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Common Tread

Harley-Davidson's new "sport segment" cruiser, and the Sportster's future

Jun 30, 2021

Earlier this year, we had our first chance to experience the new Harley-Davidson Revolution Max modular engine in the Pan America, and H-D is itching to put it in a production cruiser. The wait is almost over.

“Following the successful launch of our first adventure touring motorcycle, the Pan America, we are excited to reveal another all-new motorcycle, built on the Revolution Max platform in the sport segment, showcasing unmatched Harley-Davidson technology, performance and style,” said Jochen Zeitz, chairman, president, and CEO of Harley-Davidson. Official details are thin on the ground regarding Harley’s “sport segment” offering, although the teaser suggests a production version of their “high performance custom cruiser” concept. And what might the new model mean for the troubled Sportster? Here’s all we know.

The new model, possibly called the Bareknuckle or the Nightster, features Harley’s new liquid-cooled, V-twin Revolution Max engine with a displacement of around 1,250 cc. The Sportster faithful will remember a short-lived Nightster model with blacked out components like those seen on Harley’s upcoming release.

Harley-Davidson custom concept
Here's 2018's "custom" concept. There are many similarities between this and the teaser images. Harley-Davidson photo.

The 1,250 cc Revolution Max churns out around 150 horsepower in the Pan America, so the new bike should have similar punch from (what looks to be) the same engine in a new chassis. This mid-year release follows the silhouette of their “Custom” concept motorcycle that was first shown several years ago. Note the high pipes, forward controls, single front disc, and wide headlight a la Fat Bob. This is “sport” according to Harley-Davidson, not broader industry conventions. The Bareknuckle/Nightster’s sister model, the Bronx streetfighter, which comes closer to fitting most riders' ideas of "sport," has been significantly delayed or cancelled.

Harley-Davidson Bronx
The Bronx streetfighter's fate is uncertain. Meanwhile, the high performance cruiser is a confirmed 2021 model. Harley-Davidson photo.

Will the Sportster be discontinued?

Based on the limited information coming out of Milwaukee, there are a few ways this could shake out for the Sportster. The air-cooled Evolution engine probably isn’t long for this world after it failed to pass EURO 5 emissions standards, which means the United States is the last significant market for new Sporties. In addition, the Sportster lineup was trimmed down to three models last year: Iron 883 ($9,499), Iron 1200 ($9,999), and the balloon-tired Forty-Eight ($11,299). Even so, Sportsters are Harley’s cheapest and most approachable models now that the Street line has been discontinued. Aren’t there enough Sportster sales to justify continued production?

I looked around Harley-Davidson’s Investor Relations pages and found a chart detailing their motorcycle shipments for 2020, broken down by market and model. The Sportster line lags behind the core cruiser and touring segments.

Harley-Davidson sales
The numbers suggest the Sportster is the weakest link. Harley-Davidson graphic.

What’s worse, those Sportster numbers include sales of Street 500, Street 750, and Street Rod motorcycles, so the actual Sportster figures will be even lower. Could the Sportster be replaced by the new performance cruiser?

Possibility No. 1: The new motorcycle will be sold alongside the current Sportster

Now that the much-maligned Street models are gone, Sportster is Harley-Davidson’s entry-level line. The tooling has paid for itself, maybe several times over, by now. Harley can continue selling Sportsters wherever it is legal to do so, for as long as it is profitable. After all, the new bike looks like a substantial step up from the Sportster in terms of power, performance, and price, so sales cannibalization may not be an issue.

Possibility No. 2: The new motorcycle directly replaces the current Sportster

Harley keeps using the tagline “From Evolution to Revolution” with this release, which is easy to interpret as the end of the Sportster’s Evolution engine, and a transition to the new model’s Revolution Max. Maybe Harley will put the sport back in Sportster, as some have suggested, and offer a sport-cruiser motorcycle for the 21st century. The modular engine means Harley could offer a scaled-down version, say 750 cc, for riders who would've purchased an 883. 2022 will mark 65 years of Sportster. Hit that nice round number, celebrate, then begin a new era.

Possibility No. 3: They’re sold together for now, but the new motorcycle takes over in the future

This seems like the most likely strategy to me. The discontinuation of the Sportster, in its current form, at least, is virtually unavoidable at this point. The new bike and the Sportsters will share showroom floors for 2021, and the Evolution probably has a couple years left in it. After that, expect Harley to further develop the Revolution Max platform. They need customers and dealers on their side to avoid another V-Rod.

Philosophically, Harley will either revive the Sportster’s original heritage as a competitive roadster, or retire it under its later legacy as a blank canvas for unbounded personalization. Look for more details about the upcoming bike, and our thoughts on it, when Harley debuts their high performance cruiser on July 13th.