I always viewed the Softail’s pull-shocks as a black eye on the Harley-Davidson lineup. I saw it as a big flag saying “We Put Form Before Function,” opting to tuck the shock underneath the engine which didn’t provide even close to the same damping as the twin-shocked cruiser or touring models, not to mention better-handling mono-shocked metrics. Sure the Softail managed to pull off the clean lines of a hardtail motorcycle while integrating suspension, but after so many years without an update it has started to feel neglected. Softails were the bike to have for a while but as riders shifted to more aggressive styles of riding, the Softail just couldn’t keep up and they leaned heavier on Dynas. Then I heard whispers that the Dyna line might be dying, but I knew it wouldn’t happen without an adequate performance-minded replacement. The new bikes are not your old Softail, and they’re not a “new Dyna.” This is a set of new bikes, and they’re awesome.
A mono shock Softail. I was ecstatic. Even if the looks on some of them would take a little getting used to, I thought these might be the bikes to finally embody Willie G’s famous old adage: “Form follows function, but they both report to emotion.” While the new chassis design is a vast improvement, and the addition of the Milwaukee Eight improved the ride in huge variety of ways, we still see the Motor Co. choosing form over function on one model we were very hopeful for, and find surprising performance on a few bikes we had expected to be more docile cruisers.
You’re Different, and That’s Bad
Maybe it’s just taking me some getting used to because it’s new. I rode a Dyna for years and really liked the way those bikes looked, despite all the criticism they got when they first came out. I think older Softails, despite their flaws, were great looking bikes most of the time. There are some aspects of the design on these new models that I am instantly attracted to—the Tombstone taillight on the Deluxe is an awesome way to bring back some classic H-D style, the little divot on the exposed neck of each bike’s frame looks really clean with the smaller tanks.
But then there are things like the big piece of plastic hanging under the neck/ gas tank to hide where the wiring harness goes up into the frame on a lot of the models that’s just an eyesore to me. This might be able to be cleaned up in the aftermarket, or maybe I’ll get used to it. Either way, I think they cover a lot of their bases style-wise. I love the look of the Street Bob all slimmed down with the little apes, but something like the Breakout with the 240mm rear tire and long rake might be good for riders on the other side of the spectrum.
There were two bikes that stood out to me as being difficult to ride, and even those weren’t that bad. The Fat Boy has the same 30-degree rake as all but two of the bikes, but the 240mm rear tire and 160mm front make it a real mule in the corners. Any touch of the front brake would bring the bike straight back up, and putting power to that wide rear would do the same thing. It felt a little like wrestling an ape trying to get that thing through the corners.
The Softail Breakout is the only model in the lineup with a 34-degree rake, and I was expecting this bike to handle worse than it did. It took a little bit of doing, but it would drop into the corners surprisingly well for a bike with this rake and a 21-inch front wheel up front. Don’t hit the throttle too early though, because just like the Fat Boy, that wide rear will just straighten you out as soon as you start giving it gas. Every other model in the lineup was awesome.
I have always been against the Softail Heritage for strictly performance issues, but that was one of my favorite bikes in this year’s line. The styling on this bike with the two-tone windshield, blacked-out nickel studs on the seat and the bags, combined with the comfort of having saddlebags and floorboards, then add the killer lean angle of the new chassis and performance of the M8-- I was shocked at how much I loved this bike.
The Softail Deluxe was another total sleeper in the lineup. You walk up to the thing with its low swept fenders and big LED lights throughout and don’t expect it to actually rip. Then you hit it and go throwing the thing into some corners and it handles it all like a dream. Sure, you’ll still find yourself scraping the floorboards, but now you’ll scrape them lower with more confidence.
You really don’t have to choose between style and rideability with these bikes anymore, you can base your selection much more on style preference knowing that the redesigned chassis, suspension and engine will perform like they were designed to-- with form following function. The Softail Slim rode very similar to the deluxe, but with a little lower price point without all the trim and LEDs. The Slim brought a little more of an old school bobber look to the line with the fork shrouds, solo seat, low bars and floorboards.
The Fat Bob Stays a Little Chubby
With the death of the Dyna, the most performance-minded model in the H-D lineup, all eyes were on the Fat Bob to be the new nimble, go-fast bike. As the only bike with the 28-degree steering head, inverted forks, and floating brake rotors front and rear—we had a lot of hope for this one. Unfortunately, this is the bike I was most disappointed in.
This was H-D’s chance to do a really forward-thinking performance V-twin street bike and instead they put forward foot controls and these big goofy tires on it. I asked the designers why they put forward controls on the bike and they said “We had to, there was no other way the exhaust would work.” Then I said “Why didn’t you redesign the exhaust?” which I didn’t really get an answer for, other than that it’s very complex and contains a catalytic converter and everything.
Swapping out the wheels, tires, exhaust and foot controls would probably make this bike amazing, but we didn’t have the chance to see that during our two days on the bike. I actually like the futuristic headlight and look of this bike, but if I was choosing one to pick up as a base model, unlike what I thought going in, this would not be it.
Mids for the Win
I thought the Low Rider model felt the most like an old Dyna (in the best way). A pretty standard seating position with short risers and classic Low Rider handlebars made this thing surprisingly comfortable, and the mid foot controls meant that you could lean it further in the turns than most of the other models. With the base price $2,000 lower than the Fat Bob at $15,000, the Low Rider would be our choice for a new custom model with the main factors being the mid controls and dual tank-mounted gauges which make swapping out your handlebars and keeping them clean very easy.
From a styling perspective, the Street Bob was the bike I was most attracted to initially. The smaller tank and little apes paired with the mid foot controls were the perfect aesthetic/ performance combination and if I was to choose one of these bikes to leave completely alone, it would be a tie between this and the Heritage. The gauge system integrated into the riser of the Street Bob is minimalist and sleek. It’s easy to read, and hard to even notice when the bike is off. If you wanted to swap to taller risers or a riserless handlebar, however, this would prove to be a challenge.
Across the new Softail line, one of the biggest changes to benefit both consumers and parts manufacturers is that hard parts will be relatively interchangeable between models. This cheapened R&D costs, as well as making take-offs more readily accessible and desirable for owners.
Four of the eight models offer the option to bump the 107 up to the 114ci engine, which will tack on an extra $1,300 to the price, but the difference is more than just noticeable. You get a big bump in power, but one of the rad aspects a lot of people will overlook is that the larger displacement happens in the stroke, rather than the bore of the engine. This means that if you wanted to hop it up even more, you could get a top end kit with a larger bore and just stack on power for cheaper. I think it’s awesome that they offered the larger engine in a handful of these models and foresee a lot of riders taking them up on it.
While the change came as a huge shock to the masses, many people continue to revolt against the obvious upgrades. The new bikes are not Dynas, and saying that any one of them “is the new Dyna,” is wrong. What they are is a set of totally new bikes, engineered to perform with the best modern bikes out there while both stylistically and functionally replacing the Softail and Dyna lines. They have the look and sounds that I’ve always loved, it’s just no longer coming from an antiquated bike. Riders have asked Harley-Davidson to produce something modern that would compete with other motorcycles in the category without having to rely so heavily on emotion and I think they did it exceptionally with this line, while still maintaining the things rider have loved about H-D for decades.