What I first noticed about the Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster Iron was the rock-hard seat—a solo, solid perch made all the more so by the bike’s slammed suspension. Is this what Milwaukee means by “Iron?” What I noticed next was the short-coupled legroom available to a six-footer such as myself. The distance between my bent knee and the mid-mount foot peg seemed inordinately cramped given the bike’s specs. On paper, its 735mm (28.9-in.) seat height is taller than either the Super Low, which is very low at 695mm, or even the Sportster Forty-Eight (710mm). The Iron also offers more ground clearance than the other two: 120mm vs. 100.
Obviously, the dropped-down seat does much to lower the rider, as does the shortened suspension, and the rubber combo. The Iron is shod with Michelin Scorchers: a big 19-incher at the front, and a 16-inch on the rear, giving the bike its classic sassy Sportster stance. Combine all these factors and they comfortably sit someone in the five-foot-six range. A six-footer? Not so much.
Still, in the riding photos on page 40, CB Publisher John Molony seems agreeably mounted and he’s all of six feet. But like the Iron itself, he too is narrow profile. The geometric formula for the Iron’s handlebar-peg-seat triangle is obviously eluding me, but I’m quite certain it’s a motorcycle designed for people shorter, or with less body mass, than myself.
With that settled, I could ponder the third most striking aspect of the Iron—its incredible sense of lightness. The very moment you shove off from a standstill the Iron feels deft, balanced, and willing to respond to even a gentle nudge on its perfectly positioned flat tracker bars. The effectiveness of the short-ish bars came as a surprise to me. Too often in the past, Sportsters were supplied with disagreeably short bars that ultimately left the rider feeling handcuffed. Factor in the Sportster’s inherent higher centre of gravity and you had a model that was the most difficult to handle of any Harley-Davidson. (Sorry guys, but it’s true.)
The Iron is anything but difficult to handle though. The narrow profile, the low seat height and lowered centre of gravity, as well as the short wheelbase (1500mm vs. 1510 SuperLow) conceal its actual weight (251 kg/553 lbs.). Perhaps it’s a matter of all these elements working in concert that lend the Iron its signature light feel in the palms of your hands as you steer a course. Or it could well be the Michelin rubber. The Scorchers are terrific tires: quiet and quick steering, they are confidence producing in corners as they grab hold of simply everything. The feedback is rich and nimble, though they can’t entirely compensate for the Iron’s lack of suspension. While the road-going mannerisms of the Scorchers are definitely pleasant on smooth surfaces, riders will feel every bump, bruise and blemish of the tarmac. It’s the price to be paid for being lowered.
The front fork also quickly finds its limitations at speed. The setup works beautifully for low-speed maneuvers but at speeds over 125 kmh (even 120), there’s a pronounced lack of stability.
The big question becomes, despite the accessory removable windshield and saddlebags, is the Iron truly your first choice for a long distance ride? Well, it could be provided you’re okay with keeping your cruising speed at 100 kmh where the Iron is perfectly happy and even surprisingly punchy in the top gear. And provided you’re fine with frequent fuel stops: the Sportster owes much of its classic look to the long-serving 3.3-gallon “peanut” tank, but it doesn’t hold much gas. Just as well perhaps. Remember that rock hard seat? It won’t get softer the longer you stay in the saddle. By the time you’ve burnt through a tank, it’s break time.
As an urban prowler though, the Sportster Iron finds its niche. Easy to control and responsive to every rider input, the reduced effort clutch and gear shifts introduced a number of years ago by Harley-Davidson are especially choice in the Iron. A simple nudge of the foot lever moves the shifter and the next gear snicks neatly into place. Abrupt power bands down low make the rider glad for the reduced effort, because short shifts are common even though the 883cc air-cooled Twin makes a factory spec 54 ft/lbs. torque at 3,500 rpm, with approximately 45 hp.
While it may have its shortcomings, the essential character of the air-cooled Evo motor is flavourful. And when it powers a motorcycle that is fundamentally a compliant and willing companion, the end result is a cracking good buy at $9,089. Moreover, the fit and finish of any made-in-Milwaukee product is superior. The tasty metal flake paint of the model we had in our possession in May and the hand-lettered look of the tank graphics nicely contrasted the blacked-out cases. Fork gaiters, a single gauge, chrome derby cover, subtle mirrors, and staggered dualies provide detail.
The sheer operational elegance of the Iron when in an urban setting and its fetching aesthetics bring into question the very nature of the Sportster, which has changed so dramatically over the decades it’s now difficult to reconcile the model with the 900 and 1000cc “Ironheads” of old.
The aptly named Ironheads, especially the high-compression versions, were brutes in comparison. Noisy valve trains, leaky cases, suspect fit and finish, and counter-kicking kickstarts meant the Sportsters of old were not for the faint of heart, despite the pejorative “half a Harley” label pinned to them by nitwits. They were attack bikes, pure and simple. They were hop-ups waiting to be done, and then led to the street to compete with the local Nortons. But with an engine mounted directly to the frame, they were notorious boneshakers until 2004 when Harley introduced rubber isolation mounts and tie links to limit engine movement and reduce vibes.
Today’s Sportster Iron is targeted in the marketplace by Yamaha’s Bolt, a “budget bobber” designed for friendly folk and even entry-level riders. Yes, the bikes in the 57-year-old Sportster line have become more demure, better suited to smaller riders, and lovelier with age thanks to models such as the Sportster Iron. Who says there’s no such thing as the Fountain of Youth? Sportster motorcycles not only found the Fountain, they fell in and climbed back out, pretty as the morning.
By John Campbell