SPLIT, CROATIA—There’s a perverse pleasure in the brutalization of foot pegs. For pure speed, the 27 degrees of ground clearance offered by the 2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster isn’t ideal, and you might think it would limit one’s enjoyment of some of the best roads on the planet. But it did not, and the tortured gouging of metal feeler on bitumen kicked up satisfying sparks for the length of Croatia’s mountain roads.
Despite the name, the Sportster was never intended to be a sport bike. Instead, the Sportster is aimed at providing affordable access to Harley-Davidson’s cool factor. This year, the Motor Company adds two new(ish) models to the lineup of a bike they claim is the most customized motorcycle in the world.
The $12,999 48 Special is almost identical to the 48 from last year, and is the identical price. It gets tall-boy handlebars, 1970’s inspired tank graphics and a whole lot of chrome engine trim. The 48’s forward-mounted footpegs and fat front tire, as well as those tall-boy handlebars, give it an ultra-tough persona and road presence.
The $11,999 Iron 1200 takes the Iron 883 edition of the Sportster and adds a 1200 cc engine for 30 per cent more torque. It has mid-mounted pegs, which increase control and makes it more comfortable to ride, and a blacked-out engine and a small bikini fairing over the headlight.
Ride and Handling
The roads here in Croatia are almost entirely new — probably because the whole country had to be rebuilt after an ugly civil war in the 1990s. They also wind their way from the coast, up and over a steep mountain range, meaning our introduction to the new Sportsters came on some of the most interesting, twisty, and exciting roads in the world.
In the corners, the differences in peg position, handlebar height and front tire width showed themselves. The Iron 1200 has a 100/90B19 57H front tire. It’s a bigger wheel diameter but smaller sidewall than the 48 Special’s 130/90B16 73H, and it’s also narrower. With mid-mounted foot pegs, and slightly lower bars, the 1200 is quicker to turn in than the 48.
In contrast, the 48 gains more ground clearance from those forward-mounted pegs, but it’s harder to muscle into the corner. Mid-corner, the 48 feels more stable, but it’s the rear, not the front, that felt a little less composed on the 1200. That’s counter-intuitive, because the only geometric differences are at the front. I think it’s to do with the staggered wheel sizes: the 1200 puts you more on your backside in corners than the 48.
With new pavement and mild winters, the Sportsters were only tested for ride comfort on one narrow stretch of roadwork. There, they performed admirably, but a speed bump in the hotel parking lot sent a shooting pain through my lower back as the dual-shock rear suspension ran quickly out of travel.
With such a low-slung engine and chassis, the Sportster’s 256 kg wet weight isn’t readily apparent in the corners. It’s only when you lean hard on the single disc brake at the front that you realize how much weight is underneath you. ABS is optional, and I think would be a worthwhile addition to a braking system that is otherwise underpowered. Why? Because having a limp lever can make you grab at it harder, and that can lock a tire.
That 1,202 cc Evolution V-twin fitted to both units puts out about 65 hp and 73 lbs.-ft. of torque, all in a fairly narrow band from about the 3,500 rpm mark and up. I consistently found myself running into the limiter on these bikes, with the redline coming around 6,000 rpm. It takes a bit of mental adjustment to remember to keep the revs in that 3,500 to 5,500 region, as well as to remember that there are only five gears.
Despite the limited rev range, the Sportster engine delivers solid, smooth power delivery up beyond highway speeds, and isn’t phased by steep ascents. There’s a rubber-buffered engine mount rod at the front of the engine that attaches at the right side, and runs right through to the far left before mounting to the frame cradle. That set-up smooths out the side-to-side vibrations and shudders of the engine without hiding them entirely. You can keep the Harley-Davidson stop-light vibrato, and also keep your teeth.
The clutch is light to operate, but the gear lever requires assertive inputs before it’s persuaded to grab the next gear. When it does, a satisfying mechanical thunk is your reward.
The Iron 1200 gets a thicker, softer seat than the 48, and its 735-mm seat height is 30 mm higher than the 48 as a result. The mid-mounted footpegs and lower, farther-back handlebars make for a more comfortable riding position overall, and more control. Unfortunately, the fashion-forward headlight fairing generates buffeting — at least for my 5-foot-6 frame — that makes it a lot less comfortable at highway speeds than I find the 48.
The higher bars and forward pegs are a little more awkward for me, but they’re accompanied by a surprising lack of wind turbulence for a naked bike. My pick for best option out of these two? Get the Sportster 1200 and get rid of the bikini fairing.
Colours and Customization
Riding differences between the Iron 1200 and 48 Special are subtle enough that the decision on which of the two to buy will likely come down to aesthetics, and price.
The blacked-out engine, wheels and exhaust of the Iron 1200 can be paired with three different tank colours: Vivid Black, Twisted Cherry and Billiard White. All three get high-contrast 1970s-style graphics.
Vivid Black and Billiard White are also available on the 48 Special, but its red is Wicked Red, not Twisted Cherry. Again, they all get the ’70s-style graphics. The 48 gets chrome where the Sportster gets black paint.
My favourite paint is white, but your mileage will likely vary.
Which Sportster is Best?
This is where things get difficult. In true H-D fashion, the Sportster contains a list of sub-models and custom options that will make your head spin.
These are only two of the eight Sportster models available. Two of them, the Iron 883 and Superlow, get the 883 cc Evolution engine, so if you’ve read this far we can consider those off your list. The rest include the sportier Roadster, the 1200 Custom and two other 48 editions: the 48 and the 115th Anniversary 48.
If the mid-mount pegs and sportier riding of the Iron 1200 ridden here appeal to you, the Roadster is probably something you might want to check out. Its lower handlebars, twin-disc front brakes and larger rear tire make it a proper sporty Sportster.
After that, the decision is purely cosmetic. Nothing is significantly different from one Sportster to another, and indeed, the Sportster itself has been largely unchanged for more than a decade.
This bike exists in a rare industry vacuum, occupying a genre all of its own. Not really a cruiser, not at all a standard, and certainly not easily defined.
It’s a Sportster, and that’s really all there is to it.
Pricing: 2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster Line-Up
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 115th Anniversary 48: $12,999