First ride: 2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 1200 and 48 Special


SPLIT, CROATIA — There is a perverse pleasure in brutalizing footrests. For sheer speed, the 27 degrees of ground clearance offered by the 2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster isn’t ideal, and you might think that would limit enjoyment of some of the best roads on the planet. But that’s not the case, and the tortured gouging of the metal feeler on the asphalt caused satisfying sparks to fly along the length of Croatian mountain roads.

Despite its name, the Sportster was never designed to be a sports bike. Instead, the Sportster aims to provide affordable access to the Harley-Davidson cool factor. This year, the Motor Company is adding two new (ish) models to the lineup of a bike that they claim to be the most personalized motorcycle in the world.

The $ 12,999 48 Special is almost identical to last year’s 48 and is priced the same. It gets big boy handlebars, 1970s-inspired tank graphics, and plenty of chrome engine trim. The 48’s front-mounted footrests and large front tire, along with those oversized handlebars, give it heavy-duty personality and road presence.

The $ 11,999 Iron 1200 takes the Iron 883 edition of the Sportster and adds a 1,200cc engine for 30% more torque. It has mid-mounted pegs, which increase control and make it more comfortable to ride, and a blacked out engine and small bikini fairing over the headlight.

It’s the 48 Special on the left and the Iron 1200 on the right.
Driving and handling

The roads here in Croatia are almost entirely new, probably because the whole country had to be rebuilt after a horrific civil war in the 1990s. They also meander from the coast, along a steep mountain range, which means that our introduction to the new Sportsters took place on some of the most interesting, twisty and thrilling roads in the world.

When cornering, there were differences in the position of the pegs, the height of the handlebars and the width of the front tire. The Iron 1200 has a 100 / 90B19 57H front tire. It’s a larger wheel diameter but a smaller sidewall than the 130 / 90B16 73H from the 48 Special, and it’s also narrower. With mid-mounted footrests and slightly lower bars, the 1200 is faster to turn than the 48.

Jacob goes for the 27 degrees of incline on the Iron 1200. Fortunately the ankles are articulated.

On the other hand, the 48 gains more ground clearance thanks to these stakes mounted at the front, but it is more difficult to build up muscles in the corner. In the middle of the turn, the 48 seems more stable, but it is the rear, and not the front, that seems a little less composed on the 1200. This is counter-intuitive, as the only geometric differences are found at the bottom. the front. I think this is due to the offset wheel sizes: the 1200 puts more pressure on you in the corners than the 48.

And back in the other direction now, on the 48 Special with its big front tire.

With new pavement and mild winters, the Sportsters were only tested for ride comfort on a narrow stretch of road. There they performed admirably, but a speed bump in the hotel parking lot sent a throbbing pain across the lower back as the dual-shock rear suspension quickly ran out of travel.

With such a low engine and chassis, the Sportster’s 256kg wet weight isn’t evident in the corners. It is only when you lean hard on the single disc brake up front that you realize the weight that is beneath you. ABS is optional and I think it would be a nice addition to a brake system that is otherwise underpowered. Why? Because having a soft lever can make you grip harder, and it can jam a tire.


This 1,202cc Evolution V-twin installed on both units develops approximately 65 horsepower and 73 lb-ft. of torque, all in a fairly narrow band of around 3,500 rpm and more. I constantly found myself running in the limiter on these bikes, the red line being around 6000 RPM. It takes a little mental adjustment to remember to keep the rpm in this region of 3,500 to 5,500, as well as to remember that there are only five gears.

Despite the limited rev range, the Sportster engine delivers solid, smooth power beyond highway speeds, and isn’t phased by steep climbs. There is a rubber buffered engine support rod on the front of the engine that attaches to the right side and goes to the far left before mounting on the cradle of the frame. This setup dampens side vibrations and engine shaking without masking them entirely. You can keep the vibrato of the Harley-Davidson brake light, and also keep your teeth.

The clutch is light to operate, but the shifter requires firm action before being persuaded to shift into the next gear. When it does, a satisfying mechanical thunk is your reward.

Jacob is getting clumsy now on the 48 Special, with his large bars and front mounted stakes.

The Iron 1200 gets a thicker and softer seat than the 48, and its seat height of 735 mm is therefore 30 mm higher than the 48. The footrests mounted in the middle and the handlebars lower and further back offer a more comfortable riding position overall and more control. Unfortunately, the cutting-edge headlight fairing generates tremors – at least for my 5-foot-6 frame – which makes it a lot less comfortable at highway speeds than I find on the 48.

The higher bars and front stakes are a bit more awkward for me, but they come with a surprising lack of wind turbulence for a bare bike. My choice for the best option among these two? Get the Sportster 1200 and get rid of the bikini fairing.

The mid-mounted ankles of the Iron 1200 make it more comfortable, but the bikini fairing creates tremors.
Colors and customization

The ride differences between the Iron 1200 and the 48 Special are subtle enough that the decision to buy will likely depend on aesthetics and price.

The Iron 1200’s blackened engine, wheels and exhaust can be matched with three different tank colors: Vivid Black, Twisted Cherry and Billiard White. All three have very contrasting graphics in the style of the 1970s.

Vivid Black and Billiard White are also available on the 48 Special, but its red is Wicked Red, not Twisted Cherry. Again, they have all the graphics of the 70s. The 48 gets chrome where the Sportster gets black paint.

My favorite paint is white, but your mileage will likely vary.

Jacob settles into his favorite corner with his favorite Sportster color.

Which Sportster is the best?

This is where things get complicated. In true HD mode, the Sportster has a list of sub-models and custom options that will make your head spin.

These are just two of the eight Sportster models available. Two of them, the Iron 883 and the Superlow, get the 883cc Evolution engine, so if you’ve read this far we may consider them to be off your list. The rest includes the sportier Roadster, the 1200 Custom and two other 48 editions: the 48 and the 115e Anniversary 48.

If the mid-stakes and sportier ride of the Iron 1200 fitted here appeals to you, the Roadster is probably something you might want to try. Its lower handlebars, dual disc front brakes and wider rear tire make it a true sporting Sportster.

Ooooh – who’s that cool dude on the Hog? Oh, there’s only Jacob. Our mistake.

After that, the decision is purely cosmetic. Nothing is significantly different from Sportster to Sportster, and indeed, the Sportster itself has hardly changed in over a decade.

This bike exists in a rare industrial vacuum, occupying a genre all its own. Not really a cruiser, not a standard at all, and certainly not easy to define.

He’s a Sportster, and that’s really all there is to it.

Price: Harley-Davidson Sportster 2018 range

2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 1200: $ 11,999
2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster 48 Special: $ 11,999

2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster Superlow: $ 10,999
2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883: $ 11,399
2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom: $ 12,999
2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster 48: $ 12,999
2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster 115e Anniversary 48: $ 12,999

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