There’s plenty of buzz about the new 2018 Softail range from Harley-Davidson. There is also a fair dose of angst as well… Paul Owen headed to California to try and sort some fact from the fiction…
With his teddy-boy side-burns and turn-up stovepipe jeans, Ernie, the sales manager at Glendale Harley-Davidson in Los Angeles looks like a fourth member of The Stray Cats. But beneath that rockabilly exterior beats a steely heart that was born in Motown, where Ernie quickly learned to become wise on Detroit’s mean streets. Tolerance is not one of his virtues, and he’s currently pretty pissed about where Harley-Davidson is heading.
“First they axe the V-Rods, now it’s the Dynas. Why do they keep shitting all over the youth market?” He says.
I feel like telling him to ‘lighten up, dude’, but refrain from assuring him about how good the new replacements for his lamented Dynas are. I had been riding the new 2018 Softails over the past two days, via the snaking, sometimes-bumpy, ridge-running roads of the Pacific Crest Highway, and the grin of satisfaction was yet to leave my face.
With price points starting from $23,495 to $31,750 for the 2018 Softail range these new Harleys cover enough market real estate to stretch all the way from what was previously the beginning of Dyna flatlands, towards the high-altitude Touring model kingdom.
So let’s not sweat the demise of the Dynas, OK? Harley fans have been complaining about superior new models elbowing their ol’ faves aside ever since the EL Knucklehead replaced the old side-valve VL and UL bikes and introduced them to the more dynamic joys of overhead valves. That was back in 1936, by the way.
Yet this history is worth mentioning as it’s probably the last time that Harley-Davidson did anything nearly so radical as the introduction of this new Softail range.
You can bin whatever preconceptions you have about Harleys from this moment on. They might retain the familiar design cues, but these are entirely different machines, and must be judged with a new mindset.
New Machines – New Mindset
The range is spun off two new engines, a new frame with three different steering head rake angles according to model, and two new swingarms that either accommodate the fitting of a massive 240mm-wide tyre of the Fat Boy and Breakout hero models, or the quicker-steering 180mm tyre fitted to the rest of the range.
Differences in tank size (13 litres or 19 litres), minor suspension tweaks, different handlebar bends, and changes in the wheel/tyre packages define each individual Softail model from the others.
The development team evidently started by getting the $27,250 Softail Slim to where they wanted it, then spun the rest of the range off from that template.
Such tweaking of a single model creates a range of bikes that share essentials, but the real achievement here is that these ingredients exhibit a higher level of technical excellence.
The two new Milwaukee-Eight generation engines of either 107 or 114 cubic inch displacement (1745cc and 1868cc respectively), can generate accessible torque peaks of either 145Nm or 155Nm, rear-wheel power tops out either just under 80bhp or just over it, and are smoothed by two balancer shafts, instead of the single balancer fitted to the Touring model engines.
This means they can be rigidly mounted to the frame, yet deliver their increased performance commendably smoothly. The increase in frame rigidity has allowed Harley to reduce weight elsewhere, all the new Softails are 15 to 22kg lighter than the bikes they replace.
The new rear suspension layout mounts a Showa monoshock beneath the seat that provides 130mm of wheel travel and features a handy twist-grip preload adjuster on many of the bikes (but not on the one that could use it most – the touring oriented Heritage Classic).
Up front is Showa’s ‘bending valve’ front fork, also with 130mm of travel, on all bar the sportier Fat Bob, which gets racier cartridge-style internals for its inverted fork. Most of the range offers close to 30-degrees of lean on either side, while the Fat Bob has a degree or two more than that either side according to the specs.
But forget the on-paper chassis stats, the reality is that all these bikes offer more cornering clearance than the bikes they replace, as the new suspension is far more adept at conserving wheel travel, and the much-improved ‘jounce’ control means there’s now reduced opportunity to ‘bottom’ the bikes out.
So eight bikes over 900km of riding over two days, man? Which ones were best? Here’s the three I enjoyed most.
The New Bus – Softail Heritage Classic
Sitting alongside the Fat Boy and Breakout at the top of the range, is a new Heritage Classic, available with either the 107 or the 114 engine. Riding it with the latter will cost you $2245 more, but the money’s worth paying for the more instantaneous overtaking performance that it brings to the throttle.
Both motors draw similar-shaped power and torque curves on the dyno graph, but the 114 offers around eight per cent more of both right throughout the rev range. Which makes it 28 per cent fitter than the old twin-cammer that it replaces, instead of just 20 per cent fitter like the 107. This makes it easier to shrug off the added mass of the touring hardware fitted to the Heritage.
Like most new Softail models, the Heritage has 30-degrees of steering rake and a 180-rear on a 16-inch wheel, in this instance coupled to a 130-16 up front. It’s therefore a pretty agile bike to ride for one so big n’ long, helped by the biggest weight reduction in the range.
The $33,995 114 version of a Heritage Classic (or $34,750 for the Anniversary Colour), sure makes a friskier-to-ride alternative to a $34,250 Road King 107, as it weighs 50kg less and develops five more Newtons of riding force.
The Conquistador – Softail Fat Bob
The Fat Bob is another Softail model that is available with either engine, and costs $27,495 in 107 form, or $30,250 with the 114. With its sportier 28-degree steering geometry, 150mm-fat front tyre (on a 16-in wheel), sub-300kg mass (when shipped), twin front discs, upswept exhaust, and inverted forks, this is the new Softie most likely to attract new customers to the brand that otherwise might have spent their money elsewhere.
They’ll be drawn by the apocalyptic design, set off by more minimalist 13-litre tank that makes the big-block V-twin engine look even larger than it is. An even better attraction is the sportier riding dynamic that the subtle chassis changes enable.
This bike should be renamed Phat Bob instead, given that you can ride it quite a bit harder than the other Softails, and potentially keep up with some of your mates mounted on European street-fighters, depending on the terrain… It’ll still be like being aboard a whale shark at a feeding frenzy, but this is the most corner-friendly Harley since Harley binned the XR1200R Sportster.
The Blank Canvas – Softail Street Bob
The $23,495 Street Bob is the entry model to the range, and therefore an ideal choice for those who wish to retain some of their budget for bike personalisation. A little shopping through the Screaming Eagle catalogue will soon have the 107c.i. engine performing like a 114, and Harley’s new brass collection of accessory fuel caps, axle caps, steering head bolts, rider footpegs, air cleaner covers etc. would make fine additions to anyone wanting to add an extra dose of style.
If you don’t like the solo seat or the semi-ape handlebars, alternatives are readily available from Harley dealers when purchasing the bike. However, few will be changing the neat n’compact LCD instrument display attached to said bars that helps give the Street Bob its clean, minimalist looks.
The affordable price makes a Street Bob an easy $4000 stretch from the $19,495 Roadster that is the top model in the Sportster range. So don’t worry about Harley not looking after younger buyers, Ernie. The Street Bob’s got them covered.
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Range Pricing (AUD)
All prices are the maximum dealer ride away price, offer ends Aug 31, 2018 unless extended.
Street Bob 107 – $23,495
Low Rider 107 – $24,250
Softail Slim 107 – $26,250
Fat Bob 107 – $27,495
Fat Bob 114 – $30,250
Sport Glide 107 – $27,750
Deluxe 107 – $29,495
Fat Boy 107 – $30,995
Fat Boy 114 – $33,995; Anniversary Colour – $34,750
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