The Sportster. Few namesakes have a 64-year history and a resume as regale as this one. Its simplicity made it a darling of the custom world. In the hands of anyone with a few bucks, a set of wrenches, and a little imagination, it has sported, bobbed, cruised, caféd, flat tracked, scrambled, chopped, toured, and beyond. One thing missing from the legend of Harley-Davidson’s favorite blank canvas was becoming a wholly modern machine until the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S.Since the Sportster’s introduction in 1957, it has been defined by steel-cradle frames loaded with air-cooled 45-degree V-twin engines. The Sportster S changes everything, and we do mean everything. The water-cooled 60-degree V-twin engine, stressed-member chassis design, fully adjustable suspension with a linkage-enhanced shock, and advanced electronics are the underpinnings of H-D’s flagship Sporty.
We put the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S on the well-worn streets of Downtown Los Angeles, followed by some proper canyon riding through the San Gabriel Mountains to hit you with the Fast Facts.
The 60-degree Revolution Max 1250T V-twin engine is in the torque business, and business is good. V-twin engines have one overriding mission—deliver gobs of low-end torque that makes you grin from ear to ear. That’s precisely what the Rev Max 1250T does. With a claimed 121 horsepower and 94 ft-lbs on deck, all that bottom-end shove is accessible a stone’s throw above idle and doesn’t stop pulling until the 9000 rpm redline. There’s no point in wringing its neck—though dual counterbalancers make the ride sublime if you do—as roll-on power is available anywhere, anytime.
The “T” updates to the Rev Max 1250 make all the difference. When the Revolution Max 1250 engine was launched with the Pan America ADV platform, H-D engineers continuously reminded us of the new powerplant’s modularity, from internal component options to chassis application, which translates to greater model variety. What the Sportster S loses in terms of top-end power, it makes up for in low-end grunt. However, it’s more than just a new fuel and VVT map. Instead, the 1250T’s new pistons, cylinder head, velocity stacks, and intake are designed to prioritize, yep, you guessed it—torque.
There’s a new sound for a new era. The lumpy potato exhaust note is now resigned to the history books, or those that want to purchase one of the few current Evo-powered 2021 Sportsters remaining in the lineup. A welcome surprise is the raspy and aggressive exhaust note belted out of those XR flat track inspired high-pipes. Interestingly, the exhaust generally doesn’t throw off too much heat on its own. However, at low speeds or with your boots on the deck, your thigh will be nice and toasty, thanks to its proximity to the rear cylinder. Once in the wind, everything is a-okay.
Six speeds and an assist-and-slipper clutch kick refinement into new high gear. See, back when the Ironhead or Evolution engines were in the sporty, a chunky gearbox and long-throw shifting made sense as it matched the personality and feel—think low-and-slow vs. pan-seared cooking. In a V-twin as lively as what we have here, that would only read as clunky, and the shifting experience is anything-but, though the shift-throw is still long. A relatively light clutch pull is complemented by smooth, confident clicks into the next gear.
Five ride modes change the Sportster S personality on a whim. Equipped with three-preset ride modes—Rain, Road, and Sport—riders also have two custom modes available to tailor every electronic variable to your liking. Rain behaves as expected and wanted in bad conditions. Meanwhile, Road takes a relaxed approach with its pleasant throttle response and power delivery. Sport mode hits the smelling salts and keeps the nannies at a minimum for a pure-performance experience, which is best enjoyed in the canyons. There is a minor quibble with Sport’s throttle sharpness during the initial on-off stages. Still, that aggression is addicting.
We have more than ride modes: The Sportster S has a full suite of IMU-supported aids. The list of electronics looks like something we’d see on any modern sportbike—adjustable cornering ABS, lean-angle-sensitive traction control (can be disabled by a handy-dandy button on the bar), wheelie control, engine braking management, cruise control, and a tire pressure monitoring system. None of these nannies get in the way of a good time in the canyons and will undoubtedly serve riders getting acclimatized to the kind of performance on tap here.
No cradle frame? No problem. The Sportster S doesn’t use a conventional frame, as H-D fans might know it. Instead, the engine is a stressed member—the front, mid, and rear frame sections are bolted directly to the engine itself. The benefits include increased chassis stiffness and a whole lot of weight savings—roughly 60 pounds depending on what Evo-powered Sporty you’re using as a comparison. This thing is planted, boasting far more stability and control than previous Sportsters displayed, tipping in gently and predictably at high or low speeds.
The Dunlop GT503 tires play a prominent role in this machine’s handling. The massive front tire, inspired by the Sportster Forty-Eight, gives the new S model a mean custom look. I wouldn’t fault anyone for assuming that it wasn’t exactly quick on its feet, but we all know what they say about assumptions. The Rubenesque Dunlop’s were co-developed with H-D, and the 160/70 front tire features a noticeably steep profile, which allows the bike to tip onto the edge of the rubber with ease. Heck, you even get good grip, too.
Showa suspension is vastly improved, though there is room yet. Let’s be clear—the fully-adjustable 43mm USD fork and linkage shock are worlds better than the Sportys of yore. The front-end gobbles up rough pavement without flinching, while the rear’s two inches of wheel travel shows limitations with those harder-edged hits, which transfers energy to the rider. The linkage setup helps, along with better spring and damping characteristics, but it’s a problem exacerbated by something we’ll get into next. When the pavement is even, it’s all smooth sailing.
The Sportster S is one low-slung sled. A 29.6-inch seat height will accommodate just about any inseam length, while the handlebars draw my 5-foot 10-inch frame across the 3.1-gallon tank. These ergos are topped off by forward controls. According to H-D staffers, its rider triangle is virtually identical to that of the Forty-Eight. The clamshell riding position has the potential to become taxing, as it removes your legs from the equation, adding more weight to the ol’ derriere. While I was fine with it, after half-dozen hours in the saddle, the firmer seat, limited suspension travel, and forward controls do conspire against your backside on rougher roads.
Don’t worry—mid controls to the rescue! We had the option to scoot around on mid-control equipped bikes, which allows you to bring your legs back into the mix and help absorb some of the blows bestowed by the mean streets of Los Angeles. I preferred them for sportier riding, and that’s a good thing as they don’t restrict lean angle at all. Not only that, but I see them as a valuable option for shorter riders—while those at the other end of the spectrum might be a bit cramped.
Brembo kit delivers all the stopping power necessary. Digging into the radial lever, and you’ll get more than a full serving of braking performance from the single four-piston Brembo caliper and 320mm disc, stopping you lickety-split. Feel and power is aplenty, despite the single front-disc setup. In the rear, the long wheelbase and lengthy cruiser geometry give the back brake some serious oomph, which I enjoyed while trailing into the corners of Angeles Crest and Angeles Forest Highways.
A four-inch full-color TFT display fits the image and market. With all the tech loaded into the new Sporty, an old-school LED display wouldn’t do. Instead, we have a simple, tasteful display with an intuitive UI. Bluetooth connectivity allows for caller ID, navigation, and more. If that isn’t enough, you also get front-to-back LED lighting.
With the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportsters S standing as the shining star of the Sportster family hill, the future is looking bright. It’s easy to forget that we’re only on the third generation of Sportster. We’ve gone from Ironheads to Evos, and we’re now taking a dramatic leap into modernity with the Revolution Max 1250T. It’s a truly exciting time for the lineup and H-D. The performance-minded Sportster S signals that it can and will do more with a V-twin engine dripping in smooth torque, a chassis that enjoys a curvy road as much as an urban blast, and tech that matches Japanese and Euro competitors. The criticisms here can be laid upon many a short-saddled cruiser, but they don’t detract from the possibilities, which we’ll be seeing more of soon.
Hello everyone and welcome once again to Ultimate Motorcycling’s weekly Podcast—Motos and Friends.
My name is Arthur Coldwells.
This week’s Podcast is brought to you by Yamaha motorcycles. Discover how the YZF-R7 provides the perfect balance of rider comfort and true supersport performance by checking it out at YamahaMotorsports.com, or see it for yourself at your local dealer.
This week’s episode features Senior Editor Nic de Sena’s impressions of the beautiful new Harley-Davidson Low Rider ST that is loosely based around the original FXRT Sport Glide from the 1980s. Hailing from The Golden State, these cult-status performance machines became known as West Coast style, with sportier suspension, increased horsepower, and niceties including creature comforts such as a tidy fairing and sporty luggage.
In past episodes you might have heard us mention my best friend, Daniel Schoenewald, and in the second segment I chat with him about some of the really special machines in his 170 or so—and growing—motorcycle collection. He’s always said to me that he doesn’t consider himself the owner, merely the curator of the motorcycles for the next generation.
Yet Daniel is not just a collector, but I can attest a really skilled rider. His bikes are not trailer queens, they’re ridden, and they’re ridden pretty hard. Actually, we have had many, many memorable rides on pretty much all of the machines in the collection at one time or another.
From all of us here at Ultimate Motorcycling, we hope you enjoy this episode!