Sideburn's ed, and former Harley Sportster Hooligan owner and racer, reports from the UK launch of new generation Harley-Davidson Sportster S. Here's his report.
Words: Gary Inman Photos: HD UK
Sportster is one of the longest established, and continually used, model names in the automotive world. Launched in 1957, it predates Mustang, 911, or virtually any other you care to mention. During that time it’s evolved, while always remaining a 45-degree, air-cooled V-twin. Now emissions and noise regulations have forced it to change beyond recognition. The Evo Sportster, first introduced in 1986, has finally fallen foul of Euro regs and cannot be sold in many countries. The name lives on with this, the Sportster S.
Priced in the UK at £13,995, the Sportster S does not share one component with the previous model. In many ways it doesn’t even share the same values or spirit. It’s hard to see how it could. The new bike is built around Revolution Max engine, a liquid-cooled 1252cc, 60-degree V-twin. Visually it looks identical to the Pan America’s engine, but internally it differs. The airbox is smaller, velocity stack intakes are different, throttle bodies are smaller, and both intake and exhaust valves are 4mm smaller diameter, when compared to the Pan America. The cams and pistons are also unique to this model, and the combustion chamber shape has been altered. The Pan America makes a claimed 150bhp at the crank, while they say the Sportster makes 124 horsepower. For comparison, the last of the air-cooled Evo Sportster 1200 made about 68bhp at the crank, equating to 59-60 at the rear wheel. The idea behind all the changes from the Pan America is to give the Sportster S more lowdown and midrange torque, in place of the new adventure bike’s high-end power. Power figures give bragging rights, but torque is where it’s at for a bike like this on the road.
The engine spec is impressive. The 4-valve, DOHC layout has infinitely adjustable variable valve timing that allows the engine management system to constantly adjust the tune of the engine on the go. It can tweak the torque and power characteristics at every rev range, and within wide parameters. The engine has a relatively high compression ratio of 12:1. Two balancer shafts damp virtually any vibration coming from the 60-degree V-twin. The conrods are offset to give a 90-degree firing order. Alloy barrels are nicasil-plated, so no heavy iron liner.
The Revolution Max engine has a dry sump, like the previous Sportster, and most Harley twins ever built, but instead of a separate, external oil tank, it has an oil reservoir within the cases. Why do this? Harley’s engineers explained that having a dry, rather than wet, sump design reduces drag when compared to the components spinning in the bath of oil, making the Revolution Max slightly more efficient, while also keeping the oil in better condition, for longer.
Exhaust headers are stainless, and double insulated to avoid burnt thighs. Catalytic converters are in the mufflers.
The engine has some clever design touches to allow home mechanics to fit tuning parts. The cams can be removed and replaced without affecting the timing. Pistons have chamfered adges to make it much easier to fit now barrels (of course, the replacement pistons would need the same design).
If you think the engine is a million miles away from the Evo Sportster, wait till you hear about the chassis. Firstly, there is no traditional frame. The engine is a stressed member. At the front end is a subframe, with a headstock, that bolts the forks and yokes to the front of the engine. At the rear, there are two uprights, referred to as the mid frame, bolted to the back of the engine. The swingarm, suspension linkage and seat subframe fasten to this mid frame. There is no metal framework connecting the headstock to the suspension pivot. The engine does that job. Take the engine out of a regular Harley and you can push the rest of it around your workshop. Take the engine out of the Sportster S and your left with a front end and a back end, linked only by the wiring loom. Ducati are another manufacturer have also gone down this route with some of their bikes, including the latest generation Monsters. The tech, in that case, came from MotoGP.
Rear suspension is a monoshock with a rising-rate linkage, and offers just 37mm (1.5in) of suspension travel. There’s a preload adjuster under the seat that can be twisted on the move, if the fancy takes you. Front forks are upside-down adjustable Showas. The swingarm is an eye-catching design, made from tubular steel. That smart petrol tank is steel, and holds 11.8 Litres (3.12 US gallons).
Brakes are Brembo. Harley have been using Brembo components on some models for years, but rebadged as Harley-Davidson, now they’re leaving the Brembo logo on. There’s only a single front disc, an unusual choice for a 124bhp bike. Braking tech has improved since the 1990s, when that power was top sportsbike territory, but still, it feels like some people think it’s a cost, or weight, saving measure too far. Meanwhile, the Sportster S has cornering ABS and cornering traction control.
Harley’s build, finish and design quality has been improving steadily for the last few years (if you ignore the Street XG 500 and 750, which were aimed at, and missed, a different market), and the Sportster S feels like a premium product, to reflect its premium price tag. From the rider’s view, the TFT round instrument dial, bars, levers, radial master cylinder, and fasteners look good. Get even closer and the welding, lights, finish, is all pretty much as good as any mass-produced bike on the market. Whoever thought to put the Made in Thailand sticker in quite so prominent a position should probably consider the decision. No one needs to be reminded. Nothing against Thailand, and all of Triumph’s output are made there too, but it’s going to attract some toxic opinions for a brand so rooted in modern US mythology.
Harley’s new management, headed by Jochen Zeitz, has made it clear they want to concentrate on making premium priced products, rather than chasing increased profit through selling lots of lower priced products. The Sportster S and Pan America show that. So do closing down Harley’s Indian operation, and quietly walking away from the XG Street entry level models. No one would confirm or deny my thoughts that this S model will soon be followed by a slightly lower-priced option, but it makes sense. A lower spec model, perhaps at £12,000, could fit a cheaper dash in place of the smart 4in (100mm) TFT screen, which has Bluetooth connectivity, and can show maps, play music and answer calls (when connected to a smartphone, and linked to a headset. It doesn’t have speakers). The S also has onboard tyre pressure sensors. Losing that system would be another saving after the early adopters have hoovered up the S.
The UK launch headed out of Manchester and into the busy Peak District, not the ideal test route for a traffic-free 'freedom ride', but it did give a taste, and a decent 70-plus mile run for a first impression, and also showed how the Sportster S behaves in busy cities.
The first thing that struck me is the six-speed gearbox. It’s so light in its action and shifts almost silently. It’ll change from first to sixth, at a standstill, no rocking needed, no clunking felt. Clutch action is featherlight, too.
The S has five rider modes, switchable from the chunky, button-festooned, handlebar switch modules: Rain, Road, Sport and two customisable maps. Rain is also recommended for new riders moving onto the H-D from a less powerful bike. This mode delivers less power and torque, with a gentler throttle response, and more ABS and more traction control. Sport mode offers the most power and the least intrusion by electronic rider aids, while Road mode is in the middle.
Only when the road was soaked from torrential rain did the difference between Road and Sport really show itself on this ride. In Sport the rear tyre would spin up easily, in Road it was less willing, but still possible to spin, when ham-fistedly provoked. In Rain mode, it didn’t lose traction. After an initial experiment with the modes, I stuck it in Sport and left it.
The route was follow-the-leader style, on a road where much of the time it was illegal to overtake. When there were opportunities to blast past other traffic the Sportster S offers almost supersport-style acceleration. The whole spiel on the small airbox, intake, and valves was centred around a huge surge of lowdown torque, that climbs steeply to a peak of 94ft.lb (127Nm) at 6000rpm. This is where a naked cruiser feels most invigorating. Half throttle for a few seconds and the new Harley is clocking 100 without trying (if that were legal).
The bike looks like a concept drawing, barely diluted from the original vision. So it has that cartoonish, wide front end. The monster 160-section, 17in front tyre, needs a little more input to turn on tighter bends than a more conservative front tyre, but it’s not like steering a bus, and an owner wouldn’t even notice it after the first couple of rides. The minuscule rear suspension travel isn’t the problem I thought it might be either, but the front forks felt firm. There are adjusters fitted if owners want to experiment with preload, rebound and compression.
Being chaperoned through the hills meant we were licking along, when the opportunity arose, but not going daft, so the lack of dual front discs never even entered my head. I didn’t ever need more braking, but it wasn’t a full-blooded, or risk-taking ride. I thought the appearance of the disc bolted straight to the alloy wheel, rather than a floating disc centre, looks like a cheaper option, but it’s a styling thing, too. The Indian FTR 1200 does the same with its discs (though it has dual front discs).
Harley repeated they were putting the sport into Sportster with the S, pointing to the XR750-style high pipes and quoting the power figures, but then they fitted forward foot controls. Stop it! Make mids the default, and forward controls and rearsets as factory options. No one ever ‘put the sport back’ into anything by fitting forward controls. Rearsets, positioned right where the swingarm pivot is, would feel great, as long as the rider’s legs weren’t too long. I’m 5’9in (1.75m) and I found the bike comfortable enough with the forward controls, but I was sat with my nuts on the back of the tank. Stretching to put my backside in the middle of the seat wasn’t working for me. The white bike in the riding photos is fitted with the optional mid controls. They cost and extra £600-plus.
The only other gripe, and I don’t like to say it, because I love the look of the short tail, but the road only has to be damp for the spray from the 16in rear wheel to cover the rider’s back and soak your mullet in road grime. There is an optional fender extender, and pillion seat.
The S performed and handling great. Nothing left me scratching my head or underwhelmed. Partly this is down to expectations. It’s a Sportster, a cruiser, and it’s a very good one.
The difference between the Sportster S and the Evo Sportster is night and day. They share a name, that’s it, and that’s the way global legislation is forcing manufacturers to go.
The Harley employees accompanying the test group were on a pair Fat Bob 114s and a Road King, each of them were undoubtedly Milwaukee products. As was the Evo Sportster. No one else was going to make that bike. And by the end of its product life it was virtually antiquated, but it was Harley through and through. The Sportster S, so good, so advanced, so efficient, and modern, is a new breed of Harley, and, because of all those environmental and safety regulation hoops a 2021 motorcycle must adhere too, there is no room for the any of the old quirks to remain. The Sportster S could proudly, and probably seamlessly, fit into the line-up of Honda or Yamaha, both of whom made V-twin cruisers in huge number through the late-80s and 90s, when they wanted some of the Sportster’s huge market. It could also be rebadged as a Ducati and not raise too many eyebrows. The Evo Sportster couldn’t. It wasn’t refined enough to be Japanese, nor high performance or high spec enough to be from Bologna.
Is that what Harley buyers want? Maybe not the traditional ones, but the new breed seem to. In the day or so since I rode the bike, loads of people have contacted me asking what it was like. The Sportster S is nothing like the bike it is supposed to be replacing. As Harley were fond of telling us, the evolution is over, this is the revolution. With attractive finance deals lined up, expect to see a lot of those capsule-shaped headlights on the road next summer. From this initial first ride, I'd say it's very good.
For more details, go to Harley-Davidson.com
For this launch Gary relied on the kit made by some of Sideburn’s loyal and much-loved advertisers.
Helmet: Icon Airflite MIPS Jewel
Jacket: Icon Airform Battlescar
Trousers: Saint Unbreakable straight jeans
Gloves: Holy Freedom
Boots: Hebtroco Moto boots