Yeah, we know—it doesn’t seem like a fair comparison, given the wide gap in displacement and size between these two bikes. But as the two largest motorcycle companies' most consistently popular models, the Rebel and the Sportster have, over the years, often been pitted against each other—probably because both are usually mentioned as beginner bikes (though “beginner bike” is a pretty subjective term). There was also the fact that Honda had completely retooled its Rebel for 2017, beefing up displacement, while Harley's 883 seems to have slimmed down, narrowing the spec gap between the two. So we figured it was time to revisit these two icons of the entry-level wars.

Honda may rule the roost when it comes to global sales, but in the US, Harley is still the big kahuna, nabbing 29.3 percent of all new-motorcycle sales as of 2015. One of the reasons for that record is the perennially popular Sportster, which Harley's been making since 1957. These days, the base Sportster, the Iron 883, is part of the Harley-Davidson Dark Custom line, which means it’s stripped down to the bare necessities. The bike was given some major suspension updates in 2016 but is basically unchanged for 2018, so it remains a solid cruiser with good handling and plenty of power, compact ergos, and a relatively low price tag. Plus, because it’s a Harley, it commands a level of respect that you just don’t get with other “entry-level” cruisers.

H-D Sportster XL883 and Honda Rebel 500
Nine grand isn’t a lot for a Harley but it’s still a lot of cash. The Rebel comes in at just over $6K.Harley-Davidson; American Honda Motor Co.

Honda's 250cc Rebel, on the other hand, has been a staple on the Rider Training circuit and a Big Red mainstay for more than 25 years, but it finally got a ground-up redesign in 2017, making it a different animal entirely. In fact, it's so different that we named the Rebel 500's smaller twin, the Rebel 300, our Cruiser of the Year for 2017, while Cycle World dubbed it the 2017 Best Lightweight Streetbike.

The 2018 Honda Rebel 500 is an easily attainable pick for someone wanting to get into motorcycling, or just needing a reliable commuter. The 471cc, liquid-cooled, parallel-twin engine and six-speed transmission come in a package that includes inviting ergonomics and nimble handling. It’s a quantum leap forward from the previous, toy-like Rebel 250.

Let's take a closer look.

Sportster’s stock tuck-and-roll seat
We’re fans of the Sportster’s stock tuck-and-roll seat; it’s smart detailing like this that makes the Harley look a touch more premium.Harley-Davidson

Price

Right off the bat, Milwaukee fans will cringe: The Sportster's base MSRP of $8,999 rings in at nearly 3K above the Rebel's $6,099. Clearly the Hog isn’t aimed at starving students.

Advantage: Honda.

Weight

With a running weight of 564 pounds the Sportster isn’t exactly what you’d call a featherweight. But at least it’s got a low center of gravity and is well balanced. The Rebel, as you’d expect, weighs in at a much lighter 414 pounds, for a difference of 150 pounds.

Advantage: Honda.

Seat And Height

Harley claims a 25.7-inch seat height for the Sportster (that’s the “laden” measurement; it’s 29 inches without a rider), which is manageable for most riders. Points also go to the Sportster’s stock tuck-and-roll seat; it’s a sweet detail that looks far more comfortable than the Rebel’s flattish, compact triangle, which just seems like it should be on your little brother’s Big Wheel. The Rebel’s seat height is a claimed 27.2 inches, though, so it compares favorably on that point.

Draw.

exhaust comparison
The Harley's life-affirming rumble trumps the strangled whine coming out of the Rebel’s sole muffler. It’s all about stirring emotions, right?Harley-Davidson; American Honda Motor Co.

Sound And Fury

Push the start button on the Rebel and you’re greeted with the low hum of Japanese engineering at its finest, which is not at all impressive to anyone within earshot (like your date). Here’s where the Harley kills it, with a powerful, life-affirming rumble, quickly followed by the unmistakable sound of spuds. That’d be “potato-potato-potato” to you and me.

Advantage: Harley.

engine comparison
The Sportster’s V-twin bangs out gobs more torque, and more quickly than the Rebel, but… The Rebel’s parallel twin sports liquid-cooling.Harley-Davidson; American Honda Motor Co.

Engine/Drivetrain

The awesomeness that is the fuel-injected Evolution V-twin includes a burly 54 foot-pounds of torque on tap (at 3,750 rpm, says Harley), so the Sporty makes a more immediate impression right out of the gate. The Honda's liquid-cooled, eight-valve parallel twin takes a little more time to work up the beans, but it spins up nicely once it's there; when we ran our Rebel 500 on the dyno, we got 39.36 hp at 7,670 rpm with a torque reading of 29.86 pound-feet at 6,190 rpm.

But it’s not all about torque. The Sportster is air-cooled; the Rebel gets liquid-cooling. The Honda has six speeds to snick through; the Sportster runs with just five. You’ll have to decide which of those things are important to you, but for power, we give the edge to the Harley.

Advantage: Harley.

Harley-Davidson Sportster
Pull-back bars and real-world peg/seat/bar angles make it comfortable for riders of any size to pilot either of these bikes.Harley-Davidson

Ergonomics

The Sportster will fit most riders over 5 feet, 3 inches quite comfortably, but that’s not to say shorter riders won’t find its ergonomics tasty as well. By the same token, if you’re expecting the Rebel to be a small bike for tiny people, you should know that Hot Bike Editor Morgan Gales—standing 6-foot-4—had no beefs at all with the Honda, saying, “I honestly found the 300 version to be plenty adequate.” With wide, pull-back handlebars and just-slightly-forward controls on both machines, riders of all sizes should be happy as clams (no pun intended) on either of these bikes.

Draw.

Honda Rebel 500
With its lighter weight, smaller wheels, and shorter wheelbase, the Rebel is plenty maneuverable. ABS is optional on either bike.American Honda Motor Co.

Handling

Honda by a landslide. Although the Rebel wears chunky 130-size rubber, it’s mounted on 16-inch wheels, while the Sportster rolls on a less maneuverable 19-incher up front (which definitely looks cooler). The Rebel also brings a steeper rake of 28 degrees, a tighter trail of 110mm, and a more compact wheelbase of 56.8 inches, in a lighter package, so it’s easier to push around. The Sportster is longer between the hoops (59.6 inches) and has more rake (30 degrees) and trail (117mm), for a lazier feel.

Advantage: Honda.

Honda Rebel 500
Sure, we dig the way the Sporty’s evolved into a tough, low-riding street punk, but the Rebel has some serious customizing possibilities too; check out this custom Rebel 300.American Honda Motor Co.

Style

This one’s totally subjective of course. We totally dig the Sportster’s thoroughly cool stripped-down style, but the Honda also barks with in-your-face rawness that’s tough to ignore. Its low, lean silhouette is set off by those chunky tires along with a narrow frame body. Yeah, it’s offbeat, which is cool—it just doesn’t look like anything else. The thing is, Harley has way more customization options available from the aftermarket when you want to personalize your rig.

Advantage: Harley.

So it turns out these two have some common ground after all, but ultimately it comes down to size, style, and the type of riding you do. Our advice? Go sign up for a demo ride this weekend.