The world of motorcycles is full of iconic names and brands, but arguably none have quite the punch of Harley-Davidson — at least, here in the U.S. For more than a century, the bikemaker has largely defined American motorcycle culture with its burly cruisers and other open-road-crushing machines.

And while the times have indeed started to change — the last few years have seen H-D serve up its first electric motorcycle, its first ADV and a new line of e-bikes — it isn't giving up on the rides that made it famous. For 2021, the brand is rolling out an all-new version of the Sportster; to find out what it's like, we headed out west to take it for a test ride.

woman riding harley davidson sportster s

What is it?

The Harley-Davidson Sportster S is a category-eluding motorcycle. The “-ster” part of the equation goes back to 1957, when the first Sportster debuted. Long and low was the principle then, as was a V-twin engine, and this entirely new Sportster is still a V-twin, and still sleek and low, but absolutely nothing is the same. Harley-Davidson says it's revolutionary, and that’s not marketing hype in the slightest.

Is the Harley-Davidson Sportster S new?

Entirely. The only thing in common with the outgoing Sportster is the name. You can sign up to order yours now, and it should be hitting dealers shortly.

What makes this Harley-Davidson special?

Darn near everything, but I’ll start with the guts. This 1,250cc twin is a similar powertrain to what’s in the Pan America, but whereas that bike churns out 150 horsepower, the Revolution Max T for the Sportster “only” produces 121 hp. Um, that’s plenty, trust me. Because rather than the flatter torque curve of the Pan-Am, here Harley’s emphasized take-off. So what you lose in total propulsion, you gain in a bike that wants to fire off the line, all the way to its 9,500 rpm redline.

Also, this a thoroughly modern power plant, with variable valve timing that enables really smooth and easy revving, whether you’re being lazy and not downshifting from fourth to third gear at 40 mph and just grabbing more throttle, or shifting aggressively and keeping it boiling, it’ll freight-train you forward from just above 2,000 rpm. The sweet spot hits around 3,500 rpm, where power feels black-hole deep — but you also get excellent engine braking from the high-compression V-twin.

harley davidson sportster s

Harley has a storied history in its engines, but “thumpers” can be exhausting and overly loud. How to preserve the legend while not letting it anchor you to your past? One way was to make certain this bike still makes noise, and it does, but the Revolution Max T’s anthem isn’t the tympanic brain-bruising blare of yore. It’s a pleasant, guttural churn that’s ballsy, but a bit less look-at-me showy. (Unless you go WOT and really want to rattle the neighbor’s windows at 2am.) In developing the Revolution Max T, engineers made certain to move the air box forward in the chassis, so when the engine’s chugging air you don’t hear it; you only get the pleasing roar of the twin-piped exhaust.

One last point on the engine — that’s not just about the engine. See, this bike is rider-tunable; while you wouldn’t default to think of a Harley like you think of a tech-laden BMW, that’s finally starting to shift. The Sportster S engine has multiple power modes that you can select via a four-way pad controller on the handlebar. You see those reflected in an entirely digital color TFT display that, oh by the way, can also pair to your phone, for turn-by-turn directions via the HD app, or to play music to Bluetooth-enabled earbuds or an in-helmet system like a Cardo or Sena. Apps? Bluetooth? Ride modes? Son, this isn’t the leather-vest Harley-Davidson your cool bad-seed uncle rode.

harley davidson sportster s

And I mean that in a good way. Even though, for instance, there’s absurd torque, Harley’s included a swell suite of safety tech, too, including both systems to prevent you from wheelie-ing when maybe you didn’t plan on that, to measuring available cornering grip and either cutting throttle or adding ABS, or both, all to ensure that you stay on your intended line.

How all this translates to riding, I’ll get to a moment, but in the pre-set engine modes this ranges from immediate throttle tip-in for Sport (as in, cattle-prodded-pit-bull); to Road, which offers a great balance of predictability with easy roll-on throttle; as well as Rain, where you really want the heavy hand of coddling to keep your Harley upright. And there are two custom modes, should you want a mixture of more power but perhaps greater traction control, say.

How does the Sportster S ride?

For this test ride, we bombed out of central L.A. and wound our way up Angeles Crest. This is the go-to for fast-car or fast-bike owners who want to get out the grind of SoCal traffic and test their machines — and with turn after stacked-loop switchback, it would be a tough proving ground for a lesser bike than the Sportster S.

woman sitting on harley davidson sportster s motorcycle

I wasn’t on a lesser bike, though; I was on a new-school Harley with a maximum lean angle of 34 degrees, a stiff Showa inverted fork that delivers exceptionally linear steering feel, and massive, Dunlop-developed tires (160/70TR17 73V front; 180/70R16 77V rear). Oh, and even though it looks insanely long, the 59.8-inch wheelbase tells you something else. Combine that shorter footprint than you expect and a seat height of only 29.6 inches, and the Sportster S is very nimble when the going gets delicate, and yet seems to elongate as you quicken the pace. It’s grippy when you need it to be, and friendly to the point of a bit nutty when you start to crack your wrist and go hell bent. It’s not a crotch rocket, but it may be the sportiest, most confidence-inspiring Harley in decades.

But here’s the uncanny part: Back off the gas and tool along and your face will be stuck on a CBD-like perma-grin, because that engine is tuned to allow super-kitten-friendly puttering, too. It won’t snarl; and the handling is so placid and predictable you could grocery-fetch daily on the Sportster S and be head-cleared and jolly, without ever asking this Harley to roar.

Anything else stand out?

Yes, two cons — and one big pro.

First con: This one is fixable, but the Sportster S has a default of forward controls, with your feet stretched out. Because there’s only two inches of rear-wheel travel, what you want to make the potholes go down easier is the ability to stand up to absorb the pavement biting back.

Luckily, Harley is going to sell a mid-controls option. After testing both versions...get the mid setup. It puts you in a far more athletic position for riding the twisties, and that just gives you better confidence for anything sketchy you might need to react to as well.

harley davidson sportster s motorcycles

Second con: The up-sweeping exhaust pipes are a nod to some Harley flat track racing history — and no doubt, they define the vibe of this bike. But they also direct a ton of heat right where you don’t want it, on the inside of your right leg.

Yep, these pipes are shielded, but if you’re noodling from stoplight to stoplight in 90-degree heat, you’re going to feel that hibachi scorch. It’s not a dealbreaker, but my guess is Harley’s going to offer some mods to overcome those meat-singe challenges.

One big pro: It’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of this bike for Harley-Davidson. Yes, the Pan America opens up a new space for the brand, but as vice-president of styling and design Brad Richards said, “We’re really looking for white spaces with Sportster.”

What that means: they’re going to riff well beyond Sportster. The engine can be scaled down in displacement, and the chassis is excellent; it’s stiff, and delivers gobs of agility. You can imagine a more upright position with some more suspension travel, to chase the smaller ADV category; you can imagine attacking the Ducati Scrambler. Basically, if you can dream of where Harley goes from here, with this modifiable engine and excellent chassis design, you can bet they’ve already got plans. And that’s great news if you’re a fan of awesome motorcycles made in the USA.

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S

harley davidson sportster s motorcycle

Base Price: $14,999

Engine: 1250-cc liquid-cooled V-twin

Gearbox: 6-speed slipper clutch

Horsepower: 121

Torque: 94 lb-ft

Estimated EPA Fuel Economy: 49 mpg