2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster Nightster First Drive

Harley-Davidson introduced the Sportster S in the summer of 2021 amid the pandemic. The Sporty redux was the most radical reimagining of the 65-year-old design yet, and even the unleashed Delta variant couldn’t distract from its seismic impact on die-hard Harley fans. Blowhards might have been skeptical of the liquid-cooled 1250cc grinder sourced from Pan America that replaced the older air-cooled 883cc and 1200cc bits, but that didn’t bother the Motor Company.

Alongside the new mill, Harley upped the ante with unorthodox moves like a pill-shaped LED headlight, a hidden rear monoshock that replaced conventional coilovers, and funky styling that left the Sportster trim, simple lines behind. Although it caused controversy, the new model posed a deeper question: do young buyers even covet the legacy enough to be put off by a modern Sportster?

Step into 2022, and the Nightster spin-off is pushing for further change with its significantly overhauled package. There’s a smaller engine—975cc versus 1,252cc—a lower MSRP ($13,499 versus $15,499 for the S) and a number of mechanical and styling tweaks to the Sportster S formula. Like the big Sporty, the Nightster’s Revolution Max motor acts like a stressed limb, allowing for a departure from the traditional hoop frame. But the smaller bike is also able to pack a narrower radiator, helping its visual proportions.

Speaking of looks, you could call the Nightster a two-sided tale: on the right, a sharp, punchy vision of an aluminum crankcase topped with magnesium cylinder caps. But looks can be deceiving, because what appears to be a fuel tank is actually a fake cover for the engine’s air box. The 3.1-gallon tank has been moved under the seat, which flips sideways to reveal a plastic filler cap. What the right side of the bike lacks in busy parts, the left more than makes up for with a mix of finicky cables, hoses and plastic covers. It’s almost as if so much effort has gone into making the right side presentable, that the left side has suffered the disturbing consequences of neglect. However, traditionalists will dig that the Nightster’s round headlight and exposed coilovers make it look more like the familiar old Sportster.

Saddle up on the 27.8-inch seat, and the Nightster presents a rather different view of the handlebars than the Sportster S. For beginners (pun intended), the start button is positioned at the top of the handlebars (at the Sportster S), requiring a clumsy movement of the index finger to bring the reduced engine to life. The switchgear is a little more sparse due to technological deconfinement, which leaves unsightly expanses of black plastic exposed. Just ahead is an analog speedometer that replaces the S’s 4-inch TFT, with a multi-function LCD screen integrated into the lower portion of the screen. At least all it takes is a tap to initiate the start-up procedure, which activates the dual downdraft throttle bodies to pump fuel and air into the 975T powertrain. The engine, bore and stroke reduced from 1250, is perfectly balanced but allows enough movement to produce a pleasing boost at idle.

The 481-pound Nightster – 21 pounds lighter than the Sportster S – doesn’t feel particularly heavy at rest, perhaps because the fuel is positioned low in the body and most of the mass is close to the ground. With a light clutch lever and a squeeze of the shifter, the Nightster pulls along with enough grunt to make it feel like a viable alternative to its bigger-engined sibling. The V-twin produces 90 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 70 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm, numbers that would have been unusual for the Motor Company not too long ago. If you start in the default “Road” mode, the throttle response is a bit lackluster at the peak but gains strength as the revs increase. Switch to ‘Sport’ via the button on the right-hand switchgear, and the extra sharpness brings a welcome snap to acceleration. Squeeze the shifter and the lever smoothly enters each gear. That chamfered action feels refined, though some might wish for a more positive “click” when swapping cogs on the six-speed gearbox.

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The Nightster’s larger 19-inch front tire manages to turn well, offering a little more agility than the Sportster S’s chunky 160mm 17-inch rubber. Handling is relatively easy with a dominant sense of stability, though the Nightster lands easier with maximum lean angles of 32 degrees, which is less than the Sportster S’s 34-degree maximums. don’t offer as much feel or response as the radially mounted units of the higher end model.

Chicanes aside, our test drive along Highway 33 north of Ojai, Calif., revealed that it’s possible to enjoy a modern Sportster on epic windy roads despite the off-road rear suspension. the Nightster’s coarser edge and tight lean angles. Our head-tracking group was constrained by an extremely modest pace, but racing solo for photos brought home the reality that spirited racers have to resign themselves to a bit of boot lift as the foot pegs drag and fold in tight turns.

Speaking of cornering, the Nightster’s ABS and traction control systems don’t account for lean angles, unlike the more advanced Sportster S setup, which is just as good in good weather, as the inherent grip and stability of the bike make it easy to manage. The engine will oblige with a healthy run to redline on demand, though it won’t quite produce the power as massively as the 1250-engined model. While the smooth roads of Santa Barbara County weren’t in able to confirm or deny whether the Nightster’s suspension damping is as jarring as the Sportster S’s, the heat expelled on our right leg despite mild ambient temperatures suggested that thermal discomfort could become an issue on hot days .

Ultimately, there’s almost no way not to judge the Harley-Davidson Nightster against the more expensive and more powerful Sportster S. The pricier model made major waves when it debuted in 2021, showcasing a design language and approach to performance that seemed foreign to how hardcore enthusiasts viewed the Milwaukee brand. Now that the Sportster doesn’t look so shocking, the Nightster looks more like a step back than just a slimmed down version of the top model. If you’re okay with less power, simpler suspension, less electronics and a more conventional look, the Nightster gets the job done. That said, the Sportster S’s just $2,000 premium unlocks a much more comprehensive package with a performance punch to match its controversial styling.

Ultimately, and with all due respect to the Nightster, it’s almost impossible not to want the flagship model, even if you’re unsure of its style. Not that the Nightster isn’t a solid, satisfying bike, it just isn’t quite as evolved as the Sportster S. Plus, if you’re adamant about that OG Sportster life, Harley is still building the old vibe, stripped down , air-cooled 883 and Forty-Eight models. How’s that to keep it real?

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