Cape Town - It’s been 10 years since we last rode a Heritage Softail, and a lot has changed in that time, both for this model and the company that makes it, but the real surprise is how much of the Softail character Harley-Davidson has managed to retain while dragging it into the 21st century.
It has a new version of the Milwaukee-Eight four valve V-twin that we first experienced in the Motor Company’s tourers in November 2016, with dual balancer shafts to enable the 1868cc lump to be rigidly mounted in the frame. It has fly-by-wire fuel injection, linked to cruise control, and it’s tuned in this application for 68kW at 5250 revs and 161Nm at 3000rpm – and yes, the spread of torque is as wide and muscular as those numbers suggest.
Significant reductions in mechanical noise enable a surprisingly authoritative exhaust note without upsetting the Pollution Police, although the effect was rather spoilt by the clunky six-speed gearbox telling everybody within 100 metres all about it every time I changed gear.
Neutral also became annoyingly elusive when the engine was hot, but the test Softail was just coming up for its first major service, so it’s likely an oil change (possibly to a grade better suited to South Africa’s long roads and high ambient temperatures) would sort that out.
But the really big changes to the 2018 Softail are in the chassis, starting with a new, simpler frame with half the components and 22 percent fewer welds, making the latest Softail 34 percent more rigid (thanks mostly to the solid-mounted engine) than its predecessors, according to the maker.
Suspension is by Showa, incorporating superbike-style bending valve cartridge dampers (albeit without any adjustment) in 49mm front forks and a conventional rear monoshock - cleverly triangulated so that the bike still looks like a hardtail - under the seat, in place of the dual pull-through dampers under the transmission of previous Softail models.
The frame and suspension updates have reduced all-up weight by 14.5 kilograms to 330kg, making the bike noticeably easier to heave up off its side-stand, although once you’re rolling the weight is no longer a factor, due to Harley-Davidsons’ traditionally low centre of gravity and superb balance.
The 2018 Softail is reassuringly stable at speed, with only the occasional slight weave, usually when entering a long downhill sweeper, possibly due to turbulence around the large, hard panniers - a not unusual phenomenon known as ‘the tail wagging the dog’.
Top speed was a disappointing 172km/h true at 4050rpm, with 184 showing on the speedometer, for a 6.9 percent error. Had time permitted I would have liked to run the performance tests again with the bike ‘clean’ - i.e. without the removable screen and panniers, although She Who Has the Casting Vote pointed out that most Heritage Softail owners ride with screen and panniers in place, so the results would be at best unrealistic.
I rode the test Softail 405km in three days, in an almost equal mix of commuting, touring and performance testing, during which it returned a fuel consumption of 5.88 litres per 100km. That gave it a theoretical range of 320km on an 18.9 litre thankful and I, for one, would be happy to ride it 300km without stopping.
The deeply padded rider’s seat, just 680mm off the ground at its lowest point, is perfectly shaped to keep your weight well spread and off your pelvic bones, while the police-type screen keeps the wind off you with minimal buffeting and the high-rise handlebars let you lean just a little forward into the bike without folding you into a ‘clamshell’ seating position (although I will admit that I used the rear footpegs for performance testing).
The pillion pad, however, is much smaller, less dished and feels a lot firmer; despite the presence of a neat little backrest, She Who Must Be Obeyed declined the offer of a ride; read into that what you will.
In place of the soft saddlebags of previous Heritage models the 2018 Softail comes with hard plastic boxes covered in what looks like high-quality synthetic leather (I didn’t peel any of it to see whether it came out of a factory or off a cow). What they lack in 1950s tradition they more than make up for in convenience and security - the lids can easily be operated with one hand and they’re lockable with the bike’s key.
Which brings us to the new Softail’s simplified security system. The kill-switch is also the start-stop switch. As long as the key fob is in the pocket of your riding jacket you can get on, flip the switch to ‘Run’, thumb the button next to it to start and ride away.
When you stop, flip the kill-switch to ‘Off’ and the bike switches off completely. Then, as you walk away, you’ll hear a “cheep” to confirm that the system is off and the motion detector is armed, ready to deafen anybody rash enough to move the bike with its deafening shriek.
Like most Harleys, the new Heritage Softail is a rolling contradiction. For all its sophisticated fuelling, twin-spark heads, all-LED lighting and the best suspension components Japan has to offer, it still looks like something Elvis Presley would have ridden into Las Vegas on. And if you are too young for the reference to the 1964 hit film, this bike may not appeal to you at first glance.
For that is Harley-Davidson’s dilemma: the Baby Boomers who fuelled Willie G Davidson’s obsession with Heritage models in the 1970s and ‘80s are becoming too old to ride and a lot of Generation X’ers just don’t get it – which is why the Motor Company is re-inventing itself with new streetfighters, electric bikes and even an adventure tourer.
But in the meantime, there’s this Heritage Softail, living proof that you can make a remarkably silken purse out of a Hog’s ear. It’s supremely comfortable, fit and finish are impeccable and it is superlatively suited to the open road. Look twice before you dismiss it as a dinosaur.