I’ve been trying to stick to the “one bike focus” thing for Spring, but like Honda’s diverse line of bikes with automatic transmissions that we looked at last time, I’m having a hard time picking just one again, especially when it comes to Harley-Davidson’s recently expanded offerings around a single model: the Sportster.
We’ve all lusted after a shining cruiser, and no one has had more experience cruising than Harley-Davidson, but one of their best-selling bikes is the speedy and sort of anti-cruiser Sportster, a slim, stripped-down, versatile and affordable bike that Harley has wisely refined and expanded upon as of late.
Initially debuting way, way back in 1957, until recently the Sportster had been Harley’s lighter-weight, entry-level machine, a niche now occupied by the even lighter-weight Street 500 and 750cc machines. While the big-inch bikes have always held all the glory and have gotten ever larger in terms of size and displacement, the 883 and 1200cc Sportster models have soldiered on, sometimes in the shadows, but always there, winking, promising an experience involving less money, a bit less ego and a fair bit more velocity.
Today, the Sportster isn’t just one bike, it’s become a platform unto itself. There are no less than seven Sportster variants to tempt you, from the simple 883cc SuperLow at the base of the pyramid to the newly returned 1200cc Roadster and SuperLow 1200T Tourer at the top. In between are classically-styled Iron 883, 1200 Custom, the Seventy-Two chopper-esque throwbacks, and the neo-retro Forty-Eight. Such largess, and the SuperLow starts at a super low price of just $8,500.
Back in 2005, Harley slipped some vibration-quelling measures into the Sportster’s traditionally solid-mounted and vibe-happy engine, making the bikes much more tolerable for distance riding (and truthfully, just about any riding). They’ve been refining them ever since. The shake is still there at idle, but once underway, the Sportsters now merely thrum along with a perfectly muted vibe, reminding you it’s still an old-school air-cooled V-twin down there, but now no longer requiring new fillings or organ transplants after extended outings.
While the Sportster may be regarded as a “beginner bike” by riders who have graduated to the big-inch models, don’t be fooled: if you’re looking for an easy way to get rolling on a bike that includes plenty of power, a bit quicker handling and a slim profile, this is the rig. Bigger is not always better, especially if you’re going to be rolling around a modern city.
Riding around Portland late last year on the Forty-Eight series, I never had a moment where I thought “shucks, this is just too small and slow.” Rolling on the throttle to catch a group ahead, the lusty red Sportster I was on quickly powered past 90mph, with plenty left in the engine room if needed.
Cruising through Portland’s tight downtown streets, the suspension soaked up the crumbling pavement and the wide bars made quick direction changes a snap. Comfort was spot-on despite the compact form factor of the Sportster. You couldn’t ask for a better city bike in this displacement class. It’s a classic combination of style and performance perfectly suited for an urban commute but still capable of a weekend getaway – even two-up. Remember, the big Sporty is a 1200cc twin, it’s not like you need to wring it out to achieve escape velocity; just surf that big wave of torque.
Nits? The stock EPA/DOT/Nanny-compliant exhaust is far too quiet (a complaint that can be leveled at almost every bike made by any bike maker today) and depending on the model, cornering clearance can run out quickly – issues solvable with Harley’s infinite accessory catalog and even more infinite aftermarket.
Despite all their modern refinement, glittery paint, hip new style variants, the current hot-rod Sportster – whichever version ticks your box – remains a near-perfect city bike.
If you can stand all the attention that comes with owning and riding the marque, you’ll likely find it can get you to a happy place just as quickly as you dare.
Photos by Riles and Nelson Photography