Moto Review: 2023 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

Sportster S

Harley-Davidson’s rich history allowed them to have a cult-like following for so many decades, with a big problem. The cult-like following was the biggest reason why the brand has been very conservative when it comes to bringing new technology, or new experiments to make the brand more appealing to newer riders. Just like the new Nightster, Pan America, and the new CVO Road Glide, the new Sportster S is finally here to change the inevitable future.

The Looks & Features

The concept of a sporty cruiser is not a new thing. For Harley-Davidson, it is not easy to come up with a revolutionary product as the Sportster lineup has been on the market continuously since the 1950s, but they did a great job harmonizing the modern design details with the traditional Sportster layout. You get the one-piece oval LED headlight with round LED indicators in the front, and the whole front fascia is blacked out including the inverted forks. The attention to detail is quite impressive for a bike at this price point, including the bar-end mirrors, adjustable brake and clutch levers.

From the side profile, the Sportster S has a longer and lower stance with modern body lines compared to traditional Sportsters. The exhaust manifolds and pipes are the most eye-catching design feature, which goes all the way straight to the back. The bike is not a giant cruiser, but the long wheelbase allows larger adults to be more comfortable. The only gripe that I had was the swingarm, I wish Harley-Davidson offered something that looks less industrial, a single swingarm like something you would find in a Ducati Diavel would have been great.

Although the seat does not look very supportive or cushy, it felt surprisingly comfortable, except for the fact that it has no back support, so you have to hold the handlebars to keep yourself on the bike. The footpegs are not that far from the rider, but not as close as mid-controls, so Harley-Davidson did a great job with the overall ergonomics. If you think it is not a good fit for your body type, Harley Davidson also offers mid controls and other custom options to change the ergonomics. In typical cruiser bike fashion, a 75 cm seat height is very accessible for shorter adults.

Aside from the modern body lines, there are also modern features when you swing a leg over the bike. Of course, the oval-shaped 4.0-inch TFT screen is controlled through the physical buttons on the left side of the handlebar. The TFT screen is not touch-sensitive, but it shows a lot of information for a relatively small screen. It is very easy to navigate through the menus, the resolution and screen quality is exceptionally good.

For a bike not meant for long-distance riding, it comes with nice features that you would not expect to see, including cruise control, and Bluetooth connection. The bike is heated grip “ready”, meaning that the heated grip button is pre-wired from the factory in case you want to install heated grips for colder weather. Most physical buttons on the handlebar are a carry-over from Pan America, it might look confusing at first glance, but it is quite easy to get used to it after spending a few minutes.

The Powertrain & Specs

Would you believe Harley Davidson would come up with a high-revving, liquid-cooled modern V-Twin 5 years ago? It’s what we have here. The new Revolution Max V-Twin engine not only has double overhead cams for better overall performance but also has the most modern technologies like the variable intake and exhaust camshaft gears and hydraulic lifters that do not need valve adjustment. The new engine has been on the market since 2021 and it is used in smaller Nightster, Sportster S and adventure-oriented Pan America, which shows how versatile this new platform is.

Harley-Davidson has already announced this engine will be available in different sizes, but the Sportster S gets the largest 1250cc variation that puts out 121 horsepower and a whopping 94 lb-ft of torque. It does not push 150 horsepower like the Pan America, even though it shares the same engine, as the Sportster S offers a different torque curve tailored for a cruiser with more bottom-end grunt. The Sportster S pushes the peak horsepower and torque figures at a much lower RPM. Unlike the Pan America, the Sportster S comes with a belt drive with significantly taller gear ratios, which is a better fit for a cruiser.

The Sportster S comes with fully adjustable 43mm inverted forks in the front and mono-shock rear suspension with compression, rebound and preload adjustment. The bike is not meant to be ridden 2-up, but rear preload settings can still be adjusted on the fly based on your weight. Despite having lower ride height and suspension travel, the bike can handle road imperfections quite well.

The suspension tune is on the firmer side in stock settings, and it can easily handle spirited riding on your favourite backroad. You can fine-tune the suspension settings better based on your weight and riding style, as you spend more time with it. Even though it has a single disc and caliper in the front, Harley-Davidson was nice enough to put the Brembo components to offer better braking performance and get the most out of that single disc.

The Ride & Experience

The V-Twin engine is not the smoothest I’ve ridden, but it has tons of potential and is very fun to ride. Harley-Davidson spent a lot of time with the engineering, including the throttle mapping. You can choose different ride modes to have the right throttle tune, but even the “Normal” mode is just fine for the most part. Sport mode makes the bike a little sharper but can also be a little bit twitchy depending on how sensitive your right hand is.

It is smooth enough at low RPMs that you don’t have to downshift at higher gear lower speed situations, but it really comes alive above 4000 RPM. It becomes a point-and-shoot type of experience when you are pushing the bike all the way up to the redline. The new engine is very well suited to the size of the bike, right amount of horsepower and torque, it is manageable and fun!

The fat front tire gives you confidence as you have tons of rubber, but the inputs are a little bit delayed as expected. The Sportster S allows 34 degrees of lean angle before peg feelers start to scrape, which is slightly better than traditional cruisers. It is not as flickable as other power cruisers such as the Ducati Diavel, but confidence-inspiring until you hit the physical limits of the bike.

There is no doubt the Sportster S performs quite well as a sporty cruiser, but it performs even better as a daily rider. Sure, you won’t get any sort of wind or weather protection, so extended highway trips can be a little pain. You feel that the bike is not designed for long trips, as you have to stop frequently to get gas. The biggest problem for long trips is the tiny fuel tank, which can take less than 12 litres. That means you can only go around 200 kilometres before you have to stop again for fuel.

If you keep the Sportster S in its natural habitat, the bike has a totally different character. It is an extremely easy and predictable bike that can also be fun especially at short burst acceleration when you have the right opportunity. Despite having a big bore engine, the bike is very balanced and manageable at lower speeds. The road manners are what makes the Sportster S a great daily rider.

The Verdict

Just like the other latest additions in the model lineup, the Sportster S is a nice step forward for the brand. Harley-Davidson no longer needs to hide the horsepower and torque figures, as the new Revolution Max engine can also keep up with the competition from a performance standpoint. More importantly, Harley-Davidson finally has new cruisers and other models in the lineup that can be appealing to the newer riders.

It was clearly the right move for the future of the brand, but it is still not an easy win for the Sportster S. The power cruiser segment continues to evolve, and there is fierce competition, including some exotics like the Ducati Diavel. However, the Sportster S offers a different value proposition for different audience. It might not feel as exotic, or fast as the European entries, but it offers the right amount of fun and premium feeling with great looks, for the right price point.

Engine1252cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled V-twin
Max Power121 hp @ 7,500 rpm
Max Torque94 lb-ft @ 6,000 rpm
Front BrakesBrembo Monoblock 4-piston caliper with a 320mm disc
Rear BrakesBrembo 1-piston floating caliper, 260mm single disc
Weight508 lb – 230 kg
Fuel Capacity3.1 gallons – 11.8 lt.
Seat Height29.6 in – 75 cm
Base Price (starting at)$19,499 (CAD)

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