When the Harley-Davidson Sportster first debuted in 1957, it was the revvy lightweight bike with a then high-tech OHV motor that could slice and dice where the big cruisers could not. Sportsters worked their way into many of motorcycling’s niches, from touring to dirt riding to hill climbing to streamliners flying down the salts of Bonneville at 250 plus. But as time went on, design and technology boosted the big-inch brawlers to the point where the once lithe Sportsters became the low-powered Budget Bike, the Beginner Harley, the entry-level machine you eventually sold to move up to a Dyna, Softail or Electra Glide.
As the decades have rolled by, the Sportster (or whatever they’ve been calling it recently) has remained in the lineup; budget-friendly, non-threatening, even stylish as of late. It just wasn’t that fast any more.
That all just changed.
The Motor Company, in another hard push on the tiller, pulled the covers off the new Sportster S, an all-new, modernized, hot-rodded, liquid-cooled 1,252cc scorcher that features the company’s new Revolution Max motor. “This new architecture really knocks down some of the fences that we had, kind of untied out hands,” Brad Richards, VP of Styling and Design said in the company’s unveiling video. Indeed, the new bike has literally no stylistic or mechanical resemblance to any previous generation of Sportster. “There was nothing that was constraining our imagination,” Chief Engineer Mike Carlin said in the video. Richards added that in all the Harleys he’s worked on, the new Sportster had the fewest changes from original design idea to production form. And yet, some winks to the past were integrated, such as the XR750-style tail section.
And truly, there are so many big changes: The all-new frame is a stressed member since the new engine’s vibration is well-tamed. The 43mm inverted Showa fork features full-on tweaking controls for rebound, preload and compression, something pretty much new to Sportsters (and most Harleys), while the Showa back end is regulated by an equally adjustable monoshock. Twin stylized street-scrambler high-mount exhaust pipes exit near the riders’ right bum and an oval multi-reflector LED headlight illuminates the way forward. And in another first for Sportsters, there are six cogs in the gearbox. A 17-inch 160-sized tire in front and a 180-section 16-incher out back roll over crumbling urban infrastructure while ABS brakes with one rotor on each wheel slow down the momentum of the 502-pound machine when it’s filled with 3 gallons of fuel. The single “instrument” is a round nacelle with a comprehensive 4-inch LCD screen including GPS. There are ride modes to choose from, and cornering ABS. And an app, of course.
And while all of that clearly signals a new era for the evergreen Sportsters, there are definitely some key differences in the power output numbers versus the RevMax-powered Pan America.
While the Pan America is said to make 150 ponies and 94 pound-feet of torque, the Sportster S won’t run quite as hot, putting out 121 horses and 92 ticks of twist. Those are not insignificant numbers and have a clear emphasis on torque, and if you’re put off by H-D not bottling 150 ponies into a Sportster, which previously made less than 70 in 1,200cc air-cooled form, most sane people would agree that all that juice might be a little much for this more urban-focused mount. Even the hotted-up XR1200R EFI version barely made 80hp, and it didn’t redline anywhere near the 9,500rpm mark of the new bike. This is a whole new kind of Harley experience, and one that’s going to start at $14,999.
For what it’s worth, the Sportster S will top out at the same maximum velocity – 137mph – as the Pan America. Why the power cut? The Sportster S is missing the fancy (and likely costly) variable cam timing since it is unlikely to be pulling around a rider, passenger, three panniers stuffed with gear and 50 pounds of aftermarket farkles towards a dusty horizon. [Edit: H-D confirms it does have variable valve timing. Early indications were it did not]. If anything, it’ll get stripped and simplified like many Sportsters do, and live life navigating urban jungles. Still, it does include the hydraulic valve adjusters of the PA, so look forward to less maintenance with this plant.
In talking with H-D Marketing manager Paul James at the Pan America launch event in April, he declined to comment on the fate of the long-awaited Bronx streetfighter that was strongly inferred pre-pandemic in the same breath with the Pan America, so this is apparently the answer.
Under new CEO Jochen Zeitz’s continued implementation of the so-called Hardwire strategy, it’s clear Harley is looking to burnish beloved legacy nameplates for new products in an effort to streamline model lines, while also branching out with new creations for new markets like the Pan America ADV, LiveWire electric and Serial 1 electric bicycles. Bronx no more? We can always hope. It’s a great name for a bike.
What will become of the now seemingly ancient-tech pushrod Sportsters? Will they continue on for a while until they are sold through or sales become unsustainable, and then become collector bikes to be trotted out at vintage meets and poker runs? Maybe that dusty old 883 languishing in your garage just went up in value? Harley wasn’t clear about their fate, but VP Richards does say that “there will be future models that will definitely tap into the more classic factors of Sportster.” So while this may herald the end of the nearly 65-year run for air-cooled Sporties, the line will continue on into the future, a future it now appears to be well-suited for.