Carole Nash
Content Writer
Published: 8th August 2008

Laid back cruising is the sole purpose of the 1200 Sportster, despite its name. With an Old fashioned V-twin engine tracing its engineering roots all the way back to the 1950’s, the Sportster is a basic, down to earth motorbike.

If you’re a fan of the stripped down look when it comes to Harleys, then maybe the Sportster could form the starting point for your personal interpretation of the leanest, meanest Hog that money can buy. The Harley accessory catalogue makes most phone books look wafer thin.

Then again, perhaps you just want to impress the chicks who work at the local burger drive-thru..

It´s a long time since Harley´s Sportster lived up to its name. In the few years following the model´s launch way back in 1957, the lean, tuned-up 883cc Sportster really was a sports machine, boasting 110mph top speed, fierce acceleration and respectable handling. But shortly afterwards the Harley was outpaced, first by British twins and then by Japanese multis, retaining its distinctive silhouette and V-twin engine layout along with a name that became less apt with every passing year.

That hasn´t prevented Harley´s most basic bike from remaining hugely popular right up to the present day. Last year the Sportster was the best-selling motorcycle on the US market, bar none. The 883 version outsold every other bike in the States, and the 1200cc model was fourth best-seller, behind Honda´s Gold Wing and Harley´s Electra Glide Classic; ahead of the CBR600 and all the rest.

Sales were also strong in most markets worldwide, including our own. Not bad for a bike that´s almost 40 years old.

Harley plans to sell even more Sportsters this year, thanks to not one but two new 1200cc models designed to appeal to contrasting types of rider. For the traditional Harley pilot there´s the XL1200C Sportster Custom, with 21-inch wire-spoked front wheel, high bars and added chrome. And for those who want to ride a little faster, there´s the XL1200S Sportster Sport – the closest thing to a truly sporty Sportster for many a year.

This is the bike that proves Harley finally has listened to the feedback from its customers, particularly in export markets including Europe, who for years have been complaining about the Sportster´s mediocre handling and stopping ability. There are quite a few other changes, too, such as a bigger 12.5-litre fuel tank, a new seat, and the revised switchgear shared by all Harley´s range this year. But the key items of the new Sportster Sport are its suspension, brakes and tyres.

The Showa 39mm cartridge front forks and twin rear shocks are fully adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping, a major first for Harley. The front brake features not one but two drilled 292mm floating discs, and is bolted to a 13-spoke cast wheel which, like its 16-inch rear counterpart, wears a Dunlop Sport Elite tyre. Compared to the cycle parts the Sportster has worn previously, this is serious stuff.

Much of the rest of the bike is familiar, including the faithful 1200cc, aircooled 45-degree motor whose only change is a revamp to the five-speed gearbox, aimed largely at reducing noise. That means the aircooled, pushrod-operated motor´s peak output remains somewhere in the modest mid-50bhp range, delivered at about 5000rpm, with a respectable maximum torque figure of 87N.m being produced at a lowly 3500rpm.

The Sport comes with an electronic speedo and tachometer above its slightly raised handlebars, but the things that catch your eye, as you settle into the traditionally low-slung saddle, are the damping adjusters at the top of each fork leg. In the cold weather of Daytona, where the test took place, the engine sometimes took a few moments to fire up, whereupon the inevitably muted muttering from its efficient twin pipes contrasted notably with the roar from the open pipes of almost every other Harley in Daytona.

Straight-line performance would have felt familiar to anyone who´s ridden a 1200 Sportster. The XL pulled cleanly at low revs and rumbled easily along with a pleasantly laid-back feel at legal speeds, accelerating crisply until it was cruising pretty smoothly at 70mph with just 3000rpm showing on the tacho. At fairly slow speeds the upright riding position was comfortable, and the revised gearbox allowed easy short-shifting to make the most of the strong low-rev performance.

Predictably the Harley was less impressive when revved harder, though, beginning to vibrate noticeably by 4000rpm. By 5000rpm there was a fair amount of buzzing coming through the handlebars, which would have made high-speed cruising a pain. The Harley would trundle up to about 120mph given enough time, but you´d have to be tough to hold high cruising speeds for long, and the blurred mirrors wouldn´t give much of a view of the chasing lawman.

If this Sportster´s engine performance was much the same as ever, then happily that was not true of the Harley´s chassis. Sure, this was still a basic and old-fashioned motorbike, with a simple (and not particularly strong) twin-cradle steel frame, conservative steering geometry, a 19-inch front wheel and a hefty 226kg of dry weight.

But the new chassis parts, without exception, were well worth having.

Most noticeable was the improved front brake set-up, which despite its weedy-looking single-action calipers gave very respectable stopping power. In combination with a new master cylinder, the big twin discs made tyre-squealing halts possible, and even allowed two-finger braking instead of the normal vice-like grip on the lever. And the similar single rear disc, although grabby, helped too.

The grippy Dunlop Sport Elite tyres were well up to coping with this increased braking power, and combined with the Sport´s reasonably generous ground clearance to allow some fun when I finally found some of Florida´s few curves. Most important, though, was the Harley´s uprated suspension, which was comfortable on its standard settings in town, and could be fine-tuned to give distinctly more control for hard riding.

Inevitably the slow-steering Harley still required a fair bit of effort to make it corner quickly, and the bike never quite lost its rather unwieldy feel. The limited suspension travel made for jarring over big bumps, too. But the Sportster´s improved front forks allowed hard braking without too much dive. Plus, adding some extra rebound damping in the remote-reservoir shocks, front and rear, had the XL feeling reassuringly stable through some reasonably smooth bends north of Daytona.

Even these modifications and the Sportster Sport name do not make this Harley a genuine high-performance motorcycle, of course. But the long-lived V-twin remains as stylish and as endearingly simple as ever, and in this latest guise it handles and stops well enough to make for an entertaining twisty-road ride. The improvements have been a long time coming, but they´re well worth the wait. By any objective judgement, this is the best Harley Sportster yet.

XL1200C Sportster Custom

If the Sportster Sport is all about uprated performance, the Custom model introduced alongside it is intended to give added appeal in the area where Harley is traditionally so strong: style. There are no fancy suspension parts here, just a handsome, clean-cut V-twin with plenty of chrome and a few distinctive components designed to work best when the bike is parked on its sidestand.

The Custom´s wire-spoked, large-diameter 21-inch front wheel is new, as is the fat-tyred, 16-inch ‘chrome slotted-disc´ rear wheel. The embroidered stepped dual-seat sits just 686mm off the ground; almost 50mm lower even than the Sport model´s equivalent. Handlebars are fairly high, and are bolted to a riser assembly which, like many other parts including the headlamp and several engine covers, is finished in shiny chrome.

Other features such as the larger fuel tank, uprated five-speed gearbox and revised switchgear are shared with the Sport model, as is the specification and performance of the good ol´ 1200cc V-twin motor.

As you´d expect there´s very little difference between the two models when cruising in a straight line, only the Custom´s slightly more laid-back riding position emphasising its cooler, less aggressive approach.

Old-style suspension with only preload adjustment for the shocks means the Custom was happier sticking to gentle riding, too. It gave a fairly soft and comfortable ride at slow speeds, and provided a pleasant and good-looking platform on which to scoot around Daytona during Cycle Week.

But on twisty roads the Custom wallowed at speeds that the Sport had taken in its stride. And the single front brake disc, despite the rotor now being fully-floating, required a traditionally mighty squeeze on the lever to make the Sportster slow with any urgency.

Daytona´s vast numbers of heavily modified Harleys – true custom bikes – rapidly dispelled any notion that this Milwaukee model´s name is any more apt than that of the Sport, too.

But for those traditional Sportster riders who regard looks and laid-back cruising ability as most important, with handling and braking well down the list, the Sportster Custom will doubtless prove hugely popular. My only serious complaint is that, at £7595 (or £7745 with two-tone paint), the Custom is £350 more expensive than the better-equipped and generally more competent Sport.

Get Harley Davidson motorbike insurance for the harley davidson 1200 sportster.


Vital Statistics
ENGINE Air-cooled 45-degree V-twin
CC 1199cc
TRANSMISSION 5-speed gearbox, toothed belt final drive
Cycle Parts
FRONT SUSPENSION 39mm telescopic Showa, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping [39mm Showa, no adjustments]
REAR SUSPENSION Twin Showa shocks, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping [Twin Showa shocks, adjustments for preload]
FRONT BRAKE 2, single-action calipers, 292mm discs [one single-action caliper, 292mm disc]
REAR BRAKE Single-action caliper, 292mm disc
FRONT TYRE 100/90 x 19in Dunlop K591 Sport Elite [90/90 x 21in Dunlop Elite]
REAR TYRE 130/90 x 16in Dunlop K591 Sport Elite [130/90 x 16in Dunlop Elite]
SEAT HEIGHT 734mm [686mm]