Interview | Harley-Davidson Sportster S is ‘just the start’

While the new Harley-Davidson Sportster is a cruiser the like we haven’t seen from the brand, the team behind the bike tell how it is merely the tip of the iceberg

sportster S

HARLEY-DAVIDSON this week premiered arguably its most transformative cruiser since the V-Rod with the launch of the all-new Sportster S.

Filling a void in the range and answering calls from H-D fans across the world, the Sportster S brings back one of H-D’s most popular nameplates to its line-up.

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And transformative is just one of the words I’d use to describe the new Sportster S - the other is technologically advanced. Until the LiveWire landed just over a year or so ago, motorcycle fans would be hesitant at using words like technology and advanced in the same sentence as Harley-Davidson. For those lucky enough to ride the LiveWire – and more recently the Pan America – they are perfectly appropriate bedfellows.

Until we get to swing a leg over the new Harley-Davidson Sportster S for ourselves in August, we’ll have to wait and see if the reality lives up to the promotional bumf, although to get an insight into just what it is that makes this motorcycle tick, we might have a bit of idea.

While the rest of the motorcycle press was poring over the spec-sheet and drinking in the glossy PR film, Visordown was talking to the team behind the Sportster S, trying to dig down into the new model and really find out how it came to be.

On the call were key Harley-Davidson staff, each playing their own important role in the new bike. We had Brad Richards, VP of Styling and Design, Paul James, Global PR Manager, Kyle Wick, Chief Engineer and Harley’s UK PR and Marketing team.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S | ‘Just the start’

The story of the Sportster is one that stretches back to the mid-1950s. Touted as a bike to match the best that the UK and Japan had to offer, it was light, compact and above all, powerful. From then the Sportster went through numerous iterations, growing in capacity and power, and in later years sprouting the legendary XR and Forty-Eight models along the way.

“There was a massive demand in the UK for Sportster was very high in the UK,” said Steve Kelly, H-D UK Marketing Manager. “The Forty-Eight was one of the best-selling models across Europe for a number of years. So we know that the custom scene is alive and well and really resonates with our brand. V-Rod, obviously, a big high-performance custom motorcycle also… we’ve played in this space before.”

Indeed, Harley is a mainstay in this sector, effectively ruling the roost for many years now. So why the change from the tried and tested to this new, high tech platform?

Progress is one thing, with tightening emissions regulations effectively sounding the death knell for the Sportster at the end of 2020. Pretty much as soon as that happened, dyed in the wool fans of the legendary bike were up in arms about losing such a storied model.

But how do you re-introduce a hallowed model like that without alienating the purists?

“You’ll see people who won’t accept the name Sportster on anything other than an air-cooled45 degree V-twin,” said Paul James. “I mean, we still have some people who hate the fact that we renamed the ‘Dyna’ motorcycles as Softails!

“People are genuinely married to that legacy and can’t see past it. And then there are those that will throw a leg over the Sportster S and they ride it and experience it. With its Revolution Max 1250 T in this lightweight chassis, it’s a ripper! We’ve already said internally, we’ve really put the ‘sport’ back into Sportster.”

So, It’s Sportster, but probably not as we know it. With 120bhp on tap, high-spec suspension, powerful brakes and advanced rider assistance systems, those longing for the feel of the Sportster of old will be looking hard, but they are unlikely to be disappointed when they ride it. Harley is keen to press that this is a bike not built to overtake a particular model in the marketplace. Instead, it’s been designed to fulfil a set of wants and needs, gleaned from market research with Harley riders and non-Harley riders alike.

It’s clear from talking to the team that they have the top of the cruiser segment in their sights, with bikes from both sides of the Atlantic about to gain a new rival.

“There’s a number of bikes in the mid-weight category, bikes with sporting intent yet are easy to live with. It could be everything from the Indian Scout to things like the Ducati Diavel. For us though, we were aiming less at competitor bikes and more at meeting a need within our own portfolio and bringing this middleweight platform to a much higher performance level.”

Clean sheet design

Like the Pan America that came before it, Harley-Davidson took the new Revolution Max 1250 architecture and used it as a tool to create the bike around the engine frame and chassis – not the other way round.

In this way, the motorcycle can be optimised to answer the questions that the team wanted to answer. At 228kg, the new Sportster S is around 20kg lighter than the outgoing model, and more than 50kg lighter than the current featherweight of the range, the Softail Standard. It’ll also feature a much more optimised centre of gravity, something that Harley hope will back up the ability of the new machine.

Kyle Wick explained the move. “For sure, we talk about it as a modular platform, and the beauty of that is you can start with that philosophy and build off from it. It also allows us to have a lot of freedom…”

H-D Sportster S official reveal video

Interestingly, Kyle also offers a  nod to future models from the brand, most probably a restart of the Bronx project that was shelved last year. “Like I said earlier, this is just the start. There is an almost endless opportunity to build from here.”

While he stops short of divulging any firm details, there is both clear ambition at the heart of Harley-Davidson’s ‘Rewire’ era and the importance of the Sportster S as the bridge that crosses the divide of ‘new’ electrified, adventurous Harley-Davidson and a more traditional, heritage Harley.

In short, Sportster S represents everything Harley-Davidson was and wants to be

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