First Impression: '98 Sportster Sport

Don't Believe the Hype... Well, Believe Some of It


If hype kills, then absolute hype kills absolutely. The hoopla surrounding Harley-Davidson's release of their re-designed Sportster Sport was deafening. With its dual-plug heads, a new digital single-fire ignition system, manifold air pressure sensor and a 10:1 compression ratio, we had our hopes up for a bike we believed to be the best handling and most competent H-D Sportster ever to come out of Milwaukee. But for all these advancements and changes, the performance increase adds up to just one horsepower.

Surprised? We were after a dyno run that showed a whopping total of 57.9 horsepower (1.2 over last year, to be exact). When asked why the most advanced stock Harley motor ever failed to even match up to Buell's bargain basement M2 Cyclone, Sportster performance guru Scott Bartels blamed the pipes and airbox. By limiting the size of the airbox and muffler in order the achieve the mandated HC (Harley-Correct) look, Harley hampered the Sportster Sport from reaching its full potential.

The bright side is that 75 ponies at the rear wheel (give or take) is possible with a new a pipe, airbox, jet kit, and ignition module (around $700 total). Bartels added he had tuned one on the dyno that had hit about 80 horsepower. Compare that with an average output of around 65 for a similarly modified 1200 standard, and then you have a motorcycle worthy of the hype. For comparison, we've created dyno charts comparing the '98 XL1200S with Buell's Cyclone and the '96 XL1200S we tested.

One thing we love about this bike is how Harley added hundreds of dollars in custom touches while raising the MSRP only $200.00. And pictures do not do justice to this bike. The '98 Sportster Sport is the best looking Sportster we have ever seen. Chrome, high polish, and silver paint set off beautifully against the thick, black, gloss paint covering the handlebars, fender rails, gas tank and frame. Add a cool reflective plate on the air cleaner and silver bead-blasted powder coated cam covers, and you have a cross between the brooding tones of the Bad Boy and the roughed silver paint of Buell's Cyclone.

The suspension, which we loved in our original review, remains the same. The Sportster Sport's weight is toward the rear, so for real canyon scratching all but the most svelte rider will want to opt for maximum rear preload. Other damping adjustments are mostly a matter of personal preference, but we preferred the compression set towards the top of the dial since the springs are a little soft. This is not a criticism, as the Sporty is, after all, a cruiser first and foremost.

Dunlop 591s still grace the 13 spoke cast wheels, making for sticky times on the road, although losing a little life in the bargain. Long time H-D riders used to 10,000 miles from their tires will be dismayed when the Sporty's rubber needs to be replaced at just under 5000.

Harley has replaced the fitted and supportive seat with one that is sportbike wide and flat, allowing for a greater amount of Body English. Also, it's lower than before, so you are required to tuck your legs up higher in relation to the seat. This may seem uncomfortable for some taller riders, but even for our long legged testers it was just a matter of getting used to it. On longer trips the seat is a bit hard, but with a quick adjustment of the suspension, the Sporty is back to being a squishy cruiser.

The brakes remain the same: High-effort, high-reward full-floating binders. Coming from another brand of bike, you may feel your sphincter tighten after giving the brakes a cursory one-finger brush only to have nothing happen, but give the lever a man-sized three- or four-fingered pull and the bike will stop in a hurry, with quite a lot of feel as well.

An advantage in owning any Sportster is that H-D implements their technological improvements first with the littlest Harleys. On the Sport, you get both a "check engine" light and plug-in diagnostics. In addition, it's one of the few Harley's with a stock tachometer. We wouldn't mind H-D's reluctance to put tachs on their bikes as much if, as a result, the Japanese cruiser manufacturers had not felt obliged to follow suit.

Having a tach is a useful evaluation tool since vibration is severe from 3800 to about 4500 rpms, above which the engine smoothes out and the bike harmonizes. Unfortunately, this doesn't last because the despite the 6200 rpm redline printed on the tach, the rev limiter kicks in at around 5300 rpms, causing all kinds of commotion if you expected to continue accelerating. Thank God the engine has gobs of torque in the basement. The Sportster Sport's sweet spot is from 3000-3800 rpms.

In the end, the Sportster 1200 Sport represents a departure for Harley, and for sport-inspired motorcycles as well. A departure from the ethic that says you have to be fat and slow to be cool, a departure from plastic, geeky, technical perfectionism. Soul with a little spirit. Tradition with a nod toward the future.  

Specifications:

Manufacturer: Harley-Davidson
Model: XL1200S Sportster Sport
Price:  $8395 USD
Engine: 45 degree V-twin
Bore x stroke: 3.498 by 3.812 in
Displacement: 1203cc 
Carburetion:  40mm CV
Transmission: Five speed, belt final drive
Wheelbase 60.2 in. [148.5 cm] 
Rake 29.6 degrees 
Trail 4.6 in. [11.68 cm] 
Seat Height 28.0 in. [74.0 cm] 
Fuel Capacity 3.3 gal. 
Claimed dry weight: 501 lbs 


Get Motorcycle.com in your Inbox