Harley's making improvements

The Sportster is vital to Harley-Davidson. As a gateway bike, the Sportster provides the first taste of the Harley elixir to many a rider. It’s a prime platform for customization, from street tracker to café racer to even scramblers. It’s the flat track weapon of choice for companies like Rusty Butcher, Suicide Machine Co. and The Speed Merchant, who wring ‘em out for all they’re worth in hooligan dirt track races. Industry stalwarts like Led Sled Customs and Roland Sands Design offer a slew of killer parts specifically for Sportsters as well. But despite its popularity, the Sportster’s stock suspension leaves much to be desired.

Harley hopes to remedy this shortcoming by updating suspension on all its 2016 Sportsters. The front sees a new cartridge-style fork with triple-rate progressive springs to go along with a calibrated piston and valve stack. On the 2016 Iron 883 we rode to sample the new suspension components, rake has been trimmed down 0.5 degrees from last year to a 30-degree angle while trail remains the same at 4.6 inches. The back sees the addition of a pair of nitrogen gas-charged shocks, its internal valve stack with 36mm pistons bathing in high-grade oil. The progressive-rate springs now have 50mm of preload adjustability thanks to a threaded collar, with a small spanner included in the tool pack stashed under the Sportster seat. Of course, to access the wrench, the seat still has to be unbolted first. The shocks are the same length as before and travel is a short 1.6 inches, but the new emulsion technology aims to remedy the abruptness of the old shocks.

Harley-Davidson filled the street behind Portland’s See See Motorcycles with 2016 Iron 883s and Sportster Forty-Eights during its recent 2016 press launch to showcase the new suspension updates. See See’s Thor Drake not only graciously hosted our motley collection of motojournalists, but also helped Harley map out a 30-mile route in and around the city to test the new Sportster setup. It started with a quick run down Northwest Front Avenue through Portland’s Northwest Industrial District, the weathered stretch of broken pavement and railroad crossings an excellent barometer for the new shocks. I’m rolling on an Iron 883 and for normal street riding, and the new combination is doing an admirable job of stabilizing the front end and keeping the bike composed.

Before long, we did a 180 and started climbing up a wonderfully twisty stretch frequented by local riders called Skyline Boulevard. The 2016 Iron 883 rolls on a new nine-spoke cast aluminum wheel with machined highlights, and Harley claims unsprung weight on the front end has been trimmed by eight pounds. Between that and the new cartridge-style 39mm fork up front, action at the bars is light and the 883 turns in with less effort than my 2004 Sportster 1200C, which is fitted with a Progressive Monotube Cartridge Kit and remote reservoir 970 shocks on the back.

And while we appreciate the improvement in handling over the old Iron 883, it isn’t until we start blasting over the series of speed bumps that pepper the road that we’re sold on the new progressive suspension. What a world of difference. The ride is much plusher now and the bike more settled at all times. Square something up and the front is quick to rebound. It doesn’t dive as hard either if you grab a big handful of front brake. Where I frequently taxed the stock suspension in the past, it supports my 225-pound frame much better now without clanging off the bottom. I’m able to have some fun and hit Skyline’s speed bumps at speed, a maneuver that would have been brutal before. I got to give the new seat some props, too. Not only does the tuck-and-roll design look sharp, but the thick padding and contour provides a proper cushion.

Our stint on the new Iron 883 was short but intense. Thor mapped out the perfect testing grounds, pothole-riddled streets, train tracks, twisties and speed humps. The new 2016 Sportster Iron 883 rides more like my own Progressive-equipped 1200C. Though our top-shelf Progressives still have the overall edge, the distance in performance between the two is now much narrower, as the new Sportster suspension is a big step up from the harsh-riding reality of prior model years.