Harley’s all-new Sportster S is a major leap forward for this venerable platform, so we’ve provided extensive coverage in our September issue of Thunder Press. We’ve also published two side stories on our website, the Engine-eering sidebar (which you can read here) and the detailed spec chart (found here), as well as our editor’s Rubber-Side Down column that provides insight into the bike’s design process. Now we give you the official Thunder Press review of the 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster S so you can learn more about this ground-breaking machine.
This is a reinvention of the legendary Sportster. Gone is the air cooling, the 45-degree vee angle of the cylinders, and the full frame that have been integral to the Sportster since its debut way back in 1957.
But time marches on, so we’ve got an all-new Sportster platform that is now as speedy as its contemporaries while meeting modern noise and pollution standards. In a way, this new Sportster is emblematic of the original Sporty, which was a hot rod in its own right 63 years ago. “Putting the sport back in Sportster,” says H-D.
On the downside, the liquid-cooled Revolution Max motor (also in the new Pan America adventure bike, the best-selling ADV in the USA since May) isn’t nearly as pretty as the air-cooled Evo lump, and the beloved potato-potato sound at idle is no more. There simply isn’t enough room between 45-degree cylinders for an efficient intake system, so the new Sporty’s cylinders are splayed at 60 degrees.
On the plus side, horsepower has nearly doubled, with the new 1,252cc mill pumping out a purported 121 horses. If you wanted that much power from the old Sportster motor, you’d need at least $5,000 of mods and it would fail miserably attempting to meet OEM durability requirements and all emissions standards.
Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater
So, with the premise that the old Evo won’t be able to meet future emissions regs, here we are. And while we’ve got a new motor to build around, let’s throw away the full frame and use the RevMax as a structural member of the chassis. The result is a 60-pound weight loss, despite the addition of a radiator and its attendant plumbing. The whole thing scales in at 502 pounds with its 3.1-gallon tank filled.
It’s a bold new era for the Sportster, and that includes this new bike’s chunky styling. The Sportster S looks like the love child from a Fat Bob and a Pan Am, with an ultra-fat front tire rolling through an inverted fork and capped by a rectangular LED headlight with elliptically shaped ends, similar to the latest Fat Bob. The high-mount shotgun exhaust is another bold styling element, capped by a tailsection inspired by Harley’s XR750 dirt-trackers.
Reinventing a motorcycle icon like the Sportster is a huge challenge. H-D says it conducted more customer research than ever before, interviewing thousands of potential buyers. Brad Richards, Harley-Davidson vice president of styling and design, described his task as daunting.
“We’re trying to move the brand forward in a way that doesn’t disconnect us from the past but gives a whole new customer set to reconsider Harley-Davidson and think about the brand,” Richards related. “So we took bits and pieces from some of our most iconic Sportster moments of motorcycling and created something that is a bit undefinable.”
The Sportster S reveals itself to be a different Sportster from the moment it is straddled. The seat height, at 29.6 inches, is tall for a Harley but still reasonably low. Hand grips are a thinner diameter than traditional Harleys, based on the preferences from extensive customer research. The bike feels flat and low, and its visual presence is undeniable. Although it feels dense, it’s clearly lighter than the old Sporty.
Footpegs are set moderately forward to yield adequate legroom, with an ergonomic triangle (seat, pegs, bars) said to be almost identical to the Sportster Forty-Eight. 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 or those unaccustomed to cruiser-style foot placements.
Thumbing the starter button brings a different voice, a steadier thrum from the new 60-degree V-Twin than the lumpy idle of old. Twisting the throttle brings more immediate responses from the engine, a portent of the performance within. A light pull from the slip/assist clutch makes it easy to dial in the precise amount of power getting to the 180/70R16 rear tire.
Any misgivings about the engine sound are forgotten once the 121-horsepower RevMax is unleashed. The mill’s variable valve timing ensures there’s plenty of steam on tap regardless of rpm, hitting harder than the Pan Am down low. It snarls as it picks up revs, and it’s mere seconds before several traffic laws are broken. This is undoubtedly the fastest Sportster ever. Backing off the throttle elicits aurally pleasing pops on the overrun that adds a bad-boy quality to the riding experience.
Gearshifts from the 6-speed transmission require much less effort and are executed more slickly than the old Sporty’s 5-speed tranny. The transmission features roller bearings on the shift drum and Teflon-coated shift-shaft bushings to minimize friction for smoother shifts. A belt final-drive carries over, which requires less maintenance and delivers less driveline lash than a chain. Excessive engine braking, as can happen during sloppy downshifts that can cause the rear tire to stop spinning, is mitigated by the electronically controlled and IMU-linked drag-torque slip-control system, as well as by the slipper-type clutch.
Handling is much better than expected for a bike with a wildly fat 160/70-17 front tire, the same size as the current Fat Boy. The tire’s 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. There is only a slight amount of “flop” when bending sharply into low-speed turns.
H-D has spec’d premium Showa suspension that’s fully adjustable at both ends: compression and rebound damping, as well as spring preload. However, wheel travel is stingy, particularly at the rear where bumps larger than 2 inches have nowhere else to go but to the chassis and rider. At least it’s a better setup than the 1.5 inches from the Forty-Eight’s dual shocks. The 43mm inverted fork has 3.6 inches of travel to work with, which is enough to perform competently.
The wide handlebar provides meaningful leverage to smartly bend the bike over on the way to skimming pegs at 34 degrees of lean angle, a significant advantage over the Forty-Eight’s 27 degrees. 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. It falls short when ridden like a sportbike because it’s not designed to be a sportbike. It’s a cruiser that can really hustle.
Shrugging off speeds is the responsibility of premium Brembo brakes aided by an antilock system that also takes into account available traction when leaned over, thanks to an advanced inertial measurement unit (IMU) that monitors lean angles and chassis pitching. The Brembo package – with a 4-piston monoblock caliper and 320mm rotor up front – provides good feel through braided steel brake lines and enough power to get both tires chirping without much effort.
The IMU also corresponds with traction control, ABS, and engine braking based on the selected ride modes. Custom modes allow fine-tuning of the various electronic controls based on rider preferences. Like most bikes with ride modes, Sport verges on being too abrupt, while Road masks some of the snappiness of Sport. Rain mode dials down the throttle response and dials up the traction control, but since it wasn’t raining, I didn’t bother with it. However, junior-level riders could conceivably use it as a stepping stone to full power. Hooligans will be happy to note that traction control can be switched off at the push of a single button.
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 that activates while idling. Heat didn’t feel appreciably worse than from Indian’s FTR, which also has rear-cylinder deactivation. It’s simply not possible to stuff 120 horsepower between your legs and not feel heat coming from it.
The S performs better than expected in terms of everyday usability. The bar-end mirrors provide a clear view rearward, and the seat is surprisingly comfortable for such a slim saddle. Both hand levers are adjustable for reach, a nice feature Harley has typically neglected. A single turnsignal switch replaces the dual switches on each bar as in use on most H-Ds. Vibration felt from the engine is entirely unobjectionable.
I was able to spend much of my ride on a Sportster with the mid-mount foot controls fitted, which suited my vertically challenged body nicely, although tall riders will feel less cramped with the standard forward controls. I especially appreciated how I could better engage my legs to help control the bike and also take some weight off my butt when encountering big or sharp bumps. And because the shift linkage is many inches shorter with the mids, it delivers marginally sharper gear changes. The available lean angle when cornering remains the same with either foot-control option.
Many Harley-Davidson traditionalists are railing against the reinvention of the Sportster, and we understand the various reasons why many riders adore the old one: simplicity, styling, tradition, and heritage. The situation reminds us of when Porsche updated its iconic air-cooled flat-Six to incorporate liquid cooling, drawing jeers from enthusiasts who worshipped the way things used to be, even if the new motors were objectively superior. Air-cooled 911s are regularly worth more than newer liquid-cooled Porsches, and perhaps the last of the air-cooled Sportsters will be, too.
For diehard devotees of the 45-degree air-cooled cruiser formula, you still have plenty of choices in the Softail lineup, beginning at $13,599.
H-D has provided a startling array of technology in the Sportster S, but there are a few items missing in comparison to some of its rivals. The TFT instrumentation is vivid, but it lacks the touchscreen capability of Indian’s FTR. Also, the layout would be easier to read if the gear-position indicator and clock were larger in the display.
Additionally, the S should be offered with a quickshifter that allows clutchless up- and downshifts like its contemporary rivals. And, finally, why must we be forced to spend an extra $149.95 for a locking fuel cap?
As a rider who enjoys going fast and leaning far over in corners, I must complain about the dynamic compromises forced by the Sportster S’ crouched and muscular stance. The powerplant and the chassis are so good that I’m salivating when thinking about a version with more suspension travel and a conventionally sized front tire.
Still, I must remind myself that the Sportster S isn’t intended to be a sportbike, but rather a fast cruiser. In that context, it blows away the previous Sportster and also Indian’s Scout.
“The fact that people are having such a hard time defining the Sportster S,” Richards added, “tells me we’ve found some white space and potentially some customers that haven’t been attracted to the brand in the past.”
So, while the Sportster S won’t satisfy everyone, there’s so many intrinsic positive aspects to this platform that we can’t help but be excited by what it offers and what it means for Harley’s future.