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The 2021 Sportster S is a significant step for Harley-Davidson in more ways than one. It’s a noticeably different motorcycle than, not just the other Harley Sportster models, but many of the company’s other bikes, period. Some Harley-Davidson fans, therefore, might be worried that the Sportster S steps too much away from what they value about the brand. But the truth is that the new bike is just as much a Harley as the old ones are.

Stop calling the modern Harley Sportster a ‘girl bike’

The side view of a 1967 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster parked against a building
1967 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster side | Bob Greene/The Enthusiast Network via Getty Images/Getty Images

First, let’s set something straight. Despite its iconic status, the Harley Sportster is sometimes looked down upon by the brand faithful, Iron & Air says. And a question that’s often asked on the Internet is if it’s a ‘girl bike.’ That term should have long since been laid to rest.

To be sure, the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and Iron 1200 Sportster have attributes that are helpful for shorter and lighter riders, including female ones. Being cruisers, they have low seats and foot controls close to the ground, which helps with balance and confidence. Their designs also make for low centers of gravity, making them easy to maneuver. But calling the Sportsters ‘girl bikes’ is inaccurate and sexist.

It’s also dismissive of the Harley-Davidson Sportster’s other strengths, RideApart explains. Used or new, the Sportster is one of the cheapest ways to buy into the brand. And it’s well-supported by the aftermarket, making it easy to turn the bike into whatever you want. From touring bikes all the way to desert-shredding scramblers, Sportsters are great bases for custom builds.

Why is all of this important to keep in mind? Because since its 1957 introduction, the Sportster has become a Harley-Davidson symbol. True, the company has other historically significant bikes, such as the Electra Glide. But the Sportster has a certain status of its own; Harley-Davidson reps have even called it “’a brand within a brand,” RevZilla reports. And that comes with positive and negative connotations, Cycle World explains.

On the one hand, its air-cooled rumble and “classic styling” represent “the soul of Harley-Davidson,” Cycle World muses. And in the ’50s and ’60s, it brought genuinely cutting-edge tech to American bikes. But to some, these same features hold the Sportster back in comparison to its rivals today, making it feel old and stagnant. And in terms of getting past emissions regulations, as the Street 750 and 500 demonstrated, the naysayers had a point. The keyword there, though, is ‘had.’

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is “(nearly) everything its predecessor isn’t,” Cycle World says

A maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S parked on the side of an Angeles Crest Highway hill
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S side hill | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

As noted earlier, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is significantly different from air-cooled Sportsters like the Forty-Eight. To quote Roadshow, “it’s not your typical Harley.”

Its Pan America-derived V-twin is liquid-cooled, not air-cooled, and is a stressed member of the frame. Plus, while it redlines at 9500 RPM, it doesn’t rumble or shake like the old ‘Evo’ engine. The 2021 Sportster S doesn’t just have standard ABS, but standard cornering ABS, as well as traction control, rear-wheel-slip control, Brembo brakes, and customizable riding modes. It also doesn’t handle quite like the Harley-Davidson Sportsters that came before it. And unlike Sportsters of the past, the 2021 Sportster S’s design “implies that the [non-Harley-Davidson] aftermarket…was not a priority,” Cycle World muses.

A maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S on a city street
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S | Harley-Davidson

Yet, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S isn’t fully divested from its heritage, either. Its exhaust design takes inspiration from the XR750, one of the most successful flat-track racers ever. The rear suspension’s somewhat limited travel allows for a low cruiser look and approachable seat height. And “there’s something characteristically Harley” about the six-speed transmission’s feel, Cycle World muses. Plus, while the 2021 Sportster S can bomb through canyon roads with surprising aplomb, it’s also a chill cruiser around town, RevZilla notes.

Does this make it a ‘real’ Harley motorcycle?

The side view of a gray 2017 Harley-Davidson V-Rod Night Rod Special on a city street
2017 Harley-Davidson V-Rod Night Rod Special side | Harley-Davidson

The 2021 Sportster S isn’t Harley-Davidson’s first attempt at changing its cruiser formula. From 2002-2018, riders could walk into a Harley dealer and buy a brand-new, high-revving, liquid-cooled bike: the V-Rod.

At the time, the sporty cruiser’s powertrain and design were deemed to be too different from what Harley offered. But today, those attributes are why used V-Rod prices remain relatively high. And while Harley-Davidson developed the V-Rod’s ‘Revolution’ engine with Porsche’s help, the bike was a true Harley product. It just tried to move the brand into a new direction.

“The Sportster as it has been cannot gradually evolve into a modern bike easily capable of meeting sound, emissions, and the many criticisms that attend its time-honored features.”

Cycle World

It’s a similar story with the Sportster S. No, it’s not the same Sportster that’s been around for decades. But that’s because it wouldn’t survive if it stayed the same. However, it hasn’t abandoned its past; it’s just not “beholden to it,” Roadshow says. Rest assured, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is a ‘real’ Harley. It’s just that a ‘real’ Harley bike isn’t only one kind of bike anymore.

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2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S: S Really Does Mean Sporty