By Bryan Harley, Cruiser Editor

Can it compete with the new Indian Scout?

Part of the Harley Sportster’s appeal is the myriad of forms it can take, be it bobbed, street tracker or café racer. For our test versus the Scout, Harley delivered a Sportster 1200 Custom. The Motor Company dressed up its Sportster offering further via its H-D1 Customization program, which allows riders to special order bikes with both factory and dealer-installed options. Our test unit came decked out in Mysterious Red Sunglo Deluxe paint ($665) and blacked out look courtesy of the powdercoated engine ($250) black contrast-cut five-spoke wheels ($230 each). Ergonomic changes include factory mini-apes ($180) replacing the stock pullback bars, and the usual two-up seat replaced by a solo one (no charge). While none of this affects performance, it does tack on to the initial $10,649 sticker price. What does affect performance, however, is the optional ABS ($795) equipped on our test bike. Since the Scout doesn’t have ABS, we wanted to get that out in the open before we begin.

Harley overhauled the Sportster’s brakes last year, going with a larger 300mm rotor instead of the former 292mm one. The 2015 1200 Custom sports dual 34mm pistons front and rear, the front exhibiting a decent bite initially followed by a bit of fade. Luckily, the ABS on the rear is effective and does a solid job of bringing the bike to a halt without having the back tire break loose, something that frequently happens on the Scout. The ABS allows for more control of the backside under heavy application, pulsing the foot pedal fast and contributing to the Sportster’s win in the 60-0 mph braking test. The 1200 Custom came to a stop at 146 feet compared to the 2015 Scout, which required 151.4 feet.

Hop into the saddle of the 2015 Sportster 1200 Custom and riders are greeted with the familiar open, laid-back cruiser-style riding position. Forward controls allow for ample extension of the legs, and the height of the mini-apes equate to the classic "fists in the wind" pose. The Sportster seat slopes up more modestly in the back, contrasting the harsh lip like the one on the Scout. The speedo housing rises above the bars and along with the mini-apes provides more chest protection than the Scout on the freeway, but my head was still buffeted around plenty by the wind. With a 26.6-inch seat height, the taller Sportster feels bigger than the Scout’s lower center of gravity, but still allows for an easy reach to the ground when stopped. Sitting higher makes it feel bigger on the freeway, too, and in addition to the more comfortable seat, that's why test rider Jason Abbott, a frequent Cycle News contributor, said he would choose to ride the Sportster first if he were setting out on a long trip.

Cruising surface streets around LA, the Sportster serves us well stoplight-to-stoplight with a solid pull off the line. In one second, it’s already delivering 61.5 lb-ft at 2,700 rpm and stays in that range up to 5,100 rpm. On the freeway, it’s fun to ride if you keep the bike in its happy spot in the powerband around 3,500 rpm, and distribution of that power is fairly linear. Venture beyond that, though, and there’s not much over-rev. Harley’s proprietary Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection does an efficient job of metering out fuel evenly, and fueling is cleaner and smoother than the Scout, whose delivery is a more uneven.

That said, in comparison to the Scout, the Sportster feels underpowered. This point became evident during performance testing, with Road Test Editor Adam Waheed managing to get the 2015 Sportster 1200 Custom from 0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds compared to the Scout’s 4.9-second run. One of the contributing factors is the Sportster’s clutch engages very late in the release, causing a slight hesitation before launching. Throttle response on the Scout is immediate and urgent, and by the time the Sportster lights up, the Indian is already gone.

“I had mixed feelings with the engine performance. The bottom end is sleepy and it’s slow to rev into a respectable midrange where the bulk of the power is. Top end is decent and over-rev is minimal. The EFI really killed the bottom compared to the old carb Sportsters, and the stock exhaust muffles the 1200 engine quite a bit,” said test rider Jason Abbott.

Both Abbott and I own carb-fed 1200 Sportsters, giving us a solid foundation for this observation. With the Scout’s horsepower advantage, lighter clutch pull and capacity to rev higher, you’re shifting more frequently on the Sportster trying to keep up. Even the gearbox on the Scout is smoother, the Sportster exhibiting that familiar hard Harley clunk on engagement. Solid and reliable, yes, with no slippage, but the Sportster’s five-speed gearbox can’t match the lighter action of the six-speed Scout. There was also a lot of heat coming from both sides of the engine on a 100-degree day, our test conducted during Southern California’s recent heat wave.

During our venture up one of our favorite twisted testing grounds in the San Gabriel Mountains, we not only were grinding the peg feelers down but sheared off a clamp dragging the bottom pipe on a hard right turn as well. The Sportster doesn’t turn-in as quick and light as the Indian, which despite sitting lower to the ground allows for greater lean angles. A softly sprung front fork doesn’t help, a washboard section on LA’s 405 freeway exposing this fact as my head bobbed up and down with each bump.

“The fork feels undersprung, and although it’s initially plush at speed, the front end doesn’t hold up well, especially under braking where it has a noticeable dive. Preload adjuster fork caps or new springs would help improve the front feel,” said Abbott. “The back shocks have four-position preload adjustment only. On the freeway and in the canyon the rear end was too active, and the overall handling would benefit from more damping in the shocks.”

Thumbing the electric starter of the 2015 Sportster 1200 Custom greets riders with the Harley feel that can’t be copied. The vibrations in the frame and bars bring a sense of familiarity, the chop-chop-chop at idle settling down at speed as the rubber mounts on the engine do their job. A lone gauge rests between the bars, nice and high so it’s easy to read. It’s the way it used to be before the age of advanced electronics, a simple analog speedometer, odometer, clock, dual tripmeters and a handful of diagnostic lights. Though the mini-apes are an optional addition, they provide good leveraging for the chunky Michelin Scorcher on the front.

There’s a reason the Sportster has been in production well over 50 years now. It’s built solid and runs reliably. Its customizing potential is broad, and with the proper upgrades can be a real runner. In this test against the Indian Scout, it has the better braking package of the two, its fueling is smoother and the seat is more comfortable in the long run. But compared to the Scout, it feels long in the tooth, unable to match the Indian’s power, handling or suspension. And while its initial MSRP undercuts the Scout at $10,649, the unit we tested had fancy paint and graphics, different bars and seat, and ABS – a package that approaches the $13,000 range. I have to concur with Abbot on this one: Harley could really benefit from performing some simple yet key updates to improve the Sportster. This is only the first year the Scout’s been released, and knowing Polaris it will only continue to get honed-in even more. Indian is putting on a full-court press led by the Scout as its point guard, and the pressure’s on. It will be interesting to see how Harley responds.