Comparo – Honda Aero 750 vs Harley Davidson 883 Sportster

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Words: Kevin Rosenthall (aka Stylz) Photos: Mr. Seck

Aero and Sporty were Kevin’s for the week.

So here we are in the spring of 2005, very timely, telling you all about two bikes that were new in 2004 when we actually tested them. Well, better late than never I guess, and thankfully changes for 2005 are limited: new colour schemes, and the Sportster getting an upgraded headlamp, and slightly stiffened rear end.

So that puts us back in the clear then. Sort of …

THE BLIND DATE

It’s always a nervous thing, going out to meet your blind date, wondering how she’ll look or what she’ll be like – or indeed, whether she’ll even like you! I hate that. But at least in this case I’d seen plenty of front, side and rearview pictures on the Internet beforehand.

Besides, me being a cruiser guy, they both looked pretty good, and to make it fun, I was getting them both together – so as long as we could all get along, I was in for an interesting week!

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Mr. Rosenthall’s idea of a good night out wasn’t what Aero had in mind .. Photo: Kevin Rosenthall

The Aero is the replacement for the very popular, but now discontinued, 750 A.C.E. It positions itself as an entry-level cruiser, with the more classic styling of deep fenders, fat tires, wide bars and an all-round chunky appearance.

Unlike the A.C.E. it replaces, the Aero comes with a shaft final drive, one carb instead of two and a seat height that’s even lower (now a remarkably short 25.9”). Fit and finish is good, and performance-chrome* abounds.

*(shiny metal-like surface; lightweight, aiding acceleration and handling; syn. see shiny plastic).

The motor gets a boost in compression, although max power is down by 5hp to a rather low 40hp. Honda have retuned it though, for more off-idle response, helped by the single carb – an asset at low rpms, but restricts the performance higher up. The motor’s solidly mounted in the frame, with vibration-limitation offered by rubber mounting the bars and footpegs.

Taking a sly peep at Sporty’s push-rods didn’t help either …

For 2005, the Aero is now also joined by the 750 Spirit, which was dropped from the lineup last year, before being re-introduced. The Spirit differs itself mainly in the styling side of things – which is more aggressive – but also retains the chain drive and twin carbs, and is a chunk lighter to boot.

The new Sportster 883 (along with all the other Sportsters) gets huge changes, including a much called-for rubber mounting system to keep its inherent vibration at bay. Along with the new mounts also comes a new frame – which Harley claims to be 26% stiffer than the previous one.

It also spent some time at the gym, and looks significantly beefed-up, thanks to a bigger 17-litre tank and 20 mm fatter rear tire. Restyled headers and repositioning of oil and battery compartments – and respective covers – work really well too, and result in something looking more like a Dyna Low Rider than a Sportster.

Things got more interesting when bbb was invited along for a foursome …

On the downside, many of the shiny bits are polished aluminum, not chrome, so stock up on that polish. You also get zero onboard storage, and the speedo only reads metric – so jaunts south of the 49th will require mental math.

Both bikes are each company’s middleweight offering for the new, budget conscious, or height-challenged rider. Not as exciting, perhaps, as the spate of two-litre cruiser releases of late, but a relevant and important category nonetheless (and still way cooler than a scooter – Mad Bastard or otherwise).

THE BIG DATE

MOTORS

Although, while admiring Aero’s arse, he noticed that (s)he had a rather large shaft …

The Aero fires up to a surprisingly throaty idle for a stock system, no doubt helped by the single-pin crankshaft. Throttle response is good and immediate, with power delivery being remarkably constant throughout each gear, save for some flatness at the very top.

Honda’s re-working of the mill compensates nicely for the power-robbing shaft drive, and the Aero delivers a punchy and spirited performance, proving to be pleasantly peppy in the city. Here, you can happily jackrabbit from light to light, and take advantage of traffic pockets with ease. A fast-and-furious Neon took me on, and got nowhere.

As with most things in life, there are tradeoffs; geared and tuned for low-end grunt, anything above 100 km/h and the Aero becomes damned buzzy, with blurry mirrors and hands and feet becoming increasingly tingly with every km.

Stationary and slow motion gear changes between first and second were sometimes difficult, but the bike shifts nicely otherwise. The clutch on our tester engaged near the end of the lever throw, so was very quick, and clutchless shifts from third and up proved to be very smooth and easy.

Sporty just looked dashing in the moonlight. Okay, I’m out of witty comments, back to the standard stuff – ‘arris

In contrast, the Sportster idles rather lumpily (yep, it’s a Harley), but entertainingly so. This settles down quite nicely once you’re in motion, and at speed, the motor growls, accelerates smoothly, and offers satisfying roll-on power when asked. But there’s this peculiar rough spot in the rev range, where vibration becomes very pronounced. It’s curious, but not uncomfortable.

With regards to the new rubber mounts on the Sportster, there’s nothing to report other than there’s nothing to report. The vibration angst the previous incarnation elicited is pleasantly gone.

Getting on the throttle, and the Sportster pulls happily, but get used to a bit of latency there, as there’s a slight delay between throttle application and engine response. Power delivery of the claimed 53 hp is not as linear as with the Aero either, so you really want to be at the right RPM (which is guesswork since there’s no tach) for maximum punch.

The gearbox is precise and clean, just no pussyfooting around with this one; deliberate firm shifts are in order. Handlebar lever resistance has been reduced, but you still won’t want to sit out a full red light with clutch in hand.

Sportster has more umph up top, but will get vague if you wick it up too much.

On CMG’s closed-course test track, both bikes visited 160 km/h, but with neither was this particularly comfortable or confidence inspiring. With the Aero, you really have to want it, and put in the time waiting for it, all the while taking a damn good wind beating.

The Sportster clearly had the power to do more; I just didn’t feel safe past there, as the feet-forward seating position starts to work against you as the speed rises. On heavy acceleration and/or at high speeds, the wind pressure pushes your feet off the pegs and feedback gets vague. As a result, I ran out of confidence much earlier than what the bike was probably capable of.

Off the line, both bikes are pretty even up to 100 km/h, but the Sportster demonstrates clear superiority in 100km/h+ roll-ons.

CHASSIS

Aero handles happily at low speed, but gets twitchy as it increases.

Aero steering is super light, and very steady. At high speed, however, the front-end becomes a bit twitchy, but with no wind protection and wide handlebars that may transmit the rider buffeting, it’s hard to say what’s due to what.

The bike’s balance is otherwise good – riding through town, in stop-and-go traffic, I rarely had to take my feet off the pegs. Even decelerating from 100km/h down to 20km/h – with no hands on the bars – the Aero will coast easily and effortlessly without complaint. This is all no doubt thanks to the subterranean centre of gravity and long wheelbase.

The handlebars look good, but are probably too wide for short arms, and are so low and swept-back that my knees got in the way of lock-to-lock turning. As a result, it’s somewhat awkward while making sharp corners at low speeds, and forget about quick u-turns; the Aero’s a three-point-turn Winnebago.

View of bbb on the Vulcan 2000 via the Aero.

The suspension is generally smooth, but too mushy come hard cornering. On uneven surfaces, should you hit any kind of bump, you must accept your fate – a painful launch into the air. The adjustable rear spring preload offers some remedy, but not much, and your feet are sufficiently far forward that you can’t rise up off the seat at all. Good fun … not. Spirited cornering can also be problematic, and reveals the downside to the Aero’s low stance – boot heels and foot pegs scrape way too soon.

In contrast, the Sportster’s suspension is much steadier and firmer than the Aero’s, and not as easily unseated under load. It also gives you full confidence in the twisties, and begs for more. Despite being lowered, there’s substantially more lean clearance than the Honda as well.

View of bbb on the Vulcan 2000 via the Sportster.

Where the Sportster suffers to the Aero is the additional effort required to turn it – steering is considerably heavier, no doubt due in part to the narrower bars, so flicking into turns requires a full body effort.

Rubbing off speed is reasonably easy and effective on both, though significant lever squeezing is required to get the single discs set-ups up front to haul everything to a stop.

The Aero’s rear drum locks up way too easily however, and is useless for anything other than parking lot and slow speed control. I must confess though, that I actually enjoyed this after a while – sliding to a stop all over the place (once I’d got over the initial shock).

This may not have been the fault of the brake alone, as the Aero comes fitted with rather under whelming Dunlops, which also proved to be a bit jittery when leaned over. If this bike were to be my mainstay, I’d be upgrading to something stickier.

In contrast, the Sportster’s rear brake offers a lot more stopping power before locking up … but, my oh my, when and if it does, boy does it go squirrelly on you. Otherwise, braking action is immediate, the front and rear discs grabbing and rubbing off speed quickly.

THE RELATIONSHIP

COMFORT

That seat ain’t as comfy as it looks.

Both bikes are a pain in the ass – literally. The seats look sweet, but man, do they get unpleasant after a while. The Aero might offer better comfort for shorter inseams and folk with padded butts, but it was unkind to skinny old me. The passenger perch on the Aero is considerably more comfortable than that of the Sportster, and is even removable should you feel so inclined.

Taller riders will find the Aero foot position cramped, but some relief can be had by sitting back on the passenger pillion, or by even hooking your boot heels onto the passenger pegs for a bit.

The Sportster’s straight arms and legs position works pretty well, and the passenger pegs are brilliantly located as a secondary foot position – not to mention lifesavers for coping with the impossibly nasty seat; Mr. Seck and I even speculated about mounting an alternate set of foot controls there. If you actually have a life, however, and thus a passenger, all these remedies are for naught.

FUEL

Both bikes can do the distance.Photo: Kevin Rosenthall

Both bikes are decent for distance. The Aero range averaged 224 kms before hitting reserve, and happily drinks whatever grade of gas you put in it … so long as it’s 86 octane or higher.

Thanks to its enlarged tank, the Sportster averaged 275 kms before reserve, which is quite usable, and you certainly won’t be the one holding up your riding group (unless your group includes Peter Hoogeveen, Bobb Todd, or Thane Silliker, perhaps).

BTW, I don’t understand gas caps that come off in your hand on both bikes. Once it’s free of the bike, now what? It’s shiny chrome, so you don’t want to set it down upside down, and you don’t want to set it right side up lest it pick up dirt.

DAGNABIT

Oh dear – LHS cover didn’t fare well after its high speed get-off.

A fly in the ointment of an otherwise positive Sportster experience: the left side battery cover fell off, at speed. Had it not been for me on the Aero following Mr. Seck on the Sportster at the time, we wouldn’t even have noticed.

The clips that hold that cover on are very precarious and not confidence inspiring. Shades of the infamous Harley mystique? Shame really.

PARTING WORDS

The bikes are really quite different, and will appeal to different riders – the relaxed will prefer the Aero; the feisty, the Sportster. Whereas the Aero personifies a long, cushy Cadillac (even despite uncomfortable vibrations), the Sportster personifies a snub-nosed, slammed Camaro.

I was setting up this shot, and suddenly, perched atop, there was a drunk giggly girl (whose email address I made sure I took). (KR)Photo: Kevin Rosenthall

Both are fun rides, and do the job well. On a 500+ km day accompanying bbb on the 2000cc Vulcan, drag racing aside, they kept up just fine. The prospect of either bike – in stock seating form – on a long trip, and especially if carrying a passenger, is death though.

Beginners and shorties can work with either bike, but will find the Aero easier to operate and to maneuver around in the slow stuff. In a word, the Aero is ‘nice’. It looks nice, rides nice, and feels nice. That sounds a bit bland, and, well, it is. But, it is nice.

At the end of the day, for me, the Sportster was simply more fun. Actually, it was way more fun, thanks mainly to its characterful motor and ability to tackle the twisties! This is a big surprise, but my stint with the Sportster has really changed my perceptions of it. You can always tell a preference best when it’s a gut choice – when I was doing the photo shoot/ride with Mr. Seck, we both kept trying to justify why we should have the Sportster for the next leg.

Maybe for a single guy like me the biggest draw is the different response you get from the public when astride a Harley-Davidson. More riders wave back, more people stop to talk about it and, honestly, girls just come out from everywhere.


SIDE NOTE – SPORTSTER WINDSHIELD

Sporty avec screen.Photo: Kevin Rosenthall

Our tester Sportster came equipped with a quick-detach Harley-Davidson windshield. The Aero didn’t, so, for the purposes of a fairer comparo, this windshield was removed.

The quick release windshield is very much that, quick release. Four very (too?) easy to actuate clamps grab onto the fork upper tubes, and that’s it. Nothing to install ahead of time, and no unsightly bits left when the windshield is off.

The chrome finish on it is extremely good, and as far as these things go, is very pretty. I personally found the ride more enjoyable without it, as the subsequent buffeting at speed was headache-inducing for me with my full-face helmet.


COMPARITOR

Specifications

Honda 750 Aero Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster Custom Comments

MSRP

$8,499.00 $10,359.00 – $11,404.00
There’s about $2K difference there, but what price for character?

Displacement

745 cc 883 cc
The Sportster has an extra 138 cc.

Engine type

52 degree V-Twin, liquid-cooled, SOHC. V-Twin, air-cooled, push-rod.
Sportster motor is less advanced but retains that ‘je ne sais quoi’.

Carburetion

Single 34 mm CV Single 40 mm CV
Single carbs are the order of the day.

Final drive

5-speed, shaft-drive 5-speed, belt-drive
Both final drives are minimal maintenance.

Tires, front

120/90-17 M90-21
21″ front wheels are usually reserved for dirt bikes.

Tires, rear

160/80-15 150/80-16

Brakes, front

Single 296 mm discs with twin-piston caliper Single 292 mm disc with twin-piston caliper

Front brakes are similar, but for some reason Honda reckon that a drum will suffice for the rear.

Brakes, rear

180 mm drum Single 292 mm disc

Seat height

658 mm (25.9″) 719 mm (28.3″)
The Aero goes super low.

Wheelbase

1638 mm (64.5″) 1534 mm (60.4″)
… and super long (= good stability, but bad slow-speed maneuverability)

Dry weight
(claimed)

236 Kg (519 lbs) (claimed) 253 Kg (558 lbs) (claimed)
The Aero feels much lighter than the 40lbs difference would suggest – likely thanks to its lower centre of gravity

Colours

Candy Red, Black/Metallic Silver, Black/Candy Red, Black/Pearl Blue and Black. Vivid black, brilliant silver pearl, sierra red pearl, black cherry pearl, glacier white pearl, rich sunglo blue, yellow pearl, two-tone rich sunglo blue and chopper blue pearl, two-tone chopper blue pearl and brilliant silver pearl, two-tone sierra red pearl and brilliant silver pearl.
You know you’re in the cruiser world when you have this many colour options.
Warranty
12 months
Unlimited km

24 months
Unlimited km

The Harley warranty’s gotta add to the value.

Performance

Honda 750 Aero Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster Custom Comments

Horsepower
(crank – claimed)

40 hp @ 5,000 rpm
53 hp @ 6,000 rpm

You can see that the Aero’s tuned for low-down grunt. The Sportster’s additional 138 ccs gives it the higher figures.

Torque
(claimed)

45 ftlb @ 3,000 rpm
51 ftlb @ 4,300 rpm
Fuel economy

19.9 km/l
5.03L/100 km

18.9 km/l
5.29L/100 km

Not much in it, but with the new 17 litre tank, the Sportster now has some decent range.

Tank capacity
14 litres
17 litres
Fuel range
279 km (224 km to reserve)
321 km (275 km to reserve)

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