Chris Cope and Leah Misch both take on Harley’s overhauled sporty Softail
When Harley-Davidson pulled the covers off a claimed 17 new models a few months ago it may have unintentionally blunted the impact of that announcement with the sheer quantity of bikes being presented. Also, perhaps the not-really-that-new nature of some of the bikes (eg, Street Glide CVO) may have quieted folks’ enthusiasm for the stuff that really was worth getting excited about.
Point is: Harley’s complete overhaul of the Softail lineup (as well as its decision to scrap the Dyna platform) was a really, really big deal. And perhaps no single model best encapsulates the revolutionary nature of that action more than the 2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob.
Placed side by side against the 2017 Fat Bob, pretty much the only thing that’s remained the same is the name. The 2018 model has a different frame, swingarm, engine, suspension, and aesthetic. It is lighter and slimmer. It is equipped with different tech. Even the tires are different. This is most definitely not a case of the same ol’ same ol’. In fact, there is an argument to be made that the 2018 Fat Bob (along with the 2017 Street Rod) is in the vanguard of a new and different direction for Harley-Davidson.
With a bike this important, we felt it was a good idea to have two people throw a leg over the saddle. First up was RideApart contributor Leah Misch, who rode the bike in California’s San Gabriel mountains in late August. Roughly a month later, RideApart Director Chris Cope, hopped aboard in the mountains of Catalunya.
LEAH MISCH: I saved the best bike for last. The Fat Bob appears as the misfit in the Softail lineup. It doesn’t fit the typical look of most Harleys: upswept exhaust, chopped fenders, and inverted front forks give it sportier appeal. Being the “misfit” rider in my particular moto-journalist bunch (a Millennial female among some guys who have been riding longer than I've been alive) this bike really appeals to me. As a female rider, its reduced weight also appeals; the Fat Bob has shed 33 lbs (15 kg) from the previous version, with part of that weight loss coming from a slimmer tank. Though some say they miss the 5 US-gallon tank (18.9 liters), the new 3.6-gallon (13.6 liters) tank improves comfort and overall aesthetics. Though, it still splays the legs pretty wide. As an avid runner, I was ready to get off the bike to stretch my hip flexors and move around after 130-150 miles. I love that H-D has moved away from chrome here, although I’m still trying to figure out what the multicolored exhaust is all about. I prefer simplicity and would probably switch it for a single-color exhaust. The rear fender reminds me of the Yamaha VMAX.
CHRIS COPE: Let me just get my biggest complaint out of the way right now: I’m not a fan of the name. Too many Harley models seem to be named after dildos and the “Fat Bob” is one of the worst offenders. In Harley letter code, I believe, the 114 is known as an FXFBS; I feel that utilitarian name better suits the bike’s delightfully post-apocalyptic look. It looks like it was built from whatever was available: tires from an old tractor, a headlight yanked from a 1984 Datsun 720, and exhaust pipes that previously served as plumbing. Perhaps all that doesn’t sound complimentary but, dammit, it really works. It is wholly unique in the Harley lineup and pretty damned unique in motorcycling in general. Although, the XDiavel-esque mudguard/license plate mount on the European version clearly shows which bike Harley sees as the Fat Bob’s competition.
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LEAH MISCH: The Fat Bob is a machine that eats Wheaties for breakfast and breathes power. Its Milwaukee Eight V-twin engine is available in two sizes: 107 cu in (1753 cc), and 114 cu in (1868 cc). A recent Cycle World dyno test of the Fat Bob 107 saw it producing 74 hp and 100 lb-ft of torque. The 114 obviously produces a certain amount more. Harley would probably want me to tell you that the larger, more powerful bike is better, but in quiet, anonymous conversation its engineers admit the power boost isn’t that dramatic. Given the choice, though, of course I’d still go with the bigger engine. It’s torque rich and delivers great engine braking. It was generally smooth, but I felt some vibration as speeds increased.
CHRIS COPE: As with the new Street Bob, the Milwaukee Eight engine is relatively unfettered here thanks to the absence of mass created by fairing and luggage and such. So, its power is more obvious and useable. Sportbike guys will rightfully laugh at such an assertion but the Milwaukee Eight most definitely feels sportier here than in other applications. That includes the (nominally) lighter Street Bob, because the Fat Bob’s better brakes and suspension make you more willing to push. Most of that push will admittedly come at lower/not insane speeds. The blessing of getting separated from my group at one point gave me an excuse to ride wide open. The bike leaps easily to 60 mph and continues upward with enthusiasm, but as you near the ton it gets wheezy. A very long straight and WOT riding saw the bike top out at a claimed 178 kilometers per hour (remember I was riding in Europe). That works out to 110 mph. All speedometers are optimistic, though, so let’s just call it… oh… 102. At that pace, exact speed doesn’t really matter in real-world application – you’re losing your license either way – but I will admit to feeling something bordering on disappointment. It seems like a bike that looks this crazy should be able to brag a crazy top speed. It doesn’t need to go faster, but some (possibly unreasonable) part of me just feels it should.
Handling, Ride Quality, and Brakes
LEAH MISCH: A lighter-weight bike allows for quicker acceleration – which I could feel going up steep inclines – while the remodeled chassis brings improved handling through a 91-percent increase in stiffness. That means a better lean angle and great handling around corners, aspects I used to their fullest potential when trying to keep up with a fellow rider who had been to the Isle of Man TT five times. I fell into a pattern of using engine braking from the finely tuned Milwaukee Eight when coming into corners, along with a tap of rear brake, then a few pulses of the front brakes when hitting the apex of the corner. Then roll out the throttle and line up for the next one. Rear pre-load is easily adjustable with a knob on the right side, just below the thigh (you have to remove the seat to adjust the rear monoshock on most other Softail models), which is convenient if adding luggage or a passenger. The clutch lever is easier to engage – no insane hand workout required for shifting. Thank you, Harley. There are no noticeable issues with heat, but I did learn the hard way that the exhausts’ heat shield won’t protect your rain gear.
CHRIS COPE: Despite its lack of ludicrous top end speed, the Fat Bob certainly feels more aggressive than any other Harley I’ve ridden. Credit for that goes to a chassis that makes you willing and eager to ride the bike like a loon. Fellow mo-jos Rich Taylor of GQ and Laura Thomson of Visordown felt the Showa front forks were soft, allowing a little too much dive when driving hard into a corner, but it should be noted that both rely on considerably sportier machines for their daily rides. I personally had no complaints.
Brawny dual front discs help provide solid, reliable stopping power. The Fat Bob’s set-up may even feel a little too aggressive for folks used to traditional cruiser braking, but having good brakes is hardly a fault. You get 31 degrees of lean angle on the right (exhaust) side, and 32 on the left. That’s not the 51 degrees of a Yamaha MT-09 but it’s enough that pegs only touched down once or twice while tearing down the same road that had been a nonstop scrapefest on the Breakout (Leah liked that bike; I did not). Since the Breakout and Fat Bob effectively have the same chassis it seems the better cornering comes as a result of peg placement; the Fat Bob’s pegs are higher and further back. Feet are still forward – this is a cruiser, after all – but not annoyingly so. It is a riding position similar to that found on the Indian Scout Bobber or… ahem… the Ducati XDiavel. The Fat Bob’s almost-straight handlebar will see you leaning more forward than on the latter, while being less scrunched than on the former. All in all, it’s a good mix of comfortable and aggressive. A 306kg (675 lbs) wet weight means the Fat Bob is never going to be described as “flickable” but it handles very well. “Engaging” is perhaps a better adjective to use: with decisive input, the bike holds its lines well.
Comfort and Features
LEAH MISCH: Keyless start and USB charging ports are standard on all the 2018 Softail models. I have a whole new appreciation for the USB charging port after traveling for 50 days on my Indian Scout, which does not have one. It’s definitely nice to have when you’re relying on your phone all the time for things like directions or checking the weather. All the new Softails also feature LED lighting; the Fat Bob’s large single headlight really helps it stand out. ABS is available as a $795 option in the United States and comes standard in Europe.
I would have preferred for the Fat Bob to have the same information display as the Street Bob and Breakout, where everything is shown on a small screen that integrates into the handlebar clamp. Instead, the Fat Bob’s single clock is located on the tank. With a full-face helmet on, I had to angle my head awkwardly to be able to see the speedometer, etc., which took my eyes off the road for a longer period than I’d like. At 5 foot 5, I found the riding position comfortable but some of my fellow riders said they felt scrunched up. However, I’d be interested to know whether other shorter riders find their inner thigh rubbing against the air filter, as I did. The lankier riders I was with didn’t complain about this.
CHRIS COPE: British moto-journalist Jon Urry managed to trip up the Harley team by asking why bikes like the Fat Bob are not equipped with traction control. I suspect the real reason is that American riders (still Harley’s largest market, despite strong European growth) haven’t asked for it. So, there’s little incentive to develop a technology that will make bikes even more expensive. After some fumbling, though, the team settled upon the explanation that a Harley’s weight and particularly low center of gravity more or less mitigate the need for traction control, unless… wait for it… the bike is being ridden in the rain. Cue my usual lament about cruisers and their poor wet-weather performance. Not that you’d really choose a Fat Bob as an everyday commuter. Though, in terms of comfort, you could. Of all the new Softails I rode, the Heritage Classic was obviously the best suited to long hauls but the Fat Bob, surprisingly, came a close second. Individual results really will vary in that arena, however, so, cue my usual advice about Harleys and what a good idea it is to take the company up on its desire to have you test ride its bikes. The boys and girls of Milwaukee are pretty overt in their desire to get more butts on seats, so why not give them a chance to win you over? Do it, if for no other reason than to make other manufacturers realize they should be pushing the same sort of test ride philosophy in all of their dealerships.
LEAH MISCH: The Fat Bob makes me think of that famous Steve Jobs quote: “Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” I like the Fat Bob because I think of myself as a round peg in a square hole, and this bike is definitely a misfit that is crazy enough to change the world. Or, at least, to change Harley-Davidson’s traditional audience. This is not a bike that will appeal to the leather-laced crowd. But that crowd won’t help Harley achieve its goal of creating 2 million more riders in the United States over the next 10 years. Smoother, more agile, and less classically styled than the Harleys that many have come to expect, the Fat Bob is aimed at a younger, hipper audience that can carry the brand forward another 115 years. Two million new riders seems like a hefty goal to take on, but I think Harley-Davidson is on the right path by releasing bikes like the Fat Bob.
CHRIS COPE: There’s no denying the Fat Bob is a hoot. Put up against its most obvious competition it lacks some of the technological whizzbangery and holy-bejayzus horsepower of an XDiavel but it is still a standalone ridiculously fun bike that feels fast, corners well, and turns heads. It looks better – more “sinister,” to use the new Harley buzzword –than the Italian bike and carries with it the grand mystique of being a Harley-Davidson. Personally, if I’m spending Harley money (US $18,699/£15,495 for the Fat Bob 114), I’m spending it on the Street Bob and using the excess for a stack of leather jackets. But that has a lot to do with personal taste, and there’s no doubt the Fat Bob is the best of the Softail bunch when considering Harley-Davidson’s future.
I’m not sure I agree with Leah’s belief that this bike will pull in Millennials (I don’t know too many members of that generation with the necessary disposable income), but it may tick enough of the right boxes for dudes (and it is almost certainly going to be mostly dudes) who are my age and a little older: guys who still view the brand as aspirational but who also expect more than the trundling bling of yore. We want Harleys (or, more broadly, an American motorcycle), but we don't want them to perform like those crappy Harleys we couldn’t afford when we first got our licenses. The new Softail lineup performs that feat and the Fat Bob – regardless of my personal preferences – is the jewel of that crown.
Height: 5 feet 5 inches
Physical Build: Normal BMI; an average chick
Helmet: Speed and Strength SS 700
Jacket: The brown jacket is a Black Brand Charmer; the green jacket is just an old Harley-Davidson-branded jacket I've had for 7 years.
Gloves: Black Brand Crystal
Boots: Harley-Davidson Belhaven
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical Build: Lanky
Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
Jacket: Harley-Davidson Sully 3-in-1
Body armor: Knox Venture armored shirt