Car Reviews

REVIEW: 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

The Sportster is dead, long live the Sportster.

By Matthew Neundorf

Oct 7, 2021 6 min. read

Article was updated 8 months ago

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What does it mean when an iconic vehicle changes? I’m not talking about evolving here, I mean full blown reinvention. Specifically, is it possible that one can maintain its status even after eschewing the status quo?

These are precisely the questions dancing around in my helmet while piloting the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S ($17,999).

There is no denying that the Harley-Davidson Sportster is an icon. The best-selling motorcycle to wear a Bar and Shield, it's arguably the most important model in H-D’s lineup. As such, it has been in continuous production since 1957, and over the course of those sixty-four years, has been left well enough alone: a cradle frame topped by a peanut tank, hugs an air-cooled, 45-degree, V-Twin engine to create a very accessible and classic motorcycling experience.

This all-new Sportster S however, is anything but classic.

I’ve just muscled the bike through its first set of bendy asphalt and cracked the throttle wide open on some B-roads north of Barrie. There’s little to no chassis flex. It holds it’s line with confidence, leans deeper than expected and its engine, oh that marvellous engine, it absolutely loves to rev. Clearly this bike neither looks, feels nor performs like any Sportster anyone has ridden before.

[caption id="attachment_162302" align="alignnone" width="2560"]2021 Harley Davidson Sportster 2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S,[/caption]

The looks

Where Sportsters of yore were prototypical in aesthetic, the S comes with a heavily stylized approach. Stout and hunkered with a brawler’s stance, it melds a number of trends from the custom world to deliver a unique take on a cruiser. Those wide tires and ground-hugging suspension are clear hallmarks from a Bobber, while the tapered tail and high-mount exhaust were ripped right from the dirt ovals of flat track. Modern LED lighting is employed everywhere, and if that pill-shaped headlight looks familiar, know that it was swiped from the Fat Bob parts bin.

Far from just a “bitsa-bike” (bits of this, bits of that), the Sportster S demonstrates both cohesion of intent and a fit and finish in keeping with Harley’s high standards. And while it's certainly not shy in front of a lens, I think it looks even better in person. The Stone Washed White Pearl paint ($450) on my tester offers just enough contrast to the mostly blacked-out bike to make things pop, especially the bronzed accents on the tank’s emblem, cylinder heads and crankcase.

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster

The Feel

Fire up the internals lurking behind those cases and you’ll wonder if you’re actually sitting on a Harley. Gone are the shuddering vibrations and loping, “potato-potato” soundtrack of the old pushrod V-Twin. The Revolution Max 1250T powering the Sportster S is thoroughly modern and incredibly smooth.

Displacing 1,252 cubic-centimetres, the dual overhead cam, liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-Twin boasts magnesium and nickel silicon carbide internals, variable valve timing, a pair of spark plugs per cylinder and a set of counterbalancers too. It has been engineered with hydraulic lash adjusters, so you’ll never need to schedule a pricey valve job, and fueling is controlled via ride-by-wire, so niceties that have never graced a Sportster before (or even some of H-D’s “big-twins”) like cruise control and ride modes, are present and accounted for.

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster

Once thumping, the Rev Max 1250T develops 121 horsepower (at 7,500 rpm) and 94 pound-feet of torque (at 6,000 rpm). For reference, that’s nearly twice as many ponies as the old 1,200 cc equipped Sportster could muster (68 hp) and a twenty-percent increase in twist. All in a bike that is nearly 30 kg lighter (228 kg). You feel this immediately upon twisting the throttle. Acceleration is prompt, to say the least. The cam profiles and valve phasing were specifically tuned for this kind of off-the-line grunt. And the torque curve it produces is pancake flat. Regardless of which of the six gears I found myself in, there was plenty of punch to leave things in my dust. And running the motor up to its 8,000 r.p.m. redline was as addictive as it was rewarding.

From the saddle, the bars are wide and commanding but well within reach of bent arms. The seat is sculpted to cradle well under those boisterous launches and it offers a decent amount of padding. The foot pegs -- positioned as forward controls on my tester -- offer the traditional legs-akimbo pose of most cruiser type motorcycles. Harley does offer a mid-mount foot peg option ($659.95), but none of the units available had been so outfitted.

The dash is a 4-inch round TFT display, and it is a state of the art affair, too. It provides all of the essential information at a glance and, partnered with your smartphone and an active H-D app, will also deliver turn-by-turn navigation as well as full media control should you be wearing a headset within your lid. Thanks to its attractive packaging and spot-on performance, I’d wager that gauge will soon migrate through most of Harley’s fleet.

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster

There are three pre-set ride modes (Sport, Road, and Rain) as well as two custom choices. I spent most of my time flogging the Sportster S in Sport where throttle response was a touch choppy but in a decidedly fun way. Road mode smooths things out considerably and is honestly where I would spend most of my time, were this my own bike. Selecting Rain will chop power appreciably.

As mentioned, there is room to tailor how the Sportster S behaves. Governed by a six-axis inertial measurement unit (IMU), the ABS braking, traction control, wheelie and rear wheel lift control are all lean-angle sensitive and fully adjustable. Working with the handlebar-mounted switchgear, modifications are intuitive and easy to spot on that dash.

The Performance

Thanks to that stupendous engine, the Sportster S is a bonafide cruise-missile. It’s quick, fast and, even though it plays a different soundtrack, I think it sounds incredible.

Where things go a bit pear-shaped, however, is where all of the efforts flexed on form tend to compromise function.

[caption id="attachment_162301" align="alignnone" width="2560"]2021 Harley Davidson Sportster 2021 Harley Davidson Sportster S,[/caption]

The 43 mm, Showa inverted fork and piggy-back monoshock, both adjustable, do a solid job of smoothing out a firm ride, but the low stance doesn’t leave them much room to work with. With only 37 mm travel in the rear, your lower back and tailbone will pay a price.

The brakes -- a single, four-piston unit from Brembo up front and a solitary single-piston floater in the rear -- provide decent feedback and stopping power, but I can’t help but want a second disc at the front. The idea was kiboshed in order to show off that mag wheel, but it isn’t pretty enough of a hoop to convince me. A matching set of wave rotors would look better and inspire confidence.

And speaking of that front wheel, know that it is six inches wide and wears a massive 160-series tire. That bulbous slab of rubber robs this package of its overall performance potential. Initial lean-in on the Sportster S is effortful and, while it will hold steady in and around 20-degrees in either direction, exploiting its full 34-degrees of tilt takes more effort still. Which, given the seating position, can feel elusive and counterintuitive. A move to something in the 130’s, size wise, would still deliver a beefy look without the sacrifice

Regardless, this new Sportster S is leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor. It’s a cutting-edge motorcycle, unlike the aged icon it replaces.

Even if the particular flavour of muscle-cruiser offered by this Sportster S isn't to your liking, there remains much to be excited for on Harley-Davidson's horizon. The engineering behind this motorcycle proves it, warts and all, because it will spawn stablemates, to be sure.

The Sportster is dead, long live the Sportster.

2021 Harley Davidson Sportster

The vehicle was provided to the writer by the automaker. Content and vehicle evaluations were not subject to approval.