So you’ve heard Harley-Davidson has completely redesigned its cruisers and you’re wondering what the big deal is since the new Softails look like “every other Harley.” Here’s what these bikes are all about, and what they’re like to ride.
(Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson put me up in a nice hotel at Lake Arrowhead for a night and led me across some of southern California’s best roads so I could ride all eight of its new Softail bikes under optimal conditions and write about them. H-D also provided food, beverages and paid my valet parking tab.)
This month Harley-Davidson introduced a totally fresh batch of eight cruiser motorcycles and a lofty objective: to rope in two million new bikers over the next ten years. That’s going to take more than just stealing customers away from other brands; Harley’s got its work cut out for it turning casual fans into real riders and paying customers.
While I’m sure that means we have lots of influencer #content and Harley-Davidson product placements in Instagram Stories to look forward to, the company also claims to be committing to actually modernizing its motorcycles.
I will come right out and admit that I’d never ridden a Harley before test-riding the eight new Softails. But I did learn a lot about them in a couple hundred miles and a few things surprised me.
A Cruiser Is Not A Touring Bike And A Sportster Isn’t A Cruiser
To most Americans there are two types of motorcycles: the Harley-Davidson, which is low and slow, and the Kawasaki Ninja, which is bright green. If you’re rolling your eyes already, you’ll have to look elsewhere for a comprehensive review that starts with a big ode to Harley history.
For those of you who are willing to admit it you can’t really tell one Hog from another, don’t be ashamed. Even if you have the brochure in front of you, all Harleys run the same leather-and-chrome old school bad boy aesthetic you’ve associated with “Harley-Davidson” since you first heard about the one your uncle used to have.
But there are important distinctions in the lineup. These days, Harleys come in four basic flavors:
- Street: Medium-sized standard-seated upright bikes ($7,000 to $9,000)
- Sportser: More powerful larger-medium sized bikes ($9,000 to $12,000)
- Softail (Cruiser): Big-engined bigger-body bikes with minimal fairings ($15,000 to $19,000)
- Touring: Two-wheeled luxury cars ($19,000 to $27,000)
The Softail cruisers we’re talking about today are expensive by motorcycle standards, and probably own the most “quintessentially Harley-Davidson” look you could imagine when you hear the Milwaukee motorcycle maker’s name. They are low, but not slow, as I’ll expound on shorty.
While the eight new Softail bikes are all built around the same frame, with the same transmission and one of two engine options, I can promise you that each one has a distinctive personality. Here’s how they all feel to somebody on a Harley-Davidson for the first time.
Harley says: “It’s a combination of vintage style and modern know-how with everything a rider expects that technology can deliver.”
Andrew says: “If you have one of those prints of a 1950s diner with the little light-up lights hanging in your garage/living room/man cave, this is your bike.”
Like the Dodge Challenger, the Deluxe owns its retro look so completely that I have to respect it. Not only can you still buy whitewall tires in 2017, but you can buy a new-for-this-year vehicle that they actually look good on.
Picking this 700-pound behemoth off its kickstand and upright is momentarily disconcerting, but the weight more or less melts away once you push off. The wide-and-slightly-bent handlebars give you a great grip on the machine’s mass and for context, I normally ride a 300-pound single-cylinder dirt bike that feels as tall as a Softail is long.
Power delivery is smooth, like, actually smooth, no qualifiers. The bike idles calmly and engine vibrations are effectively imperceptible until you get close to 5,000 RPMs. There’s no danger of snapping yourself into an unexpected wheelie but the 107 cubic-inch Milwaukee 8 provides a steady stream of energy in every gear.
Braking is adequate. There’s a lot of momentum to reel in, and even the Softails with two front discs feel like they’re working hard in a panic stop. But these bikes all run ABS, which means your odds of locking a wheel and turning the bike into a spark show are significantly curtailed over an older Harley.
By the time I’d ridden out of the parking lot I was pretty comfortable on this bike, I’m surprised to report. For just straight cruising, what this 95-inch ...cruiser... was born to do, anybody who’s decent on a bicycle could ride off a showroom floor and into an imaginary episode of Happy Days easily and confidently. At least until the sun hits all those chrome headlight housings. Then you’ll be riding by braille, so, good luck. Get good sunglasses.
Harley says: “Devour asphalt with real street muscle.”
Andrew says: “You’ll never forget you have an extra seven cubes of engine. Way more low-end punch. Also, the mirrors are never in focus.”
The Breakout isn’t really a chopper, but the fat-rear-wheel/tall-skinny-front-wheel with a healthy front fork rake gives the bike that old-school outlaw kind of look. And the massive engine’s incessant vibrations give it the physical sensation to match.
After about 30 miles of riding this thing over the nicely knotted Angeles Crest highway, I could not feel my hands.
“What are you nuts,” one of the old-timer moto-journalists replied to my moaning about the Breakout buzzing all thought out of my skull. “That one’s like riding on a cloud compared to my Panhead.”
Of course somebody was going to say that. And I guess if Second World War-era technological refinement is your benchmark, the 114-powered Breakout is smooth as the conveyor belt at a space-age sushi restaurant. From my perspective, this bike, with Harley’s bigger engine, was buzzier than any single-cylinder dirt bike I’ve ever been on.
I never got too comfortable with the super-wide rear, tall-skinny front tire combination, either. The Breakout’s handling had a somewhat wheelbarrowy quality to the way it took turns, as though the bulk of the bike was chasing the front wheel rather than moving with it.
The power was there, though. The extra 10 ft-lbs of torque the 114 engine affords translates to an awesome rage from pretty much any RPM.
Harley says: “...lighter, quicker and stronger, the all-new, blacked-out Street Bob rolls on spoked wheels and comes with chopped mudguards, hidden digital instrument screen, mini-ape bars and mid-mount controls.”
Andrew says: “Holy shit this thing can carve.”
After the buzziness of the Breakout and the idiotically high-hanging handlebars on this thing, I lowered my expectations as I threw a leg over the Street Bob. But two turns in I was singing a different song. I was singing, too: “Shipping Up To Boston” by the Dropkick Murphys, because swashbuckling my way through canyon corners on this thing felt like being in a sword fight on the deck of a pirate ship and I don’t know any real sea shanties. The Street Bob quickly became my favorite of the Softtail fleet.
I could write a love letter to the digital gauges alone, which are beautifully integrated into the handlebar riser and barely look legal. But the handling on this thing was downright hilarious.
I’d love to put normal ’bars on this bike so I could ride it without feeling like a Bad Boy With Something To Prove And Nothing To Lose. But I’m not sure it’d be wise to mess with the ergonomic geometry which, I can’t believe I’m saying this but, is excellent.
The combination of a low seat and minor fork rake make this thing ridiculously easy to turn, and the light (by Harley standards) 630-pound dry weight feels like much less thanks to the leverage you have in this the riding position.
If you want a Harley cruiser but don’t want to be cornered into, well, just cruising, this is the machine to get.
Harley says: “The tradition of individualism in the custom chopper era is demonstrated by the Low Rider’s rake on its front end, dual gauges on the tank and ’70s-inspired graphics. Only it’s built for rolling faster, harder and longer than any Low Rider motorcycle that ever rolled out of the factory.”
Andrew says: “Best appreciated with a mustache and a healthy patch of exposed chest hair. Handlebars you hold like a serving tray take a lot of getting used to, and the whole boat feels extremely long. But it sure is comfy.”
The Low Rider is, aesthetically, a time machine to the 1970s. And like the Deluxe, it completely (and successfully) commits to retroism. It feels competent in corners, but not nearly as slice-and-dice slick as the Street Bob. The Low Rider is comfortable and capable of being pushed but doesn’t really inspire you to ride hard. The bike’s length is, for some reason, more constantly apparent on this bike than most of the other Softails despite being similar in actual dimensions.
Though the Low Rider’s architecture is somewhat similar to the Breakout’s, I didn’t feel anywhere near that bike’s level of vibrations, leading me to believe that the buzzing had more to do with the bigger engine than the layout of the bike.
Harley says: “The idea behind bobbers has always been to strip down and soup up the bike for a more exciting ride. The all-new Softail Slim takes that idea to the edge.”
Andrew says: “A beautifully no-bullshit bike that’s easy to ride and fun to push.”
The Slim has an accessible, upright riding position, medium-width tires, the smooth 107-sized engine and clean appearance that makes it the defacto Goldilocks of the Softail line.
The 640-plus-pound bike feels leaner than it should, stays awake in corners, and is plenty fast enough to put a fat smile on your face when you’re powering out of a turn or onto a highway.
With an ergonomic tidiness that rivals a gentle Universal Japanese Motorcycle, unpretentious styling with a decent dose of muscle-car personality, the Slim feels like an easy hook to get you into “the Harley thing.”
Harley says: “The new Heritage Classic adds a fresh edge to chromed ‘50s nostalgia. The history is still there, but it’s done with a dark style, modern edge and totally reinvigorated ride.”
Andrew says: “Over 700 pounds once it’s gassed up, and you’ll feel it. The windshield is more annoying than anything.”
If you don’t like the wind but are for some reason compelled to get a motorcycle, Harley-Davidson makes plenty of Touring bikes with enormous front facias that will make you feel like you’re snug as a bug in a living room without a roof.
But strapping a piece of see-through plastic and some bags onto a Softail cruiser doesn’t make it a touring bike and doesn’t really add anything to the experience.
I will say, the suspension on this baby was delightfully dialed for road riding. Combine that with one of the softest motorcycle seats I’ve ever been on and the thing is ridiculously comfortable even when the road surface gets rough.
Unfortunately the extra weight doesn’t do the Heritage’s handling any favors. Of all the new Softails, this one seems least eager to lean into turns.
Harley says: “The look of the Fat Boy is more muscular than ever...”
Andrew says: “A ’90s take on what the ’50s thought the year 2000 would look like.”
From the Airstreamy headlight housing to the massive solid-disc wheels, the 2018 Fat Boy has a unique retro-retro futurism vibe that I think people will either love or loath.
The handling properties feel somewhere between the Breakout and the Slim. It’s a little tough to move abruptly, but the Fat Boy has stability in spades and leans into turns well enough to make you forget the thing weighs close to 800 pounds with you on it.
Harley says: “...lighter with tarmac-eating traction...”
Andrew says: “Feels fat, heavy, and fierce as a steroid-guzzling rodeo bull.”
When news first broke about Harley’s new Softail lineup, Jalopnik readers seemed pretty unanimously stoked about the Fat Bob’s post-apocalyptic sledgehammer styling.
And this bike is a beast, for better or worse. Explosively fast with the 114 engine and glued to the road on massively meaty tires, the Fat Bob has an extremely high limit that a skilled rider could have an absolute ball exploring. For me, it was the most intimidating of the Softails and frankly the least comfortable.
A heavy high-performance motorcycle requires tremendous bravery to ride hard, because the momentum you build linking turns gets scary in short order. But the rewards rise with the stakes.
I, personally, had more fun penduluming through California’s canyon roads on the lower and lighter-feeling Street Bob with the smaller and smoother 107 engine. But I’m a very conservative rider.
Simply put, the Fat Bob feels as hardcore to ride as it looks. A 650-pound sport bike sound like an oxymoron, but this thing makes the concept seem like a whole lot of fun. My butt got tired of this bike in less time than it did on any other Softail, as it’s very rigid, but it is without a doubt on another level of performance.
The Two Engines
All Harley’s 2018 Softails will ship with a 107 cubic-inch Milwaukee 8 V-Twin (eight valves, two cylinders in a “V”) while the Fat Bob, Breakout, Fat Boy and Heritage get the 114 as optional. In case you’re confused by American math describing motorcycle engines, those are both massive. 1,753 and 1,868 cubic centimeters, respectively. But they don’t rev very high. Think “two-wheeled muscle car.”
Harley-Davidson does not publish horsepower, only torque, rating the 107 at 109 lb-ft and the 114 at 119 lb-ft. But when these engines were first announced, Motorcycle.com reported that the EPA certified the 107 at 92.5 horsepower and the 114 at 100.6 HP.
If you want to get more into numbers and nuance, there’s a lot in this H-D Forums thread about dyno results. From my perspective after a two-day road test, I’ll tell you that the 114 feels significantly stronger. Especially at lower RPMs. But it’s also a lot louder. And while I only felt that the 114 vibrated egregiously on the Breakout (it seemed much smoother from the seat of the Fat Bob) I have to say, I don’t think the extra energy is worth the sacrifice in refinement.
The 107 provides plenty of acceleration while keeping calm and fairly quiet, which is why I’d pick it over the more powerful engine without a second thought.
The 2018 Harley-Davidson Softails disproved a lot of my preconceptions of what riding an H-D would feel like. The build quality on each bike seemed solid, styling was cohesive and they all made a fair effort to hide their significant weight.
Handling wasn’t just passable, some of these porky cruisers were downright joyous on twisty roads.
Are they worth $15,000 to $19,000? Like I always end up saying... I don’t know. is any toy? I can’t say I was indoctrinated to the Church Of Harley after a couple days of riding these bikes, but I was genuinely impressed with the polish of their production value and I enjoyed riding them a lot more than I expected to. As to how I was able to overcome the urge to rip the sleeves off my shirt, I guess that’s another story.
Meanwhile, I think I like where Harley’s headed. Now if they’ll just make a scrambler-styled Sportster, I think my fellow millennial might start getting really fired up.