Harley-Davidson Sportster S: a new dawn for an old name?

Andy H Harley-Davidson, New Models 8 Comments

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Hang on to your hats, folks, this is going to get complicated. It’s going to get a whole lot more complicated in the next issue but I’m trying to get this out reasonably quickly.

Following hot on the heels of the Pan America launch about a month ago, and having overtaken the Bronx Streetfighter that was scheduled to be released first, Harley-Davidson’s new Performance Custom – which we now know to be called the Sportster S – was revealed yesterday.

What looks like a low-slung power cruiser has little in common with the bike it replaces – with the exception that the Sportster in 1957 gave a good account of itself against with sporting bikes of its time – it resembles the Scout that Indian introduced in 2015 more than the V-Rod that is its more obvious descendent … at least it is until you go through the numbers, which was my task this morning trying to establish a context.

I’m going to come clean here and wish that Harley had retained the Sportster name for their recently patented air-cooled OHV motor with variable valve timing and come up with something new for what is more a replacement for the VR than an XL … although maybe not resurrecting the V-Rod name itself, because it needs to put clear blue water between the two.

There is so much that we are yet to learn about the new bike, most notably the frame and how the rear suspension is set-up but we will hopefully discover before we go to press. In running through a specification comparison with comparable models, though, we will suggest that it’s going to be closer to a classic Harley-Davidson riding experience than you might suspect as a result of the geometry, tyre fitments and suspension travel.

It is going to be firmly sprung unless Harley have raised their game on the suspension front thanks to short travel suspension and the gyroscopic effect of those fat tyres front and back, which will have a greater effect on the relatively light bike than they do on, say, a Fat Bob. Indeed, that might account for the 2° of trail adjustment that will aid stability at the cost of nimble handling but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it should give the Sportster S that presence on the road that existing fans have bought into, and it will still be a lot more agile than most V-Rods. The interesting thing will be to see how its light weight – it’s about 25% lighter than a Night Rod Special – copes with the big tyres.

Also, we know that it is taller in the saddle than its stretched-out stance suggests, which is good news for the likes of me at six foot plus, but not for someone expecting something like a Scout which is a full three inches lower, despite what looks like a minimally padded seat. The small 2.6 gallon (imperial) tank will prevent that from being too big an issue, although converting the fuel consumption figures into imperial suggests that a 150 mile range will be possible, if brave. I think we are looking at something more like a Forty-Eight than an XL1200C in terms of range and function.

All of which might explaining why they’ve retuned the Revolution Max motor for the model.

While the new RH1250S Sportster Sport shares the 60-degree Revolution Max 1250 V-twin motor used by the RA1250 Pan America, it isn’t just in a very different state of tune, it is a different configuration. And it won’t just feel different, it should sound quite different thanks to a 30° offset in the crankpins that makes the 150hp Pan America’s motor fire like a 90° V-twin.

With decent suspension, ground clearance and sensible types – which we may yet see in the Bronx – that would make for a good naked sports bike to take on Indian’s FTR, but the Sportster S is more custom and powered by a 121hp Revolution Max 1250T.

The difference is said to be in smaller valves and port dimensions, a revised combustion chamber shape and pistons that are shaped to match the combustion chamber dimensions – but not as closely as those in the Pan America, as these drop the compression ratio down from 13:1 down to 12:1. The length and shape of the intake velocity stacks and the airbox volume have also been tuned to maximise engine performance across the rev range, and along with cam profiles and Variable Valve Timing will “match the performance expectations of this engine”. Basically, they are to improve the torque delivery between 3,000 and 6,000rpm.

So, torquier than the Pan America?

No, the same peak 94 ft lbs but at lower revs – 6000rpm as opposed to 6750rpm – and it’s worth mentioning that it delivers its 121hp at a relatively modest 7500rpm compared to the Pan America’s 9000rpm.

So, it’s going to be quick. A proper sportster – with a small ‘s’ – but hardly a natural successor to the Sportster with a capital one.

The obvious hope is that it will bring in new punters – assuming that Harley can make such prospective new owners reconsider any misgivings about a brand they’ve ignored to date – and hopefully not at the expense of alienating those who have ignored everything else, because they like the style and power characteristic of a Harley-Davidson.

The trick is to not scare off mainstream riders with the massive tyres and classic stance, and not offending the existing market with an engine that has been aesthetically sculpted on the traditional ‘beauty side’ but seems cluttered and much more mechanical on the drive side.

Running alongside a true Sportster replacement, I think it would establish itself quicker – a real alternative rather than a fait accompli – but I sincerely hope it works for Harley-Davidson, especially having spent two decades pointing out that the CG125 didn’t make Honda any less capable of making a Fireblade – but at first glance this looks like Harley attempting to diversify their model range by replacement rather than addition.


2021 Harley-Davidson RH1250S Sportster S
Length 2265mm
Overall Width 843mm
Overall Height 1089mm
Seat Height, Laden 734mm (28.9 inches)
Seat Height, Unladen 753mm (29.6-inches)
Ground Clearance 93mm
Rake / Trail 30° / 148mm
Trail adjustment -2°
Wheelbase 1,518mm
Tyres Front 160/70TR17 73V H-D Dunlop GT503
Rear 180/70R16 77V H-D Dunlop GT503
Fuel Capacity 11.8l
Reserve 3l
Oil Capacity (w/filter) 4.5l
Coolant 2.2l
Dry Weight (Wet) 486lb / 220kg (502lb / 228kg)
Type Revolution Max 1250T 60° V-Twin
Valves Chain-driven, DOHC 4-valve, hydraulic self-adjusting lifters, intake & exhaust VVT
Bore x Stroke 105×72.3mm
Displacement 1252cc
Compression Ratio 12.0:1
Fuel System Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Exhaust 2-into-1-into-2; catalyst in muffler
Oil System Semi-Dry Sump
Primary Gear 49/89 ratio
Final Belt 34/80 ratio
Clutch Mechanical, 8 plate wet, Assist & Slip, 1090N
Transmission 6-speed
Gear Ratios (overall) 1 12.21
2 9.022
3 6.994
4 5.641
5 4.731
6 4.131
Frame High strength, low alloy steel MIG welded trellis frame with stamped, cast, and forged junctions and forged aluminium mid-structure, using the engine as a stressed member
Swingarm High strength low alloy steel MIG welded tubular sections, stamped cross-member, forged axle junctions
Front Fork 43mm inverted fork, adjustable for compression, rebound and spring preload. 92mm travel
Rear Shocks Linkage-mounted, piggyback monoshock, adjustable for compression and rebound and hydraulic spring preload. 51mm travel
Wheels Front 17x 4-inch cast, satin black
Rear 16 x 5-inch cast, satin black
Brakes Front: 4-piston caliper radial monoblock / 320mm floating rotor
Rear: single piston floating caliper /260mm rotor
Peak Torque 94 ftlb (127Nm) @ 6000 rpm
Peak Power 121hp (90 kW) @ 7500 rpm
Lean Angle L / R 34° / 34°
Fuel Economy 58.8mpg (imperial)
Warranty And Service
Warranty 24 months (unlimited mileage)
Service Interval First 1,000 miles
Then 5,000 miles


Comments 8

  1. It’s an interesting bike ,BUT from a confirmed Sportster nuts opinion it’s not a Sportster. Imho, it’s a cross between a UJM and an Indian Scout. It’ll be interesting to see if it brings in New riders to the brand and keeps the traditionalists interested. Not me though, I’m keeping my Iron.

  2. Interesting but you failed to mention the Elephant in the room, the price. £14000 Defiantly NOT a Sportster replacement then.

    1. Post

      If the technology and the style isn’t right, the price is irrelevant … and not sure how much the price has been affected by the current trade war.

      Harley have potentially gifted the entry level market to Indian … and Triumph and Royal Enfield.

      I’m still hopeful that the new OHV air cooled motor will follow, as a true Sportster successor, but not holding my breath.

  3. Lets hope you are right about the air cooled Motor being used in the future. BMW can do it and so can Triumph etc. What would they call it though now the Sportster name has been used? I beg to differ about the price, no price is irrelevant as far as my Bank manager and Wife are concerned. 14999 Dollars in the US so i guess the trade war isn’t really affecting the price here.

    1. Post

      Haven’t got to look as far from Harley’s hometown to see that Indian have just homologated a 116-inch OHV air-cooled bike for Euro5, and it’s stunning.

      The price is only relevant if you want to buy one, and I would suggest that if you wanted a Sportster, this wouldn’t tick that box 🙂 To be fair, I’m not sure whether the new OHV motor would: it might look more traditional externally, but the complexity of the VVT solution is terrifying and makes you wonder whether it might have been a design exercise.

      Harley seem to have done what they did with the V-Rod and priced it at what they reckoned it should be worth – in fact it is pretty much at the original V-Rod price point, which was between the Dyna and Softail models. That didn’t serve the V-Rod well … but then neither did building the XG750 Street down to a price. Got to wonder what the FXDR’s fate might have been if they’d priced that up as a high end “Dyna” model, which is what it really was, rather than slotting it into the high end “Softail” slot, previously occupied by such things as the Deuce and Rockers – and while they were good bikes within their design parameters, they were overpriced and short-lived too.

  4. Overall a good start for HD to enter Neuzeit territory. Price wise it’s not Sportster replacement material. I would have loved if the radiator would have been more discreetly sculpted and it remains to be seen how much heat the high pipes will emit to the rider.

  5. I think you mean the the V Rod is its more obvious antecedent rather than descendent.
    It would be nice for Harley if these two new bikes proved to be sellers but it’s almost as if they don’t quite grasp what their own USP actually is.

    1. You’re absolutely right: that was an edit that didn’t make it. I was heading for “descended from the V-Rod” because antecedent isn’t in the big book of long words that I frequently reference. If I start using it now, I’m going to blame you 😂

      Personally, I think the bigger problem than them not knowing what their own USP is, is that we have never really given them permission to be anything other than a maker of storied motorcycles. Poor sods just want to be motorcycle manufacturers and must have been gutted to watch Triumph manage to modernise, and Indian come in and combine elements of the marque’s heritage with clean sheet engine designs.

      Think they’ve been very cute in spotting a massive niche for the Pan America, and if they can talk Biden into a tit-for-tat 50% tariff on European bikes – kicking the price of the GS, Multistrada, Explorer and Adventure into the long grass while they establish its credentials in a very different environment stateside than we have got over here – they could carve out a big chunk out for it.

      I’m far less confident for the Sportster-S, which I think is going to be too compromised on the suspension and riding position for incomers who might be wooed by the high-performance, liquid-cooled motor – assuming that the the suspension is good enough for the engine to be able to lay down that power with the confidence that you’d want – yet too expensive for the entry-level Harley slot. It could tick a few boxes on looks, though, and it will be interesting to see whether performance and function will be sufficient to make up for a lack of character and traditional American power delivery.

      I’m mindful that performance jockeys who squeeze increasing number of horses out of their big twins do so in full knowledge that they can buy that sort of power off the shelf for a fraction of the price. They have usually chosen not to … hmm, and they didn’t buy the V-Rod.

      Interesting times.

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