By Chuck Hawks

In 30 years of riding, I have discovered some things about motorcycles. In this review I am going to discuss one of my favorite bikes, the Harley-Davidson Sportster. (The example pictured above is a 1997 XLH equipped with some of the touring accessories mentioned below.)

No two ways about it, to me the original is still the best, and the Harley-Davidson Sportster is my top choice in the "standard" class. Lots of other riders have voted with their pocket books and agree with me: the Sportster models are the best selling line of motorcycles in America.

Like most standards, the Sportster is a very versatile motorcycle. Take one Sportster, add Harley's flush mount leather saddlebags, sport windshield, deluxe touring seat, low sissy bar with passenger back rest, sport rack, overnight rack bag, and a tank bag, and you have a "sport touring Sportster," a pretty competent bike for weekend trips, without seriously compromising its innate Sunday morning ride capability. The touring seat and passenger back rest make the Sportster a very comfortable bike for riding double.

Today's Sportster looks very much like the XLCH Sportster of 1958 (In the Harley alphabet, all Sportster models have always started with "XL"), but in fact every part of the bike is different. The wheels, brakes, forks, lights, frame, engine, transmission, electrical system, gas tank, seat, oil tank, swing arm, rear shocks, everything is changed, modern, but retains its traditional looks. Harley-Davidson believes in evolution, not revolution. Sometimes this confuses people, who believe that Harleys are obsolete retro-bikes. Not true. After over 95 years in the motorcycle business (H-D is the oldest motorcycle company in the world.), the Motor Company has learned a thing or two about what works in the real world.

They have learned a thing or two about customer loyalty, too, and how to keep it. Years ago, Honda ran ads saying "You meet the nicest people on a Honda." Today, you meet the nicest people on a Harley. Part of the reason is the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.), a factory sponsored club for all Harley-Davidson owners. Everyone who buys a new H-D motorcycle gets a free first year membership in the National H.O.G. Most also join their local H.O.G. chapter, sponsored by their local dealer. H.O.G. gives enthusiasts of both sexes and all ages, and from all walks of life, a chance to meet with other Harley owners, go on rides together, swap ideas, and generally have a good time. There are National and local rallies that you really should not miss. H.O.G. chapters also do a lot of excellent charity work in their local communities. You really do meet the nicest people on a Harley.

All modern Sportsters come with Harley-Davidson's unit construction Evolution V-twin engine, bored to either 883cc (54 cubic inches) or 1200cc (74 cubic inches). The former is easily converted to the latter, since the stroke is identical, by the addition of new pistons and jugs (or by just boring out the 883 cylinders), and slightly modifying the 883 heads. As I write this, the H-D kit to change an 883 into a 1200 is under $900, including installation by your Harley-Davidson dealer. Either engine size gives you easy control of instant torque for real world riding situations. I think of the 1200, especially, as a "velvet hammer."

While we are on the subject of engines, it is no secret that the Motor Company delivers these bikes in a very modest (EPA) state of tune. The factory rated horsepower/torque at the crankshaft, which is about 57/53 (883cc) and 66/72 (standard 1200cc), can be increased by about 7 hp just by switching to a H-D Screaming Eagle low restriction air filter, H-D Screaming Eagle low restriction mufflers, and re-jetting the carburetor. These changes are recommended by almost all H-D dealers world wide, and do not affect your new bike warrantee. For this reason, you will seldom encounter a truly stock Sportster on the street, or one that isn't faster than the magazine road tests would lead you to believe.

Any Sportster is the most basic and honest of motorcycles; a work in progress, a beautiful painting (the finish is absolutely first class) waiting for you to add the final details. That is why you will probably never see two Sportsters exactly alike; everybody adds the finishing touches they personally desire. This is particularly true of the basic XLH 883 and XLH 1200 models. For a complete list of the modifications and accessories added to the XLH 883 test bike pictured above, click here to see the H-D Sportster Accessory List.

There are also three somewhat more stylish "cruiser" models, the XLH 883 Hugger, and the XL 883C and 1200C Customs, all with lowered suspensions. These are particularly suitable for those of shorter stature (seat height only 27.12 inches). The 1200 Custom is the most lavishly finished of all Sportsters, with chrome engine cases and many extras straight from the factory.

The final model is my favorite of the line, the XL 1200S Sport. The Sportster Sport is a return to the original XLCH concept of the hot rod Sportster. Parenthetically, the XLCH Sportster was the bike for which the term "super bike" was originally coined (legend has it that the "CH" stands for either "California Hot" or "Competition Hot"). The new Sport model comes with a little more of everything that has always made the Sportster great, an up rated fully adjustable suspension at both ends, up rated double floating disc front brake, and a 15% higher output 1200cc V-twin engine with lightened flywheels and Buell heads. This makes it the quickest Sportster of them all, with a quarter mile time in the 12.9 second range. Like the standard Sportsters, it retains a generous 6.7inch ground clearance and 36/40 degree lean angles (right/left respectively). Plus outstanding stability, moderate weight for its displacement (all Sportsters weigh under 500 pounds), and the low center of gravity which makes any Sportster a pleasure to ride. Its sportier riding position and understated styling make the Sport the meanest looking of all Sportsters, every inch the street fighter that it is.

Final touches that make any Sportster a top choice in its class include self canceling turn signals, a superior control layout, hydraulic self-adjusting overhead valves, electronic ignition, cast alloy wheels with tubeless tires (laced wheels are optional), halogen headlight, vacuum operated fuel valve, and maintenance free belt drive. The highest resale value in its class does not hurt, either. In fact, many late model used Sportsters are sold for nearly 100% of their new price!

The best thing about any Sportster is riding it. Man, this is an easy bike to ride! Very willing and very forgiving of small errors. All that torque from its big V-twin engine makes it hard to stall in town, and teriffic for passing on the highway. The Sportster's low center of gravity and excellent basic frame and suspension geometry make it very stable and easy to steer at all speeds. It does not flick from side to side like a sport bike, but it steers precisely into turns. And its generous lean angle means that if you enter a corner a little bit faster than you should have, don't panic, just push a little harder on the handlebar (counter steer), and your Sporty will lean that much farther and whip you through without muss or fuss. I just love a forgiving bike that will save me when I mess up! The disc brakes, upgraded in 2000 with 4-piston calipers, are positive and progressive without being grabby. The positive shifter gets you the gear you select every time, although it makes a little noise doing it. The brake and clutch levers are the most comfortably shaped in all of motorcycling. The final belt drive is quiet and clean, needs no maintenance, doesn't jack the bike around like some shaft drives, and is as light as a chain.

The Sportster is a bike equally suited to both the city streets and country roads. The scenic route, always the best choice on any motorcycle, is what this bike seems to have been designed for.

Don't believe the stories you may have read about that bugaboo, vibration. Here is the straight copy: a Sportster is very pleasant cruising at all speeds up to about 60 mph, surprisingly so. In fact, its a blast. And the 883 is even a little smoother than the 1200. From about 60 up to about 67 mph (in 5th gear), vibration gradually becomes intrusive, mostly through the handlebars. I like to cruise at about 65 on the freeway. By 70 mph vibration becomes uncomfortable (to me) for sustained cruising. A modern Sportster is certainly smoother than the 1969 BSA Lightning I rode for many years, and none of us complained about vibration from our Triumphs and BSA's back in those days. If you want a Harley for sustained 70+ mph freeway cruising, look at an FXD (Dyna) or FLH (Touring) model; but for the scenic route, you can't beat a Sportster.

I don't know what the top speed of a 1200 Sportster is, but I will tell you that the first time I tested its "passing power" by rolling it all the way on at 65 mph, I got to 105 mph, in what seemed like a very short time indeed, before I could get it rolled off again! Whatever its ultimate top speed is, I would say it is real adequate.

No other bike in its class holds its value like a Sportster. Or looks like a Sportster. Or sounds like a Sportster. Or feels like a Sportster. In a world full of me-too and look alike bikes, the Sportster is the real thing.

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Copyright 1998, 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.