Baditude | H-D Iron 883, Honda Phantom vs. Triumph Speedmaster

High Style on a Low Budget

When it comes to cruisers with attitudes, the largest displacement bikes often steal the spotlight, but it shouldn’t always be that way. In many cases, attitude is as much of a factor of styling as it is of out and out performance. So, we decided to gather a trio of bikes from the lighter end of the displacement scale to see what kind of attitude they could bring to the table. All three of our collected players have been around in the same basic form for a couple of years, but both the Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883 and Honda Shadow Phantom 750 are relative newcomers within their model lines. The Triumph Speedmaster, on the other hand, is an old favorite (though it received some changes last year).

Our prerequisites for the comparison were simple: Displacement needed to be around 800cc and the styling needed to be minimalist—no gussied-up, deeply valanced fenders here—just the essence of cruiserdom, thank you very much. Had things gone according to plan, all three bikes would be clad in your basic black, but unfortunately, the Speedmaster was only available to us in red. So, when you look at the photos, just picture it as black. It’s pretty easy to do.

The Look’s the Thing

Stylistically, all three bikes have attitude chops in spades. Starting with the “newest” of the bikes, the Honda Phantom, we can see the current state of blacked-out styling. The Shadow is a collage of blacks and grays with a smattering of chrome thrown into the mix. Then stir in some glossy and matte finishes, and you’ve got the recipe for a good-looking machine. High notes include the ghost Shadow logo on the tank and the matte finish on the gray fork covers and black headlight shell. The view from the saddle is also attractive, with the instrument cluster wearing a matte gray. While the glossy black hubs and rims coupled with the chromed spokes were pleasing to the eye, the tube tires that those spokes require received mixed reviews.

The Iron 883 also had a nice blend of matte and gloss finishes, only the bodywork is matte and the detail work, semi-gloss. So, the semi-gloss fender rails, shocks and fork sliders complement the larger matte pieces. For 2011, the oil tank and its cap also wear a matte finish. Like Honda, Harley chose to have portions of the Iron’s cylinder head stand out as gray from the black engine—plus a touch of chrome from the pushrod tunnels. Similarly, both bikes chose chrome dual exhausts to highlight the engine. The 883 also has chrome stanchions and cool, retro rubber fork covers.

Since the Speedmaster we received was red, we can only assume how it would look in blacked-out mode, but it came pretty close as it was anyway; only the tank, fenders and side covers wore red. Everything else was either chrome or a matte black. Suffice it to say that as a blacked-out bike, the Triumph would lean more heavily on the glossy and chrome treatment that is traditionally found on cruisers, with its instruments, headlight, shocks and peg mounts wearing the shiny stuff.

Where To Start?

When you think of cruiser engines, V-twins automatically come to mind. Surprisingly, you’d only be right with two-thirds of these machines. The traditional, 45 degree V-twin Iron 883 leads in the displacement wars with—wait for it—883cc. Just a few ccs behind is the Speedmaster, which charts its own path with an 865cc parallel twin. The Phantom delivers 745cc with its 52 degree V-twin mill. But the incorporation of two cylinders is about as close to unanimity as we’ll get here. For example, those cylinders are fed by either two, three or four valves and operated by pushrods or either single- or dual-overhead cams. Or how about this: The final drives are belt, shaft and chain.

The Honda Phantom steps in with a fairly common cruiser power plant configuration. The aforementioned 52 degree V-twin breathes through a single 34mm throttle body and three valves per cylinder, sending power to the rear wheel via a five-speed transmission and a shaft final drive. All the testers noted that, while it was obviously down on power to the larger bikes, the Phantom worked remarkably well. Only when you get out on the Interstate will the Phantom leave you seriously wanting, becoming quite busy. Ironically, the exhaust note on the Phantom was the throatiest and most pleasing of the bunch. The Shadow 750 engine has been around for a long time, and Honda has refined it to a point of seamless operation, making it feel thoroughly modern.

The Speedmaster’s engine also feels completely modern while still sporting the iconic profile of the marque’s historic vertical twin—a profile Triumph felt was important enough to maintain by hiding fuel injection hardware inside faux carburetors. From the moment you thumb the starter, the engine feels willing—even on cold winter mornings. Get mobile, and this motor immediately feels like the biggest of the bunch, prompting one tester to comment, “It really feels like it gives you a few more ccs than it has.” Spot- on fuel delivery combined with a slick-shifting transmission makes for an enjoyable riding experience, no matter what the environment. The easy-to-modulate clutch is a real boon in the stop and go world, too. Many cruiser riders might be surprised at the choice of chain final drive, but despite what belt- and shaft-drive fans say, a chain is easy to maintain on a bike that puts out the power of the Speedmaster.

The Iron 883, on the other hand, garnered a fair amount of criticism. All testers said that the engine felt weak. The popular consensus was that the Motor Company had tried to hide low torque delivery behind a bunch of flywheel weight, thus making it harder to ride. With the bulk of the power in the top of the rev range, the Iron didn’t mind if you rapped on it. In fact, it seemed to like it. Still, we expected this time-tested, pushrod- operated, four-valve engine to actually feel more like the biggest one in the test. On the open road, one tester felt that odd gearing choices in top gear made the engine shudder annoyingly, and consequently, he chose to ride it in fourth gear on the highway.

Back in the Saddle

One of the truths about motorcycles is that none of the stuff mentioned above matters at all if the bike isn’t fun to ride. Despite its high cool factor, the Phantom was a friendly puppy dog of a motorcycle. The low seat height is a nice touch for a new or shorter rider. The riding position is an easy feet-forward one, and the reach to the bar is roomy without feeling spread out. However, the riding position and the softish suspension conspire to make heel dragging in turns a far too common event.

Still, everything the bike does, it does without drama. Refinement would be the operative word. All of the testers agreed, calling it “the quintessential turn-key bike for a newbie” that “finds a nice balance between looking right and feeling okay.” Earlier statements about power deficit aside, being refined doesn’t mean the Phantom doesn’t perform. It claimed the title of best brakes for the trio. Still, the polished character of the Phantom comes with an $8240 price tag—the second highest in this test.

At the polar opposite of refined lies the Iron 883. Don’t get us wrong; that’s just part of its personality. The narrow tank and the neither forward nor back peg placement put the rider’s lower body in a strangely hunched position. Add in an almost straight-armed reach to the handlebar, and you know that long-distance comfort is not on the ticket. The limited rear suspension travel (1.63 in.) means that you’re also going to feel every road irregularity right in the keister. What you do get, though, is a narrow bike with good ground clearance, making the 883 a fun mount for quick maneuvers round town or windy roads. Still, beware the wooden brakes when you’re flying low. One tester thought the Iron 883 would make a great entry-level urban warrior. With a few choice modifications, the Iron 883 could shine—a fact helped by the lowest MSRP of the bunch ($7999).

The Triumph Speedmaster provided the most rounded performance of the group. It outperformed the others in every category of the engine department while still delivering a very cruiser-ish character. Overall, the chassis was stable and offered good ground clearance, but with one caveat: in some freeway situations “it hit a certain harmonic with the wheels/chassis/suspension...that put it in a nasty, vision-blurring hobby-horse mode.” Other testers commented that, for the most expensive bike in the test ($8299), it had some cheesy brackets. Then there was the issue with it having “The turning radius of a 1965 Chrysler Imperial.” However, when it was time to throw a leg over a saddle, the Speedmaster was at the top of every rider’s list.

And sometimes, riding is what it's all about. CR

Riding Positions

Will Sheppard
:: 5 ft. 10 in., 175 lb., 33-in. inseam

Being the “Harley Guy” in this group of riders, it really pains me to say that the Sportster just couldn’t keep up with the rest! Sure, it’s got that ‘bad boy’ look, and it’s lean and agile, but it just doesn’t have the power or suspension to fight it out with the other two. The clear winner for me was the Triumph Speedmaster. With its crisp, classic looks and comfortable ergonomics, it really responds when you twist the go-stick—wow, those are some strong readings on the rear-o-meter. The Honda Shadow Phantom is a great bike that will take care of you now, but, three months down the road, the Speedmaster won’t leave you wanting for more.

**H-D Sportster Iron 883 *****
**Honda Shadow Phantom *****1/2
**Triumph Speedmaster ******

Steve Mikolas
:: 6 ft., 190 lbs., 32-in. inseam

The Honda is the best beginner/entry-level cruiser in its class. The Shadow gives the rider all the accommodations needed to look tough yet still be quite forgiving when riding; it’s the standout, given the platform and controls. It’s even got the best brakes of the bunch. That said, with some riding experience under your belt, I’d opt for the Triumph’s power and overall performance, which includes the little ‘enhancements’ the others don’t offer. The only good thing I can say about the 883 is that it’s a Harley and, unfortunately, it’s completely out-gunned in this line-up.

**H-D Iron 883 *****
**Honda Shadow Phantom ******
**Triumph Speedmaster ******1/2

Evans Brasfield
:: 5 ft., 11 in., 170 lb., 32-in. inseam

I’m torn between the looks of the Phantom and the performance of the Speedmaster. Yes, the Honda is a different sort of bike from the Triumph, but stylistically, the different textures of the Phantom really appeal to me. However, I’m all about the ride, so I’d love to graft that mixture of gloss and matte onto the Speedmaster because it is such a fun bike to ride.

H-D Iron 883 **
Honda Shadow Phantom ***1/2
**Triumph Speedmaster ******