2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S vs. Forty-Eight: Specs and Tech Showdown

For now, the new Harley-Davidson Sportster S is ‘just’ an addition to the Sportster line. However, even before riding it through Los Angeles’s streets and canyons, this motorcycle seemed to be something more. And the ride only confirmed that suspicion. But how different is the 2021 Sportster S from the rest of the lineup? To answer that, we have to compare it to its closest showroom sibling: the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight.

What’s the difference between the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S and Forty-Eight?

A side 3/4 view of the author riding a maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S on the Angeles Crest Highway
2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S riding side 3/4 | Harley-Davidson

On a very basic level, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S and Forty-Eight follow the same formula: V-twin engine, belt drive, fat tires. But once you add the details, they become significantly different.

Spec2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S2021 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight
EngineLiquid-cooled ‘Revolution Max 1250T’ 1252cc V-twinAir-cooled ‘Evolution’ 1202cc V-twin
Power121 hp66 hp (based on Cycle World‘s dyno testing)
Torque94 lb-ft73 lb-ft
TransmissionSix-speed manual with a slip-assist clutchFive-speed manual
Curb weight502 lb556 lb
Seat height29.6″28″
Fuel tank capacity3.1 gallons2.1 gallons
Front suspension travel3.6″3.6″
Rear suspension travel2″1.6″

These specs only tell part of the story, though. Firstly, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S’s engine is a stressed member of the frame. That’s part of the reason why it’s lighter and stiffer than the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight. Plus, while the Evolution engine makes peak torque at lower RPMs, it can’t rev nearly as high as the Revolution Max 1250T. On the other hand, the 1250T’s design means it lacks the traditional ‘potato’ Harley exhaust note. Both engines, though, have maintenance-free hydraulic valve lifters.

Moving beyond the engine, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S can lean more than the Forty-Eight before its pegs start scraping the pavement. And while it could benefit from more travel, the Sportster S does have fully-adjustable Showa suspension. Meanwhile, the Forty-Eight only offers preload adjustment on its rear shocks.

All of these differences add up to contrasting riding experiences. While the Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight is by no means a bad bike, it has less “overall performance” than the Sportster S, Cycle World says. The Forty-Eight is a stylish cruiser, plain and simple, while the Sportster S is, well, sportier.

What kind of tech does the Sportster S have that the Forty-Eight lacks?

A rider rides a maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight on a tree-lined road
2021 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight side 3/4 | Harley-Davidson

In addition to a different attitude and powertrain, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S also has a different level of tech than the Forty-Eight. Namely, it has more of it.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster lineup has offered ABS since 2014. However, it’s optional, even on the Forty-Eight. At least, it’s optional on all bikes except for the 2021 Sportster S. But the Sportster S doesn’t just have ABS, but rather cornering ABS, which takes lean angle into account. And while both bikes only have single front and rear discs, the Sportster S’s brakes are Brembos.

In addition, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S has standard traction control, rear-wheel-slip control, cruise control, and engine-braking control. Plus, multiple riding modes, LED lighting, a USB-C outlet, and a Bluetooth-equipped TFT display. The Forty-Eight, meanwhile, only has LED indicators and lacks both a tachometer and a fuel gauge. Also, the Sportster S’s clutch and brake levers are adjustable.

How much do the 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S and Forty-Eight cost?

The side view of a maroon 2021 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight
2021 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight side | Harley-Davidson

On the plus side, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight does offer more accessories than the Sportster S. At least for the time being. And it’s noticeably cheaper than the S. The Forty-Eight starts at $11,549; meanwhile, the Sportster S starts at $14,999.

However, that price difference shrinks when you try to equip the Forty-Eight to the Sportster S’s level. ABS alone adds $795, for example. And trying to boost the Forty-Eight’s performance with a Screamin’ Eagle Stage IV kit costs $2160. Plus, it ‘only’ adds 52% more horsepower, Motorcyclist notes, not enough to close the horsepower gap.

So, yes, the Harley-Davidson Sportster S is more expensive than the Forty-Eight. But add up all the extra features and it becomes kind of a bargain. One that, in many ways, leaves the air-cooled Sportster behind.

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