Harley-Davidson has released a batch of 2018 motorcycles, eight of them sharing a new chassis, new suspension and new engines.
The company says the machines are lighter and more powerful, and handle better, than the models they replace.
I’ve ridden two of them, and I agree.
For 2018, Harley has folded its Dyna line into its Softail line, and emerged with a field of new Softail motorcycles, retiring a few bikes (the Sportster 1200T, the VROD Muscle and Night Rod Special, and the Wide Glide) and renaming a couple (the Heritable Softail Classic is now the Heritage Classic).
It’s not just nomenclature. The Motor Co., America’s bestselling motorcycle brand, is losing market share and watching an increasingly elderly customer base age out of the sport.
The new machines, designed to address current owner complaints and prospective customer concerns, are an effort to reverse eroding sales and attract new riders.
Harley has done some homework. The company said that “the most extensive research and development program” in its history had revealed three areas of importance.
Current and prospective riders told Harley’s CIA division (it stands for Customer Insights and Analytics) they wanted the bikes to be lighter and more powerful, and they wanted them to handle and corner better.
Harley has responded with bigger engines that produce more torque, on a chassis that offers better suspension, and motorcycles that weigh less and steer and corner more easily.
The new motorcycles in the Softail line are:
- Fat Boy
- Heritage Classic
- Low Rider
- Softail Slim
- Fat Bob
- Street Bob
The new frames and chassis are stronger, stiffer and lighter than on 2017 models, the company said in announcing the 2018 models. Some weigh as much as 35 pounds less than previous units.
Many have improved lean angles, allowing for better cornering. Some, such as the Heritage Classic, feature a return to old-school styling, with details that include spoked wheels, blacked-out rims and period-correct headlight bezels.
All the 2018 Softails are powered by the Milwaukee-Eight 107 V-twin or — available as options on the Fat Bob, Fat Boy, Breakout and Heritage Classic — the larger Milwaukee-Eight 114.
That means more grunt. The 107-cubic-inch engine makes 109 pound-feet of torque, while the 114 engine kicks that up to 119 pound-feet. (The 117-cubic-inch engine, available on some touring models, makes 125 pound-feet.)
Harley calls the Milwaukee Eights “the most powerful engines ever offered” in its Big Twin cruiser category.
They power bikes that are modernized in other ways, too. Upgrades such as LED headlights, keyless ignition and USB ports come standard on all models. Cruise control is standard on Heritage Classic bikes and optional on all other models. ABS is standard on Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, Deluxe and Breakout, and optional on all other models.
Earlier this week I was able to spend about an hour each on the Heritage Classic and Fat Bob models — swapping back and forth between the two bikes during a spirited run up and back down Angeles Crest Highway.
For full disclosure, I am not fundamentally a Harley guy. I tend to gravitate away from foot-forward cruisers and bobbers. While I’ve enjoyed some of the company’s biggest road hogs — like the 2017 Ultra Limited — I had low expectations for the new batch of Softails.
But I was pleasantly surprised. The two bikes performed as advertised. They do feel lighter, more nimble and easier to ride, and the new engines are a delight.
The Heritage came with the 107-inch engine, the Fat Bob with the 114. Both emitted the traditional Harley “potato-potato-potato" sound, and both had low-end torque and power to pull hard in any of the six gears from, seemingly, any speed.
Harley has reengineered its signature V-twin power plant by adding a second counter balancer. It’s designed to reduce engine vibration, which it does, but it also allows for a lower idle speed, which in turn reduces engine noise and heat when the machine is at rest.
When it’s in flight, the power dials on with confidence, and the new suspension makes the power more manageable. Trucking up the Crest at a lively clip, cornering, I cleared every apex but one without any footpeg or floorboard drag. And, that once, I may have been going faster than I should.
The Softails, with engines of either displacement, share the same clutch and gearbox, which I found friendlier and less clunky than on previous models.
Both the Heritage and Fat Boy sit low, making them appropriate machines for a smaller rider who still wants a bigger bike. Both featured adjustable rear suspension -- though nonadjustable front shocks. The Heritage Classic I rode was fitted with saddlebags big enough to carry a half-helmet, but not a full-face lid. The Heritage also comes standard with a nonadjustable windshield.
I found that, for a rider my size, age and disposition, the Heritage offered better ergonomics than the Fat Bob. But Harley’s extensive parts and accessories catalog contains many seat and handlebar configurations for its new Softail models, making them partly customizable for a rider’s size and reach.
The knock on Harley-Davidson, by people who don't favor the brand, is that its motorcycles lack sophistication and finesse. Loud and lumpy, they’re big, blunt bikes, critics say, for big, blunt people.
Over the years, as it has tried to address those concerns, the company has risked alienating its base by dragging its motorcycles up to present standards — and dragging its core customer, kicking and screaming, behind.
More than one company official, on more than one occasion, has told me he received blowback from traditional Harley owners when the company first introduced now-common new technology such as electric starters, fuel injection or ABS braking systems.
And some Harley riders still say they don’t trust those new-fangled options — though they are almost universally welcomed as technologically superior — and reject the modern Harley as not quite the real thing.
The new bikes may not convince any of those old-schoolers. One observer said this week that they may not have a positive effect on sales, either.
“This model year lineup may not be enough to reverse Harley's U.S. retail sales declines, now in their third consecutive year,” USB analyst Robin Farley said.
My crystal ball doesn’t predict sales. But it can predict that a prospective rider who tested last year’s Dyna or Softail models would be wise to give the 2018s a fresh look. These are better bikes.