Quick Spin: 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

The Sportster, as we know it, is dead. Long live the Sportster. (And it will live on in the form of the Iron 883, Iron 1200, Forty-Eight…) There’s a new Sportster in town: the Sportster S.

To say this bike is controversial would be like saying the ocean is a little damp. Some Harley owners already don’t consider the Sportster to be a “real” Harley, even though the model goes all the way back to 1957. Now, there are many who say the all-new Sportster S isn’t a real Sportster, let alone a real Harley.

Honestly, there’s some truth to that. It’s nothing like the outgoing Sportster except for its small size. Its Revolution Max 1250T engine is the same one in the much larger Pan America (more on that in our upcoming dual-sport roundup), and is by far the most modern engine to ever appear in a Sportster. “Modern” is the name of the Sportster S game, from its rectangular LED headlight to the oversized high-mount exhaust, which evokes the Indian FTR 1200 in my mind. The engine is closer to the one from the V-Rod than the Iron 1200. This is not your father’s Oldsmobile, or Sportster, for that matter.

Moving Forward

“Real” or not, the important question is what is it like to ride? At IMS Outdoors, I got to find out. My pure chance riding partner, Paul, and I rode the same two bikes. One had the standard forward foot controls. The other had the optional center controls. Because I have longer legs than Paul, I started on the forward control bike.

I’ve ridden a few Sportster variant motorcycles in the past. The Sportster S is absolutely nothing like them. Forget the name, and don’t even think about trying to compare them. The Sportster S is more similar to the Kawasaki Vulcan S than any previous Sportster. The Vulcan S is a modern-looking cruiser wrapped around a sportbike engine, Kawi’s parallel-twin 650 from a whole bunch of their bikes. Similarly, Harley built the diminutive Sportster S around its new Revolution Max engine. It’s a big engine in a small frame, the classic muscle car formula.

And it goes. The Pan America is plenty quick in its own right, especially when you switch from street to sport mode. The controls on the Sportster S are identical, and the effect is even more pronounced. The standard forward control bike is a mini muscle cruiser. It has gobs of power and torque that propel the bike down the road even quicker than the Pan America, which itself is far from slow.

About halfway through the ride, though, my back started to ache from leaning so far forward to the handlebars. I try not to let such issues get in the way of evaluating a bike, particularly Harleys, because there’s such a wide variety of customizations you can make to place the handlebars where you want them. Still, though, I felt like my body was almost folded in half to operate the forward controls, and it was uncomfortable. I wanted to like the Sportster S, but I can’t ride it if it’s going to hurt me.

Knowing that there was a mid-control bike right next to me, at the end of our first demo ride I sat on the mid-control version. Immediately I knew this would transform the bike for me. I got back in line to try the mid-control Sportster S. The bike deserved another chance. Paul didn’t like the mid-controls, so he got back in line with me to try the forward control version I rode.

Take Two

Moving the controls back completely transformed the bike for me. I wasn’t bent over or overextended to reach them. In fact, I had much better control over the bike. With the foot pegs under me, I could weight the pegs, lean off the side of the bike, and apply all kinds of riding techniques that I simply couldn’t do with forward controls. My long legs were surprisingly not cramped, despite not being stretched out in front of me. It was actually more comfortable. And because I could really lay into what few corners there were on Harley’s demo route, I felt like this version of the bike literally put the “sport” back into the Sportster. It’s no sport bike, or FTR 1200, to be sure. But it’s a fun small cruiser that isn’t afraid to go around corners. Bring them on.

Paul, on the other hand, enjoyed the forward controls more. He comes from an Electra Glide, which may explain his preference for forward controls. He’s more familiar with them, while I’m more familiar with mid-controls on my KLR and almost every other bike I’ve ever owned. That’s the beauty of a Harley-Davidson. You can customize it to your heart’s content. What works for him doesn’t work for me, and that’s perfectly okay. Harley has the parts to turn mine into the bike I want.

Who’s It For?

I do have to wonder, though, exactly who H-D is making this bike for. It’s absolutely, positively, not a Sportster in the classic sense of the name. It’s much closer to the canceled Bronx, which was going to be a streetfighter type of motorcycle. (At this point I understand why Harley canceled it. It’s too close in style, function, and performance to the Sportster S.) So they’re not going to get buyers who would’ve otherwise bought a Sportster.

With mid-controls, it’s actually a fun sporty bike, but it’s no match for a genuine sportbike. Even the Ninja 650 I rode with almost half the engine displacement would eat the Sportster S for breakfast in the corners, simply because the Sporster S is not a sportbike. If you want a sporty bike, you typically get either a sportbike or a naked sport, not a Vulcan S, and not a Sportster S. So who, exactly, is Harley’s target market here?

Maybe it’s me. As I get older, I find that I appreciate a comfortable cruiser more and more. But I also like to be able to get on it when the mood strikes me. The Sportster S would serve both purposes for me. It’s a cruiser that still lets you be a hooligan when the mood strikes you. Maybe that’s what Harley is going for here, a genuinely H-D take on the idea of a hooligan bike. Now that, I think, would have a target market.

I do hope there are enough people out there interested in a bike like this for it to be a sales success. Harley needs it. From what I saw at IMS Outdoors, the longest demo ride waits at the Harley booth were for the Pan America and the Sportster S, the most non-traditional Harleys there are. If some of those demo rides translate into sales, the Sportster S may become a common sight on the road — perhaps as common as the number of demo bikes I saw cruising up and down the out-and-back demo ride route this weekend.

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