Harley-Davidson Sportster S Road Test 2

Paul Angus gets to test ride the new Sportster S in the rain…again!

AS I walked up the driveway to Harley-Davidson’s Sydney HQ, it was a beautiful sunny day; the magpies were warbling. Through the open roller-door, the scent of hot eucalypts gave way to the smell of petrol, oil and motorcycles. It was like entering Aladdin’s cave. There are shiny new motorcycles and there are shiny old motorcycles; there are motorcycles that never get ridden but spend their days being taken apart and reassembled. I was there to collect one of the shiny new motorcycles—the Harley-Davidson Sportster S. It would be mine for two whole weeks. 

I had already ridden the new Sportster S at the Australian launch several months ago but it was a very short, very wet ride. I wrote a short piece for Ozbike on the launch in which I spouted forth my impressions of the new Sportster S. I really liked the motorcycle. The one thing I didn’t like was that the handsome bobbed rear-end combined with the wide rear tyre sprayed water and grime up my back during the wet launch. I made the silly, sarcastic comment, “and anyway, why would you ride in the rain?” These words would come back to haunt me…

I left Harley-Davidson HQ on the new Sportster S and set off for a short ride home. As I rode over the Gladesville Bridge, with its epic view of Sydney as you crest the summit 45 metres above the Parramatta River, I thought, ‘Bugger it! Work can wait. Might as well go for a ride down to Coogee Beach.’ 

Far out to sea I noticed a thin black line but paid it no heed. 

I put the Sportster S in ‘Road’ mode which seemed to suit city riding better than ‘Sport’ mode. I love ‘Sport’ mode, but for a gentle cruise through the city, ‘Road’ is just a whole lot more relaxed. 

In any mode the new Revolution Max 1250 engine has bucket loads of easily accessible torque. The engine is the same one used in the Pan America but with a new top-end. This lowers the number of horses available, down from 150 to 120, but increases bottom-end and midrange torque. At least that is what Harley says and I have no reason to disbelieve them.

The new engine mixes brilliant ride-ability with supercar acceleration. 

The Revolution Max 1250 engine is night-and-day different from the old push-rod Evolution engine. In fact, it is a bang up-to-date modern engine complete with variable valve timing and a 9500 rpm redline. Harley-Davidson was never going to get the old Evolution motor up to compliance with ever tightening emissions regulations. There has been a lot of discussion on the interweb about the new engine’s lack of character compared to the old engine and this may well be true. However, the old Evolution Sportster could be humbled at the traffic lights by modern hot hatchbacks. 

The Sportster S is mated to a new six-speed gearbox which has some lovely usable ratios—second gear is perfect for town work; third will take you from suburban cut-and-thrust to well over the national speed limit. There is so much torque available low down that you can basically leave the bike in second gear around town. 

I have a little ride I like through the city on my way to the Eastern Suburbs. Once I get over the Anzac Bridge, I drop down into Pyrmont and follow the waterfront. This takes me through Barangaroo and Millers Point, under the Harbour Bridge, and then around the edge of the city to Oxford Street. Along the way are some really sweet corners including a particular roundabout where on my old Sportster Roadster would grind away at the exhaust pipes all day long. After two attempts, I did manage to get the footpeg on the new Sportster S to just kiss the road so I think it’s safe to say the the new model has a bit more ground clearance than the older models. 

It does require a little effort to get the Sportster S over, probably thanks to the really wide (160 section) front tyre. The same front tyre is also probably also responsible for some resistance to changing lines mid-corner, especially when the corner tightens up on you. I only mention these small details because the overall handling package is so good. You really can throw the new Sportster S around knowing it will go where you point it and keep itself pretty tidy doing so. 

The suspension is fully adjustable—the handy remote preload adjuster has about a million clicks of adjustment but there is only 37 mm of travel to play with at the rear. The fact Harley-Davidson can get it to work so well with so little travel is an engineering miracle. However, large bumps can upset the rear and various parts of the rider’s anatomy… or you can use the lovely handling to ride around them…

Cruising along New South Head Road in the afternoon sun, the Sportster S felt just right—you can move with the traffic; you can stay ahead of the traffic; you can be the chilled dude on the cruiser enjoying the view or you can be the angry man teaching the AMG drivers of the east a lesson. The thing is, the Sportster S is equally happy in both rolls, and all the ones in between. 

The fancy electronics package works its magic to make everything easy.

There is cornering ABS and lean sensitive traction control so if you do fall off it really is your fault. If you want a little more movement as you take off from the lights, just push the button to ‘Sport’ mode. Now the traction control waits just a little bit longer before bringing everything back under control, and the throttle is a bit more angry. That is probably another difference between the new Sportster S and the old Sportster. On the old model you had to learn to be a little less rushed, a little bit more laid back, a little bit Zen. On the new motorcycle there are no excuses.

The new Sportster S is an incredibly easy motorcycle to ride. 

Sometimes on a new motorcycle you need a whole day riding to get used to it but not this one. I am sure the low seat height (753 mm) and the low weight (228 kg) help, not to mention that beautiful smooth power delivery. Whatever it was, I was enjoying swinging through the bends of the road leading to South Head where the road runs along the top of the sea cliff before dropping down into Watsons Bay. On top of the cliff sits the old lighthouse looking out over the vast Pacific Ocean. On the other side of the road are the houses of the very rich, and beyond them, the blue waters of Sydney Harbour and the city itself. As I rode along this road I realised the thin black line I had seen from the Gladesville Bridge was, in fact, a huge storm-front charging towards Sydney and me. It still looked a way off and I was really enjoying the ride so I figured I would carry on to Coogee then haul arse back home.

The brakes seemed to be very unobtrusively doing their job. It was only as I came down into Glamarama that I really appreciated them. Peregrine (I do not know if that was his real name but I think it is a good bet) reversed out into the road totally blocking my path with two tonnes of shiny black Range Rover. I would like to say it was my cat-like reflexes, but really, I just grabbed the front brake lever and stood on the rear pedal as hard as I could. Luckily for me, the Harley-Davidson engineers have done a great job with the brakes. I lived to be able to explain to Peregrine that in order to see one needs to open one’s eyes. I mention this because there have been a few comments about why the Sportster S does not have a second front disc. I didn’t think at any time I needed more braking, but hey, if it had one, I wouldn’t take it off.

The rain started as I entered Coogee. Not gentle warm summer rain. Big fat tropical rain. Rain that filled the gutters and ran in torrents across the road. Within a couple of minutes I was soaked to the skin. Particularly annoying was the way the rear tyre threw the water up my back and injected it into the base of my helmet. I thought about waiting out the storm in the nearest pub but I was already drenched so I decided to head for home. Visibility was terrible and the tin-tops were doing their usual sheep impersonations. The Sportster S battled on valiantly. I was very pleased to have the ABS and traction control. The rear kept spinning in the appalling conditions and, in my focus to get home, I forgot to put the bike in ‘Rain’ mode. It didn’t matter as the Sportster S dealt with everything nature could throw at it. Strangely, the ride became totally absorbing as I literally battled nature to get home. 

Obviously I made it home. I am still annoyed at the bobbed rear fender, although it does look good. After my ride though the storm across Sydney, I had a whole lot more respect for the Sportster S. It is a brilliant fair weather cruiser. It will also get you home safely in a storm. 

Over the next two weeks I had the Sportster S, it basically just rained. Pretty much everyday. Pretty much all day. I managed a quick midweek run up the old Pacific Highway when it was dry which was sensational. The way the Sportster S comes out of corners is truly addictive. The series of uphill corners just south of the Brooklyn turn off were sensational on the new Sportster S—it is seriously suited for roads like this. 

Before heading back to Sydney I stopped for petrol. Which you will do quite often if you ride a lot in ‘Sport’ mode. The tank holds just under 12 litres but the four-inch round TFT screen gives you plenty of warning before you run out. I really liked the TFT display. It is easy to read and very informative. It can even tell you your tyre pressures.

Despite the biblical amounts of rain I really enjoyed my time with the Harley-Davidson Sportster S. As usual I showed it to as many people as possible and sought their opinions. Pretty much everyone liked the look of the motorcycle, both riders and non-riders. In the flesh the Sportster S really does have a strong sense of purpose and a real presence. 

Harley-Davidson is obviously going to use the new Revolution Max engine in a whole series of new motorcycles. This engine is going to open up many new markets as it has already done with the Pan America. They have even designed the engine so that it becomes an integral part of the frame. All they need to do is change the small front and rear subframes and voila, new model. 

Some will mourn the passing of the old air-cooled engine that can trace its lineage all the way back to the 1957 Ironhead. The old Evolution engine did hold a lot of charm for many people myself included. You can still buy an air/oil cooled engined Harley-Davidson—and both the Softail Standard and the Street Bob cost less than the Sportster S. However, if it’s performance you are after, neither will keep up with the new Sportster S (unless you spend a lot of money on them).

As usual, the only way to truly find out what the new Sportster S is really like is to take one for a spin. All the Harley-Dealers dealers have a demo model they will be more than happy for you to take for a test ride. Just be warned, it may well lead to ownership…

article by Paul Angus

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