Photography by Kevin Wing...
From its introduction in 1957 until the late 1960s, Harley-Davidson's 883 Sportster was a badass bike. Bigger, more aggressively tuned than many motorcycles of the day, and much lighter than Harley's 74-series heavyweights, the Sportster, especially the hot CH version, was a bike to be respected.
But toward the end of the '60s, its performance was overtaken by faster, more efficient machines, most with less displacement. The Sportster began to slip from its superbike status, and even adding 1000, 1100 and 1200cc engines couldn't salvage its powerful personality when other 900s were running quarter-miles under 11 seconds. As other marques introduced ever-larger twins, the Sporty eventually slipped into the position of companion bike, something for riders who wanted a piece of the Harley legend without the price or weight of the bigger twins. There were some Sportster loyalists who preferred it to the big twins, but many of them melted away when Harley introduced Sport versions of its Dyna big twins that mirrored some of the Sportster's attitude but were bigger, stronger, better finished and, thanks to rubber mounts, much smoother.
The 1203cc engines are finished...
The 1203cc engines are finished to match the personalities of their respective models. The Custom has black cases and cylinders with polished or chrome fins and covers.
With the '04 models, Harley changes all that. Although they retain the same basic frame and engine layout, the new Sportsters have been almost totally revised, and are again motorcycles that can be taken seriously on their own merits. There are a number of significant changes -- engine improvements, stiffer frames, new brakes, improved finish, etc. -- but the most important new feature of the 2004 Sportster line is its system of rubber mounts that insulates the rider from the engine's vibration.
The Sportster was one of the very last, and the most popular, of the hard-shaking motorcycles, a fact that diminished the bike. You could admire its unique lines, its distinct position in the world of motorcycles, and other aspects of the bike, and still avoid it like the plague because of its vibration.
Vibration, at least on motorcycles, is a bad thing. It makes otherwise good seats uncomfortable, can make it hard to hold a handgrip firmly, and can shake your feet off footrests. Since revving the engine usually increases the magnitude and frequency of vibration, it can be a performance killer because extracting the horsepower that comes at greater rpms is just too unpleasant. And it is tough on the motorcycle itself. Components and their attaching apparatus must be built to withstand the shaking or isolated from it to reduce the wear and tear that shortens their lives.
The Roadster gets a flatter...
The Roadster gets a flatter silver finish on its covers. Both have new cover shapes and a new airbox.
But for '04, the Sportster blocks vibration with a new frame that incorporates three stabilizer links and rubber engine mounts in place of the solid engine mounts on previous Sportsters. The frame itself is also much stiffer. Even though the engine can no longer serve as a structural member the way it could with a solid mounting system, Harley says the chassis is 26 percent stiffer than previously. It definitely feels that way on the road. On the downside, the beefed-up frame is also significantly heavier, both because of the new engine-mounting hardware and the stronger frame pieces. The added frame mass is the primary reason that the four new Sportsters weigh more -- between 54 and 66 pounds, or about 10 to 12 percent -- than their '03 counterparts.
The same frame, which incorporates a new rear fender for the wider (150mm instead of the previous 130mm) rear tire, is used on all four XL models. The new structure looks cleaner, with a smoother finish in exposed areas. It incorporates a steering-head lock, and permits lower saddle heights, though most other dimensions are similar to the previous frames. The saddles on the Custom models are almost an inch lower than the seat on the now-discontinued 883 Hugger, which listed a low seat height at the top of its rsum. The frame redesign has also moved the battery and oil tank under the saddle, and the battery is now under a cover that symmetrically matches oil tank lines on the right. This means that the edges of the battery can no longer dig into your leg. One of the first things that most people comment on when they closely examine a '04 Sportster is the oil tank's push-button dipstick. It works like one of those push-to-release cabinet latches. Push the flush cap once and it pops up so you can release it with a quarter turn. Push in the projecting cap to latch it flush again.
In addition to the Hugger, the dirttracker-style XL883R is also gone from the 883 line, leaving just the standard XL883 and the XL883C Custom. The bikes we tested here are Harley's only 1200 models, the XL1200C Custom and the XL1200R Roadster, which is a cross between '03's basic XL1200 Sportster and the Sportster XL1200S Sport. The Roadster lacks the old Sport's adjustable suspension, but includes its dual front brakes, tachometer and low-rise handlebar. And both 1200s have hot-rodding tweaks that add about 15 percent more power than last year's basic 1200.
The Customs are immediately distinguished by their skinny 21-inch wire wheels. The four also share a restyled 4.5-gallon fuel tank instead of the traditional 3.3-gallon capacity carried over to the new, traditionally styled tank used on the XL883 and XL1200R. To keep them low, the Customs' dual rear shocks are shorter, with less travel (2.4 inches instead of 4.1 inches) than the other XLs. They feature disc-style 16-inch rear wheels rather than the 13-spoke designs of the 883 and 1200R. The Customs have forward foot controls -- though less radical than in the past -- and mount their handlebars on risers that also support the speedometer and warning lights. Of course, they also have a bit more chrome and shine (the headlight shells, for example) than the 883 and 1200R.
The new Sportsters get a variety of engine finish treatments. The 883s have silver powdercoat with some polished parts. The 1200 Roadster gets silver powdercoated cases and covers with black cylinders and polished fins. The 1200 Custom has black powdercoated engine cases and cylinders broken up with polished cylinder fins and chrome cases. Many covers -- including the primary, derby, sprocket and, most noticeably, the redesigned, two-piece rocker-box -- have been restyled, and the engines' overall finish quality has been improved. The airbox has a new shape. The staggered dual-muffler exhaust system looks much the same at first glance, except that there is no longer a crossover tube blocking the view of the engine. Closer examination reveals that there is a much more complex and uglier crossover system hidden under the mufflers.
However, the big news in the engines is mechanical. The new motors are still configured like previous Sportster engines, with the same layout, air cooling, bore and stroke, etc. However, they have been strengthened and massaged both to make a bit more power and to stand up to the added revs that riders are likely to demand now that they no longer risk having their fillings shaken out to enjoy them.
The changes start with better cooling. The heads and cylinders have bigger fins, and oil is now sprayed under the pistons to aid cooling. New rings extend cylinder life. Ignition timing is now cued off the crankshaft for more accuracy, though the traditional Sportster timing cover remains. Virtually all the gasket points in the engine have been improved to banish leaks. Both 1200s have the same engine, which makes about 15 percent more power than last year's standard 1200 mill. The new 1203cc engine gets hotter cams taken from the Buell XB engine, though, at 70 horsepower, the Sportster engine makes less power than the Buell's similar engine, largely because the Buell sucks through a much larger airbox (which the sportbike can use because styling convention isn't such an issue). Unlike the '03 Sportster 1200 Sport engine, this will not have dual spark plugs because its combustion-chamber design does not require them to inhibit detonation. The new 1200's compression ratio is 9.7:1, compared with 10.0:1 for last year's Sport and 9.0:1 for the other '03 1200s. Lighter pistons, rods and valve-train components allow the 1200 to rev 500 rpm faster to 6000 rpm. The 883 has a much milder power gain, achieved mostly through other upgrades, like the airbox, adding a modest two horsepower to give it a claimed 53 ponies.