Harley-Davidson Sportster S review (2021-on)

Highlights

  • Completely new entry-level Harley-Davidson
  • Revolution Max 1250T V-twin engine
  • Lacks a little the character we expect from Harley-Davidson

At a glance

Power: 120 bhp
Seat height: Low (29.6 in / 753 mm)
Weight: Medium (503 lbs / 228 kg)

Prices

New £13,995
Used N/A

Overall rating

Next up: Ride & brakes
4 out of 5 (4/5)

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S represents a seismic overhaul of a long-lived family of bikes reaching all the way back to the ‘50s. The previous bike - the Sportster 1200 - could trace its heritage all the way back to the Model K, with the most recent version having received a steady stream of updates since the introduction of the Evolution engine in 1986. But who cares? That’s ancient history now.

What Harley-Davidson have presented us with now is a brand new bike, nay a brand new concept, that chucks all but the Sportster name in the bin. Following on from the Pan America, the Harley Sportster S eschews air-cooling, non-existent electronics and 'feel over performance' in favour of modern engineering, less show and more go.

If this was a competitor product, like a Honda Rebel, I’d be heaping praise on how it rides while whinging about how it doesn’t quite have the Harley-Davidson je ne sais quoi­ but the Sportster S doesn’t have it either.

There’s no doubting that the new bike is leaps and bounds ahead of the old model in every area that can be measured and would be more than capable of keeping up with the current crop of naked retros.

But in engineering such a solid bike, Harley have engineered out some of what, to me at least, makes Harleys great.

Ride quality & brakes

Next up: Engine
3 out of 5 (3/5)

Like Harley's recent Pan America, the Sportster's Revolution motor is a stressed member in the chassis, helping to reduce weight considerably, which is felt on the road.

The Sportster S changes direction much better than the old machine but the bulbous front tyre puts up a bit of a fight. The first 20 or so degrees of lean are fine but after that you have to really give the bars a good push to get it to go further.

Mid corner changes, especially if things tighten up, can be equally challenging. The Fat Bob has the same issue, so all fingers are pointing at that giant front tyre. Ground clearance too is much improved with the old skrrrrtt on every roundabout long forgotten. 

Ground clearance is improved for the Harley Sportster S

Elsewhere in the chassis is new suspension that, unlike the old stuff, is fully adjustable, while Brembo now provide the brakes. 

A front view of the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

Both work reasonably well considering they’re hamstrung from the outset. The suspension for instance is just 92mm at the front and a paltry 37mm at the rear – the ride is good, considering how little Showa had to work with, but you can’t help but feel another inch at either end would work wonders. There's also a remote preload adjuster, with a whopping 40 clicks to muck about with, which is tucked under the left hand side of the seat.

The same goes for the brakes – the four pot Brembo up front does an ample job of stopping 228kg of metal plus another god knows what of rider but another disc/caliper wouldn’t hurt. 

Engine

Next up: Reliability
4 out of 5 (4/5)

The Harley Sportster S is powered by a 1252cc V-twin engine dubbed the Revolution Max 1250T. Just like the Revolution Max fitted to the Pan America 1250, the engine is a water-cooled 60-degree V-twin with DOHC and a VVT system but it’s got a few changes. 

Overall displacement, including the bore and stroke are the same, but there’s a new top end with smaller valves, different velocity stacks and altered cam profiles.

The result is less peak power and torque (120bhp claimed rather than the 150bhp of the Pan and 92lb.ft instead of 95lb.ft) but an increase in torque elsewhere in the rev range with 10% more torque from 3000 to 6000rpm. The results on the road are delightful.  

Cornering left on the Sportster S

The motor pulls right from the bottom without shuddering or chugging, just delivering spades of usable torque. Unlike the old bike, which just shook like crazy from the midrange onwards, the Sportster S pulls cleanly all the way to the redline, rewarding riders with a decent kick of power right at the top.

It’s geared well too with second gear dispatching most town duties and third comfortably stretching right from low-30s right through to ‘how are you doing officer?’. 

The only complaint about the engine is that it just doesn’t have that drama you expect from a Harley – the bike doesn’t shudder waiting at the lights, it doesn’t roar with induction noise. It's also desperately in need of a louder pipe but this isn't Harley's fault - it's a product of Euro5 regulations that everyone has to meet. 

Harley-Davidson Sportster S V-twin engine

Sure, there’s a bit of popping on the overrun but it doesn’t feel like 1200cc of rip-snorting American muscle. On the Pan America, where refinement is the name of the game, you don’t notice it but on a cruiser, where you want a sense of occasion, it leaves you feeling a little flat.

Reliability & build quality

Next up: Value
4 out of 5 (4/5)

The Harley-Davidson Sportster S may come from a long line of Sportster models but this version is a complete departure from previous generations. The 1250T engine has only just been released and it's too soon to draw any conclusions about long-term reliability. Standard warranty is two years but it can be extended by a further three.

Fit and finish of the parts is generally good but we did spy a few empty threads on the frame that had gone rusty. 

Harley-Davidson Sportster S clock

Value vs rivals

Next up: Equipment
3 out of 5 (3/5)

Harley say the new Sportster S is the ‘pinnacle’ of the model line, with cheaper options to come.

That means for now it’s trying to compete with everything from Indian’s Scout Bobber to a Ducati Diavel and everything else in between.

As a replacement for a Sportster it’s so different it’s almost incomparable but as an alternative to a BMW R nine T, Indian FTR or Triumph Bobber Black, it’s a convincing proposition. 

Leaning into a corner on the Harley Sportster S

Equipment

5 out of 5 (5/5)

As with the rest of the bike, the Harley Sportster's electronics too have had a huge uplift compared to the old model with three riding modes (Road, Sport and Rain) plus two custom modes as well as cornering ABS and lean-sensitive traction control, which this tester found worked remarkably well on one particularly slippery corner. 

All of this is controlled through the 4" round TFT screen, which also houses other functions from the Harley-Davidson app such as navigation.

A single front disc provides stopping power

Along with the new dash are heaps of other new features including LED lighting, cruise control, new multifunction switchgear plus the obligatory restyle complete with high-level flat track inspired exhaust.

Like every Harley there are loads of options including mid-mounted footpegs in case you find the forwards a bit of a stretch. We gave them a try and found them a little cramped and they also made the sidestand trickier to deploy. Unless you really hate the look of the forwards, at over £600 a set (plus fitting) we'd give them a miss.

It's also possible to fit a pillion seat, pegs and backrest, which comes with a rear mudguard extender to protect your passengers backside.

Specs

Engine size 1252cc
Engine type Revolution Max 1250T water-cooled 60-degree V-twin with DOHC and a VVT
Frame type Stressed-member, high strength low alloy steel trellis frame; stamped, cast, and forged junctions; MIG welded; aluminum forged mid-structure
Fuel capacity 11.8 litres
Seat height 753mm
Bike weight 228kg
Front suspension 43 mm inverted fork with compression, rebound and spring preload adjustability
Rear suspension Linkage-mounted, piggyback monoshock with compression, rebound and hydraulic spring preload adjustability
Front brake 320mm radially mounted, monoblock, 4-piston single caliper
Rear brake 260mm floating, single piston caliper
Front tyre size 160/70 x 17
Rear tyre size 180/70 x 16

Mpg, costs & insurance

Average fuel consumption 49 mpg
Annual road tax £96
Annual service cost -
New price £13,995
Used price -
Insurance group -
How much to insure?
Warranty term Two years

Top speed & performance

Max power 120 bhp
Max torque 94 ft-lb
Top speed -
1/4 mile acceleration -
Tank range -

Model history & versions

Model history

Sportster models have been around since the '50s and include the more recent Iron 883,  Iron 1200Forty-Eight and  Roadster.

In 2020 Harley-Davidson announced that the Sportster family would no longer be available in European markets before unveiling this latest edition for the 2021 model year.

Other versions

The S will eventually become the top spec model in the new Sportster family of bikes but it is the first to be released.

Owners' reviews for the HARLEY-DAVIDSON SPORTSTER S 1250 (2021 - on)

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