Bryan Harley, Cruiser Editor


With a moniker like SuperLow and a targeted demographic of first time buyers, I approach my first ride on Harley’s latest Sportster with trepidation. At six-feet-tall, would the mid-mount controls and 25.5-inch seat height leave me curled up like Steve Cauthen on Affirmed? Would the 883cc Evolution engine have enough gusto for a rider who tips the scales at 215 lbs? And does all the talk about revised front-end geometry translate to real-world performance or is it all just marketing fluff?

The curve-laden roads through the Siuslaw National Forest between Newberg, Oregon and the Pacific Coast would serve as our testing grounds as we prepare for our first rides on Harley-Davidson’s 2011 motorcycles. With its low stance, hiking a leg over the SuperLow is a simple affair. The new 4.5-gallon tank stretches rearward a touch more than the old fuel cell, allowing Harley to move the seat back a fraction leaving enough room to stretch my legs without feeling cramped. The bucket-shaped solo seat also has more padding this year, a move made possible when Sportster engineers moved the bike’s Electronic Control Module from underneath the seat to the steering head, and who doesn’t appreciate a little more padding? It’s an easy reach to the reshaped handlebars as well thanks to a bit more rise with the grips sitting a tad more than shoulder-width and just below chest high.

Thumbing the electric start, the familiar rumblings of the rubber-mounted Evolution engine vibrate beneath the saddle as the pistons’ potato-potato-potato cadence exits out of the dual staggered shorty exhaust. The thrust of Harley’s efforts to make the bike more rider-friendly has been concentrated on the rider’s triangle and suspension while the air-cooled Evolution remains the same. Its pistons still operate in a 3-inch bore at a 3.812-inch stroke, compressing the air/fuel mixture at an 8.9:1 ratio while churning out a claimed 55 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm.

The first stretch of road is straight highway miles, allowing me to run through the gears of the five-speed gearbox. Shifts are solid, and though it isn’t the smoothest shifting motorcycle around, it notches reliably into each gear. Getting up to highway speed, the bike’s powerband isn’t overly wide, but keep the SuperLow’s rpm in its sweet spot between three and four grand and the engine is lively. It provides plenty of manageable power for the audience it targets.

The longer we ride the more my backside appreciates the extra seat padding. The road serves up its share of uneven pavement and bumps while the retuned coil-over shocks move up and down through its longer 2.5-inches of travel without bottoming out. Harley recalibrated the damping on the twin pre-load adjustable exposed shocks and, in tandem with the 39mm Showa fork, the ride quality is comfortable but not overly plush. Combine the bike’s 568-lb curb weight to my 215 and there’s plenty of mass to support, but except for the most heinous of bumps, the SuperLow’s suspension is up to the task of smoothing out the ride.

The closer we get to the coast, the more the road begins to wind through the mountains. The motorcycle tracks through the turns with minimal steering effort and the front end has a light feel at the bars. This is especially helpful during low-speed maneuvers, but other journalists on the TC 103-powered touring bikes are setting a fast pace so there’s nothing low-speed about our journey through the mountains. Harley has worked hard to make this an easy bike to ride. It revised the front end geometry by offsetting the triple tree to give it more lock-to-lock movement. The rake at the steering head has also been increased from 29.6 to 31 degrees. Other front end changes include an inch-smaller front wheel wrapped in a lower profile Michelin Scorcher 11 radial tire designed specifically for the bike which lopped off about five pounds, resulting in less unsprung weight and spin inertia. The Scorchers stick well to the road and riders will run out of lean angle long before they’ll run out of adhesion. Harley admitted that the increased rider-friendliness of the SuperLow came at the sacrifice of lean angle. Again, this shouldn’t be a concern to the demographic the motorcycle is intended for.

Styling-wise, the SuperLow sports attractive aesthetics. Its new colorways – Vivid Black, Cool Blue Pearl, Merlot Sunglo/Vivid Black combo, and Birch White/Sedona Orange drew plenty of compliments from the motojournalists on our ride. The new tank may not be iconic like the Peanut tank but I’ll take the added 1.2 gallons of fuel and longer range any day. Every tank is hand-finished and provides a larger palette for more of that high-quality Harley paint. The black split 5-spoke wheels with machined rims blend artfully with the black frame, battery cover and chain guard. The Evolution V-Twin is dolled up with silver powder-coated cylinders and the cylinder heads are crowned by polished rocker covers. The dual shorty exhausts and the airbox cover dress up the bike’s right side with a dose of chrome.

Performance-wise, it lives up to Harley’s billing. It’s a motorcycle that’s easy to handle, has comfortable ergonomics, and has enough performance to get the ol’ adrenal glands pumping without overwhelming a newbie rider. The bigger tank is a marked improvement over the 3.3-gallon tank of last year’s 883 Low. At $7,999, it’s a grand more than the 2010 883 Low, but the same price as the ’10 Iron 883. And it’s fun to ride, even for seasoned riders, until you quickly reach the limits of its lean angle.

The 2011 Sportster line consists of the Iron 883, SuperLow, XR1200X, Sportster 1200 Low, Forty-Eight, 1200 Nightster. We’ve already had a chance to sample the 2011 XR1200X at Road America when Executive Editor Steve Atlas traveled to one of his favorite tracks to test the performance-oriented Sportster.