The Sportster is a competent motorcycle. Despite my criticisms in my review, I’m a big fan of the Sportster. Even if they’re not all that great stock, they represent potential, and that’s exciting. I love Sportsters because of what they could be, not because of what they are when they roll out of the factory.
They’re like the nerdy girl in those movies; take off the glasses and style her hair, and holy cow! It turns out she was actually hot this whole time! However, if you ask me, the intervening years between those sweet rigid-mounted engine Sportsters and the release of the Iron 883 were not kind, and squander some of that potential.
For starters, the introduction of the rubber-mounted engine and new frame in 2004, in an attempt to make the Sportster smoother and more refined, mostly just made the Sportster heavier. The smallest, lightest, and most nimble of Harley’s offerings was rapidly losing ground in those respects to increasingly capable Japanese and European standards, nakeds, and street fighters, so making it heavier seemed counterproductive, even if there’s an understandable trade-off here.
More changes were on the line, and by the time the Iron 883 was introduced in 2009, with its low-slung bobber aesthetic, it nearly didn’t feel like the same motorcycle. It was starting to feel pretty far removed from the original intention of the Sportster’s design. They sure look great, though.
My time spent on several 883’s over the years (models ranging in production years from 2012 to 2018) has always left me pretty underwhelmed, thanks to the aforementioned changes. Now, this isn’t to be misconstrued as a luddite’s treatise against modernity and progression, or how refining motorcycles “strips them of their soul” or other nonsense.
To the contrary; I will (and do) happily ride a modern bike with fuel-injection, ABS, traction control, high-tech suspension, and other bells and whistles. I appreciate and actually prefer those things if they improve a motorcycle’s ride.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Iron 883, it’s heavier, doesn’t handle as well thanks to shorter rear suspension that leaves a rear that bottoms-out too easily and feels far less planted, and fuel injection combined with EPA guidelines has resulted in a bike that is not only quieter and less raucous, but has less snappy and responsive power than the previously carbureted models.
The whole experience with the Iron 883 stands out because it’s somehow both boring and unrefined.
On the bright side, the Sportster platform remains as customizable as ever. You can do pretty much anything you want with one. This includes returning it to its former glory as a nimble uber-versatile roadster that just begs to be ridden.
It can rip if you want it to, but it takes a larger investment in time and money to get it over that hump than before. I don’t think a newer model Sportster can ever be as great as the older ones.
It’s harder to sort out that added weight from rubber-mounting the engine, and fuel-injection will never be as rad as carbs. It’s easy to make your own, but out of the box, isn’t nearly as ready to rumble as it used to be.
One step forward, two steps back. The Iron 883 still has a lot going for it, but it’s like your brilliant slacker kid. You just have to grab it by the shoulders and shake some sense into it.