Review: The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is a special bike, but it’s also fun and competitive
Harley-Davidson is a far cry from its misanthropic adolescence. The company that built heavy metal machinery for outlaws and rebels has aged with its baby boomer clientele. Yes, senior cyclist tricycles have a big profit margin, but time is running out in this market. More than 50 years after its cultural heyday and 15 years since its sales in the United States peaked, Harley-Davidson’s vision seems blurry and its hearing is diminished, but the brand’s well-documented fall to fame is less interesting than what’s happening now. For a generation of young bikers, Harley has become an underdog – and people love an underdog.
On board the brand’s odd new Sportster S, a machine that reinvents a family of bikes dating back to 1957, your arms and legs are stretched out and your back is arched. You lean into the wind, but your chest acts like a parachute pulling you towards the back of the bike. The short, stiff suspension gives the bike a low, slender appearance, but it also ensures that sharp bumps are likely to bounce you off the saddle.
Perched on the bike, frozen in a pose that looks a bit like sitting hunched over a laptop, takes some getting used to. It’s more comfortable than crouching on a superbike, and it’s only after a full day of riding that the delicate saddle begins to resemble a block of wood. Easy Rider didn’t care much about comfort, but if you do, Harley makes a lot of three-wheeled trikes and two-wheeled La-Z-Boys.
As the Sportster S name suggests, this bike is meant to be a faster, more agile, and more aggressive Harley-Davidson. These things are of course relative; he’s only sporty by cruiser standards, meaning he’s incredibly agile for a flying brick.
The comically large front tire (a fat Dunlop 160 / 70TR17) initially makes the bike feel heavy, as if it doesn’t want to change direction. You have to really push and pull the handlebars to get this thing to turn around and straighten up. When bent over it feels extremely stable, inspiring confidence to step on the accelerator and let the g-forces build.
When you find an expanse of tarmac without bumps to open the throttle wide, you’ll find that the surrounding landscape immediately becomes blurry. And, just when you’ve accepted the acceleration, the motor rushes towards the red line as the horizon warps towards you at an alarming rate. With 94 lb-ft of torque and 121 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, it’s worth running this engine. There is no thrill, no lumps and little vibration, just blurry landscapes on demand. Harley’s 1,252cc liquid-cooled Revolution Max V-twin engine would fit in a subcompact car, but in a 228kg (503lb) motorcycle it’s a monster, even if it sounds a little timid.
For such a fast bike, it’s surprisingly accessible and easy to ride – even for that relative novice – which was a goal of Harley engineers. Modern technologies such as selectable drive modes, tilt sensitive traction control and ABS provide a reassuring safety net. Putting both feet on the ground should be doable for most riders given the empty saddle height of 29.6 inches. Even when lounging at low speed and turning around, the bike is surprisingly uninimidating thanks to its low center of gravity. Only the heat from the exhaust – and the rear cylinder head, which sits awfully close to the inside of your thigh – will be uncomfortable, but only when stationary on a hot summer day.
After a day of riding back roads and highways, it seems that all of the new Sportster S retained from the old model was the Sportster name, which was often stamped on the bikes that were an entry point into the brand. Launched in 1957, the idea behind the first Sportster was to fend off competition from British brands.
Today, the idea behind the all-new Sportster S is less clear. It’s a more timid expansion of the brand than the electric LiveWire and Pan America adventure bike, although that’s not a bad thing. Those waiting for the Harley’s Bronx streetfighter concept to go into production or for a true flat-track style bike will be disappointed. Many other motorcycles – like the Triumph Bobber or the Indian Motorcycles FTR – could quench a thirst similar to the modern classic.
Harley-Davidson’s ambitious expansion plan, focused on new drivers and new markets, was widely supported by current company CEO Jochen Zeitz when he took office in 2020. Until then now it has laid off employees, reduced costs and refocused on core markets and profitable products. . In the first half of this year, the brand’s North American sales are up slightly from the same period in 2019. Perhaps the Sportster S is new and different enough – but not too different – to bring it back. inactive brand fans in showrooms. Maybe it will even attract new runners; it is a particular bike, of course, but also entertaining and competitive. If you’ve come here wondering if this is the motorcycle to revive Harley-Davidson, it isn’t. What the Sportster S is is a start.
This is just the start of a new line of “Sport” bikes from Harley, a category that will hopefully include cheaper and more attractive models. The mechanical parts for something big are here, but it remains to be seen if this underdog can put them together to stage a comeback.
- 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S
- Base price / as tested: $ 17,999
- Motor: 1,252cc liquid-cooled 60 degree DOHC V-twin
- Transmission / drive: six speed, belt drive
- Fuel economy (liters / 100 kilometers): 4.8
- Alternatives: Triumph Bonneville Bobber, Indian Motorcycles FTR or Scout Bobber, BMW R nineT or R18, Ducati Diavel, Harley-Davidson Fat Bob
Unusual. A cross between a flat racer and a cruiser. Inflated plastic exhaust covers look huge and ridiculous, but are necessary for heat control. Triumph does a more polished job with its classic looking bikes, but the fit and finish is good and the Harley is certainly unique.
Front-mounted foot controls are standard, but center controls are also an option for those with shorter legs.
The fully refined Revolution Max 1250T engine is similar to that of Harley’s Pan America adventure motorcycle. It’s quiet enough not to interfere with pedestrians. Shifting of the six-speed gearbox is smooth using the long-stroke pedal. The single disc front brake is good, not great.
Harley nailed it. The 4-inch round screen is unobtrusive, doing everything you need without getting in the way of an old-fashioned driving experience. Paired with a phone, it can even display navigation information.
Undeniably entertaining and a worthy rival to many sporty retro bikes, but odd ergonomics and styling will limit its appeal.
The writer was the guest of the automaker. The content was not subject to approval.