Harley Davidson claims to have made significant changes to the inner workings of the Harley Davidson 883, going beyond mere cosmetic updates. It is not just another marketing scheme. The aim of HD was to create a Sportster model that riders would want to keep rather than using it as a stepping stone to larger Harley models. Our experience over the weekend with the XL 883 & XL 1200C supports this claim.
The most notable change in all 2004+ Sportster models is the introduction of a rubber-mounted engine, which necessitated a complete redesign of the frame. These modifications resulted in a stiffer chassis and reduced engine vibrations. However, they also added a considerable amount of extra weight, which may disappoint some Sportster enthusiasts.
Personally, I was never a big fan of the Sportster, but I must admit they are starting to grow on me. The Harley Davidson 883 embraces a stripped-down aesthetic, not just within the HD brand but when compared to other new motorcycles as well, and this appeals to certain individuals.
In the past, many Harley Davidson enthusiasts viewed the smaller Sportster as a bike intended for women. Some regarded it as a suitable bike to start with but advised upgrading to a "real" Harley as soon as one could afford it. The Sportster has also been labeled a girl's bike due to its smaller wheelbase and easier handling. However, it is worth questioning why only women should have access to bikes that are easy to ride and offer beautiful handling. While the Sportster is often described as a small bike, weighing in at 260 kilograms, it is not a tiny machine by any means.
Going by all the negative talk about the Sportster, we didn't expect to be overly impressed.
Most bikes look better in person, but that especially holds true for Harleys. If you're not into all that chrome and shiny gear, you might as well stay home.
The folks at Blacktown Harley rolled the Sportster outside and fired them up.
This particular pair hadn't been fitted with the screaming eagle gear yet, so the sound coming out of the pipes was still a legal and pleasant Harley burble. Upon closer inspection, you can immediately tell that the team has put in extra effort to ensure every fitting looks fantastic. There are no rough edges, and the overall build quality is excellent.
When riding the Harley Davidson 883, the first thing that always catches our attention is the seating position. It's not quite cruiser-like or sporty in the modern sense. It feels a bit strange initially, but after a while, you really get used to it, and it turns out to be an excellent setup for maneuvering the bike into corners. On the other hand, the 1200c has the classic "easy rider" layout, which looks cool and is great for cruising on the highway. The 1200c also offers decent ground clearance and handles bends with stability. However, the forward foot controls make tighter turns a bit more challenging compared to the 883. It ultimately depends on your preference and whether you'll be doing more cruising or aggressive cornering.
Having said that, we were all pleasantly surprised by how well both Sportsters held their line in corners. It was a real revelation.
One of the significant updates we were eager for was the engine of the Harley Davidson 883. The last time we tried one (before the rubber mount), we weren't too thrilled with it. It suffered from vibrations, harsh engine noise, and lackluster performance.
We are thrilled to report that the 2004 XL883 shows a noticeable difference and lives up to the hype surrounding the Sportster lineup. The rubber-mounted engine has significantly smoothed things out while delivering great usable power. Although there will always be people looking to extract more power from the beast, even in its current form, the 883 is a joy to ride. Besides its power, the 883 feels smooth, torquey, and serves as an excellent base model for customization.
With the significant changes to other components of the bike, the previous evolution engine required some work to bring it up to speed. While the 45-degree V-twin setup and bore and stroke remain unchanged, the cylinder heads on both the 883 and 1200 have been redesigned. The internal components are lighter and stronger, and a new oil cooling system has significantly reduced engine heat.
The XL1200 has undergone more changes, including performance cams, high-flow heads, and an increased redline from 5500rpm to 6000rpm. All of these updates result in approximately a 15% increase in power compared to the 2003 models, giving it 70 hp and 79 ft. lbs. of torque. The Harley Davidson 883 hasn't received the same level of enhancements, but it still delivers a healthy 53 hp and 51 ft. lbs. of torque, which is a moderate increase from the 2003 models.
The Sportsters have also undergone significant changes in the way they deliver power. A new timing system, air cleaner, exhaust, and the use of quality engineered components have made the Sportster even better. The engines now run much smoother, and the power delivery is more responsive, coming on earlier and lasting longer.
Power was never really an issue on the 1200c, and it's especially true for the 2004 model. This 1200 Sporty custom pulls like a freight train, with abundant torque in any gear. Speaking of gears, it almost feels like it has seven and a half gears. Several times we thought we had reached top cruising gear, only to discover there were still two more to go. The 5th gear doesn't become truly useful until around 120 km/h. This bike is built for cruising on big open roads (which could use a higher speed limit). When giving the throttle a good twist, we actually had to hold on tight—you might risk losing a passenger at this stage (more on that later).
Due to its larger displacement, the vibrations are slightly more noticeable on the 1200c, but they are never really bothersome, except for the buzzing mirrors. Who wants a Harley that doesn't buzz a little bit? It just wouldn't feel right, and it wouldn't be from Milwaukee. Occasionally, at low revs, the bigger twin may exhibit some chugging, but it's a rare occurrence.
Firmness is something you'll notice as soon as you swing a leg over either of these bikes. The seat feels like a rock when you first sit on it, but somehow it seems to soften or numb over time. We only experienced discomfort after riding for more than 6 hours, which would likely leave your butt aching on most bikes anyway.
The seats are well contoured for a stable and sporty ride, with a ridge at the back to prevent you from sliding off during quick take-offs. We found the seat ridge particularly useful, especially on the 1200c due to its power and seating position. To be fair, most buyers aren't looking to cross the country on a Sportster anyway.
The Harley Davidson 883 was designed as a single-seater, and the same can be said for the 1200c. If you manage to convince someone to ride with you, they won't be eager to do it again. The seat may look cool, but that's about it. Our test passenger had this to say.
XL 1200 C – A passengers’ perspective
Traveling on a Harley Davidson is a dream for many motorcycle riders at some point in their riding careers. The power, the engine's roar, and the reputation of a Harley seem to communicate something that only those who are willing to listen can understand.
For those who don't have the fortune of owning one, there's always the option of being a passenger, which is an honor in itself. However, before becoming a pillion on an XL 1200 C, there are a few things to consider.
Firstly, the 1200 C is a powerful motorcycle, and if the rider decides to accelerate aggressively, you better have a firm grip, or else you might become a temporary speed bump for the vehicle behind you. While the horsepower numbers may seem modest on paper, the XL 1200 packs plenty of low-end torque.
The passenger seat on this model is very short. Unless you have a small backside, sitting on the rear mudguard might be inevitable. The seat also seems to be angled in a way that can forcefully throw you further back during quick bursts of acceleration. Due to the seat length, it feels like the holding strap is almost behind you, which doesn't provide the stability needed during acceleration. The strap does have some slack, which would be great if it was positioned a little more forward.
Holding onto the rider is generally fine and the most comfortable option, although the sight of one man hugging another on a Harley from behind with both arms might attract some glances along the way.
One positive aspect is that the footpegs are positioned a little forward, which helps when slowing down and stopping the bike. Instead of sliding forward, you can brace yourself for deceleration without forcing yourself onto the rider and avoiding helmet clunking.
During this test, the shocks could have been a little softer, but they can be adjusted according to personal preference.
In summary, the XL 1200 C is a great individual bike that can accommodate a pillion. However, due to the seat length and angle, it can be challenging to hold on to the rider. This can be exciting if the passenger enjoys an adrenaline rush every time the bike accelerates and almost throws them off the seat.
The provided holding strap is easy to grip, but it feels like you're trying to wipe something and only comes into effect when you're almost off the seat.
While this bike was designed with a passenger in mind, I would not recommend it for trips with frequent stop-and-go situations.
Recommendations would depend on the bike's purpose, but if a passenger is involved, a longer seat, possibly with a small backrest, would be advisable.
The Sportster platform was not primarily designed for two-up riding. While it is possible, it may not be the best bike for that purpose.
At the end of the day, having a Sportster gives you a perfect excuse to avoid unwanted passengers. After all, it's a damn Sportster! And let's be fair, most bikes are sold for their looks rather than practicality when new. Fortunately, there is an array of aftermarket seats available to accommodate any preferences or complaints.
The swift handling of both Sportsters can be attributed to the suspension, and Harley has made changes in this area as well. The rear tire has been widened from 130mm to 150mm, and a 25% stiffer chassis has been designed to complement it. The frame and swingarm have also been strengthened, and the 1200 now sits lower.
During the test, the demo 883 we rode had great shocks that provided a smooth ride, except for encountering car-sized potholes. Surprisingly, the 1200c was a lot stiffer, mainly due to the setting on the rear shocks. On these settings, the 1200
c was extremely firm, offering plenty of stability but causing discomfort on harsh bumps. Unfortunately, we didn't have the tool to adjust the suspension settings on the road, but we believed that with a few adjustments, it would be as good as gold. The stiff setting would be just right with an extra passenger on board. Stock shocks on most Harley models are fairly basic, getting the job done but not much more. If you plan to ride the bike extensively, upgrading the suspension should be on your list of modifications.
Both the 883 and 1200 models feature a new braking system with single disc front and rear.
The lever effort has been reduced compared to previous models, but the feel of the brakes still lacks initial bite. This might not be a bad thing for inexperienced riders, as it prevents grabbing too much brake and getting into trouble. The braking performance is satisfactory and represents an improvement over older models but could still be improved further.
The gearbox on both rides was very good. As expected, they require a bit more effort compared to Japanese sports bikes and provide a distinct "clunk" sound when shifting gears. This characteristic isn't necessarily negative, as many riders prefer the unique feel and sound of a Harley's gearbox. Shifting gears was fine, with no complaints in that regard. It's worth noting that 1st gear on most Harley Davidsons is relatively tall, which can make slow-speed maneuvering a bit tricky. However, these are Harleys, not pizza delivery scooters.
In traditional fashion, both bikes we tested were carbureted and required some warming up before they were ready to go. You couldn't expect to start one up in the morning and immediately hit the road. It took a few minutes and some adjustment with the choke before you could pull away.
The instrument panels on the Sportsters are kept to a minimum, as expected. There are no fancy gadgets to distract you from the road, which is undoubtedly a good thing. We appreciated the quality and user-friendliness of the buttons and switches. The switchgear is simple but has a substantial feel. Additionally, the indicators feature an auto-cancel function, which is a rare find on most other brands.
We didn't have the opportunity to test the lights at night, but during the day, the headlights on the Sportsters appeared somewhat dim compared to other cruisers we observed passing by.
In conclusion, we were thoroughly impressed with both Sportsters and believed they fulfilled their purpose admirably. They looked great, sounded great, and provided a decent sports-like performance. While you may not be challenging Troy Bayliss on a race track with one of these, you'll still surprise some of the weekend café racers out there.
The appeal of the Harley Davidson 883 lies in its simplicity and rawness. It takes motorcycling back to its bare essentials, which surprisingly turns out to be quite fun on a basic machine. To this day, the Sportster remains Harley's best-selling model, primarily due to its entry-level price, but even at the lower end, you still get a genuine Harley.
The Harley Davidson 883 is a fantastic platform for customization, serving as a blank canvas for enthusiasts who love to tinker. It is perhaps Harley's most customized bike in the catalog.
Photo and review by George & David @ RoadCarver.
Special thanks to Blacktown Harley (02 9621 7776), IRPR, and the staff at HD distribution for providing the bike for the test.