Harley-Davidson Sportster S—a pocket rocket

Review by Alan Doak

This review was originally written for Business Desk. They’ve had a recent change in policy where they will only review electric or hybrid vehicles. I support this decision. They have allowed me to publish the review here.

The expectation had been killing me. I’d been waiting a long time to ride this motorbike. On a previous visit to the dealer, we’d chatted about the launch event. There was a lot of interest. Riders loved it, but some had returned to base after a test ride, shaking in their boots. They thought It was just too powerful. OK, I might be paraphrasing his comments, but the gist was that the bike has the power to burn—I couldn’t wait to see what all the fuss was about.

You have to admit, this bike is a stunner to look at. Exhaust pipes that wrap along the right-hand side of the engine; the huge bulbous tyres; the single seat. It looks terrifying. And extremely compact. It’s as if the engineers had transmuted the engine components into a liquid and then squirted it into, and around, a frame. The engine is dense—there’s simply no view, or daylight, from one side of the motorbike to the other. 

Side view of the 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster S with Revolution Max engine
The Harley-Davidson Sportster S – ‘dense as”…

The Harley-Davidson Sportster S runs the same engine as the Pan America, reviewed earlier this year. It’s the Revolution Max 1250T – a water-cooled 60 degree V-twin. But there are changes to the engine for this application. It has a new top end, with an altered cam profile. In simple terms, it has less horse-power than the Pan America—120hp compared to the Pan America’s 150hp—but it has considerably more torque or pulling power in the ‘standard’ rev range. Because of that, it feels way more powerful than the Pan America. There are three riding modes: Rain, Road, and Sport. There are two mode slots where you’re able to dial in your requirements, letting you choose from engine torque delivery characteristics, engine braking, throttle response, and more. I left it in Sport mode, for the whole time.   

How did it ride? It has issues. But, there’s absolutely no doubt that this bike is a hell of a lot of fun. And I was so convinced that I looked pretty damn cool sitting on this rocket-like beast. Whether that’s true or not, I can’t prove either way. 

The engine noise is sweet. There’s no typical Harley-Davison rumble but more of a throaty roar. When the engine is on the warm-up I took absolute delight in hearing tiny little backfires on deceleration, as if the bike was aching to get going. It’s a damn sexy noise! 

The gearbox is silky smooth with a clunk only mildly evident on engaging first gear. There’s immediate power delivered to the back wheel via a belt drive. It took off from a standing start very easily and smoothly. Technically speaking it has all the things! There are cornering aids, ABS-this and TCS-that. Maybe too many safety gizmos for the diehard Harley-Davidson fans. 

Front view of the 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster S with Revolution Max 1250 engine
To my mind, an over-sized circular headlight would have suited this bike

The seating position is low, and the standard footpeg position is slightly forward. I found this an unusual position, especially for a motorcycle that calls itself a Sportster. I’ve since discovered that you can get a kit that moves the pegs and foot controls back towards the middle of the bike, which to my mind feels like that should be the default position. It’s a pricey modification. 

The bike weighs in at 228kg. That sounds heavy but because it sits so low to the ground the centre of gravity really makes it feel like you are riding a much smaller and lighter bike. 

The seat is minimal, honestly, very minimal. Maybe 3-4 cm of padding. With a seat like that you’d hope that the suspension would offer some comfort. Unfortunately not. There’s very little suspension travel in the front, and even less in the rear. The front suspension is adjustable with tools, whereas the rear has an adjustment knob for preload. I only played with the rear adjustment but couldn’t seem to improve the comfort levels. I wanted to ride the Sportster from Wellington to Hawkes Bay and return. I got as far as Eketahuna before realising that my body just wasn’t up to the punishment that the bike was delivering to me. Every large bump in the road would have me yelling expletives into my helmet.

Instrumentation is more than adequate, albeit a little cluttered, especially on the left-hand controls. There you’ll find the hi-beam, cruise control, turn signals, horn, and mode control plus display control as well as heated grip controls if fitted. These switches don’t illuminate at night so you’d need to have developed good muscle memory to find what you’re looking for. There’s a round 109 mm TFT display which is more than adequate and stylistically suits the bike. 

One small detail—I don’t know why Harley-Davidson added a small rectangular LED headlight to the front. It threw out a lot of light but given there’s a circular theme going on in the design I thought Harley-Davidson missed a trick by not adding an oversized round headlight to the mix.

There has been criticism elsewhere about the tyre size, especially the front. While the motorcycle performs beautifully in a straight line, at speed around corners it can be a struggle. I’ve never had to physically counter-steer as much as I had to on the Harley-Davidson Sportster S while navigating corners. 

This in itself is not a criticism, but more an acknowledgement that this bike is not built for distance riding. It’s a wonderful bike to go for a 100km ride, have a cup of coffee or a shandy with your mates, and then turn around and head for home. That’s pretty much the distance that the 11.7 litre tank will let you travel. I got around 200km on a tank, regardless of how I rode it.  

Final verdict: It’s fun, it’s fast, but it’s uncomfortable. Comfort is improved by riding short distances so in that sense it’s a perfect café racer but built by Harley-Davidson. 

Prices start at $28,250 (plus on-road costs) for the Vivid Black (pictured).

The 1250 Revolution Max engine in the Harley-Davidson Sportster S
Very compact but powerful engine