Test Ride: Harley-Davidson Sportster S

Blending otherworldliness with Art Deco design, the aesthetic of this bike is only overshadowed by its engine

On a sizzling day in Los Angeles, we caught a glimpse into the future of one of the most iconic brands in motorcycling—a brand that is known all over the world not only for motorcycles, but also for the culture they cultivated over 118 years. While Harley-Davidson was almost synonymous with motorcycling in North America during much of the 20th century, the motorcycle manufacturer was slow to innovate and adapt during the early 2000s. More recently though, Harley has been rebounding and their latest releases—including the Sportster S—offer insight into what the next few years might look like for Harley.

By taking the Sportster name—which Harley has used since 1957 on bikes known for having an air-cooled V-Twin and an iconic “peanut” fuel tank—and putting it on a retro-futuristic bike that has neither, they’ve made a declaration of sorts. Nothing is off limits and the company is embracing change.

The most important aspect of the Sportster S (like their new adventure touring bike, Pan America 1250) is the Revolution Max 1250T engine. The previous Sportster was powered by the Evolution which was introduced in 1984, made 76lb-ft of torque and didn’t have an officially disclosed horsepower figure. Now the Revolution arrives with 94lb-ft of torque and 121hp.

Surrounding the engine are components that come together to create a bike that’s immediately appealing; blending an otherworldliness with Art Deco design. The Sportster S does have familiar touches, including the high-mount exhaust (inspired by Harley-Davidson’s flat track bikes of yesteryear) and the low seat and thin fuel tank, which are reminiscent of Harley’s pre-war bikes. Still, overall it looks like something that came from an alternate universe where Harley-Davidson places immense importance on rider engagement for more dynamic riding—and maybe that’s the future we’re destined for.

Confidently gunning the Sportster S out of corners on some of our favorite mountain roads is enjoyable thanks in part to familiarity with the routes, but mostly due to the faith placed in the abilities of the motorcycle. That faith isn’t misplaced. There are multiple ride modes to explore on the Sportster S, their main function being to adjust the engine, braking and throttle sensitivity. While it’s great that Harley-Davidson is applying this level of thought to their machines, we don’t spend too much time individualizing things as the pre-programmed modes have clearly been well-researched and we’re content to leave the bike in “Sport” and enjoy the ride. 

The Sportster S retains much of the tough cruiser look that Harley-Davidson is known for, but it swaps the forward controls for mid to reveal the true nature of the bike. Our test unit, fitted with optional mid-control foot pegs, seems to love twisty roads—and blazing along them. With plenty of power on tap for blasting down straight roads, ample braking to bleed some speed off before entering them and loads of grip to round them gracefully, we find a very satisfying routine on this machine.

Details around various sizes of the Revolution Max engine and potential power ratings are still unconfirmed, but we’re confident that Harley-Davidson will make the most of the new engine by building a wide variety of bikes around it, in order to appeal to an equally wide variety of riders.

Whether one of those bikes is a 975cc street-fighter bearing the name Bronx or Nightster remains to be seen, but a quick click around the internet will show that the rumor mill is working overtime. While we would love to see the 150hp figure from the 1250 in the Pan America make it to the 1250 in the Sportster S—in a true bobber style variant, floating seat and all—we’re pleased to see the line-up expand, regardless. More choice in the motorcycling world is better for everyone.

Images courtesy of Harley-Davidson