Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021) review

We headed to Manchester for the UK press tour of the Harley-Davidson Sportster S in Manchester to check out the update to one of H-D's longest-running models

A smoother ride
Very different from previous models in the series

Stood in front of the new 2021 Sportster S at the funky Victoria Warehouse in the heart of Manchester, the DNA of the original bike is fairly hard to spot. Sure, the high-level exhaust and diminutive seat are inspired by the XR750 race bikes, but other than that, the family resemblance is hard to pinpoint.

The story of the Harley-Davidson Sportster S is one that stretches back to the mid-1950s and the first XL badged bikes. From then the Sportster built its own niche in the range, forging a path as one of the lightest and most popular Harley models.

At first glance, the new Sportster S looks compact, with no overhangs at the front or rear of the bike its silhouette is distinctly long and low. The front tyre dominates your eye, forcing you to follow a line up the forks to the pill-shaped headlight.

The compact design of the bike is enabled by the new Revolution Max 1250T (T meaning tuned for torque) engine. Its stressed member design means the steering head and swing arm can be bolted directly to the block, doing away with the need for a traditional frame. It’s this new design that allows the bike to have this shrink-wrapped form.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021): Price and Colours

The new Harley-Davidson Sportster S is available in three colour options, Vivid Black, Midnight Crimson, and Stone Washed Pearl White – that latter two colours add £250 to the RRP. The bike starts at £13,995 making it slightly more expensive than the Indian FTR1200 and Triumph Bobber, but a fair chunk cheaper than a Ducati Diavel. It might sound strange that I’ve used such a wide range of bikes in comparison there, but in truth, there is a pretty chunky pool of bikes the new Sportster S could be stealing sales from.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021): Engine

In 1250T configuration, the Revolution Max unit in the Sportster S produces 120bhp and 92lb-ft of torque. It’s an ultra-compact unit, with a 60° V and off-set cylinders. The top end has seen the most work with smaller valves and cam profiles, and a redesigned inlet and airbox helping to shift the bike’s performance envelope towards uber chunky low-end torque and usable power.

Climbing on the bike as it ticks over prior to our morning ride in Manchester, I blip the throttle to have a first listen to the new bikes exhaust note. At first, it sounds like there is a little fluff in the fuel injection system like the throttle valves need a minute to catch up with your right hand’s request. It took me a while to figure it out but what’s actually happening is the engine is mimicking the lazy delivery of the air-cooled Sportster models of years gone by. At idle the engine has a refined exhaust note, with very low vibration levels. It might not please the purists, who will be longing for the theatre of previous Sportsters, but this bike is H-D’s take on what a modern Sportster should be – with a big emphasis on the modern.

Heading out of central Manchester we pick up the A628 and up into the Peak District. With the rain subsiding to leave us with low-level north English drizzle (if that’s a thing!), I flick the bike into Sport mode to get a feel for the new 1250T engine. I asked a question to Harley-Davidson’s engineers in an online Q&A the other week around the restriction in the engine and why they gave the new cruiser 120bhp when Revolution Max 1250 is capable of 150bhp. In reality, on these roads, in this 230kg form, 120bhp is more than ample. Harley has always made less seem like more, and have been churning out bikes with sub-100bhp power outputs for years that can still raise a grin on a twisty B-road. With all the torque of a traditional H-D motorcycle, but a top-end to rival the European and British bikes, the new Sportster S amplifies the point and squirt sensation. It’ll fire you at the horizon without running out of puff at 4 or 5,000rpm, revving on to 9,500rpm. The engine pulls hard from low revs and never feels like it's chugging as some Harleys do. The assisted slipper clutch does an adequate job of smoothing out ham-fisted downshifts, although an audible chirp from the rear tyre can still be heard on occasions.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021): Handling

With the new Sportster S’ design being dominated by that huge front tyre, any preconceptions you have about the bike putting the sport back into Sportster are misplaced. For me, sport is holding tight lines in corners, and placing the bike on a postage-stamp-sized piece of the road, using nothing more than the power of thought. This isn’t like that, but it’s no less rewarding to ride. The initial turn-in is slow, with a fair amount of upper body effort required to break the laws of physics and actually get the thing to turn! Once you have the Sportster on its ear it will hold a line, although minute changes in direction once you are in the turn area little trickier.

The suspension system on the Sportster S features 43 mm inverted forks with compression, rebound and spring preload adjustability, and a piggyback rear shock with compression, rebound and hydraulic spring preload adjustability – via a handy remote adjuster on the left side of the seat unit. On stock settings, the bike feels firm. There’s a whisper of dive under braking but not much more, and some of the pot-holed inner-city roads had me rolling some of the pre-load out of the rear shock. As soon as we hit the stunning Snake Pass though, I was ushering some support back into the rear end. You only have a couple of inches of travel at the rear, and not much more at the front. With such tight tolerances at each end, you are fairly limited to setting the bike somewhere between firm and very firm.

The Brembo braking system on the Harley-Davidson Sportster S raised some eyebrows when the first official images of the bike landed. Admittedly, slinging a single front disc on anything with 120bhp seems an odd choice, and two really is the magic number when it comes to brake discs on motorcycles. Speaking to Brad Richards, VP of styling and design, the decision was made to give the front end a certain look and style. I get it and can see that it does accentuate the size of that ginormous front wheel. For me though, the performance benefit of an extra four pistons and another 320mm brake disc trump the aesthetic argument.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021): Equipment

Trickling through a soggy Manchester on a Monday morning isn’t normal press launch stuff, but it does at least give me a chance to check out the riding modes of the new bike. There are three pre-programmed riding modes (Rain, Road, and Sport) and two more user-configurable options. As with the Pan America we rode a couple of months back, the riding modes are all changed (on the fly) via the large and easy to find button on the right-hand switch cube. And as is the case with its adventure-sized cousin, each riding mode delivers a distinctly different riding experienced. Rain mode is so soft and welcoming your granny would feel comfortable using it. Switching up to Road sees a significant step up in power output and throttle delivery, with Sport Mode upping the ante further still.

The cockpit of the Harley-Davidson Sportster S is crowned by a neat circular TFT dash that is an evolution of the one found on the Pan Am’. It’s a handsome and easy to read unit, with all the information you need just a glance away. Bluetooth connectivity comes as standard, meaning you can hook up your phone and enjoy turn-by-turn navigation, ride mapping and more through the H-D app. The electronics package on the bike also comes courtesy of the Pan America, meaning you have lean-sensitive traction control (switchable including off), ABS, cruise control and full LED lighting with cornering lights. The switchgear, another item handed from the larger adventure bike, features chunky switch cubes that are fairly easy to use, although the indicator is fiddly to cancel for the first few rides.

Hardware on the bikes comes in the form of Brembo brakes and span adjustable master cylinders. The bike is shod with co-branded Harley-Davidson Dunlop GT503 hoops. The tyres are lightly treaded with a sporty profile to them. On dry roads and given the chance to build some heat into the carcass, they grip well. The traction control can be seen cutting in on damp roads, although the intervention is almost imperceivable. Reduce the intervention – or turn it off altogether via the left switch cube – and the rear tyre will light up on demand, even lifting the front off the road if needed.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021): Comfort

With an 11.3 tank, you’ll be getting around 110-miles out of the new Sportster S. After completing a 95-mile loop on mixed roads, my bike was just tripping the reserve sensor. Keep in mind though this was a bike with around 100-miles on its bores before I was handed the keys – more miles should come as it all loosens up.

With shortish trips to be had, the Harley-Davidson Sportster S will be giving you ample opportunity to stretch your legs. Overall though, you shouldn’t need it. Save for the fairly firm seat, the bike is actually fairly comfortable. The feet-forward configuration is standard on this model, with the mid-sets being the after-market option, and they make more sense for me. Legroom is increased and you’re placed in a much more authentic rider triangle. The bars of the bike are fairly narrow but with just enough lift and sweep in the design to bring them within easy reach of even the shortest riders.

Away from the peg-scraping antics of Snake Pass, the new bike is surprisingly well mannered. AT 75mph you’ll be doing a shade over 4,000rpm and the seat, pegs and bars are all surprisingly vibe-free. Harley has worked hard to eliminate the rumble, with two internal balancers in the engine masking untoward frequencies from the 1252cc unit. We were told on the launch how H-D’s engineers had to reign in the balancer work as it was sanitising the engine too much – I think they could have wound it back further still. With no vibes to be felt, the riding experience is thoroughly modern, and something that I personally think improves the overall enjoyment of the bike. Whether or not the Harley-Davidson faithful will see it in the same way, remains to be seen!

With the huge exhaust dominating the right side of the bike, my pre-ride impression of the machine was that within ten miles my inner thigh would be looking like the donner kebab pirouetting in my local chippy. I couldn’t have been more wrong. With multiple layers of insulation, you really don’t feel any uncomfortable heat at all. Leaving your gloves draped over the heatshield at a coffee stop rewards you with warm hands for the return ride, but not much more than that.

What we liked about the Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021):

  • Point and squirt motorcycling in concentrated levels
  • Light clutch and slick gearbox
  • Electronics that make this one of the most accessible performance cruisers
  • Smooth running makes any ride easy going - *see below

What we didn’t like about the Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021):

  • A dual-disc would be optimal
  • Form over function front end results in slow initial turn-in
  • *Is the 1250T too smooth for Sportster fans though?

Should I buy the Harley-Davidson Sportster S (2021)?

In 1969, the Ford Motor Company launched the Mach 1 Mustang, and It was an instant hit. Powered by a snarling 7.0l Cobra engine, the original Mach 1 gobbled up the road and drank like Oliver Reed on a night out. It was brash, loud, difficult to drive fast and when compared to the cars of today, ultimately flawed. None of that prevented it from becoming an icon. Funnily enough though, Ford still sells the Mach 1 even now in 2021. Is it hard to drive, thirsty or wobbly in the bends? No. Do you know why? Progress.

There are two distinct camps with Sportster S, and it was the same on the launch. There were a couple of riders calling for more of the old Sportster feel with rattling levers and that unmistakable shuddering at tick-over. And then there was me, actually pretty happy with the amount of progress the factory has made in such a short time.

Sure, there are sharper steering bikes in the sub-150bhp cruiser class, you only have to take a glance at the front wheel to know that. The new bike though does bring a certain level of visual attitude to the class. It’s also capable of taking the fight to the new breed of performance cruisers

But there is a caveat to this, and H-D is currently walking a tightrope with the Sportster S. Updating this model too much and too fast could severe the link that Sportster has with so many died in the wool Harley-Davidson fans. Sure, they’ll ultimately win over some new faces in the process, I just hope that all that ride it can see past the history and appreciate the future that Harley has in store.