Common Tread

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail(s) first ride review

Aug 23, 2017

Harley-Davidson gave us access to their new model line early, so on the same day you’re learning about the new models, I can actually give you some first impressions of riding these motorcycles.

The previous article outlines some of the changes to the non-Touring Big Twins for 2018. TL;DR: Collectively, these bikes are great. So now let's look at some of the details on the individual models.

With the exception of a few, I only have about four miles under my belt on each one, so these first impressions are very, very rudimentary. Please overlook any mistakes or rash judgments I’ve made here. I’m heading to Los Angeles soon for a little more saddle time, which should elicit some deeper familiarity with these new motorcycles.

Prices are listed for the cheapest model of each bike, which is normally Vivid (Gloss) Black paint with a 107-inch engine. (Not all bikes have a 114-inch variant available.)

Softail Deluxe ($17,999)

My first foray into this latest iteration of Harley cruisers began atop a Deluxe. I’ve always liked the Deluxe, simply because it cuts a very similar figure to a Hydra-Glide that received lotsa chrome from a doting owner. Chrome’s popularity waxes and wanes, but it’s like blue jeans: Even when dated, they both still look pretty classic.

I fired up the Deluxe and took advantage of the power the Milwaukee-Eight offered as I tore into Turn 1 at Blackhawk Farms. The Deluxe now has an extra degree of lean angle on one side and two on the other, the right side, which I made use of immediately as I inappropriately chucked the bike into the corner. Hey, no scrapey!

Meet the new Deluxe. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

I’m pretty sure I am seeing a greater increase in lean angle because of the suspension improvements made across the line. Fat Lem no longer squishes the bikes down so far — and I didn’t touch any preload adjustments. The increase in real-world cornering clearance is very noticeable.

The Deluxe looks sedate; it’s the “dad-jeans” of motorcycles. However, this bike will now get down and boogie. I suspect most buyers for this bike are similar to Road King buyers — they’re looking for a stately, traditional bike, and most probably do not ride nearly as violently as I do. However, the option is now there. For me, the Deluxe won the “sleeper” award.

Tombstone taillight
It looks funky and new, but there's no doubt that's a nod to the taillight off a '47. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

And I should mention that the full complement of LED lights makes an arresting visual statement, regardless of whether you love ‘em or ya hate ‘em.

...and the front is no less modern. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Softail Slim ($15,899)

Right off the bat, let me say that the Slim is not for me. When it comes to modified or old bikes (both of which the Slim reaches for), I prefer the genuine article, but Harley has other bikes in their lineup that do tick the right boxes for me. The fact they have a motorcycle I don’t like in this family redesign is a good thing; it demonstrates variety. That all having been said, I am fully aware there are people who really dig the styling of older bobbed bikes and don’t need the headaches that come with them. The Slim exists for that rider.

Softail Slim
Maybe not my style, but I sure liked the ride. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The Slim, like the Deluxe, surprised me with its cornering abilities. Mostly, I liked how this bike just felt like a motorcycle. No whizz-bang stuff, no visible gimmicks. The Slim is just a straight-ahead, plain-jane motorcycle. Before motorcycles even had distinct types and categories, owner-modified American bikes resembled this one.

The ride was great. I actually took pretty relaxed laps on the Slim; it encouraged me to sit back and enjoy the scenery. I rarely pontificate on motorcycle styling, but I'll do that for just a moment. For a bike that is supposed to resemble a post-war bobber, this is probably the one bike offered by an OEM that most closely hits the mark, in an objective sense. The fuel tanks resembles dual tanks, the fenders are shortened, the bike has 16-inch spoked wheels front and back, the frame appears to be rigid, and it’s sporting a set of Hollywood bars and floorboards. Note how clean the bars appear; Harley really minimized the wiring, just like the old bikes.

Heritage Classic ($18,999)

In the past, I always scorned the Heritage. I never considered it because the bags were smaller than a Road King’s and the suspension was far shittier. Especially on a bike geared for touring, the suspension simply cannot bottom constantly. I don’t care what it looks like, you gotta be comfy if you want to rack up miles. (And in my case, so does Mrs. Lemmy. She has a very picky heinie. I am particularly fond of it, so I try to keep the owner pleased.)

Look at how classy I look on there! Mrs. Lemmy's gonna love this bike. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The new models have two separate suspension heights, and the Heritage is blessed with the taller suspension. The bike is now genuinely fun to ride. It’s oddly reminiscent of an improved FLD. This is a serious contender now for a solo touring rig or light two-up hotel hustler for those who are not packing camping gear. The LED headlight and USB port (common to all models) really make a difference on the most touring-oriented Softy, if you ask me.

Look at those studs. It really is the little things in life. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

I rode this machine pretty hard, and it did everything I asked. The bike has a generally darker appearance than previous models drenched in chrome; it’s almost a Heritage Classic Special, like the newest Road King. I was very impressed with the seat and bag studs. They have a charcoal-colored finish called "Oiled Bronze" that's far less gaudy than chrome. Little details count on a bike at this price, and Harley delivered.

Heritage full-body shot
The Switchback was a cool model, but I think the new Heritage is poised to become the MoCo's serious short-range touring machine. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

If Harley decides to bestow upon Common Tread a long-term loaner, this is the one I hope we’re given. It wasn’t my favorite to ride, but it is definitely the most sensible one, given my commute and ever-present pillion. (I’m not allowing Lance or Spurgeon to ride it, obviously.)

Fat Boy ($18,999)

Well, I didn’t like riding this bike. I can’t keep that a secret. But, they make ice cream in a lot of flavors, and this wasn’t mine. (Truth be told, I expected to be a little disappointed the first half of the testing. I’m usually not a very big fan of fat-front tire bikes. I ride aggressively. I need a tall, skinny hoop up front.

Fat Boy Front Tire
Steamroller, you say? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The first bullet point on the Fat Boy in Harley’s own press release described the Fat Boy in this manner: “Aggressive, steamroller stance and front end design.” Spot on, because that meat up front is 160 mm wide, which I think is the widest ever installed on a production bike. The only problem is that “steamroller” describes not just the look, but the ride, too. This bike really does handle like a pavement-pounder, and I do not mean that in a charitable way.

Fat Boy
That satin finishes layered in with chrome feel super-primo and provide a depth that chrome by itself doesn't really achieve, I think. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

I’ve never fought a bike so much to get it to turn in. In fairness, I got used to it by the second lap, but man, you gotta stuff a lot of chest behind that handlebar to talk the new Fat Boy into doing what it’s asked. Again, not every bike is for me. I recognize this. The Fat Boy really will probably be best for the rider who enjoys being seen on a bike maybe a little more than riding one hell-for-leather.

That nacelle looks fresh and familiar all at once, doesn't it? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The Fat Boy got a nacelle update. It reminds me a lot of the Honda unit seen on Junk Ride’s High Slot from a few years back. The satin chrome on here is killer; that’s a little reminiscent of all those brushed finishes Russell Mitchell used to use on the Exile bikes, but this is a bit classier. The big Lakester wheels are visually similar to the original Fat Boy disc wheels, but they change the proportions of the bike into something like a Bloodrunners bike.

Breakout ($18,999)

Next up were a couple of Breakouts, both the 107-inch and 114-inch varieties. Predictably, I liked more engine. Who wouldn’t?

These bikes handled remarkably well, considering that rear wheel width. I keep scraping parts on cornering, but anyone who rode a previous-gen Breakout knows that the footpegs were comically easy to put on the pavement.

The Breakout got a facelift, but still retains its personality. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The Breakout is a competent bike. I imagine this would appeal to someone who was also shopping a Fat Boy, and to that buyer I would strongly suggest riding both, simply because the Breakout's handling feels so much more conventional. The wheel update keeps the bike looking fresh, and the signature chrome-and-black exhaust carries forward.

Lem on a Breakout
It handles acceptably well, given the obvious concession the rear tire makes. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

This bike, oddly, reminds me of a Softail Standard with a fat rear tire. It’s sort of a blank slate, a little vanilla in this form, which is perfect for the person looking to do a modern riff on a pro-street bike.

Low Rider ($14,999)

By now, all I had left to try were the bikes I was really interested in: the ones made to be flogged. I’ve always preferred Dynas to Softails; giving up suspension for a dishonest appearance was never a trade I was willing to make. (The only Softail I ever owned was a floating-title bike meant to be flipped.) I ride fast and angry. Much as choosy moms choose that one brand of peanut butter, violent riders choose Dyna. How would my preferred model family perform now?

That answer came quickly. The Low Rider was more than happy to be ridden hard. Even though lean angle didn’t change on paper, I think I did a bit better on it because Fat Lem wasn’t crushing the bike and thus killing precious cornering clearance.

Low Rider
No two-into-one exhaust, no visible shocks, no dual-disc front brakes. Why not throw some spoke wheels on it and just call it what it is — a Super Glide? Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The retro tank graphics and new tank shape are killer, and I have always been fond of that Sporty eyebrow; it screams “AMF!” What I don’t love is the lack of dual disc brakes and the lack of the two-into-one exhaust. These were signature Low Rider items from its inception in 1977. But now the Low Rider is a Softail. This is not OK.

I asked Harley Vice President of Styling and Design Brad Richards if the Low Rider has lost the very elements that made it a Low Rider. Hell, why not call it a Super Glide?

“The Low Rider has gone through many changes since the original model in 1977, and the newest version outperforms all of its predecessors, but it remains a quintessential modern standard," he replied. "It’s still a bike you sit low on and feel like you’re wearing. For those interested in expressing their own personal take on “Low Rider,” it continues to be a great starting point from which to do a lot of cool things.”

I was glad he at least understood my agony and had thought it over himself. It makes me slightly less bitter. This bike’s a lot of fun, but it’s not a Low Rider to me. I was disappointed, but some other rider who’s a little less fanatical about the history of the brand will likely love it; it’s a great bike to ride. Nothing Richards said is wrong, but my brain hasn't absorbed this change yet.

Fast Bob
Softail. Corner. #coexistence Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

Fat Bob ($16,999)

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this, and half of the Harley staffers knew it. It was good as I imagined. The 107 bike is a joy, and the 114… whoa. It’s not sport bike fast, but if it was any quicker, I’d call this a muscle cruiser. The front end is an upside down unit, the brakes are dual discs, the fenders are chopped off, the LED light looks like an overgrown dirt bike part, and the exhaust on this has a lot of the Night Rod in it. It’s a decidedly Frankenstein bike, but it works. Really well, in fact.

Fat Bob
Behold the crown jewel (as far as I am concerned) of the new Softail line, the Fat Bob. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The bike scoots, and it’s happy to take a corner. If you scrape anything, it’s the hero blob at the bottom of the peg; all the hard parts are tucked up and they aren’t the first thing you’ll ruin if you get a little throttle-happy. Most of you know I have been pushing the domestic manufacturers to produce performance bikes with mid controls or rearsets. That’s the only improvement I could see being made to the Fat Bob. I’m actually OK with these controls; they’re not my preferred setup for aggressive riding, but they really don’t hinder corner attack like some domestic cruisers I have ridden. coughScoutandOctanecough

Fat Bob Headlamp
The Fat Boy's signature weirdo headlight remains, albeit vastly restyled. Note that inverted fork, too. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The air intake on the 114-inch is quite audible under full power, wolfing oxygen as fast as it can. The asymmetrical tank paint is a Harley first. Upshot: This bike is a brawler. If that Heritage ain’t showin’ up, I hope Harley puts a 114 on a truck to the Keystone State. I’m sure it’s shamfeul to get whupped by a fat boy on a Fat Bob, and I’d like to hand-deliver some of that shame to the locals.

Street Bob ($14,499)

If you asked me what my favorite bike was, you’d probably be unsurprised to learn it was the Fat Bob. If you asked me what I thought the second-best bike was (and which one I would lay my own money down on), I’d tell you the Street Bob is the way to go. I had a few more laps on this bike than most of the others, which I used to harass poor Peter Egan in the corners. (He was on a Slim and riding like a gentleman, and generally attempting to ignore my antics of goading him into hustling the big red beauty any faster. Unrelated note: Spurgeon sank into a deep depression when he found I'd met the Peter Egan before he did.)

Street Bob
Fast, black, and simple. This combination never goes out of style. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

This bike is traditional and stripped down. It has a new fuel tank and a rad instrument cluster that’s integrated into the handlebar top clamp, leaving the upper triple looking super-sanitary. The price of this bike only came up $650 from last year, and remember that includes all the new trickery, plus all the new standard features I mentioned in the previous article.

Slicker than a snotty doorknob. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The Street Bob is still the most affordable way into a Big Twin bike, and this is still a stripped-down cruiser. I’m actually really excited for teenagers right now, because when they grow up, move out, and buy a used bike, these will be on the market, and they are great fun to ride.

Street Bob under duress
And the bang-for-the-buck-for-a-Softail award goes to... Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The mini-apes are super-comfy for me (and I think a lot of other riders will agree). I could totally buy this bike, put some different mufflers on it, and be happy as a lark. The bike is deceptively simple, and the chassis and motor are well paired to one another. It’s a nice cruisin’ machine, but if your buddies decide to be hot dogs, this bike is up to the task. The Street Bob may be the “entry-level” Big Twin, but I think this is the best bike of the bunch, dollar for dollar.


In general, there are quite a few variants offered. Most people considering one of these new cruisers should ride a few and see which models they like. And if you haven’t ridden a Harley lately, please do. These bikes have the same care and attention to detail H-D has been known for, but it’s been lavishly applied to the most rideable bikes I think the MoCo has turned out to date.

I hope we see a long-term tester soon. And I hope it’s a Heritage a Fat Bob both.