We Test Harley's 100th Anniversary Sportster

The base Sportster is a stripped-down roadster that has an MSRP of just $5,975, meeting our price ceiling even if your local H-D dealer wants to pad the price a bit. The Motor Company didn’t have a base model for us to test, so they set us up with the 2003 Sportster 883 Custom, more in the chopper style with a raked-out fork, a larger-diameter front wheel and a passenger seat. Unfortunately, the Custom’s price tag is up at $7,075, but we still wanted to have Harley represented in this test as it is the class reference point.

Decked out in a cool silver and black paint scheme with 100th Anniversary badges, the Sportster has a clear aesthetic advantage over the other bikes, even in stock form. It is, after all, what so many people are looking for in a cruiser: the legendary Harley experience.

One of the most significant components of said experience is the beloved Harley exhaust note. But the notes emitted from our 883cc bike wasn’t exactly authentic Wisconsin, as California restrictions keep it from emitting the full-bodied, galloping note that H-D fruitlessly tried to patent a few years ago. With its old-tech, air-cooled, pushrod motor, the Sportster breaks no new ground, but the Harley-Davidson badge carries a lot of weight.

With the biggest engine and the best looks in our group, could it be that this test is over before it begins? Oh, no, not by a long shot.

The Sporty’s Evolution engine leaves plenty to be desired, most notably in the vibration department. Even rubber-mounted footpegs can’t quell the unrest brewing up from beneath the seat. This phenomenon isn’t as noticeable on shorter rides but after several hours on the Sporty, a rider’s hands, feet, and mind start to tingle like they were awakening from a Novocain shot. The vibration is so heavy that the handlebar-mounted mirrors are essentially useless because the reflected image is badly distorted.

Despite having the most cubes in this test, the Sportster’s aging long-stroke powerplant comes in second place in our dyno horsepower comparison (43 horsepower, 41.4 ft.-lbs. of torque). The decent dyno results actually surprised us because the H-D engine doesn’t feel strong from the saddle and, at 522 lbs., ranks mid-pack on our digital scales.

When compared to the Kawasaki Vulcan, the horsepower winner, the two-valve-per-cylinder Sporty accelerates like a cow with ankle weights. The Vulcan pulls hard off the line and revs to the moon, the four-valve-per-cylinder engine enjoying better top-end breathing. The Vulcan responds to the throttle with vigor, despite tipping the scales at a heaviest-in-test 550 lbs., and it is able to dust the Sportster when the two are pitted in an informal roll-on test.

Scrolling through the Sportster's gears is like taking a stroll through yesteryear. Its notchiness and audible clunks are most noticeable when switching over from the Honda, which is the smoothest shifting bike of the bunch. Shifting is further complicated by an extremely stiff clutch, something we often avoided using once underway to prevent hand cramps.

The H-D offering once again takes a back seat to its Japanese counterparts in the braking department, even if it is the only one in the group with a rear disc brake. A squeeze of the front brake lever often turned into a death grip as we tried desperately to get the machine to slow down.

“The Harley brakes couldn’t slow down a tricycle,” says Brian Chamberlain, MCUSA’s graphics guru. “The front brake is horrible, you really have to clamp onto the brake lever to get it to come to a stop.”

The abundance of vibration and brutally rudimentary clutch/transmission might lead one to believe that there is nothing to like about the Sportster. How untrue! The 883 is still fun to ride short distances, and its chassis makes for a pretty darn good twisty eating machine. When pushed hard you can feel the flex of the chassis, but when ridden within reason the bike performs admirably on tight two-lane roads.

The Sportster has the best ground clearance of the group (which isn’t saying much) and its riding position is a little hunched forward, but not uncomfortably so. The pegs are high and forward, almost like rudimentary highway bars, which is one of the more comfortable aspects of riding the Sporty over long distances.