2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S | First Ride Review

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
Big wheels keep on turning. The new Harley-Davidson Sportster S rolls on a fat 160/70-17 front tire, which is wider than the rear tire on the Street Bob 114. (Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Kevin Wing)

After being roundly criticized for keeping faithful to its roots at the expense of modernization for too long, Harley-Davidson strikes back with the Sportster S, powered by a version of the liquid-cooled 1,252cc V-Twin in the thoroughly modern and warmly received Pan America adventure bike.

It’s a bold new era for the Sportster, and this all-new S version signals the demise for air-cooled Sportys. Bold, too, is this new bike’s chunky styling, with an ultra-fat front tire leading the way. The high-mount shotgun exhaust is another bold styling element, capped by a tailsection inspired by Harley’s XR750 dirt-trackers.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
The liquid-cooled Revolution Max motor in the Sportster S is tightly packaged as a structural member of the chassis. The high-mount exhaust system is cladded with shielding to keep excess heat from riders.

The key element of the Sportster S is its Revolution Max 1250T motor, which is used as a structural element rather than a lump to be placed in an external frame. A steel-trellis steering head section combines with an aluminum mid-frame, which helps enable the new bike to weigh about 60 pounds less than the Sportster Forty-Eight. H-D says the S scales in at 502 pounds with its 3.1-gallon tank filled.

Advertisement

Gone is the beloved Harley potato-potato exhaust note from a 45-degree V-Twin, replaced by a steadier thrum from the new 60-degree V-Twin. Misgivings about the engine sound are forgotten once the 121-horsepower RevMax is unleashed. This is undoubtedly the fastest Sportster ever.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
The Sportster S takes H-D’s long-running Sportster platform to higher sporty levels. Note the standard footpeg position above and compare to the mid-mount controls below.

We were initially disappointed the new Sporty doesn’t come with the 150-horse motor from the Pan America, but there’s more than enough power here to vault near the apex of muscle cruisers. The mill’s variable valve timing ensures there’s plenty of steam on tap no matter the rpm, hitting harder than the Pan Am down low. Hydraulic valve-lash adjustment reduces maintenance costs.

The seat height, at 29.6 inches, is tall for a Harley but still quite low. Footpegs are set moderately forward to yield adequate legroom. Mid-mount foot controls are available, but they’ll set you back another $659 on top of the bike’s $14,999 base price. They’re a smart option for shorter-legged riders who are unaccustomed to cruiser-style peg placements.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
With 121 horsepower pushing 502 pounds, the new Harley-Davidson Sportster S has the highest power-to-weight ratio of any Sportster to come out of Milwaukee.

The low and muscular stance of this new Sportster forces a few dynamic compromises. H-D has spec’d premium Showa suspension that’s fully adjustable at both ends, but wheel travel is meager, particularly at the rear where bumps larger than 2 inches have nowhere else to go but to the chassis and rider. The 43mm inverted fork has 3.6 inches of travel to work with, which is enough to perform competently.

Advertisement

The front end of the S has sparked controversy. Surely that wildly fat 160/70-17 tire would make the bike steer like a truck, right? Not really. The triangular-ish profile allows it to lean over in a surprisingly neutral manner, even if steering effort is higher than it would be with skinnier rubber. The wide handlebar provides meaningful leverage on the way to skimming pegs at 34 degrees of lean angle. Some riders will find that insufficient, but let’s put it into context: H-D’s Sportster Forty-Eight touches its pegs at just 27 degrees.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
The Sportster S allows 34 degrees of lean angle before peg feelers start to scrape.

The Sporty can actually rail pretty nicely around mountain roads, as it has a solid and confidence-inspiring chassis, but its limited suspension travel keeps a rider wary of encountering mid-corner bumps that would be swallowed up with longer suspension.

Sportbike riders turn up their noses at single-disc front brakes, but the Brembo package on the S provides good feel and plenty of power. A solid two-finger squeeze can get the fat front tire chirping, while IMU-informed ABS keeps the tires from locking even when leaned over. The IMU also corresponds with traction control linked to the customizable ride modes. A 4-inch color TFT screen provides instrumentation, including tire-pressure monitoring. Cruise control is also standard.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
The 4-inch TFT instrument panel under non-reflective glass displays ride modes and tire pressures among the typical info.

The high-mount exhaust system looks like a leg roaster, but heat from the pipes is remarkably subdued. The main source of heat reaching a rider comes from the engine’s rear cylinder, which can get quite toasty when sitting in traffic, despite a rear-cylinder deactivation system when idling. Not a deal breaker unless you insist on riding in short pants.

While the Sportster falls a little flat when ridden like a sportbike, that’s because it’s not designed to be one. It’s a cruiser that can really hustle. For further context, consider that Indian’s affable Scout Bobber has the same amount of rear suspension travel, weighs 50 pounds more, and has 20 fewer horsepower. The Sportster, however, costs $4,000 extra.

Other variants of this exciting new platform are in the pipeline and still to be announced. The Sportster S is so good that we’re salivating over what might come next.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S review
The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is available in Midnight Crimson (left, add $350), Stone Washed White Pearl (right, add $350), and Vivid Black.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S Specs

Base Price: $14,999
Website: harley-davidson.com
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 60-degree V-Twin, DOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Displacement: 1,252cc
Bore x Stroke: 105 x 72mm
Horsepower: 121 @ 7,500 rpm (claimed, at the crank)
Torque: 94 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm (claimed, at the crank)
Transmission: 6-speed
Final Drive: Belt
Wheelbase: 59.8 in.
Rake/Trail: 30 degrees/5.8 in.
Seat Height: 29.6 in.
Wet Weight: 503 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.1 gals.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Harley got a lot of things right with this bike, but the rear suspension travel is criminal. A friend’s Scout 60 has 3″ of rear travel, and that is insufficient. If people don’t walk away from bikes with such poor design features, they mfg’s will keep building them.

  2. Put in a 500 or 600 mile day on the bike, covering a variety of roads, and talk to us about the gas mileage and how your back/legs/buns are feeling the next day. Everyone gushes about the 120 horses, not so much about the suspension. Oh, and with no rear fender, expect to get your back painted if you ride in the rain.
    I can’t see a reason to trade in my 2005 1200R Sportster Roadster even though I’ve put over 80,000 miles on it.

    • Typical HD bike. Many things great but a couple design flaws to keep me away. My last 2018 low rider was a great bike but had a horrible rear suspension. I guess I am just not a HD diehard who is willing to be over charged for something that is under designed.

  3. Doubt this is the bike intended for anyone’s 5-600 mile touring. That said—lost me at 2” rear travel. Engine looking for a proper chassis/suspension here..

  4. I had a spontaneous out-loud laugh today! Thank you so much. I was skimming over my emails, saw the one from Rider Mag, scrolled down and saw the headline for the new 2021 Sportster S. In the 1st sentence of the review teaser was the line “. . . and weighs just 502 pounds.”
    Ha, ha, ha hah. You guys kill me, hoo boy! Next email . . .

    • Clearly you aren’t familiar with cruisers, which tend to be heavy. Harley’s Iron 1200 Sportster weighs 564 lbs. and the Sportster Forty-Eight weighs 556 lbs., and both of them make a lot less power. The Sportster S is sporty, but it isn’t a sportbike so you can’t use that measuring stick.

  5. Limited rear suspension travel and a meager 3.1 gallon tank limit this bike’s real-world appeal. Unlike a lucky few, many of us can only have one bike in our stable; it would be nice if that one bike could be reasonably comfortable, decently long legged, and could handle multiple roles.

    Unfortunately, the Sportster S is NOT that bike.

  6. Seems right to compare the Sportster S to the Indian Scout. I owned both a 2005 Sportster and 2021 Indian Scout, and found them similar. The Indian FTR is more of a sport bike than is either the Sportster (despite it’s name) or the Scout. HD raised their game and made a powerful cruiser. Maybe HD will put their awesome new motor in a new naked sport bike with 5″ of suspension travel, 25 degrees of rake, 32″ seat height, mid controls, etc. Now that would compete with the Indian FTR!

    • In lots of ways, the FTR/Sportster S Comparison is the most logical – same HP, same price. The Scout is much cheaper and less powerful.

      The Sportster beats the Scouts on specs, but at a much greater cost. For the money, the FTR seems the better choice.

  7. THIS IS A GREAT ARTICLE…HOWEVER, FOR ME, IT CONFIRMS WHAT I’VE THOUGHT FOR A VERLY LONG TIME NOW…..THAT THE LETTERS “H D” STANDS FOR “HIGH DOLLAR” !!

  8. 12 litre tank? NO!
    Belt drive? NO!
    260 kg? NO!
    Forward controls? NO!
    50mm of suspension? NO!

    You lost me as a customer years ago Harley, this sort of shit isn’t going to win me back.

  9. so, the disaster continues, Harley Davidson discontinued the VROD and brings this thing that looks like an Indian, or any other brand but not a Harley, this design is HORRIBLE, the only one model that can make me buy a Harley is the FAT BOY 114 , but everything is going so bad in the motor company

  10. Harley finally has a bike that can challange the metrics, but still look better at it. IF they can solve their time honored reliablitiy issues, they may yet have a fighting chance at a come back. All three of my latter day Harley’s had issues, some pretty serious. Hopefully this new model can run on the road and not just on BS. I’ll wait a few years and see….if they get it right, sign me back on.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here