Sportsters have always been the rawest, most bare-knuckled of Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle models, delivering an ultra-minimalist rendition of the famous marque. Every one, save the 1200 Custom with its dual saddle and the Superlow 1200T (dual saddle, saddlebags, and windshield), are essentially an Evolution engine, a basic, often abbreviated chassis, and a solo saddle. Call it back-to-basics motorcycling that’s been a force for pulling both newbies and experienced riders into the H-D fold.

Within the Sportster line, however, Harley launched the Dark Custom line in 2008 as not only motorcycles, but also a lifestyle, complete with its own clothing line, aimed at attracting young adults in the 18–34 age bracket to motorcycling. As Marketing Manager Jen Hoyer put it in the press briefing, “The Dark Custom, for us, it’s not just about the motorcycle. It’s about growing the sport of motorcycling.” For 2016, the Dark Custom Sportster models, the Iron 883 and the Forty-Eight, receive styling makeovers in addition to the upgrades made across the Sportster line – most notably new forks and shocks.

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Beauty

Iron 883

You can consider the Iron 883 to be Harley’s factory bobber. It has all the qualifications, carrying nothing more than a motorcycle needs to operate. Although bobbers began as garage-customized motorcycle that had all the excess components removed, the Iron 883, despite being a production motorcycle, carries on that naked industrial esthetic as seen through a gritty urban filter. However, just because the Iron is an elemental motorcycle, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t get some premium touches. For example, the new 9-spoke cast aluminum wheels (19 in. front and 16 in. rear) feature machined highlights to their black finish. In fact, the places where the Iron eschews a black coating are few and, consequently, stand out – particularly on the pushrod tunnels and cylinder heads.

2014 Star Bolt Vs. 2013 Harley-Davidson 883 Iron – Video

The air-cooled, 883cc Evolution V-Twin remains unchanged from previous years, but the look has changed, thanks to the new, blacked out exhaust system and round air filter that exposes more of the rubber mounted engine. The 76.2mm x 96.8mm cylinders and the Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI) should still put out about the same 49 hp and 50 lb-ft of our previous test units. In my short time with the 2016 883, the engine felt completely familiar.

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Engine

With the exception of the round air cleaner and the satin black exhaust system, the Iron 883’s engine remains the same.

The most notable upgrade to the Iron 883 – and to the entire Sportster line – was immediately apparent when the ride started. The new, cartridge dampers inside the identically-sized 39mm stanchions combine with the new emulsion coil-over shocks to deliver a much better ride. The fork utilizes triple-rate progressive springs plus piston and valve stacks for more consistent absorption of road irregularities over the length of its travel and, according to Harley, resists wheel hop during heavy braking.

Even at first glance, the shocks, with their beefy, screw-type preload adjusters, look much more formidable than in previous years. Industrial Designer, Ben McGinley, made the understatement of the century when he noted, “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback over the years that people want better suspension from Harley-Davidson.” The changes weren’t just to the exterior of the shocks, either. Utilizing emulsion technology, the nitrogen-charged shocks resist oil foaming, giving the 36mm piston a consistent viscosity to stroke through. Although the shocks are a completely new design, they retained the same length and are just making more efficient use of the rear wheel’s 1.6 in. of travel.

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Seat

The Iron 883’s new seat is more comfortable and provides a storage space for the shock preload adjuster spanner.

Our quick evening ride took place in and around Portland, OR. The urban portion of the ride featured plenty of railroad/trolley tracks, pavement repairs, and potholes to give an immediate assessment of the new suspenders’ street creds. While it is still possible to bottom the shocks on large holes, on more average-sized bumps, the ride is much more controlled and capable of limiting the harshness of jolts that do make their way through the suspension. Although the ride is much more balanced front and rear, I still wish the engineers had decided to increase the rear wheel travel (and hence the ride height) for both improved suspension function and reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

The new cast wheels are not only good looking, but also they’re lighter – to the tune of 8 lbs in total. This translates into slightly quicker steering from the 19-in. front wheel. Having less rotating mass should also result in quicker acceleration, but I was unable to tell any difference.

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Front Brake

The front disc grew 4mm to 300mm and became a floating unit, there was no perceptible difference in braking power.

Sitting in the newly-sculpted seat reveals how Harley can make shapely designs that are comfortable. Also, the new seat cleverly stows the shock adjusting tool. While the riding position is still knees-high, the drag-style handlebar puts the rider in a slightly aggressive, sporty position. Unfortunately, the same old ground clearance problems prevent the rider from exploiting that position and the new suspension performance. As we stated before, the muffler drags early and often on the right side, and until this ride, I’ve said that the left side of the Iron 883 is more forgiving.

Iron 883
+ Highs

  • Improved suspension
  • Lighter wheels
  • More comfortable seat
– Sighs

  • Limited cornering clearance
  • Unchanged lower body riding position
  • I crashed it

The reality is that the left peg initially drags very benignly – until it can’t any more. You see, once the peg is scraping, there are only a couple degrees more lean angle available before the engine case touches down. Once that happens, you’re subject to the whims of pavement undulation, as I found while riding second in a line of about a dozen riders. One moment, I’m dragging the peg at the exit of a corner, looking down the straight in front of me; the next, I’m sliding on my butt in the middle of my lane, watching the 883 spin on its left side away from me. After years of grinding cruiser pegs and floorboards with abandon, I finally touched down hard enough to lever the rear wheel off the ground. Never have I felt the need for a couple more degrees of lean angle so profoundly. So, potential Iron 883 owners, you have been warned.

Still, the improved suspension along with the quicker steering provided by the lighter wheels, makes the 2016 Iron 883 a good upgrade for an already popular motorcycle. Still, I wish that ABS was standard, instead of a $795 option. The solid color choices are Black Denim and Charcoal Denim for an $8,849 MSRP while the custom color option is Hard Candy Gold Flake at $9,299.

2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Action

Forty-Eight

Since the Forty-Eight had basically gone without a refresh since 2010 and the entire Sportster family was getting a new suspension, the time was right for the 1200-powered Sporty to get a little extra love. The biggest functional change is a new rear suspension, as with the 883, but it is paired with a new 49mm fork (a 10mm increase in diameter!) along with the new cartridge fork internals. Although the rake remains at 30°, the trail lengthens to 5.3 in. (from 4.2 in.) as a result of a new triple clamp, a change made to improve low-speed handling. A new, lighter fork brace was added to the front end, too.

2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Front End

The 49mm fork stanchions add to the muscular look of the Forty-Eight – as do the new wheels. Don’t bother using those mirrors unless you want to see what the underside of your elbows look like.

Another big change for the Forty-Eight is the switch from last year’s laced hoops to split 9-spoke, cast aluminum wheels, which are colored black with machined highlights, like the Iron 883. This change allows for running tubeless tires for some rotational mass savings and, presumably, quicker steering.

Other stylistic changes were made for 2016. As with the Iron 883, a round air cleaner reveals more of the mostly blacked out engine. In an interesting touch, the cylinder heads and exhaust pipes are not black. While the mufflers are black, they also mostly covered by slotted chrome heat shields with the slots echoing those in the belt cover and the horizontal graphics on the tank. In fact, the only color on the Forty-Eight other than black is the tank paint. Both fenders share the rest of the bike’s blacked-out look. In a visual as well as functional change, the seat was reshaped for better “rider retention” while the foam and pan were redone, meaning that the back has more of a curve to keep you from sliding off under acceleration.

My experience riding the Forty-Eight mimics that of riding the 883 – with a major exception. I didn’t crash it. So, the new suspenders are effective, and the beefier fork tubes resist flex under hard braking. Steering response at speed is unchanged, but the parking lot maneuverability feels a bit improved. Otherwise, the acceleration and braking performance are standard Sportster 1200 fare.

2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Shock

The Sportster line’s new shocks both look and perform much better. Too bad they weren’t made a little longer to increase ride height and expand cornering clearance.

The 2016 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight has three pricing tiers. Vivid Black retails for $11,199, while adding Billet Silver, Velocity Red Sunglo, or Olive Gold to the tank bumps the MSRP to $11,549. The Hard Candy Customs colors peak with a $11,649 pricetag for Hard Candy Cancun Blue Flake and Hard Candy Gold Flake.

Forty-Eight
+ Highs

  • Improved suspension
  • Cast wheels
  • Beefier fork tubes
– Sighs

  • Limited cornering clearance
  • Time for a power upgrade
  • ABS is an extra cost option

Look for the new Sportster Dark Custom models later this year when the 2016s arrive in showrooms.

2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Beauty

The 2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight.

Harley-Davidson Dark Customs Score Card
Iron 883 Forty-Eight
Engine: Power, tractability, response, user friendliness (score out of 20) 13.00 13.75
Suspension/Handling: (score out of 15) 11.0 11.0
Transmission/Clutch: (score out of 10) 7.0 7.0
Brakes: (score out of 10) 7.5 7.5
Ergonomics/Comfort: (score out of 10) 6.0 6.0
Instruments/Controls: (score out of 5) 3.25 3.25
Appearance/Quality: (score out of 10) 8.25 8.0
Desirability: (score out of 10) 6.0 7.0
Value: (score out of 10) 7.5 7.0
Overall Score 69.5 70.5
Harley-Davidson Dark Customs Spec Sheet
Iron 883 Forty-Eight
MSRP $8,849, $9,299 (optional paint) $11,199, $11,549, $11,649
Type 883 cc, 90° air-cooled, Evolution V-Twin 1202cc, 90° air-cooled, Evolution V-Twin
Fuel System Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI) Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Valve Train Pushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinder Pushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinder
Bore x Stroke 76.2mm x 96.8mm 88.9mm x 96.8mm
Transmission 5-speed 5-speed
Final Drive Belt Belt
Rake 30.0° 30.0°
Trail 4.6 in. 5.3 in.
Front Suspension Telescopic fork, 4.7-in travel 49mm telescopic, 3.6 in. travel
Rear Suspension Dual coil-over; preload dual-adjustable; 1.6 in. travel Dual coil-over; preload dual-adjustable; 1.6 in. travel
Front Brake 300 mm floating stainless steel disc, 2-piston caliper 300 mm floating stainless steel disc, 2-piston caliper
Rear Brake 260mm stainless steel fixed disc, 2-piston caliper 260mm stainless steel fixed disc, 2-piston caliper
Front Tire 100/90-19M/C 57H 130/90B16 73H
Rear Tire 150/80-16M/C 71H 150/80B16 77H
Wheelbase 61.8 in 59.3 in.
Seat Height 30.1 in 27.3 in.
Claimed Weight (Ready to Ride) 562 lbs 551 lbs.
Fuel Capacity 3.2 gal 2.1 gal.
Available Colors Black Denim, Charcoal Denim, Olive Gold, Hard Candy Gold Flake Vivid Black, Billet Silver, Velocity Red Sunglo, Olive Gold, Hard Candy Cancun Blue Flake, Hard Candy Gold Flake
Warranty 2 years unlimited mileage 2 years unlimited mileage

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Harley-Davidson Communities

  • JMDGT

    The barely existent ground clearance is a feature not a bug. But, you get a better suspension to go with it. They do weigh in at a reasonable less than 600 lbs. My baseball coach in High school had a Sportster. I loved it. I like the styling of these bikes. I try to keep an open mind but I admit I will never get the appeal of HD or certain kinds of bikes.

  • Buzz

    I picked up my MG California for $11,900 with a bunch of extra do-dads added to it.

    The local dealer has about 30 or 40 Sportsters. They order as many as they can and they fly out the door.

  • Campisi

    You didn’t crash it.

    It’s a Harley. You “laid ‘er down.”

  • Randy Darino

    Same problem with the dyna line-not enough rear suspension travel.

  • panthalassa

    evans, using your money … iron 883 dark or bolt r?

  • Mike Johnson

    These are fun machines but need to be fixed to avoid crashing. First move is to drop the tractor wheel from the rear of the Iron 883 and replace it with a lighter 18 inch rim and increase shock length 2 inches – depending on the 2016 stock length you might make it to 13.75 inches. If more clearance is needed go to a rear chain drive with larger front and rear sprockets.
    You will not be at the head of the pack but will have fun and stay on the bike. More you spend in these the better thy will perform.
    Check with mulemotorcycles.net or other specialist for a 100 lb weight loss program and about 100 hp. Sportsters are Ufinish projects

  • ADB

    “when he noted, “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback over the years that people want better suspension from Harley-Davidson.”…. Duh,….

    • frankfan42

      That’s a pretty darn good understatement there isn’t it?

  • Robert

    These bikes need a 6th gear. Until that happens i wont buy another sporty!

  • Paul Cypert

    I just want the Roadster in the US. Something more upright. A more standard riding position would benefit more beginning riders too…they can always customize and drop later after they’ve ridden a while if they really have to drag ass

    • Lee Taplinger

      H-D only sold the Roadster for 3 years in the U.S. and lucky for me I got a new 2007 – added Progressive Suspension front and rear and I can almost keep up with modern bikes – Harley needs to understand that there are people who like to lean and like Harleys. Until they do they’re losing market share.

  • Ser Samsquamsh

    That’s a pretty generous score on the handling side given how easy it is to touch the crank case onto the ground.

  • Rebecca Mayo

    Change the suspension, increase shock length, stainless steel brake line, throw up that horrible seat, get mirrors that allow you to see what’s behind you. A FORK BRACE…let me repeat that…a fork brace, a steering dampner and then you might find yourself owning a little bike that does a bit of everything. It doesn’t do anything well but it does everything. Good write up on the bike but way too flattering. It’s a piece of shit that I’ve grown to love and appreciate. I consider the bike dangerous without the above mentioned changes. How Harley could sell this bike without them is beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, people often sell them, trade them in quickly after discovering their unrideability. Modify a fees things and you got yourself a nice ride. Comfortable? No. Use it for trackdays? No. Engine rock solid though.

    • schizuki

      Rebecca nails it.

      I flipped the mirrors to under the bars. Now I can see something besides my elbows. Looks clean, too.

  • Kenneth

    I believe the suspension travel figures listed above are reversed between the 48 and Iron (not that anyone here would be overly-concerned).

    • Evans Brasfield

      You’re right that the 883’s number is incorrect. They should both be 1.6 in. of travel.

      Thanks for pointing this out!

  • TalonMech

    I’ve ridden several friends and coworkers Harleys and always came away completely underwhelmed, and glad to get my GS back. I just don’t get it. They cost more than my BMW, yet have none of the features that I paid for. I must be missing something.

  • C. Walker Jr.

    Most importantly: which party’s insurance covers when one of you a test vehicle goes sliding across the Good Earth?

  • michael franklin

    Made the mistake of thinking you could ride it like a real motorcycle.

  • emwins

    Just don’t try to go around a corner with them. These are non-functional as motorcycles.

    • Reid

      Truer words have scarcely ever been spoken. Why anybody who wants to actually ride a motorcycle would buy a bike of this kind is simply beyond my understanding.

  • Ed Bedhead

    He crashed it and it’s the bike fault? Score his riding ability: 1.

    I have a 2012 48 with 35k miles and I’ll trade it for a 2016. Is my 48 a track bike? Nope. A dirt bike? Nope. A cafe racer? Nope.

    So….what is my 48? Is it something different than what I thought it would be? Nope.

    Is it expensive? Not to me, chumps.

    Compared to the other bikes out there—other bikes in its class, children—I’ll stay with Harley.

  • nickatnyt

    For the life of me, I don’t understand why HD makes these (below) entry level bikes, nor do I understand why anybody buys them. And for the record, I love my softtail FatBoy. Yeah it was overpriced, but the alternatives were crap.

    • schizuki

      I’ve got an Iron. I put Progressive 440 rear shocks on it (2″ over stock) and a Mustang seat. About $600 altogether. Puts a smile on my face every time I ride it. Sounds great, plenty fast enough, handles just fine, absolutely perfect riding position.