Despite the widespread perception that nothing much changes so far as the H-D lineup from year to year, occasionally they'll surprise you. Certainly the V-Rod was news, and this year the Sportster got a substantial overhaul. So while most of the tweaks to this year's offerings fall into the cosmetic department, there is actually "real" change afoot over at the Motor Company in '04 as concerns the hog that could use it most. So here's the lowdown:
While the 1130cc V-Twin powered V-Rod stands as the #6 selling model in the US for H-D, it is #1 in Europe where folks are somewhat less insistent upon the "Harley-ness" of their Harley's. The VRSCA V-Rod is joined in '04 by a cosmetically altered VRSCB model. Both V-Rods have replaced their 30-tooth front drive sprockets with 28-tooth versions to give them even more initial power at launch (as if they needed it). Also, while H-D won't discuss top-speeds, the '04 VRSC clan share new speedometers that top out at 150mph replacing the outdated '03 versions that only went to 140mph. I think Nigel Tuffnel of Spinal Tap must be moonlighting in the speedo engineering department at H-D. "But this one goes to 150mph, so it must be faster!" In addition to raised chrome letter graphics and a higher sheen aluminum frame, the VRSCA gets five new purty colors to choose from: Impact Blue, Lava Red Sunglo, Two-tone Luxury Teal and Brilliant Silver, Two-tone Vivid Black and Smokey Gold, and Vivid Black. The VRSCB shows up in the traditional Anodized Aluminum, Vivid Black or Racing Orange. I swear, the schmaltz that the OEMs put into the official names of their color schemes never ceases to amaze me.
The 04 Sportster Spectrum
Like the V-Rod needed to look any badder..now available in black.
H-D's touring models all feature 1450cc Twin Cam 88 engines, triple-disc brakes, and air adjustable rear suspension. Changes across the board include a wider 143mm MU85 rear tire that replaces the 132mm MT90 on all models with a claimed 30% longer life expectancy. The Electra Glide models also receive a new seat that sheds water better and eliminates more pressure points. A new Road King Custom and restyled Road Glide are added to the lineup for '04 as well.
The RK Custom is distinguished by a one inch lowered suspension, lack of fender trim, smooth leather saddlebags and seat, beach bar handlebars, chrome micro-wind deflector, newly styled triple clamp covers, slotted alloy wheels, fuel tank console, chrome light bar, bullet turn signals, streamlined floorboards, pegs, and brake pedal, and optional EFI.
The Road Glide gets a splash of silver detailing on the fairing, tank, saddlebags, wheels, and engine. Traditional Vivid Black and Impact Blue color schemes are now supplemented by Sierra Red, Luxury Teal and Smokey Gold. The fairing is mounted at a four degree lower angle now which gives it a more aerodynamic look.
The Springer Softail has undergone some modest styling changes with a wider and flatter low-rise handlebar and low smooth Badlander seat.
CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations)A new Screamin' Eagle Electra Glide and redesigned Screamin' Eagle Deuce are on the floor. The Screamin' Eagle Electra Glide features a Twin Cam 103 powertrain with silver and chrome finish. Color schemes offered include Candy Cobalt and Starlight Black or Orange Pearl and Jet Black. New details include a full length fuel tank console and forged, chrome passing lamp brackets with bullet turn signals. Chrome Detonator three-spoke 16" wheels (and brake rotors) support the low profile front and rear suspension. Steppenwolf can be cranked loud as you want on a premium AM/FM/CD sound system. H-D plans on building around 2,750 of these with a $28,595 MSRP
Which brings us to the big news. The Sportster has received a radical overhaul. No really, we mean it. The bike that 70% of Harley owners called their first hog represents 30% of H-D production. And from '04 on, that production will include a new chassis, engine, ergos, and styling decorated in 33 different color combos.
The available models have been whittled down from seven to four, those being the XL 883, XL 883C (custom), XL 1200R (roadster) and XL 1200C (custom). The three gallon "peanut" gas tank hasn't changed, but the "custom" models now offer a four and a half gallon tank with a different look. They also receive laced front wheels, disc rears, and handlebars and footpegs 1.5" farther back The sport suspension was not carried forward this year, as marketing research indicated that customers weren't using its capabilities and that the cost of production would be better spent in other areas. While the lesser suspension handled well enough around curves, the shocks bottomed out on several riders, including yours truly, when faced with even relatively benign potholes. A wider rear tire has grown from 130mm to 150mm and the rear fender has been redesigned to match. A new braking system features reduced initial lever effort, and single discs fore and aft with the exception of the 1200R model which gets dual fronts. While those of us accustomed to two-finger braking power were put off by the sponge-like reponse to pressure on the lever, this is probably not such a bad thing for a new rider who can get in as much trouble grabbing too much brake by accident as too little by design.
The new 26% stiffer chassis features a twin-cradle steel frame and swingarm. The diameter of the main backbone tube has been increased from 1 5/8" to 2 1/8". Three stabilizer links connecting the engine to the frame limit lateral frame flex during turns while permitting radial motion within the frame. Isolation of the power train from the chassis is the key to reducing vibration, and with the addition of rubber-mounting, the riding experience of the Sportster has been transformed into something unrecognizeable to owners of previous editions.
Now that folks can ride more comfortably at higher RPMs, the XL Evolution engines needed to be brought up to speed and were redesigned for improved performance and durability. The bike retains its 45 degree V-Twin configuration, and bore and stroke remain unchanged, but new cylinders, heads, and oil jet cooled pistons have resulted in a 40 degree reduction in temperature within the combustion chamber. Lighter and stronger connecting rods have boosted the 1200cc engine's red line from 5500 rpm to 6000 rpm. The timing system now utilizes a crank position sensor unit (CPS) that picks up timing from the teeth on the flywheel to determine engine timing, enhancing calibration and spark delivery while reducing engine complexity. Oil carryover has been reduced by 70% due to a maze-like oil drain-back feature and improved breathing system and sealing on engine covers and gaskets has been converted almost entirely to engineered materials. Cosmetically the oval air cleaner cover, primary, sprocket, derby, and two-piece rocker box covers all received new treatments and the exhaust cross-over pipe is now hidden away from view. The 883 engine generates 53 peak hp at 6000 rpm and 51 ft. lbs. of torque (crank) at 4300 rpm which doesn't represent a significant change from '03. The 1200 on the other hand, benefits from high flow cylinder heads and high performance cams for enhanced torque output to the tune of about 15% increase over '03. Now the claim for the 1200 is 70 peak hp at 6000 rpm and 79 ft. lbs. of torque (crank) at 3500 rpm.
Aside from the dramatic reduction in engine vibration, other ergonomic advances have been made which include a lowered seat height for better balance, reduced handgrip diameter and clutch lever effort (25% less on 883 and 8% less on 1200) made more comfortable for smaller and weaker (err, less strong?) hands. Neutral is now easier to find, and the exposed battery and dipstick that used to irritate one's inner thighs have been tucked away beneath the seat. The pop-up dipstick in particular provides a clean look and (gasp!) gadget appeal. Gadget appeal? On a Sportster? Verily I tell thee, 'tis true!
Frankly, I've always held the Sportster in low esteem. It seemed to me that for a bike supposedly designed for a smaller rider, weaker rider, novice rider, female rider, that it was poorly suited to its task. The fact is that with all of the vibration, it just wasn't fun or easy to ride, at least not for more than an hour. If it had been my first bike, it likely would have been my last, and I'm guessing that it has been for many others who just couldn't take the physical beat down inherent in even a trip to the local 7-11. The lack of power and performance made it difficult to pace other bikes when riding in a group and tempted the novice to push the bike's limits in order to keep up. The price to value ratio didn't compare favorably to other products on the market either. It seemed to me that the Sportster was really just a money magnet for suckers that had swallowed the H-D branding hype hook, line and sinker, couldn't afford (or handle) a "real hog", but desperately wanted to be part of the club. I could tell that this was the case because, no matter how strongly I discouraged people from it, many ended up buying one anyhow. They could see my lips moving but all they were hearing was, "Born to be Wild".
So it is a genuine coup on the part of H-D's design team that despite my prejudice against the lil'est Harley, I have to give it up and say that I can no longer find it in my heart to hate Sportsters. I'm not saying that I love them either, but the '04 is a completely different riding experience. The reduction in engine vibration relative to previous model years is enormous. This has the added benefit of increasing the useable portion of the powerband now that cruising near redline won't mean a trip to the dentist. While only the 1200 gets a significant boost in go-power, both models are more rideable closer to their rev limiters and so it feels like even the 883 got faster. This has wide ranging ramifications that expand and enhance the bikes viability for the aforementioned target demographics. The novice will be less anxious. The smaller but experienced rider will feel comfortable taking longer trips. The female rider will be able to keep up with her significant other. The entry-level newbie will have a bike that they can actually grow into rather than out of. The H-D fellers talked about the Sportster becoming a "destination bike" that people actually keep and cherish, rather than the "first Harley" role that it has typically been relegated to. I would have to say that for certain riders, that would now be a commendable choice. Well shucks, now that I can't hate Sportsters anymore, I guess I'll have to direct the full force of my pent up rage at scooters. Vespas, Burgmans, Vinos ... Grrrrrrrrrrr!