Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight review

The Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight may not be fast, practical or particularly useful - but it's fun

Fun to ride
Unusual riding position

The Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight carries many idiosyncrasies, but it is at least good fun to ride on the open road.

I'M not sure any other type of motorcycle divides riders as emphatically as Harley-Davidsons. They're not especially fast and sometimes not especially practical or even comfortable, and that perhaps is why the people who hate them seem to really hate them.

Yet the people who love them really love them, and there are a lot who do. The Harley Owners Group has a staggering one million members worldwide and 14,000 in the UK alone. Why?

I came closer to understanding at the launch of the Forty-Eight in Barcelona last week.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight: Design

Part of the firm's best-selling Sportster range, the Forty-Eight has been given updates for 2016, specifically new suspension, wheels and minor styling changes.

It now has pre-load adjustable shocks with progressive springs, and new 49mm cartridge forks, joined by a beefy aluminium fork brace. Lightweight cast aluminium wheels replace wire-spoked ones.

A new round steel air filter cover sits where there used to be an oval one and the old all-chrome exhausts have been replaced by black ones with chrome covers. The seat shape has been revised, for 'more supportive comfort' according to Harley. The price has also risen slightly, from £9,405 to £9,675. 

As I've found in the past when getting on a Harley, I felt a little alienated by the Forty-Eight at first. I usually judge a motorcycle's riding position by one of two measures: it should be comfortable or performance-focused. The Forty-Eight doesn't seem to be aiming for either, despite the revised, softish seat.

The pegs are near the front of the steel double-cradle frame, so your legs are stretched out ahead of you. For my average-sized frame the bars are also a slight stretch away. Reaching both initially gave me back ache. U-turns are made more difficult because one bar is too far away on full lock.

The feet-forward position just feels weird if you're most used to bikes with the pegs directly below the seat. You lift your feet off the ground, then realise you're not exactly sure where they've got to go.

The machine fits none of the practical applications I normally assign to motorcycles. It's not ideally suited to town, motorway or fast corners. It's vibey at motorway speeds.

It’s not that well-equipped. It's got no fuel-gauge, just low-fuel warning light. Mind you, you're always on low thanks to the tiny 7.9-litre tank. The digital rev-counter is miniscule. The mirrors are positioned under the bars so I kept looking at air. With a solo seat, it can’t even take a pillion.

What is it for?

It does have self-cancelling indicators (with one button on each bar) that actually work. And it’s beautifully and intricately styled, as Harleys usually are. I’ll give it that. Check the rear indicators which double as a tail light.  

I was still ready to decide I just didn't get it – until, late in the day, the right the moment and stretch of tarmac arrived.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight: Handling and Suspension

The launch ride had been slow, with the new Harley Street 750 and Iron 883 to test as well, which meant lengthy photo stops. Finally the group spread out and the chance came to stretch the Forty-Eight's legs a bit on a winding hill road.

Like the Street 750, the Forty-Eight will lean over enough to let you enjoy changing direction but ground easily enough to flatter your riding. The maximum lean angle is 27.1° according to Harley, making it one of the more corner-friendly machines in the range.

Unlike the Street 750, it has hero blobs on the pegs, designed for grounding, so the sound of scraping metal doesn’t signify expensive damage and an approaching crash. For the cost of an elongated bolt, it makes the difference between enjoying metal on tarmac and worrying about it with gritted teeth. It more than compensates for the Street 750’s extra 1.4° of lean.

The Forty-Eight turns easily for a 252kg machine, no doubt helped by the lighter wheels, even if the 130mm front tyre looks big enough to iron out wrinkles in the road.

The new suspension is well-enough damped and firm but the ride isn’t harsh, a complaint made by some about the old set up.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight: Brakes

The single front disc and twin caliper didn’t feel like they offered devastating power. Then the ABS activated running into a corner, suggesting I was in fact on the limit of that fat tyre's traction. Possibly the geometry of the Forty-Eight requires a different ratio of front/rear braking application than I’m accustomed to, with more rear needed to supplement the front. When the ABS activated, it wasn’t with amazing subtlety. It just let go momentarily.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight: Engine

Claimed peak torque of 70.8lbft is right down at 3,500rpm but there’s more to this 1202cc air-cooled V-twin than that. Harley doesn’t reveal power figures or where in the range the peak lies but my guess is it’s about 4,900rpm because it’s here that the Forty-Eight feels strongest. You’d never call it revvy but there’s more going on up there than I’d expected. It feels brutish - more so than it sounds. It’s probably the loudest of the models we tested but it’s not going to startle anyone, like Italian V-twins still can. 

Changing gear to keep it around that peak power, the soles of my feet facing into the wind, feeling the hero blobs scrape on every corner, I forgot it was uncomfortable. I thought: ‘So this is what it’s about.’Harley people suggested two routes back to the hotel, a ‘scenic’ coastal road or the highway. They seemed to want us to take the highway, explaining that the scenic route could be busy, possibly because time was pressing on. The decision was almost unanimous: hold that plane. We’re taking the coast road.

It’s good for Harley that we did. On the motorway the Forty-Eight would have gone back to being vibey and uncomfortable. Instead, on a bendy road with views of the Med, it made a sort of sense again. There was lots of traffic, and the Forty-Eight didn’t always have the power to blast past it on the short straights between the many corners. It didn’t really matter - you’re never going to go that fast on one of these. When we could overtake we did. When we couldn’t, we were still going fast enough to scrape the pegs in every turn.

Should I buy the Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight?

The difficulty in reviewing a Harley like this is I have to put aside the usual criteria on which I judge bike, like performance or practical usefulness. This is because (a) they are not built with the intention of meeting them and (b) it is not what buyers are looking for in them.

All the usual criteria except one now. Probably the most important one of all: fun. I had fun on the Forty-Eight. So I suppose that’s what it’s for. Like all bikes, really.

  • Model tested: Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight
  • Price: £9,675 on the road
  • Engine: 1202cc air-cooled V-twin
  • Power: No claimed figure
  • Torque: 70.8lbft @3,500rpm
  • Weight ‘in running order’: 252kg
  • Frame: tubular steel double cradle
  • Tank capacity: 7.9 litres
  • Seat height: 710mm
  • Colours: black, silver, red and gold. Hard Candy Custom options include ‘Hard Candy Cancun Blue Flake and ‘Hard Candy Gold Flake’