I ARRIVED at the launch of Harley-Davidson’s new Sportster S with a lot of baggage. Sure, part of that is just getting old, but another part, and quite a large part, is that I really do like the old Sportster. I like them so much I’ve spent my own money on them. For me, Sportsters have always been fun. They have a rawness that appeals to me.
The Sportster name has been around for 65 years. Harley-Davidson has sold a lot of them. Alas, the brilliant minds of those who would make the world a better place for us mortals have decided the old Sportster is no more. Ever tightening emissions regulation has put an end to its potato song. But let’s not mourn its passing but rejoice in the pleasure it gave us.
Harley-Davidson’s Australian launch of the new Sportster S was at the Cruise Ship Terminal in White Bay just on the end of the Balmain peninsula in Sydney, which is only five minutes from Ozbike headquarters.
The people from Harley-Davidson Australia had assembled a fantastic display of old Sportster models including a 1957 XL, a 1977 XLCR, a 1984 XR1000, and a 2010 XR1200X. Just as I was off in some daydream of turning a XR1200X into a XLCR replica, dry-ice smoke began drifting in from the end of the hall and the new Sportster S made its entrance.
There were two new Sportster S bikes at the presentation. One standard and one fitted with some of the many Harley-Davidson accessories available including a pillion seat and sissy bar.
We had a live cross to some of the design and technical team in the USA and a presentation on the new engine. Basically, the new motor is the same one as the Pan American just retuned for a cruiser. Harley-Davidson call it the Revolution Max 1250 engine. The words ‘fast’ and ‘light’ were used many times during the presentation as was the phrase ‘performance cruiser’.
Saying the new Sportster S is an evolution of the Iron 883 is like saying Lewis Hamilton’s F1 Mercedes is an evolution of Ben Hur’s chariot. The new Sportster S is really that different to the old model.
The launch included a swift couple of hours riding around Sydney and then an hour around a closed track at White Bay. It rained for a large part of the launch so all my ramblings are based on a short time with the Sportster S mainly in the wet.
In the flesh the Sportster S is low and long (almost V-Rod-ish in its stance) with obvious references to the famous XR750 in the upswept twin exhausts. That low-slung look means the seat sits 755 mm (just under 30 inches) above the road.
There are all sorts of electronic do-dads and what-nots designed to stop you hurting yourself. The Sportster S is equipped with different ride modes, Including ones you can customise for yourself. I just left it in ‘sport’ mode because it was the most fun. In fact, ‘fun’ was my main impression of the Sportster S.
The Sportster S is incredibly easy to ride. Even playing silly buggers in the wet, the corner-sensitive traction-control thing-a-me-bob saves you every time. Do not misunderstand me — the traction-control lets you have a fair degree of fun, and in ‘sport’ mode it will let the rear move around, but it is always there to save your pride and your jeans.
The same goes for the brakes. Just a couple of fingers are all you need to slow down very rapidly. Too rapidly and the ABS starts chirping although it is pretty unobtrusive.
Handling follows a similar pattern. There is a little initial resistance to turning in, as you would expect with a long wheel base and a 160/70 front tyre on a 17-inch rim. Once you’re over, however, the Sportster S will just keep leaning until you run off the edge of the tyre. Nothing touches down unless, of course, you are really large and you hit a huge bump mid-corner. Seriously, once you get used to that hesitation to turn, the handling is nothing short of remarkable. Especially when you consider the rear shock has only slightly more movement than a hard-tail.
Which brings us to the biggest change from the old bike. The engine…
$26,500 buys you the new Harley-Davidson Sportster S, which seems a lot until you think about how much it would cost to make the old air-cooled 1200 cc Sportster put out 120 hp (including rebuilding on a regular basis). I know it is not a 45-degree twin with air-cooling and an iconic potato-potato sound (it does have its own unique sound especially once you’re over 3000 rpm) but it is really quick.
Surprisingly, that massive two-into-one-into-two exhaust does not get too hot. The rear cylinder head definitely warms your inner thigh at the lights but feels fine when you’re moving.
I have to point out that the chopped rear-section might look great but in the wet it allows the rear tyre to shower your back in water and road grime. The optional rear pillion seat probably fixes that problem, and anyway, why would you ride in the rain?
I am not a big fan of judging motorcycles on figures but here is something to think about. The Harley V-Rod weighed 282 kg and produced 115 hp at 8250 rpm, and made 74ft/lb of torque at 7300 rpm. The figures for the new Sportster S are 228 kg, 121 hp at 7500 rpm and 94ft/lb at 6000 rpm.
Honestly, the only similarity with the old Sportster is the name. However, before you pass judgement, go and take one for a ride. Harley-Davidson dealers are more than happy to let you test one. Put it in ‘sport’ mode and I dare you not to smile…
PS: A couple of years ago, the other American motorcycle manufacturer whose name we shall not mention, built a Sportster rival with around 100 hp and weighing around 250 kg. The same American motorcycle manufacturer also won a lot of Flat Track events. So it could be a complete coincidence that the new Sportster S puts out around 120 hp and weighs 220 kg. Harley strikes back.