It’s been a four-against-one prize match, and H-D has more than held its own, but that doesn’t stop the Japanese from making motorcycles more and more like the original.
As previously written about, Honda’s Shadow RS has been widely observed to have more than a passing resemblance to Harley’s also recently reviewed 883 Low Sportster, although the Japanese bike’s base price is $800 more.
Is Honda trying to say it has made a better Harley-Davidson than Harley can? Is it just a fluke of yen/dollar currency valuation that forces Honda to price its bike higher to make a fair profit?
In the case of the 883L and Shadow RS, it’s almost beside the point, as this duo has personalities that are distinct from each other.
Honda’s official explanation for the Shadow RS is that it was conceived and born in Japan for the Japanese home market. At first it wasn’t to be imported to the U.S at all, but when American Honda execs saw it, they decided to bring it here, where it has since caught flak by some pundits for being a copycat.
It may be, but in another sense it’s kind of authentic in that it is a Japanese bike intended for Japan’s home market. Sure, it looks a lot like the H-D, and not by coincidence, but just so we all understand where Honda is coming from.
As for Harley-Davidson’s Sportster 883L, it’s undeniably the real deal. It does have a fair amount of foreign content, but so do a lot of Made-in-USA products, and otherwise since 1957, the Sportster has grown into an authentic American icon.
Similarities and differences
The Honda’s new-for-this-year fuel-injection feeds its otherwise traditional 745cc, 3-valve per cylinder, V-Twin. Its liquid-cooled-but-finned 52-degree cylinders conceal that it is an SOHC, while simulating the look of the H-D’s air-cooled 45-degree, 441.5cc jugs. The pushrod-actuated Evolution engine is also fuel injected, and H-D gets kudos for having done it before Honda.
The Shadow RS’s 2.8-gallon, peanut-shaped tank (with unsightly underside seam where it was joined together) otherwise resembles the H-D’s 3.3-gallon tank. The Honda’s 61.5-inch wheelbase is similar to the H-D’s 60-inch wheelbase, as are its raked chassis, twin rear shocks, and non-adjustable forks.
Sparse instrumentation, and 19-inch front, and 16-inch rear wheel sizes, also mirror the Harley. Even the Dunlop tires are the same – 100/90 and 150/80 respectively – except the tread pattern is different for the Harley-Davidson-branded versions.
We know why Honda critics call the Shadow RS a “clone,” and they may be right in some respects, but in others, they couldn’t be more wrong.
The Shadow’s ergonomics approximate a Standard motorcycle’s, with footpegs in a practical location below the rider and handlebar grips at the angle and location where the hands might naturally fall. Its seat, with room for a passenger, resides at 29.4 inches, some 3.1 inches higher than the H-D’s solo saddle.
And although the RS’ seat is plusher, rides of, say, 50 miles or more at a time the seat foam starts to feel overly soft. It isn’t supportive enough on long rides and gave at least one of our testers numb bum.
The 883L’s pegs are kind of neutral too, but they are closer to the seat, and combined with the odd curve of its buckhorn handlebar and firmer 26.3-inch-low rider’s perch, the fit is definitely tighter.
When viewing or sitting on the Shadow RS, it soon becomes obvious that it is a larger motorcycle. Our testing proved it comfortable for riders from a under 5-feet-6-inches to 6-feet-5-inches tall, or more.
By comparison, the 883L made 5-foot-8-inch-tall testers feel cramped, and 6-footers couldn’t wait to get off the thing.
Born to run
These motorcycles are about cruising. They’re about unfettered riding down the open road like simpler bikes did in a nearly bygone era. Right?
Well, it’s also true the Sportster originally represented cutting edge performance, and was raced through the years. Today, after receiving a life-enhancing Evolution engine implant in 1986, it lives on as the legend that it is. It’s kind of like an old champion horse that’s out to pasture but still a joy to behold, and well able to entertain riders at a less-brisk pace.
Likewise, an alternative perspective for the Shadow RS is that it’s a carefully-designed creation by the intensely technologically driven Honda Motor Company. This is the same envelope-pushing engineering powerhouse that, for example, created a 125cc 5-cylinder racebike in 1967 and soon will be selling corporate jets.
As a twist to the old adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Honda has long since beat ‘em in many meaningful ways. But Honda has also joined ’em, and if someone minding the store at Harley-Davidson is not careful, Honda may beat them some more as it continues to earn a great deal of its bread and butter churning out these kinds of bikes. What should we really call them? Repli-racers, ’50s style?
But let’s not think about that. Today we’ll just take them as they are; fresh-faced and ready to roll.
On the road
Firing up the Honda yields pleasant but authoritative V-Twin harmonics from its chromed exhausts. Similarly the 883L sounds just like a genuine Harley – because it is one!
Letting out the heavier clutch for the 5-speed 883L, the first thing one notices is a freight train’s worth of torque just above idle. The Shadow’s clutch engages and disengages easily, but the power feels not as potent down low. This ought to be less daunting for beginners, but on the other hand, the H-D’s grunt is impressive.
On the dyno our 883L made 46.1 hp at 5,800 rpm versus the Shadow’s 39.1 hp at 5,700 rpm. The Milwaukee powerplant returned 48.5 ft-lb torque at 3,500 rpm against the Japanese mill’s 42.9 ft-lb at 3,200 rpm.
But this brief tale of the tape only partly explains the 883’s feel. At a mere 2,200 rpm, its torque is only 5% less than its peak. Overall, its power curve is flatter, which explains why it gets your attention early but seems not as impressive on top.
In an informal dragrace, with matched weight and skilled riders, the 883 could not pull the smaller-engined Shadow RS. But then, the belt-driven H-D weighs 583 lbs, whereas the chain-driven Honda weighs just 507 lbs.
On the highway, neither bike has a problem cruising at 80 mph, however, and either will giddy up and go toward 100 mph when you get out your driving whip.
The H-D’s low-set, limited suspension manages to absorb cracks and patches in the road fairly well, but it’s more likely to bottom out before the Honda’s taller, somewhat springier suspension.
Fetching either down from speed is done with acceptable predictability and ease considering the bikes’ intended use. Both have capable twin-piston calipers binding single discs up front. The 883L gets additional credit for a single-piston caliper squeezing a rear disc brake, compared to the Shadow RS’s drum. ABS is not available for either bike.
Observed fuel mileage for the 883L was 43.5 mpg, compared to 45.1 mpg for the Shadow. Either one should conservatively be good for over 125 miles between fill-ups.
Where similarities end
As we already documented in our 883 Low review, the Harley’s cornering clearance is very limited. The Motor Company claims a 29-degree lean angle on the pipe side (31 degrees on the left), which we found easy enough to reach even on city street corners.
In contrast, the Shadow RS, while in so many respects similar, otherwise could not depart from its Honda DNA.
In other words, it functions “like a Honda.” It was purposely engineered to meet Honda’s perceived customer expectations, and therefore handles acceptably on twisty roads while still keeping to its low-key mission statement.
We found this out in the canyons. Sure, these are not sportbikes, but they still should be able to go around corners, shouldn’t they?
Both routinely scrape their longish screw-on steel footpeg feelers, but while the taller Honda’s functional riding position and increased ground clearance builds rider confidence, the H-D scrapes much sooner, intimidates riders, and puts a cap on the fun.
This still didn’t prevent us from quickly grinding half of the H-D’s left peg feeler on some local canyon roads. We went to work on the right feeler too, but the solidly-mounted exhaust was getting scraped and caving in, and threatened to lever the wheels off the tarmac. Its low-slung chrome pipe – now freshly scuffed – kept us from whacking it over on that side with as much abandon.
The Shadow RS struck down too, but its broader limits made it far more able to go faster on twisty roads without worrying. We consider this part of the enjoyment of riding, even on cruisers, and it’s arguably a safety issue. If a rider over-cooks a corner, he or she would want to not have to be concerned whether there’s enough latitude to avoid an oncoming car, or make it through a tighter than anticipated corner, if needed.
Harley will point out that its customers give high appreciation marks for its 883 line, and complaints about limited ground clearance are almost non-existent. “It’s not something our customers are telling us,” says Paul James, Harley’s director of product communications. “People vote with their wallets, and the 883 line does very well for us,” adds the AMA Pro roadracer.
While the 883L has “sport” in its name, it proves to be a little too true to its other name (“Low”). But then again, it has the same ground clearance and seat height as the only other 883 remaining in H-D’s model lineup, the 883 Iron.
If the 883L were ours, we’d be calling on the extensive aftermarket for these bikes, looking for ways to improve cornering clearance and ergonomic fit. Longer shocks and a revised fork would help, as would a taller saddle and repositioned footpegs. We also weren’t keen on the 883L’s buckhorn handlebar, preferring the lower handlebars from the 883 Iron. The compact 883L wants to lean further, but is simply incapable as set up from Harley.
Going into this shootout, my personal biases were 110% in favor of the 883L. Harley-Davidson owns this design, and it was my bet to win. It uses more steel instead of plastic, has twin discs, and hassle-free belt drive. Its lower MSRP combined with it being unique and American make it way cooler in my book.
But then we started to ride it.
In 2004, H-D rubber-mounted the Sportster line’s engines, and some ground clearance was compromised. In 2010, the 883 line has been relegated to being little more than a smaller-statured person’s bike unless someone modifies it. The sportier 883R formerly available is absent from the current H-D lineup, existing now only in Europe.
The 883L’s $6,999 base price is also low, but if you paid the $460 H-D asks for spoked wheels to match the ones that come standard on the Honda, and maybe another $290 for a color other than black, the 883L will cost only $50 less than the $7,999 Honda Shadow RS. And it would need a new seat and footpegs to carry a passenger like the Shadow can.
The 883L scores bonus points for its inevitable higher resale value and extensive aftermarket support. But its cramped ergonomics and limited cornering clearance could be problematic for larger or sportier riders. H-D can be applauded for providing low seats for the many shorter people out there, but in doing so, the 883L has sacrificed the fitment needs of larger riders.
Like it or not, the Shadow offers better ground clearance, fits better, and has a broader performance envelope.
Resident workhorse and rider-of-many-cruisers, Petey B, had this to say about the pair of mighty mites:
“There’s no question the Honda’s ergonomic package creates a bike that’ll accommodate a greater selection of riders, but with all due respect to Big Red, the Shadow RS just doesn’t do it for me. It’s a functional and more practical bike in most ways, and from my view it’s more like a standard than cruiser. Nevertheless, it doesn’t compel me to hop on it. Lest we forget, motorcycling (at least in the U.S.) is more a matter of the heart than it is a pragmatic issue to be boiled down to simple black and white decisions.”
“Despite the Low’s diminutive dimensions,” Pete adds, “it manages to look like a more badass bike. And then, of course, it is what it is: a Harley. Further to that point, aftermarket potential is virtually endless, allowing an owner of an 883 to make it their own iron horse unlike any other bike out there. But the harsh reality of its limiting lean angles nearly kills it for me. Is there really such a huge contingent of small of stature riders out there that H-D would continue to build a bike so low to the ground?”
Thus, it would appear Honda has indeed out-done Harley in a number of significant ways, but we now might ask whether this is something Harley-Davidson has already conceded without blatantly coming out and saying it.
The Milwaukee company is known for its brilliant marketing. It has been a dominant force in the over-750cc cruiser segment, and has played the worldwide market with finesse.
H-D’s pursuit of a coveted low seat height for its entry-level model limits its appeal for larger riders. Big and tall people wanting a Sportster will be served best by the 1200 Custom, which has a seat 1.2 inches higher and forward-set footpegs that dramatically increase legroom. Perhaps this signals H-D’s abandonment of the 883 as an every-person’s entry-level bike.
Otherwise, adding another 883 to the lineup with more functionality and fit like they used to have would be recommended.
In the meantime, and for this bout, our pick is the functional and stylish Shadow RS.
2010 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Low Review
2009 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Review
2010 Honda Shadow RS Review
2010 Honda Shadow Phantom Review
2010 Honda Fury Review
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All Things Honda on Motorcycle.com