by Brian Korfhage

The XL883C Sportster is Better Than Ever

For motorcycle enthusiasts with meager budgets, the Harley-Davidson experience has transformed from a movement by and for the blue-collar contingent to the wealthy and affluent sects of society. Yet, even during H-D’s transformation to a high-end commodity, the Sportster has remained the one model within reach of the working man. It seems Harley-Davidson hasn’t become so opulent they have forgotten what created the annual record-breaking profits.

Yet, the Sportster, for all its charm, simplicity, and economical sensibilities, remained problematic for an enthusiast who was looking for more than a designer label. Earlier versions were difficult to fall in love with due in large part to a V-Twin engine that literally vibrated until the bolts came loose. Moreover, the Japanese manufacturers began usurping H-D’s low-price effort with bikes that are better suited for a beginner’s affinity for refinement, good looks, and functionality. As the Japanese manufacturers continually improved their product, the Sportster basically became an expensive paint mixer.

However, in 2004 the bike that had gone largely unchanged since it was born of the side-valve K-models finally received a hearty makeover, one that not only changed the Sportster for the better, but made it one of the best entry-level cruisers available on the market.

All the excellent new improvements exhibited by the ’04 models have carried over for 2005, and it seems H-D is making a concerted effort to open up its line of bikes to all economic levels of society.

The most impressive change to the 2005 Harley Sportster XL883C is the reduction of vibration. For those that haven’t had a chance to ride the old versions, the shimmy on H-D’s small bore bad-boy is the stuff of legends. Few bikes in the history of motorcycledom have garnered the negative attention of the Sporty, and truth be told, it was warranted. Climbing off previous models left me in a convulsive apoplectic state that had me vibrating for hours after a ride (my girlfriend loves Harley-Davidson, by the way).

However, the shake, rattle, and roll of old is gone with the newest version thanks to a rubber-mounted 883cc, air-cooled, 45-degree V-Twin. The specifications of the internal workings remain the same as the older versions of the Evo, boasting a bore and stroke of 76.6 x 96.8mm and a compression ratio of 8.9:1. However, the little powerplant has been improved thanks to new cylinders and heads with larger fins, which improves cooling, and the pistons now have oil jets dousing their underbellies for more reliable service.

With the engine’s signature shaking damped out with the rubber-mounting, the one aspect of the Sportster that stands out is the fact that this reborn 883 is a peppy little son of gun.

We lugged the little Sporty over to Hansen’s BMW/Triumph/Ducati to see if there was a performance difference to the old solid-mounted 883. In fact, the 883 virtually duplicated the dyno run of the old bike, cranking out 42.8 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 41.5 lb-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. Power gradually increases over the rev range, exhibiting a very linear powerband. While not mind-boggling numbers on a dyno chart, they are fairly satisfying in practice.

On the road, a twist of the throttle elicits a surprisingly quick and torquey response from the Sportster. It’s certainly not overwhelming power, but for the real world it allows for easy passing and is beefy and capable enough to get more than a fistful of tickets. Our only complaint is an off-idle leanness that makes accelerating from a stop a bit boggy, which seems kind of antithetical for a V-Twin. Cold starts are a bit fiddlesome thanks to the manual choke lever on the carburetor.

While the engine feels better than older generations, the clutch and tranny remain two of the lowlights of the H-D. Actuating the clutch requires all four fingers to get the meaty feeling lever back to the bar. Scrolling through the gears still elicits audible clunks and a rider is advised to keep shifts slow and deliberate. While it’s a little unsettling, missed shifts and false neutrals were non-existent during our test.

The 883cc Twin is nested in a tubular steel frame that Harley claims is 24% stiffer than previous, thanks in large part to three stabilizer links that secure the engine to the frame. Further improving the rigidity is a larger backbone tube. The improved chassis pays dividends on the road where the bike is smoother, but the extra weight of the new frame makes it feel a bit less crisp than before.

2005 Harley-Davidson Sportster XL883C 

Up front the bike is suspended by a 39mm traditional fork, while a pair of coil-over shocks handles absorption duties out back. Both the front and rear do an admirable job of soaking up most bumps and dips with ease. The rear shocks might be a bit harsh at times, but it feels like a nice compromise between a mushy Softail and the ever-popular hardtail.

The new chassis works with the suspension to provide an impressive package in the handling department. The Sportster isn’t quick steering by any stretch of the imagination, but the one thing that did stand out was its mid-corner stability. Once the Sporty is muscled over in tight turns it stays planted until pulled back out thanks in large part to a redesigned swingarm and rear axle that arrived with the plethora of changes in 2004.

Haulin’ ass on the new Sportster is a blast, but when it’s time to slow down, things aren’t perfect. Bringing Harley’s revamped Sporty to a stop is accomplished, unfortunately, with the same 292mm disc up front. While it does an adequate job, it’s good to have the useful single disc located at the stern for a little additional stopping power. The brakes are pretty much vanilla, and while I would love to see a significant improvement, they do an adequate job in everyday situations.

Ergonomically, the new Sportster is surprisingly comfortable. As with previous generations our Sporster offers a seat height of 27.3 inches, but for some it just wasn’t low enough. H-D has improved their standing with the vertically challenged thanks to the introduction of the 883 Low model, which rests at a diminutive 26.0 inches. That allows for even the shortest riders to rest flat footed at stoplights.

In motion, the Sportster is remarkably comfortable, especially over long rides. The saddle seems a little stiff when you first plop down in the seat, but you’ll quickly come to appreciate the firm saddle on longer trips. The seating position on the new Sportster makes highway travels, usually the bane of cruiser existence, rather comfortable. Unlike many cruisers which position the torso upright and back, the Sportster’s saddle situates the rider so the upper body is slightly hunched forward to absorb windblast. It works well, too, as several 80-mph cruises traversing I-5 told us. Few cruisers allow a rider to experience the open road sans windshield while allowing for reasonable comfort. The Sporty is one of them.

However, if your backside does disagree with the relative plushness of the seat, the Sportster gives ample opportunity for frequent rest stops thanks to a miniscule fuel cell. The 3.3-gallon tank offers close to 110 miles for those who are judicious with the throttle, but the heavy-fisted will be lucky to see triple digit miles between fills.

A rider’s hands are positioned nicely out on the bars, while feet rest comfortably down and forward. The controls are all easily accessible and ergonomically friendly. The self-canceling turn signals are unquestionably the highlight of the controls. Other manufacturers have tried to accomplish a set equal to H-D, but it just ain’t gonna happen. The Milwaukee-based company produces the industry’s best, and when you consider the meager price tag of the Sportster, they are a phenomenal addition.

Like damn near every other Harley-Davidson I’ve tested, the fit and finish is remarkably good thanks to the craftsmanship and efforts of the good people in Wisconsin. Up front a single speedo sits atop a set of pull-back bars and is located out and up so checking velocity only requires a quick glance.

When it comes to gripes about the Sporty, our list is short. We wished the sidestand was a bit longer, as the 558-pound bike feels even heavier when the rider is getting it upright. Also, the left footpeg is in the way of hooking a boot on the grab tang without a small struggle.

Truth be told the three Sportster models offered up by H-D are not only a vast improvement over past generations, they are simply good motorcycles. Motorcyclists that have avoided the American brand for the past decade should revisit Harley’s entry-level cruiser and give it serious consideration. With the ability to upgrade to a 1200cc engine, it’s conceivable that many might be trading in their metric cruisers for this light and nimble bike with the classic orange and black badge.

The base Sportster model comes complete with all the necessary goodies to get you on the road. The low version offers lowered front and rear suspension and a cut-down solo seat. The custom version offers a 150mm rear tire, two-up seating, and a 4.5-gallon tank. Rounding out the custom look is a laced wheel option and of course, plenty of Genuine Motor Parts and Accessories that easily bolt on.

It seems Harley-Davidson has heard the mass cries for a reasonably priced machine and kudos to them for listening. H-D not only improved a big seller, but also created a machine that will likely pull many riders into the continually expanding Harley-Davidson family.

Going the route of the Sportster is certainly the cheapest way to partake in the H-D experience. The base model starts at a reasonable $6,495, while our tester, the Custom XL883C starts at $7,595. Our model as tested costs $7,815 without any additional custom components and is still an inexpensive way to get on the road, and they may be in short supply at dealers. But that’s just another hallmark of H-D that new members of the family will need to get used to. After spending time with our Sporty, we think it’s worth the wait and definitely worth the price.