What does it mean when an iconic vehicle changes? I’m not talking about evolving here, I mean full reinvention. More specifically, is it possible that one can maintain one’s status even after avoiding the status quo?
These are precisely the questions that dance in my helmet while riding the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S ($ 17,999).
It is undeniable that the Harley-Davidson Sportster is an icon. The best-selling motorcycle to carry a bar and a shield, it is arguably the most important model in the HD lineup. As such, it has been in continuous production since 1957, and over the course of those sixty-four years it has remained fairly lonely: a cradle frame topped with a peanut tank hugs an air-cooled V at 45. degrees. -Twin motor to create a very accessible and classic motorcycle experience.
This all-new Sportster S is anything but classic, however.
I just beefed up the bike through its first set of curved asphalt and threw the throttle wide on some B roads north of Barrie. There is little to no chassis flex. He holds his line confidently, leans deeper than expected and his engine, oh that wonderful engine, he really loves to turn. Clearly this bike doesn’t have the look, feel or performance of any Sportster someone has ever ridden.
Where the Sportsters of yore were prototypical in terms of aesthetics, the S comes with a heavily styled approach. Tough and crouching with a brawler stance, it fuses a number of trends from the custom world to deliver a unique take on a cruiser. Those wide tires and low-to-the-ground suspension are clear features of a Bobber, while the tapered tail and raised exhaust have been ripped straight from the dirt ovals of the flat track. Modern LED lighting is used everywhere, and if this pill-shaped headlight sounds familiar to you, know that it’s been slipped into the Fat Bob coin bin.
Far from being a mere “bitsa-bike” (a little of this, a little of that), the Sportster S demonstrates both cohesive intent and a fit and finish to Harley’s high standards. And while he’s certainly not shy of a goal, I think he’s even better in person. My tester’s Stone Washed White Pearl paint ($ 450) provides just enough contrast to the largely blackened bike to make things stand out, especially the bronzed accents on the tank emblem, cylinder heads, and crankcase.
The to feel
Turn on the internals behind these housings and you’ll wonder if you’re actually sitting on a Harley. No more quivering vibrations and the “potato-potato” soundtrack of the old push-button V-Twin. The Revolution Max 1250T powering the Sportster S is decidedly modern and incredibly smooth.
Displacing 1,252 cubic centimeters, the liquid-cooled, dual overhead camshaft, liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-Twin features internal nickel-silicon carbide components, variable valve timing, a pair of spark plugs per cylinder and a set of counterweights. It’s been designed with hydraulic slack adjusters, so you’ll never need to plan for expensive valve work, and fueling is controlled via ride-by-wire, so niceties that have never graced a Sportster. previously (or even some of the HD “big twins”) like cruise control and driving modes, are present and taken into account.
When roaring, the Rev Max 1250T develops 121 horsepower (at 7,500 rpm) and 94 pound-feet of torque (at 6,000 rpm). For reference, that’s nearly twice as many ponies as the old 1,200cc-equipped Sportster could muster (68bhp) and a 20 percent increase in twist. All in a lighter bike of almost 30 kg (228 kg). You feel it immediately when you turn the throttle. The acceleration is fast, to say the least. The cam profiles and valve phasing have been specifically tuned for this type of offline growl. And the torque curve it produces is flat. No matter which of the six gears I ended up in, there was a lot of oomph to leave things in my dust. And cranking the engine to its 8,000 rpm red line was as addicting as it was rewarding.
From the saddle, the bars are wide and imposing but within easy reach of bent arms. The seat is sculpted to cradle nicely under those loud throws and it offers a decent amount of padding. The footrests – positioned as forward controls on my tester – offer the traditional leg-akimbo pose of most cruiser-style motorcycles. Harley offers a mid-mount footrest option ($ 659.95), but none of the available units had been so equipped.
The dashboard is a 4 inch round TFT screen, and it is also a high-tech affair. It provides all the essential information at a glance and, together with your smartphone and an active HD app, will also offer step-by-step navigation as well as full media control if you are wearing a helmet in your cover. Thanks to its attractive packaging and top performance, I’d bet this gauge will migrate across most of Harley’s fleet soon.
There are three preset driving modes (Sport, Road and Rain) as well as two custom choices. I spent most of my time flogging the Sportster S in Sport where the throttle response was a bit choppy, but in a decidedly fun way. Road mode makes things a lot easier and it’s honestly where I would spend most of my time, if it was my own bike. Selecting Rain dramatically reduces horsepower.
As mentioned, it is possible to adapt the behavior of the Sportster S. Governed by a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), ABS braking, traction control, wheelie and rear wheel lift control are all tilt angle sensitive and fully adjustable. Working with the handlebar mounted switchgear, the changes are intuitive and easy to spot on this dashboard.
Thanks to this prodigious engine, the Sportster S is a true cruise missile. It’s fast, quick and, even though it plays a different soundtrack, I think it sounds amazing.
Where things turn a bit sour though, this is where all the effort on form tends to compromise function.
The Showa 43mm inverted fork and piggy-back monoshock, both adjustable, do a solid job of smoothing out a firm ride, but the low position doesn’t give them much room to work. With just 37mm of rear travel, the lower back and tailbone will pay the price.
The brakes – a single Brembo four-piston unit in the front and a single-piston float in the rear – provide decent feedback and stopping power, but I can’t help but want a second disc to the front. The idea was rejected in order to show this magnetic wheel, but it’s not pretty enough to convince me. A matching set of wave rotors would look better and inspire confidence.
And speaking of that front wheel, know that it’s six inches wide and wears a massive 160 series tire. That bulbous rubber plate robs this set of its overall performance potential. The initial tilt on the Sportster S takes a lot of effort, and while it remains stable at around 20 degrees in either direction, harnessing its full 34 degrees of tilt takes even more effort. Which, given the sitting position, can seem elusive and counterintuitive. A switch to something in the 130s, in terms of size, would still offer a beefy look without the sacrifice
Either way, this new Sportster S takes giant leaps beyond its predecessor. It is a cutting edge motorcycle, unlike the aged icon it replaces.
Even if the distinctive muscle-cruiser flavor offered by this Sportster S is not to your liking, there is still plenty to be excited about on the Harley-Davidson horizon. The engineering behind this bike proves it, warts and all, because it will spawn stable mates, of course.
The Sportster is dead, long live the Sportster.