Motorcycle Road Test: Harley-Davidson XL1200S Sportster Sport

Harley's new high-performance 1200 Sportster motorcycle goes deeper than basic black. From the February 1998 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.

Sometimes it seems as if Harley-Davidson's Sportster motorcycles don't get any respect. Some Harley-Davidson Big Twin owners act as if they are the bastard children of the family. A few cruiser zealots say they aren't true cruisers, and the sportbike set acts as though they are low-tech throwbacks, a forgotten branch on the motorcycle family tree.

Things are even worse for the Sportster 1200 Sport. "Sportster Sport? That's not only redundant," proclaimed one sportbike snob, "it's an oxymoron." A self-proclaimed cruiser expert looked at the new 1200 Sport, wrinkled his nose, and announced, "Just because they didn't make it a cruiser, doesn't mean they had to make it ugly... They should fire whoever styled that engine."

However, there are droves of people who demonstrate their respect for the Sportster family with their wallets, enough to make its sales the envy of any other motorcycle manufacturer. That situation will probably strengthen as Harley's new Sportster-only factory in Kansas City comes on line next year. And if Sportster Sport is a bit repetitive, it's also a great concept. No, it's not a sportbike, just a Sportster with some extra elan. It's the Harley that zigs.

If you consider just its engine, the Sport constitutes quite a departure for Harley because the motor offers features not found in other Harley models. Harley's line has traditionally derived power from two basic engines -- big twin and Sportster. The latter was available in either 883 or 1200cc renditions, both of which have the same piston stroke with a half-inch wider bore in the 1200. Other changes, such as gearing, were minor. All the models in Harley's line got one of the three engines, and the 1200 also went to Buell to power its American-made sportbikes. The latter application, where horsepower was an issue, led to a series of power-boosting enhancements. For '98, some of that technology has been applied to the 1200 engine in the Sportster Sport.

Though the chassis is the same as those used in 1200S models for the last two years, you can immediately identify a '98 Sport because of its two-spark-plugs-per-cylinder heads and the unique finishes chosen for the engine. The gray spark leads of the dual-plug system are just the tip of the ignition system iceberg. The entire system is new. Four-pole coils get precise instructions from a black box which considers information from an intake-manifold-pressure sensor and "six-blip" rotor cup to map precise ignition timing for any given load and rpm combination. There is also a diagnostics hook-up to assist Harley technicians with troubleshooting.

In addition to the high-tech electronics, the Sportster S benefits from a point more compression (a 10.0:1 ratio instead of the standard 1200's 9.0:1), less restrictive mufflers, and special camshaft profiles. Harley says that the changes boost the 1200's torque by an average of 15 percent throughout the range and almost 10 percent (78 versus 71 foot-pounds) at 4000 rpm. All '98 Sportsters have a more efficient oil pump to improve scavenging from the dry sump. Running the quarter-mile in 13.39 seconds at 95.2, the Sport is, by a slim margin, the quickest Harley in recent memory, even outrunning the light 1200 Custom. The Sport also feels stronger and slightly more responsive at all rpm, and is most improved at the normal operating rpm. You can feed it full throttle at 2000 rpm without lugging, and it will pull to 6000 rpm. However, the engine's mechanical capabilities limit high-rpm operation less than the rider's tolerance for vibration. By 4000 rpm, the shaking, particularly through the short handlebar, is pretty uncomfortable. On the road, you're massaged with a low-frequency shake of moderate amplitude at 55 mph, but the speed and power of the vibration begin to infringe on comfort by 65 mph and make it downright unpleasant by 75 mph.

The riding position is also unique. With its narrow, low-rise handlebar and footpegs set at the height of a sportbike but further forward, the rider's posture doesn't fall into any typical categories. Though shorter riders felt it worked, taller riders felt "kind of curled up," particularly in the leg area. Most said they wanted the pegs lower or further rearward. The special saddle does afford a bit more room than the last 883 Sporty we sampled. Though narrow and not endowed with lots of padding, the saddle is acceptable for a couple of hours without a pause.

The gearbox on this bike impressed us. Gear changes were smoother and quieter than those of any Harley we have ever tested, and good by any standard. The throw is short and engagement positive. We made some sloppy lever movements and expected to find neutral when we released the clutch. Not so. The gearbox had firmly meshed in the next ratio. The clutch also performed well.

The "Sport" aspect of the bike derives not only from the enhanced engine performance and riding position, but also from the suspension and brakes. Besides the usual adjustment for spring preload at the rear, the 1200S offers adjustments for spring preload up front and damping resistance at both ends, both for compression and extension. The piggyback-style reservoir shocks and 39mm cartridge fork are same ones used on previous XL Sports. On smooth roads, it's possible to set up the suspension to minimize pitching movements when you apply and remove cornering and braking loads. With damping resistance turned up, the Sport becomes very stable while charging corners. Combined with steering geometry that's designed for stability and slow, deliberate steering, this makes the bike ultra-steady in smooth corners, even very fast ones. However, we couldn't find a setting that provided a smooth ride over sharp-edged bumps or big bumps. Dialing back the damping resistance helped, but with limited travel it simply can't handle every road irregularity with aplomb.

You don't snap a Sportster into corners as you can on a true sportbike. Rather you ride even, graceful arcs through bends. Though making it turn at speed required a bit more effort than it would have with a wider handlebar or less stable geometry, the 1200S steers easily at moderate speeds and even at a walk. If attacking corners is part of the plan, the Sportster offers better cornering clearance than most cruisers.

The brakes get Harley's usual single-piston calipers, but there are two up front, and a strong squeeze can generate impressive deceleration, at least by cruiser standards. You can use either end's brakes confidently without fear of unwanted lock-up.

A number of styling devices help the Sport stand out in any Harley showroom. Though the Sport's '98 color palette is limited to black, the blacked-out treatment extends to many unique corners, including the mirrors, headlight eyebrow, handlebar, and rear fender rails. The engine has a variety of complementary finishes that also make it distinctive. Not everyone who saw it liked it, but others thoroughly appreciated the engine's aesthetics, which extend to the air cleaner panel. The racing-style saddle and checkered-flag tank logo distinguish the Sport from any other machine. Though the vibration would make us reluctant to choose it for long-distance rides, Harley Sportster 1200 Sport provides more punch around town than other H-Ds and can provide hours of pleasure on winding roads. Its distinctive styling makes it a natural choice for riders who like the brand but don't want a me-too Harley cruiser.

High Points: More power for the quickest Harley, adjustable suspension, distinctive styling touches.
Low Points: Too much vibration at high speeds, riding position cramped for taller riders.
First Changes: Fit more responsive shocks; lower fender to close gap between it and front tire.


Friedman: It's not every bike that can punt a deer out of its way and continue down the road, but I'm here to tell you the 1200 Sport can.

Our day's testing had ended by dusk, and we'd followed up by comparing notes and chatting. It was dark when my companions headed one way, and I set out the other, over the coastal mountains above Malibu.

The deer appeared on the right side of the road, ahead and above me on a ledge left when the road was cut. It leaped down onto the road and then did the usual deer thing and froze. Assuming it would continue to the left, I steered toward the right edge of the road and tromped on the brakes. There was no way I was going to get stopped before I reached it, and just as I did, the deer started to spring. It never got off the ground before the Sporty's front wheel slammed into its hip at, I'd guess, about 20 or 30 mph. The impact tossed the animal's hindquarters up and to the left, out of my path and off the cliff at the side of the road. The Sportster gave a mighty twitch, then continued down the road, shaken not stirred. I had no desire to go back and see what damage had been wrought.

Most of all, I was stunned to be upright. Aside from some fur on the front end, the bike showed no sign of the encounter, unless there was something bent I couldn't detect when I looked it over the next day in sunlight. The incident is a testament to the stability of the Sportster (and maybe the providence accorded to fools). Sportbike-type steering geometry, or just a 16- or 17-inch front wheel, would probably have deposited me in the ditch instead of emerging from that twitch. In other circumstances, I might have bemoaned the vibration, criticized some styling point, or weighed the pros and cons. But for the next 20 miles that night, nothing seemed as significant as that locomotive-like stability.

Art Friedman
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Brasfield: Although I didn't go to the lengths that our editor Art did to test the Sporty Sport, a single sensation colors all my feelings about the bike, influencing my perspective to the point that I find it hard to remember how, on smooth pavement, the Sport loves to corner. Providing that you don't ask it to change directions too quickly, the Sporty Sport achieves some of the best lean angles in cruising -- not that that's really important to us cruisers, right? OK, so maybe if the road were twisty, I would want to ride the Sport. Highways? Yeah, right. Could you trailer the bike to the mountain for me?

Visually, the Sportster carries a spartan demeanor that I'm certain will earn it proponents and detractors. The bike has a rugged, yet classic look with some thoroughly modern touches, like the two plug heads and the nifty sand-cast-look powder coating on the engine. The black paint and checkered-flag motif appealed to me. The dual front discs add visually to the sporting look, and they work well as well. No, I can't say the Sport is gorgeous, but it's popular enough to be, if not an icon in its own right, part of the constellation that gives the Harley icon its shine.

Unfortunately, the Sporty Sport suffers from a tragic flaw, preventing it from reaching star status. The engine vibrates too much for riding the Sport to be any more than tolerable. Quick off the line, the Sport's around-town brusqueness doesn't offend and works quite well for a commuter weapon, but hit the highway or even just run the engine into the upper vibration range -- oops, sorry -- rev range and the shaking becomes so violent that it changes the adjustment of the mirrors and possibly the local fault lines. More than a week has passed since I last rode the Sport, and the feeling is just begining to come back into my hands.

So, if someone asks me if I want to ride the Sportster Sport, I reply, "No thanks, I gave at the office."

Evans Brasfield
Ask Brasfield what he gave at the office, since he doesn't worl there any more via his website.

1998 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Sport

Designation: XL1200S
Suggested base price: $8395 ($8515 CA)
Standard color: Black
Extra cost colors: NA
Standard warranty: 12 mo., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 5000 miles

Type: Air-cooled, 45-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: OHV, 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve; operated by pushrods, hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1200cc, 88.8 x 96.8mm
Compression ratio: 10.0:1
Carburetion: 1, 40mm CV
Lubrication: Dry sump, spin-on filter, 3.0 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 87 octane
Transmission: Wet multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt, 61/29

Wet weight: 537 lb
GVWR: 948 lb., 51% rear wheel
Wheelbase: 60.2 in.
Overall length: 87.7 in.
Seat height: 28.0 in.
Rake / trail: 29.6 degrees / 4.6 in.
Wheels: Cast, 19 x 2.15 in. front, 16 x 3.00 in. rear
Front tire: 100/90-19 Dunlop D591F Elite SP tubeless
Rear tire: 130/90-16 Dunlop Elite K591 SP tubeless
Front brake: 2, single-action, single-piston calipers; 11.5-in. discs
Rear brake: single-action, single-piston caliper; 11.5-in. disc
Front suspension: 39mm stanchions, 6.1 in. travel, adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: 2 dampers, 3.15 in. travel, adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Fuel capacity: 3.3 gal., (0.5 gal reserve)
Handlebar: 27.6 in. wide, 1.0 in. diameter
Inseam Equavalent: 32.8 in.

Charging output: 266 watts
Battery: 12v, 18 AH
Forward lighting: 5.5-in 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: Single bulb
Instruments: Speedometer, tachometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, neutral, oil pressure, left and right turn signals

Fuel mileage: 31 to 48 mpg, 39.9 mpg average
Average range: 132 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top gear: 2800
200 yard, top-gear-acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 65.6 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 13.39 sec., 95.2 mph

To read our riding impression of the 2004 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Roadster, the completely revised motorcycle that replaces the Sportster Sport in 2004, click here.

Additional motorcycle road tests and comparisons are available at the Road Tests section of

Photography by Kevin Wing.
Special cylinder heads with dual spark plugs, stouter compression ratios, and different camshaft lobes contribute to the 1200 Sport's power gains compared with the regular Sportster 1200s, making it easy to identify the bike.
A unique, slightly dull, silver powder-coat finish on parts of the engine gives a sandblasted, unpolished look while providing a barrier against the elements. The air cleaner insert and timing cover get an engine-turn treatment.
The shocks provide a full adjustability.
The Sport gets dual brake discs and a "sport-style" front fender between cartridge-fork legs. The additional disc and single-piston caliper account for much of the extra weight the Sport carries compared with the other 1200s.
The 2003 Sportster Sport, shown here, was the last of the line.
A tachometer, redlined at 6200 rpm, is standard on the Sport. Both instruments are electronic, and the speedometer includes a tamper-resistant LCD readout that can be switched between tripmeter and odometer.