1997 Middleweight Cruiser Shootout

Cruise Light!

1997 Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster
Which of these bikes is not at all like the others?

Harley-Davidson's 883 Sportster was picked for this field of more expensive equipment due to complaints received in our Frugal Flyers comparison. "You can't find an 883 at its suggested retail," complained our readers, along with "but there's a waiting list," and so on and so on.

Harley's 883 is not the most laid back. The seat is uncomfortable. It shakes like an epileptic. So how did it garner second place in this comparison? And furthermore, where is the chrome?

With its throatier sound for '97, will we start to see stock pipes on Sporties? The 883 is not, unlike the others bikes in this shootout, a 90's version of, well, anything other than itself. It's not quite as laid back as the others, but it can be. It doesn't quite have the polish, but that
can be added. It is the most powerful, and it has the most potential. Bottom line is that the Sportster is not a complete motorcycle, it's a work in progress, waiting for your finishing touch. Versatility is the name of its game. The Sportster can be transformed into anything from a full-boat boulevard cruiser to a hot-rod canyon bullet (if you don't believe us, ask Jake Zemke, who recently beat out a field including 916s in Willow Springs' Unlimited Twins class on his de-restricted NASB Twin Sports racer). After eleven years in production, with just little improvements here and there, the Sportster has a larger aftermarket than anything without the word Softail in it.

Despite its excellent rear brake, the front requires a ham hand and gobs of lever effort to mash it to a stop.At $5345 (ours came equipped with laced spoke wheels for $300 extra -- still leaving it $350 less than the Marauder) the Sporty leaves you with a bit of cash with which to play around. This is not to say Harley ignores this model in favor of their larger (read: more expensive) machines. Producing the little 883 is a lucrative trade, as it's the number one selling motorcycle in the USA and Harley intends to keep it that way.

The XL series Harley (one piece engine/tranny case) was born in 1958 and considered a "superbike" in its day. Made to go head to head with Triumphs and BSAs of that era, it was light, lean, and powerful. It hasn't changed much, but the definitions of these terms have.

Beautiful 883 tank receives new graphics for '97 that are reminiscent of 1970's styling For 1997 the slow, steady maturation of Harley's XL883 marches on. Its tank grew to match the 1200 Sporty at 3.25 gallons, taking the previous range of about 100 miles and extending it to around 160. The exhaust was also updated this year, turning the stock 883's exhaust note from its sewing machine-like burble of yesteryear to the growling beast we tested. Along the way it also picked up a couple horsepower.
This is not to say it's without flaws.

Sporty's narrow bars, while providing good feedback and control, are not as comfortable on long rides. The footpegs, designed to quell the formidable engine vibration, are mushy and make you feel like your feet are falling off the pegs. The seat has you screaming for relief after a short trip, and the pillion accommodations -- well, it doesn't have any. Its tranny goes clunk, and requires a stiff push (although it never missed a shift). It lacks the flash of some of our other middleweights, but with better detail than all but the Honda, it screams: "Look at me, I'm naked!" Last, of course, is the vibration.

So you ask -- no scream -- again, "Second Place?"

To that we shout an unapologetic, "Yes!"

In a close race, Harley's Sportster was narrowly beaten by the laid-back and refined ACE To back up these outrageous claims with a few facts we submit that it has the best rear brakes (actually the only one equipped with a disc) in the test. That, along with having the best ground clearance, handling, and being the most original, goes a long way. Further, the belt-drive system has a much longer service interval than a chain (80,000 miles).

All the aforementioned faults, save vibration, can be easily fixed through Harley's large aftermarket. Besides, if you can't get a Sportster for within $1000 of list, we'll give you a little insider information. Right now here's a bit of a glut in the southwest USA, so try a dealer there.


Manufacturer: Harley-Davidson
Model: 1997 XLH Sportster 883
Price: $5,345 ($5645 for spoke wheels)
Engine: V-twin OHV Evolution
Bore and Stroke: 3.00 by 3.812 in. 
Displacement: 883cc
Carburetion: Single 40mm CV
Transmission: 5-speed constant mesh
Wheelbase: 60.2 in.
Seat Height: 28 in.
Fuel Capacity: 3.3 gal. (including .5 gal. reserve)
Claimed Dry Weight: 488 lbs


1998 Honda Shadow ACE 750  

Stopped at a traffic light, a bus driver honks his really loud air horn -- nearly causing our tester to drop his bike -- and asks, "Hey, is that Honda's new Shadow?"

Yes, Honda seems to have figured out that magical combination of imitation, innovation, and guts that makes a great cruiser. One that's recognized for itself, not for what it duplicates.

A couple of years back Honda stepped on what some considered sacred ground: they produced a single-crank-pin twin-cylinder, the Shadow American Classic Edition. This 1100cc twin finally had something the other Japanese cruisers lacked -- the feel of an American-built cruiser. It became an instant sales hit, despite some jeers from the press. In our eyes, they missed the mark a bit. The ACE still resembled a stock Milwaukee machine, not a custom cruising creation. That all changes with Honda's new Shadow American Classic Edition 750.


You look at it and try to figure out what's missing. Certainly not beauty. It flows from its rounded fenders around fat tires to its classic lines tastefully trimmed with chrome. Nothing missing here. Then you see it. It doesn't look like a Harley. Oh sure, it has the resemblance that cruisers have to one another, but from the curved fender rails to the stylized air cleaner, it has a look of its own.

Jumping on the long, low 750 first thing you'll notice is the width of its bars. You'll ask yourself, "These are stock?" Along with the banded aluminum footpegs and other custom touches, it would seem Honda has produced their first "factory custom." Harley coined the term, but they no longer have a patent on it. The equation is simple: Take the best the aftermarket has to offer and put it on a stock bike. Result? You'll sell many bikes.

Riding the ACE 750 is transcendent. The 750cc twin pulls smoothly off the bottom end and revs indecently high for a single-pin cruiser. The wide, low bars make up for the absence of a windshield, as they reduce the "parachute effect" of your jacket (the Vulcan and Sportster were especially bad at this). The firm seat was second only to the Vulcan's, but overall ergonomics were better on the ACE. Rumbling up the coast, the ACE's soft whirr of its overhead cams and the seductive exhaust note of the widely spaced power pulses will play beautiful music for you.

One cue Honda did take from Milwaukee with the ACE is ground clearance. Only the Sportster beats it in this department. It would scratch when pushed hard, but on a lazy loaf through some scenic twisties nothing so insignificant as the pavement need distract you.

Honda's ACE 750 takes top honors by satisfying all our conditions for a great little cruiser. It's a smaller, lighter version of the classic big cruiser. Unlike H-D's Sportster, that isn't a small version of anything, it is the best entry-level, full-boat cruiser available -- the only one to really succeed in this role. The fact that the Shadow is a new model is a bit of a drawback though, as there isn't an aftermarket developed for it yet. But with a machine this good, you'll have nothing but smiles while waiting.


Manufacturer: Honda
Model: 1997 Shadow American Classic Edition 750
Price: $6299 (Deluxe $6499, Two-Tone $6899)
Engine: SOHC three-valve 52 deg v-twin
Bore and Stroke: 79 x 76mm
Displacement: 745cc
Carburetion: Two 34mm CV
Transmission: Wide-ratio five speed
Wheelbase: 63.6 in.
Seat Height: 27.6 in.
Fuel Capacity: 3.7 gal. (including .9 gal. reserve)
Claimed Dry Weight: 504.9 lbs. 

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