After both the Livewire and Pan America, it was easy to form the opinion that Harley-Davidson was done with making motorcycles according to its heritage and traditions. Had the brand from Milwaukee completely abandoned the heavyweight cruiser in favour of attacking new market segments?
It seems as if we were a little premature in our conclusions, however. Livewire and Pan America might point to an alternative future but Motor Co. is determined to drag the traditional cruiser kicking and screaming into the 21st century. And they’ve started the process quite convincingly with the new Sportster S.
The bike should need no introduction as it’s been around for a few months now. The liquid-cooled Revolution Max engine – still 1252cc but de-tuned slightly from the 150bhp Pan America installation to 127bhp – is bolted into a brand new chassis and running gear but retains the essence of the good old Sportster.
The Sportster, which was first introduced in 1957, was a much-maligned motorcycle by the time of its demise in Europe (due to not meeting emissions regulations as imposed by Euro5). There was nothing wrong with it, but the perception was that this wasn’t a Harley that you wanted to be seen on: it wasn’t a ‘real’ Harley despite being able to trace its lineage way back to the beginning much more convincingly than some other models in the line-up.
For the new model to adopt the Sportster name perhaps reflects more accurately the affection in which the Sportster was held. It could mean that Harley has a bit of an uphill struggle convincing some elements of the buying public that the Sportster S has little to nothing in common with the old Sporty but, as has so often been the case with Harley-Davidson, it’s only by riding one that you understand what all the fuss is about.
Certainly, anyone who has ever ridden an old Sportster will have trouble finding anything in common with the new Sportster S. Maybe the riding position is reminiscent of one of the old Sportster models but that is about as far as you can take it.
The Revolution Max engine is still sufficiently new to surprise. On start-up, there is a lot of top-end noise from the valve train but this quietens down once the engine is warm. Clicking the gearbox into first produces none of the agricultural crunches of old, the clutch is smooth and the power is linear.
Ah, the power! At first, you trickle around in traffic without a hint of snatch or the engine straining to be let loose; it’s happy to be ridden at half-throttle. But then the road opens up, the traffic thins and you give the throttle a good twist.
Oh, for goodness’ sake! That’s insane: that’s not what a Harley should feel like! You suddenly realise you’re screaming along at the rev limit in second, so you fumble for the forward-mounted lever against the G-forces and snick into third and the locomotive pull doesn’t let up. Again into fourth and now you are travelling faster than any Sportster has ever travelled.
All too soon the lights ahead turn red and you brake to a stop, not quite believing what just happened. So you try it again, forewarned this time. The effect is the same: arm-stretching acceleration on a tidal wave of torque. Bloody hell, this thing is fast!
With such acceleration, the standard foot-forward/hands forward riding position is a little inadequate and the lack of a step in the seat to stop you from sliding back is noticeable. It’s as if Harley didn’t realise the performance they had given the bike, although there is no doubt they’ll be something in the accessory catalogue to change the riding position completely should you desire.
Maybe the forces are exaggerated because the bike is relatively small and compact. You feel quite exposed at high speeds because there doesn’t seem to be much bike beneath you.
In size, it seems small but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of mass. Weighing in at 228kg is an improvement on the +/-250kg of the old Sportster but it is still a lot for a physically small bike. It does give it a solid, secure feel and the weight is worn low down so it’s not a problem at slow speeds.
But that weight, coupled with the fat front tyre, does mean it’s certainly not the quickest-steering bike out there and it does need a concerted effort to counter-steer it into corners. Like any new bike, however, it gradually becomes less of a problem the more familiar you are with it.
One slight issue is the lack of suspension travel, certainly on what passes for roads in and around Gauteng. While the rest of the bike is so good, it is a shame that the overall package is compromised a little by the suspension, which is hard and with limited travel.
At both ends there is full adjustability so, perhaps with more time to experiment, a compromise could be reached. However, people who want a Sportster S are not likely to be put off by such trivialities: this is still the most exciting Harley, after the Pan America, to be launched in a long time and will tick all the right boxes for those who will ride nothing but a Harley-Davidson.
While the suspension is a compromising factor, it should certainly not prevent anyone from taking a seriously hard look at the Sportster S simply because in every other measurable parameter it is quite fantastic. Some might liken it to the Indian Scout Bobber but I can find very little that both bikes have in common, other than being long, low American V-twin engined motorcycles: the Sportster S is a much more aggressive package, without the retro styling cues of the Indian.
You’re not getting much change out of R312,700 for the Sportster S, a price that it is easy to imagine some buyers balking at. Mind you, it’s the same price as the Scout Bobber 20, give or take a Rand here or there, so maybe it’s my price radar that is out of kilter.
Detractors will love to point out the deficiencies, however small, in any Harley-Davidson, and it could be said that Harley doesn’t always help itself in this respect by allowing flaws to remain long after they have been pointed out by owners and the media.
What all that misses is that riding a Harley – any Harley – is always such an occasion that idiosyncrasies and flaws seem part of the package and it’s almost natural and expected that they are there.
Could the world cope with the perfect Harley Davidson? I’m not so sure but, in the Sportster S, they have come closer than in a long time.
Harley-Davidson Sportster S
For more information on the bike that we used in this article, click on the link below…