When Harley-Davidson pulled the covers off several all-new Softail models a few months ago it may have accidentally blunted the impact of the changes due to the sheer quantity of bikes it was rolling out. Truth is, though, the Softail overhaul (as well as Harley’s 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, slimmer, and more powerful. 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.
I got a chance to ride the post-apocalyptically styled beast in the mountains of Catalunya not too long ago. Although I will admit it’s not my favorite of the Softail line (that prize going to either the Sport Glide or the Street Bob), I have a high opinion of it because I think it’s a great example of how Harley-Davidson can make a “modern” motorcycle (ie, a bike that suits modern/international tastes) that is still very much, totally, and undeniably a Harley.
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 sex toys and the “Fat Bob” is one of the worst offenders (thank goodness Harley has at least gotten rid of the Night Rod). In Harley letter code, I believe, the 114 is known as an FXFBS; I feel that utilitarian name better suits the bike’s delightfully crazy aesthetic.
There’s no doubt the Fat Bob is among the best of the Softail bunch
The Fat Bob looks like it was built from whatever was available in a scrap yard: 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.
The Fat Bob has shed 15 kg (33 lbs) from the previous version, with part of that weight loss coming from a slimmer tank. Though some say they miss the 18.9-liter tank (5 US gallons), the new 13.6-liter petrol carrier (3.6 US gallons) improves comfort and overall aesthetics. Though, it still splays the legs pretty wide.
The bike’s 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.
MORE SOFTAILS: 2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic 114 – First Ride
As with the new Street Bob, the Milwaukee Eight 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 laugh at this but the engine most definitely feels “sportier” here than in other applications. That includes the (nominally) lighter Street Bob, because the Fat Bob’s better brakes and greater lean angle give you more confidence to ride with enthusiasm.
Admittedly, you’ll find the bike to be most enthusiastic 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 initially continues upward with aplomb, but as you near the ton it starts to get wheezy. A very long straight and WOT riding saw the bike top out at a claimed 178 kilometers per hour. That works out to roughly 110 mph. All speedometers are optimistic, though, so let’s just call it… oh… 102 mph.
At that pace, exact speed doesn’t really matter in a real-world application – you’re losing your license either way – but I’ll admit to feeling something bordering on disappointment. It seems 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 wishes it would.
Handling, Ride Quality, and Brakes
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 Harley claims is 91 percent stiffer than its predecessor, the end result of which is that you will be more eager to ride the bike like a loon. 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.
Fellow mo-jos Rich Taylor of GQ and Laura Thomson of Visordown felt the Showa front fork was 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; they are used to the “ride hard into a corner, brake hard, ride hard out” style of riding that a sportbike’s set-up accommodates. I don’t tend to ride that way, opting instead for the old-man/RoSPA technique of settling into a speed before the corner and riding through without touching the brakes. Perhaps as a result, I had no complaints about the fork.
A BETTER BOB? – 2018 Harley-Davidson Street Bob – First Ride
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 , say, 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.
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
Keyless start and USB charging ports are standard on all the 2018 Softail models, as is LED lighting. The Fat Bob’s single clock offers a wealth of information but you’ll struggle to ever see it on the move because it is mounted on the tank.
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 Sport Glide and Heritage Classic were 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.
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-level money (£15,495 /US $18,699 for the Fat Bob 114), I’m spending it on the Street Bob instead 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 among the best of the Softail bunch when considering Harley-Davidson’s future.
I’m not sure I agree with some moto-journalists’ assertions that this bike will pull in Millennials. I don’t know very many members of that generation with the necessary disposable income. Certainly, though, it is not a bike aimed at the old leather-tassels crowd. 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 arguably the jewel of that crown.
The Three Questions
Does the Harley-Davidson Fat Bob fit my current lifestyle?
No. As a person who lives that no-car life, relying on my bike for everything, I can’t see the Fat Bob really being my top choice. Additionally, although I am amused by the bike’s aesthetics I don’t actually like them. That is to say, it’s not the sort of bike that I sit on and want to shout: “Hey! Look at me!”
Does the Harley-Davidson Fat Bob put a grin on my face?
Definitely. It may not suit my personal style but I can appreciate its madness. Being able to sit atop that moon-sized engine and tip the bike into corners is all kinds of fun.
Is the Harley-Davidson Fat Bob better than my current bike, a 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRX?
No. Or, well, maybe yes. It depends entirely on your intended purpose. I mean, is a screwdriver better than a hammer? The answer to that question depends on what you want to accomplish. I’m not entirely sure what the intended purpose of the Fat Bob is; I can’t think of a situation where a Fat Bob would make perfect sense. So, rather than it being a hammer it is a heavy rock, which, if you’re trying to drive nails, makes a little more sense than the Leatherman that is a Tiger Explorer, but it still isn’t really “better,” if you see what I mean.
Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Lanky
Likes: Piña coladas, getting caught in the rain
Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
Jacket: Harley-Davidson Sully 3-in-1
Body armor: Knox Venture armored shirt
Gloves: Aerostich Competition Elkskin Roper
Jeans: Pando Moto Boss 105 Indigo Reg
Boots: Indian Motorcycle Spirit Lake by Red Wing