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Common Tread

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S first look

Jul 13, 2021

This is a waterhead watershed moment for one of motorcycling’s great icons. Meet the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S, a liquid-cooled, 121-horsepower reincarnation of the Sporty’s design and purpose.

Harley-Davidson calls it “the first chapter of a whole new book of the Sportster saga” and a return to the Sportster’s performance roots.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S
You've never seen a Sportster like this before. Harley-Davidson photo.

Back in 1957, Harley-Davidson launched the Sportster as a light, versatile, sporting motorcycle. The Sportster was a hit, and Harley still builds descendants of this air-cooled, V-twin platform today. Modern emission standards push the Evolution-powered Sportster closer to extinction every year, and the Sportster S brings a new era for the line with its Revolution Max mill. 

The 2021 Sportster S, at $14,999, is positioned well above the Evo Sportster. Towards the end of this first look, I’ll make some comparisons to other motorcycles in this segment, but let’s take a closer look at where Harley went with their sportier Sportster.

Engine and performance

The Sportster S uses the Revolution Max 1250T, billed as a torque-focused version of the Pan America’s 150-horsepower Revolution Max. (Both the 1250 and the 1250T produce 94 foot-pounds of torque, but the 1250T delivers peak torque at 6,000 rpm, or 750 revs lower than the Pan Am.) Peak horsepower is found at 7,500 rpm, while redline is 9,500. This DOHC engine has variable valve timing, 12:1 compression, four valves per cylinder, and hydraulic self-adjusting lifters for maintenance-free operation. The hydraulic lifters are one of Harley’s best additions to the Revolution Max engine, in my opinion.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S Exhaust
The two-into-one-into-two high pipes are “inspired by the glory days of H-D flat-track racing” and made of stainless steel. The catalytic converter is tucked inside the muffler. Harley-Davidson photo.

Considering the bike’s weight of 502 pounds (in running order), the Sportster S should have no trouble blasting from stoplight to stoplight. A six-speed transmission with belt final drive sends power to its final destination.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S
A 3.1-gallon tank feeds the Revolution Max. Average fuel economy is 49 mpg, so that’s roughly 150 miles per fillup. Harley-Davidson photo.

Frame, wheels, and suspension

The Sportster S gets a steel trellis frame that uses the Revolution Max as a stressed member, just like the Pan America. The mid-structure is forged aluminum. Out back is a tubular steel swingarm with forged ends to hold the axle. Front suspension is handled by a 43 mm inverted fork that's fully adjustable. The rear linkage monoshock also gets full adjustability. Travel is 3.6 inches and two inches, respectively. 

The Sportster S wears a 17-inch wheel up front and a 16 for the rear, both cast aluminum. While that arrangement may throw a wrench in the works for standard sport tires, the balloon tire style was part of the Sportster S vision from the earliest concept drawings. Harley equips the new bike with exclusive Dunlop GT503 tires that launched with the Sportster S. Dunlop says these radials offer “a custom fat tire look, while still offering light and responsive handling.” The GT503 only comes in Sportster S sizes for now: 160/70R17 front and 180/70R16 rear. For reference, Harley’s Fat Bob and Triumph’s Rocket 3 use 150/80 profiles. The new Sporty will be king of the fat front tire game. Brakes are single discs on both wheels with ABS.

Seat height is a scant 28.9 inches, which makes the lean angle of 34 degrees all the more impressive. Forward controls are standard. You can convert to mids with Harley’s kit for $659.95 and add a passenger seat and pegs for around $380. 

Technology and rider aids

The bike’s smart features are monitored and controlled through the round TFT display: “speedometer, gear, odometer, fuel level, temperature, low temp alert, side stand down alert, tipover alert, cruise, range and tachometer.” The display can connect with your phone for phone calls, music, and turn-by-turn navigation via the Harley-Davidson app. They’ve included a USB-C outlet to keep your device charged on the road.

Sportster S dash
The round display is controlled by buttons by the right and left grips. Harley-Davidson photo.

The Sportster S also gets three ride modes (Sport, Road, and Rain) plus the ability to create custom modes with “specific combination[s] of power delivery, engine braking, Cornering Enhanced ABS, and Cornering Enhanced Traction Control System settings.”

Harley’s sporting ambitions (modernized engine, full rider aid suite, all-new chassis) may be limited by their styling ambitions (high pipe, forward controls, small seat, odd-sized wheels). And yet, Harley’s Sportster reboot feels unrestrained as a whole. It's rare to see a production vehicle stay so close to the concept bike that preceded it. To me, the Sportster S is just as radical a move as the Pan America, and maybe more so for being branded a Sportster.

The competition

The Indian Scout is the obvious benchmark here as a liquid-cooled, fat-tired, 100-horsepower middleweight cruiser made in the United States. The Sportster S brings 20 more horsepower with 60 pounds off the Scout’s curb weight, although the Indian is about $3,000 cheaper. Harley shortens that price gap with the S’s advanced electronics and the rowdy Revolution Max. Other contenders include the Honda Rebel 1100 ($9,299) and maybe some Eurobikes, like the Ducati X Diavel or the Triumph Bobber.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S
A sportier Fat Bob, or a super Sportster? Wy not both? Harley-Davidson photo.

Within Harley’s own lineup, the Evo Sporty ($9,749-$11,549) remains an option for customers in the United States. Performance and pricing numbers between the Sportster and Sportster S are so far apart that they probably won’t step on each other’s toes. The Softail Standard ($13,599) gets you into something with a Milwaukee-Eight engine for $1,400 less than the base Sportster S. It doesn’t have any of the Sportster’s rider aids except ABS, though. Then there’s the Fat Bob 114 ($18,799) that supplied several design cues for Harley’s latest. However, the Sportster S looks like a bargain in terms of bang-for-buck, so long as you aren’t an air-cooled Harley purist. 

“Just like Sportsters should be, and completely unlike any Sportster you’ve ever ridden”

So where does the Sportster go from here? Harley confirmed in the launch video that there will be future models for the line, including at least one that will "tap into the more classic form factor for the Sportster," said VP of Styling and Design Brad Richards.

"We wanted to make sure the first one was wild, [that it would] turn heads… Let’s just turn the dials up to 11,” Richards explained.

More Sportsters will follow because Harley understands, as the automotive world has shown time and time again, that a legacy nameplate is priceless, even if the sequels are multiple degrees of separation from the source.

After reading through all the specifications and marketing materials for the Sportster S, I went hunting for a book, specifically a quote from its introduction. Under logbooks and hop-up manuals I found it: "American Dream Bikes" by Alan Cathcart. It’s a compilation of high-powered, low-slung performance motorcycles built right here in the U.S. of A., and almost all of them are V-twins. The Sportster S could be a cover bike for this book.

In the intro, Cathcart writes, “[Americans] often seem to suffer simultaneously from an inferiority complex related to what they perceive as the limited technical ambition of the products of their home industry, coupled with a sense of pride in how well such products are indeed executed… Nobody makes American V-twin motorcycles better than Americans themselves.” With the Sportster S, Harley-Davidson’s technical ambition is anything but limited. I get the impression they had some fun putting this motorcycle, which only Harley-Davidson would build, together.

The Sportster S is available in Vivid Black ($14,999), Midnight Crimson, and Stone Washed White Pearl (both $15,349). 

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S
Price (MSRP)
$14,999 (base), $15,349 (color)
1,252 cc, 60-degree, liquid-cooled, four-valve, V-twin
final drive
Six-speed, belt
Claimed horsepower
121 @ 7,500 rpm
Claimed torque
94 foot-pounds @ 6,000 rpm
Steel trellis, aluminum midsection
Front suspension
Inverted 43 mm fork, adjustable for preload, compression, and rebound; 3.6 inches of travel
Rear suspension
Monoshock, adjustable for preload, compression, and rebound; two inches of travel
Front brake
Four-piston caliper, 320 mm disc, ABS
Rear brake
Single-piston caliper, 260 mm disc, ABS
Rake, trail
30 degrees, 5.8 inches
59.8 inches
Seat height
28.9 inches (laden)
Fuel capacity
3.1 gallons
Dunlop GT503, 160/70R17 front, 180/70R16 rear
Claimed weight
502 pounds (in running order)
July 2021
24 months
More info