First Ride: 2004 Harley-Davidson Sportster Motorcycles

At long last . . smooth! Harley-Davidson's 2004 Sportster motorcycles beg the question: Where have you been all my motorcycling life? By _Art Friedman.

Vibration is a killer. It kills motorcycles by shaking apart components and loosening fasteners. It kills performance by making it uncomfortable to rev the engine, by frothing the fuel in the float bowl, and by requiring big heavy pieces to resist it. It kills riding fun by making the motorcycle unpleasant and causing fatigue.

To exorcise vibration, motorcycle designers have employed designs, such as opposed cylinders (e.g., BMW twins, Honda flat sixes, Moto Guzzi and Ducati 90-degree V-twins) that do not vibrate significantly, modified an engine style to avoid vibration (e.g., Honda offset-crankpin 45-degree V-twins), added rotating counterbalancers inside the engine (Yamaha vertical twins, Kawasaki V-twins), rubber-mounted the engine (Norton Commando vertical twins first released in the late 1960s are an early example, but Harley FXR and Dyna models are more familiar to most), or combined rubber-mounting and one of the other approaches.

The last of the great vibrators (in the motorcycle sense) were the Harley-Davidson Sportster family, the 883s and 1200cc 45-degree V-twins that made no attempt to suppress the considerable vibration of that engine configuration. Maybe it was an attempt to maintain the no-frills attitude of the Sportster series, but whatever the reason, that vibration has been a major failing of the Sportster series long after virtually all other motorcycles have banished it.

Now Harley-Davidson has recreated the Sportsters, building what is essentially an all-new chassis around a rubber-mounting system for the engine, which also has been updated. The details of those changes as well as photos of the 2004 Sportsters and Harley's other new motorcycles are in the accompanying story: click here. This article will focus on how the new Sportsters work.

I spent most of a day riding the new 2004 Harley Sportsters north of Santa Barbara, California, and found four much-improved motorcycles. Most time my time was spent on the new XL1200R Roadster, but I also rode the Customs and the standard 883.

All aspects of the 2004 Harley Sportsters are influenced or overshadowed by the fact that the motorcycle no longer rattles your teeth when you ride it. The four motorcycles in the series manage to look every inch Sportsters, but you no longer have to steel yourself for a shaking up when you climb on. I actually felt slightly disoriented at first because the machine was so obviously a Sportster, which I have ridden extensively in many versions over the last 30 years, that when I opened it up and the vibration didn't assault me, something seemed out of kilter. The lines and components are obviously Sportster, and the bikes retain that Sportster narrowness, but the experience is suddenly improved.

Aboard the 883

I started the day on a standard 883 Sportster, which retains the solo seat (a bit lower than before), the traditional 3.3-gallon fuel tank, a very low-rise bar, and "mid-set" footpegs that are set rearward compared to the other 883 model, the Custom (which has moved its pegs back slightly compared to its 2003 counterpart). The eradication of vibration is especially important to the 883cc machines because you need to rev them because they have less power than the 1200s. Accelerating onto the freeway, I actually hit the rev limiter in second -- something I have rarely done on earlier XLs because the vibration almost forced you to shift to escape it -- and in third. When spun up that hard there is some buzz in the footpegs and the handlebar, but it no longer makes you want to break away as you would from a joy buzzer. And the seat, which is adequately wide but slightly thin, never buzzed me at all.

With the unpleasant shaking gone, I could happily ride the 2004 Sporty hard and fast. I hit over 80 on it a few times, and although it felt like it was stretching itself, it wasn't making me feel its pain. On a kinkier road, I could rev it hard coming off corners with the vibration inhibiting me. Harley says that the engine changes gave the 883 a couple more horsepower. I can't claim to have detected any additional power, but I was comfortably riding faster because I was revving the engine tighter.

I did notice the lightened clutch disengagement however. I still would not call this an ultralight clutch pull, but it no longer wears on you in traffic. Equally important is the smaller handlebar grip (an eight-inch smaller in diameter at 1.125-inch) size, which enables your fingers to reach farther around the lever for greater mechanical advantage. Neutral finding was easier, as Harley claimed it would be, and shifting might have been a bit quieter, though shifts between first and second were still punctuated with a clank. The lash-free driveline and linear throttle response of previous Sportsters remain intact, though the 883 seems just a bit lean when you roll open the throttle at low rpm.

Smoothing out the bike has paid dividends in saddle comfort, and the riding position of the standard XL883, which lets you lean into the wind pressure, fit me well at highway speeds. Initial steering as you rolled into a corner seemed a bit higher on the standard 883 Sportster with its 19-inch front tire on a cast wheel than it did on the XL883C Custom (21-inch wire-spoke front wheel), which responded more nimbly to those first steering inputs. The Custom's riding position is less of "clamshell" arrangement than it used to be, thanks to less-forward footpeg placement and a pulled-back handlebar arrangement. Both pegs and handlebar are over an inch closer to the rider. The overall result is a riding position that is more comfortable, especially at speed, and a bit more controllable as well. The saddle was not quite as comfortable for me at the solo saddle on the standard 883. A big difference both for styling and function is the Custom's 4.5-gallon fuel tank, which gives it some real running distance.

The suspension is essentially the same. It offers decent control in corners, and soaks up small bumps of all sizes pretty well, though it becomes overtaxed as the bumps get bigger. I expected to have more awareness of the wider rear tire used on all the 2004 Sportsters, but I didn't feel any real change in the way the bike works that I might attribute to it, except perhaps more rear-wheel traction during braking. The 883 has more cornering clearance than the 883C, and both were a bit better than most cruisers in this displacement range. New brake calipers and master cylinder have reduced lever effort in hard stops and increased power. What's more, the smaller handlebar grip has made it easier both to cover the front brake lever and to control braking pressure.

** Riding the 1200 Sportsters**

The new XL1200R Roadster, which ably fills the slots left by the standard 1200 Sportster and the 1200S Sportster Sport, neither of which exists in the 2004 Harley motorcycle line-up, looked like the most interesting motorcycle here to me. After a brief spin on the 1200 Custom at the lunch stop of Harley's press ride, I spent the rest of the afternoon off by myself on the 1200 Roadster.

The 1200 Sportster, which is the same basic engine as the 883, just with bigger bores, has benefited from some mild hot-rodding, shared with the Buell sportbikes, which use a variation of the same engine. Though the Sportster Sport previously was the only one that got such power-amplifying tweaks, they are now shared by both 1200 Sportsters -- Roadster and Custom. The emphasis on lightening the reciprocating pieces has paid off in the 2004 Sportster 1200 engine because it can rev higher to utilize the hotter camshafts, better cooling, stiffer compression, and improved cylinder-head breathing. The redline is up from 5500 to 6000 (and the Roadster has a tachometer to help you apply that fact), and isolating the engine's vibration helps you exploit that added willingness to rev.

Brisking along a back road, the Roadster struck me as the bike that the Sportster should have been all along. Because vibration has been knocked back so effectively, the powerband suddenly seems much wider. You can choose from another gear or two in most corners and rev higher on to the next straight. It's not all a smoothness-induced illusion, however, the engine is stronger both in the mid range and on top, even though some of that may be lost to the added weight of the new chassis. (The 1200 weighs just about the same -- 555 pounds dry -- as the 883, and the 1200 Custom is a couple of pounds less than the 883, which isn't surprising since it has bigger holes in the engine..) You don't need to shift as often, and you no longer need to grit your teeth if a corner requires a downshift. That traditionally good fuel mileage remains too. The one tank I was able to measure -- consumed on back roads, superslab highway, and in summer beach traffic -- came to 48 mpg.

The 1200s are not quite as smooth as the 883s. The vibration that gets through the motor-isolating system arrives a little sooner with slightly more magnitude, and I did feel some vibration through the seat. Of course, if you touch the engine, or something attached to it like the air box, the engine's shuddering is not diluted. With the narrow 3.3-gallon tank on the Roadster, I did touch the air cleaner case every so often, one of the reasons I wished the bike had the wider 4.5-gallon tank of the Custom.

The 1200R's riding position, which is similar to the basic 883's, suited me perfectly at all speeds, and it meshed with a quick pace on the winding roads I aimed the bike for as soon as I got aboard. Though it shares a low bar like the standard 883, the 1200 Roadster turned into corners more lightly, and generally felt stable once leaned over. The once exception was when I snapped the throttle shut when leaned over, which resulted in a bare perceptible head-shake in fast corners. Cornering ground clearance was quite respectable, and the tires offer more than enough traction to use it all up. The suspension rates were well chosen, which backs up Harley's comment that most riders neither want nor need the expensive adjustable suspension components that were fitted to the old Sportster 1200 Sport.

Of the four 2004 Sportster models, only the 1200 Roadster gets dual front brakes, which were a pleasure to use. There is more readily available stopping power than any previous Sportster brake, but control remains solid, despite the reduced effort. Clutch effort has also been reduced on the new 1200s, but the difference is small, and riding the bike in heavy traffic still lets you skip you grip exercises that day. All the engine controls feel familiar -- with smooth, crisp throttle response, progressive clutch engagement and positive shifting. There is just enough metallic noise to give the engine a mechanical presence.

I have the same comments about suspension compliance and other ergonomic issues as I did about the standard 883, except for the seat, which seemed to get hard sooner than it did on the smaller bike. That may have been because I had been riding all day, though the fact that I occasionally felt vibration through the Roadster's seat may have contributed as well. As on the 883s, I preferred the Roadster's ergos to the Custom's -- the biggest difference between the two -- but the Custom is much improved over early versions, and with the bigger fuel supply is a much more satisfactory traveler.

The prices, with freight to U.S. locations, start at $6680 for the standard 883, go to $6860 for the 883 Custom, $8680 for the 1200 Roadster, and $8860 for the Custom. That is for black models. Add $180 for any other solid color (there are quite a few) or $375 for two-tones and $120 for California models. I suspect you'll pay a premium to get one in the first month or so, but that prices will quickly settle to something like MSRP as it becomes apparent that there will be plenty to go around. If you have been procrastinating about buying a Sportster, it just paid off because these rubber-mounted versions are much better motorcycles, mostly because they are finally smooth enough to be taken seriously as traveler and daily drivers. I expect the diminution of vibration to make them more reliable too. Harley also backs them with a two-year warranty starting this year.

At the end of the day, however, one question kept coming to mind: Why did it take Harley-Davidson so long to make the Sportster the motorcycle it should have been long ago? Successfully rubber-mounted engines have been around for over 30 years, and Harley's own FXR, which used rubber mounts to isolate the big twin's engine vibration, was rolled out almost two decades ago. In 1970, a rubber-mount Sportster would have been a revelation. A decade ago it would have kept many riders from buying middleweight Japanese cruisers. But these days we expect smoothness. Arriving for 2004, the rubber-mount Sportster is really just catching up, not raising the bar. However, for those smitten by the Sportster's unique style and attitude, the rubber-mounted engines represent a whole new reason to love them.

Art Friedman

_If you have questions or comments about this article or the new Harleys, email the author at

Finally, the vibration is kept at bay on Harley-Davidson's 2004 Sportster models, thanks to a engine-isolating system. This is the Sportster 1200R Roadster, our favorite of the new motorcycles.
Harley uses three stabilzer links to position the engine in the frame, which was stiffened considerably over previous Sportster items because the motor no longer acts as a structural part of the frame.
The shape is familiar and it still holds 3.3 gallons, but the peanut tank mounts differently.
The Custom models get this bigger 4.5 gallon tank with the full-length divider.
Those 1950s-style Sportster graphics give the Roadster some nostalgia.
The 883 Custom initiates turns a bit more quickly than the standard 883 Sportster.
Push down on the new flush oil tank cap and it...
...pops up to let you twist out the dipstick.
The mirrors seem to be the victims of too much styling. Why else would you put the tall part of the mirror on the inside, where you mostly see your shoulder, and put the tapered section on the outside, where you are trying to spot traffic? They still shake a bit at highway speeds. The new thinner hand grips are an improvement.
As load builds, a bit more vibration gets past the 1200 isolating engine mounts than on the 883, but it's rarely objectionable.
A crank-position sensor has improved ignition-timing calibration.