2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Lineup
Harley-Davidson

All-New Harley-Davidson Softails for 2018

Goodbye Dyna, hello Softail 2.0.

Big motorcycle news from Milwaukee: The Harley-Davidson Dyna is history. Also gone is the 34-year-old dual-shock Softail platform. But the even-bigger news is an all-new monoshock 2018 Softail platform launched today that takes everything you liked about the two model lines—the rigid look of the Softail and the hard-riding performance bones of the Dyna—and merges them into one superior platform. The resulting eight new Softails are hugely improved in every aspect of performance.

The new Softail line represents the largest product-development project in the 115-year history of Harley-Davidson. The new lineup includes eight model names with which we're all familiar: Fat Boy, Heritage Classic, Low Rider, Deluxe, Breakout, Softail Slim, Fat Bob, and Street Bob. While the names remain essentially the same (the "Softail" designation has been dropped from all but the Slim), at the core of each new Softail is a completely redesigned frame and swingarm, a fully balanced Milwaukee-Eight V-twin powertrain, and all-new front and rear suspension components that serve to enhance the comfort, control, and performance of each model.

2018 Harley-Davidson Low Rider
The 2018 Low Rider will run circles around its predecessor, including the S model. Milwaukee-Eight power is rigidly mounted to a new frame with monoshock rear suspension, yet the bike retains the classic Low Rider aesthetic that we've come to adore.Brian J. Nelson

The unveiling of the 2018 Softail motorcycles took place at the Willie G. Davidson Product Development Center in Milwaukee. Motorcyclist was one of 10 media outlets invited to take an exclusive tour of the PDC and, in fact, we were the first non-Harley personnel to step through the doors into the room where H-D VP of Styling and Design Brad Richards and his team work their magic.

Brad Richards 2018 Softail Unviel
Prior to the 2018 Softail unveiling, Brad Richards, Harley's VP of Styling and Design, walked us through his department where the development of every Harley-Davidson motorcycle begins. Motorcyclist was one of 10 media brands to pass through the PDC doors.Brad Chaney, HDMC
1950 FL Panhead
Significant in the development of the new Softail was this 1950 FL Panhead seen here in the styling-and-design area of the Willie G. Product Development Center.Brad Chaney, HDMC

It was indeed a magical moment and the first bike that greeted us was a beautiful 1950 FL Panhead on loan from the Harley-Davidson Museum. “That motorcycle in particular really shows the bones that we were trying to capture with the development of the new Softail,” said Richards. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t lose any of that original DNA.”

2018 Softail Monoshock
First look at the underseat location of the new Softail’s monoshock rear suspension. To make room for the new shock, the previous underseat oil tank was replaced by a wet-sump system. Like the fork, the new shock is made by Showa.Brian J. Nelson

The unveiling of the new Softail platform began with Richards explaining how the eight bikes fall into three distinct groups:

  • Foundational Standards: Heritage Classic, Deluxe, Softail Slim
  • Modern Classics: Low Rider, Street Bob, Breakout
  • Evolutionary DNA: Fat Boy, Fat Bob

The significance of that ’50 FL became apparent as Richards talked about the ideology of those groupings and how the foundation in design must be in place for the core cruiser rider, who wants the heritage and tradition of the Harley-Davidson brand. Style is the lens through which its customers view cruisers and, as H-D Product Manager Paul James explained, by keeping a firm footing in the classics—or Foundational Standards—with key cornerstone vehicles that enable them to push into other segments of the cruiser marketplace for those who want more technology, better handling, and increased performance.

Foundational Standards
The three “Foundational Standards” of the 2018 Softail line include the Heritage Classic, Deluxe, and Softail Slim.Brad Chaney, HDMC

A Harley-Davidson cruiser comes down to the hardtail-look frame and the line that runs from the top of the head tube down to the rear axle. Getting that aesthetic right is the basis for the Softail. The new monoshock design meets that criterion with a lighter, more rigid frame that retains the classic look.

ben wright pdc softail
Chief Engineer Ben Wright takes us through the improvements of the new monoshock Softail frame, pointing out that particular attention was paid to lean-angle planes during the design phase.Brad Chaney, HDMC

Riding The 2018 Softails

The 2018 unveiling and PDC tour was followed by a special pre-launch ride event at nearby Blackhawk Farms Raceway, where we were able to spend the better part of the day testing all of the 2018 Softails and making back-to-back comparisons with the 2017 models.

Merging the Dyna and Softail platforms makes good sense to me, especially when there is no downside to performance and handling. Track testing was organized by the Harley crew in a way that allowed journalists to really feel the difference between previous 2017 Dynas and Softails and the 2018 models. During each session, we had two laps on a 2017 model (including a dragstrip-style launch) followed by two laps on the corresponding 2018 model. This back-to-back testing left no doubt that the ’18 Softails are superior in all respects, including acceleration, handling, and lean angles.

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy
Atomic-era televisions inspired the 2018 Fat Boy's nacelle with its mix of chrome and satin finishes. Solid wheels and massive proportions unequivocally say Fat Boy, but they do so with 31 fewer overall pounds than last year's bike.Brian J. Nelson

My first two laps took place on last year's Fat Boy, which was not much fun off the line and slow going through the turns as I tried to avoid scraping the floorboards. The ride was plush, but plush has no place in a track environment.

Conversely, my first taste of the new monoshock Softail was an eye-opening experience. The Milwaukee-Eight engine provided ample tire-smoking power from the launch, and the transition into the first turn was surprisingly smooth and controlled; I arced through the curve with confidence. As I made my way through the course and got accustomed to the increased available lean angle, I was able to carry more speed through the turns. Yes, I was still able to scrape the ’boards, but the improvement in chassis design was clearly evident.

2018 Harley-Davidson Street Bob
Right about here is where the previous Dyna model would start to scrape the footpeg. The 2018 Street Bob quickly became my personal favorite and the model that I would seriously consider buying.Brian J. Nelson
2018 Harley-Davidson Street Bob Gauge
The Street Bob gets a new digital gauge neatly integrated into the top riser clamp.Brian J. Nelson

My favorite of the bunch is the Street Bob, which also comes in with the lowest price point. The height and contour of the mini-ape handlebars put me in a perfect riding position. I was comfortable yet able to enter curves aggressively and feel how well-planted the suspension felt. I only wish that a Milwaukee-Eight 114 version of the Street Bob was on the current roster.

2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob
The 2018 Fat Bob is more streetfighter than cruiser and a prime example of "Evolutionary DNA." Tapered alloy handlebars turn an inverted fork with dual discs. Asymmetrical gas-tank graphics are a first for Harley-Davidson.Brian J. Nelson

The 2018 Fat Bob is a mash-up of styles with a little bit of cruiser, hot rod, bobber, and streetfighter (a lot of streetfighter!) all mixed up in a really cool way. The new Fat Bob picks up where the 2017 left off with more emphasis on proportions, plus an inverted front end with dual disc brakes. There's no mistaking the new Fat Bob as it comes at you head on with its horizontal-shaped nacelle and Daymaker LED headlight. As for performance, I'll just say that a good rider on this bike will surprise a lot of sportbikes on a canyon run.

2018 Harley-Davidson Low Rider
The Low Rider has been a styling benchmark since it debuted in 1977. One of the most successful factory customs will continue in 2018 as a Softail.Brian J. Nelson

When I tested the 2016 Low Rider S (click here to see that review), I said it was the best Dyna ever. With its premium suspension and Screamin' Eagle 110 power, the bike was so good that I didn't think The Motor Company could improve on it. But the new Softail-based Low Rider does just that in every way with more power, smoother power, better handling, and increased lean angles. The mid-control location of the footpegs, like that of the Street Bob, is a natural position for me. If you prefer forward controls, the new Low Rider can be retrofitted with a kit from Harley's P&A catalog. I was able to do some extra laps on this bike and the more I rode it, the more comfortable I became on it. I could ride the Low Rider all day.

2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
The new Softail Slim has the least available cornering clearance of any of the 2018 Softails but the degree by which it can bank into turns is still a noticeable improvement over the 2017 Slim.Brian J. Nelson
2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
Air cooling on the Softail Milwaukee-Eight V-twins is complemented by a trapezoidal oil cooler located neatly between the front frame tubes.Brian J. Nelson

Richards' design crew fought hard to keep the 2018 Softail Slim proportionally consistent with that 1950 FL and, in that respect, they succeeded. It's a clean look with the new LED front lamp, Hollywood bars, 16-inch wheels, new front end with tins removed, new triple trees, and downtubes. There aren't a lot of wires or cables hanging out. "We're great at cable hygiene, tucking things away so that the first thing you notice is the motor and powertrain," says Richards. "We fight to keep plastic off it and wires from in front of it." Chief Engineer Ben Wright says that the '18 model has more than four degrees of improvement in lean angle over the previous Slim. The difference is noticeable when testing both bikes back-to-back, but in a real-world street ride, clearance will likely still be a concern for some riders.

2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic
For 2018, the Heritage Classic pushes the boundaries with a darker, more sinister look.Brian J. Nelson

All of the negative characteristics that I noted when testing the 2016 Heritage Softail are gone in the new Heritage Classic. The Dual-Bending Valve fork introduced last year to the touring line gives the new Heritage cartridge-like damping characteristics. The transition from a straight line into a sweeping turn is smooth and stable, and it's surprising to feel how much more lean angle this bike has over the previous model.

The styling team pushed boundaries on the Heritage redesign with the goal of taking the model back to its foundational roots. Richards used an Elvis Presley analogy to define the look, equating the previous model to the gaudy “Vegas Elvis” compared to the “1968 Comeback Elvis” look for the 2018. The ’68 Elvis was a badass, and so is the new darker Heritage.

2018 Harley-Davidson Breakout
Clearly the hot rod of the bunch with its wide rear tire and low-slung dragster attitude, the Breakout can be ordered with the Milwaukee-Eight 107 or 114 engine.Brian J. Nelson

The Breakout continues in the new Softail line with its drag-inspired 240mm-wide rear tire and low handlebars, plus several new elements that make it even more unique, including a digital gauge integrated into the top riser clamp and an LED headlamp with halo, the shape of which comes from the LiveWire eBike project. Like most fat-tire bikes, the Breakout requires a little more effort to steer into turns.

2018 Harley-Davidson Breakout Hydraulic Preload
Adjusting spring preload on the 2018 Softail is made easier with an external hand adjuster on the Fat Boy, Fat Bob, and Breakout. Other models utilize either an underseat spanner or a socket adjustment.Brian J. Nelson

An easy-to-reach knob located where the oil tank used to live provides shock preload adjustment on the Breakout. Detents are clearly marked and you can see them from the saddle at a stop. Each new Softail has varying degrees of lean-angle improvement. The Breakout falls closest to the Softail Slim in that peg contact with the tarmac came sooner than on other models. Like the rest of the lineup, however, improvements over the 2017 Breakout are substantial in all respects, including acceleration and handling.

2018 Harley-Davidson Deluxe
Deluxe is the high-line cruiser in the new lineup, offering bright chrome, white-wall tires, and "classic" DNA.Brian J. Nelson

The Harley-Davidson Dyna and first-generation Softail are icons for good reason. Regardless of the superiority of the new Softail platform, their classic styling is timeless, and a large contingent of stalwart fans will resist change. The Dyna had a good run with roots that can be traced back to the 1971 Super Glide. And the first-generation Softail isn’t far behind with a 34-year run that brought us some of our all-time favorite cruisers.

But the future is here, and these eight new Softails represent the best and most advanced lineup of Big Twin cruisers that Harley-Davidson has ever produced. Each model has a character and an aesthetic that resonates both Softail and Dyna DNA. And all do so with superior power, improved handling, and greater lean angles.

Brian Hatano on 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail
Brian's gear:
Helmet: Biltwell Lane Splitter
Jacket: Scorpion 1909 Vintage Leather Jacket
Pants: Scorpion Covert Pro Riding Jeans
Gloves: Scorpion Exo Full-Cut Leather Gloves
Boots: Sidi Arcadia Boots
Brian J. Nelson