All right, let’s get to what inquiring minds really want to know: How the hell do the new Harley-Davidson Softails ride? And why the audacious smackdown of the venerable Dyna platform?
The so-called first factory custom and jack-of-all trades, the Dyna has been around for 25 years. In that time, the Dyna has received more tweaks and tucks than an aging movie starlet. What the starlet and the Dyna have in common is that both have reached the zenith of their constant overhauling. No further improvements can be made to keep them relevant in the current times. You see, H-D was itching to utilize the Milwaukee-Eight engine in Big Twin cruiser platform. Alas, the Dyna chassis was in no way, shape, or form equipped to handle and house the modern performance of the M-8.
In a stroke of design and engineering genius, Harley-Davidson devised an all-new monoshock Softail frame that would address this issue and also be used to replace the even-older, previous-generation Softail frame.
I was among a handful of lucky moto-media characters given the opportunity to ride all eight of the 2018 Softails. Not only that, we rode them back to back with their 2017 predecessors. It got even better as we were each personally assigned an H-D engineer who had worked on the project to lead us through the testing procedure.
Away from prying eyes, we drove to a racetrack located a few hours from Milwaukee. Our cellphones were immediately confiscated. “Damn, this is going to be good if they are doing that,” I gleefully declared to no one in particular as we geared up to get down.
Once assembled on the racetrack, we were assigned our first bikes in the testing rotation. I was assigned the Fat Bob, the bike that had caught a lot of my attention and created some type of special, funny feelings within me when it was unveiled to us a few hours earlier.
The Fat Bob is unlike any V-twin to come before it. Part streetfighter, part ADV bike, part muscle bike, and with a few other testosterone-based traits, it looks bred to conquer the zombie apocalypse, the daily commute, and everything in between.
But first, I hopped on the 2017 Fat Bob and got reacquainted with its sure-footed, stable handling and powerful high-output Twin Cam 103 engine. I then ran to the 2018 Fat Bob equipped with the Milwaukee-Eight 107.
I giggled like a schoolgirl on a roller coaster as I cracked open the throttle in first gear. I was stoked and fortunate the seat had a copious hump on it to hold me from sliding off the back and becoming the joke of the moto media.
The Milwaukee-Eight 107 packs some serious torque. I was unprepared for this because, at idle, the 107 has nearly nonexistent vibration and seems very well-mannered. As I ran through the gears, the vibration was still minimal but acceleration through the gears was nothing like I have ever experienced on a stock V-twin.
As much as I was impressed with the powerplant, I was about to be even more pleasantly surprised as I entered the first turn at a high rate of speed—or what I thought was a high rate of speed for the 2017 model.
The 2018 Fat Bob carved through the turn better than any other V-twin bike I have previously ridden—ever. I was blown away. Its responsive handling was more akin to a supermoto bike half its weight. The all-new chassis does a good job of carrying its weight low and providing a low center of gravity, which helps the bike feel very agile.
Getting heavy on the throttle out of turns made me shake my head even more. The new chassis felt a ton more torsionally stiffer than that of the Dyna. To me, the Dyna frame and swingarm always kind of felt like they were fighting each other and going in different directions under hard acceleration and fast riding.
The 2018 Fat Bob Softail setup provided more traction, stability, and much-improved rear suspension. As much as the Fat Bob was adept at slicing turns, it was stable as an arrow—no twitchiness at all. The only headshake was from the one attached to my shoulders as I was in disbelief over the handling improvements.
Up front, the new inverted dual-bending-valve fork worked in perfect unison with the monoshock. No brake dive whatsoever. I hit a few of the curbs on the track on purpose to test out the damping characteristics. Great stuff, I barely even felt the curbs as the fork gobbled up the impacts smoothly and effortlessly.
The Fat Bob comes with forward foot controls, but trust me when I say they felt perfect on the bike and didn’t feel weird or take away from the bike’s handling prowess. The design team and engineers definitely did it right in this department.
As I ripped off a few more laps around the track, the bike seemingly getting better and better, I quickly came to a conclusion: The 2018 Fat Bob was one of the most fun motorcycles I have ever ridden. Period. That is a pretty bold statement from me as much as the Fat Bob is a pretty bold statement from Harley-Davidson. Regardless of bike category, engine type, or size, the Fat Bob is like rediscovering motorcycle riding. It’s that fun.
As much as I wanted to ride the Fat Bob until the fuel tank was empty, I was waved off the track onto pit road where a few H-D engineers eagerly awaited my first words on what I thought of the revolutionary V-twin platform they had worked on for years. I slid my helmet off with a Cheshire-cat-like grin and excitedly proclaimed, “Forget the Dyna!”
There was quite a pause, but then they let out a few triumphant whoops and gave me some fist bumps. They immediately interpreted what I meant, as it was exactly the reaction for which they had been aiming, performance-wise. The new Softail chassis is on a completely different level than the Dyna platform it replaces.
Later in the day, I did some laps on the Fat Bob 114 equipped with the Milwaukee-Eight 114 engine, and all I can say is, “Holy crap!” If one can actually reach the limit of “too much fun,” this is the bike you can achieve it on.
The Dyna Faithful, the Dyna-razzi, or whatever you want to call them will moan, “Oh, man, they killed the Dyna!” Well, not exactly. The new Softails kill the Dynas they succeed. They are that good.
Let’s move on to the other seven models in the 2018 Softail lineup. Next on my test rotation was the all-new Street Bob, another Dyna successor. The Street Bob was my sleeper pick of the eight bikes. While the Fat Bob looks like it’s ready to kick ass and take names, the Street Bob looks ready to mosey down a coastal highway.
Looks are deceiving, for sure. In this case, the Street Bob handles nearly exactly the same as the amazing Fat Bob. Only the higher arm position keeps it from feeling as aggressive. All the great chassis and engine traits of the Fat Bob are mimicked with the Street Bob. With the right rider, this bike could definitely raise some eyebrows among sportbike riders in the local canyons. The Street Bob is also the most wallet-friendly of the eight bikes—a true all-around sleeper. I have a feeling the Street Bob will be one of the more popular new Softails.
The all-new Low Rider will be compared to and scrutinized heavily against its Dyna Low Rider predecessor. There is no need to compare because there is no comparison. This model retains the looks and personality of the revered Low Rider name but is somewhat the proverbial “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” Handling and power are on such another level that it will leave you wondering how they improved the Low Rider so much.
This is the only bike on which my 6-foot frame felt a bit cramped. Like the Street Bob, the Low Rider features mid-controls, but its pull-back handlebars close up the cockpit a bit more. That is an easy fix with the H-D Parts & Accessories catalog. The big book contains a plethora of items to customize the Low Rider for owners of all sizes.
Looks and styling don’t get any more classic than the Heritage Classic. I was eager to compare the new Softail chassis to the previous Softail chassis. Hot damn! I was not disappointed. While the Heritage Classic may look like it stepped out of the 1950s, its performance is straight out of present day. There is no other V-twin in this category that can come close to competing with its ride quality and ability.
While the Heritage still rides and feels like the Heritage you know and love, it is a much more refined and pleasant experience. Heavy emphasis on the word “refined.” Barely any engine vibration, greatly reduced heat (especially from the rear cylinder), and a 32-pound weight reduction make this one fantastic machine with which to hit the open road. The taller suspension increases lean angles for improved handling when the going gets twisty. That was the one feature that really stood out for me. The Heritage Classic can really carve like no other bike of its kind.
I rode both the 107- and 114-engine Heritage models and was grinning ear to ear the entire time. The Heritage gets up and goes way quicker than any other bike of its stature.
The Fat Boy has been in H-D’s lineup since 1990 and is one of the brand’s more iconic models. Muscular, contemporary styling has always been part of the Fat Boy’s personality. The famous Terminator 2 movie scene from 1991 in which Arnold Schwarzenegger jumps into a drainage ditch put the Fat Boy in the public’s eye and definitely didn’t hurt it from becoming one of H-D’s best-selling models.
The 2018 model gets the all-new chassis and Milwaukee-Eight drivetrain added to some updated styling to make for the best Fat Boy to date. The latest Fat Boy is everything Fat Boy owners love about the model but just better and smoother. As with the rest of the Softail models, handling is fantastic for a motorcycle of this nature. It’s not quite as responsive as the Fat Bob, but it doesn’t need to be because it’s a different animal. The Fat Boy’s handling is spot-on for everything a rider can throw its way.
I was digging on the new Lakester wheels, signature LED lighting inside the redesigned nacelle, and eye-catching parts finished in satin chrome. After a short stint behind the bars of the Fat Boy, I was ready for a Terminator-esque jump. Not sure the H-D staff on hand would have appreciated that, but I was confident the Fat Boy could handle it.
The Slim has always been a personal favorite. Partly because its classic stripped-down appearance is so easy on the eyes and partly because of all the oohs and aahs it garners wherever it goes. The Slim is one of the models benefiting from a healthy 35-pound weight reduction. The reduction is quite noticeable, especially at lower speeds.
The previous Softail chassis was the one feature I always felt was holding the Slim back. Aggressive riding scraped the floorboards and bottomed the rear suspension much too easily. I know it wasn’t designed for that kind of riding, but I always wished for a combination of looks and handling.
Well, somehow my wish was granted. The 2018 chassis is the perfect addition to the Slim. By combining some of my favorite motorcycle design and styling work with superb, modern handling this is one of the best new motorcycles on the planet. After a few minutes of riding, I was thinking about what I could sell to acquire this fine machine.
The Deluxe also takes its styling cues from H-D’s colorful lineage. One quick glance is all it takes to see the resemblance of classic FL models from four to five decades ago. You can never go wrong with that look or grow tired of it. The Deluxe stays true to its roots with plenty of parts finished in show-quality chrome. It’s a refreshing contrast to the modern satin and dark finishes.
Hop on the Deluxe and you’ll soon be brought back to present day as the new chassis and drivetrain blow the preceding model-year Deluxe into the weeds like a time machine at full boost. A machine that looks this good shouldn’t handle as well as it does or have arm-tugging power with the blip of the throttle. Well done, H-D.
The Breakout first made its appearance in the Harley-Davidson lineup in 2013. The youngest variant of the Softail line oozes with plenty of dragbike attitude. Long, lean, muscular lines give it a personality entirely different from that of the other Softail models. Yet it, too, benefits from the new Softail chassis and Milwaukee-Eight drivetrain. While steering is the most raked out of the bunch, feel is much improved over the somewhat vague response of the 2017 model. Increased rider feedback makes for a much better handling experience.
The 2017 Breakout with a Screamin’ Eagle 110 was fast and furious and just about rattled all the fillings in my teeth loose. I also encountered some blurred vision when hard on the throttle under acceleration. True story. That bike was a pure brute.
In comparison, the 2018 model with the 114 was amazingly silky smooth under full throttle. It was quicker too. How the hell did the engineers do that? Those dual counterbalancers at the crank worked pure magic. No blurred vision either. The brute had been civilized but still retains enough of its testosterone-fueled demeanor to be a total blast. The Breakout also received a 35-pound weight reduction, doing wonders for its low-speed agility.
Final Words On The 2018 Softail Line
Harley-Davidson has definitely produced a revolution in V-twin motorcycles with eight distinctive models based on a single platform. That in itself is brilliant. The fact that the bikes really are among the best-handling and fastest cruisers ever produced by any manufacturer makes it all even more impressive. Don’t believe me? Check out the 2018 Softail line at your local dealer. Better yet, take one for a test ride. You just might experience the revolution for yourself and understand why I believe Harley-Davidson put the “win” in V-twin.