2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S First Look

John Burns
by John Burns

This could be Harley's most important new bike since 1957

The new 2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S that was unveiled this morning looks so much like the earlier prototype we dubbed Custom 1250 and already closely examined, most of the conjecture is already over except for the how much and when. And that’s $14,999 and this fall.

2021 Sportster S – Scotland Photo Shoot

This one’s “designed to deliver a thrilling riding experience and ushers in a new era of Sportster performance. A 121-horsepower Revolution Max 1250T V-Twin engine puts the Sportster S rider in command of unrelenting, on-demand torque. A taut, lightweight chassis and premium suspension deliver responsive, intuitive handling. From stop light to stop light, and corner to corner, the Sportster S model offers riders extraordinary power and performance and creates a new standard for the most enduring Harley-Davidson model.” Since 1957, we must admit, really is pretty enduring.

2021 Sportster S – Scotland Photo Shoot

Revolution Max 1250T

The 1250cc Revolution Max 1250T engine is the mechanical heart of the Sportster S, a liquid-cooled V-Twin engine tuned to make big torque at low revs, with a torque curve that stays flat through the powerband – engine performance designed to deliver strong acceleration from a start with robust power through the mid-range, quoth H-D.

This one’s just like the 1250 Rev Max we’ve already discussed at length, but Harley rates this one at 121 horses instead of 150 – though it claims the same 94 lb-ft of torque for both engines. The key differences in the “T” are:

  • Cylinder heads have smaller valves and port dimensions, and a different combustion chamber shape, which increases the velocity of flow through the combustion chambers at lower RPM, and increases torque output at low and midrange RPM (providing up to 10% more torque from 3000 to 6000 RPM).
  • Pistons are shaped to match the combustion chamber dimensions of the cylinder heads.
  • The length and shape of the intake velocity stacks, combined with the airbox volume, are tuned to maximize performance across the engine speed range.
  • The camshaft profiles and Variable Valve Timing (VVT) phasing are also designed to match the desired performance of this engine.

The engine is a stressed member of the chassis, which significantly reduces overall weight and makes for a stiff chassis and precise handling. H-D claims a wet weight of 502 pounds with the 3.1-gallon gas tank full. (We’d prefer a wet weight of 510 with a 4.5-gallon tank full.) A welded-up steel trellis swingarm features a braced design with a stamped X-member to further stiffen things, while adding distinctive style to the new Sportster.

The S model gets fully adjustable premium suspension – a SHOWA 43mm inverted cartridge fork up front and a single SHOWA piggyback reservoir rear shock hydraulically adjustable for spring preload via a convenient knob on the left side of the motorcycle. Lightweight cast aluminum wheels with a five-spoke design pack wide Dunlop/Harley-Davidson Series GT503 tires – a 180/70-R16 out back and a fat 160/70-R17 on front. We’ll give those tire choices the benefit of the doubt until we ride the bike. With 5.8 inches of trail and a 59.8-inch wheelbase, she should be nice and stable. We’ll also hold off re: ride quality, as those premium suspension components only provide 3.6 inches of front wheel travel, and 2.0 in at the rear.

2021 Model Photography. RH1250S

The single front 320mm disc brake disc is clamped by a Brembo radial monoblock four-piston caliper. The rear brake is a two-piston Brembo caliper biting a 260mm diameter disc.

Furthermore, the addition of a six-axis IMU brings the bike fully into the 21st century; now we’ve got cornering enhanced antilock brakes along with cornering enhanced traction control, just like H-D’s been putting on its touring bikes for a few years now. Also your cornering enhanced Drag-Torque Slip Control System to reduce the possibly nasty effects of sloppy downshifts on slick surfaces. And don’t forget tire-pressure monitoring too.

Ergonomically speaking…

Forward foot controls and a low handlebar put the Sportster S rider in an aggressive posture on the bike. Unladen seat height is 29.6 inches, low enough for most riders to get feet down at a stop. Brake and clutch hand levers are both adjustable for reach.

But, there’s also a Mid-Control Conversion Kit available. It relocates the left and right rider foot pegs and foot controls from the Original Equipment forward position to a mid-position on the bike. “This may place the rider in a more athletic position and may also provide an improved fit for riders who cannot comfortably reach the forward controls,” says Harley.

But is there cruise control?

The Sportster S is pre-wired for accessory heated grips, and is equipped with two dedicated power points for heated riding gear (which Harley will happily sell you separately), plus a USB-C port. An external ambient temperature sensor and a low-temp warning on the display screen alert the rider to possible physical discomfort. Cruise control and a proximity-based security system are standard equipment. The steel fuel tank holds 3.1 gallons. Ugh, that’s too small.

2021 Sportster S – Scotland Photo Shoot

It looks fast…

The massive front tire recalls the fenderless front end of a classic bobber, says Harley, while the tail section, high-mount exhaust and slim solo seat draw inspiration from the Harley-Davidson XR750 flat tracker. The thick inverted forks and wide-profile tires suggest high-performance sport bike, and split radiators allow the big front tire to be tucked in tight to the rest of the bike.

“Every visual design element of the Sportster S model is an expression of the motorcycle’s raw power,” says Brad Richards, Harley-Davidson vice president of styling and design. “This is a wolf in wolf’s clothing.”

The powertrain is highlighted with a Chocolate Satin finish on the lightweight magnesium engine covers. Textures, colors, finishes and details were selected to give the Sportster S model the look of a custom show bike. Select from: Vivid Black, Stone Washed White Pearl, or Midnight Crimson.

2021 Sportster S – Scotland Photo Shoot

Electronic Countermeasures

Five selectable Ride Modes electronically control the performance characteristics of the motorcycle, and the level of technology intervention. Three of the modes are pre-programmed; two are customizable via the MODE button on the right switchgear, while riding or when stopped, with some exceptions. A unique icon for each mode appears on the instrument display when that mode has been selected.

2021 Sportster S – Scotland Photo Shoot
  • Road Mode delivers balanced performance: less-aggressive throttle response and less mid-range engine power than Sport Mode, and a higher level of C-ABS and C-TCS intervention. In some markets Road Mode is the default “key on” mode; in North America the bike will always default to the Ride Mode selected at the last “key off” event.
  • Sport Mode maximizes the rider connection to the motorcycle for a direct and visceral performance riding experience; the rider will experience the full performance potential of the motorcycle in a direct and precise manner, with full power and the quickest throttle response. C-TCS is set to its lowest level of intervention, and engine braking is increased.
  • Rain Mode is also an appropriate setting for riders building confidence as they become familiar with the motorcycle. Throttle response and power output are programmed to significantly restrain the rate of acceleration, engine braking is limited, and the highest levels of C-ABS and C-TCS intervention are selected.
  • Custom Mode: Two Custom Ride Modes allow the rider to select their combined preference of engine torque delivery characteristics, engine braking, throttle response, and C-TCS and C-ABS intervention, within specific ranges. For example, the rider could create a mode with the Sport engine performance and maximum throttle response (as is pre-programmed Sport Mode) but with a lower level of engine braking than is offered in the pre-programmed Sport Mode.
2021 Sportster S – Scotland Photo Shoot

Where would we be without TFT?

A round 4.0-inch-diameter TFT screen displays all instrumentation and infotainment functions via buttons on the left- and right-hand controls, at rest or in motion. A non-reflective glass covering makes it easier to view in most lighting conditions, says H-D. On there you’ll see a large digital speedo surrounded by an arching tachometer graph, turn signal blinkers, warning lights, the usual… And down below, pop-ups for incoming phone calls and alerts such as “low fuel,” “side stand down,” etc.

Infotainment wise, your own Bluetoothed mobile device will provide it. Music artist and track name will appear on the display, and you can scroll through files and adjust volume with the hand controls. Use voice commands through the headset to receive or place calls; ID of incoming calls appear on the display so your auto warranty will never run out.

Navigation is supplied by the Harley-Davidson App for iOS or Android, which must be downloaded into the rider’s mobile device, which then provides a moving map display or turn-by-turn directions on the screen. Hand controls let you pan and zoom the map to see more detail. It’s also packed with recommended rides, ride planning, ride recording, riding challenges and the ability to find Harley dealerships, gas stations, hotels, restaurants, motorcycle events and other attractions.

Jochen Zeitz the CEO says:

“The Sportster S is the next all-new motorcycle built on the Revolution Max platform and sets a new performance standard for the Sportster line,” said Jochen Zeitz, chairman, president and CEO, Harley-Davidson. “This is a next generation Sportster defined by power, performance, technology and style. And it’s part of our commitment to introduce motorcycles that align with our strategy to increase desirability and to drive the legacy of Harley-Davidson.”

On paper and in pictures, it all looks good to us. Except for the 3.1-gallon gas tank. And if that’s the only thing they got wrong, it should be an easy fix for the aftermarket. Except for that fat front tire, but if Triumph can make it work on the Rocket 3, maybe H-D can make it work here? Next week we ride, next Friday we’ll post a First Ride Review. If all goes according to plan. Cross your fingers, and take heart. Harley says this Sportster S is merely the first chapter in a new book.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S Specifications

EngineRevolution Max 1250T
ValvesChain-driven, DOHC, hydraulic self-adjusting lifters, intake & exhaust VVT; four valves per cylinder
Bore4.13 in. (105 mm)
Stroke2.85 in. (72.3 mm)
Displacement76.4 cu in (1,252 cc)
Compression Ratio12.0:1
Horsepower121 hp at 7500 rpm (claimed)
Torque94 lb-ft. at 6000 rpm (claimed)
Fuel SystemElectronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Air CleanerDowndraft intake, tuned velocity stacks, washable filter media
Exhaust2-into-1-into-2; catalyst in muffler
Lubrication SystemSemi-Dry Sump
Primary DriveGear, 49/89 ratio
Final DriveBelt, 80/34 ratio
ClutchMechanical, 8 plate wet, assist & slip, 1090N
FrameStressed-member, high strength low alloy steel trellis frame; stamped, cast, and forged junctions; MIG welded; aluminum forged mid-structure
SwingarmHigh strength low alloy steel, tubular sections, stamped x-member, forged axle junctions; MIG welded
Front Fork43 mm inverted fork with compression, rebound and spring preload adjustability. Aluminum fork triple clamps. 3.6 inches of travel.
Rear ShocksLinkage-mounted, piggyback monoshock with compression, rebound and hydraulic spring preload adjustability. 2.0 inches of travel.
Wheels, Front TypeAluminum cast, satin black
Wheels, Front Width4.5 in. (114 mm)
Wheels, Front Height17 in. (432 mm)
Wheels, Rear TypeAluminum cast, satin black
Wheels, Rear Width5 in. (127 mm)
Wheels, Rear Height16 in. (406 mm)
Front BrakeRadially mounted, monoblock, 4-piston caliper, 320 mm disc.
Rear BrakeFloating, single piston caliper, 260 mm disc
Brakes, Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)Standard
Lean Angle34° left and right
Fuel Economy49 mpg (4.8 l/100 km) (claimed)
Lights (as per country regulation), HeadlampAll LED headlamp, low and high beam with signature position lighting
Lights (as per country regulation), Tail/StopAll LED Tail/Stop lamp with signature tail lighting
Lights (as per country regulation), Front Signal LightsLED Bullet Turn Signals
Lights, Rear Turn SignalsLED Bullet Turn Signals
Gauges4 inch viewable area TFT display with speedometer, gear, odometer, fuel level, clock, trip, ambient temp, low temp alert, side stand down alert, TIP over alert, cruise, range and tachometer indication BT capable – phone pairing to access phone calls, music, navigation (H-D App ONLY)
Electric Power OutletUSB C-Type , Output 5V at 2.4 Amp
Length89.2 in. (2,265 mm)
Overall Width33.2 in. (843 mm)
Overall Height42.9 in. (1,089 mm)
Seat Height, Laden28.9 in. (734 mm)
Seat Height, Unladen29.6 in. (753 mm)
Static Ground Clearance3.66 in. (93 mm)
Rake (steering head) (deg)30°
Fork Angle (deg)28°
Trail5.8 in. (148 mm)
Wheelbase59.8 in. (1,518 mm)
Front TireHarley-Davidson Series, radial Dunlop GT503 160/70TR17 73V
Rear TireHarley-Davidson Series, radial Dunlop GT503 180/70R16 77V
Fuel Capacity3.1 gal. (11.8 l)
Reserve Fuel Capacity, Fuel Injection (warning light)0.8 gal. (3 l)
Oil Capacity (w/filter)4.75 qt. (4.5 l)
Weight, In Running Order502 lb. (228 kg) (claimed)
Warranty24 months (unlimited mileage)
Service IntervalFirst 1,000 miles (1,600 km), every 5,000 miles (8,000 km) thereafter

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John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 77 comments
  • Dan-o Dan-o on Jul 18, 2021

    Great engineering effort, but like everyone else says the tire, minimal shocks, exhaust and tiny tank choices weren't great. The big question I have is why did the street bike get the lower hp/higher mid-range torque engine and the dual sport gets the performance/lower torque engine. Ok, so that's what the marketing folks wanted.

  • Dan-o Dan-o on Jul 23, 2021

    Great engineering on the core bike. Looking for a "sportier" version with normal wheels, etc and the higher output engine.