First Look: 2004 Harley-Davidson Motorcycles

New 883 and 1200 Sportsters headline Harley's second-century motorcycles. Also new: B-model V-Rod, Road King Custom, revised Road Glide. By _ Art Friedman.

As expected, Harley-Davidson's 2004 Sportsters use an all-new frame that rubber-mounts a revised engine. The 2004 Sportster line will consist of two 883 models -- a base model and a Custom --and two 1200 models -- the XL1200R Roadster, which melds the standard 1200 and the Sport, and the XL1200C Custom.

UPDATE: ** We have now added a "First Ride" article about the 2004 Harley-Davidson Sportster. To read it, visit the "Road Tests" section of this site or simply **click here.

Because the engine no longer serves as a structural member, the all-new 2004 Sportster frame is much stronger to compensate -- over 100% stronger than the 2003 version, according to Harley engineers -- and 26 percent more rigid when compared to the 2003 counterpart with the engine mounted. The down side is that the larger, thicker-wall tubing plus the various links and junctions needed to isolate the engine add plenty of weight -- about 50 pounds.

Realizing that once vibration was snubbed, people would work the engine harder and longer, Harley's Sportster team also made greater engine durability a priority. The engine is essentially the same -- same bore and stroke, 45-degree V angle, basic layout, etc. -- but many of the components were updated. More finning on new cylinders and heads improves cooling dramatically. Oil is now sprayed under the pistons to aid cooling, and new rings are used for for better cylinder life. Ignition timing is now cued off the crankshaft for more accuracy, and virtually all the gasket points in the engine have been improved in one way or another to banish leaks and oozes.

Both 1200s have the same engine, which makes about 15 percent more power than last year's standard 1200 mill. The new 1200 engine gets hotter cams taken from the Buell XB engine, although at 70 horsepower the Sportster engine makes less power than the similar engine in the Buell, 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 2003 Sportster 1200 Sport engine, the new one does not have dual spark plugs because the new combustion-chamber design does not require them to inhibit detonation. The compression ratio is 9.7:1. 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, a modest 2 horsepower, giving it a claimed 53 horsepower.

The Sportster engine was also restyled with a revised air-cleaner shape, new covers throughout the bottom end and an exhaust design that hides the crossover tube to provide a better view of the engine.

Though the frame is totally new, its dimensions, except for a lower seat height, are generally the same. Many other components have been changed besides the engine. Although the 883 standard and 1200R list the same 3.3-gallon fuel capacity and a familiar shape, the tanks are significantly altered to accommodate the new frame. The Custom models get a 4.5-gallon tank, with a full-length stainless-steel console on the 1200. The Roadster gets a graphics treatment reminiscent of the original Sportsters of the 1950s. It also has a tach and dual disc front brakes.

All the Sportsters' brakes are new. They have less bulky calipers, and the the actuation pressure is claimed to be reduced. The handgrips are an eighth-inch slimmer, which Harley says (and our initial ride confirmed) also helps smaller hands and improves comfort in general. A wider 150mm rear tire (instead of the previous 130mm size) required the rear end of the motorcycle to be completely altered, and the engine was also moved right a quarter-inch to center it in the frame. The battery was moved deeper into the frame (so the corner no longer digs ionto the rider's leg at a stop), and both sides of the bike now have side covers. The oil tank on the right holds most of a quart more oil, offers added cooling and features a push-to-release oil dipstick that pops out when you push on it and then comes free with a quarter turn.

The Roadster does not get the adjustable suspension of the now-discontinued 1200 Sport or any special sporting suspension calibration. Harley says buyers don't care. The company reckons that the money spent on special suspension components could be saved to make the Sportsters a better value. And although, the company won't give prices until perhaps early September, it makes it clear that it wants to price the Sportsters very attractively.

Here's suggested pricing for the new Sportsters, with freight to US locations included: The base 883 Sporty starts at $6680 in black, and fetches $6860 in colors. (California models are $120 more). The 1200 Roadster will be $8680 in black and $8860 in other colors. The 883 Custom is priced at $7780 in black, $7960 in other colors, and $8155 in two-tones. The 1200 Custom will be $9610 in black, $9790 in pearl colors, and $10,030 in two-tones.

For more details about the new Sportsters, including our first riding impressions, see that story or vistit the Road Tests section of

The Rest of the 2004 Harleys

Other new-model news from Harley-Davidson for 2004 includes an additional V-Rod model, the VRSCB, which is mostly differentialed from the VRSCA V-Rod by its revised graphics -- blacked-out powder-coated engine components, the same alloy bodywork on a black frame, black control levers and three bodywork colors (black, aluminum or orange). The handlebar is interchangeable on this variation. It starts at $17,215 with an anodized finish, and tops out at $17,615 in colors other than black.

The original, still potent, VRSCA V-Rod now can be had in five color variants (black for $17,915, red or blue for $18,115, or teal/silver or smokey gold/black for $18,215) this year with raised "tank" logos and the silver frame paint protected by a clear coat. Both V-Rods have now have lower gearing for harder accleration (a 28-toothcountershaft pulley instead of the 2003 model's 30-tooth pulley) and get minor instrument changes -- a speedometer that now reads to a "more realistic" 150 mph (instead of 140 mph) and the ability to access the odometer functions with the ignition turned off. The V-Rod is gaining a following. In mid 2003 the VRSCA V-Rod was Harley-Davidson's sixth-best-selling motorcycle. It has also been very popular in Europe.

Many people, ourselves included, were anticipating a new model with a different chassis wrapped around Harley's potent VR liquid-cooled 1130cc 115-horsepower V-Rod engine. We have put our anticipation on hold for another year.

The biggest news among Harley's "Big Twin" models is the introduction of the Road King Custom. The new Road King Custom is a lowered (via shortened suspension) version of the popular Road King that loses the original's bulky fender trim at both ends, wears new "Smoothie" leather-covered saddlebags, and sports a generally sleeker look. The Road King Custom's triple-clamp cover is new. It sports a small chrome wind deflector instead of a the traditional windshield atop the headlight. The RK Custom reaches for you with a wide, pulled-back beach-bar handlebar. Other details include new slotted chrome alloy wheels, streamlined floorboards and brake pedal, little bullet turn signals, a stretched fuel-tank console with a restyled speedometer (silver face), and other touches. It starts at $17,245 in black, or $250 more in any of seven colors. Electronic fuel injection is a $600 option.

The faired Road Glide has had its fairing tilted forward four degrees and the windshield reangled to better align with the reoriented fairing. The new eye-catching graphics take their cues from the CVO version of the Road Glide built for 1999, giving the bike a much more aggressive look. It starst at $17,545 in black.

The rest of the Touring family returns with no changes except for a wider rear tire, claimed to provide about 30 percent longer tread life than the tire it replaces. The new tire is a 143mm-wide MU85. It is about half an inch, or 8 percent, wider than the 132mm-wide MT90 used on the 2003 model Tourers. The essentially unchanged carry-over models include three Electra Glides -- Ultra Classic ($19,845 in basic black), Classic ($17,245), and Standard ($14,945) -- and the Road King ($16,645) and Road King Classic ($17,545).

Here are Touring family models that were carried over from 2003 with relatively few changes.

All 2004 Harleys have the serial data-bus electrical system, which debuted on the '03 V-Rod and simplifies wiring while adding capability. Fuel injection is now optional on the Dyna models (which no longer include the T-Sport), and accommodating the EFI option brings longer fuel tanks for all Dyna models, whether they use the fuel injection system or the single carburetor. Also gone from the 2004 line are the Heritage Softail Springer and all buckhorn bars. The last Springer, the Springer Softail (starting at $16,710), has a flatter, wider bar for 2004.

The Fat Boy remains the most popular motorcycle in Harley's line-up (and perhaps in America). It starts at $16,460 for '04. Below are some images of his Fatness and other members of the 2004 Softail family.

Here are some of the carry-over Dyna Glide models for 2004. All have longer fuel tanks topped with full-length consoles, which Harley says are much more durable. Electronic fuel injection is now available as an option on the 2004 Dyna Glide models.

The Screamin' Eagle CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) limited-production models for '04 are a special Electra Glide and a Deuce. The Screamin' Eagle Electra Glide ($28,595 base price) uses a stroked 103-cubic-inch (1690cc) version of the the Twin Cam engine and a long list of special cosmetic and functional components and features. The Screamin' Eagle Deuce, which starts at $26,995, is powered by the 1550cc (95-cubic-inch) engine used in previous CVO motorcycles and about 50 special items to distinguish it.

With other manufacturers all building ever-larger engines for their flagship V-twin cruisers, Harley's 1450cc standard displacment is beginning to look a bit wimpy. Only Suzuki's 1400 Intruder is smaller. Even though Harley's simple two-valve air-cooled V-twins out-perform some V-twins with more displacement and features, we suspect that the perception of smallness will soon become as issue (it already is according to much of the spam we get). The bigger engines in the CVO models indicate that Harley's Twin Cam motor has room to grow, and the real-world experience the company gets from putting these hogged-out engines on the street in CVO form means that the company should be able to make a fairly simple, seamless switch to a bigger displacement for its flagship engine if and when it sees the demand.

Here are some additional images of the new Sportsters.

The new bikes made their public debut at Harley's 100th anniversary celebration in Milwaukee at the end of August 2003. At that time, Harley announced that all 2004 models will be covered by a two-year warranty.

XL1200R Roadster
The basic, no-frills Sportster 883
The Sportster XL883C Custom
The Sportster XL1200C Custom
As you approach age 50: Sportsters have fatter rear ends this year
Deeper fins get pretty cozy in the V.
Many covers have been restyled on the Sportster engines.
New but almost the same.
The frame is visibly quite different, even with the bodyword attached.
Three stabilzer links allow the engine to move relative to the frame to keep vibration away from the rider.
VRSCB engine
The Road King Custom
More RK Custom views
Recontoured Road Glide
More angles on the Road Glide.
Electra Glide Ultra Classic
Electra Glide Classic
Electra Glide Standard
Road King Classic
Road King
The Springer Softail gets a new seat and bar.
Fat Boy: Makes you popular.
Softail Standard: $13,910 base price
Night Train: $15,210
Softail Deuce: $17,010
Heritage Softail Classic: $17,210
Wide Glide: $16,210 in black
New console
Low Rider: $15,210 base price
CVO Electra Glide
CVO Deuce