Los Angeles, Calif., Aug. 27–29—On the evening of August 22, the new 2018 Harley-Davidson models emerged from hiding and into the light, with details instantly available on every media you could imagine (and some you couldn’t). The capsule commentary? With the exception of cosmetics and color changes, nothing much to talk about in the Street line. Ditto for the Sportsters. That’s fine. Call it a prelude for 2019. The Touring line-up, in simple terms, was all about paint, pipe finishes and the CVO 117 models. Of course, this being the Motor Company’s 115th anniversary, there are appropriately gussied-up examples for your pleasure. Everything you need to know about all these machines is accessible almost anywhere you choose to check (including here) and, naturally, Harley’s website. So, that’s not what we’re doing in this limited space. On August 27, the all-new cruiser models were revealed and ridden by members of the fourth estate. I’ll do my best to offer an impression of what H-D’s cruiser line-up is about.
Harley says these machines are “new from the ground up,” literally. For a change it’s an understatement! Even the tires on these new bikes are new! That’s not hyped much but it is an insight into just how intensive and thorough their efforts have been. They didn’t miss much and the results are effective, efficient and nuanced to an impressive degree. The core package of engine/frame/suspension, shared among all models, has vaulted this new cruiser line into the 21st century and a healthy future. These machines aren’t Dynas, or FXRs, and really aren’t Softails anymore. They are better than that.
The fuel delivery is pinpoint-precise at any altitude and crisp under any amount of ham-fisted throttle whipping. You can’t fool the EFI! (A lot more than you could say for anything with a carburetor.) The 114” M-8 just kills in roll-ons, especially at high altitudes. This, along with a very nice pull effort and release point on the cable-operated clutch adds to the delight of riding these bikes. Much more praise can be heaped on the impressive handling as well. The brakes inspire complete confidence, with ABS either a $795 option or standard depending on model. The new tires work in the rain. The chassis/engine package works all the time. The Motor Company probably should’ve put some effort into coming up with a name as original as the motorcycles. But it already owns the name Softail, so there you have it. No apologies, no excuses and no BS! But the takeaway, the “magic” in all this, is that every variation feels different, is different, from anything that came before and more importantly, from each other. That’s the lesson learned after you’ve ridden ’em all. (And a good suggestion, come to think about it.)
Here’s my two cents on all eight, in order of base MSRP (your results may vary):
The Street Bob (FXBB) is 14 pounds lighter than last year, features 64.2” wheelbase, 110/90-19 front tire, 150/80-16 rear tire, mid-controls, mini ape handlebars, and a 3.5-gallon gas tank, so it feels light, small and agile. It is. On the Angeles Crest Highway, this feeling translates into stable, predictable handling and flickability. In other words, it handles a hell of lot like an old FXR. The mini-apes make things a little touchy at lower speeds because they offer more leverage than the bike needs. Once rolling at speed it’s a non-issue, but if I were to buy one (and I might) it’s comforting to know regular (883-style) bars are an easy swap into the neat digital speedo/riser clamp. To my mind, this bike is “bang for buck” value, for those who don’t need bling.
Only five pounds heavier than the FXBB, the Low Rider (FXLR) sports a wider 180/70-16 Michelin to match the 110/90-19 front on the same 64.2” wheelbase, a 5-gallon gas tank with tank-mounted gauges, and a more traditional look (including more bling) for only about $500 more. Guys like me, with fond memories and loads of respect for Low Riders past, just flat gravitate to this thing. The seat is more comfortable (for the rider at least), it’s damn handsome right down to the (wait for it…) “duck bill” headlight mount and it loves sweepers! With its mid-controls, it’s a mile-eating, ride-me-all-day “gentleman’s express” if ever there was one.
The Softail Slim (FLSL), starting at $15,899, is bound to have its fans. A respectable 35 pounds lighter than its ancestor and much more agile and powerful, the Slim is slimmer than ever and it’s been hanging out at the M-8 gym! Not just another pretty face, in acceleration tests from 0–60 the 107” M8 trounces the old TC 103” by three bike lengths! Running those “slim” tires. 130/90-16 front and 150/80-16 rear, with 30-degree rake, meant to me that the FLSL should be leaned, not steered, to give its best on tight back roads. That’s plenty good enough!
At a grand extra, the Fat Bob (FXFB and FXFBS) is “The One” that moves the Softail platform into hitherto unexplored territory. It’s not that you’re back to a 3.5-gallon fuel supply. It’s not that the bike weighs in at 673 pounds. It’s not the high-mounted forward controls. It’s not the tasty analog tach, or the 2:1:2 exhaust, although there’s a clue there. No, you need to study those beefy chunk-tread Dunlops (150/80-16 front, 180/70-16 rear), the dual front discs, the upside-down forks and mostly, the unique-to-this-machine 28-degree rake, as well as the convenient, external-vernier rear shock pre-load adjuster, to “get” this beast. Then ride one and you’ll really want to get it! Yeah, the edgy styling is polarizing (I love it), and the price of its 114” (“S”) option might give pause, but the superior vehicle dynamics are undeniable, instantly accessible and at a whole new level for Harley cruisers.
The Deluxe (FLDE) starting at $17,999 is the “terribly competent and beautiful but doesn’t want to brag on it” sleeper among the new Softails. Remember, the Deluxe epitomizes classic Harley looks and don’t forget that—now—it rides nicer, handles easier and vibrates less. It’s a full-fendered beauty, way more than skin deep. Day one beginners can climb aboard, and by the end of that day, realize that the Deluxe is on your side in all matters motorcycle. It is truly a classic with class!
The one hardest to figure is the Fat Boy (FLFB, FLFBS and FLFBS ANX anniversary). I suspect H-D wants it that way. This motorcycle makes its presence known, to be sure! The 114” M-8 (“S”) option, puts it in muscle-bike territory, but that headlight nacelle, those wheels, the footboards, and lots of detailed treatments from the dash down all shriek “custom.” The wheelbase is long, the tires are huge but for what it is (whatever that is) it handles beautifully and feels great on the freeway to boot. This is a bold statement you grab by the scruff of the neck.
The Breakout (FXBR, FXBRS and FXBRS ANX anniversary) is a code name for 21st century Wide Glide and at a buy-in of $18,999 makes for a polar opposite alternative to the Fat Boy. The long 66.7” wheelbase, unique 34-degree triple tree provided rake and equally unique 130/60-21 front tire should mean a peachy keen ride in a straight line (it does) and tip-toe slow in the curves (it doesn’t). OK, switchbacks aren’t exactly its forte but—surprise!—the steering is light, direct, surprisingly neutral with excellent directional control and it works well at lean angles which would have you puckering on the older Wide Glides. But, what’s with the 3.5-gallon tank? You’re gonna want to ride it farther and faster than you think and more fuel would help, especially with the joys of a 114” M8 (“S”) option!
The Heritage Classic (FLHC, FLHCS and FLHCS ANX anniversary) is the third member of the top tier in the new Softail line-up, also beginning at $18,999. This touring version of the new cruiser platform does not disappoint. Though it breaks the 700-pound barrier, it’s still over 100 pounds lighter than a Road King, with handling and steering in the same league and a lower center of gravity. Its standard locking saddlebags, effective windshield, 5-gallon gas tank and ABS brakes give the Heritage advantages across the board. As long as you don’t need an infotainment center, it could easily become the center of your riding universe.