Harley-Davidson’s product development team is absolutely killing it lately. The brand’s new modern water-cooled DOHC twin, the Revolution Max, has been exactly the shot in the arm The Motor Company needed. It could, and possibly might, build an entire motorcycle lineup around this powerful and rev-happy engine. I loved the larger displacement 1250 in the Pan America and the Sportster S, so I knew going in that I would probably like the downsized 975 found in a more standard Sportster model.
With Harley moving to a new modular platform that uses the new engine as a stressed member, its new bikes are lighter, stiffer, and more nimble than before. The Nightster is around 80 pounds less hefty than the outgoing Sportster Iron 1200, which is probably its closest current parallel. Harley claims the Nightster will lean over 32 degrees before dragging a peg. I didn’t bring a protractor to confirm that, but I absolutely skimmed some of the pegs off on the pavement. It’s a much sportier bike than the outgoing Sportster, and packs tons of old-school style in the process.
(Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson invited me to Santa Barbara to ride its new Nightster. Harley flew me to the event, put me up in a nice hotel, and fed me nice food.)
Based around the new Revolution Max 975T engine, the Nightster is a new kind of Harley. It packs 95 horsepower and 79 lb-ft of torque, which is impressive for its size. The old aircooled 1200 struggled to reach that level of power, and the 883 was but a fraction of that! The engine is the star of this bike, for sure. With a 9,500 RPM redline, it can really zing if you want to huck this bike around on a twisty road. It doesn’t sound quite as good as its larger displacement sibling, particularly at low RPM where it sounds a bit agricultural lawn-mower-ish, but it sounds better than any Harley before spinning the pistons to the top of the tach.
This Nightster is a bit more classically styled than the Sportster S, carrying a dual rear shock setup with a whopping three inches of travel, two-into-one exhaust pipes, a round aircleaner, and a peanut-style “tank”, and excellent mid-controls. It’s certainly attractive, if you’re into this kind of bike.
The visual cues that the Nightster shares with Sportsters of old are only skin deep. Obviously the frame is gone, but it’s visually styled in with the exhaust and the radiator framing the engine. The “tank” up between your legs is nothing more than a metal cover for the airbox, as the fuel tank has been moved down to below the seat for a better center of gravity. It also allows for a larger airbox and a straighter shot for the air to enter the cylinders, further increasing power.
Along with a modern engine and chassis, the Nightster also features modern electronic rider aids. There are three riding modes, Road, Sport, and Rain, which adjust throttle response, shift power levels in the rev range, and make amendments to the traction control, ABS, and engine braking. Never saw any of that stuff on the old Evo engine Sportys.
With a sub-500 pound weight, the new Nightster makes good use of its power. It certainly didn’t feel as blisteringly fast as its 1250-powered Sporster S sibling, but it certainly doesn’t feel lazy. This is a fast bike, and if it had been released before the Sportster S I’m sure it would have felt surprising even then. Without the Sportster S’ massive front tire, the Nightster tips in to a corner much nicer, feeling more quick to shift its weight around. It probably could do with a bit more front brake, considering the speeds the thing is capable of, but I never felt underwhelming performance, despite a few hours of hustling this bike on some of the greatest riding roads in the world.
The weight reduction employed on this bike is instantly obvious as soon as you pick it up off the side stand. I was prepared for the yank required to haul a heavy beast up onto level, but pulled way too hard and almost tipped it over to the other side. There’s a lot less weight up top, too, where it really matters.
The ergonomics of the old-school Sporty are still present, copied like for like from the Iron 1200. There’s a low seat, just 27 inches off the deck. There’s a low set of flat handlebars you need to reach just a little bit for. There’s mid-controls that help get some weight off your butt and onto your legs. I found that last one particularly welcome, as they also helped the bike to feel more stable underneath me compared to the Sportster S’ feet forward layout.
When it comes to the competition, the new Sportster absolutely wipes the floor. Sure, you can get an Indian Scout or a Honda Rebel for less, but do you really want to? The Nightster is more comfortable, more powerful, and in my opinion better looking. Harley is really on to something here. It’s a kick ass platform that I hope spawns dozens of new variants. Hopefully a couple even less expensive ones. We probably won’t ever see a four-figure Sporty again, but could I get one for eleven grand, maybe?
My verdict? If you’re into it, get it. It’s really good.