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With enough time, energy, and parts, the modern air-cooled Sportster can become more than ‘just’ a cruiser. No amount of tuning, though, could let the stalwart Harley-Davidson Sportster survive in the face of tightening European regulations. At least, not in its current state.

However, its successor, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S, isn’t simply an update. Riding it on LA’s sweeping Angeles Crest Highway, it became clear that the 2021 Sportster S is something more. Something worthy of having ‘Sport’ in its name.

[Disclaimer: Harley-Davidson invited me to the 2021 Sportster S’s press launch. The company paid for my flights, food, drinks, and hotel room. However, MotorBiscuit retains full editorial control over this and all related subsequent articles.]

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S takes the icon in a new direction

The side view of a maroon-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S in a European city
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S side | Harley-Davidson

One of the current Harley-Davidson Sportster lineup’s calling cards is the air-cooled ‘Evolution’ V-twin. But, it, as well as the Sportster itself, couldn’t comply with Euro5 regulations. And not just the emissions standards, but the safety-related ones, too. Hence why it, as well as the Street 750 and 500, were canceled overseas.

Technically, the air-cooled Sportster bikes—the Iron 883 and 1200, and the Forty-Eight—haven’t been canceled in the US. And at the recent press launch, the Harley-Davidson representatives wouldn’t officially say if these motorcycles were on the chopping block. However, to quote one rep, “the writing’s on the wall.” In essence, the 2021 Sportster S is the direction the Sportster lineup is headed. And to quote Roadshow, that direction is into “totally new territory.”

Firstly, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S doesn’t have an air-cooled V-twin. Instead, it has a tweaked version of the Pan America’s ‘Revolution Max 1250’ engine, dubbed ‘Revolution Max 1250T.’ It’s a liquid-cooled 1250cc V-twin rated at 121 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque linked to a six-speed transmission with a slip-assist clutch. Unlike the Pan America, the Sportster S has a belt-drive, not a chain drive. But like the 1250, the 1250T is a stressed member of the frame and offers maintenance-free hydraulic valve lifters. Oh, and it redlines at 9500 RPM.

Secondly, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S has more standard tech than the air-cooled Sportsters. It comes standard with fully adjustable Showa suspension, a TFT display with Bluetooth and app-based navigation, LED lighting, tire-pressure monitoring, and Brembo brakes. Those brakes have cornering ABS, something the other 2021 Sportsters don’t offer. Plus, the 2021 Sportster S has multiple riding modes—Rain, Road, Sport, and two custom ones—traction control, engine-braking control, cruise control, and rear-wheel-slip control.

Sporty, speedy, stylish: the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S shines in the city and the canyons

During the initial presentation, the Harley-Davidson reps acknowledged that the Sportster hasn’t always lived up to its name. Yes, there were sporty Sportsters, including an actual Sportster Sport with fully adjustable suspension in the ‘90s. But lately, the cruiser “has been a throwback,” Cycle World says, arguably too much so. That hindered not only its ability to appeal to a wide customer base but also its ability to go around corners. Though to be fair, it’s not as if competitors like the Indian Scout Bobber are sportbikes in comparison.

The ‘S’ in ‘2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S,’ though, might as well stand for ‘sporty.’ Or perhaps, to paraphrase RevZilla, ‘surprising.’ That’s because the 2021 Sportster S wasn’t just at home on the streets of downtown LA. Up in the curving, twisting bends and hills of the Angeles Crest Highway, this bike sparkled.

Fully fueled, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S weighs 502 pounds. But thanks to its 29.6”-tall seat, low center of gravity, and that stressed-member V-twin, it transitions smoothly and easily from corner to corner. That’s especially impressive given it shares tire widths with the Fat Boy, though the Dunlops grip the road well. This cruiser is light on its feet, stable, never wallowing, getting better as the speed climbs. It’s a great recipe for rider confidence. And while the Showa suspension doesn’t have a significant amount of travel, it dampens minor bumps well without sacrificing handling. In short, the Sportster S “is a ton of fun in the canyons,” Roadshow says.

Diving into the riding details

Riding a maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S on the Angeles Crest Highway
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S riding side | Harley-Davidson

All those 2021 Sportster S impressions, it’s worth noting, are with the standard forward controls. The Mid Control Kit made leaning even easier and increased my confidence in the bike further still. It’s not a sportbike, but it comes the closest of any cruiser I’ve ridden. But for everyday riding, it’s mostly a matter of personal fit.

Then there’s the engine. The Revolution Max 1250T is torquey at high and low RPMs; even in sixth gear at highway speeds, acceleration wasn’t an issue. And while the bar-end mirrors start to vibrate slightly above 4500-5000 RPM, that never translates to rider discomfort. Also, those XR750-inspired exhaust pipes are appropriately loud without being obnoxious. There’s no classic Harley ‘potato’ sound, but the V-twin is smooth. Plus, rolling off the throttle creates some delightful pops and crackles.

The rear 3/4 view of two maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S bikes on the Angeles Crest Highway
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S rear 3/4 | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Some have criticized the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S’s single front brake. But Roadshow and RevZilla found it perfectly fine, and I concur. The brake lever requires a firm pull, but not an egregiously powerful one. What doesn’t require a firm pull, though, is the clutch, which is light and forgiving. And the shifter strikes a fine balance between slick and notchy.

As for the riding modes, they alter the throttle response, power delivery, as well as engine-braking and traction control settings. Harley-Davidson doesn’t market the Sportster S as a beginner’s bike, but the reps claimed that Rain Mode could be newbie-friendly. It’s helpful in a downpour, RevZilla says, but dampens the Sportster’s spirit somewhat. I rode mostly in Sport Mode for its sharp throttle response and toned-down engine braking. But the custom modes let riders freely adjust these settings. And you can defeat traction control in any mode with the push of a button.

What still needs work?

While the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is an excellent motorcycle, it’s not perfect. The cruiser has a few issues. Though it’s worth noting that the bikes at the press launch were pre-production models. So, Harley may tweak some things in the next few months.

Some of the 2021 Sportster S’s flaws are fairly minor. Unlike most Harleys, it lacks dual turn-signal buttons. Instead, it has a conventional single turn-signal switch. But the switch itself is flat and somewhat difficult to flick and press with gloves on. Plus, it doesn’t feel quite as solid as the other buttons.

Also, the combination of forward controls and the exhaust design means right-leg heat at long stops. But putting your foot down, getting the mid controls, or simply setting off resolves this. Though speaking of stops, RevZilla found the standard side-stand a bit too short for comfort, something I also noticed.

Roadshow noted a flaw that I didn’t experience—the seat. Despite its looks, the seat was perfectly comfortable for me and RevZilla. But I’m also 5’9” and weigh about 190 pounds. Larger and taller riders may want to get the accessory seat, Roadshow says.

That being said, I did experience the same throttle quirks that RevZilla experienced during rev-matching attempts. You can blip the throttle for downshifts, but the engine response is delayed. However, it could be related to the traction control and engine-braking software. Playing around with those settings seemed to mitigate the issue. Plus, the slip-assist clutch helps smooth shifts regardless.

However, while these are minor, easily-resolved issues, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S has a bigger flaw. Although the adjustable Showa suspension deals with minor- and medium-sized bumps well, large-radius imperfections are its Kryptonite. Cycle World, like me, was bounced out of the Sportster S’s seat going over a particular highway pavement seam. It’s the result of the rear suspension’s 2” of travel. That’s the sacrifice you make for style, though, Roadshow says.

How much is the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S?

The front 3/4 view of an accessorized black 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S
Accessorized 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S front 3/4 | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Speaking of style, Harley-Davidson is slowly rolling out accessories for the 2021 Sportster S. For now, the only options are a locking fuel cap, windscreen, clutch-case medallion, luggage, accessory footpegs, and the Mid Controls and Passenger Pillion Kits. But the company reps said that more accessories are sure to follow.

One thing the reps couldn’t officially say was whether or not there would be a lower-spec, non-S version of the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster. But they all grinned when the question came up. Nevertheless, for now, the S is the only liquid-cooled Sportster, and it starts at $14,999. And if you want a white or maroon one, it’s an extra $350. The bike should arrive in dealers starting in fall 2021.

$15K isn’t exactly cheap in the motorcycle world. But honestly, after spending a day riding in the streets and hills of LA, the 2021 Sportster S seems worth it. This is a genuinely sporty cruiser with all the modern tech riders need. And if this is Harley’s future, it’s shaping up to be a bright one.

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