Harley-Davidson XL1200S Sportsterhdsportster_areviewlogo

by Troy Johnson

The first Sportster laid rubber to pavement in 1957. That first 883 is referred to by Harley-Davidson as the “Father of the Superbikes.” For those of us existing outside of the hallowed halls of The Motor Company and benefiting from the perspective of the late 1990s, it seems more appropriate to dub the Sportster the “original hooligan.” Whatever laurels that bike picks up through history were well earned back in ’57 when it was the biggest, baddest piece of sporting machinery a rider could set fanny to.

Forty-one years later the Sportster is still in production, but its days of basking in the praises of the performance junkies are long gone. In fact, many loyal Harley-Davidson riders dismiss the Sportster as a toy, a beginner’s bike, a “chick bike.” The XL1200S Sportster Sport model is Harley-Davidson’s attempt to put a shine to the Sportster’s tarnished image. They have succeeded in this attempt. After getting roasted on twisty country roads by a few women riding 1200S Sportsters, some of those big boys on big twins may change their minds about Sportsters and about “chicks.”

Four decades of refinement have made the Sportster a much better motorcycle than the 883 of 1957. The styling has not changed much, and the performance has not stayed on the leading edge of the sport bike world, but all the components of the bike change over every so often. That is how Harley-Davidson works. The Motor Company is constantly tinkering with its beloved bikes, making steady improvements each year&emdash;subtle, efficient improvements that are hard to spot amidst the hoopla created by the new-from-the-ground-up machines other manufacturers are releasing each season. This leads one to expect that a new Harley-Davidson will be nearly the same as a year or two old Harley-Davidson.

hdsportster_cNot so with the 1200S. I fully expected this bike to be a mildly improved 1200, an amusing but not thrilling motorcycle. After ten minutes in the saddle the following word appeared in my head: “Whoo-hooo, Rock and Roll.” As what

H-D has done with this bike became apparent to me, there may also have been a, “Baby!” The folks in Incremental Development at H-D have thrown caution to the wind and made a great leap forward with the Sportster, bringing it to the doorstep of the hooligan class. There it sits barking and snarling with only a thin wall keeping it from doing some serious damage to a few imports, or at least chewing up a couple slippers. Yes, it could still use a little more power to the rear wheel, but gains have been made. The performance improvements made in nearly every other area of the bike are astonishing, especially when you consider that they are not all that visibly obvious.

What you do notice right away are the piggy-back gas-charged shocks out back and the dual floating disc brakes up front. Once you take a closer look you may wonder why there are two cables exiting each ignition coil on either side of the steering head. This forces you to inspect the cylinder heads and find that they contain two spark plugs each. When you sit on the bike you might notice the fork adjusters on top of each fork leg. These reveal the presence of the fully adjustable cartridge forks. The rest of the hop-ups are out of sight, literally and figuratively. The modified exhaust, new cams and “non-waste” spark ignition complete the sport package. None of these changes were made for cosmetic reasons (we will get to the cosmetics in a moment). They were made to improve the performance of the motorcycle, and they all work.

The fully adjustable fork and shocks significantly improve the comfort and handling of the Sportster. In fact, the suspension of the 1200S fails to draw any hdsportster_bcomplaints at all from this rider. The Sport soaks up road irregularities like a sponge and never gives up when the going gets tough…and leaned

over. The difference between this bike’s suspension and that on the 883 we had along for the ride was night-and-day. The brakes have a very nice feel at the lever and do a nice job of hauling this 500 pound motorcycle to a stop.

The most satisfying improvements in place on the Sportster Sport are those made to the engine. The “non-waste” ignition fires each cylinder’s dual plugs separately instead of firing everything off at once with one of the pistons on its exhaust stroke, which is standard H-D procedure. The combination of the new ignition and cylinder heads coupled with the new exhaust make the Sport into one smooth-running, relatively quiet Harley. If you are after vibration and noise, pass on this bike and buy yourself an 883. The 1200S shakes less than the standard Sporty at all RPMs, but it shockingly ceases to shake much at all between 2000 and 2800 RPMs. This means the Sport is silky smooth from 50 to 60 miles per hour in top gear, just the ticket for some all-day trips along interesting county highways. When the pace quickens the motor is adequate for the task if not spectacular, but it is noticeably more powerful than the standard Sportster’s.

The riding position can be described as “standard.” This is not a cruiser, and it is not what has become to be known as a sport bike. Most riders will find the Sport to be comfortable for nearly any kind of riding. The seat deserves extra credit for remaining

hdsportster_eanonymous throughout the day, which means it must have been plenty comfortable. The handle bar switch gear is well thought out, and, even though it is non-standard, using it becomes intuitive rather quickly. The side-stand works beautifully without putting the rider through a gymnastics routine at every stop to put it down. After recently experiencing many recent motorcycles, this is a feat very few manufacturers can manage.

The one knock against our test bike is that after an hour it refused to shift into neutral. This may be due to the fact that this particular bike had zero miles on the odometer when I arrived to pick it up. (It was still in the crate!) Co-pilot Michael Kamrad had some success shifting down into neutral from second gear, but I found myself foiled time and again. I do not regard this as anything more than an adjustment problem on a brand new bike. However, if other Sportster riders are hdsportster_dfamiliar with this problem, I would sure like to hear about it.

In the cosmetics department, what we have here is basically a de-chromed Sportster. The 1200S comes wearing a blacked-out and polished aluminum ensemble that drew a small crowd while we took the photographs for this story. The Sportster has classic good lines that are made more noticeable by the absence of chrome. The piggy-back shocks and dual floating discs lend a menacing air to the bike that becomes deeply satisfying after you’ve ridden it awhile. “Yeah, I’ve got the biggest, baddest sporty on the block.”

If the thought of owning a Sportster has ever crossed your mind, this one is for you. If the thought of owning a Sportster has never crossed your mind, take this one for a ride. That thought will come.

XL 1200S Sportster Specifications:


LengthSeat HeightRakeTrail


Front Tire

Rear Tire

Fuel Capacity

Dry Weight

Brakes (diameter x width)



Mileage (per EPA Regulations)



88.5 in.28.0 in.29.6 degrees4.6 in.

60.2 in.

100/90-19 5IV

130/90-16 64V

3.3 gal.

501 lbs.


dual floating disc 11.5 in.

floating disc 11.5 in.


45 mpg

52 mpg




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