BARRIE, Ontario – We were recently invited to take part in a selective, socially distanced media ride for the introduction of the all-new 2021 Sportster S. There’s little question that the Sportster carries a great deal of importance for Harley-Davidson. In production since 1957, it is the legendary marque’s longest-running model. Aside from the short-lived Street lineup, the Sportster has also been the most financially accessible. It is likely responsible for bringing more riders into the brand than any other since its inception. Similarly to how an actor can be typecast for a successful role, being so well known for something in the eyes of the public can come with its fair share of challenges. How do you attract a new generation of riders without alienating the old ones?
The Sportster has become synonymous with Harley-Davidson, and as such many define the company by the limitations of its outdated air-cooled 45-degree V-twin and aging chassis. So where do they go from here? The LiveWire has proven that Harley can make a modern electric motorcycle while the Pan America is proof that they can successfully make a competitive adventure bike. But can Harley make a better Sportster? Evidently, yes they can.
Pricing starts at $17,999 for Vivid Black but opting for either Midnight Crimson or Stone Washed White Pearl will set you back another $450.
Get your motor running
During the product presentation for the 2021 Sportster S media launch, it was shared that although a great deal of field research was done, Pan America 1250 Special was the first Harley designed 100 percent in the digital realm. The Sportster S makes use of that 1,252cc Revolution Max engine but has a lower output of 121 hp at 7,500 rpm and 94 lb-ft of torque at 6,000 rpm compared to the Pan Am’s 150 hp. It’s also a belt drive versus chain drive.
The new engine is a liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin with double overhead cams, a 90-degree firing order, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust, dual spark plugs per cylinder, a dry sump oil system and a 12:1 compression ratio. The cam profile and valve phasing were optimized for strong acceleration off the line and through the mid-range, broadening the powerband and increasing efficiency. Primary and secondary balancers were incorporated to improve sound quality and reduce vibration. The engine was designed to be narrow and keep weight low for rider comfort and improved handling. Materials such as nickel silicon carbide and lightweight magnesium were used to keep weight down. The bike’s claimed curb weight is 228 kg (502 lb).
Not just designed for propulsion, the engine is also a structural component meant to lower weight and increase rigidity. Aesthetically, the new Sportster is a bit of a mashup, incorporating aspects of Harley’s XR750, Forty-Eight and Fat Bob, but also elements from various other genres. Crouched and powerful looking, it has been designed around the engine. A mixture of textures, colours and themes inspired by custom show bikes, it features a large Bobber front tire, a modern pill-shaped Daymaker LED headlight, and a high mounted two-into-one-into-two exhaust inspired by classic flat trackers. The license plate holder and taillight assembly extend from the side of the swingarm for a clean, custom look. If you ask me, it works.
So, did you get to ride it, or…?
Straddling the bike is an easy task thanks to the 75 cm (29.6 in) seat height. Bars and forward mounted foot pegs are easily within reach for most riders. Mid-mounted controls are optional if you favour a more athletic riding position, but would likely be too cramped for me. The standard riding position and fat tires did not inspire confidence. Made specifically for Harley-Davidson, the Dunlop rubber (160/70R-17 front, 180/70R-16 rear) provides a beefy look, but along with ergonomics and chassis geometry, they take some seat time to get comfortable before throwing the bike over into turns. I felt like Christian Bale’s Dark Knight version of Batman riding the Batpod at first, but it became more intuitive the longer I rode.
Handlebars and controls will feel foreign to traditional Hog riders. Grips are narrower and textured, while the turn signal function is housed in a small, single metric button operated by the left thumb. It feels flimsy surrounded by otherwise high material quality and is located perilously close to the horn button. As someone who wears 2XL gloves (I’m not bragging), the lever for the wet slipper clutch felt a bit far out of reach. Action was smooth, deliberate, and predictable though. The same goes for the Brembo brakes consisting of a radially mounted, monoblock, 4-piston caliper up front and a floating, single piston caliper in the rear.
Similarly to the Pan America, the engine doesn’t sound overly intriguing at idle, but the exhaust note does have a nice characteristic when being wound up or during downshifts. Throttle response feels ever so finnicky at the onset, but acceleration is robust once you roll back your wrist. This engine sings and wants to pull hard in every gear.
The 30-degree rake and low centre of gravity made slower maneuvers and U-turns surprisingly easy during our ride-by photo sessions, however the 7.8 cm (3.1 in) ground clearance and 34-degree lean angle mean that if you ride even remotely enthusiastically, you’d better be prepared to scrape some pegs.
My biggest gripe would unquestionably have to be the location of the rear cylinder head and its proximity to the seat. The exhaust pipe features a heat shield, but the cylinder heads do not. Leg position will vary based on height and stature as well as peg placement, but my thighs constantly coming in contact with a scalding hot engine was not the most enjoyable aspect of the experience.
Fuel economy is rated at 4.8 L/100 km (49 mpg). Premium fuel is recommended for the 11.7 L tank, but anti-knock sensors will accommodate regular octane if you’re in a jam and can’t find the good stuff. Our riding route was 51.4 km to the lunch spot, which included lots of back and forth for photo passes. Experiencing each of the various modes while riding on a mixture of secondary two-lane roads and a blast on the highway back to the hotel, I pulled into the parking lot on fumes.
Given that the chassis was designed to be light, compact, and rigid, suspension is definitely on the firmer side. And so is the seat. Unfortunately, the stock riding position doesn’t really allow you to brace yourself for bumps by using your legs to absorb impact, but the suspension is adjustable. The front setup features a 43 mm inverted fork with compression, rebound and spring preload adjustability, with a linkage-mounted, piggyback monoshock with compression, rebound and hydraulic spring preload adjustability in the rear operated by a knob beside the seat and another one underneath.
Riding modes make a noticeable difference to performance, impacting throttle response, engine braking, traction control and ABS intervention. Options are Road, Sport, or Rain, with the ability to choose and save a profile using ad hoc characteristics. Road is the default setting in other parts of the world, however in the North American market settings remain in whichever mode you last used so you don’t have to select Sport every time you get on the bike if that’s what you prefer. There are three levels of intervention, which can be adjusted or disabled. A six-axis Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) adjusts throttle and braking inputs based on setting and corner angle. A real wheel lift system also mitigates wheel hopping on heavy braking or deceleration.
Instrumentation and Infotainment
The Sportster S gets a high contrast, non-reflective 4-inch TFT display that features a speedometer, tachometer, gear position indicator, odometer, fuel gauge, clock, trip meter, ambient temperature gauge (with low temperature alert), side stand and tip over alert, a cruise control icon, and range to empty countdown. The tach and speedometer are prominently positioned at the top and easy to read, however I had to squint to see the clock. A large portion of the display is taken up by a bar and shield logo at the bottom, which could have otherwise been used to prioritize important information.
The system is Bluetooth capable with the ability to listen to music and answer calls, however it must be paired though a headset and your smartphone using the H-D App. Ditto for the GPS navigation system which doesn’t feature a receiver, but routes can be saved to memory in case cell coverage is lost.
Accessories and customization
Personalization is a huge part of the Harley ownership experience, particularly when it comes to the Sportster. The S, while no doubt an improvement in a great many ways, doesn’t as easily lend itself to the existing chopper or bobber aesthetics that many Sportster owners gravitate towards, so I’m interested to see how the new model is modified by owners. The Motor Company has been tight lipped about upcoming products, but the Pan Am and Sportster S are no doubt just the beginning for the Revolution engine platform, so we may see more traditional designs in the future. The initial accessory catalogue features solo seat upgrade options, as well as pillion seating and foot pegs, tail bags, the aforementioned mid-control conversion kit, a quick release detachable windshield, and hand grips.
The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is a unique and impressive machine. It’s an imposing and atypical motorcycle from a company that has long rested on its heritage. Featuring a modern, immensely enjoyable engine with variable riding modes, and seamlessly integrated technology, the S is a vast departure from the longstanding Sportster formula. Harley-Davidson spends a lot of time looking back, but the Sportster S is proof that it can also take a bold step into the future.