2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Range Reviewed

Legendary American motorcycling giant Harley-Davidson might not be exactly renowned for its rapid model development or high tech.

harley-davidson-static

In fact, Harley-Davidson is often quite the opposite.

Its bikes and appeal are founded instead very much on traditional old-fashion US-style V-twin cruisers of the ‘50s and ‘60s, which is why its all-new ‘Softail’ family of cruisers for 2018 is big, big news.

The result of what H-D themselves describe as its ‘biggest ever model development programme’ is the new nine-strong Softail family.

The Softail is so named for their hidden rear suspension which apes the custom ‘hardtail’ look but actually gives a suspended ride.

But the new 2018 Harley Softail doesn’t just include updated engines. Every model has a whole new look and there’s new bodywork (including fuel tanks), new LED light designs, uprated clocks and more.

But the biggest change of all is to the famous Softail frame, which is an all-new design that now uses a single, cantilever, monoshock (like the Yamaha RD350LC) in place of the old design’s short-travel and harsh-rising twin shock arrangement.

What’s more, it’s such an effective improvement that’s not only lighter and stronger than before to deliver not just improved handling across the whole family but a significantly plusher ride.

From this year, Harley is using it across all its big cruiser models.

MORE 2018 HARLEY CHANGES:

The other major change undertaken by Harley at the same time is a significant update to its traditional air-cooled pushrod-operated 45-degree V-twin.

Although outwardly still very similar (Harley’s styling has always been nothing if not conservative) this is significantly updated and now uses the slightly enlarged 107ci (1745cc) four-valve partially liquid-cooled ‘Milwaukee Eight’ units which debuted in Harley’s touring family of Glide and Road Kings in 2017.

Specifically, the motor’s exhaust valves are now circled by a subtle cooling channel fed by a small oil cooler subtly positioned between the new frame twin front down tubes. If you blinked you could easily miss it.

And if all THAT’S not enough, four of the sportier new Softails also get the option of an even punchier 114ci (1868cc) version of the engine while styling and equipment across the whole Softail family have been improved and updated, too.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON FAT BOB £14,295

harley_fat_bob

We’ll explain the full range later, but the standout machine in all of this is surely the new Fat Bob. It’s the big twin hot rod of Harley’s line-up.

Previously a Dyna, the new Fat Bob not only gets the new Softail frame it received it in arguably its most extreme form.

But, in order to accommodate the full nine-strong family, the new frame is built in a ‘modular’ way, with the option of three differently raked headstocks and two different widths of swingarm to allow different width wheels.

In Fat Bob form the steepest (28º) head angle is used (30 and 34º versions are also built) along with the narrower swing arm.

Bolted on to that are then sporty inverted forks, chunky 16-inch wheels front and rear, equally sporty twin disc brakes and minimalist, aggressive, cut-down or ‘bobbed’ bodywork with the whole thing rounded off with a funky new LED headlight.

Marching its aggressive sporty attitude, the Fat Bob is also one of the four new Softails offered with the more powerful, 93bhp, 114ci (1868cc) versions of the ‘Milwaukee Eight’ engine.

Best of all, though, all these changes and updates work impressively well.

At standstill the new Fat Bob is mean, hunched and truly aggressive, where the old Fat Bob always came over as something of a mongrel.

On the move it’s better yet: great ergonomics and detailing that immediately put you in the mood for the sprightly performance and decently sharp handling a true hot rod deserves.

In short, the new Fat Bob is the punchiest, most potent and nimblest Harley yet.

Of course, if that isn’t quite to your taste in ‘Hogs’, the rest of the new Softail range is there to satisfy – and they impress equally well.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON SOFTAIL DELUXE £17,245

harley-davidson-softail-deluxe

For more retro cruiser fans there’s the new Softail Deluxe which blends the lazier 30º frame with classic ‘50s styling and acres of chrome.

The fully-reworked Fat Boy is now much fatter. The front’s a fat 150-section, the rear, thanks to the wide swingarm, is a humungous 240-section.

That’s all thanks to monster wheels that are both an inch bigger in diameter and a bike with a presence like no other.

It also takes a fair bit of effort to ride, but, the Fat Boy, incidentally, also comes with the larger 114ci engine option.

For those after the more ‘70s ‘chopper’ style there’s the new Low Rider, complete with lashings of metallic paint.

At the other extreme there’s the reworked, drag-bike styled Breakout complete with another 240-section rear tyre, fully raked out 34º forks and, again, that 114ci engine option.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON STREET BOB £12,295

The minimalist ape-hangered ‘bobber’ look is delivered by the new Street Bob, which is not just the most affordable of the new Softails but also the best ‘blank canvas’ on which to accessorise your own Harley custom.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON HERITAGE CLASSIC £17,995, AND SOFTAIL SLIM £16,045

harley-davidson-softailslim

Touring fans will be enamoured by the new Heritage Classic which adds detachable Plexiglas touring screen and neat panniers to the basic Softail platform.

Again, it also has the 114ci engine option and comes in with new, ‘40s influenced ‘Captain America’-esque styling. While the new, 16-inch fat wheeled Softail Slim also delivers the ‘40s ‘bobber’ look but in a more relaxed but equally fine-handling layout.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON SPORT GLIDE £14,995

harley-davidson-sportglide

Finally, the latest addition to the new Softail family came most recently. The new Sport Glide is the spiritual successor to the old 1990’s Dyna Convertible.

It’s a base Harley cruiser with touring ability courtesy of an easily detachable mini ‘batwing’ nose fairing plus a pair of equally removable panniers.

So, when you want to tour, you can tour. And when you want to simply cruise or pose you can do that too.

PUB FACT:The new Fat Bob hot rod doesn’t just boast new Softail frame, uprated ‘Milwaukee Eight’ engine and stylish new LED headlamp – it’s the very first Harley to be equipped with inverted telescopic forks. See, progress does eventually come to even Milwaukee!

All-new Softail frame
The new, lighter, stronger Softail frame is a vast improvement over the old twin-shocked version.

It delivers not just better, tauter handling but even more impressively it offers a far plusher ride as well.

Previous Softails were sometimes criticized for their limited rear suspension movement.

HARLEY-DAVIDSON FXFB FAT BOB (107ci) £14,295

Engine1745cc oil/air-cooled 45-degree V-twin
Max Power (claimed)86bhp
Max Torque (claimed)107ftlb
FrameTubular steel double cradle
Front suspensionShowa inverted forks
Rear suspensionSoftail single shock, preload adjustable
Front brakes2 x 275mm discs, four-piston calipers
Dry weight296kg
Top speed125mph (est)

Note: sample model specifications above. See full model range specifications here.

Next page: Triumph Bonneville T100 review