Harley Davidson 883 & 1200 Sportster Review 2004 RoadCarver

Harley Davidson 883 & 1200 Sportster Review 2004

Harley says that they’ve “really changed the Harley Davidson 883 inner workings.”

– not just cosmetics.

 Is it just another marketing scheme? In a word, “no.” Before the launch, HD wanted to create a Sportster that you could buy to keep rather than using it as a stepping stone to the bigger Harleys. Our weekend aboard the XL 883 & XL 1200C certainly proved that point. The most significant difference on all 2004+ Sportster models is the new rubber mounted engine that required a complete reworking of the frame. These changes resulted in a stiffer chassis and smoothed out the engine vibes. It also added a significant amount of extra weight - something Sportster fans will not be happy about.

Firstly, I was never a big fan of the Sportster, but they are starting to grow on me. The Harley Davidson 883 is as bare-bones as you can get, not just within the HD brand, but compared to any new motorcycle and some people like that.

Many HD folks looked at the baby Harley as something for the chicks. Even “a good bike to start off – but ditch it as soon as you can afford a real one” The Sportster, at times, has also been called a girl’s bike because of its smaller wheelbase and relative ease of handling – which makes you wonder why only the girls are supposed to get the easy-to-ride, beautiful handling bikes. The Sportster is often referred to as a small bike, but at 260kgs, it’s not a tiny machine. 

Going on all the propaganda about the Sportster not being “all that”, we were not expecting to be overly impressed.

Harley Davidson 2004 1200 custom

Most bikes look better in the flesh, but I’d say that especially goes for Harleys. If all that chrome and shiny gear don’t do it for you, you might as well stay at home.

The good folks down at Blacktown Harley wheeled the Sportster outside and started them up.

This pair hadn’t been hit with the screaming eagle gear just as yet so the sound coming out of the pipes was still a very legal-Harley burble. If you give these bikes the once-over, you can tell straight up that the team has been working overtime to get every last fitting looking great. No rough edges at all and the build quality is excellent.

Aboard the Harley Davidson 883, the first thing we always notice is the seating position. Not quite cruiser-like or sporty (in a modern sense). It does feel pretty strange, to begin with, but after a while, you really do get used to it and makes an excellent set-up for swinging the sporty into the corners. The 1200c, in contrast, has the “easy rider” layout that looks very cool and is great for cruising the highway. The 1200c also has reasonably good ground clearance and sits firmly through the bends, but the seating position makes the tighter stuff a bit more of a challenge than the 883 due to the forward foot control. It’s really up to you to decide what you’ll be doing more of - cruising or scraping through the bends.

Having said that, we were all really impressed with the way both Sportsters held their line in the corners - A real surprise.

A significant update we were hanging for was the engine of the Harley Davidson 883. The last time we tried one (pre-rubber mount), we weren’t too stoked. It seemed to be plagued with vibrations and harsh engine noise – not to mention uninspiring performance.

We are thrilled to say that the 2004 XL883 is a noticeable difference and justifies the hoopla targeted at the Sportster line-up. The rubber mounted engine has really smoothed thing out as well as putting out some great usable power. Inevitably there will always be people looking to extract more power from the beast, but even as is, the 883 is a hoot to ride. Power aside, the 883 was smooth and torquey and a great base model from which to customise.


With the radical changes with the other components of the bike, the previous evolution engine needed a bit of work to get it up to speed. Although the 45-degree v-twin set up and bore and stroke remain unchanged the cylinder heads on the 883 and 1200, have both been redesigned. Lighter and stronger internal components combined with a new oil cooling system have significantly reduced engine heat.

The 1200 has received the most changes with performance cams, high flow heads and an increased redline from 5500rpm to 6000rpm. All this equates to around a 15% increase from the 03 models giving it 70 hp and 79ft. Lbs. of torque. The Harley Davidson 883 has not benefited in the same way but still makes a healthy 53 hp and 51ft. Lbs. Torque a moderate increase from the 03 models.

The way the Sportsters make the power has also had its fair share of treatment too; a new timing system, air cleaner, exhaust and the conversion of parts to quality engineered components have made the Sportster better. The engines are a lot smoother, and the power comes on earlier and lasts a bit longer.

Power on the 1200c was probably never really an issue and certainly not on the 2004. This 1200 Sporty custom pulls like a freight-train with bucket-loads of torque in any gear. Speaking of gears, it feels like it has seven and a half. Several times we reached what we thought was top-cruising gear, only to find we had two more to go. 5th gear doesn’t really get useful till’ around 120. This baby is built for cruising big open roads (that could use a higher limit). We actually needed to hang on when giving the throttle a good twist – you’ll be sure to lose a passenger at this stage (more on that later)

Being a bigger twin, the vibes came through more on the 1200c, but never really annoying apart from the buzzing mirrors. Who wants a HD that doesn’t buzz just a little bit? It wouldn’t be right, and it wouldn’t be from Milwaukee. If you catch the bigger twin in low revs, it will chug a bit, but that is really the odd occasion.


Firmness is something that hits you as soon as you throw a leg over on either of these bikes. The seat feels like a rock when you first plant your backside but magically seems to soften (or numb). We only got sore after riding for a good 6 hours +, which will leave your butt aching from most bikes anyway.

The seats are well contoured for a stable sporty rid and have a ridge at the back to stop you from sliding off on fast take-offs. We found the seat ridge useful, especially on the 1200c because of the power and seating position. To be fair, most buyers are not looking to cross the country on a Sporty anyway.

 The Harley Davidson 883 was a single-seater, and the 1200c may as well have been. If you can fool someone into riding with you, they will be sure not to come a second time. The seat does look cool, but that’s about it. Our test passenger had this to say (we dedicated a whole section to the seat or lack of it:

XL 1200 C – A passengers’ perspective

Travelling the roads on a Harley Davidson is the dream of most motorcycle riders at one point in their riding carrier. The roar of the engine, its brute force and its reputation seem to scream something which only those who want to hear can receive.

For those not fortunate enough to have their own there is the possibility of ‘tagging’ along for the ride. To be a passenger on a Harley Davidson is an honour in itself yet one might consider a few things before taking up the ranks of Pillion on an XL 1200 C.

Firstly the 1200 C is a powerful motorbike if the driver decides to ‘give it some’ you better have an excellent grip or else you might become the next temporary speed bump for the vehicle behind you. Outright HP numbers aside, the 1200 shoves along with buckets of low-down torque.

Second: The passenger seat on this particular model is very short. You better have a small backside if you don’t want to sit on the rear mudguard. The seat also seems to be angled the wrong way and can force the thrust of a quick burst to throw you even further back. Because of the seat length, it seems like the holding strap is almost behind you and does not provide stability needed in acceleration. It does give a little slack, which would be great if it was a little more forward.

Holding the rider is fine and is probably the best and most comfortable bet although something about one man hugging another on a Harley from behind with both arms got a few glances along the way. 

One favourable consideration is the footpegs being a little forward, which helped when slowing and stopping the bike. Instead of sliding forward, like you were on melted butter, you can brace the deceleration gently and not force yourself onto the rider and ritually avoid clunking of helmets.

The shocks could have been a little softer during this test and can be adjusted for personal preference.

In summary, the XL 1200 C is a great individual bike which can facilitate a pillion. Due to the seat length and angle, it becomes tough to ‘cling’ on to the rider. This is positive if the passenger likes an adrenaline rush every time the bike accelerates and is almost thrown from the seat.

The holding strap provided is easy to grip but makes it feel like you are trying to wipe something and only seems to come into effect when you are almost off the seat.

Harley 2004 Sportster 1200 Custom

This bike was made with a passenger in mind, but I would not recommend trips with a lot of stop-and-go.

Recommendations would depend on the bike’s purpose, but if a passenger came into the discussion a longer seat, possibly with a small backrest would be advised.

The Sportster platform wasn’t really designed for 2-up riding. Yes, you can do it, but it’s just not the best bike for that purpose.

At the end of the day, it gives you a damn fine excuse to get rid of pesky would-be-passengers…. it is a damn Sportster! And – In all fairness, most bikes when new are sold to look good, not for practicality. There is also an arsenal of aftermarket seats to accommodate any whining.

The swift handling of the two Sportsters owes a lot to the suspension and Harley have made changes in this area too. The rear tyre has been widened from 130mm to 150mm and a new 25% stiffer chassis has been designed around it. The frame and swingarm have been strengthened as well, and now the 1200 also sits lower.

The demo 883 we rode had great shocks giving us a smooth ride on all but car-sized potholes. Strangely enough, the 1200c was a lot stiffer only because of the setting on the rear shocks. On these setting the 1200c was hard as nails, giving heaps of stability but knocking the wind out of you on harsh bumps. We didn’t have the tool to change the suspension settings out on the road, but we figured it would be as good as gold with a few clicks. The stiff setting would be just right with an extra body on board. Stock shocks on most Harley models are pretty basic - does the job, but that’s about it. If you are looking to buy one and want to ride a lot, the suspension should be on your list of mods.

A new braking system features single disc front and rear for both 883 and 1200.

The lever effort has been reduced from previous models, but I still found that the feel of the brakes was a little dull with no initial bite. This probably is not such a bad thing for inexperienced riders as you won’t get in trouble by grabbing too much brake. Braking was satisfactory and is an improvement from the old models but could be improved quite a bit.

The gearbox on both rides was very good. As you would expect, they need a bit more shoving than a Jap sports bike and give a definite “clunk” as you shift. None of this is bad really as I personally wouldn’t want my Harley any smoother than this because I’d forget what I’m riding. Shifting was fine, no complaints there. 1st gear on most HD’s is quite tall and can make slow-speed manoeuvring tricky business – but then these ARE Harleys, not Pizza delivery scooters.

In true traditional fashion, both of these bikes were carbed, and required a little bit of warming up before you could get them to go anywhere. If you expected to fire one up in the morning and hit the road right away, you’d be disappointed. From memory, it would take a few minutes and some mucking about with the choke before you could pull away.

The instruments on the Sportsters a kept to a real minimum as you would expect – No clever gadgets to keep you from looking at the road, which has got to be a good thing. What we did like was the quality and user-friendliness of the buttons and switches. Simple switchgear with a substantial feel. Plus the indicators had an auto-cancel function, which is a rare find on most other brands.

We didn’t get a chance to test out the lights at night, but during the day the headlights on the Sportsters looked a bit dim compared to other cruisers we saw passing by.

Parting thoughts on the Harley Davidson 883 & 1200

All up, we were thoroughly impressed with the two Sportsters, and we thought they did their job well. They looked great. Sounded great and gave a decent sports-like performance. You might not be beating Troy Bayliss around the track on one, but we did surprise a few of the weekend café racers!

Much of the Harley Davidson 883 appeal lies within its simplicity and rawness. It takes back motorcycling to the bare-essentials - which surprisingly turns out to be quite fun on a basic machine. To this day, the Sportster is Harley’s best selling model. Mainly due to the entry price, but even at the lower end, you still get a real Harley.

The Harley Davidson 883 is a fantastic customising platform, a blank canvas for any enthusiast who loves to tinker. Probably Harley’s most customised bike in the catalogue.


Photos & Review by: George & David @ RoadCarver

Thanks to:

Blacktown Harley (02 9621 7776), IRPR and the staff at HD distribution for supplying this bike.

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