Classic lines that haven’t changed much since its inception more than 50 years ago, the Sportster’s styling stood out.
Harley-Davidson has cranked out its Sportster for more than 50 years now! That’s a longevity unequalled in the cruiser marketplace. We selected the Sportster 883 for our shootout because: A) it’s the only H-D model that could qualify for our sub-1000cc displacement cutoff, and, B) it sports an unbeatable price point. In fact, the 883 Low we tested is the most affordable ride in Harley’s lineup at $6999 (black) and $7289 for other colors, like our blue test bike.
More spare and stripped down than its shootout competitors, the visual differences of the Sportster alone are striking. Far more slender, with a narrow tank and frame, the Sporty style reduces itself to the most elemental aspects of riding. No flash, no bells and whistles, just an engine and two wheels with a seat, tank and handlebars. Its classic look, showcasing the V-Twin powerplant and staggered exhaust, make it pure sacrilege to view or photograph from any side other than the right.
The Harley-Davidson 883 Low’s ergos favor smaller riders, with our taller testers feeling cramped behind the controls.
And while it looks different, the Harley feels even more distinct once perched behind the controls. Better classified as a standard than a crusier, the Sportster’s upright riding position contrasts the feet-forward ergos of its shootout rivals. Purpose built for the smaller-statured, the Sportster Low features a close reach to the bars and pegs. The 26.3-inch seat height, combined with its remarkably trim width, makes touching the ground effortless.
While quite favorable for its intended audience, the small ergos spelled trouble for our testing crew. All six-foot or taller, every test rider found the position far too cramped for their tastes. In particular, all disliked the close placement of the handlebar. Having ridden previous Sportsters (including our 2005 Sportster Project Bike) we know the alternate stock placement of the bar, or a higher placed aftermarket unit, makes a world of difference.
“When I originally sat on this bike, I felt completely uncomfortable,” admits Joey Agustin, our guest videographer. “I am 6’1” and to me it just felt like I was sitting on a bar stool. I felt awkwardly upright and thought I was going to lose my balance just riding to the gas station.”
The ergos took some getting used to, but the Sportster won over riders with its spunky Twin. Fire up the 883 and the air-cooled mill shakes, rattles and rolls out character. The only undersquare configuration in the test, the 76.2mm-wide cylinders run up and down a 96.8mm stroke, with an 8.9:1 compression ratio.
Rear wheel dyno numbers peaked at 46.6 horsepower and 45.3 lb-ft torque, mid-pack in our test group. However, the Sporty packs a punch on the street, with the peppiest throttle feel and pleasing acceleration endearing it to our testers.
“The Harley engine was the best – had the strongest mid-range pull ,” says MCUSA Road Test Editor, Adam Waheed. “Top-end was lackluster and wasn’t nearly as potent as the Yamaha’s, but overall I like it the best.”
Agustin found the power surprising as well: “I kept underestimating this engine when taking off in first. I felt my body kick back a few times forgetting the power that it had.”
Dyno charts and rider descriptions don’t do the engine full justice, as the Sportster sounds the best too. The H-D motor possesses the most personality, by far. It’s one of those arbitrary judgments that must drive Harley critics and competitors nuts to hear, but the Sportster V-Twin’s less refined, more cantankerous nature delivers exactly what some riders want.
The Sportster zips around the streets of suburbia with ease, but the low pegs hinder cornering on twisty backroads.
The downside of the rawer engine feel is vibration. While Harley uses rubber mounts, engine vibes still escape enough to blur the mirrors at times and riders get battered around in the Sportster saddle a lot more than aboard the smoother rivals.
The vibes aren’t totally to blame though, with the Sportster chassis the most rigid of the lot. Minimal suspension travel, 3.62 inches front /1.63 inches rear, allows many road imperfections to jolt up through the bars and seat. As for seat itself, it’s the stiffest of the bunch, the prior bar stool description a fair one.
“This beast was rough as hell on the patchy freeway,” confirms Joey.
The 39mm non-adjustable fork and preload adjustable rear shocks don’t hinder spirited rides, though the low ground clearance does. Pegs scrape at even moderate leans – a real pity as the Sportster, as the name implies, encourages more aggressive speeds with its upright riding position and slender frame. Steering geometry disparity further illustrates the point, the rake two-degrees more severe, trail 1.1-inch shorter and wheelbase 4.5 inches more compact than its nearest competitor.
The small instrument cluster and notable
placement make it easy to view while
on the move. The push-rod, air-cooled Twin
of the H-D Sportster anchors the entire styling
of the American bike.
A skinny shape and light 572-lb curb weight (only the Honda being lighter) did make low-speed maneuvers the easiest to execute, with the short reach to the ground particularly useful – a real plus for the entry-level riders to whom the Sportster 883 caters.
The 5-speed transmission delivers the most direct feeling gear changes. Where the metrics are a quick snick, snick, snick rolling through the tranny, the H-D is more a deliberate click, click, click. It’s not better or worse than the slick-shifting Japanese models per se, just different (there’s that word again…).
The brakes – a single 292mm disc and two-piston caliper front with a 260mm disc and single-piston caliper rear – rated average by our testers’ estimations. While not the most impressive, the dual-disc package slow things down with reasonable confidence and positive lever feel.
Although it displays the least amount of information (analog speedometer, trip meter and idiot lights) the instrument cluster on the Sportster redeems itself by being the only console visible at speed without looking down via its placement atop the steering head. Fit and finish rate second only to the Star, with clean instrumentation and switchgear. The self cancelling turn signals earned particular praise, an appreciated feature on a $7000 bike. We weren’t big fans of the weak headlight, however, nor the low range at 145 miles (based off our observed 44 mpg efficiency) offered by it’s tiny 3.3-gallon gas tank.
Classic styling and ‘sporty’ feel, the Harley-Davidson Sportster 883L is a perfect entry to the H-D brand for smaller riders.
The low MSRP may be the biggest highlight of the Sportster. A base Vivid Black model retails for $6999, with the solid colors, like our test unit, an extra $290. The 883 Iron version, with its less dramatic ergos and blacked out styling, costs an extra grand at $7999 (in hindsight, the Iron may have been a better shootout match, but we requested the 883L from H-D). Added onto the value factor is a 24-month warranty, a full year longer any of the shootout rivals. It challenges the common assertion that Harley’s are always more expensive than the competition.
All told we enjoyed getting to know the old Sportster again. It may not be the ideal mount for larger riders, but it is an affordable, and fun, entry to the H-D brand. At the very least it’s different… It is, after all, a Harley.