According to Harley-Davidson, the company has spent more money, time, and effort on research and development with this new Softail project than it has ever before in its 115-year history. That's saying something, considering that just a few years ago the company's Project Rushmore was called everything from monumental, to stupendous.
The new Softail line combines aspects of the Dyna line, and as such, the popular Dyna model line is no more. Sons of Anarchy fans everywhere will no doubt be crying themselves to sleep. Or, as Harley puts it: the hard-riding performance of the Dyna line was "merged with the unparalleled custom look of the Softail line." In other words, the spirit of the Dyna lives on.
This article is about the eight new Softail models and the recent press launch where motojournalists got to ride each one and collect their individual impressions along the twisty roads to Lake Arrowhead in Southern California's San Bernardino Mountains. Fortunately, I carried along a notepad and pen, (yes, we do it the old-fashioned way here at Easyriders), and jotted down my first impressions as I rode. Before we started our trek at the Langham Hotel in Pasadena, about 150 miles from the ride's destination, some introductory comments were in order from some of Harley's head-honchos like Matt King (US PR manager), Brad McIlwee (Engineering Program Manager), Kirk Rasmussen (Styling Manager Softail), and Kevin Hintz (Senior Product Manager - Softail).
From a general overview headlined by an obligatory new slogan, "All for Freedom, Freedom for All", that explained the company's goal of creating 100 new models over the next 10 years, to the more specific aspects of what customers want in terms of style and even engine vibration, Harley's gurus covered all points. This included the complete ground-up design, the new dual-balanced and oil-cooled Milwaukee-Eight engine, the new chassis and suspension, and a combined weight loss total of some 250 pounds. Plus, every Softail also has a USB charging port right in the steering head!
The Harley presenters also talked at length about the new high stiffness carbon steel tubular frame that is 65 percent stiffer than last year's Softail frame and less complex with fewer welds, and it is 15 percent lighter. Benefits include increased lean angles, sharper turn-in response, quicker acceleration, nimble flick-ability, and easier side stand lift-off than previous Softail and Dyna models.
All eight Softail models come in a 107-cubic-inch Milwaukee-Eight engine configuration, with four of them, the Heritage Classis, the Fat Boy, the Fat Bob, and the Breakout, also available with the 114-inch engine formerly reserved for Harley's CVO models.
At 9 a.m. it was time to saddle up and see if all those lofty words translate into serious road action. My first ride was the Heritage Classic with its studded leather bags, old-style floorboards, and other styling cues aimed at invoking that vintage 1950s look. The 2018 version is all that and then some, with its blacked-out wheels, front forks, and even the studs on the black leather bags. At least the pipes were left in gleaming chrome.
I've always liked the Heritage because it's a stripped-down bike with little weight to its chassis, which makes it very maneuverable in an old-timey sort of way. But the new Heritage with its Milwaukee-Eight motor and lighter chassis is like your grandpa on steroids, and the much talked-about stiffness was felt right away as we hit the mountain roads. The bike handled much better than its predecessor ever did. Despite an improved lean angle, it's not a problem at all to scrape the floorboards. The only "drawback," if you can call it that, is that I liked the chrome studs from before better than these blacked-out things, but other than that, if you're a Heritage fan, you'll love this bike.
A couple of hours into our ride it was time for our first photo stop and, with it, our first bike swap. After getting photos with the bike you were on, we swapped bikes and got another couple of turns in front of the cameras on the new bike; in my case, a Fat Bob 114. Talk about a fun bike! This is a big twin canyon carver unlike anything Harley's ever made. The Fat Bob, despite its moniker, weighs next to nothing (well, about 650 pounds dry, but who's counting) and handles like a dream with its relatively fat tires (180 rear and 150 front) on a set of denim black, structure cast aluminum wheels with etched graphics.
The Fat Bob features inverted 43mm cartridge style front forks, an adjustable mono shock in the rear, and upswept performance pipes, a combination that inspires confidence on even the twistiest, gnarliest roads. There's little to distract you from the road: a 4-inch gauge comprising a digital speedo, odometer, gear/fuel indicator, and analog tach is all you see in front of you. Despite its relatively tall seat height of 28 inches, it handles like a bike with a much lower seating position. Even though it doesn't look much like what you'd consider a traditional Harley-Davison, the Fat Bob easily became the favorite of the group; everyone wanted to ride it. And at $17,000 for the 107-inch version and $18,700 for the 114, this might just be the most bang for your Harley buck right here.
After we had lunch, it was time to swap bikes again, and I ended up on the Fat Boy. Other than both being "Fat," the difference between the Boy and the Bob is about as big as you can imagine. Where the Bob was quick and agile, the Boy is heavy and not really made for the twisties. I've never been a fan of solid-disc wheels, and the combination of a 240 rear tire and a 160 front tire (both on 18-inch wheels) made the Fat Boy a bit too cumbersome to carve any canyons efficiently. In fact, it took some getting used to the bulkiness of the bike, and leaning into a curve while having to apply the brakes made it seem like the heavy front wheel wanted to go every which way except where it was supposed to. And that feeling of heaviness continues despite the fact that the Fat Boy has slimmed down by 31 pounds compared to last year's model.
On the other hand, it's hard to beat on the straightaway with its "muscular, steamroller stance," as Harley puts it, and it's very comfortable seating position. At 47 mpg, you're bound to have a pretty stress-free ride, whether it's on the 107-incher or the 114-inch version.
Another photo stop, another bike switch, and I found myself on top of the Softail Slim, another favorite of mine from past years, mainly because of its stripped-down, bare-bones agility, yet very comfortable riding position. With its narrow rear end, low-slung solo seat, Hollywood handlebars, and all-new front end design, the 2018 version was even more of a pleasure to ride than previous models. It handled everything coming its way with great ease, and looked very stylish doing so.
With its low seat height (26 inches), and coming in at only 642 pounds, the Slim is definitely one of the best-looking Harleys for 2018, but also one of the best-handling ones. Mostly blacked out and sporting a set of lace wheels, the Slim was almost as much fun to ride as the Fat Bob, and maybe all it would need to put it over the top is to have a 114-inch version.
We had one more photo stop and, consequently, one more bike swap before getting to the hotel where we spent the night. Unfortunately, we were very close to the hotel, so my time on the Low Rider was limited. However, this wasn't the first Low Rider I'd ever been on, so a comparison was fairly easy to do. With its throwback-style dual tank mount speedo and tach gauges, its headlight visor and fuel tank graphics, the Low Rider gets a lot of its styling cues from the 1970s choppers, and that's pretty cool, but, fortunately, that's the only thing it has from the seventies. The bike benefits from all that modern Softail technology, and the 19-inch front and 16-inch rear Radiate cast wheels and a set of tires that really grip the road only add to that.
A fairly light weight (633 pounds) and a narrow front end topped by a set of easy-to-hold-on-to buckhorn handlebars make for a comfortable ride and great handling through tight turns. This new Low Rider is definitely an improvement in every way over previous Low Riders.
After a good night's sleep in clean mountain air, we were set to go back down the mountain pretty much along the same roads we'd come up on. Although we were supposed to start out on the same bike we'd come in on the night before, things changed for some reason, and I started out on the Deluxe instead.
The Deluxe, like the Heritage, harkens back to days of yore in terms of looks and styling, but also like the new Heritage, this new Deluxe was anything but an old bike. Where previous models always seemed to have quite a bit of slop and looseness in the steering and handling, here again the new, stiff frame and updated chassis made themselves felt in positive ways. The new Deluxe, with its 16-inch wheel front and rear, is surprisingly spry and nimble, and handled remarkably well on those mountain roads. There was no slack, no looseness, only lots of riding enjoyment, and leaning into curves to scrape the floorboards made for lots of noisy fun. Truth be told, though, you didn't have to try very hard. And with its comfortable seating position and 5-gallon tank, you're assured plenty of miles of unbridled riding bliss. I hated to give this one up at the next photo stop.
But all things come to an end, and my next ride was the Breakout 114. Although basically a totally different model, it nonetheless is very reminiscent of the Fat Boy in terms of rideability and handling. Like the Fat Boy, the Breakout has a 240 rear tire on an 18-inch wheel, while its 130 front tire is on a 21-inch front wheel for a bit of additional custom styling. Here, too, it took a bit of getting used to in the tighter curves, and it seemed to me the Breakout also likes the straightaways better than the mountain roads. It's a bit lumbering until you get it onto a highway or freeway. That's where its dragster attitude comes into full play as you twist the throttle and are pushed into the low-slung seat.
The Breakout is more of a boulevard cruiser than anything else because even with its comfortable seating position and 42 or so mpg, a 3.5-gallon gas tank will only get you so far. Although, you'll surely look great on it while getting there.
I had been looking forward to riding the Street Bob ever since we got started in Pasadena because this bike, to me, is one of the most fun-to-ride bikes Harley makes. Until I sat on the Fat Bob, that is. Maybe that's because both those bikes used to be part of the now defunct-or make that "merged"-Dyna line. The Street Bob is the only test bike I ever got a speeding ticket on as soon as I'd picked it up. Described by Harley back then as a "stripped-down, rowdy bobber" that "captures the essence of motorcycling," the 2018 model, though a Softail now, still fits that description perfectly. With its chopped fenders, black spoke wheels, mini apes, and digital instrumentation mounted right into the riser, this bike handles almost like a bicycle because there's just nothing to it. Its lightness and power made this an immensely fun ride, and the only complaint I have about this bike is that it has mid-mounted foot controls. This bike needs forward controls because anyone taller than the average American is going to feel all crunched up after about an hour on it. But that's a minor thing and easily remedied. The payout here is the fact that the Street Bob, at $14,500, is the lowest priced member of the Softail bunch and, in my book, the most fun bike of them all. If I had 15 grand just lying around on my nightstand, this is the one I would purchase tomorrow.
All in all, it's fair to say that Harley's investment in styling, design, and technology has paid off handsomely. This new group of Softails is a much better-riding bunch than its predecessors were, and probably a much better-looking group, too. And since Harley-Davidson considers all eight of these Softails brand-new models, the company is already well on its way to its goal of 100 new models in 10 years.