, which is especially evident in the front-end during cornering and at extremely low speeds (such as stop-and-go traffic). These improvements imbue the entire Softail lineup with surprising agility.
Paired with the new, adjustable rear mono-shock are lightweight Showa racing-developed cartridge-style fork internals that provide smoother damping over the entire stroke of travel. The end result of the suspension components is a comfortable ride in terms of straight line cruising and more confident cornering. To accommodate the new machines’ more adept cornering ability engineers were able to give the Softails increased ground clearance—the exception being the Breakout, which drags metal fairly easily. That said, the Breakout is intended more as a boulevard cruiser.
Clutch pull is extremely light and engagement feel is smooth and predictable across the entire throw of the lever, delivering precise shifts from the six-speed transmission. However, finding neutral when stopped at a light is sometimes quite a chore, the task often being abandoned out of frustration. This perhaps could be chalked up to the machines tested being brand new, with the situation most likely improving with acquired miles. The entire Softail lineup is graced with LED forward lighting for enhanced visibility, improving riders’ nighttime perspective as well as their visibility to others on the road.
What’s impressive about the Softail lineup is the range of styles within the category. Harley has done its homework and ably caters to the core audience—as well as newcomers—with dramatically contrasting machines, allowing enthusiasts the opportunity to choose from a host of mechanical personalities to suit their personal preferences.
8 Appealing Models
Beyond the new chassis and improved Milwaukee-Eight V-twin, the motorcycles that comprise the Softail corral are defined by their own individual character:
Street Bob: a bare-bones, blacked-out machine (with lowest MSRP) sporting mini ape-hanger bars, spoke wheels, chopped fenders, and a small but effective instrument screen.
Fat Boy: muscular presence with satin chrome finish, 240mm/rear- and 160mm/front-tires on machined solid-disc aluminum wheels.
Heritage Classic: nostalgic look and feel of the early Harleys. Swept bars, detachable windscreen, and lockable saddlebags for light touring.
Deluxe: classic showstopper appeal. The Deluxe retains its classic lines with a more rider-friendly maneuverability.
Softail Slim: stripped-down homage to the “Bobbers” of the ’50s. Spoke wheels augment simple design and tasteful line flow. Increased lean angle allows for spirited riding.
Fat Bob: muscled aesthetics to match a sporting nature. A new arena for H-D, intended to appeal to a new generation of Harley riders. 43mm inverted fork, dual front discs, 2-1-2 pipes, 150mm front and 180mm rear tires.
Low Rider: Seat, tank cluster (with instruments) and chrome accents are ’70s-inspired for the classic low-rider mystique. Tires are 19-inch front and 16-inch rear on cast wheels.
Breakout: long, lean silhouette of a dragster with steeply raked 49mm forks. 240mm x 18-inch rear rubber contrasting with the narrow, 130mm x 21-inch front wheel.
Harley-Davidson has done a commendable job in blending technological improvements that greatly enhance the luscious, brute performance and ride-ability of the Softails without losing any of the appeal or soul of the time-honored Harley-Davidson “experience.” The new Softails enjoy significant refinement and are buoyed by reduced intake and mechanical noise, allowing the “potato-potato” exhaust note to rumble more prominently—an iconic sound that serves as the background soundtrack for many a Harley rider’s lives.