New Tail Order: 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim

By Surj Gish, with Max Klein
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Surj Gish

The Slim is probably the most divisive bike we’ve had at World Headquarters in some time, if not ever. Fish vehemently hates it and the entire new Softail line, the engine, and all Harleys since the FXR, except the Sportster Roadster. Max and I think it’s a fine bobber or round-town cruiser or (groan) bar hopper, summing it up with statements like “Eh, it’s good for what it is.”

It ain’t exactly my thing, but I think it’s a classically-styled bike that looks like a motorcycle, albeit a quintessentially Harley-Davidson motorcycle. I like riding it in the right environment—it’s a joy in the world of stoplight-to-stoplight cool, with grunty, rapid acceleration from the Milwaukee Eight 107 and very good ease of use. It may sound strange to point to a Harley-Davidson as an example of good usability, but we all felt that the Slim was eminently easy to ride—not unlike a Rebel 500 that got bigger. Lots bigger, at 642 pounds dry.

Some will surely consider that comparison to be a sideways insult, damning with faint praise, but if you read our review of Honda’s reincarnated Rebel, you know that our opinion of that motorcycle is high indeed.

All this applies in isolation, though. ‘Round town is rockin’, unless you need to carry something bigger than your phone and wallet. The Slim doesn’t have a rear seat or rack to tie your takeout to, but it’s not like we just figured that out walking out of the hippie organic store with a bag full of kale, artisan corn flakes and that weird too-creamy milk that costs so much, like “Oh shit, how am I gonna get all this wonderful nonsense home?!”

That’s the Slim’s thing. Can’t really fault it for that, right?

I can fault its tuck and roll seat, though, which is the worst thing I’ve had my ass on since… I was gonna say the CRF250L Rally, but that bike’s riding position at least made freeway doable, if at rather pedestrian (actually, yes, literally pedestrian) speeds. The Slim’s combination of forward floorboards and slippery, nearly flat seat makes the bike a real trial at speed. Forget the freeway—unless you like the feeling of clinging for dear life to the grips because there’s really nothing else keeping you on the bike.

The seat’s utter uselessness sits in stark contrast to the rest of the bike’s rideability, and for me, nearly ruined it. I enjoyed the Slim’s admittedly limited schtick on urban streets, roaring about, dragging floorboards, but after a few initial test runs, basically refused to ride it anywhere that’d require more than 60 seconds on the freeway.

Again, this limited use case is the Slim’s thing, and it’s true that a better seat is easily fixed with a credit card or even some creatively applied duct tape. And I won’t go into my usual rant about the frustratingly limited usefulness of bobbers and bar hoppers, how the economics of such machines spit in the face of regular Americans who would be better served by more useful motorcycles, how the Slim’s $15,899 sticker is an awful lot of money for a bike that is marginally useful beyond the city limits unless you drop $1,000 or so on saddlebags and a tiny rack. You’re disappointed, I’m sure.

What I will talk about is the MoCo’s transition from two lines, Dyna and Softail, to a singular Softail line that has absorbed the models from both. Why, we asked?

Our contact at Harley-Davidson told us this:

“There was no engineering requirement or technical challenge that required merging the two lines. We went into the customer research open minded, but the outcome of the research pointed us in that direction especially as we synthesized the voice of customer requirements into specific engineering deliverables.

“One important insight from the research was that most customers do not primarily identify model choice by family, at least as we have defined them as Dyna, Softail, Touring, etc. Most riders identify more with a specific motorcycle model based on its inherent design and performance characteristics. In other words, most riders do not think of themselves as a Dyna or Softail rider, but as having an emotional connection to specific model, like a Low Rider or Heritage.

“Another conclusion of the research was that having two separate cruiser platforms really provided no consumer benefit to most riders, and was in fact causing some confusion for many customers. In the end, adopting a modular platform that we can take into many different styling and performance directions proved to be the best solution.”

That sounds reasonable. We may not take it hook, line and sinker—we’re skeptics, after all—but in many ways, this reflects what I’ve observed with the various market segments that often get lumped together as “Harley folk.”

After reviewing the new lineup, my personal impression was mostly ambivalent, although the Fat Bob caught my attention with what looks to my eye like Monster-esque aesthetics, perhaps representative of the “many different styling and performance directions” mentioned above. It lost me at the forward controls, but interestingly, I started seeing riders that I’d previously never dreamed would be interested in a Hog of any type perk up and even buy these new Softails.

This is of course juxtaposed against the predictably vocal minority crying about how the new bikes aren’t as good as the old ones. My response to such naysayers, whether they’re complaining about Harleys or modern diesel engines, is usually a dismissive “shut the fuck up,” because they tend to be uninformed whiners. And it’s trivially easy to look at the bikes in the new Softail line that were also in the old Softail line and point out the reasons they’re objectively better. They generally meet the goals Harley-Davidson established for the transition: reduced weight, more power, and enhanced handling characteristics. Put a new and old Slim next to each other, and it’s just plain obvious.

But for the former Dynas, the answer wasn’t as clear. Also, Fish wouldn’t shut up about how the new Softails are some number of steps backward from his beloved FXR—I can’t remember how many steps exactly, because I started tuning him out—so I kinda wanted to gather some evidence.

We mostly ride and judge motorcycles independently of outside influences, to avoid tainting our points of view. But in this case, we had to hear what the community had to say, so we sent Fish out amongst his people, the FXR faithful and Dyna bros, to collect what they had to say. We distilled that whining, sorry, thoughtful feedback, into this:

An Open Letter To Harley-Davidson From The Dyna Faithful

Dear Harley-Davidson,

We’re not sure if your marketing department or engineering wing is behind the decision to put all your eggs in this new Softail basket, but on behalf of Dyna enthusiasts everywhere, we’re here to say that we’re pissed.

For generations, Harley made the bikes our parents rode. Biker culture carried Harley through the lean times, and you have embraced that as a brand. But that plan has an expiration date, and it’s coming up! 

The Eighties brought the FXR, a step away from traditionally-styled frames, a motorcycle focused on handling instead of style, a big departure from the FX. There was never a definitive reason given for the demise of the FXR, but you did give us the Dyna as a substitute. To this day, you’ll never hear any of us say a Dyna is better than an FXR, but the Dyna has seen its share of development and now has a real and dedicated following. It’s the Harley our generation identifies with. Its size and packaging work well on the streets or highways, it’s not a wannabe rigid, it doesn’t need a navigation system or a stereo. You seemed to understand this, and gave us the Low Rider S, but then for 2018, you replace the Dynas with Softails, and you want us to believe this is better? 

Do you not see what people are doing with the Dyna? The enthusiasts pushing the Dyna into new areas may be small in numbers but we’re visible. We’re not all buying new bikes today, but orphaning our preferred model won’t foster any loyalty. When we do buy new bikes, we aren’t interested in forward controls, counterbalanced engines, or USB ports. Our generation’s heroes don’t ride rigid frames. We don’t care about the chopper craze of the 90’s. We want wheelies. We want jumps. We want power. We don’t want fragile engines with counterbalancers to make them smooth.

For many years, Harley has sold motorcycles that were blank canvases for creating bikes that fit their riders, and the Dyna in particular opened up a world of riding that our parents never imagined. These new Softails are just more of the same motorcycles our parents were into. The one possible exception is the Fat Bob, but you fell short of the mark by prioritizing exhaust styling over footpeg placement.

We’re not here to tell you to bring back the Dyna, we’re here to tell you that pursuing the Softail as a single platform was a bad idea. You definitely made a better Softail. You didn’t make a better Dyna.

I was a big fan of the Low Rider S too (“Gimme The Sweet & Lowdown: Harley-Davidson Low Rider S” – July 2017) but I can’t resist pointing out that if you want wheelies and jumps, there are countless better options. Get a Dorsoduro, or a Monster, or a beat-ass Craigslist SV650. Those, and a nearly unending list of other motorcycles are materially better for hooning and in almost everything else except being a Harley-Davidson.

Hell, Harley even gave you a specific option a while back, the XR1200, and you crybabies didn’t buy that, so why should we take you seriously now?

I think, based on my best imitation of objective observation, that the overwhelming majority of Harley customers care even less about the tragic demise of the Dyna than most Americans care for logical, thoughtful, well-informed political discourse. Harley buyers mostly want a Harley, and they like Harleys that look like Harleys. That’s it.

That’s not to say that the current apparent match of motorcycles and desire will keep Harley afloat forever. It certainly won’t. But Harley’s research—I know, of course they’d say their research supported this move—conveniently jives with my POV on this.

So CityBike’s official point of view on this “waaah, no more Dyna” sniveling is that it’s mostly bullshit. Except Fish, who has opted out of this particular position statement, and instead is cleaning up the puddle of oil under his FXR.

It’s not all roses and “Haha, I told you so,” though. The bike looks great and our tester’s Bonneville Salt Denim (AKA satin white) paint was up to the usual high standards we see with Harleys, and the new Slim is thankfully 35 pounds slimmer than the old Slim. But we’ve experienced quality issues with the last three Harleys that have visited CityBike World Headquarters; in this case the vehicle speed sensor crapped out and threw an error.

It’s worth noting that Harley isn’t the only American motorcycle maker that’s sent us bikes with issues recently. You might recall that the Indian Scout we rode a few months back (“Indian Scout: Here Comes Trouble – July 2017) shat its rear wiring harness into the tire, leaving the bike without a taillight—a genuinely troubling failure.

But there are little signs of cost-cutting that really shouldn’t be present on a near-$16,000 motorcycle, like the little black plastic cover-up dealies on the frame in front of the tank. We’d expect this sort of shortcutting on cheaper-than-healthcare budget bikes, but not on a Harley, and certainly not a Harley that costs this much. Similarly, we’d like to see cleaner routing of the wiring behind that glorious Daymaker LED headlight.

So on one hand, the new Softail Slim is genuinely, materially better than the old Softail Slim, and does a bang-up job at most of the required Harley-isms, even if it’s not well-suited to our daily routines. On the other hand, though, we’re starting to be concerned about overall quality and Harley’s commitment to their previously always-excellent fit and finish standards.

Max: It’s Hard Out Here For A Softail

After the 2017 Dirtbag, Fish and I swung by Lanesplitter’s for a slice or two. The first words out of his mouth when we sat down were “So, how much did you hate the Slim?”

I knew this question was coming, and I’d begun wondering if he’d had a stroke or something when it didn’t come up sooner.

The truth: I don’t hate it. It’s a decent-looking bike, the motor is strong enough, yet it doesn’t want to vibrate me off at stoplights. Like most of the H-D’s I’ve ridden, the suspension is acceptable but not impressive, and the brakes slow and stop with the same level of fanfare.

After a slight pause, I answered, “It is actually a pretty good entry level bike.”

Fish went on for some time about how it was not The Motor Company’s entry level bike, like a BuzzFeed article entitled “10 Awesome Things About The Dyna That The Softail Lacks – YOU WON’T BELIEVE NUMBER 6!”

I’m not saying he didn’t make some valid points, but he wasn’t 100% right either. I elaborated on how brands have more than one beginner bike; Honda with their many 250s and 300s, and entire family of 500s, for example.

Harley’s Street line is their obvious entry-level family, but that doesn’t mean that’s what people are necessarily going to ask for when buying their first Hog, or first bike for that matter. The Sportster series has been unable to shake the “girl’s bike” label and is often looked at as beginner-level hardware by H-D purists—something my septuagenarian father probably giggles about as he hunts sportbikes with his—but nonetheless the stigma is there.

Intended or not, the Slim is totally a path to success for a newer rider. The motor is free of any unnecessary vibration at any RPM—though it will still potato-potato along at idle, it won’t knock your fillings loose. Clutch feel is great, making drama-free launches easy, even if shifting is a bit heavy-feeling, often generating a rock solid “thunk.” The best part: while the motor is very manageable, wind it up and you still get the thrills of Big Twin torque.

As I mentioned, the suspension is nothing to get super-excited about but for a heavy mofo it holds its own in corners. With a bit of body English, I was able to keep the floorboards off the ground most of the time. The foot controls are too far forward for my liking but the overall riding position was not uncomfortable. The seat, however, was slippery and doesn’t even pretend it’s going to help you stay on the bike, so I still found myself with sore shoulders after any time on the freeway.

At this point Fish conceded I might not be completely insane, but got going on the whole, “They will rue the day they got rid of the Dyna” thing again somehow, so I suggested we go ride before he aneurysmed out.

The Slim does not have luggage… or a passenger seat… or a decent solo seat for that matter, so it falls into the unfortunate bar hopper category, relegating it to second-bike territory for almost everyone, including some of the most capital-B Bikers. But tech bros (and their lawyers and accountants) that have over 15 large to drop on the Harley lifestyle have the ability to purchase non-Sportster street cred and be able to actually ride the thing.

As Surj pointed out, the MoCo did a bit of research before they decided to punt an entire chassis. While purists will probably be slow to embrace the new Softails, those new to the brand will probably only notice the Dynas are absent from the showroom floor if they ask a salesperson, “What’d Jax ride?”

Think of the Softail Slim as the kinder, gentler Motor Company. While Harley has been the symbol of outlaws since well before my time, times they are a-changin’ and for once Harley is willing to admit it.

This story originally appeared in our January 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.