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Making A Statement – Harley-Davidson Sportster S

With the launch of the completely different Sportster S, Harley-Davidson declares things will be very different for its most iconic family of motorcycles. 

The new Sportster S appeared surprisingly compact as it rolled through the doors at Barnes Harley-Davidson in Victoria, BC. The impression influenced by an unintentional comparison to the Pan America. I had just parked the big ADV and it now stood like a giant over its stablemate. The engines were similar but seemingly little else was common between the two machines. In the many promotional images over the past few months, Harley’s significant new offering appeared big. It isn’t. Well, not really but we will get to that later. The white unit we tested was one of the first to arrive in western Canada and had been sitting for a few days in the Barnes showroom, the object of admiring glances and interest from customers even as a few viewers wonder what it was, exactly. “A Sportster? Really?” 

The admiring glances were to be expected, a shrinking violet the Sportster S most certainly is not. The bike is a study in styling. Low to the ground and compact in stature, it completely fills its space with no room for even the smallest rays of light to pass through. If ever a bike appeared to consist solely of  a powertrain and two massive wide wheels—the 160 on the front is only slightly smaller than the rear tire—the Sportster S is that bike. But appearance is dependent on perspective.  

The new Sportster S exists being oddly both large and small simultaneously, somehow rippling the laws of physics through the application of big torque to even bigger rubber. It hunkers near the pavement and doesn’t rise dramatically in either direction and is dominated by the rubber, the motor and a big pair of high-mount pipes. Bodywork is kept to an absolute minimum with the suggestion of flat tracker flare without the flat tracker purpose. A tank, thin seat and minimalistic rear fender—so slender as to be almost non-existent. 

Up front is a horizontal bar headlight maintaining the entire bike’s low horizontal motif. The Sportster S is so elementally reduced that the engine serves as a structural member of the chassis with the swingarm pivot attachment directly to the engine. The gauge is a single round four-inch unit, mercifully simple given the extent many manufacturers will go to digitally highlight electronic settings and riding aids. It is digital and does scroll through functions, but is small enough to not mar the minimalist nature of the rest of the bike. 

Because the bike is so low, there are few places to put the pegs other than as far forward as possible. Which they are. You might think that with so much emphasis on making the bike low, it would be cramped albeit with feet stretched to the forward controls. But this is not the case even for riders over six feet tall. The shift linkage is very long and the placement of the shifter takes a while to get familiar with as it takes a decisive motion to shift up through the gears. It is worth noting that Harley-Davidson has a mid-control kit for the Sportster S which would offer a quite different riding experience with the pegs moved back. Although with the low nature of the bike it would dramatically shorten leg room. 

The riding position features a slightly forward emphasis apparent in the reach to the bars with some weight going on the wrists. You sit directly atop the high-mount mufflers but with a couple of built-in heat-shields they don’t get too hot. However, in extended stop and go traffic, you must remember to keep your leg from resting on the top of the right side cylinder head as that becomes toasty on the legs—a true reminder, if you need one, to leave the cut-offs at home. The seating position also emphasizes the short travel of the rear suspension. The heavier the rider, the firmer the ride will be. In the name of styling there is very little travel in that rear suspension and with the feet forward position the firmness is accentuated. Yes, there is a 43mm Showa invert fork up front and a Showa monoshock out back. Both are adjustable but the front has only 3.6 inches to play with while the rear has two. 

The motor is a joy. Thirsty on occasion, but a joy. Having ridden the two versions of the motor back to back, the 1250 in the Pan America and the 1250T in the Sportster S, the differences are remarkable. Especially as all the changes to the motor were made internally while keeping displacement the same. The Revolution Max1250T motor has almost completely different characteristics. While the 1250 Revolution of the Pan America seemed long and leggy in transferring power to the rear wheel, the Sportster’s 1250T, even with 30 hp less at 121, was all about torque and power made immediately available low in the power band. A twist of the throttle produces a burst of acceleration no matter the location of the tach needle. Nothing is subtle about the Sportster S, from the bark of the mufflers at start to the staccato drum of acceleration. The fuel capacity is a shade under 12 litres so fuel stop frequency will depend how hard you play with the throttle. 

There will be concerns among some of Harley-Davidson’s core customers about the Sportster S engine because it isn’t a “Sportster” mill in the sense of 60-plus years of history. The 1250 comes attached to a radiator which might be alarming in itself. But this new engine is world class, because it had to be. It couldn’t give way to compromises for “character” or traditional ways of doing things because it has to serve as a powerplant for other models like the Pan America, which is in a segment that absolutely eschews intrusive character for all-day riding performance. And there is no way that 121 horsepower and 94 foot-pounds torque is a step in the wrong direction. There will be a smaller motor in the Revolution line and it too will likely have 85-plus horsepower. Embrace the change. It was inevitable but it is good.

What you probably don’t want to do with the Sportster S is ride in the wet. There is a Rain setting among the riding modes to moderate the power being laid down on wet roads but with no fender to speak of everything will come up your back and for practically the first time ever I marveled at water coming up the inside of my helmet…from the rear. Also, forget the passenger—at least one without bottomless patience. There is an accessory seat but as with the existing bodywork it is minimal and hangs directly above that massive rear tire.

The Sportster S weighs 500 pounds and this relatively light weight is due to the lack of a full frame and stripped down nature of the bike. The very low centre of gravity also helps and there is only the suggestion of heaviness coming through the steering— owing to the tires rather than the bike’s weight. 

The Sportster S is without doubt the hotrod of the new Sportster family. This niche bike gets  attention and looks great as you hammer through the gears between stoplights and ride into the nearby countryside. Nothing else currently on the market from Harley-Davidson or its competitors looks like the Sportster—not even close really. The short-lived FXDX would have been a styling contender but its days were numbered perhaps because the Sportster S was lurking on the horizon at a price of only $17,999.

The Sportster S makes compromise in the name of style. The steering can be heavy, the suspension is minimal and in the rain the spray from the rear tire will get the bike in front of you dirty. But that is ultimately acceptable because the new Sportster S makes a statement. 

It would have a been a mistake had Harley-Davidson released anything less as the first truly new and revolutionary Sportster. Despite compromise, the Sportster S is most definitely a Harley-Davidson and there will be others like it in the new Sportster family. The S is only the first curl in what will be a much larger wave. It’s the showy piece, the “look at me” bike that follows in a long tradition. 

So, what’s next? That too will be interesting. Will it be almost all function like the Pan America or all about style like the Sportster S? Will new models continue with the 1250T motor or will there be a smaller motor, or perhaps something like the old 1200XR but with a 150-hp engine? The possibilities are intriguing.

by John Molony Canadian Biker Issue #357


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