Occasionally a motorcycle manufacturer gets a new product absolutely spot on. The 2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 114 is one such machine.
There are Harley-Davidsons, and then there are Harley-Davidsons. The former consists of the ubiquitous chrome dinosaurs rolling up and down America’s freeways, spreading the belief that Milwaukee’s finest are only good at going in a straight line. The latter is made up of one Harley and one Harley only—the new 2018 Softail Fat Bob 114.
This is the best Harley-Davidson ever made.
Photography by Kit Palmer
I should quantify that statement by saying it’s the best Harley-Davidson I’ve ever ridden, but that doesn’t sound as good and seeing as I have not experienced a great deal of bikes bearing the bar and shield (I’ve ridden lots, just not as many as some journos), the 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Bob 114 represents the first time I’ve ever seriously looked at a Harley and envisioned it permanently in my garage.
I ride many, many bikes, and as such, when I find one I simply want to ride for the sake of riding, with no thoughts of what I’m going to write about, I take a little more notice than usual. So, you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that that bike came in the form of a thundering American V-twin with an army-style matte gray tank and garish gold on the single-side exhaust.
There’s a defining meanness to the ’Bob that is simply not there in any other power cruiser I can think of. Now part of the Softail lineup after the demise of the Dyna name, the ’Bob is a bike anyone with a sporting bone in their body can at least appreciate, if not enjoy.
It carves corners better than any bike I’ve ridden from Milwaukee and has enough power to keep me entertained, but performance is equal to looks for me, because a Ducati Diavel will blitz this thing in anything resembling a sporting domain. However, a Diavel doesn’t look half as good as this, or have the most famous name in motorcycling stamped on the engine cases.
I fell in love with the looks the minute I laid eyes on the ’Bob purely down to one part—the headlight—which gives it a completely different demeanor to the hideous bug-eyed look of the 2017 Fat Bob. Its rectangular/oval shape is pure sportbike and gives you somewhat of an idea as to the kind of riding you can do with a 2018 ’Bob. Quite a few colleagues I have spoken to regarding this feature don’t care for it, preferring instead to have the traditional circular unit. Personally, I think they’re nuts. It looks wild and the LEDs in that thing are bright as hell, something I discovered during my many night rides while the ’Bob and I lived together.
Once I looked a little further, there were more and more parts that caught my eye. Inverted forks, a monoshock that replaces the twin shocker of ’17, proper brake discs, chunky dual upswept mufflers, a flatter handlebar that gave this ’Bob a pumped-up gym-junkie look to it, and a seat that for once doesn’t put me in that damn cruiser-slouch position. Why the hell do cruiser manufacturers insist on curving the rider’s lower back when they craft their seats?
The ’18 ’Bob is thus Harley-Davidson’s version of a Yamaha VMAX, and the aforementioned Ducati Diavel. It’s like someone at Harley finally came to the realization that to get new riders into the fold, they needed to make a bike radically different than what they did last year. Thankfully, they have.
Yet, as good as the ’Bob looks in the metal, the real Manchego cheese comes when you ride it. I haven’t experienced the 107 Fat Bob, but I already know if I were indeed to buy a ’Bob, it’d have to come with the 114 motor kit fitted. To quote the old engine builder’s line, “there’s no replacement for displacement,” and the 114 cubes sitting inside the ’Bob make for one hell of a ride.
What makes the ride so impressive are the great big dollops of torque available and how smooth the motor is. The ’Bob’s motor comes with dual counterbalancers that make for a near vibration-free ride—which is a massive achievement for the H-D designers. Couple this almost polite motor with the fact the fueling is by far the best I’ve experienced on a Harley to date: it’s impeccably fueled, allowing for minute throttle changes with no hesitation or splutter or hunt. What you ask for at the grip is what you get at the wheel, and what you get is a lot when you crank the tap wide open on a 114 ’Bob
It’s too quiet, however. The ’Bob needs more lungs to match its road presence but that’s something the aftermarket will rectify—hopefully whatever louder mufflers go on will look as sweet as the stockers.
The go from the 114 has a worthy partner in the new six-speed gearbox. For too long Harley-Davidson gearboxes have been nothing short of shithouse, but this ’Bob’s box is as equally impressive as the motor. Engaging first gear is no longer a case of slamming two opposing pieces of metal together—it’s a much, much smoother experience—a new click to the old clang. And if you don’t get too greedy with the revs and your eagerness to find the next cog, the box’s action will remain delightfully smooth and quiet.
You can get a little greedy, however, when you go hunting for twisty bends because even though ground clearance is limited (it is a Harley, after all), you can seriously hustle the ’Bob in a fashion that belies its stretched out 63.6-inch wheelbase and claimed 676 pounds. She’s a plus-size model, no doubt, but that’s not to say ol’ Bobbie can’t get up and boogie. The new frame is a whopping 65-percent stiffer than the old 2017 ’Bob—that means its more composed when being thrashed and allows for much more sport riding than ever before. Showa has graced the ’Bob with their 43mm inverted Dual Bending Valve fork and its performance is exemplary—whether you’re used to old H-D’s or not—and when matched to the excellent performance of the single monoshock out back, the ride is smooth and enjoyable but capable of sustaining a good canning when required.
The overall ride is substantially stiffer than before, which is a good thing in my book, but it might put off a few H-D purists in that the ’Bob really isn’t the kind of bike I’d go touring on because eventually the ride will become pretty uncomfortable.
And here we get to one of my absolute favorite parts of the ’Bob—that seat. Rather, it’s the combination of the seat, the bar bend and the placement of the admittedly small pegs. For my money, this is the most comfortable cruiser seat I’ve ever sat on. Its shape is reminiscent of the unit on my personal KTM 1290 Super Duke and holds the rider in a firm but comfortable stance that tilts them slightly forward, rather than having them slouch into the padding and thus putting more weight than needed over the back end.
The rider triangle of peg-seat-bar is well sorted, although if I had one criticism I’d have liked the pegs about two inches further back and the seat about two inches higher, just to get a bit more of that naked bike stance for a more controlled feel when cornering hard, because riding this bike with real vigor makes you feel like a true badass.
That’s what this bike is—an absolute badass. And the reason I like it is because it’s so unlike previous bikes bearing the name on the tank. The new ’Bob is the kind of Harley non-Harley riders will get, because it handles, goes and looks better than anything made by Harley before it. People will still scoff at the spec sheet, and their arguments against lighter, faster opponents cannot be ignored. But to judge by the spec sheet is to miss the point of the new ’Bob, because this bike is more than the sum of its parts. The proof is in the ride experience, and I stand by my declaration that, indeed, the 2018 Softail Fat Bob 114 is the best Harley-Davidson ever made. CN
SPECIFICATIONS: 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Fat Bob 114
Milwaukee-Eight 114, V-twin, liquid-cooled
114 c.i (1868cc)
Bore x stroke:
102 x 114.3mm
43mm Showa inverted fork
Single Showa shock absorber, preload adjustable
4-piston calipers, ABS as standard
Twin-piston caliper, ABS as standard
676 lbs. (wet, claimed).
Vivid Black, Black Denim, Red Iron Denim, Bonneville Salt Denim, Industrial