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First Ride: 2004 Harley-Davidson Sportster Range

Harley revamp their entry-level bikes for 2004 - the first serious update since 1986. So many changes, yet they still look the same. Grant rides the new smooth torquers high on a hill in Austria

Sportster: back in 1957 that was a very fair description of Harley's 'small bore' bike. In the coming decade it fought a strong corner against the likes of the Triumph Bonneville up and down the boulevards of America. 45 years later, Harley has just released the latest version in a long, long line of bikes they persist in calling 'Sportster'. If it weren't a registered trademark, they'd be had for misrepresentation under the Trade Descriptions Act. But who's expecting Blade-like performance anyway? Just the styling tells you how it's going to do its thing. It's a laid-back, all-show, no-go cruiser.

Sounds like a bad thing. No, it isn't. It's a Harley and you are therefore riding a 20th Century icon, which, depending on the depth and colour of your motorcycling soul, could count for a great deal. Harley-Davidson, after all, is the world's best known motorcycle. Riding a Harley is different to riding any other make of motorcycle - you need to try it before you criticise.

On top of that, your Harley comes, thanks to the Milwaukee marketing men, with an optional lifestyle and image which you can wear just at weekends, if that's what suits you. You only have to sort out your genuine Hog owner's image at your local Harley Motorclothes store and join the local chapter of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) and you're off, an instant Angel, with riding buddies, events to go to and that hairy scary image, even if it is only the thickness of a leather jacket and two-day-old stubble.

The Sportster 883 is the 'My First Harley' of the range. It's cheap - about £5,250 (2004 prices are to be confirmed). The rest of the range isn't, by any stretch of the wallet (£10k-£17k). But the 883 is priced to be almost irresistible to someone who's attracted to the Harley 'thing'. The new 2004 Sportster 883, a complete revision of the previous model and only £50-£100 more expensive than the 2003 model.

There is the 1200cc version of the Sportster too, a bike often overlooked because of its no-man's land market position. Anyone who's cut their teeth on an 883 wants the full-on Schwarzenegger-schtyle 1450cc bike next - it's the real deal. But who would want another slightly pokier Sportster? For two-and-a-half grand more? No thanks.

But the 2004 model is worth considering, at least as an entry level bike, as it does have much more going for it than its predecessor, simply as a motorbike you can use. From an 883 starter I'd still leapfrog it onto the big-bore brothers, however. So how have they managed to completely revise these two models and retain the looks of their predecessors? Well in short, they've done lots of little things and nothing radical.

Many of the revisions have rationalised a model which has been left alone, except for cosmetics, since 1986 when the Evolution family of motors was introduced. They've also brought the Sportster up-to-date in certain respects: it's more service engineer-friendly, it's more owner-friendly and it's had its obligatory digital-age makeover of the ignition laying the foundations for fuel injection, when the law finally squeezes it into going that way. Other big-bore Harleys in the range are all fuel-injected.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Review

Harley tells us there are four areas addressed in the Sportster makeover: vibration, performance, ergonomics and styling. Certainly vibration has been dealt with by isolating the engine from the chassis by means of rubber mounts. Let the engine drop to its lumpy tickover and watch it rock back and forth, independently of the chassis; it's a weird sight. And indeed the tingly vibes from the 45° V-twin fail to reach your parts. Instead there's a nice pulsing thrum still coming through the seat, bars and pegs. Full marks.

Performance is more tricky. Engine behaviour (performance is too strong a word) is dictated very much by modern emissions laws, which you must flout at the first service if you want any fun on your Hog. A couple of open cans and a jet kit transform any Harley from delivering a silent fart of power to something much more satisfying.

In stock form, the 883 is pathetic; but the 1200 is much more rideable. They've used the higher-specced Buell valve train in the new Sportsters' cylinder heads, lightened the con rods and managed to raise the rev ceiling a whole 500rpm to a dizzy 6000rpm and the 1200 has higher compression. It has better cooling too - the fins on the cylinders virtually touch between the V now. In short the intention is an engine which can run harder and last longer.

Handling has been considered too. The chassis no longer uses the engine as a stressed member and has been stiffened. Brakes are the excellent Japanese Nissin, with no apology given nor sought and the rear end has been rearranged to accommodate a 150 section rear tyre; no mean feat we are told.

Ladies have been given serious consideration in comfort and ergonomics revamps. It has a one-inch lower seat height, the hand-grips are slimmer and the bars narrower; the better brakes need less of a tug. Very female friendly, and so it should be with 40% of Rider's Edge (Harley's UK novice school) pupils being women.

Finally a restyling. There were seven Sportster models in '03, for '04 there are four: two 883s - the 883 and the 883 Custom - and the 1200 Roadster and 1200 Custom. There are, however, a million different things you can do to customise your bike, all with Harley accessories, a £40m business in Europe alone. There are 33 different colour choices thanks to Harley Europe's clever central stocking system. The new tanks/fenders can't be retro-fitted to '03 models however. Personally, I thought the Roadster looked utterly stunning in orange and white. One great improvement in my eyes is the loss of the connecting exhaust pipe which used to cross the V of the motor, ruining its look.

The Custom versions differ from the Roadster and stock 883 in their 21-inch spoked front wheel, high bars, chromed engine cases, single front disc, 4-litre larger tank and no tacho. The stock 883 is a basic bike, built down to its single seat. The Roadster 1200 is the most interesting of the bunch, with the highest sporting spec and capability.

We tested the bikes in Austria during European Bike Week at Faaker See, a growing Harley festival which I'd highly recommend.

They let us ride the old Sportster first and then gave us the new one. We wended our way up the mountain to take in some stunning scenery and give the bikes a bit of what-for.

Indeed that's a good question to ask of the 883: 'what for'? If you try to ride it hard, it gives nothing back. I can only say it needs tuning. The best I can say is that it's unintimidating to a new rider, which is hardly a compliment. But it handles well and you can swing it round bends with confidence, though don't lean it over too far - ground clearance is limited. The brakes are acceptable, though I always used the rear with the front as a necessity.

The 1200 as a stock machine makes much more sense. This one handles equally well (of course - same chassis) but has twin discs at the front to stop it, which they do. And you need stopping too as the motor can really take you places and sometimes even over the speed limit. It accelerates when you open the gas in any gear, having a fat spread of torque - tune this one and you'd have something. Overall, in stock form, it's an enjoyable bike which you can really ride properly. The Roadster version, with its flatter bars and centrally-set footrests, allows you to at least pay lip-service to its Sportster model name. There were some tremendous mountain roads, flowing mid-speed bends and I wouldn't have really wanted to swap the Roadster for anything else right there and then. A faster bike would've taken the fun away and it was good to ride a bike towards its limit, but within its capabilities.

Verdict

For 2004 and probably till 2021, Harley's best-selling entry-level bikes have been  improved all round, gaining stronger engines, some performance and user/dealer-friendliness without losing their Harley-ness.

46 years after its debut, the Sportster is made of a different metal by a different company in a different market. But if you narrow your eyes and blur the edges, they'll take you right back to 1957 - Happy Days!