One big pro: It’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of this bike for Harley-Davidson. Yes, the Pan America opens up a new space for the brand, but as vice-president of styling and design Brad Richards said, “We’re really looking for white spaces with Sportster.”
First con: This one is fixable, but the Sportster S has a default of forward controls, with your feet stretched out. Because there’s only two inches of rear-wheel travel, what you want to make the potholes go down easier is the ability to stand up to absorb the pavement biting back.
And while the times have indeed started to change — the last few years have seen H-D serve up its first electric motorcycle, its first ADV and a new line of e-bikes — it isn’t giving up on the rides that made it famous. For 2021, the brand is rolling out an all-new version of the Sportster; to find out what it’s like, we headed out west to take it for a test ride.
The world of motorcycles is full of iconic names and brands, but arguably none have quite the punch of Harley-Davidson — at least, here in the U.S. For more than a century, the bikemaker has largely defined American motorcycle culture with its burly cruisers and other open-road-crushing machines.
How does the Sportster S ride?
Second con: The up-sweeping exhaust pipes are a nod to some Harley flat track racing history — and no doubt, they define the vibe of this bike. But they also direct a ton of heat right where you don’t want it, on the inside of your right leg.
And I mean that in a good way. Even though, for instance, there’s absurd torque, Harley’s included a swell suite of safety tech, too, including both systems to prevent you from wheelie-ing when maybe you didn’t plan on that, to measuring available cornering grip and either cutting throttle or adding ABS, or both, all to ensure that you stay on your intended line.
Entirely. The only thing in common with the outgoing Sportster is the name. You can sign up to order yours now, and it should be hitting dealers shortly.
What makes this Harley-Davidson special?
The Harley-Davidson Sportster S is a category-eluding motorcycle. The “-ster” part of the equation goes back to 1957, when the first Sportster debuted. Long and low was the principle then, as was a V-twin engine, and this entirely new Sportster is still a V-twin, and still sleek and low, but absolutely nothing is the same. Harley-Davidson says it’s revolutionary, and that’s not marketing hype in the slightest.
Harley has a storied history in its engines, but “thumpers” can be exhausting and overly loud. How to preserve the legend while not letting it anchor you to your past? One way was to make certain this bike still makes noise, and it does, but the Revolution Max T’s anthem isn’t the tympanic brain-bruising blare of yore. It’s a pleasant, guttural churn that’s ballsy, but a bit less look-at-me showy. (Unless you go WOT and really want to rattle the neighbor’s windows at 2am.) In developing the Revolution Max T, engineers made certain to move the air box forward in the chassis, so when the engine’s chugging air you don’t hear it; you only get the pleasing roar of the twin-piped exhaust.
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The Federal Trade Commission has a 40-page document that thoroughly explains what makes an item “Made in USA.” Basically, to earn that designation, a product has to be “all or virtually all” made in a U.S. state or territory. Only automobiles, textiles, fur and wool must disclose their U.S. content at the point of sale. Other products may use the tag as long as they follow the guidelines.
General Motors’ Chevy Volt, on other hand, contains only 63 percent domestic content and half its parts are from outside the U.S. or Canada, even though its engine is American. The Ford Fusion is even lower: It has a U.K.-built engine, and only a quarter of its parts were made in the U.S. or Canada.
Foreign or domestic
Products like American soybeans or corn are pretty clear-cut: They are grown and harvested in the U.S. by American farmers, in states like North Dakota and Iowa. The only inputs are seeds, land, fertilizer and water — all of which are easily found in the U.S.
As for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, they may be considered classic Americana, but the components of the bikes themselves come from many places outside the U.S., just like in the auto industry.
A global bike
Back in February, things were very different. At a meeting with executives at the White House, Trump praised Harley-Davidson for being “a true American icon, one of the greats,” and thanked them “for building things in America.”