As a magazine Sideburn doesn't feature a lot of cruisers in their standard state, but we've featured a bunch of trackerised (if there is such a word) Sportsters, new generation Indian Scouts and Harley XGs. So when we got the chance to ride the new 'Sportster', Harley's Nightster, we grabbed it.
Words: Gary Inman
Photos: Charlie Davidson
The hedges are a blur. I’m going faster than I normally would on this section, much faster. I’m trying to see what this thing will do and straining eyes through a black visor to see what em-pee-aitch were clocking. It’s three figures and the motor is still pulling. This is what progress feels like. This is the Nightster, the latest reinvention of the Sportster family, and you would have to spend serious amounts of money on an air-cooled Harley to stay with this off-the-showroom floor, entry-level twin. A filter and a pipe on a 1200 Evo isn’t going to cut it.
Rising from below me is a refined but urgent thrum. The acoustics are not going to stir any souls or inspire any rock anthems, but the newly configured 975cc Revolution Max motor is delivering a claimed 89bhp, over 20 more than the last of the 1200 Evos. Both sound and power are signs of progress, and reacting to outside influences: legislation and competition. The motor is the same family as the Sportster S, released last year, and Pan America adventure bike, but the Nightster is 275cc smaller, and, according to Harley, produces 30 horsepower less than they claim for the Sportster S. There's lots more in there to come out, but this is, we assume, the new 883, it doesn't need more power.
If this were all about performance, then the story is over, Harley have a winner. The Nightster is quick for a mid-size cruiser. Get in the groove, aim it down a familiar, snaking road, lift your eyes to the horizon, and I would bet you’d be impressed. It doesn’t obviously miss that 30bhp, or the 30Nm (22ft.lb) of torque is giving away to the current Sportster S. It shifts. The handling is very neutral and confidence inspiring.
There’s no hint of weave or wallow through fast sweepers. Attack a 90-degree bend and the mid-mount pegs touch down a little too easily for my liking, but who doesn’t like peg scraping? I much prefer these mid-mount footpegs to the forward controls of the Sportster S.
The gearbox is faultless without even the faintest whiff of agriculture of previous Sportster boxes. The big, single front disc is up to the job. It’s also good to see Harley finally fitting a floating disc on a carrier, rather than a solidly mounted disc and a sliding caliper. The latter set-up always feels cheap and out of date to someone like me, brought up on sportsbikes.
There are three engine modes, Sport, Rain and Road. I initially found it overly sensitive and lurchy in Sport , then got used to it.
The story is never about just performance though, is it? Not when there’s a bar and shield on the tank. I say ‘tank’, but we’ll come to that soon. If it were solely about performance, Milwaukee would have struggled to sell a tenth of the Evo Sportsters they shifted in the last 30 years.
Click on the Nightster page on Harley-Davidson.com and you’re in the self-proclaimed Sport section of brand. The Nightster was, Harley-Davidson tells us, 65 years in the making. Though it is not called a Sportster, and they already have the 1250cc Sportster S, the factory repeatedly refer to it as such. The design team worked hard to give the Nightster the silhouette of the Evo Sportster, their best-selling model, and it certainly has it. The instantly recognisable Sportster tank shape, the low single seat, and a rear fender held by struts arrowing back from the top mounts. Tick, tick, tick.
So, why is it a surprise that it looks like a traditional Sportster? Because, it has a whole new engine, that has a wider V-angle than the Evo, and liquid-cooling. It has a big airbox to feed the downdraft fuel injection. That airbox is where the fuel tank normally is, so the fuel is under the seat (Indian use this solution too, and Yamaha’s V-Max did it back in 1985). The Nightster also has two sub-frames that bolt to either end of the engine, like Ducati’s Panigale hyperbike, rather than a traditional spine or duplex-style chassis. Considering all that, it is a feat to make it look, at a glance, like a bike released in the 1980s. Harley say they have also knocked more than 80lbs (over 36kg) off the overall weight, again compared to the Evo Sportster.
Get closer and the quality of finish is way beyond the old model. The switchgear, bars, single clock, rear shocks, in fact, the majority of components are a league apart from the old Sportster. Yet, all that has done is bring it in line with the rest of the market. It doesn’t have a hugely different spec to something like a Triumph Speed Twin, which is a full £4000 cheaper in the UK. Yep, the Nightster is now the least expensive Harley you can buy, and in the UK, it’s a hefty £12,995, thanks in part to tit-for-tat tax tariff rises instigated by the US government, though that’s pretty much the same as an Indian Scout Bobber or Rogue, and a little more than Triumph’s 1200 Bobber.
Dynamically, the Nightster is a very capable cruiser, and it has to be. The game has leapt forward since the Evo was launched. The ‘but’ is a subjective point: the appearance of the engine. I don’t dislike it, but it doesn’t shout Harley. Not yet. I want Harley to progress and develop. I love the direction they’re moving in, but Harley make a point of saying the engine is metal, yet the finishes they’ve given it make it look very plasticky. It didn’t jump out at me when fitted in the far more futuristic-looking Sportster S, but it does in this more pared-back model. Compare it to the contrast-cut head and cam covers fitted to the Indian Scout family. The Indian looks hewn from cast and machined alloy in a way that Revolution Max does not. The Harley motor has a very modern appearance, but the high-gloss inserts on the VVT (Variable Valve Timing) cam covers, and the engine’s side covers whiff of Korean car trying to look classy, and appear vulnerable to scratches (I didn’t try to scratch them, so I can’t say how vulnerable they are). Not unattractive, not ugly, but not what is billed, which I took to be slightly less heavy metal.
If the looks do it for a prospective buyer, I’d be surprised if a test ride put them off, because it goes as well as any comparable cruiser ever has, but it is putting the price of new Harley ownership into a different bracket, at least in the UK. That's some kind of progression.
ENGINE: 975cc, 60-deg, liquid-cooled, V-Twin; 4v per cyl; VVT; fuel-injection; unit construction; rubber belt final drive
BORE & STROKE: 97 x 66mm
CHASSIS: Two steel subframes (engine is a stressed member); 41mm Showa RWU forks; Twin rear shocks with preload adjustment
RAKE & TRAIL: 30˚/137mm
WET WEIGHT (claimed): 221kg (487lb)
WHEELS & BRAKES: 19in front, 16in rear cast aluminium wheels; 100/90-19 F tyre, 150/80-16 R tyre, Dunlop H-D series tyres; Single front disc with Brembo four-piston caliper; single rear disc with sliding type caliper
FUEL CAPACITY: 11.7 litres
PERFORMANCE: 89bhp @ 7500rpm/ 95Nm (70ft.lb) at 5750rpm, 120mph (EST)
For more details, go to Harley-Davidson.com
For this test Gary relied on the kit made by some of Sideburn’s loyal and much-loved advertisers.
Helmet: Icon Airflite MIPS Jewel
Jacket: Icon Hypersport
Trousers: Hebtroco GVNR straight leg
Gloves: Holy Freedom
Boots: Hebtroco Moto boots