Hipster Hoedown: Iron vs. Bolt

Metal Machines of the 900 Class

No discussion of 900-ish-cc or so bikes would be complete without these two bad boys from Harley-Davidson and Star. For years, H-D happily owned the middleweight, not-quite-a-cruiser, retro-standard category with the Sportster, but recent examples have steadily crashed the once-exclusive club: Triumph's Bonneville, Honda's RS, and now Star's Bolt. This might come as a shock, but the Bolt and the Iron are two very similarly styled bikes. Between affordability, the ubiquity of the "peanut" tank, and the small, nimble practicality of this style of bike, it's the choice of the next generation of riders. You might also know them as hipsters.

Despite their industrial raw element-monikers, these bikes aren't really about function but rather design. Sure they look industrial, but it's a pose. If it was all about mechanical efficiency, they'd be decidedly more boxy. As it is, they aspire more to a steampunk aesthetic than a Bauhaus one; it consists of a motor wrapped in just enough stuff to make it a motorcycle then blacked out for coolness. If that is the ultimate measure of this style of bike, then the Bolt does it bigger and better; if minimalism is your thing, the Sportster's more subtle about it.

Entry or Not

Although derived from the V Star 950—where it looks right at home—the Bolt's 942cc motor looks cartoonishly huge, which is only accentuated by the skinny frame tubing. The rear head protrudes so much on the left side that Star designed a guard to keep the rider's leg off it. But kudos to Star for using a tank more akin to a vintage dirt bike, as might be the case on a 70s custom; the Bolt tank is more angular, which carries over to the whole design. Although the shapes of these two bikes strike a similar profile, the Sportster tends to rounder edges and less of them, while there are more complex polygons on the Star. With all those angles, the Bolt also has protruding circles as a design theme; the headlight is obvious, but the taillight and speedometer all sport a similar look. The smoked speedo lens is stylish, but it can also be very hard to read with any sort of glare. Other details include cutouts in the heat shields, as well as the battery box, all a contrasting dull silver, along with an accent on the air cleaner.

Helmet: Shoei J-Cruise, Jacket: AGV Sport Element Vintage, Gloves: Alpinestars SM-X, Jeans: Icon Strongarm 2 Enforcer, Boots: Tourmaster Vintage 2

It should be no surprise that with 50-plus years of development H-D's Sportster comes across as a tighter package, with the engine tucked tightly to the frame and tank. Not to diminish the appearance of the Bolt, but the Iron looks like a more premium machine, with little drop-off in quality from the more expensive Big Twins Harley makes. It's basically a blacked-out Sportster to us old-timers, but that's almost a meaningless distinction now that there's no such thing as a standard "Sportster." There are a number of nice touches, like fork boots, a side-mount license plate, and varying finishes on the classic engine, but not as many styled components as with the Bolt.

The engine is where the Bolt really stands apart. Aided by some extra ccs and a more modern valve train design, it simply dusts the wheezy, pushrod-propelled Iron. The Iron 883 has a nice, even powerband across its whole range, but it's never all that impressive. The Bolt's overhead-cam twin comes on strong from the bottom and, though it tapers, revs out decently well. Which is a good thing since it's geared really short, especially if you like reveling in the fat bottom-end like we do. In fact, we found top gear (fifth) comfortably accessible at just 45 mph, and second-gear starts aren't out of reach. It'll cruise at high speed, but then it just feels buzzy.

Helmet: Bell Custom 500, Jacket: Icon Brawnson, Gloves: Alpinestars Scheme, Boots: Icon Reign

The Harley is geared better for its wide band. While its ratios are also on the close side, it revs out better and with less shake, thanks to its rubber-mounted engine. The transmission engages with a hearty clunk, in marked contrast to the Star's buttery-smooth action. Braking is another area where the Bolt has a distinct advantage—in fact, we wish these brakes were on all single-disc brake Stars. The rakishly styled wave rotors probably don't have any real functional advantage, but the fact is that they have a nice bite along with great feel and power. The 883's brakes feel wooden by comparison but get the job done with enough of a firm squeeze. The Sportster now has the option of ABS, which we had on our unit, and it's a nice bit of added security on uncertain surfaces (or with inexperienced riders), but we prefer the overall action of the Bolt.