2015 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom Review

John Burns
by John Burns

Roll your own Sportster

It’s like Woody Allen says, 90-percent of success is showing up. And the Sportster’s been showing up since 1957. However you feel about it or the Motor Company or post-WW2 America, you have to respect it like you have to respect the `57 Chevy profile or Tony Bennett leaving his heart in San Francisco. Whether TB has gotten better with age is a topic for some late night over a tumbler of fine Scotch, but there’s no question the Sportster’s now about as refined as a motorcycle can get.

2015 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom

Editor Score: 80.75%
Engine 16.0/20
Suspension/Handling 11.5/15
Transmission/Clutch 8.0/10
Brakes 8.75/10
Ergonomics/Comfort 7.5/10
Appearance/Quality 9.5/10
Desirability 8.0/10
Value 7.5/10
Overall Score80.75/100

It’s the same as it ever was, a raw-boned rock-and-roller that delivers a distinctly vintage experience, but one with all the rough edges removed and polished. Heck, my first Sportster was an `89 four-speed with solid-mount engine and a tiny gas tank. This new Custom is a Rolls-Royce by comparison. What its voice has lost in power and decibels over the years, relative to other motorcycles anyway, is made up for in its phrasing and emotion. On this one, Harley has chipped away everything that is not Sportster, leaving a place to sit 28 inches from the pavement, an (optional) Mini-ape handlebar to hang onto, and a torquey 1200cc, five-speed 45-degree V-Twin to fly you to the moon.

Skulls and bare bones: 1202cc 45-degree air-cooled V-Twin in a twin-tube steel frame.

The 2015 Custom you’re looking at here is named that because it’s part of Harley’s H-D1 customization program, and can be had in Black ($10,649), a pair of two-tone paint versions ($11,199) or two solid colors ($10,999). There’s a person or persons somewhere in H-D who does nothing but come up with paint names: Our bike is Mysterious Red Sunglo Deluxe, and rolls on Black Contrast Cut 5-Spoke wheels. (You could also choose non-contrast, or Steel Laced, silver or black wheels, or a pullback handlebar, or a dual seat.) By the time H-D was done adding options to our test unit, including $795 for ABS, the price was all the way up to $12,999. When the light’s right, you cannot deny the quality of its chrome and paint, its over-the-top presence. Subtle it’s not. It does take you right back, whether you want to go or not.

Riding it’s not nearly so bad as many would have you think either (see Gabe Ets-Hokin on Hate). No matter how many crotch rockets you’ve flogged over the mountain, you have to admit there’s something to be said for a bike you just ride and 569 pounds of road-hugging steel. You’re not going to win many dragraces against other bikes with 62 horsepower, but you’ll be right there for the first 50 feet courtesy of the 1200’s torque and stout clutch, and the gearbox is solid but fluid and never leaves your left big toe in doubt. Those blade-style control levers are non-adjustable but seem to fit everybody’s hands anyway, and 2014 saw a bigger front brake disc, more powerful front caliper with 34mm pistons, more efficient all-aluminum master cylinders with reduced friction, and braided steel lines add up to a harder-stopping Sportster. ABS is a $795 option.

Rumbling along in the fast lane is surprisingly stress-free and even comfortable, thanks to the rubber engine mounts; it’s easy to break 100 mph if you need to, though you’ll never escape the past. There’s still just 2.1-inches of rear-wheel travel, but you only notice over really bad pavement. Harley does make bikes more suitable for touring, but they’re not Sportsters, are they? When it’s cold outside, the Mini-Apehanger handlebars on our bike (another HD-1 option) might be a bummer, but when it’s hot they’re great for keeping your pits aerated, and they don’t detract from the bike’s surprisingly light, linear handling characteristics. In fact they encourage you to throw it over in corners and skim the pavement with the forward-set pegs.

Upgraded brakes for 2014 only add to the Sportster’s well-rounded performance package.

The Sportster. It is what it is and it really doesn’t care if you like it or not, which is one of the finer things about aging, and it still draws a crowd of admirers spread out over a surprisingly wide, deep demographic. If you find yourself among them, you won’t be the least bit disappointed.

+ Highs

  • Outstanding paint and chrome
  • Surprisingly refined ride and controls
  • Improved brakes for 2014

– Sighs

  • How can it ever be vintage if they keep making new ones?
  • We’d trade an inch-higher seat for longer shocks and more travel
  • No place for groupies to sit on our test unit

2015 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom Specs

MSRP Base / Bike pictured
$10,649/ $12,999
Engine Capacity1202cc
Engine TypeAir-cooled 45-degree V-Twin
Horsepower61.6 @ 5800 rpm
Torque67.6 @ 4100 rpm
Bore x Stroke3.5 x 3.811 in
Fuel SystemElectronic Fuel injection
Final DriveBelt
FrameDouble-downtube steel
Front Suspension39mm fork, 4.3 in travel
Rear SuspensionSingle, preload-adjustable shock; 4.3-in travel
Front Brakes300mm disc; two-piston caliper
Rear BrakesDisc
Front Tire130/90B-16
Rear Tire150/80B-16
Seat Height28.0 inches
Wheelbase59.8 inches
Rake/Trail30° / 4.2 inches
Wet Weight569 lbs
Fuel Capacity4.5 gal.
Observed Fuel Economy36 mpg
ColorsBlack, Whiskey, Blue, (2) Two-tones
John Burns
John Burns

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  • Johnny Nightrider Johnny Nightrider on Oct 09, 2014

    I've ridden Japanese bikes all my life.The last bike was a 2009 Yamaha FZ6.It had upright handlebars and had lots of power and was a good bike.It had a half fairing with a taller windscreen I put on.I had to sell it.Right now I'm looking to buy a 2015 Yamaha FZ 07 or a 2014 FZ09 or a 2013 FZ1.I been looking at other bikes.I test rode a 2015 Harley Davidson Superlow 1200t.It rumbled and shook and made some cool mechanical noises when shifting and I could hear the exhaust.It was the first bike I have ridden that had soul to it and it was fun.I could have ridden all day.I never had that feeling from any Japanese sportbike I test rode the 2015 HD Sportster 1200 custom.I liked that one a great deal also as it seemed to track better in the corners.I pushed that bike and accelerated out of the right and left handers.I had so much fun.Now I'm looking to buy a 2015 HD Sportster 1200 custom in superior blue with the alarm system,abs,and the regular bars not those mini-ape hangers.Great Bike with soul and character.And it rode cool on a hot day.Must be the aluminum heads and the air cooling technology that Harley must have developed over the years.I thought I would buy another Japanese bike for sure but after riding this Harley.I'm hooked and I'm not a poser or a fake human.It really was a different kind of power cruiser ride.

  • Budfox21 Budfox21 on Nov 03, 2014

    Fine motorcycle if you like the style, but why is this called a Sportster? The first adjective that comes to mind would hardly be that it is 'sporty'.