What have we got then? Well, there's a new Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, Low Rider, Softail Slim, Deluxe, Breakout, Fat Bob and Street Bob, with the Breakout, Fat Bob, Fat Boy and Heritage Classic available in the two engine options. To non-Harley aficionados some of these new bikes may look a lot like the old versions, but while visually they are very much Harley models, technically-speaking they are radically different.
The whole point of the Softail range has always been to give the impression of a bike with a solid back end (hardtail), while actually retaining hidden shocks to deliver a plush ride. The new models continue this theme, but a single shock now sits below the seat area and is attached to the chassis with a claimed 65% extra stiffness when the engine is taken into account as a stressed member. Added to this is a new swingarm (which comes in two forms depending on the size of the bike's rear wheel) and Showa forks with the firm's new dual bending valve damping.
Adjustability is still lacking from the forks, but the shock gets a remote preload adjuster. Within this new frame the old Twin Cam motor has been replaced by the all-new Milwaukee-Eight engine in either its 107 or 114 guise (which is 1,745cc or 1,868cc if you don't speak imperial). Although this engine was launched last year, the Softail motor is slightly different in its construction as it has two balancers shafts instead of the single shaft used on the touring models due to the fact the tourers have the motor rubber-mounted and in the Softail it is solid.
So basically, everything is new and due to this fact the whole Softail range is also considerably lighter than their predecessors by up to 17kg. Harley invited PH2 out to test four of these new bikes, the Heritage Classic, Breakout, Fat Bob and Street Bob. And to be 100% honest, we were very surprised at just how far these new models have moved Harley's model range on.
To most people, the Heritage Classic represents a typical Harley model. With its classic large fender look, wire wheels, fixed panniers and touring screen it is the quintessential Harley silhouette and if you asked someone to draw a Harley, they would draw a Heritage Classic. All of which is both a blessing and a curse to Harley as while they have added a lot of new technology to the Heritage for 2018 - including a USB port and LED lights - they have also steered away from altering the overall look of the bike. So while you get ABS and a four-piston brake caliper at the front, there is only one of them instead of a dual disc set-up to keep it looking 'authentic', and once again Harley has avoided adding any form of traction control - but we will talk about that later.
Non-Harley riders always assume that Harleys don't handle, however in recent years the firm has totally transformed their models and the revamped Softail frame has once again raised the benchmark. This is a Harley that you can really hustle on and its 16-inch wheels give it neutral and assure road holding. Yes, the footboards will scrape when you get the hammer down, but there is certainly enough angle available before this happens to allow you to have lots of fun. And the Milwaukee-Eight motor is a peach.
Harley still refuse to add traction control to their bikes, a decision I just don't understand. In the wet the rear breaks free quite easily, especially on white lines, and a basic wheel speed TC system would be a huge benefit, especially for European riders. Also, the work Harley has done improving the Heritage's chassis highlights the fact that on a 316kg bike, plus rider/pillion/luggage, a single front brake simply isn't enough. I know Harley argue that I was probably riding it more enthusiastically than most owners will, but none the less, they have sacrificed style for braking performance and I believe that's an error - especially if they are as keen as they say on attracting non-Harley riders into the brand. Thankfully it doesn't ruin the bike.
Ultimately, the Heritage Classic remains a great looking Harley that now handles really well and also has a stonking new motor. I'm not a die-Harley man, but I loved riding it, especially once I removed that horrible screen. It simply clicks into place and I found offered little wind protection benefits and instead only made me look like a copper! Get it off and enjoy the wind as you cruise the highways on what remains a great looking machine, and one now that has impressive handling to go with its corking engine.
The Breakout is one of Harley's success stories and is a popular machine, although it is also something of an acquired taste. Inspired by hot rods and dragsters, the Breakout has a huge 240-section 18-inch rear wheel with a 130-section front that is 21-inch - a combination that does some weird and not necessarily wonderful things to the bike's handling. On the road its fat back end looks amazing, and its long and low stance is certainly visually impressive, but in corners it's another story...
The problem when you shove a huge rear tyre on a bike and only give it a narrow front is that it makes the thing a bit of a pig to turn as it generally wants to go in a straight line. While in town, and blasting away from traffic lights, the Breakout's 114 motor and chunky tyre make it an absolute hoot; add a set of bends into the equation and it all gets a bit interesting.
Its customers very quickly get used to the bike's unique handling, but as a non-owner I found the Breakout a bit of a struggle as you need to put loads of effort in to overcome the rear wheel and get the bike into bends. Once there it only takes a small amount of lean before the long forward-set pegs scrape and if you overcook it, which is actually quite easy as the new chassis is very adept, you have very little ground clearance in reserve to get you out of trouble. And in the wet it is really quite unpleasant as this effort translates into a remote feeling from the tyres. But as I said, many buyers don't mind its quirks as it is a stunning-looking machine that goes twice for the 2018 version.
Alongside the new motor (which you can get in 107 or 114 flavours) and chassis, the Breakout also benefits from a new digital rider gauge that sits oh so neatly in the top bar mount. It's really cool and when you are cruising the highways with your arms out stretched on the wide flat bars with nothing obscuring your view ahead the Breakout feels fantastic. It's just when a bend appears...
Harley has stated that in the next ten years it wants to get 2m new riders onto its bikes in the US alone and it will be launching 100 new models, 54 of which will be here within five years. While this is all well and good - and the Softail family proves that they can certainly make a good chassis - I can't help but feel they need to abandon a bit of tradition if they are going to attract riders from rival manufacturers.
Yes, the Heritage Classic looks good with a single front disc, but anyone other than a loyal Harley rider will demand more braking than is available as that's what they're used to in a modern motorcycle. The same goes for traction control: Harley have all the sensors required, so why not have it as an option? When you have a motor kicking out 119ftlb of torque, as the 114 does, it is pretty necessary in the wet. Forget power modes, they are a waste of time - but TC is a worthy addition.
This compounds the wider problem: the fact that by arming the Heritage Classic, (and to a lesser degree the Breakout) with a sportier chassis, these failings are now more apparent. Harleys are no longer slow old plodders, they are actually good handling tourers, and so the company needs to move with the times if they expect the owners of modern Japanese tourers to consider making the switch.
Stay tuned for more...
PH2 also tested the 'zombie apocalypse inspired' Fat Bob and the Street Bob, two bikes that were real surprises in more ways than one. But that's enough American V-twin action for now, full reviews will follow next week.