Ask any non-rider their image of a big motorcycle and invariably the answer you will get is Harley-Davidson (H-D). In line with plans for increasing market interest in its product lineup, H-D invited to sample four examples from its 2020 Softail line up, the FXFBS Fat Bob 114 (RM113,100 base price), FXBB Street Bob (RM97,500 base price), FLHCS Heritage Classic (RM122,800 base price) and FLSB Sport Glide (RM113,100 base price).

This review is being split into two parts because despite all coming from the same Softail family, there are enough differences between the four machines to give each a distinct personality. For ease of reading, we’ve grouped the Street Bob and Fat Bob in Part 1 of the review as they’re naked, street oriented bikes while the Heritage Classic and Sport Glide lean more towards the long distance side of things.

There was a fifth Softail we rode, the FXLRS Low Rider S but since this model is not included in Harley-Davidson Malaysia’s model lineup for 2020, we’re leaving it out. Don’t despair, since the Low Rider S carries the same engine as the rest of the motorcycles we rode, you’ll get an idea of the bike’s behaviour and handling characteristics.

Four H-D models built on the same platform, meant to do different things with different accessories fitted? Well, cross platforming is practised by every vehicle manufacturer, big or small, two- or four-wheeled, so no surprises there and should not be taken as a negative.

After all, not everyone has the same taste or budget and cross platforming lets everyone access what the brand has to offer, so to speak. With that in mind, here’s the first part of our review on Harley-Davidson’s 2020 Softails, the Fat Bob and Street Bob.

Having ridden several iterations of H-D’s latest offerings, from the big luxury cruisers to the base model 883 Sportster and Street Rod 750, we can say with some certainty things have changed some at the Milwaukee firm. On the other hand, things have stayed the same, somewhat.

While we accept a company’s “image” has a big part to play in sales figures, H-D’s motorcycles have, since the early 2000’s, stayed in the same mold after the demise of the V-Rod’s Revolution V-twin. Developed in conjunction with Porsche and Buell, sports bikes designed by Eric Buell and featuring some quirks of technology like out-board rim mounted brake discs, the V-Rod and Lightning promised a renaissance for the brand, 20 years ago, which never came to pass.

But that was then and this is now and the now is there has been a revision across much of H-D’s range of cruisers and tourers, especially in the Softails. For the more street oriented rider, H-D let us ride two versions, the Street Bob and Fat Bob.

We did earlier ride the Street Bob, the 2018 version, in Malaysia and did indeed like much of it. For one thing, the Milwaukee-Eight V-twin we have ridden, from 2017 onwards, is better fuelled and produces a linear power curve that makes the pair of Softails easy to ride and quite approachable.

This is especially important for newer riders who may not have the experience or the inclination to ride around a Harley’s fuelling idiosyncrasies. While some might say this is in a bike’s character – flat spots and stumbles are also found in other motorcycle makes – having a bike lose power while mid-corner and the rider unprepared for it is not a nice thing, especially if the rider is new to this two-wheeler thing.

Detailing the differences between the Street Bob and Fat Bob, the Street Bob comes with a 107 Milwaukee-Eight V-twin, which translates to 1,746 cc. Naturally, the 107 mill is air-cooled and while we did not have issues with engine heat riding in the cold spring weather of Spain, resting our gloves on the barrels to keep warm, local riding conditions will differ, so be advised.

The Fat Bob we rode comes with the 117 version of the Milwaukee-Eight – for the curious, the “Eight” stands for eight-valves – that in metric terms comes out at 1,868 cc. As for the numbers, the 107 V-twin puts out 86 PS at 5,020 rpm and 145 Nm of torque at 3,000 rpm while the 114 mill has 93 PS at 5,020 rpm and 155 Nm of torque at 3,000 rpm.

What does this mean to you as a rider? Well, you will do what we did, leave either engine in fourth and enjoy the rolling curves of the Spanish countryside, using the engine torque to waft you from corner to corner.

Wait, waft? Like in no intrusive engine vibration and a comfortable ride? Yes, engine vibration is very much minimised, as we have said in earlier reviews of the Milwaukee-Eight mill but there is still enough ‘character’ to remind you you are still riding American iron.

Let’s just say things in the vibration department are under control and you don’t have to hang on for dear life at traffic stops. And to those H-D purists who will scoff and say the author has no idea what he’s talking about, there was a 1997 FLSTF in the stable not long ago… with carburettors.

Other differences include suspension, with the Fat Bob running upside down forks and a chunky 150-section 16-inch front tyre, while the Street Bob rolls telescopic forks and a 19-inch front wheel with 100-section rubber. Things are similarly different at the back, with the Fat Bob rolling on a 180/70-16 while the Street Bob gets a 150/80-16.

We had a close examination of the rear end and guess you could technically swap rear wheels around if you want a fat rear tyre look on the Street Bob but it was explained to us doing so would cause strange things to happen in the handling department. Be advised, while H-D Softails lend themselves to customisation, some things are better left to the experts.

Getting into the saddle, the Fat Bob seats the rider 710 mm off the ground while the Street Bob gets 680 mm of seat height. In terms of preference, the author felt a little more at home in the Fat Bob that the Street Bob, simply because it was a little taller off the ground and felt more “normal”.

There’s that word again, “normal”. Because this is the word we would use to describe the handling behaviour of either bike, it felt… normal. Make no mistake, the bulk and heft of riding a full-size H-D is still there, it is hard to disguise 300 kg of wet weight, after all, but when cruising down the road, the steering effort was acceptable.

The flat bars of the Fat Bob put one in mind of a flat tracker of sorts while the high bars of the Street Bob encouraged a more relaxed riding pace. Riding both Softails and swapping around at stops, we found the Fat Bob wanted a rather firmer hand at the controls, due to the wider front tyre while the Street Bob was happiest with the rider taking a relaxed cornering line with a light touch on the grips.

Pushing either bike hard quickly showed that while quick corners could be handled, there was a slight tendency to first push the front and a rather disconcerting feeling at the rear. Fine, these are not sports bikes, but in the hands of a skilled, fast rider, would be very entertaining in a set of twisties, though rather more work than a motorcycle dedicated for the purpose.

At its essence, the Softails in Street Bob and Fat Bob guise are meant more as all-rounder motorcycles, not blowing your skirt up in any one particular area but capable of giving a good show anywhere. The riding position is not extreme and while the foot controls are set further forward than on a standard motorcycle, it did not cramp the legs when the going got a little sporty, as it were.

Interestingly, H-D posts lean angle clearance on its website for the Softails, with the Street Bob giving 28.5 degrees on either side and the Fat Bob having 31 and 32 degrees, right and left respectively. What this means in real terms is most riders will, riding within the envelope, not touch anything down.

On the media ride, we only managed to touched the Fat Bob down on the left during a short stint of spirited riding. Doubtless, if the author was left to his own devices, the pegs would be ground down to stubs in short order but as road speed was controlled by the H-D lead rider, we shall wait till we get our hands on a Softail on home ground.

Braking is done with four-piston callipers in front – a single disc for the Street Bob and dual-disc setup for the Fat Bob – and ABS is now standard for non-US Harleys. For riders used to the feather light touch of high end motorcycle braking systems, the Softails need some effort at the lever, but not much more. During normal road riding, two fingers was more than enough to haul either bike to a stop.

Styling wise, the Street Bob takes a more traditional route while the Fat Bob has a more streetfighter ethos about it. What it means is you have identical engines and almost identical chassis catering to two different tastes.

Inside the cockpit, the Street Bob gives the rider a tiny 2.1-inch monochrome LCD display mounted on the handlebar while the Fat Bob has a traditional analogue tachometer with a digital speedometer. We preferred the Fat Bob’s instruments because it was easier on our bifocaled eyes – if your eyesight is fine, you won’t have any issues.

Seat comfort for the type of riding we were doing was fine although we didn’t exactly put in long hours in the saddle.The Street Bob came with a single seat and there was just enough space to move around a little while the hump on the Fat Bob’s dual seat puts the rider in a pocket.

So, who needs a Harley-Davidson Fat Bob or Street Bob? Well, for one thing, in Malaysia, the Harley name does have an attraction all its own and there are many riders who aspire to owning an American V-twin.

For general riding around, either bike would fit the bill, with the choice of a Street Bob or Fat Bob being a matter of personal taste. That the Harley-Davidson catalogue allows for customisation and personalisation to suit a variety of budgets counts as a plus point for some riders.

The author prefers the performance edge of motorcycling but that did not preclude him enjoying riding either Softail for a day. In any case, when asked by the H-D personnel at the location which was his choice, the author pointed to the Fat Bob and said, “that, with a full Screamin’ Eagle engine upgrade.”

Stay tuned for Part Two of the 2020 Harley-Davidson Triple S media ride, where we tackle the touring oriented Softails, the Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic and Sport Glide.

GALLERY: 2020 Harley-Davidson Street Bob

GALLERY: 2020 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob