Harley-Davidson Launch test: Harley's new Sportsters

2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight

RIding new 2018 Harley-Davidson Sportsters in Croatia

Absence makes the heart grow fonder – or so they say. I was thinking about this the other week, when I got an invite to a Harley-Davidson launch. The last one I can remember doing was the V-Rod, in Pasadena in 2001 (my first job at SuperBike magazine as it happened). So with 17 years between them, would my feelings for Harleys have changed?

Of course, I’ve ridden Harleys outside of press launches over the years, but it’s fair to say I’d not spent a lot of time on one for a long, long time. So I was quite looking forward to this gig – a three day extravaganza riding new-for-2018 Sportsters, doing some flat-track racing with Ruben Xaus, and taking in a day cruising round on a big, full-dress touring H-D.

Next thing I know, I’m here in Croatia – a lovely part of the world that I’ve not visited before – and trying out a brace of new Harley-Davidson Sportsters. The ‘Forty-Eight Special’ and the ‘Iron 1200’, to be precise. Now, for an innocent naïf like myself, these two look remarkably similar at first glance. Indeed, I managed to mix them up a few times at first. But there are some pretty obvious differences once you get to know them. The Forty-Eight Special has a 16-inch front wheel, with a fat 130/90 section tyre, and stout 49mm forks, plus forward-mounted footpegs. The Iron 1200 has skinny forks, a narrow 19-inch front wheel, and ‘mid-mounted’ footpegs, plus a teeny, vestigial headlight screen/visor. Both have neat little fuel tanks, with the thing I like best about the styling – a 1970s-styled logo, that takes me back to my childhood. Harley also obsesses about stuff like having black paint on parts of the engine and chrome on other parts, like it's some massive difference.

There's a lot of this 'difference without distinction' on these bikes it seems. They both have similar-but-different bars – but apart from all this stuff, they use the same basic engine and chassis setup. An air-cooled, 1,202cc 45° V-twin, with two valves per cylinder, worked via pushrods by four small camshafts next to the crank, driving through a five-speed transmission and belt final drive. Dubbed the Evolution, it’s about as basic an engine as you can buy nowadays, and is bolted via rubber mounts into a similarly straightforward steel tube frame. Twin-shock preload-adjustable rear suspension, single disc front and rear, a solo seat, and that, pretty much, is your whack. Everything you need, and nothing you don’t need, as the nice H-D PR man says as he waves us off for a day riding south of Split.

I’m aware I’m going to have to retune my usual ‘new bike launch’ expectations for the day of course. These bikes aren’t built for sporty speed or performance in the way that most of us understand it nowadays. All that modern 2018 stuff, like wheelie control, launch control, leaning ABS, ride-by-wire traction control, electronic semi-active suspension – that’s all completely alien on this ride today. Instead, we have throttle, brakes, clutch, gear lever, plus a single speedometer clock, with a small single-line LCD that can tell us gear position and revs, temp, trip, odometer – but not all at the same time. We’re not totally back in the 1970s though – the bikes do have ABS of course, and there’s also a keyless ignition system, which threw me a bit at first…

The heat’s building – we’re at 20 degrees already, and it’s only 10am, so I’m grateful for my old Spidi airflow net jacket, which I packed on a whim and that has relegated my thick retro leather jacket to the hotel wardrobe. I’m late down from breakfast, so all the other kids have grabbed their favourite bright colours, leaving me on a black Forty-Eight for the first part of the ride. Ah well.

The first few hundred yards are a bit wobbly, as I adapt to the unfamiliar, feet-forward cruiser riding position. But as we trickle along the Split coast road, I’m soon in the groove. I’ve never found this type of bike particularly comfy – my back always gets a bit stiff as I slump down into the seat – but the bars are at a decent angle, and the footrest position isn’t too extreme. When we stop at lights, the super low seat lets you get your feet on the deck easily of course, and the overall low-down nature of the bike gives good balance when bimbling along at walking pace through traffic. We’re not in high season yet here in Croatia, and the taxi driver from the airport told us the traffic gets much, much worse in summer – but there are a few sets of roadworks, which makes getting out and up into the hills a chore at times.

Finally though, we turn off the Dalmatian seaside route, and weave up into the Croatian uplands. The lead rider starts to crack on a bit, and I start to push the Forty-Eight a little. Now, with about 60-odd bhp, and 250 kilos, it’s all pretty steady, but since there are a bunch of us all on the same bikes, there are japes to be had. The good thing about these bikes is they’re damned skinny, and while the ground clearance soon disappears in a cloud of sparks, there’s a definite challenge to make progress on them. And it’s actually a load of fun. You’re constantly juggling ground clearance, lean angle, tyre grip and brake pressure, while changing gear through the stately shifter.

The lack of power means you can get on the gas pretty much as soon as you like of course, and you end up developing a weird cornering technique – putting your body into the bend, half-hanging-off the bike to keep it more upright, while braking late, then getting on the throttle early, to try and lift the front end back up again. Everyone’s got a clever tip when we stop for coffee, especially the lead and tail riders, who’ve been here for a week already, and are old hands at hustling Hogs round press launch roads.

With lots of chat about body position, cranking up rear preload, balancing throttle and brakes, we get back on the road, for a ride to the lunch stop near Arzano at the Bosnian border. There are some proper 180°-plus corners round here, and you can have a real giggle, carving round the long long bends, footpeg on the deck, followed by exhaust covers, but stopping just before the frame rails and engine covers go down. You need to take care though – if you get it wrong, you don’t have the option of leaning a bit more and making it round, like you usually do. Get too clever with these puppies, and it could bite you back.

Then it’s back out towards the Adriatic and north to our hotel. We’ve calmed down a little, and are cruising along, as nature intends you should do on a Harley. There are some great tunes on my phone, playing through my Ultimate earphones, the sun is blazing down, and the breeze is just the right side of ‘too too hot’. It’s time to sit back, enjoy the trademark Harley sound and watch Croatia passing by. Bliss.

I’m on an Iron now, and while I’m less happy with the 19-inch front wheel, I do prefer the mid-mount footpegs. Ever the malcontent, I decide I want the Iron footpegs, bars, larger tank and headlight screen, with the Forty-Eight Special’s front wheel and forks. No doubt Harley could provide such a beastie, from the factory in one of the myriad custom build options, as a dealer-fitted upgrade, or a DIY deal from its massive aftermarket parts catalogue.

Not that I would get that far though. In the end, I’m not really a Harley rider, and while the absence from riding them has certainly made me a bit fonder of them, I’d need a pretty big dream garage before I’d be putting a Sportster in there. But if you’re a fan of the Milwaukee lifestyle, and are thinking about getting in on the deal, either of these new Sportsters will do a great job, for just under £10k.


Engine: 4v OHV, air-cooled 45° V-twin, 1,202cc

Bore x stroke: 88.9 x 96.8mm

Compression ratio: 10:1

Max power 65bhp-ish

Max Torque (claimed) 73ft lb at n/a rpm

Transmission: five speed, belt drive

Frame: steel tube 

Front suspension: RWU 49mm forks (Forty-Eight), 41mm (Iron)

Rear suspension: preload adjustable twin shocks

Brakes: single disc, dual-piston caliper (front), single disc, dual-piston caliper (rear), ABS.

Wheels/tyres: Aluminium/Michelin, 130/90 16 front, 150/80 16 rear (Forty-Eight) 100/90 19 front 150/80 16 rear (Iron 1200)

Rake/trail: na°/na mm

Wheelbase: 1,495mm

Kerb weight (claimed): 248kg

Fuel capacity: 7.9 litres (Forty-Eight) 12.5 litres (Iron 1200)

Price: £9,995 (Forty-Eight Special) £9,395 (Iron 1200)