When it comes to lightweight cruisers, Harley’s 883 Sportster has been the staple of the category. Around, in one form or another, since the 1950s, it has earned the term OG for the class. Fast forward to 2002 and here we have the 883R Sportster going head-to-head with the Honda Shadow Spirit 750. With 50 years to study the venerable Harley-Davidson, Honda’s Shadow presents a bare-bones, lightweight cruiser that isn’t intimidating to the (relatively) new cruiser rider – traits it shares with the Harley. So who does it better? America or Japan? Read on to find out. 


Honda Shadow Spirit 750 Vs. H-D 883R Sportster

Even two’s a crowd.

By Calvin “Hackfu” Kim Aug. 26, 2002

Torrance, California, August 26, 2002

Stonehenge. Do you know why the ancients built them? I don’t. In fact, nobody really knows for sure why it was built. That’s what a lot of people say about these cruisers. “Why’d you get a little Shadow? Didn’t you know about the VTX?” You know, that sort of thing. But in all fairness, anything with two wheels is fun, isn’t it? I mean, we had a blast riding scooters, that’s for sure. And even anti-cruiser John slowly started warming up to the long-and-low set after riding both the Volusia and the Vulcan.

So what’s up with these un-popular, off-the-wall tests?

Well, in the name of education, we’ll do anything, even test these two old-timers. Let’s be honest, at one point in time the Sportster was probably the best bike out there, period. Its history dates back as early as 1952 as the Model K “Sport,” but for the most part, the Sportster that we know today didn’t show up at dealers until 1986 with the spooning-in of an Evolution motor. Granted, in the modern age of Sportsters (post-1986), nobody in their right mind really thinks of Sportsters as being modern, high-performance transports. But they were always considered easy to ride, easy to learn on and most importantly, economical.

The Honda is no different, really, albeit its heritage is a bit leaner. First built in 2001, the Shadow Spirit 750 seemed to be aimed right at the heart of the lightweight cruiser niche. It’s an important market, because the lightweights emphasize bang-for-buck over brute emotion to make the sale. For Harley-Davidson, the use of their 883 Sportster line to introduce riders to the brand is no secret. They’ll lure them in with great price and economy, then dazzle them with aftermarket parts, or better yet, upgrade them into a Big Twin.

However, what if the customer just wants a bike? You know, something with two wheels that gets great mileage, decent performance and won’t break the bank? Oh yea, its gotta look cool too.

For the most part, these two cruisers work great. Here we have two similar machines that are seemingly worlds apart. They both share certain design elements, namely, that they’re cruisers and they’re both V-twins. The Honda sports a somewhat modern, liquid-cooled, three-valve, dual-plug, V-twin motor. While the H-D’s engine is the familiar air-cooled unit. However, in our top-o-the line, R spec 883 Sportster, it gets a much cooler black powder coating job versus the somewhat gaudy chrome laden air-pump on the Spirit.

The Honda has a great paint job.

Stepping away from our two twins, you’ll notice that the Honda has an uncharacteristically pretty paint job with dark red flames on a lighter red background. The thing that really got to us was that it really did look good.

However, the intense amount of chrome that was found on the Honda left a lot of onlookers covering their eyes. The Harley, being a Harley after all, always seemed to steal the show. We think it might have to do with its bright orange flat-track inspired coverings, combined with its flat-black engine and steering gear, the 883R really turned heads. Riding the machines left little to the imagination. These little cruisers aren’t gonna win any real-world performance or comfort contests. But in their defense, they compare well to other cruisers. Just looking at the weight and seat-height values for these machines will leave many “strength” or “vertically-challenged” riders breathing a sigh of relief. For example, the Shadow Spirit weighs a manufacturer’s listed 496 pounds dry with a 26.6 inch seat height. Whereas the 883 R sports (no pun intended) a manufacturer’s listed 503 pounds dry with a 28-inch seat height.

With such friendly seat-heights, you’d think more thought would’ve been placed into the ergonomics of each machine. However, after 45 minutes of freeway riding, we wanted to take a large planer — or at the very least a moderate sized belt-sander — to the Los Angeles freeway system. The Spirit Shadow 750 had softish springs both front and back and damping rates that could use some stiffening. While appropriate for a light-weight rider (say, below 175 pounds) on slower city roads, once highway speeds get thrown into the mix, all bets were off; the damping just couldn’t keep up.

The Sportster, true to its name, proved sportier than the Spirit did, although it too was plagued with soft fork and springs. Its damping was just a bit better. Sort of like comparing apples to, well, bigger apples. Unfortunately, a problem that beset both vehicles was the dreaded lower-back pain that seem to be problem-most-foul. The consensus seemed to indicate that the slouched seating position bent the spine in such a manner as to best allow shocks to go straight through the spinal column and into the brain.

The two "iron-horses" cooling off by a foodery. We can't help but wonder what would've happened if foodery was actually a real word.

The two “iron-horses” cooling off by a foodery. We can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if foodery was actually a real word.

While the rider of either machine enjoyed what, during the Spanish Inquisition, could be conceived as comfort for periods longer than 45-minutes, passengers, well… let’s just say people of the sadomasochistic persuasion will feel right at home. We shouldn’t really have to say it but the Sportster’s rear seat sucked. Just look at the thing, does it look comfortable to you? As soon as a passenger would sit on that crude lump, they would immediately slide back and hit the license plate frame. I mean really, did some committee really sit down and decide that this would be the best way to transport a passenger? As a better option, the stock 883 does away with the passenger seat altogether.

As far as the Spirit goes, it too would probably have benefited from a rear seat removal, but our rear-seat passenger did find it tolerable for 15-minute sessions. Not too shabby, unless you wanna go somewhere, say, greater than 15-minutes away. However, the Sportster clearly edged out the Honda in the ergoes category thanks to its more “standard” footpeg location thus allowing the rider to better shift his weight. The Honda possessed feet-forward controls more suited for boulevard cruising. Also the hand position afforded by the matte black bars on the 883R promoted a more natural riding position while the Spirit’s flatter, chrome bars felt somewhat disconnected.

In contrast to the lackluster freeway comfort levels, cruising the mountain roads north of Los Angeles proved to be an enjoyable endeavor. Smooth power delivery and crisp shifts from the Honda helped us forget about our aching backs, as we’d give it a fistful of power exiting the many corners we met. The same disconnected feeling from the front-end continued to permeate through the lefts and rights but at least the Spirit tracked well enough to generate footpeg-grinding confidence.

The Harley, however, seemed to come alive in the twisties. This is all relative of course. But the 883R had that elusive character that the Honda didn’t possess. We can conjecture that with enough miles the Spirit would have it too, but for the most part, it left a mild impression. Sort of like eating a tuna fish sandwich versus 24 ounces of juicy prime rib.

The Sportster proved to be all that its name promised and more. We’d prefer stiffer suspension though.

Surprisingly enough, the more modern Spirit 750 proved to be the lesser of the two machines in the power department. Maybe it’s the fact that the air-cooled, two-valve designed Sportster has a 133cc-displacement advantage. Who knows? Either way, even though the Sportster seemed to have less power, it was decidedly more fun in the curvy roads. With a fatter range of torque and a healthy throaty sound, the Harley was certainly the more favored sporting mount.

As for braking and handling, well, let’s just put it this way; look elsewhere. The twin front disks on the Harley were better than the Honda’s single binder. But the mushy (even after JohnnyB bled them) binders on the Sportster didn’t convey the feel that the Spirit’s brakes did.

“Where the Harley wins out though, is in ground clearance. Granted, it’s easy to grind peg on either machine, but it was much more difficult to do so on the Harley.”

To add insult to injury, the Harley felt as if it had the softest suspension bits during braking and cornering. Don’t for a second take that statement to mean the Honda was well sprung, it too had serious damping issues. With a passenger on board we would bottom the rear shock, and yes, we were still under the max load limit.

Even with these extreme shortcomings, these machines are still good to ride. You just have to have a different mindset in order to do so. Ditch the “hurry-up” attitude, and make sure the roads don’t have any harsh expansion joints and you’ll be set. There’s nothing better than a quiet putt-putt through a shady lane borough and nothing brings that out the best than these two iron-horses.

If it were our money, it would be the Harley. Not only is it cheap enough for regular people, the aftermarket allows super upgradeability. And plus, its a Harley, so there’s always that added resale value. Heck, even on the Honda we could add some cheap-ass glass-pack, slash cut slip-ons and combined with the slick paint job, people wouldn’t know what the hell just whizzed by them.

Differences between Sportster XLH and Sportster R XL:

  • Engine color (XLH is alloy color, XL is powder coated black)
  • Exhaust (XLH is “staggered shorty duals”, XL is “curved 2-into-1”)
  • Brakes (XLH has single front disk, XL has dual)
  • Seat (XLH has single seat, XL has poor excuse for passenger accommodations)
  • Paint (XLH comes in five different colors, XL only has cool racing orange paint scheme)
  • Weight (XLH 489 lbs, XL, 503 lbs, both listed weight)
  • Price (XLH $5,975-$6,145 depending on paint color, XL $6,795)
__ H-D Sportster 883 R Honda Shadow Spirit 750
Engine 883cc air-cooled, 4-valve, 45° OHV v-twin 745cc liquid-cooled, 6-valve, 52° SOHC v-twin
Bore x Stroke (mm) 76.2×96.8 79.0×76.0
Compression Ratio 9.0:1 9.0:1
Ignition CDI
Fuel Delivery Carbureted 2x 34mm Diaphragm-type CV Carbs
Transmission 5-spd
Final Drive Belt Chain
Service Interval 1,000 miles for first time, then every 5,000 miles N/A
Suspension, Front 39mm, N/A 41mm, 5.1″
Suspension, Rear Dual Shock, N/A (P-ramp) Dual shock, 3.2″ (P-ramp)
Brakes, Front 2x 292mm, 2 piston 1x 296mm, 2 piston
Brakes, Rear 292mm, 2 piston Drum
Tires, Front 100/90-19 110/80-19
Tires, Rear 130/90-16 160/80-15
Wheelbase 60.0″/1523mm 64.8″/1645mm
Rake-Trail 29.6°-4.6″/116.7mm N/A
Seat Height 28.0″/711mm 26.6″/907mm
Fuel Capacity 3.3gal/15L 3.6gal/16L
Fuel Mileage 43mpg N/A
Listed Weight (dry) 503lbs/228kg 496lbs/225kg
Available Colors Racing Orange Black*, Candy Dark Red Flame, Pearl Purple Frame
Suggested Price $6,695 $6,199*
(P,C,R) denotes adjustable Preload, Compression damping and Rebound dampening.
threaded and ramp denotes method of rear shock preload adjustment. Threaded collar, or ramped collar.

Second Opinion:

El Flaco’s take on the Cruiser Comparo- Harley 883R vs. Honda Shadow 750

El_Flaco stares off into space as he thinks about being the low man on the totem pole.

The Honda is smooooth and, if I really use my imagination, it kind of sounds like a RC-51 at idle. It has that classic cruiser leaned-back posture that kills even my young and resilient back after motoring 2 miles down a bumpy stretch of South Bay arterial road. The engine feels strong and responsive, but nothing inspiring. There’s nothing wrong with the bike, but I wish that there was so I could think of something distinguishing or characteristic about this bike!

I didn’t use to hold any animosity in my warm and fuzzy heart towards Harleys until I had a spate of bad luck with them. But, even after a rocky start in my relationship with this 883R (something about an incident involving running out of gas on the 110 after picking it up from the Harley distribution center) I began to like it for what it is. It vibrates like it’s about to blow itself into nanoscopic pieces every time it accelerates, but I have to admit that it’s kinda cool.

Taking these cruisers up into the Angeles National Forest really gave me a chance to bond with them. Riding, or attempting to ride, the Shadow at a semi-sporting pace was not a rewarding experience. And even from a cruising perspective it wasn’t spectacular either. It feels so bland that it is difficult to have any sort of remarkable experiences or impressions on it. But I’m sure it’s dead reliable and it would provide thousands of years of trouble-free and completely boring years of ownership.

On the other hand, when I was blasting the Harley up a canyon road I could pretend for a brief moment that I was Steve McQueen riding in California 35 years ago, for no other real reason than the 883R feels like a bike of that vintage. And Steve McQueen’s the King of Cool in my book, and I felt pretty cool on this bike. I was actually impressed with the level of handling that it displayed around the twists and turns, and the dual front disc brakes were a lot better after JohnnyB bled them a bit- the lever no longer traveled all the way back to the grip under heavy braking.

The true test would come when it came time for me to choose which one I would take home for the night; Mr. Harley won out. It feels good around town and freeway runs aren’t too terrible. I was having delusions of grandeur about sneaking a few of the Buell racing parts down in the MO shop into its engine, but barring that, I would love to see how it would run and sound with some curvaceous pipes, a filter and a jet kit. I never thought I would hear myself say this but, “In my opinion, the Harley’s the winner.”

  • DickRuble

    Pardon my ignorance. Is John Burns the “John” and “JohnnyB” referenced in this otherwise very well written article?

    • Old MOron

      Yes! I think so. “JohnnyB” is what the editor-in-chief at the time called him. And before his beard turned grey, he was staunchly anti-cruiser.

      • DickRuble

        Hard to fathom that’s the guy singing odes to the HD Street 750..

  • john phyyt

    15 years on. Find a good example of the Harley and it is still kinda cool and commands premium $$$. Honda is probaly worth it’s scrap steel weight equiv . Just the way it is. And I love my Jappa.

  • Eric

    It’s neat seeing this blast from the past. I’m actually starting to look for one of the 883R’s; I was still having a hangover from my late-90’s Ducati experience when these went out of production. They still look great after all these years, and the prices are finally in line with my finances, post-recession! 🙂