2018 Harley-Davidson Softails | First Ride Review

The 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail lineup
The 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail lineup. Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson.

When’s the last time you rode and evaluated 20 different bikes in one day? More to the point, we’re talking about 10 brand-new bikes engineered from the ground up, along with another 10 previous-generation counterparts brought along for comparison purposes.

In all likelihood, you’ve never done anything close to that, right? Well, join the club because neither had I—and I started road testing bikes way back in the 1970s. So all in all, this sneak peek was a Very Big Deal, an event made bigger given that it was Harley-Davidson setting loose an exclusive club of 10 international motojournalists to experience firsthand this engineering tour de force—an accomplishment it calls “the most extensive research and development program in the company’s history.”

By folding Harley’s former twin-shock Dyna line into this new solo-shock Softail family, Harley creates eight distinctly different, drawing-board-fresh cruisers sharing common yet adaptable chassis architecture. All models come loaded with either a 107ci (1,746cc) or 114ci (1,868cc) next-gen Milwaukee-Eight V-Twin—terrific engines both, featuring oil-cooled heads. The Deluxe, Slim, Low Rider and Street Bob models can be had with only the 107ci mill, while Heritage Classic, Breakout, Fat Bob and Fat Boy buyers can choose between either engine.

milwaukee eight engine
One of the major changes for 2018 is the addition of the new Milwaukee-Eight engine to the Softail family. Every model gets either the 107ci or 114ci engine. Photos by Brian J. Nelson & Harley-Davidson.

Thanks to two vibration-quelling engine counterbalancers, these engines mount rigidly in-frame to help create lighter and stiffer rolling chassis that yield a readily apparent advancement in overall handling, steering response and ground clearance. Most models weigh around 30 pounds less than before and there’s lots of the typical potato-potato engine feel Harley owners prize so dearly. Yet engine vibes never felt bothersome during our short sampling. H-D touts a 60-percent increase in frame stiffness over the 2017 Softail models and a 35-percent gain in overall chassis stiffness, and those figures seem very credible following our brief rides. The frames come in narrow or wide versions—the latter necessary for the huge 240mm rear tire on the Fat Boy and Breakout. Steering head angles are set at 28 degrees, 30 degrees or 34 degrees depending upon each model’s specifically intended look and ride feel, and the fork triple-trees within the steering head also vary in offset angle and width, thereby creating a remarkably wide range of decidedly different stances and performance envelopes.

Softail suspension
Each Softail model now features a new, single-shock Showa suspension that is hidden beneath the seat, retaining the all-important hardtail look. Preload is adjustable via shock collar, external adjustment knob or a socket (shown above).

Showa suspension components front and rear offer first-rate performance as well. Despite their traditional Harley-Davidson look, all forks incorporate new Showa Dual Bending Valve (SDBV) technology developed in conjunction with Showa for these specific machines, and the single-shock rear suspension setup, which is hidden beneath the seat, retains the classic “hardtail” look while delivering improved damping performance, increased travel, added spring preload range and improved comfort. Depending on the model, shock spring preload can be changed easily via one of three ways: an under-seat on-shock collar, under-seat socket or an external adjustment knob on some models.

Understand that Harley-Davidson engineers must have a devil of a time incorporating forward-thinking advancements while being charged first and foremost with retaining the traditional look, sound and feel of what a Milwaukee Big Twin is all about. So while this new generation of bikes looks similar to its predecessors, even with our brief rides we found every 2018 model performs head-and-shoulders above its 2017 counterpart.

Softail headlights
Many of the new models have received significant redesigns, with blacked-out components and new LED headlights that are unique to each model.

The Harley team reserved nearby Blackhawk Farms Raceway, about 90 minutes outside of Milwaukee, to stage this covert, our-lips-are-sealed-until-August-22 ride. Naturally, we wouldn’t be racing; rather, the track could be secured from prying eyes and the closed course also allowed a riding schedule that would see us journalists shuffling (quickly!) between 20 bikes in succession: first the older model, followed by a ride on the corresponding 2018 bike for comparison. It was a masterful job of organization, achieved by a small army of H-D engineers—most of whom had never seen all eight models together despite months and months of work focused on their assigned machine. This was a debut of sorts for them too. We rode only two laps aboard the new bikes on the 1.95-mile, 7-turn circuit, and a couple of rain showers cut into our riding time so we rode but a single lap aboard some of the older models. Brief as it was, the experience clearly outlined some concrete first impressions as follows.

2018 Heritage Classic
The 2018 Heritage Classic now features lockable, water-resistant saddle bags and is available with either the 107ci or 114ci Milwaukee-Eight engine.

Heritage Classic (starting at $18,999)
This light-touring model remains exceedingly popular, with a reported 250,000 units on the road today. Tall suspension, a new detachable windshield and new lockable, water-resistant rigid saddlebags make this all-around bike a better option than ever. The standard-issue rider floorboards still steal some cornering clearance, but like all 2018 models the Heritage Classic delivers impressive gains in lean angle, chassis rigidity, steering response and feedback, and power. While offered with either the 107 or 114 engines, our sample sported the 107 version, which pulled much stronger and longer than the older 103 (1,688cc) powerplant, which felt as though it was running out of breath up the front straight. Fuel metering and clutch/gearbox action were flawless. It feels very neutral in a corner; you can pick it up and change lines with no drama. The rider triangle is well suited to all-around use, but we may have detected a bit of wind buffeting in the helmet are from air curling back behind the windshield. We definitely need to get out on the open road aboard this big guy.

2018 Fat Bob
The Fat Bob is the most sporting Softail model, with the tightest steering rake and shortest wheelbase of the bunch.

Fat Bob (starting at $16,999)
Harley had both the 107 and 114 Fat Bobs at the track, and they set my imagination on fire. The cartridge-style, upside-down 43mm fork with SDBV technology and dual front disc brakes signal that this is the most sport-oriented of the bunch, and that’s backed up with the tightest steering rake of 28 degrees and the shortest wheelbase at 63.6 inches. These bad boys really put out too; they feel very sporty and nimble with good cornering clearance and neutral ergonomics. On both, the front end feels well planted, yet steering is so responsive that turn-in happens with the speed of thought and mid-corner transitions come just as easily. The dual disc brakes up front are strong and linear in action, with very good feel. Those distinctive tires are new Dunlop D429s developed for this bike. Especially in 114 guise, the Fat Bob is a fun and fine sporting standard that will be great for trolling back roads; it’s a fully armed Q-ship that can catch many sportbike riders unawares if you’re up to the task. At day’s end we had a little bit of extra track time, so I rode the Fat Bob 114 again. Just for grins. And I was glad I did.

2018 Fat Boy
The Fat Boy muscle cruiser makes a statement, from its solid 160 front rim (complementing the huge 240 rear) to the big dual chrome mufflers.

Fat Boy (starting at $18,999)
The Fat Boy is an icon of sorts, the prototypical-looking muscle bike. To add to the aura and eye candy, the 2018 model now sports a fat 160mm front tire to complement the huge 240mm rear tire—together they present a styling statement too big to miss. Harley engineers worked directly with Michelin engineers to develop this big front tire, the first of its kind. However, this singular look comes with a price: steering is quite slow, the bike is a bit reluctant to turn in and has to be guided throughout the turn. That makes it less confidence inspiring at speed in turns, so just slow down and enjoy the cruise because the 107 and 114 engines will give you plenty to smile about.

2018 Breakout
The Breakout’s slimmer 130/21 front tire makes it more nimble than the muscular Fat Boy, but it loses none of the power cruiser attitude.

Breakout (starting at $18,999)
The Breakout likewise sports a 240mm rear, but the 130/21 front tire makes turn-in and right/left turn transitions much easier than on the Fat Boy or the older 2017 Breakout. The bike goes where you tell it to go, although it needs continued bar pressure to keep on line once you’re in the turn. That’s to be expected with a bike with 34 degrees of rake, part of the price you pay for the committed cruiser look. Still, in either 107 or 114 trim the Breakout rides and feels like the quintessential cruiser, and both engines provide vivid improvements over the respective 103ci and 110ci predecessors. I started the day on the Breakout 107, so I revisited it during “free ride” time at the end of the day to reconfirm how well it works even with the big 240 rear tire.

2018 Deluxe
A classically styled, whitewall-tired, enough chrome to keep you busy polishing all morning cruiser: the 2018 Deluxe.

Deluxe (starting at $17,999)
If bling is your thing, the Deluxe is definitely the way to go. Tons of chrome and wide whitewalls advertise that fact loudly. Beneath the “hey, look at me” stuff there’s a big, comfy motorcycle with all-around capabilities. The contrast between the 107 engine and the older 103 seemed especially pronounced when riding this pair. Again, although the floorboards touch down earlier than straight footpegs, the new Deluxe provides substantially more lean angle than older models.

2018 Softail Slim
Inseam-challenged riders take note: the Softail Slim sports the lowest seat height of the bunch, at 26 inches.

Softail Slim (starting at $15,899)
The Softail Slim serves as a styling counterpoint to the Deluxe with its bobber looks and blacked-out finish. It’s 35 pounds lighter than the previous generation and steering feels much quicker compared to the older bike, and the front end feels more planted. Its seat height of 26 inches is the lowest among all of these cruisers, making this the prime choice for riders with short inseams. This is a nice middle-of-the-road choice among the eight new models.

2018 Low Rider
The Dyna line went away, but fear not, the popular Low Rider is still here and is better than ever.

Low Rider (starting at $14,999)
A mainstay in the former Dyna line, the Low Rider has made a very successful transition for 2018. With its low and traditional ’70s custom chopper look, it makes a fine starting point for those who want to tweak its appearance. The mid-mount pegs scrape more easily than any other rider-peg setup, but there’s definitely more lean angle than before. There’s only a 5-pound weight savings between this new model and the 2017 version, but overall handling is much improved. The 107 engine likewise provides substantially more performance compared to the prior model too.

2018 Street Bob
The Street Bob also survives the transition from Dyna to Softail, with its 3.5-gallon peanut tank, fork gaiters and mini-ape handlebars giving it a mean, bobbed and blacked-out look.

Street Bob (starting at $14,499)
This former Dyna model is the most affordable within this group of cruisers, but it offers its own unique personality. Credit the blackout treatment, 3.5-gallon “peanut” tank, rubber fork gaiters, mid-mount pegs and mini-ape handlebar that create a distinctive visage. The ergos on this bike aim the rider toward relaxed cruising rather than aggressive riding; it’s a natural fit. However, once again the 107 really shines through compared to the older model.

Harley-Davidson has jumped full force into the future with its all-new line of Softail cruisers. As claimed, steering, handling and engine performance are all elevated significantly when compared to prior iterations. Yes, we had limited seat time on each bike, but we appreciated the opportunity to compare new and old models directly. Yes, it was a brain drain, noting the many differences, taking notes, keeping track of what was what and who was who. But this very telling day at the track provided compelling evidence that Harley-Davidson’s efforts will change its customers’ riding experience for the better. Next, we need to get on some of these bikes and head out on the open road.

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43 COMMENTS

  1. A long overdue engine improvement, nor updating what amounts to nearly “worst in the industry” suspension to something closer to what pretty bikes have had for a decade or more, nor changing the color of paint or amount of soon-to-be-rusty chrome makes for a new model of bike.

      • If it’s chrome, and it’s ridden on a regular basis, and I don’t mean on Sunny Sunday afternoons, it’s going to rust. I’m not knocking the quality of Harley’s chrome, just the fact that chrome is on the bike AT ALL.
        BTW, “pretty bikes” somehow got shortened from “pretty much every other manufacturer’s bikes”, meaning Harley’s suspensions have been complete garbage for decades, compared to other manufacturers who have kept up with advancements and improved their models every year or two. Those smaller improvements in other manufacturer’s bikes didn’t constitute a new model designation, and playing “catch up” every 15 years or so by Harley Davidson doesn’t make them new models, either.
        I’m not saying Harley doesn’t have better paint or chrome, I’m saying changing the paint or trim or a different shaped handle bar does NOT constitute a new model.

    • I’m guessing that you don’t own one, or at least one produced since the turn of the century. I own a 2005 1200R Sportster Roadster and have just broken the drive belt…at 74,208 miles. It’s been ridden in all four seasons, rain or shine, and there isn’t a spot of rust on it anywhere. I’ve owned Hondas, Kawasakis, and a 1982 Suzuki GS850G that the Sportster replaced.

      Due to the use of Japanese components, my Roadster is quite Japanese in its quality. Rubber mounted, it is the Sportster Harley should have been making years ago. It gets better fuel mileage than any of my Japanese bikes (all were inline-fours).

      You don’t get Harley’s MO, which is incremental change, not burn the house down and start over. That said, while the new bikes may look old, there are few to zero parts that would interchange between bikes made 30 years ago and today’s.

      Ride what you like, as long as you ride. Hate Harleys if you will, but if you have the chance, test ride them. To me, real riders don’t care what they ride as long as it has two wheels and you have to lean it to turn it. No offense to the growing trikers out there, but they used to be up on two once upon a time.

  2. Over due but a pretty good step in the right direction!
    For the first time in a couple decades I’m interested in more reviews and information on the New Harley-Davidson bikes.
    I do wish them success.

  3. Most of these bikes really fall down on styling. Especially that Fat Bob. I suppose they’re trying to get the Victory orphans, and I suppose they might succeed at that, but how many Victories were sold last year? And here I was hoping they’d come out with something along the lines of the FXR. Man, I’m really feeling the pressure to keep my old one on the road now. It’s obvious that Harley will never make a bike its equal again.

    • If you’re lucky, you own the bike that, when you look at it, says “this is what a motorcycle is supposed to look like” to you. I feel that way about my 2005 1200R Sportster Roadster.
      The Fat Bob looks like a new Batcycle to me. Bristling with weaponry and technology, you need to don a Batman costume to ride it through the Zombie Apocalypse. I can’t see strapping my lunchbox on it nor can I see a ride to the Beartooth Highway with it, although it may well be quite capable.
      My choice would be the Low Rider, the closest you can get to the original Super Glide. But I like my Sportster too much, as it “looks like a motorcycle is supposed to look like” to me.

  4. Did I miss it or was suspension travel front and rear not mentioned? Rear ride quality has always been an issue with several Harley models.

  5. What is it with Harley putting smaller gas tanks on their bikes? I really like the new Street Bob, but question their decision to reduce the tank from 4.7 gallons to 3.5. That’s a deal breaker for me. All of these bikes should have the 5 gallon tank.

      • The spark plugs? Seems like a dumb reason to make the tank smaller. Now you have to get gas every 120 miles just so it’s easier to change the spark plugs once every 5 years or so?

        • But, it’s a Harley. Looks are SUPPOSED to trump every other aspect, including reliability, safety, convenience, performance, ride comfort and logic.
          The people who are true diehard Harley fans first judge their, and all bikes, on its looks and how it stirs their fantasy they have created for themselves, everything else is secondary to the lines, finish, “tradition” that their choice represents to themselves and to their biker friends who need to be dually impressed to grant approval and bestow their blessings upon the looks, style and name badge of the bike.
          Not that there’s anything wrong with this, if it’s what makes them happy, more power to them, however to many more, the underlying performance, safety, and functioning of the bike is far more beautiful than any paint, metal or cheaply chromed parts could ever be.

          • Anthony,
            Oddly enough I just did a test ride on a Spyder last week at a demo event. It wasn’t a bad ride at all, however it definitely isn’t something I’d be interested in riding long term at this point in my life, I live for lean angles… If it can’t do a 40+ degree lean without scraping anything, it’s utterly and completely useless for *ME*, although I know there are people who could care less about lean angle or going fast or responsive handling or braking or taking a long, smooth, quiet ride. My riding enjoyment isn’t any more important to the motorcycle industry or any other than those who’s bikes spend as much time at the dealer having chrome do-dads installed and replaced as they do riding them every time some charity event comes up where they can show off their sparkles.
            I like to test ride everything I can… You can’t make comparisons of you don’t give everything a fair chance. I’ve even test ridden a couple of Harley’s at demo days. Gotta say the most comfortable seat I’ve ever been in (although only 30 minutes during a demo ride) was on a 2017 RG Special. For me, there wasn’t any other redeeming quality (for me), with the screaming eagle exhaust and air cleaner on the bike, but oh, that padded tractor seat was comfy.

          • Anthony,
            Your “oh so thoughtful” comments speak volumes about you.

            I would fathom to guess that you’ve actually used the phrase “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand”?

            (Translation: “If I have to explain it to you, you’ll be waiting a long, long time, because I don’t have the mental faculties to produce a well thought-out, logical argument to support my position, so I’ll act like a 3rd grader and just resort to calling you names.”)

            When you resort to name calling, you’ve lost the argument.

            When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser. – Socrates

  6. I test drove the 114 Fat Bob yesterday. While it handles great and all that jazz, I rode there on my 2016 Low Rider S. The Low Rider S from 2016-17 will destroy any of these softails. It’s not even close. You can tell the huge difference that the counterbalancing makes in HP and TQ losses. That’s why MoCo didn’t let you guys take them to the race track.

        • Anthony,
          First off, David is saying the ignorant “Only a Harley is a real motorcycle” people are a small percentage of the Harley Davidson owners.

          Second, Harley Davidson only sold 260,289 motorcycles in 2016 world wide.
          Honda produced approximately 17,500,000 motorcycles during this same time frame. (That’s 17.5 MILLION – in case you got lost in all of those zeros)
          That’s not half as many vehicles, but it IS MORE than 67 times as many as Harley Davidson sold. In terms you might more easily understand. You have 1 22-ounce bottle of beer on on side of you representing Harley Davidson’s total 2016 production, and 3 cases of 13 ounce beer bottles on the other side representing Honda’s 2016 motorcycle production.
          Sure, Harley, with their “patriotic” sheeple orientated advertising sells more in the US, as they have convinced a lot of sheeple that Harley is an American bike, although in reality a very high percentage of parts and materials are not from the US.
          Since HD are sourcing large percentages of parts from outside of the U.S.A. there are only 2 reasons I can see and neither is very patriotic in my eyes.
          1. Harley cares more about profits than actual patriotism, so why would anyone, except those who are easily swayed by lame advertisements in a magazine, buy a product that isn’t really produced in the USA sold by a company that doesn’t give 2 cents about the USA or where the product is produced, except where it can benefit them in advertising where and where they can cut the costs the most? If Harley’s bottom dollar matters more than being made in America, then their patriotic chant falls flat and the bottom dollar of every rider buying a bike should take priority by giving the best value of handling and reliability over fake patriotism.
          2. The other reason that Harley might be sourcing from overseas: Harley is sourcing parts from over seas because they straight-up admit defeat and don’t believe themselves that American workers can produce great components that can compete with foreign designed and manufactured parts in performance, reliability, safety etc.. If that is the case, then it stands to reason, for any intelligent person, anyway, that we should be buying only motorcycles that are sourced entirely from overseas, as America can no longer produce top quality motorcycle products any longer, as proven by Harley Davidson’s own admission and their sourcing of key components from over seas.

          Now, which of these two lines of reasoning do you tend to favor?

          I harp on Harley Davidson because I don’t believe either of these to be true, I think that American could still produce a great product at an affordable price, but not when
          heritage, fake patriotism, and BS trump performance and reliability, especially if the company is up to its neck in the “cruiser mindset” where looks and the sound of the noise produced trumps every other aspect of the bike, except, of course, huge profit margins.

          • Hmmm you make some interesting points, but who cares? Harley has already won. It’s not my fault you aren’t man enough to lift it off the kickstand or can’t afford one.

  7. I just took a new Fat Bob 114 on a test ride. I was impressed with the overall performance. My only gripe was the buzziness of the new engine. You could feel buzzy vibration in the bars at every rpm. Other than that, it’s a solid bike.

  8. Unlike many, I really like the new Fat Bob and I’m impressed that HD stepped outside the box a little -upside down forks, single shock and that bad ass looking headlight with the bike trimmed in black. Worked in the Chrome industry for years and just really like bikes with minimum chrome. I have a Buell Lightning, had a Ulyssys and a V-Rod, none of these bikes are available new now so I had a sinking feeling for Harley, they changed my mind with the Fat Bob, gotta have one! Just saying..

    • You’ll be very unimpressed by the lack of horsepower in that dual counterbalanced 114 though, I promise. Especially coming from a VRod.

      • The VRSC family is not listed among the 2018 models on Harley-Davidson’s website. If the V-Rod has been dropped, H-D did so quietly, without notifying the media or the public. We’ve reached out to Harley-Davidson for comment…stay tuned.

      • Best bike ever? That’s hilarious! My dealership has had the same 5 VRods for sale for 5 years now, no bites lol. So glad they finally dropped that garbage! Hopefully they’ll drop the Street models next

  9. It’s always amazing to read these comments on why you shouldn’t buy a Harley. I have had a 2017 Ultra Limited for 5 months, been to the Smokies twice, Canada, Alaska and all the states west of the Mississippi but AZ and NM, 31000 miles total. I can say for a fact, this is the best bike for old geezer you can buy. Gas mileage, handling, feel and effect. Been riding since 1958 and my 31 bikes that I have owned only 6 were HD so I do have an experienced opinion. I don’t care what you ride as long as you ride and give everyone else the right to ride their choice or what they can afford.
    John Black

  10. Where is the oil tank? I cannot see any external oil lines. I thought I read somewhere else that Harley has gone to a wet sump and oil is now all in the crankcase. no mention of that in this report. I think I will keep my 2006 XL883R

  11. I never considered a Harley as I have always found them unreliable and lacking in all areas of performance compared to Metric Bikes. And that cost – UGH. That has changed with Harley’s offering advanced technology and outstanding fit and finish! I bought my first bike in 1969 so I feel qualified to add my two sense after owning a dozen or so bikes ( I have 3 now! ). Yes I have more disposable income now and that does play a part, but for the first time ever I am shopping for a Harley and may just buy a 2018 Road Glide Special.

  12. I rode the Fat Bob on Sunday San Diego H.D., I could not wait to get off, seat was horrible,it was buzzy feeling which went straight to my coccyx bone (pain), the counter balance has changed the vibe not for the better felt like 600 single KTM lC4. Handling was O.K. till I Blasted up over the ton, scary feeling, with forward controls, and seat position. In the turn it felt like two basketballs trying to escape a microwave oven. The shock is in the way of the battery, heard it takes an hour just to put a charger on it? I have never been a softail guy, never will be, gave it a try, my FXRS-sp handles better and the stock seat is the best seat from the factory I have ever sat on.

  13. Hi, You really have to stop this potato potato stuff. That’s “triple meter” and the Harley speaks in duple meter. As a trumpet player, potato would be triple tongueing and double tongueing is what I hear on my Super Glide. So it’s
    tataka tataka vs takatakataka…………give a listen and you’ll know what I mean
    Ron in Haverhill ma

  14. Anthony, why do some Harley owners think that those who don’t own a Harley don’t own one because of price?
    I’ll bet there are MANY more people who don’t own a Harley because they don’t like Harley Davidson (either the corporate image, the fake “lifestyle” (that the majority of non-Harley riders laugh at), or the bikes themselves) than there are who don’t own one because they can’t afford one.
    The cost of a Harley only impresses other Harley owners. The rest quietly laugh at the owner when we head what they paid for the bike, especially CVO priced bikes, or hearing that the owner spent $5000 extra on chrome parts and loud exhausts and other such parts, especially when at $25000 the bike should be coming with top tier components like suspensions that don’t need to be upgraded at the time of purchase, or exhausts that don’t need upgrading to keep the rider from riding their thighs because the antiquated air cooled engine has to be set exceedingly lean to meet modern emissions. Far more people tend to be impressed by value, quality, handling, performance etc.
    It just amazes me how many Harley owners resort to the “you’re jealous because you can’t afford it” as a last resort. There are plenty of BMW, Ducati and other bikes that are in the same price range, even the new 2018 Gold Wing Touring model from Honda is pushing $30K, but all these bikes give far more technology and performance for those same dollars. Why do we never hear ones of these riders defend their choice of bike with “you hate my bike because you just can’t afford one”?

    • Yes, in order to pass emissions most come from the factory detuned requiring the “Screaming Eagle” package to wake them up. As mentioned there always seems to be noise pollution with these bikes and the accessory exhaust available. Harley Davidson was fined 15-million last year relating to recommending illegal exhaust installs. If it wasn’t for all of that noise I wouldn’t be so annoyed.

      I could see an Indian Scout as a third or forth bike in the garage one day?

    • You’ll bet? Don’t bet too much.. we know you’re on a budget… meet emissions standards? I dunno what crazy snowflake world you live in, buttercup, but no one that drives a real bike cares about emissions

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