Harley-Davidson Sportster SuperLow (2011)

Despite what the name infers, the new SuperLow from Harley-Davidson is not about seat height reduction. Actually, the model has helped raise the bar for 883 Sportsters.

One need look no further than the new-for-2011 883 Sportster SuperLow for evidence of an ongoing sea change in entry-level models. Just a few short years ago, the Sportster 883 platform was (and still is) the entry door to Harley-Davidson’s Kingdom. But it was a mere shadow of the motorcycle it has become today. Maybe even the mere shadow of a motorcycle.
Basic in a very rudimentary way, it was downright archaic, one of the few models left in the business that you just couldn’t recommend. At the end of the 1990s, I actually heard one motorcycle writer say about the 883 that he never saw such a waste of metal. Harsh words, from one of those guys who openly dislike cruisers, granted, but partially deserved.
By comparison, today’s 883s are in a completely other league, thanks mainly to the 2004 redo of the platform and the arrival of rubber-mounted engines. Finally, Harley-Davidson’s entry level model had become a true semblance of its bigger brethren. Finally, the 883 had become a decent motorcycle.
What is happening with the model now though is different, as there is quite a bit more to the 2011 883s than just a budget factor. It’s almost as if Harley-Davidson realized the potential of the model and was finally willing to give it the attention it deserved. Which is the same as saying that treating the 883 as some kind of second-rate Harley might have been a missed opportunity all along.
But looking forward and judging by the work done on the previous 883 Low to produce the new SuperLow, it seems evident the 883 will now be treated as the real deal. This change in direction for the product does make a lot of sense, especially with the business of motorcycles being what it is today, i.e. one whose core is ageing and in need of new blood.
The 883 is especially important to Harley-Davidson because that new blood is here: the Motor Company claims to have the highest market share of any manufacturer for new motorcyclists. This statistic alone explains and justifies the considerable effort behind the 2011 SuperLow as it’s a natural option for that particular clientele. But look closely and you’ll find there is much more to the SL than just a low seat height and beginner-friendly manners.
First, the SuperLow isn’t lower than last year’s Low. Its seat is even a bit higher. The name is still fitting when you consider the mods it received had the goal of making it a better Low. A super Low. This was first achieved by using a wonderful invention called radial tires instead of the old bias-ply rubber. Choosing low profiles made for a smaller tire circumference, which in turn created a larger space between tire and fender that was used to add some much needed travel to the rear suspension, which was very close to being rigid on the Low.
A slightly reduced rake along with a smaller diameter front wheel work together to make steering bicycle-light, yet still stable. A bit higher gearing makes accelerating a tad less abrupt in the first ratio.
The result of all these modifications is totally positive as it really does make the 883 feel very light and accessible, not to mention considerably more solid and precise in corners than the previous version, or the 883 Iron for that matter. Thank the sportbike-like radial tires for that.
There are, however, a couple caveats to the good news: very low ground clearance and suspension travel that remains very limited, especially at the back. And, those smaller tires bring the entire bike down far enough to make it probably the most limited of any production motorcycle in terms of ground clearance.
The SuperLow remains entirely rideable, but the rider cannot forget that lean angles are far from infinite, and must adjust cornering accordingly. This was considered as an acceptable downside by Harley-Davidson because of the normally less aggressive nature of riders who are expected to buy the SL: beginners and less experienced. The bottom line, is ride accordingly and all will be well. Don’t and it won’t.
Just as important as the technical work done to the Low to make it a SuperLow are the aesthetic mods it received. Actually, I’ll go on record as a believer that this cosmetic work just might be more important for the 883 than the tech stuff. The reason is, at long last, the 883 doesn’t look like a budget Harley, a wannabe Harley. A combination of very nice tank, classy two-tone paint and tasty wheels is nothing less than elegant. It raises styling well above the second-rate looks of prior basic 883s and essentially gives the impression the Company is finally seeing the 883 as a real Harley rather than its redheaded stepchild. Which just may make buyers feel the same. Actually, bring the very cool Iron into the equation, the only other 883 offered in 2011, and it becomes crystal clear Harley-Davidson gave its designers orders to raise the bar for styling with the 883 platform. They have.

– Bertrand Gahel