The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S. (Kevin Wing/)
It’s 6 a.m. in downtown Los Angeles. A dozen or so groggy motorcycle journalists clamber aboard a row of Harley-Davidson Sportster S ($14,999) motorcycles parked outside our hotel. Out front, there’s a guy pressure washing the sidewalk, flooding the street in iridescent runoff. As I maneuver my test bike onto the road, the Sportster’s 180/70 rear Dunlop gets filmed in the stuff. I bring the bike near upright and snap the throttle to spool it up maybe 2,000 rpm; the back tire briefly steps out before going smoothly back in line with the help of some imperceptible electronic intervention. I haven’t traveled ten yards, but it’s already obvious the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is far more than the mere symbol its predecessor morphed into during its 64-year production run.
The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is available in three colors: Midnight Crimson, Stone Washed White Pearl, and Vivid Black. (Kevin Wing/)
For some, the legendary Sportster family is meaningful precisely because it’s a symbol. A 45-degree air-cooled pushrod engine, classic cruiser styling, that Milwaukee sound: They’re real, valuable, and necessary, because they’re the soul of Harley-Davidson. To some, they’re even symbols of an idealized American spirit, equal parts blue-collar grit and simpler times. If the symbol vanishes, the bar bends and the shield cracks. Killing the soul kills the symbol.
For others, the old Sportster is not meaningful precisely because it’s a symbol. To them, it’s a symbol of old technology, old ways of thinking, and a culture better left in the past. The Sportster—as a motorcycle, dammit, not a freaking metaphor—is slow, crude, and hampered by a form that puts someone’s idea of fashion above performance, practicality, and comfort.
If the Sportster is a symbol, the radical departure of the 2021 Sportster S suggests it’s one that Harley-Davidson no longer thinks accurately reflects the truth.
And the truth is, the Sportster S subverts the archetype by being (nearly) everything its predecessor isn’t.
For years, the Sporster has been a throwback. The mechanical clatter and visceral feel of its powertrain made it refreshing in a world that feels increasingly anaesthetized. With ever stricter emissions regulations, Harley had to make a change. Harley-Davidson diehards may understandably mourn its loss. H-D reassures that they won’t be left behind. Exhibit A: The Electra Glide Revival. (Kevin Wing/)
Brad Richards [no relation to the author], Harley-Davidson’s VP of Styling and Design, says, “Our conversations within the company were: ‘How far can we go outside the archetype in terms of the experience?’ You don’t want to mess with the formula too much because folks will walk. But when we did the research we found that one of the overwhelming narratives was that customers gave us permission. [Previously,] it was almost like our own state of mind was keeping us from finding the courage to branch out.”
And branch out they did. Just as the original 1957 Sportster upended proceedings when it replaced the side-valve K-model, the Sportster S is a controversial departure in certain camps. Gone are the 45-degree V angle, the pushrods, the simplicity of air cooling. Gone are the familiar rumble and the rough ‘n’ tumble personality of America’s longest-running motorcycle model.
Instead there’s a 60-degree V angle with liquid cooling, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, crankpins with a 30-degree offset, and maintenance-free hydraulic lash valve adjusters. Using a version of the Revolution Max 1250 engine that debuted on the Pan America, the Sportster S produces a claimed 120 hp at 7,500 rpm and 94 pound-feet of torque at 6,000 rpm.
Compared to the Pan America’s Revolution Max 1250 Engine, the Sportster’s “T” version has smaller valves and ports and a different combustion chamber shape to increase torque output at low and midrange rpm. H-D says torque is up 10 percent between 3,000–6,000 rpm. Camshaft profile and VVT phasing is also adapted. Airbox volume and velocity stack lengths are changed to suit the Sportster’s low-profile tank. (Kevin Wing/)
Ripping from stoplight to stoplight in a midsummer LA dawn, the engine demonstrates that it shares as little in common with the Sportser’s Evolution engine, as the spec sheet suggests. But in the details it somehow manages to convey that it’s built by the same people who build Big Twins and Evo Sportsters.
The Sportster S’s fueling is just a touch jittery below 2,000 rpm, and on/off throttle response is a bit abrupt, but mentioning these traits is nitpicking. In all other ways the motor is exceptionally refined. Power delivery is supremely linear, and the absence of vibration through the bulk of the rev range, thanks to a 90-degree firing order and primary and secondary balancers, means grabbing another gear rarely seems terribly urgent. The thing is almost eerily smooth. On top of that, it produces so much torque—more than a Panigale V4, actually—and revs so quickly that loafing around in low gear can hardly be considered loafing.
The gearbox is cut from the same cloth; it feels precise and gears engage with little effort. Mated with a supremely light clutch pull, the act of shifting gears is, dare I say it, a rather dainty procedure. However, because the standard feet-forward riding position requires such a long shift linkage, the lever gives the sensation of being “far away” from the gearbox, almost reminiscent of a long-throw shifter in an old muscle car. That said, there’s something characteristically Harley about the feel, which loyalists may appreciate if they notice it at all.
The Sportster S uses the engine as a stressed member. Front frame, midframe, and subframe bolt directly to the engine. No rubber mounting here, thank you very much. (Kevin Wing/)
The way in which rider inputs are transformed into motion further exhibits the new Sportster’s Milwaukee-made DNA. Between the mellow feel of the throttle return spring and the way the ride-by-wire system translates throttle inputs, the engine is nonchalant in the way it goes about its business. It lacks a sportbike’s immediacy at the right grip, but feels consistent with the identity of the motorcycle.
The engine isn’t overwhelmingly characterful or visceral in the style of the old Evolution powertrain. But after some miles in the saddle, one suspects its functionality would soon transform into endearment. Louder pipes might help too, considering the stock exhaust system’s sound doesn’t flaunt the magnitude of the bike’s performance. And on the subject of pipes: At speed, heat management isn’t an issue, but in town, all that thermal energy beneath one’s right thigh is the first reminder that certain sacrifices have been made for the sake of style.
For years, non-Harley riders have been perplexed at Harley’s typical fat grips and chunky nonadjustable levers. On the Sportster S, Harley used conventionally sized items. The levers are adjustable using thumbwheels that sort of resemble revolver cylinders. (Brian J. Nelson/)
Richards says: “We wanted a supersporty, technologically advanced motorcycle that can compete on the world stage with other players out there—in a Harley-Davidson way.”
For decades, Harley-Davidson was a golden goose. It didn’t need to compete with other OEMs. Times have changed. Now, based on its research, Harley is discovering that customers want certain qualities from a motorcycle that they can readily get from other manufacturers. Harley-Davidson can no longer afford to be so insular. And it no longer wants to be.
Trouble is, many H-D diehards see the past as the glory days. Indeed, yesterday clings to the present with golden handcuffs: Harley-Davidson has reliably shipped 40,000–70,000 Sportster units a year for decades.
In 2019, it shipped 46,869 Sportsters globally. For context, in the same year Ducati sold 53,183 motorcycles. That’s a single H-D model, nearly on par with the sales of the entire Ducati lineup. And in 2019, Ducati was experiencing some of its biggest sales numbers, and the Sportster supposedly wasn’t (in the halcyon year of 2007, the Motor Company shipped 72,036 models from the Sportster family). In the US, Harley-Davidson’s piece of the pie was practically the biggest chunk of the entire two-wheeled market. Will a Sportster S filling a radically different role appeal to enough of the other folks to make up the numbers?
The Sportster S uses a radial-mount Brembo caliper and single 320mm front disc. While the brake has good feel and adequate initial bite, ultimate performance is diminished because of the single disc. (Brian J. Nelson/)
This radical departure isn’t just in the engine and the mindset. Harley sprinkled the sort of tech that’s typically reserved for sporting motorcycles throughout the Sportster S. It has fully adjustable Showa suspension, Brembo brakes, a generous sprinkling of magnesium parts, a slipper clutch, and a six-axis IMU managing traction control and cornering ABS.
“If you look back, Harley-Davidson does a lot of incremental technological improvements, but we typically keep them under the cover of the very traditional look,” says Kyle Wick, chief engineer of the middleweight platform. “The outside world tends to perceive that as a lack of engineering prowess or a lack of evolution, yet we do it in a very prescriptive way that maintains the core tenets of our bikes. [The Sportster S and Pan America] have given us the opportunity to say: ‘Maybe we don’t need to keep it under wraps as much anymore.’
There are three preset ride modes (Rain, Road, and Sport) and two customizable modes that allow riders to change the parameters of engine-braking, power delivery, ABS, and traction control. Traction control can be turned off with a button on the right grip. (Kevin Wing/)
In spite of the Sportster S’s overt display of technological know-how, five minutes on the freeway reveal the motorcycle’s limitations. But it’s not Harley’s engineering department that let it down. It’s the form factor.
Hitting a seam in the pavement causes my rear end to fly inches out of the seat. With a paltry 2.0 inches of travel in the rear, the suspension just can’t cope. And because of the feet-forward position, I’m unable to use my legs to remain in charge. For that brief airborne moment, I’m a passenger.
In the twisties it’s the same story. The 3.6 inches of fork travel and 2.0 inches of rear-wheel travel were chosen to give the bike its low look, and while Harley-Davidson may have worked hard to try and make that be adequate, it’s a bumpy, harsh world out there. The Sportster S will almost never do a good job insulating you from it.
Around town, the 59.8-inch wheelbase, 30-degree rake, 160-section front tire, and low center of gravity make U-turns and slow speed maneuvers easy. But 500 pounds stretched across 5 feet of motorcycle is not a formula for agility in corners. Its handling characteristics can most flatteringly be described as “stable.” The feet-forward position locks the rider in as well, so any attempt to shift the center of gravity with your body weight is futile. Pick a line and commit.
Cruise control, dedicated infotainment controls, and menu-control buttons take up significant real estate on the switch gear and make it easy to navigate through the various menus displayed on the 4-inch-round TFT dash. A turn-by-turn map can be displayed on screen through the Harley-Davidson app. (Brian J. Nelson/)
Fully embracing the Sportster S requires accepting the inherent limitations of the overall long-and-low styling goals. That’s all there is to it.
The problem is, accepting the Sportster S’s chassis limitations isn’t so easy when the Revolution Max 1250T engine is such a willing accomplice to mischief. With most versions of the previous Sportster, overall performance was generally lower, but as the chassis and engine were on par with each other, it felt all of a piece. The Revolution Max is just too much of a good thing; a slammed, raked-out cruiser chassis just can’t keep pace.
So why not build a new engine that’s more of a spiritual descendant to its predecessor? Would it be all that bad to keep the pushrods, the 45-degree V, the location of intake/exhaust ports?
“If someone wants what I’m going to call that air-cooled experience,” Richards explains, “we knew they could find that in Softail and Touring, so why not look at other customers who love the brand but don’t see any products that resonate with what they desire in a motorcycle? For a long, long time, the trick with Harley-Davidson was to not evolve. Technologically underneath they were [evolving], but the form factor was standing still. We had to add the capability, a level of capability that probably the ’57 Sportster had over the ’56 K-model.”
Harley’s accessory catalog includes a mid-control conversion kit for $659.95. While it’s helpful for more spirited riding, it results in a cramped seating position. (Kevin Wing/)
When muscling the bike through corners on Angeles Crest Highway in the mountains above Los Angeles, there’s a palpable tension between form and function, between past and present, between engineers openly displaying the might of their abilities and designers expressing the heritage of the brand by using modern cues. After a couple hours in the saddle, my legs begin to ache and I grow frustrated that I can’t sling the thing through corners as efficiently and confidently as I’d like. I confess it’s not always an easy tension.
But for previous-gen Sportster riders, the Sportster S will be a revelation. For riders accustomed to sportier motorcycles, it’s a promise that The Motor Company can, and likely will soon, build a Harley-Davidson that may, perhaps for the first time, tempt them to put one in their garage.
“This isn’t replacing the Sportster; it’s raising the bar on the Sportster,” Wick says. “It’s an addition. If you look at the engine and what it delivers, you can’t get this somewhere else in our lineup. We’re always going to have diehards and we’ll do everything we can to keep them happy too, but we’re also looking forward to future opportunities.”
Harley keeps touting that it’s “putting the sport back in Sportster,” so it was ironic that Sport ride mode on my test unit mysteriously vanished from the display. After restarting the bike several times, Sport mode reappeared. Our test bikes were preproduction models, so electronic niggles will likely be hammered out on production models. (Kevin Wing/)
Harley-Davidson has already begun teasing a more classically designed Sportster, and conversations with brand representatives suggest that a streetfighter or naked bike will all be part of the Sportster family in the not-so-distant future. And who knows what else? Part of the intention of the three-piece frame design is that it is modular, enabling H-D to deliver motorcycles with vastly different geometries and chassis designs.
By raising the bar, Harley-Davidson is exposing the shield. It’s making itself vulnerable by severing the hardwired connection to a motorcycle that’s been a part of the American motorcycling landscape for six decades. By introducing the world to the Sportster S—by making this bike the new Sportster—Harley is making it a symbol. It’s a symbol of a brand striving for technological excellence, a brand aware that it can no longer be an island unto itself, a brand that knows its past can never die if its future is assured. The 2021 Sportster S is that assurance.
The engine says, “Yes, I’m ready to go fast.” Everything else says, “Let’s not get too hasty.” While the performance ceiling is far above that of its predecessor, ergos and chassis geometry limit confidence. (Kevin Wing/)
A 29.6-inch seat height and a 3.1-gallon tank make for accessible ergos on paper, but a long stretch to the bars to get that cruiser look could be a potential issue for smaller riders. (Kevin Wing/)
Helmet: Arai Defiant-X
Jacket: Pagnol M1
Pants: Rokker RokkerTech Raw Slim Jeans
Boots: Dainese Axial D1 Air
Gloves: Velomacchi Speedway Motorcycle Gloves
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S Price and Specifications
DOHC, liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-twin w/ variable valve timing
BORE X STROKE
105.0 x 72.3mm
120 hp @ 7,500 rpm
94 lb.-ft. @ 6,000 rpm
EFI w/ 50mm throttle bodies; ride-by-wire
Wet, multiplate assist and slip
Steel trellis frame w/ stamped, cast, and forged junctions, and forged aluminum mid-structure
Fully adjustable Showa 43mm inverted; 3.6 in. travel
Fully adjustable Showa monoshock; 2.0 in. travel
Radially mounted Brembo monoblock 4-piston calipers, single 320mm disc w/ Cornering ABS
Brembo 1-piston floating caliper, 260mm disc w/ Cornering ABS
Cast aluminum; 17 x 4.5 in. / 16 x 5.0 in.
Dunlop Harley-Davidson Series Radials; 160/70R-17 / 180/70R-16
CLAIMED CURB WEIGHT
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