2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S first test: uncompromising style, unmistakable performance

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Harley Sportster S divides the difference between the Ducati Diavel and the Indian FTR.

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Harley-Davidson is moving away from its traditional air-cooled touring and cruising motorcycles and heading into whole new territory. The greatest example of this was the electric wire under tension, followed by the Pan America adventure motorcycle with its excellent Revolution Max 1250 engine. The final chapter in Harley’s rebirth is the 2021 Sportster S.

While the Sportster name has been around since the late 1950s, this new S model bears little resemblance to the Sporties of yesteryear. It uses a version of the Pan America engine that’s readjusted to deliver more torque at mid-range, with modern suspension components and tilt-sensitive driver assistance systems. This is not your typical Harley.

The Revolution Max 1250T engine in the Sportster S has the same displacement as the Pan Am, but it features different cams and cam timing along with many other changes. That takes the power from 150 horsepower in the Pan Am to 121 horsepower in the Sportster S, although the overall torque output is the same at 94 pound-feet. In exchange for that, you get a ridiculously strong midrange, a very flat torque curve, and a garish red line of 9500 RPM. It gives the bike a feeling parcel more powerful than its numbers would have you believe.

This engine is mated to a six-speed sequential transmission and a cable slip clutch. Both are great to use. The clutch pull is some of the lightest and smoothest of any Harleys I’ve been to and makes shifting enjoyable. The shifter (and rear brake) are mounted in a mid-forward position, sort of dividing the difference between a traditional Harley and something like the Indian FTR 1200. I’m surprised how quickly I get used to this design and how comfortable it is on a high speed and very twisty road. I prefer them to bikes with centrally controlled accessories, thanks to the extra legroom.

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Harley engineers really made the packaging of this bike tight.

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The Sportster S has a single Brembo front brake system consisting of a 320-millimeter rotor and a radially-mounted four-piston monobloc caliper. The rear brake uses a single piston caliper and a 260-millimeter rotor. Choosing a single front brake on a bike as powerful and heavy (502 wet pounds) as the Sportster S might seem odd. In practice, I don’t find the setup to be a particularly weak point, and with the stupendous engine braking available from the 1250T, I barely find myself touching the brakes.

The S has a bulldog stance, but Harley had to make a number of sacrifices to make the bike look what it is. For example, while the bike has a high quality adjustable monoshock at the rear, it only has about 2 inches of travel. For a 300 pound rider like me, that equates to a very bumpy ride and bruising in places where no one should get bruised after a day of riding. On smooth roads the bike is fine, with the suspension doing a great job of absorbing more bumps and minor vibrations.

A highlight for the new Harley models is an extremely competent suite of driver aids. The Sportster S is no exception here, thanks to its tilt-sensitive anti-lock brakes, traction control, wheel control and Harley’s Drag Torque Slip Control, which mitigates rear wheel lockup due to engine braking. All of these systems are highly configurable and efficient when you’re a little stuck with the throttle in sport mode in the middle of a turn – not that I know of, or anything.

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With 34 degrees of tilt and giant tires, the Sportster S is a ton of canyon fun.

Harley davidson

The Sportster S is a bit odd from an ergonomic point of view. On the one hand, it has a very low and accessible saddle height (29.6 inches), which makes the bike more accessible for smaller riders. On the other hand, the reach of the simple small saddle on bars is a bit long, even for someone like me with a long torso and long arms. I would love to see a more swept bar option in the future.

Speaking of this saddle, this is a weak point of the bike. Sure, it looks fantastic – Harley designers did a great job with the bike in general – but its size and shape limits the amount of travel a rider can take on long trips. This, coupled with the super soft seat foam, means pressure points are a real concern, and I find myself having to stop and get up quite often after a few hours of driving. Harley offers an accessory saddle that is supposed to be bigger and better padded, but I haven’t experienced it so I don’t know if that will alleviate these issues.

Overall, the Sportster S is a bike that manages to look back (as Harley loves to do so so much) while pushing the brand forward. It pays homage to the history of the Sportster line without being indebted to it. The result is a motorcycle that looks and rides unlike anything the company has ever produced.


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