REVIEW: 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

What does it mean when an iconic vehicle changes? I’m not talking about evolving here, I mean a complete reinvention. Specifically, is it possible that one can maintain one’s status even after avoiding the status quo?

These are precisely the questions that dance in my helmet when I ride the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S ($17,999).

There’s no denying that the Harley-Davidson Sportster is an icon. The best-selling motorcycle to wear a bar and shield, it is arguably the most important model in the HD line. As such, it has been in continuous production since 1957, and in those sixty-four years has been pretty much left alone: ​​a cradle frame topped with a peanut tank, hugs an air-cooled V to 45 degrees. -Twin engine to create a very accessible and classic motorcycling experience.

This all-new Sportster S, however, is anything but classic.

I just muscled the bike through its first set of soft asphalt and opened the throttle wide on some B roads north of Barrie. There is little to no chassis flex. It holds its line with confidence, leans deeper than expected and its engine, oh this wonderful engine, it loves to rev. Obviously, this bike doesn’t look, feel or perform like any Sportster anyone has ever ridden.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S 2021,

The looks

Where the Sportsters of yore were prototypical in aesthetics, the S comes with a heavily styled approach. Tough and curvy with a brawler stance, it fuses a number of custom world trends to deliver a unique take on a cruiser. Those wide tires and ground-hugging suspension are clear hallmarks of a Bobber, while the tapered tail and raised exhaust were plucked straight from the dirt ovals of the flat track. Modern LED lighting is used everywhere, and if that pill-shaped headlight looks familiar, know that it’s been slipped into the Fat Bob parts bin.

Far from being merely a “bitsa-bike” (pieces of this, pieces of that), the Sportster S demonstrates both cohesion of intent and fit and finish to Harley’s high standards. And while he’s certainly not shy in front of a goal, I think he looks even better in person. The Stone Washed White Pearl paint ($450) on my tester provides just enough contrast to the mostly blacked-out bike to make things stand out, especially the bronzed accents on the tank emblem, cylinder heads and crankcase.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 2021


Turn on the internals behind these boxes and you’ll wonder if you’re actually sitting on a Harley. Gone are the shivering vibrations and “potato-potato” soundtrack of the old V-Twin pusher. The Revolution Max 1250T that equips the Sportster S is resolutely modern and incredibly fluid.

Displacing 1,252 cubic centimeters, the liquid-cooled, DOHC, 60-degree V-twin engine features magnesium and nickel-silicon carbide internals, variable valve timing, one pair of spark plugs per cylinder and one set of counterweights. It’s been designed with hydraulic lash adjusters, so you’ll never need to schedule costly valve work, and refueling is controlled via an electric drive system, so niceties that don’t never graced a Sportster before (or even some of the HD “big-twins”) like cruise control and drive modes, are present and catered for.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 2021

When launched, the Rev Max 1250T develops 121 horsepower (at 7,500 rpm) and 94 lb-ft of torque (at 6,000 rpm). For reference, that’s almost twice as much ponies as the old 1,200cc-equipped Sportster could muster (68bhp) and a twenty percent increase in torque. All in a bike that is almost 30 kg (228 kg) lighter. You feel it immediately after twisting the throttle. Acceleration is quick, to say the least. Cam profiles and valve timing have been specifically tuned for this type of off-line growl. And the torque curve it produces is flat. No matter what speed I was in, there was plenty of punch to leave things in my dust. And running the engine to its 8,000 rpm redline was as addictive as it was rewarding.

From the saddle, the bars are wide and imposing but well within reach of the bent arms. The seat is sculpted to rock well under those loud launches and it offers a decent amount of padding. The footpegs—positioned as forward controls on my tester—offer the traditional leg-akimbo pose of most cruiser-style motorcycles. Harley offers a mid-mount footpeg option ($659.95), but none of the available units had been so equipped.

The dash is a 4-inch round TFT screen, and that’s a cutting-edge affair too. It provides all essential information at a glance and, paired with your smartphone and an active HD app, will also provide turn-by-turn navigation as well as full media control if you’re wearing headphones in your lid. With its attractive packaging and perfect performance, I’d bet the gauge will soon migrate to most of Harley’s fleet.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 2021

There are three preset riding modes (Sport, Road and Rain) as well as two custom choices. I spent most of my time whipping the Sportster S into Sport where the throttle response was a bit jerky but in a decidedly fun way. Road mode smooths things out considerably and is honestly where I’d spend the most time, if it was my own bike. Selecting rain will noticeably reduce power.

As mentioned, it is possible to adapt the behavior of the Sportster S. Governed by a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), ABS braking, traction control, rear wheel control and lift control of the rear wheel are all lean angle sensitive and fully adjustable. Working with the handlebar-mounted switch, changes are intuitive and easy to spot on this dash.

The performance

Thanks to this prodigious engine, the Sportster S is a real cruise missile. It’s fast, fast and, even though it plays a different soundtrack, I think it sounds amazing.

Where things go a little pear-shaped, however, is where all the focus on form tends to compromise function.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 2021
Harley-Davidson Sportster S 2021,

The 43mm Showa inverted fork and stacked monoshock, both adjustable, do a solid job of softening a firm ride, but the low position doesn’t give them much room to work. With only 37mm of rear travel, your lower back and tailbone will pay the price.

The brakes – a single Brembo four-piston unit up front and a single-piston floater in the rear – provide decent feedback and stopping power, but I can’t help but want a second disc in the front. The idea was dropped in order to show off this magnetic wheel, but it’s not enough of a hoop to convince me. A matching set of wave rotors would look better and inspire confidence.

And speaking of that front wheel, know that it’s six inches wide and carries a massive 160-series tire. That bulbous rubber slab robs this set of its overall performance potential. Initial lean on the Sportster S takes a lot of effort, and while it remains stable in and around 20 degrees in either direction, harnessing its 34 degrees of lean requires even more effort. Which, given the seated position, can seem elusive and counter-intuitive. A jump to something in the 130s, size wise, would still give a beefy look without sacrifice

Anyway, this new Sportster S greatly exceeds its predecessor. It’s a state-of-the-art motorcycle, unlike the old icon it replaces.

Even if the distinct muscle-cruiser flavor offered by this Sportster S isn’t to your liking, there’s still plenty to cheer about on Harley-Davidson’s horizon. The engineering behind this bike proves it, warts and all, because it will spawn stable mates, of course.

The Sportster is dead, long live the Sportster.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 2021

The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle ratings were not subject to approval.

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