Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom vs. Honda Stateline

Fatter In The Front

:: Middleweight Comparison ::

If you’ve been paying even scant attention to trends in the usually-overmuscled cruiser market, you’ve probably noticed that the displacement wars have subsided, with the middle-to-heavyweight class becoming the new front line in the battle for consumer’s eyeballs. Just in the last 2 years, Honda has eschewed the ultra-heavyweight cruiser segment altogether (unless you count the Gold Wing), choosing instead to focus on sub-1500cc displacement machines. Harley has likewise seen fit to release a slew of new middleweights within the popular 800–1200cc class.

So while our latest comparison still traffics in the middle class, we have to admit the basis for this test hangs by the slimmest of threads. The crux? That these two middleweight, sub-$12,000 cruisers both have fat front tires. Beyond that, there’s not much keeping them in the same club.

Even though they’re within 109cc of each other, the visual differences are immediately apparent, with the Honda sporting a kicked out 33-degree rake, whopping 70+ inch wheelbase, and a wide, sweeping beach bar that wouldn’t look out of place in the cab of a Peterbilt. The stylized, curved frame downtube and long flowing lines evoke a unique custom look, which is further echoed by a stretched headlight. The Stateline’s front wheel measures in at a chunky 140mm wide and 17 inches tall, with a 15-incher taking up the rear. It’s classic cruiser styling combined with modern elements, clearly made to rock the boulevard. Stretching out at 99.4 inches long, with a full rear fender to match, this $11,699 VT1300 is hard to miss.

The 1200 Custom, ironically, looks downright unassuming by comparison. The newest Sportster is pared-down, and rocks the more functional geometry of a standard motorcycle. While the 1200 Custom shares more than a few bits with the 1200 Low and Forty Eight models, it gets a host of changes for 2011, the most intriguing being two chubby 16-inch donuts wrapped around the new five-spoke cast-aluminum wheels (the Low wears a 19-inch front tire; the Forty-Eight’s is the same 16-incher). The chunky Michelin Scorcher tires necessitated a wider front fork, which also gets polished triple clamps, and the Custom also wears a restyled “eyebrow” over the headlamp, as well as a smaller, reshaped tail lamp. MSRP is $10,299, ($300 more than 2010). Otherwise the basic architecture of the Sportster 1200 remains, but for 2011, Harley-Davidson will let the customer choose how they want the Custom customized—even before delivery—via its new HD1 concept (see sidebar).

Side by Side

Sidle up to the Stateline and plant your cheeks in the dished, low saddle. You’re sitting distinctly _in _the bike—nearly two inches lower than on the Sportster. The pullback bar, perched on 6-inch risers, sweeps back so much that reaching it isn’t an issue, even for short-armed pilots. The roomy cockpit and rider triangle contrasts noticeably with the Harley’s more cramped area. You can stretch out a bit more on the Stateline’s foot controls too, and the seat is a little wider—though this position puts the speedo quite low in your line of sight. The Harley’s taller saddle serves up less of a dish, so you’re nearly upright... until you have to reach down slightly to the pull back bars, upon which you’ll find the easily-viewed gauge display.

Start ‘em up, and the bipolar personality issues really start to show. The Honda’s 1312cc 52-degree V-twin sounds off with a deep rumble from the dual right-side exhaust, and launching it from a standstill is smooth sailing, thanks to flawless fuel delivery and easy clutch engagement. The meat of the powerband delivers good low- to mid-range torque, but there’s a noticeable lack of steam up top. Peak power arrives early, yielding a low-level growl in normal situations.

The Custom, despite its vaunted ESPFI, didn’t start up smoothly each morning. The air-cooled engine takes time to warm up, and we encountered hiccups the first few miles or so. Once warmed up though, the Sportster’s Evolution V-twin responds almost instantly, with a spirited rush of acceleration. From stoplights, the Custom gets off quickly, feeling especially grunty off the bottom, with big, torquey pulls. Clutch effort is slightly heavier than on the Stateline, but not overly so. Interestingly enough, the exhaust note sounds more ear-catching on the Honda at idle, with its single pin crank matching the Harley lump for lump.

When it was time to head out of town, we all assumed the Honda’s relaxed, kicked-out attitude would answer the call of the open road better. But between the Stateline’s shaft-jacking, loose handling, and long wheelbase, it turned out to be a handful to ride on backroads. In twisty sections, the wider tire feels more planted, but the wider bars also require more action when initiating a turn.

Which is why nearly everyone pined for the Sportster when we were in town, or dashing into the canyon. With its shorter wheelbase, milder rake, and a nearly 100-pound weight advantage, it became the quicker-steering weapon of choice when things tightened up. Despite that plump front tire, steering effort was much lighter than expected, and it tracked through turns far better than the Forty-Eight we tested last year (and with better cornering clearance).

Hitting the Bumps

Neither of these bikes is in its element on rippled asphalt; though H-D didn’t further neuter the handling of the 1200 Custom with an ultra-low seat, and the suspension rates have been re-tuned for the new tires, it’s still not exactly a plush ride. The Harley’s short travel suspension does little to soak up the hard hits, occasionally bottoming out in potholes at the rear (suspension travel is just 2.12 inches; same as the Low). But while the Stateline rides with more travel in its suspenders, don’t mistake comfort for compliance. The Honda may do a better job of softening the small blows, but it’s a wiggly mess on sharper imperfections, upsetting the uncontrolled suspension to jarring effect. Both bikes feel better composed while cruising down smooth highways, and over small bumps.

When it came to whoa power, we grudgingly agreed the Sportster had the Stateline beat. That’s mostly because the Honda’s calipers just didn’t give us a very aggressive bite, and we’d prefer a bit more power to slow the 672-pound beast. The Sportster’s calipers had less mass to stop, and they acted appreciably faster as a result.

In the end, both bikes are well-suited for duty as around-town mounts, but for different reasons. The Honda, even at full lock, has a wide turning radius, but it is an impressive machine made for profiling, and it attracted more second looks from the man on the street than the Sportster—even though the Harley’s fit and finish trumped the Honda’s. Folks marveled at the Custom’s exquisite paint work (extra), metal covers and finish details, whereas on the VT, what stood out was a preponderance of plastic—from the headlight to fenders.

At the end of the day, they’re both fine machines, but they address two very different styles of the cruiser coin. And since style is subjective, we ended up picking the motorcycle that was most fun to ride. Even with its spine-pounding suspension, for us that is the 1200 Custom. This Sporty isn’t as cool as the Forty-Eight or as quick as the XR 1200, but it’s a more complete motorcycle in every way.

2011 H-D 1200 Custom 2011 Honda Stateline
Base price $10,299 As Tested: $10,979 $11,699 ($12,699 ABS)
Colors Black, Silver; Orange/Black Black, Red, Blue
Standard warranty 2 years 1 year
Type Air-cooled, 45-degree V-twin Liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1203cc, 88.9 x 96.8mm 1312cc, 89.5 x 104.3mm
Valve train OHV, pushrod-operated; 2-valves per cylinder SOHC, 3-valves per cylinder
Compression 9.7:1 9.2:1
Fuel system EFI PGM-FI
Transmission 5-speed 5-speed
Final drive Belt Shaft
Overall length 87.4 in. 104.3 in.
Wheelbase 59.9 in. 70.3 in.
Wet weight 582 lbs. 672 lbs. (687 ABS)
Seat height 28.5 in. 26.8 in.
Rake/trail 30 degrees / 4.2 in. 33 degrees / 4.6 in
Wheels 5-spoke cast aluminum 5-spoke cast aluminum
Front tire 130/90-16 140/80-17
Rear tire 150/80-16 170/80-15
Front brake 292mm rotor, dual-piston caliper 336mm disc, two-piston caliper
Rear brake 260mm rotor, single-piston caliper 296mm disc, single-piston caliper
Front suspension Telescopic 39mm fork; 4.12 in. travel Telescopic 41mm fork; 4.0 in. travel
Rear suspension Dual coil-over shocks; 2.12 in. travel Single shock; 3.9 in. travel
Fuel capacity 4.5 gal. 4.4 gal.
Instruments Analog speedometer with digital odometer, dual tripmeters and clock. Analog speedometer with digital odometer, dual tripmeters and clock
Fuel mileage 41.9 mpg 37.9 mpg
Average range 188 miles 167 miles
Torque (claimed) 79 ft-lb @ 4000 rpm 71 ft.-lb @ 3000 rpm

HD1 Customization

The 1200 Custom serves as the debut model for the H-D1 factory customization concept, a tool that allows the customer to choose from seven option categories to optimize fit, function and style. By selecting from available factory-installed wheels, handlebars, seats, paint, foot control position, security system, and engine finish, the customer can create a 1200 Custom that’s more to their tastes from the start. Factory customization and Bike Builder on Harley-Davidson.com are the newest elements of H-D1, Harley-Davidson’s offering of customization tools.

The buyer can tailor the riding position of the 1200 Custom by choosing from three different handlebar options (standard Pull Back bars, Drag or Mini Ape bars) and a choice of mid-mount or forward controls. The buyer can also go with either a two-up or a solo seat, and paint choices include seven solid colors, five two-tone options and two sets of custom graphics. Customers can also specify chrome or black engine covers and wheels in any of four options. You can go online at the Harley Davidson website, configure your bike, print out the description and take it to your nearest dealer to place an order. According to Harley, you can be riding your factory custom in as soon as 4 weeks (though that would be a best-case scenario).

We applaud Harley for trying to stir up some excitement in what’s been a sluggish motorcycle market. Sure, your choices here are somewhat limited, but it’s more than you can find at the showroom, plus it sounds like a better alternative to the thousands of identical “factory customs” that we’ve seen rolled out in the last few years.

Riding Positions

Andy Cherney
:: 5 ft. 7 in., 160 lb., 30-in. inseam
Sounds obvious, but appearances can really color your judgment. From the jump, I just felt the Honda looked too big to be fun, considering its length and weight. But lo and behold, once I got on and motored away, all preconceptions melted away, and it became a pure hoot to ride. Clearly, it's made for the boulevard, but the motor is surprisingly responsive and that exhaust note just kills. I really thought the Stateline brought far more style to the game too; it's a pretty good value for the buck, considering its custom good-looks.

In the end though, for me it was all Harley—mostly because, ergonomically, the bike fit me in every way. We had ordered the Custom with mid-mount controls, a solo seat (which wasn’t all that great) and a pull-back bar, so the bike was set up to be more controllable and rideable from the start—and man was it fun to run in town. Factor in lighter weight, optional configurations and a more responsive engine, and I was sold on the Custom.

Billy Bartels
:: 6 ft., 190 lb., 33-in. inseam
These two bikes are really different, but as two of the only chunky-tire machines in their weight class, they still match up well. As far as which is better, it's simply a matter of what you value more. If you like the long, low-slung and chunky look, the Stateline is the only thing that's going to do it (unless you want to shell out for a true custom à la Jim Nasi). It's got decent power, and blasting from light to light is good fun. For backroad riding, it's a handful, but at a slow pace, it's perfectly composed.

The Sportster is a revelation for me. The last few years Harley has come out with model after model with absolutely no suspension travel, but this one actually has enough travel for anything short of a tour. Combined with a torquey engine that blasts from just off-idle, it’s a supremely fun bike. Handling is almost too fast, but I adjusted quickly. So if I pick the Harley merely because it fits my needs more, I also feel the Honda is a mighty fine ride that turns heads like few others in its price range.