Harley-Davidson made me sit up and take notice back in 2019 with the launch of the brand’s all-electric LiveWire (which has since been spun off into an all-electric sub-brand). It was a great bike, but in hindsight it felt disconnected from the rest of Harley, like a small skunkworks within the company hellbent on a tangent. Earlier this year I was legitimately impressed by Harley’s Pan America adventure bike, but again it was a new bike in a new market disconnected from H-D’s traditional designs. It was great, but it felt like Harley was following the market, rather than innovating within its own sector.
Up to this point I have been impressed by Harley’s new products, but unconvinced that they would help move the brand forward into the future. The Sportster S, however, is a paradigm shift that has the potential to upset the entire idea of what a cruiser motorcycle is. The LiveWire and Pan America proved Harley knows how to build a killer motorcycle, but the Sportster S proves the Bar and Shield brand remembered how to build a killer Harley.
(Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson invited me to Los Angeles to ride its new Sportster. I paid for my own travel, driving to the event. Harley put me up in a nice hotel and fed me nice food.)
The Motor Company is billing the new Sportster S as the “first chapter in a new book” setting the stage for the company’s future. The Sportster name has been with the company since it launched way back in 1957, and remains one of the brand’s best selling model lines. While the Sportster line has always been typified by an aircooled V-twin and became synonymous with a diminutive “peanut” fuel tank, both are gone in this new shift.
Throw everything you think you know about the Sportster out the window. The new Sportster S cribs its 1250cc watercooled dual-overhead cam internally balanced 60-degree “Revolution Max 1250T” twin mostly from the Pan America, which is a huge step up from the old Sportster’s air cooled “Evolution” motor. That was introduced in 1984. The Revolution produces 121 horsepower and 94 lb-ft of torque with a sky high redline of 9,500 rpm, which sees orders of magnitude improvement over the Evolution 1200’s 76 lb-ft, undisclosed horsepower figures, and lopey 6,000 rpm redline. Ditching pushrods from a bike that has carried them across six decades is a bold move.
While the Pan America offers 150 HP from the same displacement, Harley wanted to re-tune the same motor for the Sportster S to offer a different character, pushing the torque numbers lower in the rev range. There are some new internal components for the Sporster S to make that happen, though a lot of this has been accomplished with intake trumpet profiles and exhaust tuning. It’s easy to see the two motors are related, but the Sportster does have a much lower tone between idle and 3,000 RPM, for example.
For the first time, Harley has built its Sportster around an absolute banger of a watercooled engine and I mean that literally. The engine is a stressed member of the Sportster S chassis. In the old bike, the engine was inside a steel perimeter frame and held in place by a set of rubber mounts, meaning the bike and engine acted like two separate independent entities. The 2022 bike, however, feels like it is hewn from a billet. It’s solid, is what I’m saying. And it’s lightweight, dropping some 60 pounds from the outgoing Sportster models, weighing just 502 pounds full of fuel ready to ride.
It’s clear that style is much of what is driving the new Sportster S design, with forward control foot pegs, a low cowl-less front, a giant front wheel and tire, upswept exhaust pipes, and a race-inspired tail. And it looks cool as all hell. This bike, especially in the gorgeous Midnight Crimson optional shade, is a style wonder. Everything about this screams cool. All of the design choices made here were explicitly to make the new bike, and by extension its rider, look hard as fuck.
With a nice low seat height (under 30 inches) and standard fitment wide forward controls, this is an interesting riding experience. It looks like it would ride similar to some of the other forward control compact cruisers I’ve ridden before, like the Scout Bobber or Harley’s own Softail-based Low Rider S. By that I mean stiff and uncomfortable after twenty minutes to an hour respectively. The Sportster S is definitely stiff, and with just an inch and a half of suspension travel, it’s never going to be a highway cruiser, but I found it pretty okay to ride around town or on a mountain road for a few hours at a time without too much butt pain. This isn’t a hardtail, as the tuned suspension linkage and adjustable preload take a lot of that pain-in-the-ass out of the ride. You might be numb at the end of a two hour highway ride, but you won’t hate yourself. I mean, any more than you already might.
When the Harley folks told us that we’d be riding on the famed Angeles Crest Highway, Angeles Forest, and Upper Big Tujunga loop north of Los Angeles, I knew that they must be pretty confident in the chassis. That might be the most famous riding route in the world, and it’s one that demands everything of rider and bike alike. I’ve been in this game a long time, and I know that manufacturer rides tend to be designed to show off the characteristics they want put in the spotlight.
We started off the day, leaving from our hotel in the heart of DTLA, running a short loop for photography purposes as the sun rose over the city. The ride was a comfortable temperature for about the first twenty minutes, but by the time we returned post-dawn for breakfast, the sun had pumped temperatures up into the nineties, and we didn’t see anything lower than that all day. It’s a good thing the bike is so fun, because the heat and mugginess of a ride like that will sap every bit of enjoyment out of the ride if the bike is less than worthy.
Following a stop off for breakfast, it was time to head for the hills. The aforementioned ACH loop ride was a blast and a half, even with mega temperatures. The Sportster S is labeled as a “Sport” model on Harley’s website, and it inches pretty damn close to fitting the bill for that name. Grip good, braking adequate, power excellent.
The bike has a ton of grip with such big tires. Sure, that big front rubber makes turn in a little plodding, but the predictability and stability through every phase of the corner is unmatched. The co-branded Harley-Davidson Dunlop GT503 tires are sized 160/70-17 in the front and 180/70-16 in the rear, making for a big chunky look and big chunky feel. Grip grip grip everywhere. And you need it, because the bike now sports 34 degrees of lean angle, compared to the 28 degrees on the former Sportster models.
Harley wanted to keep the iconic sportster look by maintaining just one front brake rotor, could be seen as a mistake. I will admit that I never felt like the bike was underbraked on the street, and it’s hard to mistake this machine for a track build. That being said, I could totally see someone fitting a Sportster S with a narrower wheel/tire combo, a second front brake, rearsets, and clipons for mobbing around the track. Hell, I could totally see myself doing that.
I could not get enough of running the engine out to redline. The power builds very linearly, and the bike feels like it’s going to pull forever. More than once I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a typical cruiser that runs out of steam at 4,000, and keep twisting the grip as the revs climbed. There was so much power on tap, and such a wide powerband, I found myself not shifting very often on the canyon roads. Second gear works for most short straights, so I only shifted up to third occasionally, preferring to rev it all the way out. Once in third, however, it was easy enough to keep it there as well, with plenty of torque for even the tightest corners.
Let’s recap. The new Sportster S has a great chassis, a great motor, a cool-as-hell aesthetic, and a stiff but acceptable ride. I can dig it.
The motor is the real gem of this conversation. The Revolution Max is such a sweetheart of a motor, and in this application it feels like it is cranked up to the limit with every twist of the throttle. In Sport mode, this bike rips so hard that it seems unfathomable that this is essentially Harley’s entry-level model. I imagine there will be lesser Sportster offerings as the old Street 883, Street 1200, and Forty-Eight models are shuffled off this mortal coil, but nobody in their right mind would buy those dinosaurs when the Sportster S exists.
The new handlebars are a godsend. Instead of the typical Harley experience of giant meaty grips and difficult-to-pull clutch levers, this felt much more in line with the typical motorcycle experience. It’s more approachable for non-Harley devotees, and in the ever-growing motorcycle market, that’s more important than ever.
The bar-end mirrors are easy to use and wide enough that I can actually see stuff around my giant shoulders. They make lane-splitting slightly tougher, and vibrate enough at highway speeds to keep rearward images from being sharp, but they allow you the awareness of what’s around you that is sorely lacking on many narrow-mirror motorcycles. Plus they fit the look of this bike to a T.
There is a kit available for this bike which relocates the foot controls back several inches (above). This allows for a much more confidence-inspiring ride. On aggressive riding roads like the ones we were on, the mid-controls kit allows you to shift your weight around and cushion your butt a little more with the weight of your legs on the pegs rather than on your seat. It’s not a cheap upgrade at $659.99, but I consider it a mandatory one.
The new thin-film-transistor LCD display is as gorgeous as it is informative. The small round display plays all the hits, providing a large digital speed display in the center surrounded by a sweeping tachometer hand that is easy to read at a glance thanks to the area behind the sweep filling in with red as the artificial needle moves around the outer perimeter. It’s such a great look, and it works great. Consider me a fan, and this display should be on all of Harley’s bikes in the future.
It’s pretty obvious that I like this bike. It’s super stylish and lots of fun, even if it isn’t going to set any track records. Harley has looked into the future and if this is an indication of where the brand is heading, everything will be totally fine. I am extremely excited to see what else Harley builds from this platform, because I think it has a lot of potential. Without a frame defining the perimeter of the engine, the designers have a lot more freedom. Could we see a full fairing sport bike built from the Sportster platform? Who knows?
The controls are clearly marked and easy to use. This is the same cluster of buttons and switches found on the Pan America and because they don’t sit up so high on the Sportster as they do on the high-bars of the ADV bike, the top buttons are much easier to read and push.
The bronze accents of the engine’s covers and the fuel door are all kinds of kick ass. While the black paint version of the bike isn’t my cup of tea, it still looks pretty great. I’d recommend the crimson or the pearl white, which look best with the bronze.
If you have a big 1250cc V-twin sitting right under your genitals, they’re going to get roasted. Even riding a watercooled bike, it’s thousands of tiny explosions a minute going on down there, and on a hot day the heat has to go somewhere. When you and the bike are in motion it’s not so bad, even with the high two-pipe exhaust under your right thigh.
Despite rear-cylinder deactivation technology intended to create less heat under you, as soon as you get bogged down in bumper-to-bumper traffic or even slow-moving lanes, the heat becomes quite apparent. It’s not a knock against the bike, really, as it was in the nineties that day, and I expect cooler days will be much more bearable. Then again, climate change is making every summer hotter than the last, so maybe we just need to get used to it?
I’m not typically a forward controls guy. When Harley said it was making a “sport bike” with forward pegs, I was immediately skeptical. While the company has managed to deliver on that promise, it’s still lacking when the roads get twisty. I already mentioned a mid-controls swap kit, which totally saves the day, but it should probably be a no-cost option on a bike this expensive.
As an addendum to the forward controls being worse, the shifter for the forward controls includes a foot-long shifter rod that really makes the whole shifting experience quite poor. While the gearbox itself is a great one with positive engagement and short throws, that long rod makes the shifts spongy and vague. This problem is 100 percent fixed with the mid controls relocation kit, as the rod is both shorter and more positively affixed, so the crispness of the 6-speed is translated better to your left foot.
Something I didn’t experience with this 1250 engine in the Pan America was a lot of pops and bangs under engine braking on deceleration. The Sportster seems like it has been fitted with the popular “crackle tune” setup that most current-day sports cars have. I don’t like the pop pop pop pop sound on the overrun in cars and I think I like it even less in motorcycles. I hope this isn’t the start of a trend.
The fuel economy I experienced wasn’t great. Admittedly I had the throttle twisted pretty hard all day, and was visiting pretty high RPM levels. With 3.1 gallons of fuel in the tank, and an estimated 49 mpg available when you aren’t ripping up the street, you can theoretically do 150 miles, but I was seeing much less, and Harley planned-in a fuel stop during our short journey. Not a deal breaker, but not anything to get excited about either.
At $14,999 it’s not a cheap motorcycle, but it is on the lower end of Harley models. This will likely be among the most expensive versions of the new Sportster chassis, as I would imagine taller and less powerful versions will make their way to market shortly. This probably isn’t the one I would choose, but if it’s your idea of a good time, I can’t recommend it enough.
I’d love to see a proper flat tracker-style XR1200 redux (which doesn’t sound likely) or the promising Bronx streetfighter that was teased a year or so ago.
That said, I’d be perfectly happy ripping around on a Sporster S with mid control kit fitted until the next wave of Revolution Max powered Harleys drops. I could be wrong, but I don’t think we’ll have to wait long to see what is coming next.