Best Cruiser / Bagger Motorcycle of 2021

John Burns
by John Burns

Best Cruiser/Bagger Motorcycle of 2021: Harley-Davidson Sportster S

How’s this for a no-pressure assignment? Completely redesign the Harley-Davidson Sportster, the best-selling Harley that’s been around since 1957. Start with a clean sheet. Make a motorcycle that appeals to people who’ve never considered a Sportster. Whatever you do, don’t offend the Base. On the other hand, it’s okay and even preferable that it offends some people – the ones who’d never consider a Harley under any circumstances.

From where I sit, maybe a little too close to the ground, which slightly triggers me, it seems like lead designer Brad Richards and crew succeeded on all fronts. The main source of their success is the new Revolution Max engine that powers the bike, which debuted earlier in H-D’s Pan America adventure bike.

2021 Harley-Davidson Sportster S Review – First Ride

For the Sportster, which is more urban runabout than off-road-capable adventure bike, that engine’s tuned to make 121 horsepower instead of 150, but it packs all that power into the low- and midrange. Suddenly, instead of being an antique, the Sportster is ready to duke it out with any road-going thing it encounters. Variable valve timing makes it even more vicious out of the hole; Harley claims 94 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm, which feels entirely believable. Ride modes other than Sport let you tame it down on days when you’re not in the mood to bite the heads off of bats. The Rev Max is a fantastic V-twin engine and a complete departure for the Motor Company. Not only is it great to ride, it’s also probably going to be great to own, since its hydraulic valve lifters require zero adjustments. A 60-degree V angle and 30-degree offset crankpins even give it a 90-degree sound we never expected to hear from a Harley.

The Dunlop tires may look fat, but their special profile means the new Sportster really is sporty when it comes to going round corners. Its suspension and brakes are also up for the task, with the glaring exception that rear travel is in short supply – sort of a Harley touchstone – but at least the seat’s really low. A too-small gas tank is another feature that plays well in Milwaukee.

Right, it ain’t perfect, but the outgoing Sportster gave up on perfect in about 1985. The new S, along with its sistership Pan America, really does mark a new beginning, or at least a huge, badly needed pivot for Harley-Davidson. And if this Sportster doesn’t ring your bell, rest assured its new modular construction means there are more than a few variants on the way, all powered by the revolutionary Revolution Max powerplant.

Best Cruiser/Bagger Motorcycle of 2021 Runner-Up: Honda Rebel 1100 DCT

Speaking of those who’d never buy a Harley under any circumstances for whatever misguided reasons, here ya go. Honda is standing by to plug that gap with this new Rebel. It’s got all the cruiser styling cues, well most of them anyway: 27.5-inch seat, 18-in. front wheel, twin shocks…

2021 Honda Rebel 1100 DCT Review – First Ride

But inside, there’s serious Honda engineering, including a drivetrain lifted from the Africa Twin. That would be an 1084 cc Unicam parallel Twin rejiggered to produce peak torque at just 4750 rpm (79 lb-ft says Honda) and 87 horsepower at just 7000 rpm.

The low $9,999 price of entry includes a third-gen DCT transmission with four ride modes, which means you can cruise around bourgeoisie-ly while the Honda does all the shifting for you. Or you can get all hands-on authoritarian whenever the mood strikes, and use the paddle shifters at your left thumb and index finger. Either way, shifts up and down through the 6-speed box are completely seamless at all times, even leaned over mid-corner. Leaned over? That’s right, this cruiser has plenty of cornering clearance, along with a fondness for curvy roads.

A wet weight of only 509 pounds is really light for a cruiser, and that pays dividends in all aspects of performance. That’s right, performance. This cruiser scoots and makes the right sounds doing it, thanks to a 270-degree crankshaft.

Alternatively, it’s a fine straightline cruiser for traipsing round your midwestern roots, with mid-mount footpegs, reasonable and well-damped wheel travel at both ends, and with standard cruise control too. Honda’s got travelling accessories standing by, of course.

If chrome’s fallen out of your fashion zone, the Rebel fits right in: Its purple nitrided fork tubes, black steel frame and darkly brooding everything else go just right with the one round headlight packed with bright LEDs, and the single all-knowing round instrument containing the 10,000-rpm tachometer. Sayonara, Shadow. Best of 2021 Categories

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John Burns
John Burns

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4 of 63 comments
  • Tony Riggs Tony Riggs on Dec 02, 2021

    A sportster as a cruiser?
    I'm guessing you testers didn't think to throw a couple of bags over the seat or the air pollution in CA has finally gotten to ya....

    • Imtoomuch Imtoomuch on Dec 02, 2021

      Not all of us the ride cruisers want to bring our pillow and blankie along. There is nothing stating that cruisers have to have luggage. I don't understand why some people think this.

  • Atrius Atrius on Dec 03, 2021

    For me, the big difference between the two is I would buy the Honda right now and ride it anywhere. The Harley, I'd wait a few model years

    • David K David K on Dec 14, 2021

      Only time will tell if the engine is any good. Remember, every new engine Davidson comes out with is the best one yet. Remember the Evolution engine, lol.