Delving Deeper with the 1997 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 from the Middleweight Comparison

Staff from 1997 take a closer look at that year's Harley-Davidson middleweight contribution.

The power behind this Sportster is this air-cooled, 45-degree tandem V-twin.
The power behind this Sportster is this air-cooled, 45-degree tandem V-twin.Cruiser

The best-selling motorcycle in this group was originally conceived 40 years ago, when the first Sportster, an 883cc overhead-valve 45-degree V-twin design, not terribly different from this one, was rolled out as Harley’s answer to the new high-performance bikes coming from England. The present configuration—alloy “Evolution” top end, hydraulic lifters, and a couple hundred other changes—was introduced for 1986. A five-speed transmission (instead of four) and belt final drive (replacing a chain) were incorporated a few years later.

Last year (1996), there were three 883 Sportster models: the base model with a solo saddle, no tachometer, and a bargain price; the Deluxe model with tach, passenger seating, and pegs; and the Hugger, essentially the base model with shorter shocks and a buckhorn handlebar. This year, the Deluxe model is gone. We requested (and got) a dual saddle and passenger pegs on our base model, which also came with Harley’s optional wire-spoke wheels laced to newly machined hubs in place of the standard cast wheels.

Nothing in this class looks, feels, rides, or sounds like a Sportster. If you blindfolded any one of the riders involved in our comparison and asked them to sit on the bike with the engine silent or simply listen to it, they could identify it without hesitation. The other bikes in the group would require at least a moment of consideration.

Harley-Davidson Sportster 883
Harley-Davidson Sportster 883Cruiser

Though its profile is unmistakably that of a cruiser, the Sporty is still unlike anything else. It’s lithe, yet more aggressive and sporting in profile than the chopper-style bikes. The low bar, unique tank shape, and dominant engine appearance, distinguish it from all other machines.

Like its progenitors, the 1997 Sportster engine transfers engine heat directly to the air it brushes through; no liquid-cooling or fake fins here. No overhead cams, either. Four cams down in the crankcase operate roller followers and pushrods to open the two valves that move mixture through each cylinder. A single constant-velocity carb with an accelerator pump mixes the incoming fuel and air and also provides the basis for the much-imitated chrome airbox on the right side of the engine. Dry-sump lubrication means that oil is carried in a tank on the right side of the bike rather than in the crankcase. Instead of the gear primary drive used on the other bikes, the Harley transfers power from the single-pin crank with a triple-row chain. It’s also the only bike here with a belt final drive.

For 1997, the 883 got a smaller battery, but it’s also maintenance-free, offers an additional amp-hour capacity, and pumps out more cold-start power. The mufflers are a bit less restrictive, for an audible improvement in exhaust note and perhaps power, and the suspension damping rates have been recalibrated to improve ride and handling. The Sportster is the only bike in this group with disc brakes at both ends.

Except for that Sportster trademark, the polished “eyebrow” above the headlight, there isn’t an extraneous piece evident anywhere. This year the fuel tank has grown an extra gallon of capacity to 3.3 gallons, but its unmistakable profile remains. Unlike the other bikes, the fuel cap doesn’t lock. Neither does the steering head, though there are lugs for a padlock. There’s no tool kit either—and no place to store one. It’s the only bike here without a helmet lock. The stark approach also shows up in some details, such as many of the fasteners. The Harley uses rough-finished fasteners which look sort of industrial. However this, as with almost every other XLH shortcoming, is addressed by the aftermarket, which offers more accessories, cosmetic enhancements, modifications and improvements than for the other seven bikes combined.

Harley’s spartan approach to the Sportster pays off when you get to the bottom line. A plain black 49-states Sportster 883 will set you back a mere $5195 (suggested price), though by the time you add our sample’s pearl paint ($150), wire wheels ($320), dual “Sport” seat ($170), passenger pegs ($40), and maybe a tool kit to put yourself on a par with the other bikes, you are approaching the price of the Marauder. Of course, you still have the option of deferring those extras to a later date, assuming that your Harley dealer doesn’t want you to pay a premium for the privilege of buying it.

This article was originally published in the August 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

High Points: Low Points: First Changes:
Affordable Vibration Install dual seat
Good suspension Unimpressive power and carburetion Add passenger pegs
Solid handling Uncomfortable standard seat
Great fuel mileage Limited standard equipment
Engine & Drivetrain
Type: Air-cooled, 45-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: OHV, 1 intake, 1 exhaust valves, operated by pushrods, hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 883cc, 76.2 x 96.8mm
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Carburetion: 1, 40mm Keihin CV
Lubrication: Dry sump, 3.0qt., spin-on filter
Minimum fuel grade: 87 octane
Transmission: Wet multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt, 61/27
Wheels: Cast, 19 x 2.15 front, 16 x 3.00 rear (wire-spoke add $320)
Front tire: 100/90-19 Dunlop Elite D401 tube/tubeless
Rear tire: 130/90HB16 Dunlop Elite D401 tube/tubeless
Front brake: 11.5 in. disc, single-action calipers
Rear brake: Single-action caliper 11.5-in. disc
Front suspension: 39mm stanchions, 6.1-in. travel
Rear suspension: Dual dampers, 3.62-in. travel, adjustments for preload
Fuel capacity: 3.3 gal. (0.5 gal. reserve)
Handlebar: 28.7in. wide, 1.0in. diameter
Inseam equivalent: 33.0 in.
Electrical & Instrumentation
Charging output: 297 watts
Battery: 12v, 12 AH
Forward lighting: 55/60 watt, 5.5-in. headlight, position lights
Taillight: 1 bulb
Instruments: Speedometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter, warning lights for neutral, high beam, oil pressure, left turn signal, right turn signal
Fuel mileage: 45—59 mpg, 53 mpg ave.
Average range: 175 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top gear: 2950
200-yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 71.0 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.77 sec., 89.9 mph