In the past couple weeks I caught some moto-media snippets about a new Sportster being released by Harley Davidson. Based on the initial photos I suddenly realized that this new “Sporty” was adorned with some legitimate kit. I suspect that with the increasing pressure from foreign manufacturers, and revitalization of competing domestic motorcycles, I believe that Harley Davidson is beginning to make incremental changes to expand its target audience. After receiving an e-mail from a local Dealer I stopped in last Sunday to see this new ride up close. I’ve had my motorcycle endorsement for the better part of almost six years, this is undeniably the first time I’d ever set foot in a Harley dealer to look at a particular motorcycle. This new bike, the 2016 Harley Davidson Roadster, while not a radical departure from the 883 and 1200 cc Sportster lineup is, in my opinion, unquestionably taking a genuine step in the right direction.
At first glance, the new Roadster appears very reminiscent of the 883 Iron, with a taller seat, bobbed fender, and low bars. Upon closer inspection, the blacked out Evolution engine disguises the upgraded 1200 cc power plant, along with longer travel rear shocks, inverted front forks, floating rotors, along with dual disc brakes up front. The Roadster is still rocking the “classic” peanut tank, minuscule headlight, and other run-of-the-mill equipment found on the 883 Iron or 1200 Custom.
While having never ridden, but having sat on several modern 883 Sportsters, sitting astride the Roadster I was immediately impressed with the seating position. At 31 inches, it’s a stark contrast to the 26 inch slammed seat on the 1200 Custom or 883 Superlow. The bars also feel every bit as low as they look from the photos; while not as aggressive as Thruxton or CBR standards, the rider is definitely over the tank on this new v-twin. As mentioned, the grips, levers, and mirrors all appear to be standard Sportster fare, but I admit the lever pull didn’t feel as stiff as other Harleys’ I’ve saddled in the past. With mid-controls combined with taller seat, low bars, and otherwise slender profile, from the cockpit, somewhere beneath years of “low slung” cruiser evolution, I detected a hint of “sport” from the name Sportster starting to shine through.
Despite the overall “feel” of the bike from the show room floor, I was mostly interested in the technological advancements on the Roadster. While I have yet to ascertain the manufacturer of the before mentioned upside-down (USD) forks, I assumed they were an immense improvement over what I’m guessing were otherwise “spongy”, nose-diving, front springs on the traditional Sporty (and most “entry level” cruisers…). Same goes for the brake calipers, emblazoned with the stereotypical bar and shield, I’ve yet to read any details about where the calipers are actually made. I heard the word “Brembo” thrown around on the sales floor referring to the floating rotors, but I am going to consider that hearsay until I see something firm from more “in-the-know” motorcycle media types. After answering a barrage of technical questions about ground clearance (6”), lean angle (~31 deg.), suspension travel (~4+” front, ~3+” rear; not posted on the HD website), et al, the sales staff successfully talked me into taking this brand new bike for a test ride around a few of the local backroads.
Having signed my life away and outfitted with a bright yellow vest, I stepped out onto the lot to take the shiny new Roadster for a ride. Thumbing the ignition I was immediately met with the throaty rumble of the stereotypical Harley V-twin. Chris Cope’s description of the Harley-Davidson experience is spot on, in his words, “visceral”. Stark contrast to my 865 parallel-twin, the 1200 cc Evolution engine rattles the entire chassis at idle. Something that I assume the Harley faithful find endearing, I started to think I’d just mounted the saddle for my first “8 second” ride. To my surprise, easing out the clutch to follow the sales guy on a short tour, I was not met with the “lurch” I expected having ridden the big bore V-twins; but maybe it was just my “smooth” clutch skills having ridden such less torquey steeds (who knows…). Once out on the road the sense of violent vibration began to subside as the engine found its happy place above 2500 RPMs. Stopping at the first few intersections it was immediately apparent that these new low bars were absolutely not intended for commuting around town.
Finally past a handful of traffic intersections, I was able to wind out the Roadster mill and lean into some of the curves. While the Evolution engine rattles the frame at idle, it settled down considerably as I began to feel the power build near 4000 RPMs. Moreover, redlining at 6k, the Roadster begs to revved harder and harder without objection. Winding up and down the gears through the curves I enjoyed the (albeit subdued) patented Harley Davidson exhaust note. While I’m not a proponent of “loud pipes save lives”, some judicious uncorking of the stock Sportster pipes wouldn’t be objectionable. On the same note, I’ve never ridden a Harley with stock exhaust before, I was surprised by the amount of valve train noise I heard over the wind blast; by no means on par with my British twin, or Freedom 106, but it still caught me off guard.
Rolling down the two lane I found the suspension to be pretty decent, especially after the notorious gripes about Sportster rear shocks. At first I found myself (out of habit) steering around potholes and road imperfections, but rapidly realizing that it would be better to test how these new forks and taller rear shocks could handle the punishment. To my surprise I didn’t receive the rear bottoming out or front-end wallow that I expected; I can say the suspension is, at a minimum, adequate. That said, I’m curious if the stock setup is perhaps too “cushy”; will the bike feel like it floats or wallows through more technical maneuvers at speed? The sales guy I was following on the test ride was obviously hampered by traffic laws, so we were hardly burning through curves, it was spirited, but I feel this new chassis deserves to be pushed (much) harder.
On a similar note I was hoping to feel a good firm bite from the front end with the dual front disc; considering I engine brake most of the time, I didn’t need to squeeze the brake lever much considering the stout transmission on the evolution power plant; evidently geared for torque. Even blipping the throttle as I stabbed it down another gear, the bike lurched with a bit in protest; certainly not the rev-happy Triumph mill I’m accustomed to. That said, I can say the front end feel was on par, if not superior to my current ride. I do however have some concerns that while the Roaster is outfitted with dual disc out front, the chunky stock control levers may dull out any refined front-end feel. Dual Front disc is unquestionably a step in the right direction, but from the little input I have, it’s still nowhere on par with the radial mounted binders on the European competition. Bearing in mind that I wasn’t truly flogging the dealer’s new bike, it’s probably too early to tell.
Kicking it up a notch as traffic cleared out, the low bars were quite “sporty” (pun intended) at speed. With the taller rear end, firmer front forks, the overall bike (and rider) geometry is a radical departure from the Roadster’s “slammed bobber” Sportster brethren. Gripping the tank with my knees, pushing against the bars, and leaning into the turns I cursed the speed limit signs, realizing this “cruiser” was, by far, better suited for spirited riding than most. Crossing a set of railroad tracks, I was also shocked that, while gripping the stock bars, I could actually stand up completely. Still, a little bar rise would be a welcome addition if I wanted to chop this roadster into a trail riding “Dirtster”; I’m betting that would surely alleviate the forearm exhaustion in traffic. The stock seat was, well, sufficient; I actually like the notched “back-stop”, a welcome addition when you’re launching from the stop lights. However, the seat was a bit skinny near the tank, considering you sit on the bike and not in it (very much on it), I see the potential to feel like you’re riding on the frame spine after about an hour.
Considering this is the first Harley I’ve realistically ridden for longer than just a quick jaunt around the block, I was very impressed. While I think I’ve mentally moved on from cruisers (at least for now), there’s no doubt that I’ve ridden quite a few, and of all of them, (thus far) the Roadster is positioning itself near the top of the “most sporty” list. To be fair, this new Roadster truly encroaches on the “standard” class, but more on that in a minute.
Overall the ergonomics are not all that different from the Triumph Thruxton 900 I rode recently. While the two bikes are substantially different, with the more aggressive steering geometry, I suspect they are potentially chasing the same audience; be it classic, retro, throwback, “naked”, or standard bike. That said, besides the beefy USD forks and lower handlebars, even at 29 degree rake angle, the Thruxton (for one) still has more aggressive rake angle (27 degrees) and is a bit more flick-able than the new Roadster. While I don’t estimate I would be putting knee down anytime soon on the Roadster, you can definitely hug the tank and hang off through the curves. Some folks may think that sounds silly, but this new Sporty actually boasts a 31 degree lean angle, almost 5 degrees more than the stock, “slammed”, Sportster.
For a guy who probably doesn’t know any better, the rear shocks were pretty impressive, especially considering the notoriety of stock Sportster suspenders. While acceptable, they could probably stand a bit more travel (I have 3.75″ travel on my stockers, and they still suck; I realize construction also matters, not just travel). Without question the front suspension was solid, no matter how much I compliment my Speedmaster, the inverted forks on the Roadster never displayed the fork dive most cruisers have in a hard braking situation. At any rate, I was impressed to find that when aimed directly at pot holes, the Roadster didn’t buck me off at speed; and with some cartridge emulators… who knows what’s possible.
Fit and finish was absolutely top notch, I would expect nothing less from Harley Davidson (the jury is still out on the new Street 500, but it’s still very new). Chopped fender, metal tail lights, chrome signals up front, beefy bar clamp (stamped with “Milwaukee, USA”) and otherwise copious amounts of steel, basically more of the same from the Sportster line. While excess use of steel equates to additional weight in my book, I will say that cheaply molded plastic, lazy welds, and otherwise unsightly wire-routing is clichéd Asian fodder; none of which will be found on the Roadster.
Ultimately, the energetic ride was truly what shined through, the 1200 Evolution engine wasn’t a dog at high RPMs, and frankly begged to be punished harder. At the same time the rider triangle never made me feel like my feet were in the wrong position or I needed to contort myself to manage the machine when the ride got sporty; all welcome additions to the Harley brand as far as I’m concerned.
Despite how much I enjoyed the engine at high RPM, I have a hard time overlooking the unsettling vibration the rider experiences at idle. Slowing at the turn around, I thought I was in the wrong gear, so much so I thought I was about to stall the bike… Then I realized was, it just vibrates like that all the time.
While not a problem on this test ride, long-term, the pegs are way too long. The Roadster is probably the most “Sportster” that Harley has sold in a significantly long time, own it already.
The large tach does look good, and the digital readout is very modern, but I found the speedo and turn signal indicators a bit tough to see, especially on a sunny day; given, I only rode the bike for half an hour.
I’m still surprised that ABS is an $800 add-on. Considering it’s a Harley, I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but if Harley is going to begin dipping its toe in markets that are otherwise dominated by European bikes (Triumph, Ducati, Moto Guzzi), for the asking price, ABS will need to become standard.
Lastly, right handed turn signal switches are just dumb… sorry. Aside from my left foot, my right hand is already doing the vast majority of the work operating a motorcycle, it doesn’t need one more activity to manage, combined with really poor ergonomics… but I digress.
Bar risers are almost a given; as much fun as the riding position can be when the road gets technical… that’s just not what most people are going to do with this bike, at least the vast majority of the time. Either the bars need to be raised, the seat needs to get taller, or the pegs need to become rear-sets; long-term, something has to give.
This may seem petty, but the Headlight, while stylish, is probably as useless as the stock light on my Speedmaster (probably a non-issue for 90% of riders). Fortunately, I’m betting Harley has a sweet factory “Day-maker” replacement for the anemic factory beam.
In-house, the Roadster is probably competing the hardest with cheaper “cruisers” in the Sportster line, and sadly against cheaper big-bore V-twins in the dyna line. If a prospective buyer “just wants a Harley” an 883 with a 1200 upgrade kit will get them close to the Roadster well under budget; despite the inherent performance flaws of the 883 chassis that make me cringe. Undoubtedly the Roadster will also compete against the 1200 Custom for buyers that don’t understand, or have no interest, in the performance upgrades on the Roadster. Worse still, for $2,500 more you can snag a Dyna with the 103 Cubic Inch Twin-Cam mill. While “there’s no replacement for displacement” isn’t my mantra, I suspect that may be the case for many Harley shoppers.
From my perspective, the 2016 Bonneville T120 is the closest competitor to this bike. I realize that some would say I’m off way off the reservation here, but the new T120 sports Triumph’s new (liquid cooled) 1200 cc mill, outfitted with throwback looks, soliciting customers looking for “modern-retro”. I recognize that I’m firmly implanted on the Triumph bandwagon, but the new T120 brings throttle by wire, switchable fuel maps, USB port (ho hum…), has better steering geometry (26 degree rake angle, etc.), carries an extra half gallon of gas, and is in the neighborhood of weighing fifty pounds less; all for $11,500. Did I mention even more copious amounts of black paint?
Despite my Triumph leanings, the Roadster will also have to stack up heavily against the Indian Scout and the new Victory Octane. Having ridden the Scout, I do feel that the roadster carries an edge in the suspension department, but considering the power to weight differential, I suspect that the Scout and the Octane can both best the Roaster on the strip and in the twisties (only one way to find out, hopefully the mainstream motorcycle media will tackle that shootout). Considering the new Octane weighs in at 528 pounds (dry), claims 105 Horse Power and 76 foot-pounds of torque for $10,500, Harley will have to quantify the premium (and no, “dealer network” is not sufficient).
Again, I realize that most prospective Harley buyers don’t “cross-brand” shop, but with a price tag of $11,200, I can also reach a number of Asian “standard” bikes, and even several “neo-retro” bikes. The XSR900 and the Ducati Scrambler both fit this category. I realize that I am comparing 800 cc bikes against a 1200 V-twin, but I suspect both the Yamaha and the Duc can easily hold their own against the Roadster, at least in performance.
While I see myself moving off a cruiser in the near future, there’s a lot of potential in the Roadster. While I don’t subscribe to the “blank canvas” mentality that many Harley buyers relate to (buying a bike just to exchange half of the bolt on parts just seems like a waste of money to me), I do see that the Roadster is ripe for “minor” modifications that can really set it apart from other bikes on the road, not only in looks, but in performance. While I find the vibration unnerving, I can’t help but appreciate the simplicity (especially from a maintenance perspective) of the V-twin architecture. Moreover, after my experience on the Gunner, the 1200 Evolution engine never offered complaint as I wound it out. Despite any potential I see in the Roadster, I still can’t qualify the $11,200 price tag. The dealer sales staff made comments about “resale value”, and I understand there’s a Harley Dealer on every street corner in America (is it going to break down that often?), but what do I get for the nearly a one-thousand dollar premium to own a Harley? The Roadster was unquestionably a lot of fun, I would love to ride it again (unbridled… very… unbridled), but I don’t think I can take one home anytime soon. However, I can see picking up one used in a few years… and finally putting that Dirtster in my Dream Garage. In the end, I’m still really happy to see Harley Davidson make these, subtle, yet substantial improvements to a Sportster, I hope this is the beginning of trend that launches into a full-scale line of performance V-twin standard bikes from Milwaukee.
What’s your first impression of the new Roadster?