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Which Used Harleys Are the Most Reliable?

While it faces an image problem, Harley-Davidson does still make some impressive motorcycles. Especially when it comes to tourers and cruisers. Although some of its newer bikes can be fairly pricey, Harley’s reputation for design conservatism means used models offer similar looks at a discount. Unfortunately, many past Harley-Davidsons suffered reliability and quality-control issues, which made them expensive to own and maintain. But there’s one used Harley that has a particularly bulletproof reputation: the Evolution-engine Harley-Davidson Sportster.

The Harley-Davidson ‘Evo’ Sportster

The Harley-Davidson Sportster is actually one of the oldest nameplates the company still produces, Ultimate Motorcycling reports. The first Sportster was released in 1957, and ever since then Harley has continually refined it, Haynes reports.

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But arguably its biggest leap forward in terms of reliability, Baggers reports, came in 1986. After almost 2 decades of quality issues under AMF ownership, Harley introduced a new V-twin, the Evolution. The ‘Evo’ is often considered to be what truly saved the company in the 80s, Cycle World explains. And it still powers modern Sportsters.

Low-angle shot of a black 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Nightster silhouetted against a cloudy sky
2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Nightster | Harley-Davidson/Kelly Kix via Instagram

r/Harley and r/Sportster sub-Reddit and ChopCult forum users refer to it with words like ‘bulletproof’ and ‘indestructible.’ It’s lighter, cooler-running, and significantly less-prone to oil leaks than the old Ironhead, Sump Magazine reports. Plus, it avoids the chain tensioner and other issues that plagued Harley’s 1999-2006 Twin Cam engines, Haynes reports.

But it’s not just the engine that makes the Harley-Davidson Sportster an excellent used bike purchase, Motorcyclist reports. The Sportster has a low center of gravity, which makes it easy to maneuver and balance on. And despite its capacity—the smallest V-Twin displaces 883cc—it’s actually a fairly-approachable bike, Iron and Air reports, especially for smaller riders.

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Plus, it’s also a very modifiable motorcycle, J&P Cycles reports. Sportster owners have turned their bikes into tourers, flat trackers, and ersatz off-road bikes. Others have made them into scramblers, Iron and Air reports.

Harley Sportster: recommended years and common problems

Having been in production for so long, the Harley-Davidson Sportster has gone through some noticeable changes. Many of which impact which model years are worth considering, and which are best ignored.

1991 saw the introduction of a 5-speed transmission, r/Sportster forum users report. That’s also when the Sportster switched from chain drive to the less maintenance-intensive belt drive. 1994 and later models have fully-weather-proofed electrical wiring. But perhaps the biggest change came in 2004, Bennetts reports, when the motorcycle got a brand-new frame and rubber-mounted engine.

Harley finally introduced fuel injection to the Sportster line in 2007, Motorcyclist reports. And in 2014, the bike got another electrical system upgrade, as well as the option of ABS.

The 2007 and later fuel-injected models are easier to live with than the carbureted ones, ADVRider forum users report. And while the 2004-2006 models are more comfortable, the 2003 and earlier versions are significantly lighter. Also, their transmissions are easier to service. For these reasons, r/Sportster sub-Reddit users recommend 2000-2003 models, as well as the 2007 and later ones.

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Although the Harley-Davidson Sportster is fairly reliable, there are a few issues worth noting. The OEM clutch springs can be somewhat weak; many owners fit aftermarket ones. Some of the exhaust bolts can also rattle free, due to their design. Installing more-secure ones, though, solves the problem.

Finally, there have been reports of stator failure on some Harley Sportster models. The stator is what lets the bike’s alternator produce current, Motorcycle Cruiser reports, and if it fries, the charging system fails. Luckily, many bikes have 3-piece alternators, so the stator can be serviced separately.

Pricing and availability

Blue-and-silver-tanked 2006 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom
2006 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom | Cycle Trader

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Not only are Harley-Davidson Sportsters reliable, but they’re also fairly affordable. It’s possible to find a fuel-injected model on Cycle Trader for under appreciable less than $5000. The carbureted 2000 and later models cost roughly the same or are even cheaper. It’s entirely possible to find a well-maintained Sportster for about the same price as a brand-new Honda Grom.

Obviously, as with any potential motorcycle purchase, we recommend a test-ride before making any decisions. If you aren’t comfortable on the bike, don’t buy it. But if you’ve been thinking about getting a used Harley-Davidson, the Sportster is a great reliable place to start.

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