While Harley-Davidson would be foolish to forsake its cruiser bike heritage, just as American car makers such as Cadillac have evolved from cushy-riding barges into crisp-handling sport sedans, so Harley is striving to incorporate upgraded handling performance into its traditionally styled machines.
For the 2018 Softail line of cruisers, that means new frames that are stronger and lighter, with upgraded forks and rear single-shock suspension. And most critically, the Softails get the new Milwaukee-Eight engine, introduced for 2017 on Harley's touring models.
The changes make the 2018 Softail models faster, lighter and better handling than any of their Big Twin cruiser predecessors. “The new Softail models are the result of the most extensive research and development program in the company’s history,” said Paul James, manager of product portfolio at Harley-Davidson.
“Thousands of hours of research and testing were put into the complete ground-up design of these new cruisers," he added. "We focused on taking the total rider experience to a higher level, where authenticity, heritage and soul meet the modern edge of technology for a ride that must be felt to believe.”
Consider some of the goodies. The lighter, more rigid high-carbon steel tubular frame permits increased lean angles, sharper turn-in response, quicker acceleration, nimble flick-ability, lighter weight, and easier side-stand liftoff than predecessor Softail and Dyna models.
The frame itself is 65 percent stiffer than the 2017 Softail frame, which leads to a 34 percent increase in overall chassis stiffness when tested in combination with the new swingarm. The simplified frame design achieves a 50 percent reduction in component parts and a 22 percent reduction in welds.
There are two unique swingarms, one for narrow and one for wide rear tires. The wide chassis is 15 percent lighter (13 pounds) and the narrow chassis is 20 percent (18 pounds) lighter than the 2017 Softail frame.
There's innovation in the bikes' new front fork too. The new high-performance dual-bending valve front suspension, which, like the Milwaukee-Eight engine, was first introduced on 2017 touring models, delivers damping performance that is similar to a cartridge fork but with improved, more responsive damping characteristics.
And the new engines are not only faster than than the old ones, their refinement has reduced mechanical noise and intake sounds, leaving Harley's signature V-twin exhaust note sounding even purer than before.
New technology with trademark heritage style has long been Harley's recipe for success, and the 2018 Softail family looks like a great new dish from that cookbook.