2016 Harley-Davidson Roadster

Editor Score: 83.0%
Engine 16.5/20
Suspension/Handling 12.5/15
Transmission/Clutch 8.0/10
Brakes 9.0/10
Ergonomics/Comfort 7.0/10
Appearance/Quality 9.25/10
Desirability 8.5/10
Value 8.0/10
Overall Score83/100

A freight train of 20 motorcycles works its way through the rolling hills of southern France on a roller-coaster of silky smooth but undulating pavement, cresting hills, strafing banked turns, and dancing side-to-side through endless esses. Entering the mostly second-gear corners, bikes largely nose-to-tail, the riders take a variety of lines, occasionally scrubbing off a little speed mid-corner – or sometimes more than a little in the case of a sneaky decreasing-radius – with a judicious application of brakes while leaned over, peg feelers just skimming the pavement. Other times, if the situation requires, they adjust their lines, sometimes slightly overlapping wheels as people who are comfortable on the track often do (even if it doesn’t really allow enough margin for error on the street). Then the corner ends, and the throttles twist, widening the gaps slightly, only to accordion back together in the next braking zone.

2016 Harley-Davidson Dark Custom Iron 883 And Forty-Eight – First Ride Review

While the scenario may sound like the typical sportbike press introduction, this was, instead, a swarm of Harley-Davidson motorcycles – primarily the just announced Roadster with a smattering of Low Rider S models thrown in for good measure. The road in question was the perfect culmination of three days of riding along the coast and in the mountains between Marseilles and St. Tropez and back again.

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At first blush, the location for this riding introduction of the Roadster seems a bit odd for the uniquely American manufacturer. However, once you learn that the Iron 883 and 1200 Sportster-based Forty-Eight are the top-selling models in Europe following the model year 2016 updates, the location begins to make sense. (In an interesting side note, European Harley sales are the inverse of those in the United States, where touring bikes account for the vast majority of U.S. sales.) Next, consider that a roadster is a bike which has been pared down to its bare essentials, trimmed of any fluff.

Harley-Davidson Roadster action

Harley-Davidson created a true roadster, stripped down to the bare essentials.

The origins of the roadster go back to the days of true home-grown performance where the owner would take off every non-essential bit – even resorting to drilling out parts to lighten those that remain – because subtracting weight increases effective horsepower. Suspension components on roadster conversions were upgraded for better handling. Finally, a lower handlebar, a solo seat, and even rearsets were fit to put the rider in a sportier position. In the creation of the Roadster, Harley has essentially followed the same steps, but at a factory level.

Harley-Davidson Roadster shock

In addition to having 0.7 in. more travel, the gas-charged emulsion twin shocks are decidedly sporty – though they occasionally become harsh in high-speed compression over sharp-edged bumps.

While the engine and the frame remain standard issue 1200 Sportster items, the components mounted at either end have been upgraded. The gas-charged emulsion twin shocks bump their travel to 3.2 inches which, while still on the relatively short side, still amounts to a 0.7-in. increase. The coil-over shocks’ preload adjustment is handled by a screw-style adjuster. On the other end of the frame, a beefy triple-clamp grips a stout 43mm inverted fork with cartridge – rather than low-tech damping-rod – internals and a relatively generous 4.5-in. stroke.

The additional front-end stiffness is appreciated when the more powerful front brakes come into play. While the disc size remains 300mm, the power is doubled by having a second one mounted on the other side of the front wheel. The calipers are the same two-piston design previously used. ABS is, oddly, a $795 option in the U.S., while all EU-destined Roadsters come with it standard.

Harley-Davidson Roadster front brake

Look Ma! Dual 300mm discs!

The suspenders don’t just affect the quality of the ride; they also alter the steering geometry. While the angle of the frame neck remains the same, raising the back of the bike with the longer shocks rotates the frame orientation, having the effect of shortening the rake. The Roadster’s 28.9° rake versus the Forty-Eight’s 30.2° illustrates this on the spec sheet, and the number translates into more responsive steering on the street – even with the 19-inch front wheel mounted. Although the steering has been quickened a bit, the 5.5-in. of trail means that it is still as stable as ever at speed.

While the larger front-wheel size will affect handling by slowing steering, the weight of the wheels plays multiple roles, performance-wise. The offset-split 5-spoke cast aluminum wheels are lightweight items (for a Sportster), and a wheel’s rotational mass influences both acceleration and turning. As always, lighter is MO better.

Harley-Davidson Roadster

In response to the inevitable comments about the number of spokes shown in the photos: Yes, it looks like there are 10 or 20 spokes, depending on how you count them. The key words are “offset-split” in this situation. So, if you look closely at one side of the wheel, you’ll see how pairs of spokes connect via a U at the rim. There are five Us on either side of the wheel, accounting for the split. Next, the Us are rotated about 18° on the wheel for the offset portion of the name. That’s the logic behind the name, but you don’t have to agree with it. (Our opining is split in the naming issue, but we feel it is more than offset by the cool look of the wheels.)

The rider interface with the Roadster is essential to both the experience of piloting the bike and its road-going ability. First, the increase in the shocks’ length raised the seat height to 30.9 in. (compared to 27.3 in. on the Forty-Eight). While that still seems low compared to most sporty bikes and many standards, shorter-legged riders will also have to contend with the width of the 1202cc Evolution engine which increases the effective seat height. The mid-mount pegs are much more practical for spirited riding than forward-mounted ones, but when combined with the beaminess of the engine’s bottom end, the rider’s foot placement splays the legs widely. Additionally, at a stop, the pegs are located where riders would naturally place their feet, meaning that a pants leg can occasionally get caught on the peg. Locating the pegs further rearward would likely eliminate this issue while also increasing cornering clearance.

Harley-Davidson Roadster

The widely spaced pegs put the rider’s knees into the wind. If you like to grip the bike with your ankles and knees, you’ll need to change your riding style.

The handlebar placement also exhibits similar compromises, though it is more easily addressed through the aftermarket. The Roadster’s bar places the rider’s hands about an inch above the triple clamp, causing the torso to naturally cant forward. At highway speeds or on a winding section of road, this position is ideal for combatting the wind and commanding the Roadster to do your bidding. Around town, particularly at low speeds, the grip position can be awkward. While I was not bothered by the grip location (with the exception of during U-turns where the bar would hit my knees), some of the other journalists said they would fit a slightly taller bar – perhaps even the standard Sportster’s – though I wouldn’t make this change.

The final corner of the rider triangle is represented by the seat. The pilot’s portion is comfortably flat with a pronounced curve in the rear, giving both a sporty, gunslinger look and a practical application by preventing the rider from sliding rearward under acceleration. Though surprisingly firm, the seat remained comfortable over the three days of riding. The pillion’s accommodations look like it would be fine for short rides.

Harley-Davidson Roadster seat

The flat, firm seat offers a good platform for moving around in corners. The passenger accommodations are minimal.

As with the seat, the rest of the 1200 looks the part of a roadster. The chassis stance is less rearward angled, thanks to the longer rear suspension, but the larger-diameter wheels (19-in. front and 18-in. rear) with their lower profile tires give a dramatically different look when compared to the Forty-Eight. While the peanut tank still gives the profile a rearward-sloping angle, the Roadster has less squat in the rear for a more muscular, slightly forward-leaning appearance.

The blacked-out look of the wheels, suspension, and most of the engine only adds to the purposefulness. Still, the chrome accents of the pipes and pushrod tunnels combine with the matte grey of the air cleaner to bring out some detail to the engine. Fenders, front and rear, are abbreviated in a suitable sporty manner – although the rear of the Euro-spec models in the photos have the bobbed effect minimized in the rear because of the required fender and license plate holder. The U.S. model has the plate mounted to the left side for a cleaner fender tip.

Harley-Davidson Roadster beauty

The Roadster doesn’t slouch in the rear like the Forty-Eight.

For anyone familiar with the 1200 Sportster, riding the Roadster is immediately familiar. Although the seat is significantly higher and the rider sits up on the bike rather than in it, the 1202cc Evolution engine is untouched from other models. It’s 88.9mm x 96.8mm cylinders still pump out a claimed 76 lb-ft at 3750 rpm. The last 1200 Sportster we tested produced 67.6 lb-ft at its rear wheel; horsepower was about 62 ponies. The non-adjustable clutch lever is relatively far from the grip and the beefy pull required will butch up your left forearm if you commute on the Roadster regularly. That said, the clutch is easy to modulate, and the EFI is relatively glitch-free.

2015 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom Review

Spirited riding points out both the strengths and the flaws of the 1200 as a sporting ride. The torque comes in early, providing grunt, but the engine revs relatively slowly. This has the effect of making the Roadster easy to ride but a little work to ride quickly. Surprisingly, on winding roads, the mill loves to be revved out. With vibrations only making themselves apparent above 4,000 rpm, spinning the engine up in second and third gears when attacking a series of corners makes it easy to modulate speed throughout the corner with just the throttle. Although the shifter throw is fairly long, the 45° V-Twin’s transmission responds positively to clutchless upshifts.

Harley-Davidson Roadster

To get the quickest speed, you need to stir the gearbox, but it shifts smoothly.

Now, we get to the fun part of the Roadster. The dual 300mm front discs offer plenty of stopping power, though a firm squeeze is still required. The feel is a bit lacking at lower pressures, but during full-zoot panic stops (as I experienced when rounding a corner onto a one-lane bridge, only to encounter a Range Rover entering the bridge on the other side), I was able to feel the contact patch and modulate the brake right up to the threshold of ABS intervention without crossing over. Additionally, the predictable nature of the brakes allowed for braking deep into corners or using them to adjust speed mid-corner as is common when riding unfamiliar mountain roads.

The Roadster’s increased lean angle makes it hugely fun! While many other bikes still have more cornering clearance, the change in character of how the bike drags its pegs makes the Roadster a hoot to ride on tightly twisting roads. In all the miles I logged, I dragged the ever-shortening peg feelers many times, but not once did a hard part touch down. Given my recent experience on the Iron 883, where I levered the rear wheel off the ground, ending up sliding on my butt down the road, increased lean angle and drama-free peg dragging are huge improvements.

Harley-Davidson Roadster

The Roadster’s improved lean angle compared to other Sportsters adds to the fun on winding roads.

Hustling the Roadster through a series of corners is surprisingly easy. Yes, response would be snappier with 17-inch wheels front and rear, but the 19-in. hoop out front doesn’t slow things down too much. The effort required to bend the Roadster from one peg to the other is part of the reward of riding the bike. In my three days of riding the Roadster, I grew to appreciate its handling more and more. The second day of riding, I was by myself without a Harley-approved leader riding on roads that I chose at the pace that I wanted, and the Roadster was quite simply a joy to ride. No, it’s not the fastest or best handling or biggest cornering clearance roadster out there, but the sum of its parts vastly exceeds its spec-sheet. By the time I was wrapping up my ride with the whole group of journalists in the final charge into Marseilles described at the beginning of this article, I couldn’t wait to get back to the States and tell my coworkers how much fun I’d had on this motorcycle. After 20 years of scribbling about bikes, that’s high praise.

MO has frequently criticized Harley in the past for lack of ground clearance and rear-suspension travel, and some of the attendees at the launch felt that the Roadster was the Sportster that Harley should have built all along. While in many ways this may be true – especially for those of us who write about motorcycles for a living, because we tend to be more demanding of their capabilities than the average, weekend rider. However, looking at the Roadster through “it’s about time” glasses sort of misses the point of the bike. If H-D wanted the Sportster to be a true roadster, the company would have built one long ago. In fact, a Roadster model has been available in 883 trim overseas for a while. Not to mention that the Forty-Eight has been selling quite well overseas.

Harley-Davidson Roadster

Harley deserves props for integrating the digital speedometer into the tachometer housing, but the LCD is hard to read in daylight. A Harley representative said that a fix is in the works.

The result of this viewpoint is that the 1200 Roadster is sold short on what it is because of the focus on what the previous generations were not. Instead, Harley’s efforts with the Roadster should be celebrated by riders interested in this class of motorcycle. Though not a perfect motorcycle and the verdict is still out on how it stacks up head-to-head with comparable motorcycles (Yes, MOrons, a shootout is in the works.), the Roadster is a tremendously fun machine that should be seriously looked at by those who are interested in this class of bike. One remaining question about the Roadster is will it suffer the same fate as the poor XR1200 which sold decently in its first year and then trickled off into nothing. (See our review here.)

Roadsters are arriving in Harley-Davidson showrooms as this article hits the Intertubes, so go take a gander at one in the flesh. Starting price is $11,199 for glossy black. Optional Black Denim or Velocity Red Sunglo moves the MSRP to $11,549, while two-tone Billet Silver/Vivid Black with a burgundy pinstripe adds another $200. If you want ABS – and it seems wise on a 568-lb. motorcycle – put an additional $795 into your budget.

Harley-Davidson Roadster

2016 Harley-Davidson Roadster
+ Highs

  • Cornering clearance!
  • Dual front discs!
  • Tons of fun!
– Sighs

  • Awkward at low speeds
  • Grips hit knees in U-turns
  • LCD speedometer hard to read in daylight

In Gear

Helmet: Shoei RF–1200
Jacket: IXS Flagstaff
Gloves: Racer Stratos Goretex II
Jeans: Sliders 4.0 Riding Jeans
Armor: Bohn Armor Pants
Boots: Rev’It Regent H2O

2016 Harley-Davidson Roadster Specifications
MSRP Vivid Black: $11,199
Color Option: $11,549
Two-Tone Option: $11,749
Engine Type Air-cooled, Evolution V-Twin
Displacement 73.4 ci (1202cc)
Bore and Stroke 3.5 in./3.811 in.
Compression Ratio 10:1
Torque (claimed) 76 lb-ft @ 3,750 rpm
Torque (claimed) 76 lb-ft @ 3,750 rpm
Fuel Economy (claimed) 48 mpg
Transmission 5-speed
Clutch Wet, multi-plate
Final Drive Chain
Frame Mild steel, tubular frame
Swingarm Mild steel, retangular tube section
Front Suspension 43mm Inverted, 4.5-inch. travel
Rear Suspension Twin shocks, w/ adjustable preload, 3.2-inch travel
Front Brake Dual two-piston calipers, 300mm discs
Rear Brake 2-piston floating, 260mm disc
ABS Optional: +$795
Front Wheel 19 in. x 3 in.
Rear Wheel 18 in. x 4.25 in.
Front Tire 120/70 R19
Rear Tire 150/70 R18
Rake/Trail 28.9°/5.5 in.
Wheelbase 59.3 in.
Seat Height 29.5 in. (laden)
30.9 in. (unladen)
Curb Weight (Claimed) 568 lbs.
Fuel Capacity 3.3 gal.
Warranty 2-year, unlimited miles

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  • Gabriel Owens

    Love the look.

  • Born to Ride

    Riding position looks awkward, like you’re hunched over in an armchair. But it sounds eminently rideable. Hope to see them on the road soon.

    • Max Wellian

      Yeah, they overlooked comfort in this article. Can’t see how riding around with the handlebars banging into the knees could be much fun for very long. On the brightside, Harley should have some bar risers that fit it.
      Would have been better with their large tank too. Stopping for gas isn’t something I look forward to doing so often.

      • Evans Brasfield

        For me, the around town comfort was largely influenced by the beefy clutch lever and the angle of my wrist on the left grip which got tiresome in stop-and-go traffic. The riding position itself wasn’t a problem – unlike when I rode the Bolt C-Spec with its similar body angle. The Roadster’s grips were just enough closer to the rider to keep it from being uncomfortable.

      • Born to Ride

        Yeah the small tank affliction is my primary beef with all my favorite roadsters. Both my monsters have an effective range under 140 miles because of their three-point-something gallon tanks.

        • Kenneth

          There is always so much concern expressed about limited maximum range, and I, too, find myself momentarily troubled by it. Then I remind myself that I (probably like most of us) am never more than a few miles from a gas station, and that it only takes maybe 3 minutes to refill the tank – and that I was ready to get off the bike for a short break, anyway. I see these roadster-type bikes as not really intended for long trips, just the pure enjoyment of riding a bike and being in-the-moment.

          • Born to Ride

            I regularly do 300 mile days touring the fine twisty roads of Southern California, and I have nearly run out of gas more than once getting from one canyon to the next mountain. So while I agree with you that riders that keep their bikes in town have no reason to complain about range, I can truly say that for my riding habits it is a big downer. I hate having to curtail my shenanigans on one of my favorite roads because if I don’t head to the next gas station immediately I will end up getting unnecessary exercise.

          • Kenneth

            You’re can be happy to live where you do, but Northern CA is not typical of where most people live. Where I live, there is only 1 somewhat-curvy, 10 mile long stretch of road – and it’s well-traveled. I DON’T “stay in town,” but I’m rarely more than 10 miles from a gas station somewhere, and that is true for most of us in the U.S. If you need more range, you get a bike with a bigger tank. Simple.

          • Nemesis du Avocat


  • Brian Clasby

    I’m glad to hear there’s some more cornering clearance so I checked the HD website. They give a maximum lean angle of about 31 degrees which is more than the 25 or so for most of their bikes but still does not seem like a lot. Racers exceed 60, which IS a lot! Anyway, does anyone know approximately how far, or what sort of range, a typical road bike will lean about when the feelers touch down. Y’know just for comparison sake . . .

    • mikeinkamloops

      My 2008 HD Road Glide has lean angles of 30 and 31 degrees. Of course, it’s not a bar hopper, though. Seems to me sport bikes are usually 40-45 degrees.

    • GodWhomIsMike

      You know this bike is still cruiser and not a sport bike, right?

      • Kenneth

        With its 31″ seat height, 29-degree fork rake, and 59″ wheelbase, it’s obviously not a cruiser (didn’t you read the review?). And with its 560+ pound weight, it’s obviously not a sport bike. It’s closer to what most riders would recognize as a “standard bike.”

        • Steve C

          I’ll take the Griso.

          • Kenneth

            Yep, great parts support and dealer network, there.

      • pcontiman

        Sporty-Cruiser ? Been riding a 1200 Roadster for 10 years. It’s fun to ride a slow bike fast. Well, as fast as I can ride it anyway. On my 350 mile trips to Sturgis it definitely proves NOT to be a cruiser.

      • Brian Clasby

        It has “sport” in the name!

        • Auphliam

          No, it has “Road” in the name.

      • schizuki

        You have a different definition of “cruiser” than I do.

    • mscott5206

      The XR1200 has 40 degrees of lean angle stock.

  • JMDonald

    I can’t say this bike makes my top ten but I find I am strangely drawn to it.

    • Born to Ride

      It’s because it has that simple clean motorcycle look that seems to be having a welcome resurgence in the industry. Now if only Suzuki could build us a new high quality SV1000 with this aesthetic in mind, I would have my dream bike.

  • Scott650

    All well and good, still not the “regular” bike Sportster I’ve been hoping for. Pretty neat bike – sad that a large percentage will probably go home from the dealership with forward pegs and “much chrome”…but that’s what people seem to want and that’s what keeps HD flush.

    • GodWhomIsMike

      Looks like mid-pegs to me. Also love the near complete absence of chrome and the blacked out engine. Just wish Superior Blue was a color option.

    • TheMarvelous1310

      Nah, the forward pegged chromey ones are all cheaper, you’d have to be a dummy to buy this and chop it up like that. This is a new market bike, they already have plenty of old market bikes in stock.

  • Vrooom

    Uggh, I hate rides like that where everyone groups together tightly. It only takes one person who is out of their comfort zone to create disaster. Something about being on a Harley makes riders want to group together, I don’t get it, but it seems like a real phenomenon. It’s a good looking bike, I probably won’t own one, but the simpler design without as much chrome works.

  • Razor Hanzo

    I like it. Unfortunately for HD, I like the T-120 more, so that’s where my money will be going next week…

    • TheMarvelous1310

      Nothing wrong with that, have fun on your Bonnie!

    • ELGuapo

      Shame the new Bonnies are made in Thailand.
      I have an 02 and I love it.

  • TheMarvelous1310

    See? I was right! Two inches of rear travel completely transformed the Sportster! From the butt of even the average Harley rider’s jokes to a legit canyon carver, with just a few simple upgrades.

    Now I just have to choose between this, the Victory Octane and the EBR1190SX… Damn, it’s a good time to ride American!

    • schizuki

      “See? I was right! Two inches of rear travel completely transformed the Sportster!”

      It was the first thing I did with my Iron – chucked the 11″ shocks for 13″ Progressives.

    • Born to Ride

      Still no XR1200x revival, but it’s surely a welcome improvement.

      • TheMarvelous1310

        Yeah, I doubt that happens after how it sunk the last time they brought it out. Hopefully they’ll give the XR treatment to the Street 750…

      • Stephen Philips

        Agreed but I still might just pull the trigger on one of these new Roadsters. This bike appears to be 90% of my ideal Harley. I especially like the big upside down fork that those twin front binders are attached to. The combo analog tach / digital speedo is an especially nice touch as well. I’d have liked this bike to have been equipped from the factory with fully adjustable suspension components and a larger gas tank. All that said, I could make all of these changes myself over time.

  • pcontiman

    Bought a 1200 Roadster in 2005. Still ridin’ it, still lovin it. It would have been nice to have the suspension upgrades this new bike has though. Of course it was $4k less also. Just bought an 05′ fxdl-x and not sure that I like it better than the sporty….we shall see. This latest Roadster will be a loved bike for those who don’t want a Busa or a Bagger.

  • Old MOron

    “… the Iron 883 and 1200 Sportster-based Forty-Eight are the top-selling models in Europe … European Harley sales are the inverse of those in the United States…”

    So maybe Harley’s reasoning went something like this:
    Gee, we can’t seem to sell our land barges in Europe. Since our Sportster is doing well, let’s try to gain market share on that side of the spectrum. What would entice these Euros to buy even more Sportsters? I know. Let’s give it better suspension, better cornering clearance, and reasonable peg placement!

    Is it possible we get this bike thanks to European consumers?

    • TheMarvelous1310

      Who cares why? I’m just happy we can get it at all!

    • Stephen Philips

      Yes, that’s how we got the XR1200 and XR1200x a few years ago. I’d own one of those Sportsters now if not for the plastic fuel tanks.

      • mscott5206

        If that’s the only thing keeping your from an XR1200, you are missing out on a lot of smiles per mile.

        • Stephen Philips

          No arguing with you there. I’m currently evaluating my next ride and the Motor Company has two spots on my top five list. in the mean time, my current ride is racking up lots of miles and delivering plenty of smiles.

          Enjoy your XR1200. Ride well, ride far and ride often!

  • schizuki

    Now THIS is what a Sportster is supposed to be. Not a Baby Big Twin.

    • TheMarvelous1310

      I understand the sentiment but the Sportster is supposed to be, a baby big twin with sporting potential. Some folks just want to ride low, Harley would lose a big chunk of the market if they started ignoring them.

  • john phyyt

    Couldn’t help comparing this bike to CB500f of the article earlier this week.
    Honda is much better value, lighter, more comfortable, easier to ride, better handling and suspension, and probably faster : It looks great and is backed by a large dealer network. And YET!

    • Kenneth

      “And YET!” …Yes, we’ve learned what happens when we let our right-brain affect our decisions exclusively (while ignoring passion).

      • sgray44444

        Yeah… we end up riding a Vstrom! (not that there’s anything wrong with that)

  • Cool bike! And nice write up.

  • sgray44444

    I really like this bike, and wonder what kind of sporting potential it might have with some additional mods, but for that money, the new Bonnevilles and Thruxton are a no-brainer.

  • Stephen Philips

    I’ll take one in Harley racing orange please!

  • Steve C

    Great looking bike,now if they could get it up to Buell HP. I won’t be trading my Uly just yet. But it’s nice they are trying to put the “Sport” back into Sportster.

  • JimC

    How tall is the reviwer in the pics? I’m 6’1 with 32 inseam.

    • Evans Brasfield

      I’m 5’11” with a 32-in. inseam

      • ELGuapo

        im 4’0 with a 32″ inseam.

  • ELGuapo

    mAN what a nice looking bike, reminds me of my 2002 Bonnieville.
    Nice to see Harley made such a thing.

  • DHF

    Hmm. So, let’s see, My 1974 Ducati 750 gt (bought it new when I was a kid) weighs about 160 lbs less than the roadster; has more ground clearance; even a bit more suspension travel. Delivers plenty of torque and is incredibly comfortable to ride. Went to HD to check out Roadster and even though am a Sportster fan in general… going to clean up my Ducati and drive it. Keep trying HD.