In my 24 years of road testing motorcycles, I can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of bikes I’ve tested that I genuinely disliked, and in the case of the 2020 Harley-Davidson Softail Standard, the list has grown by one. Take an otherwise solid motorcycle, give it an abysmal riding position, and it is possible to create a machine that sucks all the joy out of riding, which is saying something since the Softail platform, updated in 2018, is typically quite amenable.
The sad truth is that there is a lot to like about the Softail Standard, starting with the Milwaukee-Eight 107 V-Twin engine. From the first time I rode the new Softail line in 2017, I was impressed with the smoothness provided by the two counterbalancers mounted on either side of the crankshaft, which is absolutely necessary for an engine that is solid-mounted to the frame. Although Harley is selling Milwaukee-Eights with significantly larger displacement than the 107 cu. in. here, the Standard’s power output is ample for a cruiser in this price range and would easily leave behind any similar model with the erstwhile Twin Cam engine of just three model years ago.
With a bore and stroke of 3.9 in. x 4.4 in. (100mm x 111.1mm) breathing through a four-valve head, the Standard’s 107 has spot-on fueling with immediate response to throttle inputs that are just this side of abrupt, meaning it feels like some other ride-by-wire bikes in sport mode. Shifting is a seamless affair, as it is with all Milwaukee-Eights. I like this engine a lot.
The same can be said of the Standard’s brakes. Although the lever still requires a stout pull, the power and feel are what you need to haul a claimed 655 lb. plus an American-sized rider down from speed. If you’ve ridden one of the new Softails, you know what the suspension is like. The fork provides decent bump absorption. The rear suspension, with its single directly activated shock hidden behind the engine, works well on smooth to moderately rough pavement. However, hit any larger bumps, and the limited rear-wheel travel becomes painfully obvious. The 26.8-inch seat height does the Standard no favors here.
If I am fond of the new Softails, why do I dislike the Standard so much? There are three corners to the rider triangle, and making a mistake with any single one can be mostly addressed by the other two. Unfortunately, in this case, all three corners are positioned such that, for a person of my size (5 feet 11 inches tall with a 32-inch inseam), they are well outside of the optimal positions.
Let’s start with the seat. At 26.8 inches, the seat is extremely low, even for a cruiser. I’ve already mentioned the suspension compromises that are forced by that seat height, but it sets the tone for the rider triangle, too. The somewhat forward pegs are quite high (as necessitated by ground clearance requirements), folding my legs in such a way that my knees are higher than my hips. This has the effect of rolling my pelvis rearward and is a huge reason why the harsh suspension is so painful on the Standard. Since I can’t use my legs to absorb bumps, they are transmitted directly up my curved lower back. A different seat or peg position, which allowed my spine to be straight, would make the riding position significantly more comfortable.
The rider’s upper body is in an equally compromised position, thanks to the mini-apes on the Standard. The mini-apes place the grips just below my shoulders, which has the effect of leaning my torso slightly rearward. Now, this is fine when trolling around the boulevard at 45 mph, but if you try to accelerate hard or head out onto the highway, the only two options are to engage your entire core to lean forward with bent elbows or lean back with straight arms, letting your skeletal system do the work. Although it’s a great workout, clenching your abs gets old in about 15 minutes, and leaning back on your arms limits throttle control. Neither position allows you any relief from large bumps, making them a teeth-gritting affair.
In an effort to see if I was being overly harsh on the Standard, I asked Associate Editor, Ryan Adams, to ride it with me for a couple of hours. Since he is 5-foot, 8-inches tall and has a 30-inch inseam, his slightly different perspective would help to see if I was just too tall for the bike. His notes were:
”When ‘Ol Brasscanyons told me the position on the Softail Standard could ruin a good ride, I kind of brushed it off. He’s freakishly tall and long-legged, like moto-journo slender man of sorts. My more compact younger, supple frame would have nary an issue. I was sure of it! It wasn’t until Evans asked me to photo model for his review that I learned just how uncomfortable he could make me. All I could say to myself after hopping on the Softail Standard was WTF… over and over. It was as if the H-D engineers looked at the rider triangle and tweaked it in all of the wrong directions. The bike is otherwise good in nearly every other way, but whew, that riding position is the stuff of nightmares.”
Simply put, the Softail Standard’s rider triangle is a perfect storm of bad ergonomics.
Harley is marketing the Standard two ways: First, as the least expensive entry into the Softail line, and second, as a blank slate for customizers. With regards to riders who want the cheapest entry into the Softail family, you should try riding one before you lay down your greenbacks – or at least have an extended sit on one in the dealership to see if your body type will mesh with it. Perhaps riders in the neighborhood of 5 feet, 6 inches and below will find it comfortable. Customizers probably don’t read MO, and they are free to ignore my criticisms of the Softail Standard. After all, they’re going to nip and tuck the bike, anyway. However, as it stands, I can’t recommend the Softail Standard to anyone in my and Ryan’s size range.
The 2020 Harley-Davidson Softail Standard is available now for an MSRP of $13,599. The optional ABS adds $795. The Standard is also available in four customization packages: The Performance Custom Package ($1,300) adds Heavy Breather Performance Air Cleaner, Milwaukee-Eight Stage II Torque Kit, Street Cannon Mufflers, and Pro Street Tuner. The Coastal Custom Package ($1,600) consists of Vivid Black Softail Quarter Fairing, 80GRIT Rider Footpegs with Wear Peg, Moto Handlebar (which could possibly mitigate some of the riding position issues), Tall Handlebar Riser, 1 in. Gauge Clamp, Clutch Cable and Brakeline, Bevel Two-Up Seat, and Passenger Footpegs. Day Tripper Custom Package ($1,050) features Passenger Pillion, One-Piece Tall Rigid Mount Sissy Bar, Backrest Pad, Passenger Footpegs and Mount, Single-Sided Swingarm Bag, and Standard Forward Controls (which, again, might improve rider comfort). Touring Custom Package ($1,700) rounds out the factory custom packages with H-D Detachables Saddlebags, Standard Height HoldFast Sissy Bar Upright, Compact Passenger Backrest Pad – Smooth Black Vinyl, Holdfast Docking Hardware, Sundowner Seat, Passenger Footpegs, and Wind Splitter Quick-Release Compact 14 in. Windshield.