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2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S | First Ride Review

Big wheels keep on turning. The new Harley-Davidson Sportster S rolls on a fat 160/70-17 front tire, which is wider than the rear tire on the Street Bob 114. (Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Kevin Wing)

After being roundly criticized for keeping faithful to its roots at the expense of modernization for too long, Harley-Davidson strikes back with the Sportster S, powered by a version of the liquid-cooled 1,252cc V-Twin in the thoroughly modern and warmly received Pan America adventure bike.

It’s a bold new era for the Sportster, and this all-new S version signals the demise for air-cooled Sportys. Bold, too, is this new bike’s chunky styling, with an ultra-fat front tire leading the way. The high-mount shotgun exhaust is another bold styling element, capped by a tailsection inspired by Harley’s XR750 dirt-trackers.

The liquid-cooled Revolution Max motor in the Sportster S is tightly packaged as a structural member of the chassis. The high-mount exhaust system is cladded with shielding to keep excess heat from riders.

The key element of the Sportster S is its Revolution Max 1250T motor, which is used as a structural element rather than a lump to be placed in an external frame. A steel-trellis steering head section combines with an aluminum mid-frame, which helps enable the new bike to weigh about 60 pounds less than the Sportster Forty-Eight. H-D says the S scales in at 502 pounds with its 3.1-gallon tank filled.

Gone is the beloved Harley potato-potato exhaust note from a 45-degree V-Twin, replaced by a steadier thrum from the new 60-degree V-Twin. Misgivings about the engine sound are forgotten once the 121-horsepower RevMax is unleashed. This is undoubtedly the fastest Sportster ever.

The Sportster S takes H-D’s long-running Sportster platform to higher sporty levels. Note the standard footpeg position above and compare to the mid-mount controls below.

We were initially disappointed the new Sporty doesn’t come with the 150-horse motor from the Pan America, but there’s more than enough power here to vault near the apex of muscle cruisers. The mill’s variable valve timing ensures there’s plenty of steam on tap no matter the rpm, hitting harder than the Pan Am down low. Hydraulic valve-lash adjustment reduces maintenance costs.

The seat height, at 29.6 inches, is tall for a Harley but still quite low. Footpegs are set moderately forward to yield adequate legroom. Mid-mount foot controls are available, but they’ll set you back another $659 on top of the bike’s $14,999 base price. They’re a smart option for shorter-legged riders who are unaccustomed to cruiser-style peg placements.

With 121 horsepower pushing 502 pounds, the new Harley-Davidson Sportster S has the highest power-to-weight ratio of any Sportster to come out of Milwaukee.

The low and muscular stance of this new Sportster forces a few dynamic compromises. H-D has spec’d premium Showa suspension that’s fully adjustable at both ends, but wheel travel is meager, particularly at the rear where bumps larger than 2 inches have nowhere else to go but to the chassis and rider. The 43mm inverted fork has 3.6 inches of travel to work with, which is enough to perform competently.

The front end of the S has sparked controversy. Surely that wildly fat 160/70-17 tire would make the bike steer like a truck, right? Not really. The triangular-ish profile allows it to lean over in a surprisingly neutral manner, even if steering effort is higher than it would be with skinnier rubber. The wide handlebar provides meaningful leverage on the way to skimming pegs at 34 degrees of lean angle. Some riders will find that insufficient, but let’s put it into context: H-D’s Sportster Forty-Eight touches its pegs at just 27 degrees.

The Sportster S allows 34 degrees of lean angle before peg feelers start to scrape.

The Sporty can actually rail pretty nicely around mountain roads, as it has a solid and confidence-inspiring chassis, but its limited suspension travel keeps a rider wary of encountering mid-corner bumps that would be swallowed up with longer suspension.

Sportbike riders turn up their noses at single-disc front brakes, but the Brembo package on the S provides good feel and plenty of power. A solid two-finger squeeze can get the fat front tire chirping, while IMU-informed ABS keeps the tires from locking even when leaned over. The IMU also corresponds with traction control linked to the customizable ride modes. A 4-inch color TFT screen provides instrumentation, including tire-pressure monitoring. Cruise control is also standard.

The 4-inch TFT instrument panel under non-reflective glass displays ride modes and tire pressures among the typical info.

The high-mount exhaust system looks like a leg roaster, but heat from the pipes is remarkably subdued. The main source of heat reaching a rider comes from the engine’s rear cylinder, which can get quite toasty when sitting in traffic, despite a rear-cylinder deactivation system when idling. Not a deal breaker unless you insist on riding in short pants.

While the Sportster falls a little flat when ridden like a sportbike, that’s because it’s not designed to be one. It’s a cruiser that can really hustle. For further context, consider that Indian’s affable Scout Bobber has the same amount of rear suspension travel, weighs 50 pounds more, and has 20 fewer horsepower. The Sportster, however, costs $4,000 extra.

Other variants of this exciting new platform are in the pipeline and still to be announced. The Sportster S is so good that we’re salivating over what might come next.

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is available in Midnight Crimson (left, add $350), Stone Washed White Pearl (right, add $350), and Vivid Black.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S Specs

Base Price: $14,999
Website: harley-davidson.com
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 60-degree V-Twin, DOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Displacement: 1,252cc
Bore x Stroke: 105 x 72mm
Horsepower: 121 @ 7,500 rpm (claimed, at the crank)
Torque: 94 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm (claimed, at the crank)
Transmission: 6-speed
Final Drive: Belt
Wheelbase: 59.8 in.
Rake/Trail: 30 degrees/5.8 in.
Seat Height: 29.6 in.
Wet Weight: 503 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.1 gals.

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