Retro bikes are smokin’ hot.
They blend the aesthetics of the bikes of yesteryear with the reliability and performance of modern mounts. The Harley-Davidson Sportster, however, is not a retro bike. It’s not a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The Sporty is just old, which is either awful or wonderful, depending on what you value. It's not a styling exercise to pay homage to the past. It is from the past.
I wrote that previous sentence, of course, as a rabid fan of pretty much all old junk. The Sportster isn’t some Johnny-come-lately-with-no-model-history, like a Ducati Scrambler. Nor is it simply vintage-appearing parts slapped on a new bike, like a Yamaha XSR900. Alas, it’s not even a modern spin on a once-proud model, like the Indian Scout. Instead, the Sporty is a verifiably old heap.
The Sporty was officially kicked off in 1957 when Harley’s K received overhead valves and a new name. At that point, the Sportster was a hot bike, designed to end the ass-kicking that riders on British Triumphs and BSAs were delivering to riders on American bikes. The cranky old Ironhead engine soldiered along relatively unchanged through 1985, when the Evolution unit motor was developed. The Evo powering the 2016 Sporty is fundamentally the same one Harley served up to the world 30 years ago, and the whole bike as a package has stayed remarkably true to its original form. The Sportster didn’t get slower, the rest of the world just got faster since 1957.
Normally, I don’t launch into a model’s history this much when reviewing a new motorcycle, but when the whole selling point of a bike is its stoically unchanging nature, it sort of seems… important. The Sportster has had upgrades over the years. Five-speed transmission (1991). Rubber mounting of the engine (2004). Fuel injection (first offered in 2004, standard in 2006). Upgraded front ends (the 35 mm fork came along in 1973, and 39 mm front ends were first used in 1988). Because of this, there is a plethora of aftermarket and OEM parts available to do whatever your heart desires. Cafe thing? Possible. Dual Sportster? Also possible. Seventies-style long bike? Yup.
The test mule I was on was the “Iron” flavor of Sportster: 883 cc, 562 pounds, and matte black everything, everywhere. Irons wear 16-inch rear wheels and 19-inch fronts. It’s the all-business, blacked-out traditional Sportster that also happens to be purty dang affordable. It’s the second cheapest bike in the lineup. It also boasts one of the stupidest names I think Harley has cooked up to date, behind the Bad Boy and the Crossbones. Iron? I'm pretty sure this bike does not have a single iron part on it. If it does, it sure ain't a major component.
The Sportster trades on its Mr. Potato Head nature. If a rider doesn’t like something, he can simply change it out. Trying to review a Sportster as a modern motorcycle is not only impossible, it’s downright foolish. Here’s the quickest summary I can give you: If you want an entry-level, American-built cruiser that is very good right off the showroom floor, buy an Indian Scout. If you want to get your hands dirty and modify the snot out out a bike to make it exactly what you want, the Sporty is your machine.
Testing the Sportster
Test-riding a 2016 Sportster is an exercise in determining what items about the bike you want to change, and what you can live with. The parts of the bike are beefy and solid. The problem is that the aftermarket — and the MoCo itself — offer items that are vastly superior to almost all the stock pieces in form and function. All you have to do is figure out what you want.
My time on the Sporty was in the Mojave Desert of Nevada and the streets of Las Vegas proper. The Sporty was a willing companion on tarmac and gravel. I got blown around on the highway only at pretty high wind speeds (above 35 mph), and ran out of steam on long mountain passes.
Spurg was on a 2016 Street Glide, and we seemed pretty well matched to each other. I’d usually beat him off the line, and he’d catch back up and pass me at freeway velocities.
The Evo engine has proven itself to be dead-reliable mechanically. The 883 cc mill in the Sporty Iron is dimensionally identical to the larger 1200 cc unit that comes in the higher-rent models. It is asthmatic at higher revs, but bright and perky around town, providing plenty of fun, even for a tubby rider like me. The only time I felt undergunned was on the highway. I was flat-out at 80 mph, which isn’t too bad, but I rarely turn down more power if it's available.
The soft rev limiter kicks in at 6,000 rpm. You won’t spend much time there, but the 883 is more amenable to high revving than you might think. Our test unit was dumping quite a bit of oil all over the front motor mount and spraying to both sides of the engine. I think it might have been a leaky pressure sender unit, but I get paid to ride this bike, not wrench on it. Yet. (That's foreshadowing for the parts series we're doing on this bike. I finally got my way, and can start bolting stuff I'm too cheap to buy onto a bike I don't have to fund. Life is good here at RevZilla.)
We had some wicked piston slap and lots of valvetrain noise, both of which are perfectly normal on a healthy Harley. I welcome such a cacophony, but I'm also sort of a weird guy who appreciates antique designs. You say "old-fashioned," I say "quaint."
Even though the 883 is notably more anemic than its big brother, I’d actually recommend purchasing the small-bore Iron over a more upscale model. The $2,040 difference in price between a Sporty Iron and the cheapest 1200-powered Sporty (the Custom, at $10,889) is more than twice what an S&S 1200 conversion kit costs. The conversion gains you about half a point of compression, and you don’t have to give up all the cool blacked-out bits on the Iron.
Plus, an 883 bored out to 1200 cc will usually blow by a factory 1200 bike pretty easily, because they have different gear ratios. If wrenching on your own sled is a goal of yours, the 883 begins to look like a bit of a bargain.
Because the 883 is a bit pokier than the 1200, H-D gears it numerically higher, making the 883 feel like it’s not slower than the 1200 — until you hit the highway. (The Iron has a 34-tooth front cog, and the 1200 gets 38 teeth. Remember, it’s belt driven, so that difference is not as extreme as four teeth on a chain-drive bike.) Due in part to this, the lack of high-speed capability on this bike is glaringly obvious. This is a sturdy bike, however. The motor can handle the increased revs.
The five-speed transmission in this bike is heaven to me, but not everyone will like it. Harley-Davidson motorcycles clunk into gear with an authoritative air of finality. It may not feel precise or finely machined, but it sure as hell feels certain. There may not be grace and finesse, but there’s also no confusion about making a shift.
Handling on the Sportster Iron is OK. The rear suspension has been redesigned for 2016 and it is better, but it still suffers from a completely inappropriate amount of travel and bargain-basement parts. The Iron banged me around bad enough to make me piss blood for a few days. In total fairness, I am far larger than the Sporty’s intended rider. The front end is not nearly as bad; the 39 mm fork is the cat’s ass… for a Harley. It’s a good front end if you’ve only ever lived with H-D suspension. It’s mediocre if you’ve ridden any more sporting motorcycle.
Still, intent has to be considered. The sky is the limit when it comes to bringing the antiquated tech into the 21st century. (Well, the 20th, anyway.) Preload adjusters, cartridge emulators, tweek bars, fork covers, lowering kits and more are available to turn an OK front end into an A-OK front end.
The Michelin Scorcher 31 tires on this bike are best-in-class, as far as I am concerned. This tire is a good, modern tire that will hang with all but the very best aftermarket options. They stick reliably in all weather, they dutifully go where I point them, and because I have extensive experience on this tire on other Harleys, I can safely say that they last more than acceptably.
Braking on the Iron is the same story as the fork: more than adequate if it’s all you know. H-D doesn’t provide a spec on the rotors, but ol’ Lem-lem’s good with eyeballin’. The front disc is 11.5 inches and the rear is 10.5 inches. Upgrading brakes on an Iron can be done in quite a few ways, but if you’re serious, a dual-disc front end is the way to go. Chopper Guy Lem-lem feels it’s necessary to mention that Buell and Big Twin front ends literally bolt right onto a Sporty, so keep your eyes peeled at the swap meet for a whole fork, if stopping fast is important. With that said, the brakes on the Iron are by no means inadequate. Feel is actually quite good from the front dual-pots. The rear two-piston stopper is a bit more vague. Hey, it’s a Harley.
ABS is an available option for $795. Rapidly improving ABS systems on all motorcycles have changed my feelings from “Hate it!” to “As long as I can turn it off for burnouts and dirt,” but I know it’s a big deal to many, many buyers. I have to remember that the target audience for this bike, by and large, is a fresh generation of riders who in all likelihood have never spent time in a car or on a bike without ABS. Our bike didn’t have it, so I have no opinion on it.
You can’t talk about the Sporty without addressing its size. It’s fat (562 pounds) and low (28.9-inch seat height unladen that drops to 25.7 with a 180-pound rider atop the wee beastie. More about the seat and shocks later.) Meagan, the PHL ZLA office manager, stands a towering four feet, eleven inches, and she’s plenty comfortable atop an Iron. Six-foot Lem-lem is a different story, though. Sure, I could convert to forward controls, but I do not want to give up bike control for room. The way to fix this bike for me is to put a larger frame under the Sporty, like a Paughco RS120E with some out and up, but then I’m building a bike. The reality of things is this: If you’re much over five feet, nine inches or so, the Sporty feels cramped. The easiest way out of that problem is to buy a damned Dyna. Yes, it costs more. Yes, you will feel far more comfortable.
Low seat height, that price, and a powerband that’s as scary as a puppy means this bike should be in the crosshairs of many beginning riders who have to have a Harley-Davidson. (I think this bike is too expensive for a starter bike, but I also firmly believe your first bike should be as close to free as possible. I also believe everyone should enjoy fixing said bike, which will inevitably break. Needless to say, I don't know everything.) It’s compact, spritely, and not too expensive. It’s more than a beginner bike, but it can also be a beginner bike.
Sportster Iron highlights
It is my job to be impartial, but I would be lying if I said that I always am. As such, one of my favorite parts about the Sportster is the mill. This V-twin sounds great, is punchy low in the rev range, and can cruise around in a relaxed, lopey manner when asked. The engine is infinitely tailorable, as well. You can add some simple bolt-ons to score some easy horsepower, or get a little crazier and turn the Sporty into a straight-up brawler. Pulling a hundred ponies out of a street-ridden Sporty is not particularly difficult, and makes for one hell of a street sleeper, if you’ve got the time and money to do it. You can make your Evo a high-rev screamer, or just set it up to be a grunty locomotive on the street. The engine is a chameleon. Properly selected aftermarket parts will yield a surprising range of options, cementing the Evo Sporty's flexibility.
General quality (fit and finish) is always exceptional on these bikes. For a low-rent Harley, the Iron is put together with obvious pride. Finishes are deep and well applied, and there’s not a flimsy part on this bike. Unlike its competition, if you see it on the Sporty, odds are excellent it’s a quality piece. Metal switch housings, a metal air cleaner, metal fenders, metal headlight… the Sporty uses far less plastic than most of its brethren. (Honda, plastic sidecovers? Really?) There are plenty of pieces on competitors that feel flimsy, and the Sporty inspires confidence everywhere you touch it. (Notice how nice the sheetmetal is. Notice the total absence of a pinch weld seam, à la Yamaha Bolt.) This is a bike that will happily take a beating for years.
I also like the maintenance schedule on these bikes. Change the oil, change the primary fluid, and you’re done. Spark plugs are a breeze. Granted, the Sporty has both primary and engine oil that need to be changed, but the plugs are right near each other. It’s an easy task. The Sporty has hydraulic lifters. You check valve clearances... never. The Sporty’s belt is nearly maintenance-free. Do the oil changes, keep on top of the battery, and toss a set of plugs in it once a season, and the bike will last seemingly forever. These are tough little cookies. I believe Lance spent the better part of the 1990s tooling around Puerto Rico on a Sportster that by all accounts was quite reliable.
Sportster Iron lowlights
So here’s the thing. I like Sporties… for other people. This is not a good Lem-lem bike due to our discrepancy in size, but as I mentioned in the video, there are some aspects of Sportster ownership that are universally awful for all riders aboard them.
The first is the ass-pounding Irons deliver. The new rear suspension is a huge improvement over the old setup, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. I found it was a sporting ride for my 275 pounds with four adjustment dots showing above the lockrings. I was mostly able to keep anything from dragging through the turns, except for the hero blobs, which are supposed to drag. That hasn’t always been the case with the 2013 Iron we kept in the studio for a few years. I wreck every exhaust we put on that thing.
If you plan on riding two-up, fit taller shocks. The main issue with the stiffness and parts dragging is the sub-two-inch travel. After I had preload dialed in, the rear had about one inch to move. It’s just not enough. For whatever reason, the standard tall Sportster suspension hasn’t been available for years. Now, every model seems to be a Low, Custom, or some other less-than-usable, slammed-rear model, probably because they look cool and the low seat height is a great selling point for many riders. The seat on this bike is beautiful, but not at all conducive to long days in the saddle. The seat and the shocks together paired up to ruin my rear.
Next up is the footpeg scenario. These things are like dual-sport pegs, just tiny. They are truly tiny. Worse still, there are no passenger footpegs. Nor is there a passenger seat. I have to pay extra to have my wife ride along? This sucks. Oh… and you need to buy more than a saddle and pegs. You’ll be purchasing the mounts, too. I didn’t install any, but I have this sneaking suspicion that the rear pipe has to be removed — or at least loosened — to pop the mounts on. Good thing I like wrenching.
Also, I generally wanted more power. There’s a million ways to fix that. But I want more. Still, the amount supplied is not bad, given the fairly low cost of admission. Uh, let's get back to that oil leak I mentioned earlier. This bike was pissing oil. I was personally unfazed. I have old H-D's in my garage that are very old machines. Oil leaks are a way of life when the oil container is above the engine, because gravity always wins. But riders without a soft spot for Harleys might be pretty dismayed at my test unit puking this much oil with 1,600 miles or so on the ticker. It could have been a simple overfilling situation, but I think it was deeper than that. It wasn't leaking from the breathers. Rather, this bike was leaking up near the oil filter, blowing back onto both cases and onto the front motor mount. I didn't pull the bike apart, but it was a little embarrassing for such a new bike.
There are a million things I would change about the Sportster for myself if I had one. But, this is the draw of the Sporty. You’re buying the base for a bike, not a complete motorcycle. Approach it with that mindset, and the lowlights all seem pretty minor.
The Sportster ($8,849 MSRP) competes with a few bikes very hotly, and a few others very loosely. Immediate competition? Yamaha Star Bolt ($7,990 MSRP), Indian Scout Sixty ($8,999 MSRP), and Honda Shadow Phantom ($7,499 MSRP) are pretty similar. All are “small” unit V-twins built on reasonably small frames for pretty short money in the V-twin world. The Indian’s the only other “American” bike (parentheses because globalization), the Yam’s the only other air-cooled beast, and the Shadow Phantom is probably the closest to the Iron styling-wise. None of them can boast the aftermarket support the Sporty commands. None of them can offer nearly 60 years of totally unbroken lineage. For most buyers, the final two facts are probably the only two that really matter.
In a broader sense, the bike probably is also jockeying with some of the “retro” bikes now: the Triumph Modern Classics series, BMW R nineT, and the Ducati Scrambler. Those bikes are admittedly better performers and cost more money, but the upmarket 20-something is likely sniffing around them, too.
I’ll never buy this bike. It just doesn’t fit me. I cannot get comfy on a Sporty that’s built on a stock frame. But plenty of normal-sized people will fit and will purchase, and bully for them. The Iron is not the best bike in a performance sense, but it is exactly what it promises to be: more of the same. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. The Sportster is long-running, long-lived, reliable, and stable. And while new-bike junkies may not appreciate a bike that doesn’t change, Luddites and tinkerers sure will.
If you’re contemplating purchasing an Iron, understand it’s like going to the pizzeria and buying pizza dough… for the same cost as buying the whole pizza. It may not be the cheapest way to buy a pie, but if you know what you are doing, you’ll probably end up with a pizza that’s exactly the way you want it.