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The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S.Bill Petro/The Globe and Mail

Harley-Davidson is a long way from its misanthropic teenage years. The company that built heavy metal machines for outlaws and rebels has grown old along with its baby boomer clientele. Yes, trikes for elderly riders have a fat profit margin, but the clock is ticking on that market. More than 50 years past its cultural heyday and 15 years since its U.S. sales peaked, Harley-Davidson’s vision seems blurry and its hearing is diminished, but the brand’s well-documented fall from glory is less interesting than what happens now. For a generation of young riders, Harley has become an underdog – and people like an underdog.

Aboard the brand’s strange new Sportster S, a machine that reimagines a family of bikes that dates back to 1957, your arms and legs are outstretched and your back is hunched. You lean into the wind, but your chest acts like a parachute tugging you backwards off the bike. The short, stiff suspension keeps the bike looking low and lean but it also ensures sharp bumps are liable to bounce you off the seat.

Being perched atop the bike, frozen in a pose that’s a bit like sitting hunched over a laptop, does take some getting used. It’s more comfortable than being crouched over a superbike though, and only after a full day of riding does the dainty saddle start to feel like a block of wood. Easy Rider didn’t care much about comfort, but if you do, Harley makes plenty of three-wheeled trikes and two-wheeled La-Z-Boys.

The round 4-inch screen is unobtrusive. Paired with a phone, it can even display navigation info.Bill Petro/The Globe and Mail

As the Sportster S name implies, this motorcycle is meant to be a faster, more nimble, more aggressive kind of Harley-Davidson. These things are relative of course; it’s sporty only by cruiser standards, which is to say it’s amazingly agile for a flying brick.

The comically-large front tire (a chunky 160/70TR17 Dunlop) initially makes the bike feel heavy, like it doesn’t want to change directions. You’ve really got to push and pull the handlebars to make this thing turn in and straighten back up. Once leaned over though it feels extremely steady, inspiring confidence to roll on the throttle and let the g-forces build.

When you do find a bump-free stretch of tarmac to twist the throttle wide open, you’ll find the peripheral scenery immediately becomes a blur. And, just when you’ve come to terms with the acceleration, the motor lunges for the redline as the horizon warps toward you with alarming speed. With 94 lb-ft of torque and 121 horsepower at 7,500 rpm, it’s worth revving this motor. There’s no shudder, no lumpiness and little vibration, just blurred scenery on demand. Harley’s liquid-cooled 1,252 cubic-centimeter Revolution Max V-twin engine would be adequate in a sub-compact car, but in a 228 kg (503 lb) motorcycle it’s a monster, even if it sounds a little timid.

This is just the beginning of a new line of 'Sport' bikes from Harley.Bill Petro/The Globe and Mail

For such a rapid bike, it’s surprisingly accessible and easy to ride – even for this relative novice – which was a goal of Harley’s engineers. Modern tech like selectable riding modes, lean-sensitive traction control and ABS provide a reassuring safety net. Getting both feet on the ground should be doable for most riders given the unladen seat height of 29.6 inches. Even dawdling around at low-speed and pulling u-turns the bike feels surprisingly unintimidating thanks to its low centre of gravity. Only the heat from the exhaust – and the rear cylinder head, which sits awfully close to your inner thigh – will be uncomfortable, but only when stopped on a hot summer day.

After a day of riding backroads and highways, it seems all the new Sportster S kept from the old model is the Sportster name, which was often affixed to bikes that were an entry point into the brand. Launched in 1957, the idea behind the first Sportster was to fend off competition from British brands.

It is an undeniably entertaining and a worthy rival to many sporty retro bikes.Bill Petro/The Globe and Mail

Today, the idea behind the all-new Sportster S is less clear. It’s a more timid expansion of the brand than the electric LiveWire and the Pan America adventure bike, although that’s not a bad thing. Those waiting for Harley’s Bronx streetfighter concept to go into production or for a real flat-track-style bike will be disappointed. Plenty of other motorcycles – like the Triumph Bobber or Indian Motorcycles FTR – could quench a similar modern-classic thirst.

Harley-Davidson’s ambitious expansion plan that focused on new riders and new markets was largely kyboshed by the company’s current CEO Jochen Zeitz when he took over in 2020. So far, he’s laid off employees, cut costs, and refocused on core markets and profitable products. Through the first half of this year, the brand’s North American sales are up, slightly, over the same period in 2019. Maybe the Sportster S is new and different enough – but not too different – to bring the brand’s lapsed fans back into showrooms. Maybe it’ll even pull in some new riders too; it’s a peculiar bike sure, but also an entertaining and competitive one. If you’ve come here wondering if this is the bike to revive Harley-Davidson, it isn’t. What the Sportster S is, is a start.

This is just the beginning of a new line of “Sport” bikes from Harley, a category that will hopefully include some less expensive models with broader appeal. The mechanical pieces for something great are here, but it remains to be seen if this underdog can put them together to stage a comeback.

Tech specs

  • 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S
  • Base price/as tested: $17,999
  • Engine: 1,252 cc liquid-cooled 60-degree DOHC V-twin
  • Transmission/drive: six-speed, belt drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 4.8
  • Alternatives: Triumph Bonneville Bobber, Indian Motorcycles FTR or Scout Bobber, BMW R nineT or R18, Ducati Diavel, Harley-Davidson Fat Bob

Odd ergonomics and style will limit its appeal.Bill Petro/The Globe and Mail

Looks

Unusual. A cross between a flat-track racer and a cruiser. The swollen, plastic exhaust covers look huge and ridiculous, but are necessary to keep heat in check. Triumph does a neater job of its classic-looking bikes, but fit and finish is good and the Harley is certainly unique.

Comfort

Forward-mounted foot controls are standard, but mid controls are an option for those with shorter legs too.

Performance

The thoroughly refined Revolution Max 1250T engine is similar to the one found in Harley’s Pan America adventure bike. It’s quiet enough not to annoy pedestrians. Shifting the six-speed gearbox is smooth through the long-travel pedal. Single-disc front brake is good not great.

Technology

Harley nailed it. The round 4-inch screen is unobtrusive, doing everything you need it to without getting in the way of an old-school riding experience. Paired with a phone, it can even display navigation info.

Verdict

Undeniably entertaining and a worthy rival to many sporty retro bikes, but odd ergonomics and style will limit its appeal.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

Bill Petro/The Globe and Mail

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