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2020 Harley-Davidson Softail Standard first ride review: Style heavy, dad-lite

The new entry-level bike for Harley's Softail line seeks to bring new riders into the fold with classic looks, killer quality and (for Harley) a modest price.

The 2020 Softail Standard might not be the most practical thing on two wheels, but sometimes being cool is more important.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, it's safe to say that the 2020 Harley-Davidson Softail Standard is the business. It oozes near-weaponized levels of classic Harley vibes from every cooling fin and piece of chrome. I don't even normally gravitate towards choppers and bobbers, but the Standard really blew my mind from the moment I saw it roll off the delivery truck.

Now, the Softail's only visual concessions to modernity are the handlebar controls, the LED headlight and the disc front brake. Everything else is concealed under a layer of nostalgia and Americana so thick that it's almost impossible to break through. Everything from the tall handlebars to the tuck-and-roll saddle to the big, spoked front wheel have been ruthlessly designed by Milwaukee's finest to push all the right buttons, all the time.

That feeling carries over to the sound of the bike, with its big, old-fashioned, air-cooled American V-twin -- a 107-cubic-inch (1.7-ish-liter) Milwaukee Eight, in this case -- that barks and burbles and vibrates with all the character and deliberate crudeness that you'd ever want. A twist of the throttle offers up that familiar Harley roar through twin chrome pipes that, despite being equipped with silencers, managed to set off a car alarm in my parking structure.

The transmission is a six-speed unit with a very satisfying bad-but-good-feeling shifter that requires a good kick to go between gears, it's totally inelegant yet lands with such an impossibly gratifying thunk when you get there that it's hard not to like. The clutch is still heavy, though not as heavy as the one on the Street Glide, but that could be a placebo effect from the smaller bike if I'm being honest.

There aren't many better ways to work out all your Easy Rider fantasies if you need modern reliability and a warranty.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

Climbing astride, you're met with the kind of build quality that few companies do better than Harley's American-made motorcycles. The paint on the tank is gorgeous, the chrome is perfect, and there is almost no plastic on the bike aside from the control pods on the handlebars. It's a heavy bike for its size -- nowhere near as heavy as the Street Glide, but still, no featherweight -- and that weight adds to the sense of occasion that you get when experiencing the Softail for the first time.

The instrument cluster is one of my favorite features on the Standard. It's a small LCD screen hidden in the handlebar clamp, with an even smaller warning-light pod hanging off it. The display is relatively easy to read in direct sunlight, and it's dense with information: Harley managed to pack a gas gauge, a gear indicator, a speedometer, dual trip computers, odometer, and range estimate in there. It's pretty cool, and I'd love to see this very custom-like feature on other factory bikes.

Another standout area on the Softail Standard is the suspension. Now, it's not anywhere near "plush," but I'm a heavy guy, and it had no issues dealing with freeway expansion joints and LA's crappy, pothole-ridden roads. It didn't bottom out once, and that's an achievement for a bike as low as it is. I'd attribute this to the very modern cartridge fork, which manages to look like something off a classic bike, and also to the rear monoshock. Harley-Davidson spent money here, and it shows.

While the suspension is excellent, I'd qualify the Softail's brakes as being merely adequate. The Standard isn't a light bike, and while the engine isn't wildly powerful, it's still no slouch and can get the bike moving pretty quickly. The Standard's single front disc may look retro and cool, but despite having a decent initial bite and a super-solid feel at the lever, I don't know how many big stops I'd count on it to go through without fading. 

Harley was clever with how it hid the gauges and warning lights, and it's one of our favorite features of the bike.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

Another big knock against the Softail is the fact that Harley wants to charge an extra $800 for antilock brakes. This isn't a cheap bike, and we're living in 2020. Cut the crap, Milwaukee -- make ABS standard.

It's rare that I find myself loving a motorcycle purely for how it looks, but the Softail Standard fits this category perfectly. I was a fan before I even threw a leg over it, but unfortunately for me, the riding experience didn't live up to my expectations.

I want to be clear that this isn't Harley's fault, or even the bike's, because it was clearly designed for someone with a very different body type than I have. Specifically, I'm just too damned tall to get comfortable on the thing, which in turn affects all the other aspects of the ride.

What does that mean exactly? Well, the short seat height and small-ish reach to the forward-mounted foot controls meant that my legs were bent in an awkward way that made shifting uncomfortable and using the rear brake kind of a chore. While this sucks for me, for a shorter rider I can see the Standard being all-day comfortable without feeling like you're too stretched out.

The tall handlebars look cool as hell, but my right wrist was sore after around 30 minutes of riding in town, due to the angle that I had to hold it at for me to both reach the bars and manipulate the throttle. Rotating the bars slightly back toward the rider or changing the bars entirely to something lower and wider would have likely helped with this.

The final negative thing I have to say also was an issue on the Street Glide, and that's the fact that even in Kevlar jeans, I managed to cook the hell out of my right inner thigh on the engine's rocker cover any time I tried to put my right leg down at a stop. It's a small issue, but the seat-to-tank area could be a little wider and help make this less of a problem.

The Milwaukee Eight 107 motor makes bags of torque, and you know what else it makes a lot of? Heat and sweet, sweet noise.

Kyle Hyatt/Roadshow

Most people will likely just deal with it or only use their left leg to prop the bike up at stoplights, but due to some lasting weirdness from my crash, my left knee sometimes likes to give out when under a lot of weight. Thus, either putting both feet down or alternating between left and right is vital for me.

Ergonomic stuff aside, what is the Softail like to ride? Well, it's a competent motorcycle, especially for the class. The bike is willing to lean easily and follow a line through a corner, and thanks to the excellent suspension, I never find it getting too nervous or out of shape on bumpy roads.

The engine's torque is spectacular, and it makes grabbing a handful of throttle in sixth gear on the freeway to pass a real joy. The Standard just goes with no complaints and no delay. If it weren't for the Tom-Waits-on-a-Magic-Fingers-bed roar of the engine, it'd almost feel electric. It's one of those things that you find yourself doing intentionally over and over again.

Maybe the best part of the Softail Standard for California residents is the fact that it's an absolute monster of lane-splitting. Thanks to the bike's narrow figure and its loud, burbly, attention-getting exhaust, I am able to effortlessly split lanes from the beach in Santa Monica all the way to downtown Los Angeles and get there in a mere fraction of the time it'd take in a car (or on something chonky like the Street Glide).

So, in the end, is this Harley more my speed? Absolutely, but it's also absolutely not my size, which is a huge bummer. This is the kind of bike I could see myself loving as an around-town machine if it were like 20% larger. Do I think others will enjoy it in that capacity? Totally. It's a hell of a machine, beautifully built and brilliantly styled, and with an asking price of $13,500, it makes a pretty convincing proposition for itself.