2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic

Road Test Review

It’s fair to say that Harley-Davidson is one of those brands that leans heavily on its heritage, and perhaps no other model exemplifies that better than the aptly named Heritage Classic. Introduced by Harley in 1986 in an attempt to lure buyers away from cheaper Japanese offerings by tapping into its post-war glory years, the Heritage was a chrome-clad, white-walled monument to 1950s nostalgia, a reassuringly familiar island in a sea of change. And it sold like hot dogs at a baseball game.

Fast-forward 32 years, and with its core market aging out, an industry slump and those confounding Millennials turning out to be a tough nut to crack, Harley dropped the bombshell news that the twin-shock Dyna line would be folded into a new Softail lineup of eight redesigned models—including an almost unrecognizable Heritage Classic. (Read our First Ride Review on all eight new Softails here.) Gone are the acres of chrome (with the notable exception of the exhaust), silver studs, buckles, sissy bar and rear rack, replaced with a darker, sleeker look that’s a little hard to pin down. The auxiliary driving lights resemble the shrouded headlights on WWII military vehicles…but the whole assembly is actually Harley’s modern Daymaker LED system. The redesigned “Heritage” logo on the front fender could’ve come off an early 1980s sports car…but just below it sits the chrome hub cover that evokes the drum brake of the 1949 Hydra-Glide. The mish-mash of old and new might be off-putting to traditionalists, but to this Gen Xer with little to no emotional attachment to ’50s nostalgia, it comes across as less of a “me-too” bike—something different that turns heads not because of what it is, but what it isn’t.

Then there’s the fact that at 722 pounds wet, it’s the lightest touring bike Harley makes, and when coupled with a new lighter, stiffer frame, Showa cartridge-style fork and single rear shock, and of course 114 cubic inches of Milwaukee-Eight engine (with the numbers 114 “writ large,” as Clem would say, on the air cleaner and primary case covers)…well, let’s just say this was the first time I’ve been compelled to volunteer to review a Harley. Even better, I’d just finished a 5-day ride through Indiana on a 2017 Heritage Classic (which you can read about here), so a thorough “before” and “after” would be easy.

For my evaluation of the 2018 Heritage Classic, I decided to hit the road for a two-day, 525-mile overnight camping trip up the coast to Hearst San Simeon State Park, swinging inland and returning through the Paso Robles wine region, the rolling golden hills and oilfields of Taft, and finally up and over our favorite local slice of twisty heaven, State Route 33. My first challenge was attaching the Nelson-Rigg duffel to the back seat; with the sissy bar/back rest and rear luggage rack no longer standard equipment, lash points are minimal. I managed to loop my Rok Straps around the saddlebag and passenger peg mounts, but if you plan on touring it would be best to spring for the accessory rack, a roughly $300 addition. The upshot is that the new locking, water-resistant saddlebags are much more touring friendly than before, with tops that hinge on the outside edge, making it easier to access the contents even with a duffel strapped to the seat.

On the road, it took all of about 30 seconds for the new Heritage Classic’s character to emerge. The previous model is like an immaculately restored ’53 Buick Super: smooth, plush and burbly, happiest when ridden at a sedate touring pace. This new version, however, is a Chevy Bel Air brought back to life with hot cams, tinted windows and modern suspension. Much of this hot rod attitude can be attributed to the new precision oil-cooled Milwaukee-Eight engine, which on the Heritage is available in both 107 and 114ci displacements. I say “new” because this is actually a second-gen M-8, designed specifically for the Softail line; unlike the 114 used in the Touring CVO line, precision oil cooling replaces liquid cooling, and both new engines now employ single camshafts for a slimmer bottom end. Finally, dual counterbalancers make it possible to hard-mount the engine in the frame—more on that in a moment.

As I rolled along the shimmering pavement in the oil town of Taft, on the western edge of California’s baking Central Valley, excessive engine heat wasn’t an issue. Since this new Milwaukee-Eight is a wet sump design, there is no longer a hot oil reservoir directly under the Softail’s seat, and plenty of air flows past and through the engine. The small oil cooler at the front of the frame is unobtrusive, but to eagle-eyed diehards it’s borderline sacrilege. Pulling into a tiny Mexican place for lunch on my way back home from San Simeon, a crusty gent squinted sideways at me. “Is that a radiator you’ve got on that thing?” No, not quite, but that little oil cooler is what allows the engine to operate reliably at a higher compression ratio, and higher compression means higher torque, which is what riding a Harley is all about. Sometimes a little change is good.

Our test bike came equipped with the 114 (that’s 1,868cc for those of you keeping score), and it has a noticeably louder bark than the old Twin Cam 103—and a sharper bite to match. Torque is up considerably; when we last put a Twin Cam 103-powered bike on the Jett Tuning dyno it made 78.5 horsepower at 5,000 rpm and 98.4 lb-ft of torque at 3,800. The new 114, by comparison, is good for 85.2 horsepower at 4,800 rpm and a stump-pulling 107.7 lb-ft of torque at 3,100.

But power is nothing without control. Previous Softails have not been known for their handling performance. The Dynas were marginally better, but with their twin rear shocks they didn’t have the classic look that Harley owners desired and their sales suffered for it. As I ventured off the freeway and onto twistier two-lane, it became immediately apparent that Harley’s efforts to improve handling while maintaining the all-important Softail look were successful.

If I said the 2018 Heritage Classic is Harley’s sport tourer, would you believe me?

For starters, the steel frame is all-new, with a steeper rake and tighter trail than before, and it is mostly responsible for the claimed 32-pound weight loss from 2017 to 2018. Harley also claims a 34-percent increase in chassis stiffness and a 60-percent increase in overall stiffness, all of which was backed up by my seat-of-the-pants impression. On a photo shoot on tight, technical Figueroa Mountain Road, I was flinging the new Heritage (which outweighs me 6-to-1) through transitions that would’ve had the ’17 model floundering and out of control. Hard-mounted to the frame, the dual-balanced Milwaukee-Eight now contributes to that increased overall stiffness, while magically transmitting satisfying vibes at idle and on acceleration, but once at cruising altitude (up to about 75 mph) it’s smooth and all-day comfortable.

The other half of the handling equation is the new Showa suspension, which now features a cartridge-style Showa Dual Bending Valve (SDBV) fork with 5.1 inches of travel and a new rear single shock with a generous 4.5 inches. The new components offer a ride that’s less plush, but instead is firmly compliant and—there’s that word again—sporty. Damping is more linear and predictable, allowing me to take advantage of the newly increased lean angles—up about three degrees on each side—even on bumpy, uneven pavement. Unlike the other new Softails, neither the Heritage nor Deluxe models have visible remote rear spring preload adjusters, which Harley says would look too modern on such classically styled machines. On the Heritage preload is easily changed by putting a wrench on a hydraulic remote under the rider’s seat.

Now, before the flaming letters of outrage are penned, I don’t mean to claim that the Heritage is an actual sport tourer, especially compared to today’s sophisticated, 160-horsepower, electronic suspension- and cornering ABS-equipped machines. It could use another front brake disc to help rein in all that Milwaukee metal, and even with the chassis improvements its lean angles are conservative compared to a true sport tourer. But if you want the Big Twin experience and you still like having a little fun in the twisties, the relatively lightweight and newly flickable Heritage might be a better option than Harley’s bigger Touring models.

To match this sportier character, the riding position on the new Heritage has been tweaked slightly. The plush saddle feels more dished (although seat height is roughly the same), with better lumbar support than before, and the handlebar is angled farther back and lower; I found the combination to be more comfortable than the 2017 model. The removable windshield is the same size, but is angled farther back so that the top no longer sits right in my line of sight, and the high-frequency thrum I experienced on my Indiana ride is gone, but it’s been replaced by some heavier buffeting that was enough to push my helmeted head around a bit. The controls will be familiar to any Harley owner, with the addition of a switch that toggles through the options on the new LCD display incorporated into the traditional tank-mounted analog speedometer, which now includes a digital fuel gauge. Cruise control and ABS are standard.

Heading back down Figueroa Mountain in the dark (the price we pay for epic sunset shots), I got a chance to test the effectiveness of the Heritage’s new Daymaker LED lights. Those “shrouded” auxiliary lights are a clever ruse, by the way. A closer look reveals that what look like dark covers are actually curved reflectors, and when switched on it’s the shiny center strips that go dark. They bathed the sides of the road in bright white light, giving me some peace of mind as I carefully descended the tight switchbacks.

After spending some quality time with it, I came away impressed with this new Heritage. Its looks aren’t for everyone, but I think Harley is heading in the right direction as it attempts to navigate the changing whims of motorcycle buyers and entice the next generation into its dealerships. Now I’ve got my eye on the new Fat Bob, wondering how much luggage I can strap to it….