Reinventing an icon is never easy, and the Sportster is about as iconic as a motorcycle can get. Introduced in 1957, the Sportster is old enough to qualify for Medicare, and it’s the longest-running model family in the 119-year history of Harley-Davidson.
When the Motor Company introduced the Sportster S for 2021, its name was the only thing it had in common with previous Sportsters. Its model designation was RH instead of XL. It was liquid-cooled instead of air-cooled. And it was lighter, more powerful, and more modern than the Forty-Eight, the only 1,200cc Evo-powered XL still in Harley’s lineup. With its upswept pipes, mash-up of colors and finishes, and Fat Bob-inspired headlight and chunky tires, the Sportster S was intended to be a radical departure from the past.
The new Nightster, on the other hand, has classic Sportster styling elements. It has an airbox cover that’s shaped like a peanut tank, a round air cleaner cover on the right side of the engine, and dual exposed rear shocks. It has a solo seat and chopped fenders like the Iron 883, a small speed screen like the Iron 1200, and a side cover over the underseat fuel tank that’s reminiscent of a Sportster oil tank. It also takes its name from the Nightster XL1200N, a blacked-out, Evo-powered Sportster built from 2007 to 2012 that was part of Harley’s Dark Custom lineup.
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Rev to the Max
The Nightster’s name and styling serve as a bridge to the past. But like the Sportster S and Pan America adventure bike, it’s built on the modular Revolution Max platform that represents Harley-Davidson’s future. Its liquid-cooled, 60-degree RevMax V-Twin has DOHC with four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, and forged aluminum pistons with machined crowns to deliver a 12:1 compression ratio. The RevMax serves as a central, structural element of the chassis, with the trellis front frame, mid frame, and tailsection bolted directly to the engine.
Helmet: Fly Racing Sentinel
Jacket: Fly Racing Coolpro
Gloves: Fly Racing Brawler
Pants: Fly Racing Resistance Jeans
Boots: Fly Racing Tradesman
Harley-Davidson has long had 1,200cc and 883cc versions of XL Sportsters in its lineup. Likewise, there are two versions of the RH Sportsters, with the Sportster S displacing 1,252cc (105 x 72mm) and the Nightster displacing 975cc (97 x 66mm). Compared to the Sportster S, the Nightster’s RevMax not only has a smaller bore and a shorter stroke, it uses a single spark plug per cylinder rather than two, and variable valve timing is used only on the intake cam rather than on both the intake and exhaust cams. Claimed output on the Nightster is 90 hp at 7,500 rpm and 70 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm, whereas the Sportster S makes 121 hp and 94 lb-ft.
Although the Nightster has a 60-degree vee angle between its cylinders, its two crankshaft connecting rod journals are offset by 30 degrees. This gives the RevMax a firing order and pulse feel like a 90-degree V-Twin. The engine has roller-finger valve actuation, which reduces valve noise, and hydraulic lash adjusters, which eliminate the need for valve adjustments. The variable valve timing advances or retards intake camshaft timing over 40 degrees of crankshaft rotation, which broadens the powerband, improves combustion efficiency, and reduces emissions compared to fixed cam timing.
Located between the cylinders are a pair of 50mm down-draft throttle bodies, and fuel delivery is optimized for each cylinder. Above the engine is a 6.5-liter airbox with tuned velocity stacks that pack air into the combustion chambers for more power, and the airbox has internal ribs that eliminate unwanted resonance and intake noise. The RevMax’s dual counterbalancers reduce primary and secondary vibration as well as rocking couple, but they are tuned to allow enough vibration to deliver a visceral riding experience.
The Nightster is equipped with Harley-Davidson’s Rider Safety Enhancements electronics suite, which includes ABS, traction control, and drag-torque slip control. There is no IMU or lean-angle sensors, so ABS and TC are not lean-angle-adaptive. There are three ride modes (Road, Sport, and Rain) that adjust throttle response, engine braking, ABS, and TC settings.
Take a Seat
“Form follows function, but both report to emotion,” a saying attributable to Willie G. Davidson, was repeated by Harley-Davidson’s VP of Design, Brad Richards, at the Nightster’s press launch. Motorcycles are intended to be ridden, and their design should serve that purpose. But we all know that compromises are made in the name of style. And when it comes to cruisers, many buyers are more concerned with how they look than how they go.
The Nightster, however, balances the scales between curb appeal and riding appeal. The design team went to great lengths to give it a classic Sportster profile, with a 19-inch front wheel paired with a 16-incher out back. Even though it is built on a different platform, the Nightster’s rider triangle is similar to that of other Sportsters, with a low 27.8-inch seat, midmount controls, and a low-rise handlebar. (For those who prefer forward controls, they are available as a $599.95 accessory.) A nice bonus is that both hand levers are adjustable for reach.
With 3 inches of travel for the emulsion-technology shocks and 4.5 inches of travel for the 41mm Showa dual-bending-valve fork, the Nightster’s well-damped suspension provides a comfortable, responsive ride. The only adjustability is rear preload, and a spanner is included under the seat. And with 32 degrees of cornering clearance on either side, a fair amount of lean is possible before chamfering one’s boot soles. Single-disc brakes front and rear with Brembo calipers and steel-braided lines provide plenty of stopping power.
The RevMax is a rev-happy engine – redline is 9,500 rpm – and the 975cc version in the Nightster feels lively and engaging. Giving it the whip through a fast set of curves feels like the right thing to do. How else does one do justice to such a responsive engine and solid chassis? But the Nightster is still a cruiser, just as happy to chug down Main Street at a chill pace.
There’s a good reason we love air-cooled engines. They are elemental, pure, and elegant in their simplicity. Cooling fins look cool, and the lack of a radiator and associated plumbing keeps the engine bay clean and tidy. The performance and emissions advantages of a liquid-cooled engine are undeniable, but let’s face it, not many of them are pleasing to the eye.
The surfaces and finishes on the RevMax make it look muscular and solid, but also somewhat robotic. On the Nightster’s pipe side, everything on the powertrain has its proper place, but the plastic shrouds covering the radiator and oil cooler look like an afterthought. On the kickstand side, there are unsightly wires and hoses between the engine and radiator that even the discontinued Street 750 managed to avoid. Harley-Davidson is known for its attention to detail, and on its Twin-Cooled Milwaukee-Eight it went to great pains to hide the evidence of liquid cooling. As good as the RevMax engine is, aesthetic appeal is its biggest challenge.
There’s also unattractive exposed wiring around the handlebar, and the switchpods next to both grips are bulbous with cheap-looking buttons. Perhaps it is because Harley-Davidson has previously set such high benchmarks for fit and finish that these deviations stick out like sore thumbs.
Otherwise, the Nightster looks sharp. Like the original XL1200N Nightster, bright work is minimized, with the only chrome found on the fork stanchions. The seven-spoke wheels are finished in Satin Black, and the 2-in-1 exhaust is matte black. The black speed screen is both stylish and functional, and the single round instrument gauge is handsome and user-friendly. All the lighting is LED, and the rear turnsignals double as brake lights.
In its early days, the Sportster developed a reputation as a hot rod because it offered more horsepower and less weight than most of its competitors. Over the years, however, that reputation faded, and the Sportster came to be regarded as a venerable member of the old guard rather than the vanguard.
Thanks to the RevMax platform, the Sportster S and Nightster have reclaimed a reputation for performance. The Sportster S is more powerful, more radically styled, and has higher-spec components and electronics, while the Nightster is more familiar, more accessible, and has stronger links to the long history of Sportsters. Both are taking Harley-Davidson in a bold new direction.
2022 Harley-Davidson Nightster Specs
Base Price: $13,499 (Vivid Black)
Price as Tested: $13,899 (Redline Red)
Warranty: 2 yrs., unltd. miles
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 60-degree V-Twin, DOHC w/ 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 97 x 66mm
Horsepower: 90 @ 7,500 rpm (claimed, at the crank)
Torque: 70 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm (claimed, at the crank)
Final Drive: Belt
Wheelbase: 61.3 in.
Rake/Trail: 30 degrees/5.4 in.
Seat Height: 27.8 in.
Wet Weight: 481 lb
Fuel Capacity: 3.1 gals.
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In the specs, the engine is listed as a transverse V-twin. Isn’t a Moto Guzzi a transverse V-twin?
We use transverse to refer to the crankshaft orientation relative to the path of travel. The Moto Guzzi is a longitudinal V-Twin.
Nice that HD is finally going to add some serious horsepower to the Sportster models. The advantage of the ugly left side is that you can already see what the E-Sportster will look like in the future. BTW I like the right side of this new bike.
Engine looks awefull,left side looks like the inside of a washing machine and the right side looks like it was made by fisher price . Check out heritage Triumphs, It can be done with some effort. Harley apear to have made no effort to link the engine appearance with it’s heritage . Radiator design is also poor with a lack design inovation. If you want an engine like this you would probably want it in a chassis that suits it and can exploit it’s full potential. KTM or Ducati springs to mind. Not sure who this bike would really apeal to . I predict another Sales flop . Harley you need a clearer sence of identity and you must try harder.
Harley fan, on my 3rd 1200 sporty. Wish HD best of luck but it’s over priced period and the bulk between the front wheel and engine! Ugh! Triumph did it right with their radiators tucked in. A 4gal tank please! I’d rather have more low torque so it doesn’t have to be wound up. Lower weight is a plus.
I rode one at Americade and I absolutely loved it. I think the left side looks fine and I prefer the raw look to fake fins trying to hide the fact it’s a liquid cooled motorcycle. The Sportster S was fun as hell to ride as well but is stupid looking and the front tire feels weird at slow speed turning. I have a lot of experience on a Pan America so I’m used to the look of the motor.
Bought one in Redline Red, like the one in this great article. I love it. Super smooth, and very flickable. I rode a 48 before I bought this, and it scraped pegs coming out of the H-D parking lot. Mind you, my last bike was a SV650, so I am definitely the problem here. Got on the Nightster, and and it felt right. Really liked the ride of the Sportster S, but dealer markups around here make it a pipe dream.
HD should have just retired the Sportster. Had they ignored the constraints of trying to (r)evolutionize the iconic entry level American cruiser, they may have come-up with a better bike.
If this is the new look ill stick with older air cooled Harleys . Where is the chrome ? This looks like a metric cruiser trying to be a Harley im sure it runs great but once you loose the look of Harley why own one when u can get a Japanese bike that looks the same proberly runs as well and is alot cheaper Please Harley keep the chrome keep air cooled bikes keep the tradition Im glad i have a 89 Sportster thats all I can say