Harley-Davidson Sportster S RH1250S review

Car Reviews and Advisory

Harley-Davidson’s new Sportster S speaks with a Bronx accent and that’s not necessarily a good thing.  

Harley-Davidson Sportster S RH1250S on the road.

The handsome new liquid-cooled Harley-Davidson Sportster S may be a revolutionary model for the Milwaukee Iron motorcycle company, but it’s a Sportster in name only.

Harley has registered the name “Bronx” which pundits suspected was the new family name for this model, but the traditional heavy motorcycle maker clearly wanted to keep the venerable 65-year-old Sportster moniker alive.

That’s fair enough, but we doubt any serious Sportster fan will be convinced by the ruse, given the absence of the former models’ distinctive twin shocks, iconic oval air-cooler and fore and aft header pipes.

If anything, with its fat-tyred, low-slung look and water-cooled engine, Harley should have called this bike a V-Rod. The new Revolution engine first appeared in the also revolutionary Pan America 1250 Special adventure bike, but is downtuned from 112kW at 750 revs to just 90kW at 7500rpm.

No doubt enthusiasts will appreciate the engine’s apparent tunability, one of the strengths of the V-Rod, which developed an enviable reputation in Australia and elsewhere for its abilities on the drag strip.

Unlike the pricey V-Rod, however, the Sportster has long been regarded as Harley’s entry model, although this latest version calls that into question with its $26,495 ride away price tag making it the most expensive Sportster yet.

Previous versions of the Sportster have always stayed below the psychological $20k barrier, so this bike is charting new waters. Stylistically, it also seems to be targeting a younger demographic than the traditional over-50s Harley buyer.

With its low, wide stance, fat front and rear tyres, short fenders, and flat bars with bar-end mirrors, the Sportster S cuts a handsome, muscular figure.

The seat height is a low 752mm and the hand levers are adjustable, so it should suit shorter riders, even with its slightly forward foot controls.

A mid-mount conversion kit is also available, for riders not comfortable with this setup.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S RH1250S side view.

Yet another potentially divisive styling issue is the massive, high-mount, dual muffler.

It looks more like something you’d expect to see on a Scrambler rather than a Sportster and we suspect aftermarket pipes will soon be in the pipeline, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Other styling issues are more about the details, such as the abundance of matte back plastic and the radiator which seems to sit out too wide.

The modern, digital single-dial 4.0-inch-diameter TFT instrument screen looks like it has been adapted from the electric Livewire.

It has a comprehensive array of information, but the screen generates bad glare in certain sunlight conditions.

The instruments are compatible with smartphones, so you can operate your phone navigation, music and calls from the switch block or via voice activation.

The Sportster S also features a handy cruise control system, plus traction control and a three-mode engine switch and two rider-customised modes.

Other standard features include an LED headlight, two power points for heated riding gear, a proximity-based security system and a USB-C port for charging a phone or other device. It also comes pre-wired for accessory heated hand grips.

The 1252cc V-twin engine is the same unit Harley uses in the Pan America 1250 Special, where it makes 112kW at 8750rpm and 127Nm, but in this guise outputs are a more cruising-friendly 90kW at 7500.

Sportster fans will find it non-traditional in feel as it’s smoother and revs more freely but is also “brittle” sounding.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S RH1250S on the road.

While the engine generates the same amount of heat as the Pan America, the riding position means your legs are above the engine, so the only hot spot is on the back of your legs when riding in slow-moving summer traffic.

In this scenario, the bar-end mirrors are a little too wide to easily fit between lanes of traffic.

A slick transmission makes gear changes easy and neutral easier to find than usual for a Harley, but the clutch pull is heavy and becomes tiresome in slow traffic.

Out on the highway, the Sportster S is a fine machine, rumbling along at a leisurely pace with plenty of grunt for overtaking without having to downshift.

But it’s really no tourer with its 12-litre fuel tank only good for about 160km before the reserve light comes on, with about 60-70km of range left.

A detachable windscreen is available as an option but there’s nowhere to attach panniers or even tie down a rear bag, and Harley only offers a small “mailbag” accessory option.

The Sportster S is no canyon carver, despite fitment of fully adjustable Showa 43mm upside-down forks and a Showa Piggyback reservoir rear shock with hydraulic hand-adjustable pre-load.

The suspension setup is short and unforgiving and the lean angle a mere 34 degrees.

The combination means it doesn’t handle back-road bumps very well and will scrape the foot pegs early on most corners.

The biggest handling issue, however, comes from the choice of Dunlop/Harley-Davidson GT503 tyres.

The wide rubber – 160mm front and 180mm rear – makes cornering difficult, requiring plenty of deliberate counter steer and handlebar force to the keep the bike turned.

Harley-Davidson Sportster S RH1250S engine.

Then, as soon as you wind on the throttle, it wants to stand up and run straight.

While tyre width is part of the problem, so too is the high 70% tyre profile, which causes the bike to bounce over high-frequency bumps and makes braking difficult as the wheels keep skipping over the ground.

The high-profile tyres also contribute to the Sportster S’s tendency to stand up in corners when it hits a bump.

While handling would be likely be much better with lower-profile and skinnier tyres, this combo would contribute to the cornering clearance issue being even worse.

Despite weighing 228kg bike and having only a single front disc, stopping power is surprisingly good.

That’s because the front disc is a big 320mm unit with Brembo mono block four-piston calipers.

The low ride and long wheelbase also help braking performance as it means the rear wheel stays planted, even under heavy braking.

In summary, this latest Sportster has drifted away from its loyal audience in search of new fans, but we’re just not sure who they are given that it’s neither a great tourer or a canyon carver, and its abilities in traffic are hampered by the wide bars.

That leaves its main claim to fame being it’s a good-looking rooster that will strike a mean pose on the urban cafe route.

Which in turn means that maybe Harley should have named it the Bronx, after all.

Key facts

  • PRICE: $26,495 rideaway
  • WARRANTY: Two years/unlimited km
  • SERVICE: 1600km/8000km
  • ENGINE: Liquid-cooled, 1252cc V-twin
  • POWER: 90kW @ 7500rpm
  • TORQUE: 127Nm @ 6000rpm
  • GEARBOX: Six-speed, belt drive
  • WEIGHT: 228kg
  • SUSPENSION FRONT/REAR: 43mm inverted fork with compression, rebound and spring preload adjustability/Showa Piggyback reservoir rear shock with hydraulic hand-adjustable pre-load
  • BRAKES FRONT/REAR: 320mm disc with Brembo mono block four-piston calipers/260mm with Brembo two-piston calipers, ABS
  • DIMENSIONS: 2265mm (L); 843mm (W); 753mm (H); 1518mm (WB); 753mm (S).

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Things to note

The information in this article has been prepared for general information purposes only and is not intended as legal advice or specific advice to any particular person. Any advice contained in the document is general advice, not intended as legal advice or professional advice and does not take into account any person’s particular circumstances. Before acting on anything based on this advice you should consider its appropriateness to you, having regard to your objectives and needs.