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

Evans Brasfield
by Evans Brasfield

The Dark Customs get a new set of suspenders

Sportsters have always been the rawest, most bare-knuckled of Harley-Davidson’s motorcycle models, delivering an ultra-minimalist rendition of the famous marque. Every one, save the 1200 Custom with its dual saddle and the Superlow 1200T (dual saddle, saddlebags, and windshield), are essentially an Evolution engine, a basic, often abbreviated chassis, and a solo saddle. Call it back-to-basics motorcycling that’s been a force for pulling both newbies and experienced riders into the H-D fold.

Within the Sportster line, however, Harley launched the Dark Custom line in 2008 as not only motorcycles, but also a lifestyle, complete with its own clothing line, aimed at attracting young adults in the 18–34 age bracket to motorcycling. As Marketing Manager Jen Hoyer put it in the press briefing, “The Dark Custom, for us, it’s not just about the motorcycle. It’s about growing the sport of motorcycling.” For 2016, the Dark Custom Sportster models, the Iron 883 and the Forty-Eight, receive styling makeovers in addition to the upgrades made across the Sportster line – most notably new forks and shocks.

Iron 883

You can consider the Iron 883 to be Harley’s factory bobber. It has all the qualifications, carrying nothing more than a motorcycle needs to operate. Although bobbers began as garage-customized motorcycle that had all the excess components removed, the Iron 883, despite being a production motorcycle, carries on that naked industrial esthetic as seen through a gritty urban filter. However, just because the Iron is an elemental motorcycle, that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t get some premium touches. For example, the new 9-spoke cast aluminum wheels (19 in. front and 16 in. rear) feature machined highlights to their black finish. In fact, the places where the Iron eschews a black coating are few and, consequently, stand out – particularly on the pushrod tunnels and cylinder heads.

2014 Star Bolt Vs. 2013 Harley-Davidson 883 Iron – Video

The air-cooled, 883cc Evolution V-Twin remains unchanged from previous years, but the look has changed, thanks to the new, blacked out exhaust system and round air filter that exposes more of the rubber mounted engine. The 76.2mm x 96.8mm cylinders and the Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI) should still put out about the same 49 hp and 50 lb-ft of our previous test units. In my short time with the 2016 883, the engine felt completely familiar.

With the exception of the round air cleaner and the satin black exhaust system, the Iron 883’s engine remains the same.

The most notable upgrade to the Iron 883 – and to the entire Sportster line – was immediately apparent when the ride started. The new, cartridge dampers inside the identically-sized 39mm stanchions combine with the new emulsion coil-over shocks to deliver a much better ride. The fork utilizes triple-rate progressive springs plus piston and valve stacks for more consistent absorption of road irregularities over the length of its travel and, according to Harley, resists wheel hop during heavy braking.

Even at first glance, the shocks, with their beefy, screw-type preload adjusters, look much more formidable than in previous years. Industrial Designer, Ben McGinley, made the understatement of the century when he noted, “We’ve gotten a lot of feedback over the years that people want better suspension from Harley-Davidson.” The changes weren’t just to the exterior of the shocks, either. Utilizing emulsion technology, the nitrogen-charged shocks resist oil foaming, giving the 36mm piston a consistent viscosity to stroke through. Although the shocks are a completely new design, they retained the same length and are just making more efficient use of the rear wheel’s 1.6 in. of travel.

The Iron 883’s new seat is more comfortable and provides a storage space for the shock preload adjuster spanner.

Our quick evening ride took place in and around Portland, OR. The urban portion of the ride featured plenty of railroad/trolley tracks, pavement repairs, and potholes to give an immediate assessment of the new suspenders’ street creds. While it is still possible to bottom the shocks on large holes, on more average-sized bumps, the ride is much more controlled and capable of limiting the harshness of jolts that do make their way through the suspension. Although the ride is much more balanced front and rear, I still wish the engineers had decided to increase the rear wheel travel (and hence the ride height) for both improved suspension function and reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

The new cast wheels are not only good looking, but also they’re lighter – to the tune of 8 lbs in total. This translates into slightly quicker steering from the 19-in. front wheel. Having less rotating mass should also result in quicker acceleration, but I was unable to tell any difference.

The front disc grew 4mm to 300mm and became a floating unit, there was no perceptible difference in braking power.

Sitting in the newly-sculpted seat reveals how Harley can make shapely designs that are comfortable. Also, the new seat cleverly stows the shock adjusting tool. While the riding position is still knees-high, the drag-style handlebar puts the rider in a slightly aggressive, sporty position. Unfortunately, the same old ground clearance problems prevent the rider from exploiting that position and the new suspension performance. As we stated before, the muffler drags early and often on the right side, and until this ride, I’ve said that the left side of the Iron 883 is more forgiving.

Iron 883

+ Highs

  • Improved suspension
  • Lighter wheels
  • More comfortable seat

– Sighs

  • Limited cornering clearance
  • Unchanged lower body riding position
  • I crashed it

The reality is that the left peg initially drags very benignly – until it can’t any more. You see, once the peg is scraping, there are only a couple degrees more lean angle available before the engine case touches down. Once that happens, you’re subject to the whims of pavement undulation, as I found while riding second in a line of about a dozen riders. One moment, I’m dragging the peg at the exit of a corner, looking down the straight in front of me; the next, I’m sliding on my butt in the middle of my lane, watching the 883 spin on its left side away from me. After years of grinding cruiser pegs and floorboards with abandon, I finally touched down hard enough to lever the rear wheel off the ground. Never have I felt the need for a couple more degrees of lean angle so profoundly. So, potential Iron 883 owners, you have been warned.

Still, the improved suspension along with the quicker steering provided by the lighter wheels, makes the 2016 Iron 883 a good upgrade for an already popular motorcycle. Still, I wish that ABS was standard, instead of a $795 option. The solid color choices are Black Denim and Charcoal Denim for an $8,849 MSRP while the custom color option is Hard Candy Gold Flake at $9,299.


Since the Forty-Eight had basically gone without a refresh since 2010 and the entire Sportster family was getting a new suspension, the time was right for the 1200-powered Sporty to get a little extra love. The biggest functional change is a new rear suspension, as with the 883, but it is paired with a new 49mm fork (a 10mm increase in diameter!) along with the new cartridge fork internals. Although the rake remains at 30°, the trail lengthens to 5.3 in. (from 4.2 in.) as a result of a new triple clamp, a change made to improve low-speed handling. A new, lighter fork brace was added to the front end, too.

The 49mm fork stanchions add to the muscular look of the Forty-Eight – as do the new wheels. Don’t bother using those mirrors unless you want to see what the underside of your elbows look like.

Another big change for the Forty-Eight is the switch from last year’s laced hoops to split 9-spoke, cast aluminum wheels, which are colored black with machined highlights, like the Iron 883. This change allows for running tubeless tires for some rotational mass savings and, presumably, quicker steering.

Other stylistic changes were made for 2016. As with the Iron 883, a round air cleaner reveals more of the mostly blacked out engine. In an interesting touch, the cylinder heads and exhaust pipes are not black. While the mufflers are black, they also mostly covered by slotted chrome heat shields with the slots echoing those in the belt cover and the horizontal graphics on the tank. In fact, the only color on the Forty-Eight other than black is the tank paint. Both fenders share the rest of the bike’s blacked-out look. In a visual as well as functional change, the seat was reshaped for better “rider retention” while the foam and pan were redone, meaning that the back has more of a curve to keep you from sliding off under acceleration.

My experience riding the Forty-Eight mimics that of riding the 883 – with a major exception. I didn’t crash it. So, the new suspenders are effective, and the beefier fork tubes resist flex under hard braking. Steering response at speed is unchanged, but the parking lot maneuverability feels a bit improved. Otherwise, the acceleration and braking performance are standard Sportster 1200 fare.

The Sportster line’s new shocks both look and perform much better. Too bad they weren’t made a little longer to increase ride height and expand cornering clearance.

The 2016 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight has three pricing tiers. Vivid Black retails for $11,199, while adding Billet Silver, Velocity Red Sunglo, or Olive Gold to the tank bumps the MSRP to $11,549. The Hard Candy Customs colors peak with a $11,649 pricetag for Hard Candy Cancun Blue Flake and Hard Candy Gold Flake.


+ Highs

  • Improved suspension
  • Cast wheels
  • Beefier fork tubes

– Sighs

  • Limited cornering clearance
  • Time for a power upgrade
  • ABS is an extra cost option

Look for the new Sportster Dark Custom models later this year when the 2016s arrive in showrooms.

The 2016 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight.

Harley-Davidson Dark Customs Score Card

Iron 883Forty-Eight
Engine: Power, tractability, response, user friendliness (score out of 20)13.0013.75
Suspension/Handling: (score out of 15)11.011.0
Transmission/Clutch: (score out of 10)7.07.0
Brakes: (score out of 10)7.57.5
Ergonomics/Comfort: (score out of 10)6.06.0
Instruments/Controls: (score out of 5)3.253.25
Appearance/Quality: (score out of 10)8.258.0
Desirability: (score out of 10)6.07.0
Value: (score out of 10)7.57.0
Overall Score69.570.5

Harley-Davidson Dark Customs Spec Sheet

Iron 883Forty-Eight
MSRP$8,849, $9,299 (optional paint)$11,199, $11,549, $11,649
Type883 cc, 90° air-cooled, Evolution V-Twin1202cc, 90° air-cooled, Evolution V-Twin
Fuel SystemElectronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Valve TrainPushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinderPushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinder
Bore x Stroke76.2mm x 96.8mm88.9mm x 96.8mm
Final DriveBeltBelt
Trail4.6 in.5.3 in.
Front SuspensionTelescopic fork, 4.7-in travel49mm telescopic, 3.6 in. travel
Rear SuspensionDual coil-over; preload dual-adjustable; 1.6 in. travelDual coil-over; preload dual-adjustable; 1.6 in. travel
Front Brake300 mm floating stainless steel disc, 2-piston caliper300 mm floating stainless steel disc, 2-piston caliper
Rear Brake260mm stainless steel fixed disc, 2-piston caliper260mm stainless steel fixed disc, 2-piston caliper
Front Tire100/90-19M/C 57H130/90B16 73H
Rear Tire150/80-16M/C 71H150/80B16 77H
Wheelbase61.8 in59.3 in.
Seat Height30.1 in27.3 in.
Claimed Weight (Ready to Ride)562 lbs551 lbs.
Fuel Capacity3.2 gal2.1 gal.
Available ColorsBlack Denim, Charcoal Denim, Olive Gold, Hard Candy Gold FlakeVivid Black, Billet Silver, Velocity Red Sunglo, Olive Gold, Hard Candy Cancun Blue Flake, Hard Candy Gold Flake
Warranty2 years unlimited mileage2 years unlimited mileage
Evans Brasfield
Evans Brasfield

Like most of the best happenings in his life, Evans stumbled into his motojournalism career. While on his way to a planned life in academia, he applied for a job at a motorcycle magazine, thinking he’d get the opportunity to write some freelance articles. Instead, he was offered a full-time job in which he discovered he could actually get paid to ride other people’s motorcycles – and he’s never looked back. Over the 25 years he’s been in the motorcycle industry, Evans has written two books, 101 Sportbike Performance Projects and How to Modify Your Metric Cruiser, and has ridden just about every production motorcycle manufactured. Evans has a deep love of motorcycles and believes they are a force for good in the world.

More by Evans Brasfield

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4 of 22 comments
  • Ed Bedhead Ed Bedhead on Aug 31, 2015

    He crashed it and it's the bike fault? Score his riding ability: 1.

    I have a 2012 48 with 35k miles and I'll trade it for a 2016. Is my 48 a track bike? Nope. A dirt bike? Nope. A cafe racer? Nope.

    So....what is my 48? Is it something different than what I thought it would be? Nope.

    Is it expensive? Not to me, chumps.

    Compared to the other bikes out there---other bikes in its class, children---I'll stay with Harley.

    • Derek Jones Derek Jones on Mar 28, 2018

      Compared to modern motorcycles the 48 is an overpriced antique at least when other brands build nearly the same motorcycle for decades they don't price them as if they were new. Also the power and torque figures for those motorcycles are still suck in the 80's.

  • Nickatnyt Nickatnyt on Sep 01, 2015

    For the life of me, I don't understand why HD makes these (below) entry level bikes, nor do I understand why anybody buys them. And for the record, I love my softtail FatBoy. Yeah it was overpriced, but the alternatives were crap.

    • Schizuki Schizuki on Sep 01, 2015

      I've got an Iron. I put Progressive 440 rear shocks on it (2" over stock) and a Mustang seat. About $600 altogether. Puts a smile on my face every time I ride it. Sounds great, plenty fast enough, handles just fine, absolutely perfect riding position.