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2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S first ride review: Uncompromising style, undeniable performance

The S is the most powerful and technologically advanced Sportster, and it might be the best-looking Harley since the Knucklehead.

Harley's Sportster S splits the difference between the Ducati Diavel and the Indian FTR.

Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson is branching out from its traditional air-cooled touring and cruising motorcycles and heading into totally new territory. The biggest example of this was the electric Livewire, followed by the Pan America adventure motorcycle with its excellent Revolution Max 1250 engine. The latest chapter in Harley's renaissance is the 2021 Sportster S.

While the Sportster name has been around since the late 1950s, this new S model bears little resemblance to the Sporties of old. It uses a version of the Pan America's engine that's retuned to deliver more midrange torque, with modern suspension components and lean-sensitive rider aid systems. It's not your typical Harley.

The Sportster S' Revolution Max 1250T engine has the same displacement as the Pan Am's, but it features different cams and cam timing as well as numerous other changes. This brings power down from 150 horsepower in the Pan Am to 121 hp in the Sportster S, though overall torque output is identical at 94 pound-feet. In exchange for this, you get a ludicrously strong midrange, a very flat torque curve and a screaming 9,500-rpm redline. This makes the bike feel a lot more powerful than its numbers would have you believe.

That engine is paired with a six-speed sequential transmission and a cable-operated slipper clutch. Both are excellent to use. The clutch pull is among the lightest and smoothest of any Harley I've experienced and makes cracking off gearshifts pleasurable. The gearshift (and the rear brake) are mounted in a mid-forward position, sort of splitting the difference between a traditional Harley and something like the Indian FTR 1200. I'm surprised at how quickly I find myself getting used to this design and how comfortable it is on a high-speed and very curvy road. I find myself preferring these to the accessory mid-control-equipped bikes, thanks to the extra legroom.

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Harley's engineers really made the packaging on this bike tight.

Harley-Davidson

The Sportster S features a single Brembo front brake setup consisting of a 320-millimeter rotor and a four-piston radially mounted monobloc caliper. The rear brake uses a single-piston caliper and 260-millimeter rotor. The choice of a single front brake on a bike as powerful and heavy (502 pounds wet) as the Sportster S might seem weird. In practice, I don't find the setup to be a particularly weak point, and with the 1250T's prodigious available engine braking, I hardly find myself touching the brakes at all.

The S has a bulldog-like stance, but Harley had to make a number of sacrifices in order to get the bike to look the way it does. For example, while the bike has a high-spec adjustable monoshock in the rear, it only has around 2 inches of travel. For a 300-pound rider like myself, that equates to a seriously bumpy ride and bruises in places where nobody should have bruises after a day riding. On smooth roads, the bike is fine, with the suspension doing an excellent job of eating up more minor bumps and vibrations.

A high point for Harley's newer models is an extremely competent suite of rider aids. The Sportster S is no exception here, thanks to its lean-sensitive antilock brakes, traction control, wheelie control and Harley's Drag Torque Slip Control, which works to mitigate rear wheel lock-up from engine braking. All these systems are highly configurable and effective when you get a bit ham-fisted with the throttle in sport mode in the middle of a corner -- not that I'd know, or anything.

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With 34 degrees of lean angle and giant tires, the Sportster S is a ton of fun in the canyons.

Harley-Davidson

The Sportster S is a little odd from an ergonomics standpoint. On one hand, it's got a very low and approachable seat height (29.6 inches) which makes the bike more approachable for shorter riders. On the other hand, the reach from the small single saddle to the bars is a little long, even for someone like myself with a long torso and long-ish arms. I'd love to see a more swept-back bar option in the future.

Speaking of that saddle, that is a weak point on the bike. Of course, it looks fantastic -- Harley's designers did a brilliant job of that with the motorcycle in general -- but its size and shape limit the amount of moving around a rider can do on longer rides. This, coupled with the very soft seat foam, means that pressure points are a genuine concern, and I find myself having to stop and stand up pretty often after a few hours of riding. Harley does offer an accessory saddle that's supposed to be bigger and better-padded, but I haven't experienced it so I don't know if it'll mitigate these issues.

Overall, the Sportster S is a bike that manages to look back (as Harley is so fond of doing) while moving the brand forward. It pays tribute to the Sportster line's history without being beholden to it. The result is a motorcycle that looks and rides unlike anything the company has ever produced.