After years of delivering very little of what we now expect from a sport badged motorcycle, Harley-Davidson has completely redeveloped its Sportster to a machine befitting the Sportster name. Meet the Sportster S.
In early 2021 Harley-Davidson announced it was discontinuing the popular Sportster lineup to the horror of fans. As the brand’s longest continuously produced model range, the idea that the Sportster was being dropped from the Harley lineup was unfathomable. Thankfully, the death of the Sportster was not to be. When Harley-Davidson announced the rebirth of the Sportster badge late last year with a head to toe redesign birthing the new Sportster S, they not only brought the model back into relevance but also gave it a whole new lease on life.
The Sportster S is the first water-cooled Sportster model from Harley-Davidson and enters the market in a slightly different position than its air-cooled predecessors. Sure it is still a small capacity (by H-D standards) feet forward cruiser, it is the polar opposite to the Sporsters of old when it comes to technology.
While the old bikes were as traditional as Harley-Davidson products got – classic air-cooled cruisers to their core – the new Sportster S is a thoroughly modern muscle bike thanks to its full suite of electronics and raucous Revolution-Max T engine.
Being based around the new Rev-Max engine, which debuted last year on the Pan America, makes for a complete transformation in terms of personality and performance for the Sportster. So much so that local dealer and Harley-Davidson Australia and New Zealand's Dealer of the Year, Road and Sport, saw the Sportster S running a debut 11.22-second trip up the drag strip at Meremere.
Key stats are impressive. The Revolution Max T which acts as a stressed member of the new Sportster's chassis puts down 120hp (90kW) of power backed by 127 Nm of torque and just has to shove a wet weight of 228kg forwards. While peak power doesn’t reach the same lofty heights as the Pan America Revolution Max engine, the new T variant is tuned for a more torque focussed personality.
Like the Pan America, the Sportster's Revolution Max engine also features variable valve timing and dual overhead cams with hydraulic valve lash adjustment meaning it's both optimised for power delivery as well as reduced maintenance.
As you'd expect from a completely new bike in today's world, Harley has packed the technology in with the new Sportster. A 6-axis IMU backs up the cornering ABS and traction control standard equipment for the first time on a Sportster model. Other safety net features include a tyre pressure monitoring system and Harley's Cornering Enhanced Drag-Torque Slip Control System (C-DSCS) which is designed to reduce excessive rear-wheel slip and help prevent rear-wheel lock under powertrain-induced deceleration.
Helping the rider navigate it all is a 4-inch circular TFT display that modernises the Sportster from the ageing analogue gauges of the past. Not only can the rider select from up to five rider modes including the expected road, sport and rain modes plus two custom modes, but the Sportster S is also able to pair with a phone via Bluetooth and display music, phone calls and navigation through the Harley-Davidson app.
This all translates to a very entertaining ride that – with the comprehensive suite of rider aids turned completely off – will happily wheelie off the throttle in the lower gears. I'm pretty confident the old air-cooled Sportsters couldn't do that.
The performance is such that it really hammers home how good Harley’s cancelled Bronx Streetfighter could have been had the Motor Co not shelved the project.
In a way, the new Sportster really feels like a big engine with a seat and some wheels strapped to it – which kinda is exactly what’s going on with all the chassis components bolting on to the engine in some way.
It’s a compact motorcycle, with just a solo seat atop the flat track racer inspired rear plastics and high-mounted twin outlet exhaust. The aesthetics aren’t for everyone, particularly the chunky Forty-Eight Sportster inspired wheels and tyres, but it all comes together to give the Sportster S a unique look that certainly grabs attention.
That is not to say that it is a cramped bike, though. In fact, the Sportster S has one of the nicest rider triangles from a Harley cruiser that I’ve ridden lately. The foot controls are forward-mounted but within easy reach, while the handlebars only put you in a slightly forward-leaning position to give the bike a sporty feel without making your wrists ache.
This complete transformation of what we call a Harley-Davidson Sportster does come at a cost, with the Sportster S priced from $28,750 here in New Zealand. That's an increase of around $8000 on the old air-cooled Sportster models.
When it comes to the actual ride of the Sportster, again, it all comes back to that sport in the name. The ride is firm from both the large 43mm fully adjustable forks and the similarly adjustable monoshock at the rear. They need to be stiff too, as the Sportster is rides at just 90mm off the ground while the suspension only offers 92mm and 51mm of travel.
This, combined with the way Harley has decided to ship the Sportster S means practicality isn’t really the Sportster S’ strong suit. The lack of a pillion seat means you won’t be carting anybody down to the pub without forking out for a pillion kit, while the sporty riding position and solo seat limit touring range. You've only got an 11.8 litre fuel tank anyway.
With the state of our roads currently, hitting a pothole at speed is something you’d probably like to avoid on the Sportster S.
Power makes its way to the large 180/70 section rear tyre by way of a slick-shifting 6-speed gearbox. Unlike old Sportster models, it doesn’t engage with a thud and easily shifts through gears. I did feel H-D missed an opportunity by not including a quick shift to the bike as it definitely would make the already blistering acceleration even better.
But despite its weaknesses, the Sportster S is a grin-inducing ride that the Sportsters of old could only hope to be. With more accessories and more variants of the bike promised to be coming down the pipeline, the Sportster finally has some of that sport character the model has been missing for decades.
Harley has indicated that this is just the beginning of the Sportster's rebirth into the modern age. With the nameplate previously offering a wide breadth of models to choose from, it is only a matter of time before the next take on the Sportster joins the Sportster S in the Harley-Davidson Sport category.