2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review: Mid-Century Retro

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review | Attitudinal

Sitting conceptionally between the cruising Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom and the aggressive Sportster Roadster, the retro-themed 2017 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight combines aspects of its two brothers to create something entirely different.

Borrowing the motor and tires from the 1200 Custom, and a steeper fork angle, shorter wheelbase, and beefier forks reminiscent of the Roadster, the Forty-Eight adds its own image-driven ergonomics and attitude. The result is a motorcycle that is quite fun to ride, in limited doses.

Just as the 1200 Custom and Roadster are comfortable motorcycles to ride on all-day excursions, the foot-and-fist forward assertiveness of the Forty-Eight is about projecting a persona. Throw in the unapologetic protruding air filter cover and tiny peanut tank, and Harley-Davidson is not pretending the Forty-Eight is built for long stints in the surprisingly comfortable solo saddle.

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight price
2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review

It takes some time to get to know the Forty-Eight, as the ergonomics are alien to both sport and comfort. However, once settled in, you can simply enjoy the profiling status it provides and not worry that you’ll have to adjust your body positioning and stop frequently for breaks.

Part of the Harley-Davidson Dark Custom genre—even though the test bike was adorned with none-too-shy Hard Candy Hot Rod Red Flake paint—this is a motorcycle that gets you attention. Heads occasionally turn—the EPA-approved growl from the dual shorty mufflers doesn’t hurt—and you will often notice an occupant of the car next to you at a stoplight checking you out.

At its heart, the Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight is an in-town motorcycle. The under-slung mirrors make is a great lane splitter here in Los Angeles, and the throttle response of the torquey motor is nicely balanced—it’s neither irritatingly responsive nor unsatisfyingly slow. Without any doubt, you can pull away from the herd when the light turns green with full confidence that no one will be bothering you.

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review
2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review

Lighter than the Roadster or 1200 Custom, and with a seat height lower than the other two, the Forty-Eight feels reasonably agile in urban settings—a good thing with the narrow bars. The 16-inch Michelins always feel planted, and give some needed help to the short suspension.

The emulsion shocks offer a scant 1.6 inches of axle travel. On the upside, the quality of the short movement is impressive. It’s nowhere near plush, but even on the seriously deteriorating roadways of urban Los Angeles, the shocks are capable of taking the edge off of even the roughest roads.

You get a meager 3.6 inches of fork travel, but a hefty pair of 49mm fork tubes. Nicely calibrated non-adjustable cartridge-style damping gives great front-end feel—a must on irregular surfaces. The Forty-Eight provides a needed sense of the road, without jolting you out of the seat. Again, the fat Michelin Scorcher 31 tires help smooth things out, in addition to gripping the failing road surface admirably.

Performance in the canyons is surprisingly good for a bike with such sport-unfriendly ergonomics. Cornering clearance isn’t generous, but it is decent. Plus, the suspension doesn’t move much, so you get all you can out of the design.

As in the city, the Forty-Eight’s meaty Michelins plant themselves on the pavement, with nicee grip and feel. The fork doesn’t flex, so you get good front-end feedback, and the floating 300mm disc can be used to its best advantage.

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight handlebars
2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review

It is a good thing that the front brake is strong, as the brake pedal is awkward to reach. With my size 9 boots, I have to put the heel right up against the footpeg to have a chance of using the pedal.

Even then, I don’t have full coverage of the brake pedal, which is too far from the peg and also positioned more inward than it should be. Once actuated, though, the rear brake is effective. Still, I found myself rarely using it—not normal for me on a cruiser such as the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight. ABS is a recommended option; our test bike didn’t have it, though neither wheel lost traction during braking.

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight top speed
2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review

Freeway usage is best limited, as the ergonomics don’t favor high-speed riding. Again, the Michelins plant themselves nicely and provide extra cushion from the pounding you get on Los Angeles freeways. While you don’t have to avoid freeways on the Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight, short hauls are best.

Those cool low-slung mirrors are a bit tricky to use if you’re over 5’ 6” or so. Taller riders will have to duck down to get the proper angle to see traffic behind them. The mirrors are useless for checking a blind spot, so always look before you leap. There was a time when motorcycles didn’t even have rearview mirrors, so pretend that’s still the case when riding the Forty-Eight and be sure to make eye contact.

The real story of the 2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight is its dedication to style, yet its ability to still be an enjoyable ride. Sure, you probably won’t want to try to run it through a full tank of gas, even though it won’t even get you 100 miles, but don’t worry about that. If your rides are shorter ones with a focus on style, or you want a bad boy countenance for commuting, the Forty-Eight has lots of reasons to like it.

Action photography by Kelly Callan

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Riding Style

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Specs:


  • Type: Evolution V-twin
  • Bore x stroke: 3.5 x 3.811 inches
  • Displacement: 73.4 cubic inches (1202cc)
  • Maximum torque: 71 ft/lbs @ 3500 rpm
  • Compression ratio: 10:1
  • Fuel system: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection
  • Lubrication: Dry sump
  • Cooling: Air
  • Transmission: Five-speed
  • Clutch: Web multi-plate
  • Primary drive: Chain
  • Final drive: Belt


  • Frame: Mild tubular steel
  • Front suspension: Non-adjustable 49mm fork/3.6 inches of travel
  • Rear suspension: Preload-adjustable emulsion shocks/1.6 inches of travel
  • Front tire: 130/90 x 16; Harley-Davidson Michelin Scorcher 31
  • Rear tire: 150/80 x 16; Harley-Davidson Michelin Scorcher 31
  • Front wheel: 16” x 3”; Split 9-spoke cast aluminum
  • Rear wheel: 16” x 3”; Split 9-spoke cast aluminum
  • Front brake: 300mm disc w/ dual-piston caliper
  • Rear: 260mm disc w/ dual-piston caliper
  • ABS: Optional ($795)


  • Seat height: 27.3 inches
  • Wheelbase: 59.3 inches
  • Rake: 30.2 degrees
    Fork angle: 28.7 degrees
  • Trail: 5.3 inches
  • Right lean angle: 27.1 degrees
  • Left lean angle: 27.1 degrees
  • Fuel capacity: 2.1 gallons
  • Curb weight: 551 pounds
  • Estimated EPA fuel consumption: 48 mpg

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Colors:

  • Vivid Black
  • Billet Silver
  • Corona Yellow Pearl
  • Crushed Ice Denim
  • Hard Candy Black Gold Flake
  • Hard Candy Hot Rod Red Flake

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Prices (MSRP):

  • $11,299 (Vivid Black)
  • $11,649 (solid colors)
  • $11,749 (Hard Candy colors)

2017 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review | Photo Gallery