As many of us know, Harley as a brand has been at a crossroads for some time now. At this point there have been small libraries written about how as their core customer base ages, the need to appeal to a younger demographic has become even more urgent than ever. HD has to give customers my age and younger bikes to be excited about, that are innovative, perform, and integrate modern technology into their arguably dated formula for bike engineering, like the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S.
Regardless of whether or not someone “gets” the brand, and the lifestyle approach to motorcycling, their motorcycles have long sacrificed function to form, a badge which some die-hard enthusiasts wear with a great deal of pride. But, in order to move the company forward (and acquire new riders) HD needs to give riders like me a performance machine that isn’t an expensive showpiece like the Livewire (as much fun as I had on it, the target demographic is quite niche).
When I heard about the entirely new Sportster S, this is what I was hoping for: a modern bike that performs like a modern bike, and not just the same Harley of yesteryear with a different paint job. After a full day of riding the 2021 Sportster S, I can say that Harley really has managed to provide something that is modern, and for the masses.
The Sportster S has been designed practically from the ground up. At the centre of the bike sits the Revolution Max 1250T engine, which not only acts as the powerplant, but also a major structural component for the chassis – This makes for a really rigid chassis, and an even lower centre of gravity. Everything else is designed modularly around the engine, allowing for a good deal of weight reduction in the subframe and swing-arm, as well as the lack of a traditional overall frame.
While a great deal of engineering has gone into making this a major component of the chassis, there’s been even more time and tech thrown into the engine’s performance. I could rhyme off a dozen different engine technologies the folks at Harley-Davidson were kind enough to explain in detail to me, but what really matters is the bottom line: this engine churns out 121 horsepower, 94 lb-ft. of torque, and some actual performance.
The amount of torque on tap off-the-line and in the midrange is almost excessive, and under heavy throttle the bike pulls like a damn freight train hooked up to a tugboat. Naturally, because of the bike’s wheelbase things don’t feel like you’re going to be accidentally riding on one wheel, but I did manage to scare myself into thinking I might actually fall off the back. This was early in our ride, while snapping the throttle in the low end of second gear with the bike set to Sport Mode.
Even still, the Sportster S provides enough power to have lots of fun, without being too intimidating to ride hard once you’re acquainted. As I got more comfortable with the bike throughout the ride I found myself able to confidently exit corners at full throttle. So confident in fact that I managed to burn through almost a full tank of gas well before our scheduled fuel-up point – when you’ve done 20+ passes on the same few sweepers to get photos, it’s easy to get carried away.
While I’m happy to admit the bike is fun enough to get carried away and burn through a full tank of gas, you’re probably going to encounter a more natural reminder that it’s time for a breather. That reminder will appear most likely in the form of lower back pain or a numb arse. The riding position pushes your fists and feet forward enough that it seems impossible to straighten your lower back without feeling tension in your legs or arms, and the seat is fairly narrow as well.
By the end of our ride, my left buttcheek had become plenty numb, and no matter how much I shifted around I couldn’t find a comfortable position to relieve any discomfort. A set of mid controls would probably help this, and HD will certainly sell you a pair. It might also help you reach the shifter, which is positioned quite high and caused me some strain to upshift – my riding boots and/or ankle simply don’t allow my foot to bend enough, so each upshift required some conscious effort.
Speaking of effort… you know what else requires some? Steering a bike at low speeds with a 160 tire on the front, and a 180 on the rear. This was the first time I’d ridden a moto with this sort of tire setup, and it makes a noticeable difference. Harley themselves said this was a styling decision, and I have to question it from even just a general usability perspective. All that weight up front makes bar input just feel sluggish. Granted, it does make the bike feel like it’s gorilla-glued to the road at higher speeds, but it just becomes tiring in regular riding and low-speed maneuvers.
Thankfully, Harley-Davidson took a much more utilitarian approach to the tech they’ve packed into the Sportster S’ cluster. The 109mm round pod display is executed brilliantly, and took me very little time to get used to, despite the bars having more buttons than an old Blackberry. The cluster does great even in direct sunlight and shows tons of information, from the standard fare riding information (like speed, gear, tachometer, fuel), to full map-based navigation, media player, and a suite of customization options that’s accessible when parked.
The settings pages allow you to fully configure two separate custom ride modes, tweaking your traction control, throttle response, and engine output/braking in any combination you’d like. While the standardly programmed modes are fine themselves, it’s nice to have the engine braking afforded in sport mode, without the aggressive throttle response if you’re navigating traffic for example. Worth mentioning also is that full navigation capabilities only require Harley’s app on your smartphone, and not any separate GPS modules. This is a proper modern execution of a cluster, while still keeping the styling and design of the actual pod traditional enough that nobody would give it a second glance.
All-in-all, the brand has managed to come up with a modern solution for a classic model, bringing one of their heritage pieces into the future. While there are still some choices that leave me scratching my head, like the front tire size, there’s a lot more that Harley has gotten right, finally breathing some modern life into the dated engineering of the previous generation Sportster. The technology is there, the engineering is there, and the performance is just on the cusp. If Harley just manages to come up with some dynamic suspension, and maybe a quick shifter, then I might find myself seriously considering the Sportster S as a contender for a 1-bike garage.
Until then, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S couldn’t be my only moto, but let’s be honest. We all need another bike in our garage, and there aren’t many reasons it shouldn’t be a Sportster S. Starting at $17,999 in black, or $18,449 if you prefer white or “Midnight Crimson”, the Sportster S is definitely worth a test ride.