New bike review: Harley-Davidson FXST Softail

Harley’s Softail Standard is an easy rider if there ever was one.

Jaffas rolling down the aisle, Peter Fonda up on the big screen, looking oh-so-cool hanging off ape-hanger handlebars on his stars-and-stripes-emblazoned hardtail Harley in Easy Rider.

The latter is an image that fuelled the dreams and aspirations of thousands of wannabe bikers in the early 1970s (including this one) who yearned to ride off into the sunset on our own chopped cruisers.

While not all of us managed to release our inner outlaw in quite the way Fonda and co-star Dennis Hopper did in the 1969 indie movie, the dream of owning a customised Harley is kept alive by bikes like the 2020 Harley-Davison FXST Softail Standard.

After a five-year absence, during which time our memories of it have only grown fonder, the Softail Standard makes a welcome return as the perfect donor bike or “blank canvas” for customising. 

There are clearly a lot of riders who enjoy the simplicity of the Softail and its scope for customisation, since it was one of Harley’s best-selling bikes here for many years. 

It returns in 2020 feeling vastly different to its 2015 predecessor, thanks to a major overhaul by the Milwaukee outfit in 2017.

Harley-Davidson FXST Softail

The main technical change is fitment of a more powerful air-cooled 107 (1746cc) Milwaukee Eight V-twin engine.

But the FXST Softail also comes with a solo seat, mini ape bars, shotgun exhausts, 19-inch chrome-steel front wheel and classic spokes, which makes it the perfect pared-back palette for anyone who wants to modify it to their tastes. 

At a price of $21,495 ride-away, buyers who have been saving hard for their dream Harley might opt for the less-expensive Softail with a view to having some cash in hand for custom parts and factory accessories.

If it were me (and remember, this is my dream), I’d be starting with forward controls for an easier riding position and better cornering clearance. 

That said, shorter folk may opt to leave it as is, given the ultra-low standard seat height of just 680mm.

Hit the ignition switch and you immediately notice the big V-twin’s refinement, minus the awkward jolt that accompanied start-up in the old unit, and resonant with the delicious rumbling thump from its exhausts. 

Harley doesn’t reveal power output figures, never has, but the Milwaukee Eight has 149Nm of arm-wrenching torque. 

Harley-Davidson FXST Softail

With that much grunt there’s little need to work the gears, but when you do anyone familiar with older Harleys will be pleasantly surprised by the slicker, quieter and more positive gearshift. Heck, you can even find neutral easily now. 

The Softail’s 2017 update also brought improvements to ride and handling, thanks to it shedding 17kg, gaining a stiffer frame, emulsion-style rear shocks and Showa Dual Bending Valve front forks. 

The result out on the road on this 2020 version is the bike feels more solid, handles bumps more smoothly, and holds its line better through corners.

The Showa forks not only provide more positive steering, but also help eliminate the jackhammer effect through the grips that characterise some less supple systems. 

I did, however, find the extra-thick rubber hand grips a bit tiring after a couple of hours riding.

The mini ape-hanger bars raise your grip to about chest height, which can be handy for hand-eye coordination during tight manoeuvres, but on the downside become uncomfortable on longer rides, since your body shape forms something resembling a windsock. 

Despite the fact the Softail is designed more as a short-distance cruiser than a highway tourer, its solo seat proved impressively comfortable, even after the fuel light flickered at around 200km.

Harley-Davidson FXST Softail

The single 300m front disc looks a bit under-done on paper but it handled bringing the Harley’s 297kg heft to a prompt stop without issue and with minimal fork dive.

The rear brake on the other hand proved a fairly lifeless affair, offering little by way of rider feedback. 

The new Softail’s styling is quintessential Harley, aka traditional, but there are some nods to modernity, such as digital instruments and an LED headlight, the latter offering a good spread of even light for night riding.

The minimalist main instrument screen is discretely incorporated into the handlebars, with a smaller screen tucked underneath, and is a delight to use. 

Despite being small, the instruments are easy to see in all light conditions and include a good deal of useful information.

Your choice

While some owners will no doubt relish slicing and dicing this blank canvas into their own dream machine, Harley has made it easier with a choice of four accessory packages..

  • Day Tripper Custom Package: Pillion seat and 21-inch detachable sissy bar with pad, passenger foot pegs and mounts, forward foot controls and black leather single-sided swingarm bag.
  • Coast Custom Package: Softail quarter fairing, black anodised aluminium Moto Bar handlebar and 5.5-inch riser, a Bevel two-up seat and passenger foot pegs, and BMX-style foot pegs.
  • Touring Custom Package: Sundowner two-up seat and passenger foot pegs, 14-inch-high quick-release windshield, black detachable saddlebags, 14.5-inch detachable sissy bar and backrest.
  • Performance Custom Package: Factory-engineered and warrantied performance upgrade that includes the following Screamin’ Eagle enhancements: Stage II Torque kit, Pro Street Tuner, Performance Air Cleaner, Street Cannon mufflers.

Key facts

Price: $21,495 ride-away.
Warranty: 2 years/unlimited km.
Engine: 1746cc 4-stroke, air-cooled, 45-degree V-twin; SOHC 4-valves per cylinder.
Power: N/A. 
Torque: 149Nm @ 3000rpm.
Gearbox: 6-speed, belt drive. 
Weight: 297kg.
Suspension front/rear: 49mm telescopic fork with dual bending valve/Coilover mono-shock, adjustable for preload.
Brakes front/rear: 4-piston fixed caliper, 300mm disc/2-piston floating caliper, 292mm disc, ABS.