Review: 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster S (Mid Control)
The best way to understand the new-for-2022 Sportster S is like so: It’s not what it was, but it’s also not quite what it was. Alright, that’s not helpful. I’ll explain. Most of us know the Sportster as the “cheap Harley”, or the “little Harley”, or several other derogatory names that can’t be repeated on these (digital) pages. With a few notable exceptions, such as the iconic XLCR1000 from 1977 or the remarkably exhilarating XR1200 from a decade ago, that’s basically how Harley-Davidson has positioned the Sportster for the last fifty years. It’s the “hog” you buy when you can’t afford, or can’t physically manage, a full-sized motorcycle.
Ah, but that was not always the case. A quick read through Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels book shows that the Sportster, and the Angels themselves, were very different in the Sixties. Back then, the Sportster was a racing-influenced performance machine and the Angels who rode it were obsessed with developing advanced riding skills. HST goes on at length about all the astounding things he saw done on those bikes, often by WWII or Korean War veterans who had spent a long time getting to know their Sportsters. Back then, the Sportster wasn’t the cheap Harley; it was the fast Harley.
The definition of “fast” was rudely rewritten in the Seventies and Eighties by Japanese manufacturers as the Angels transitioned from simple heck-raising and motorcycle stunting to organized criminal activity. The stunt gangs that followed them, like Akron, Ohio’s infamous Starboyz, rode superbikes from Suzuki and Kawasaki, not porky and poky fifty-horsepower Sportsters with lackluster brakes and raked-out handling. At the same time, Harley-Davidson was going all-in on the massive profits provided by its touring bikes, the upscale CVO products, and gangster-chic Big Twins like the Breakout. Their customer base aged and greyed, eventually coming to consist largely of men who came to motorcycling as part of a mid-life crisis or empty-nesting.
The bike you see above is The Motor Company’s attempt to change all of that. It starts with what will likely become one of motorcycling’s best-loved engines, the water-cooled Revolution Max 1250T. It’s tuned for a livable 121 horsepower rather than the 150 it makes in H-D’s Pan American adventure bike, and I wouldn’t mind having those missing twenty-nine horses back, but the first time you crank the throttle all the way open and feel the authentic might of the RevMax all possible complaints feel a little churlish. Early performance figures suggest a low eleven-second quarter-mile, and my inner-ear dyno says it’s somewhere between my Honda CB1100 and my Yamaha FZ1 in terms of raw straight-line power.
At some point, H-D will likely put a full-strength variant in a Sportster and at that point you’ll have the effective power-to-weight ratio of a Nineties Kawasaki ZX-10. For the moment, however, this will do. More impressive than the on-paper power figures is the idle-to-redline strength of the engine, what racers call “the area below the curve”. At any speed, in any gear, the Sportster S will pull, and pull hard. This matters in the real world, where you don’t always have time to drop three gears and reach for a five-figure redline to take advantage of a gap in traffic or avoid a distracted Escalade wandering into your lane.
Of course, Harley has done powerful engines before, most recently with the V-Rod series, but the Sportster is no one-trick drag-strip pony. It’s all of one piece. The chassis surrounding the 1250T is as supple and friendly as anything with two inches! of rear suspension travel can be. In the canyon roads, it proved not quite capable of keeping up with a Ducati Monster and Aprilia Tuono, but let’s view that in context: any traditional Harley wouldn’t even be in the chase. The primary limitation is the short travel of the rear suspension; once you hit the bump stop, it’s time to cool off and let the Italians steal a fifty-foot gap while you recover full control. Luckily you have enough motor to get some of that back before the next turn.
Our little group of Hagerty test riders, including young James Hewitt for the first time, was flummoxed by the Sportster’s 160-mm front tire and single disc brake. On paper, the combination is terrible; on the road it was fine. Brake fade is non-existent, and stopping power is reasonable. You approach corners with a little more respect than you would on a proper sportbike, but all of us felt pretty good getting the Sportster over to the pegs almost immediately.
About those pegs: We asked for, and received, a Sportster S with the optional “mid-control” peg setup, which relocates the foot controls from the front of the bike to about where they’d be on a Japanese standard or “naked” motorcycle. The handlebars, meanwhile, are a long way from the seat. If you have long legs and short arms, you’re not going to like it. Your humble author, whose inseam is a non-robust thirty-one inches courtesy of some trauma surgery, had no issue with it—and my 37-inch sleeves were very happy with the top of the bike. Riders whose proportions do not mimic those of a lowland gorilla may not be as happy. Make sure you sit on the Sportster for a while before you stroke a check.
The Sportster’s riding position has one more surprise in store for those of us used to Japanese sportbikes and standards; the whole bike is very low to the ground and you have a really good view of the front tire. This can be a bit worrisome at first but we all adapted very quickly to it. The whole vibe of the bike is kind of “World War II despatch rider”; it also reminded my of my Trek Session 9.9 downhill MTB with the seat all the way down.
If you’ve ridden a Harley touring bike lately, it won’t surprise you that the Sportster’s instrumentation and electronics are as modern as tomorrow, with a wide range of information and controls available via the amazingly-readable-in-full-daylight single LCD panel. You will be surprised by the proportions and operations of the throttle, brake, and turn signals, which are sized and arranged the way they would be on a Honda or Yamaha. The push-to-cancel turn signal doesn’t have the same positivity of operation you’d get on a Japanese bike. That’s the (beginning and) end of the complaints, right there.
Are there other complaints? Well, not everyone liked the massive pair of high side pipes. All of us felt that the bike could stand to be a bit louder and more aggressive-sounding. It’s a Harley, after all, not a polite Honda. The L-shaped arm that holds the taillight and license plate isn’t very cool; expect most owners to ditch it immediately for aftermarket equipment, the way they would on a sportbike. The range of colors and customization options isn’t very broad at the moment, although it will surely improve as time goes on.
All of this amounts to praising with faint damns. The 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster S is the most modern, most appealing, most youth-focused bike the firm has made since Elvis got cut off from the waist down. If you’re in the market for something like a Yamaha XSR900, strongly consider this bike instead. It’s fast, stylish, comfortable (within the limits imposed by the short suspension travel) and exceptionally easy to live with. Just as importantly to some of us, it’s a true all-American effort. At $14,999 plus options and colors, it’s even a half-decent value.
Offhand, I can think of two legitimate competitors to the Sportster S. The first is Indian’s excellent Scout, which is significantly cheaper. It’s also significantly less powerful and it offers up more of a traditional cruise-night riding position. The second would be the Suzuki M109, which is just as fast (and expensive) as the Sportster but doesn’t have its maneuverability or electronic feature set. Neither has the Harley’s raw mojo. As a young (at heart) rider I really dig the idea of showing up at my favorite sportbike spots on this unapologetically Milwaukee sledgehammer.
And we could end the test right there, except for one thing: During our Sportster test, I had the chance to ride a Harley-made “LiveWire” electric bike. The riding position of the Livewire could best be described as “Yamaha FZ-09”, and I felt more comfortable going fast on it than I did on the Sportster. If Harley wants to separate me from eighteen thousand or so of my favorite dollars, here’s how they could do it: build a 150-horse RevMax bike with the LiveWire riding position. With such a steed in my garage, do you think I could make it into the Hell’s Angels? Nah. I probably couldn’t pass the background check. In the meantime, this Sportster isn’t what it was—but what it is, is great.
2022 Harley Davidson Sportster S
Price: $15,499/$16,657 (base/as tested)
Highs: The engine, the electronics, the look, the handling.
Lows: Could stand to be a bit louder, a bit roomier. A second disc up front would be lovely.
Summary: Harley hasn’t made a bike with this much legitimate youth appeal since the Tet Offensive; it’s a bigger American victory than the battle of Midway.