Harley’s newest Sportster has an original combination of utterly modern and utterly retro

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Port Severn, ON – Harley-Davidson’s iconic Sportster gets a new engine about as often as the Liberals offer tax cuts. Oh, if you go by displacement and, pardon the bad pun, evolutionary changes, there have been dozens of models designated as new by Milwaukee’s (always creative) marketing department. But, in reality, there were only three separate Sportster powertrains – the (even then) archaic side valve that powered the K-Series for the first five years of its life, the overhead valve version (under its many shapes) which has been the mainstay of the company since 1957, and the Revolution T which has powered the first radically different Sportster for ages (those 64 years of overhead valve).

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We are of course familiar with this engine. It has already been universally acclaimed in Harley’s all-new adventure tourer, the Pan America 1250. Indeed, I have previously stated that the Pan Am’s variable-valve, liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin is my favorite motor on a motorcycle. Maybe I should cancel that – or, more precisely, qualify it.

The Sportster S version of the Revolution twin is my new favorite motorbike engine. Yes, I know he has less power. In fact, by Harley’s own figures, it’s 30 less horsepower, the Pan America claims 150 horsepower while the Sportster S boasts 121.

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S
2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S Photo by Bill Petro

I think Harley is lying. On Brooklin Cycle’s Dynojet dynamometer earlier this summer, the Pan AM developed very commendable power – as in just 10 horsepower behind Ducati’s Multistrada V4 – 131 horsepower. Using the same transmission losses, that would mean the Sportster S should come out at 104, maybe 105 horsepower.

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No way this bike has only 104 ponies at the rear wheel! 108 horses I think. 110 hp more likely. Maybe even 112 horsepower. But, 104? Certainly not.

And not only is the new Sportster S fast, but its power is even smoother. Finished the (light) wool of the Pan Am just in slow motion. The midrange is, if anything, stronger than the already grunty adventure bike. Truth be told, it’s only at 7,500 or 8,000 rpm that the Sportster version of the Revolution V-twin – labeled “T” in the cruiser rather than “Max” in the tourer – lacks power. notable compared to the so-called more with-her adventurer.

And it’s smoother at startup. Seriously Harley, you should consider bringing the T version of the 1250 into the Pan America. For my part, I’ll probably be buying a new adventure bike next year and would be happier with the Sportster engine than the Max. Indeed, just four months after declaring that the Pan Am Revolution Max engine is the best in the whole bike, I now name the Sportster T version as its successor.

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There are other cutting edge technologies in this takeover of the Harley icon. On the one hand, the engine has all kinds of mode controls – rain, road, and sport – that change the traction control system, ABS functionality, and throttle response. There is also a system called Cornering Enhanced Drag-Torque Slip Control which prevents the wheels from locking up if downshifting too aggressively, and a tire pressure monitoring system. These electronic nannies should promote greater security but, since they are pretty much transparent, anyone who will ever notice them is unlikely.

No one will ignore the instrument cluster, which is, in fact, the Pan Am’s infotainment system housed in a 4-inch round cruiser-like housing. It can be paired with your phone for music, calls and, if you add an app created by Harley, navigation. It’s brilliant and informative, and its only real problem is that some of the information – like the odometer reading – is displayed in the tiniest and tiniest digits seen from the legal mouse-copy warnings on the labels of prescription drugs. Seriously Harley, I have 25/20 vision now that I’ve had cataract surgery, and I can’t read the small font without taking off my helmet and grabbing a magnifying glass. On the other, Harley gets one back for making the S the first Sportster to feature cruise control, using essentially the same system and buttons as the Pan America.

There is also a bit of cutting edge technology – for Harley – in the undercarriage. No, the suspension is not electronically adjustable, but the inverted fork and Showa single piggyback rear shock are adjustable for preload as well as compression and rebound. Sadly, this is where the technology ends and Milwaukee’s traditional embrace of anything retro returns.

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For one thing, while the fork has a fairly decent 92-millimeter travel, the rear only has 37 mils. Yes, 37 millimeters. It’s just over an inch to be a hardtail. In my 39 years of testing, I’ve never seen a production bike with this lack of suspension movement. And, while the relative high quality of the components manages to keep control over small to medium bumps, the ride gets really quick when you hit potholes. Seriously, you’re probably better off resisting a motocross-like crouch whenever you see something lumpier than a railway crossing.

Except, in another Harley lore arc, the ankles are the typical forward foot controls that Milwaukee demands for cruisers’ good faith. Yes, the company sells a mid-mount conversion kit that will definitely improve comfort and control. But they’ve already done it with a few bikes, and thanks to limited marketing and the lack of bikes in the showroom so outfitted, all of his attempts at rational sitting have died silent. The company didn’t even provide bikes with the Mid Control conversion kit for us to test drive, so I suspect their promotion for the option will be as leisurely as before.

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And finally, in another dealership with the cruiser motif, the Sportster S wears a 160 / 70-16 front tire. No, it’s not a typo. This is the front tire (the rear is a more common 180 / 70-16). As you might expect, this makes low speed driving rather heavy. Oh, once you get up to speed it will spin, if not as precisely as, say, a naked bike. But negotiating turns at low speed is a bit like driving a wheelbarrow at high speed around bobby pins; you will end up rounding, but there is a lot of steering correction involved.

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S
2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S Photo by Bill Petro

Ultimately, I suspect the Milwaukee traditionalisms will dampen the Sportster’s reception. On the one hand, Harley points out that the Fat Boy wears the same front tire. On the other hand, the Sportster’s new engine is much more Ducati Testatretta than Milwaukee-Eight. Ditto for the seated position and the short travel of the rear wheels. The loyal one percent might not worry a bit about those performance-sapping compromises, but I think any hope that the Sportster S would conquer other brands’ sales went out the window with the silly front wheel. .

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So the question then becomes what is the Sportster’s purpose. Is it supposed to attract a whole new clientele to a brand like Pan America? Or is it just tiring for traditionalists to support the recently declining Sportster sales? I suspect it will succeed on the latter, but fail miserably on the former front.

And it is a tragedy. Harley could have simply revamped her current Sportster platform, satisfying die-hards, and then built a really crisp street fighter with (its now canceled) Bronx undercarriage and Sportster S wowza style. It would have set the motorcycle world in turmoil. and attracted the same new type of new clientele as Pan America.

If Harley surprises and has a naked bike in the works, then maybe this is all part of a bigger, grander vision. But, if Milwaukee has no plans for the Revolution in the cruiser segment beyond the Sportster S, what a waste of the best engine on the bike.

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