Review: 2015 Harley-Davidson Sporter Forty-Eight

God damn it that's a pretty bike.

Damn that’s a good-looking bike.

I think that Harley-Davidson might have their marketing for this bike all wrong. Sure, it’s stylish, highly fashionable amongst the young beards-and-beer set and definitely better suited to the sort of weather that you get in sunny California. But with the exception of a brief dalliance with sportiness in the 2008-2012 XR1200, Harley has been synonymous with cruisers, and indeed cruising. The idea is that you don your three-quarter open-face helmet and wrap-around sunglasses, pull on your pre-faded jeans and artificially-aged leather jacket and go for a relaxed ride down to the local diner, or for a longer trip along an open, endless highway. It’s a beguiling fantasy, and one supported by many of their bikes. But I’m afraid the Forty-Eight just doesn’t fit.

Harley-Davidson UK are apparently desperate. I can’t really interpret their promotions any other way; all summer emails dropped into my inbox offering extra money on trade-ins, followed by the promise of a free tank fuel simply for taking one of their bikes out for a test ride. Finally the latest offer arrived in the form of a competition – “The King Of Test Rides” – whereby signing up and taking a bike out would drop your name in a hat to win a brand-new bike, customised to your specifications by the iron-smiths in Milwaukee itself, with an all-expenses-paid trip to the home factory to oversee the whole thing. And well, I’ve been busy all summer, but with an offer like like that I thought I really should go have another go.

You see, I’ve ridden Harleys before. And despite the ludicrously high asking price, the spine-breaking suspension, and, in the UK at least, the questionable image that comes with admitting you ride something that hasn’t changed much since the 1950’s…I really rather like them. I’ve got a soft spot for the fantasy the brand represents, the dream they sell – the open road, freedom etc. It’s all nonsense of course – there are no open roads in the UK, and you’ll just get drenched if you ride around this rainy island wearing west-coast fashion. And I don’t know what the condition of the roads is like in Milwaukee, but here in the UK we need our motorcycles to be able to cushion the blow of a thousand potholes.

Suspension is significantly (and noticeably) improved across the entire Sportster range for 2015.

Suspension is significantly (and noticeably) improved across the entire Sportster range for 2015.

I rode the Iron 883 years ago on an official test ride event, and my overriding impression was of a seriously cool piece of machinery that broke my spine if the back wheel so much as crossed a white line. An obsession with low seat heights had left many of their models with no suspension travel to speak of, but the engine rumbled and the whole bike shook like a washing-machine full of bowling balls, and it looked spectacular. We cruised around at a sedate pace, and despite everything I’ve wanted one ever since. But I also knew I’d never buy one. Too many compromises for the sort of riding I actually do.

The Forty-Eight is the latest, and most up-to-date Sportser the firm makes. It’s also, weirdly, lighter than some of their 883 models, at a svelte 260kg. That sounds like a lot when you think that these air-cooled 1200cc 45-degree V-Twin engines have been dyno’d at around 60bhp. That’s the same weight as a 130bhp Triumph Explorer 1200, but a few ponies less than a 150kg KTM Duke 690. And yet, sitting on the thing and flicking the bike left and right with your knees at a standstill, it doesn’t feel like it. Engineering solutions come in all shapes and sizes. Where everyone else switched to plastic and aluminium, evolved designs to shed as much weight as possible, Harley instead figured out how to simply hide the tremendous weight of all that steel. It’s very impressive.

Photographs don't do the paintwork justice. It's remarkable.

Photographs don’t do the paintwork justice. It’s awesome.

The build quality is impressive too. I’d be curious to see how well one of these would hold up after a combination of ACF-50, winter salt and 20,000 miles of hard day-to-day riding, but initial impressions are good. The “Motor Company” is very proud of their attention to detail, and it shows. Where possible, wires and hoses are routed inside handlebars and frame rails, welds are hidden or absent altogether, the tanks using a clever vacuum-forming process that removes the need for the ugly steel crimping that everyone else uses on similar bikes. And the paint is just astonishing. We’ve learnt to expect the orange-peel effect of mass-produced paintwork, even on expensive BMW motorcycles. But this Forty-Eight could easily have been hand-painted by a custom paint shop – it looks like you’d need a chisel to chip or scratch it, unlike my Street Triple

Speedo, odo and a few idiot-lights - that's all you're getting without dipping into the accessories catalogue.

Speedo, odo and a few idiot-lights – that’s all you’re getting without dipping into the accessories catalogue.

Mechanically, it’s not so impressive. Let’s be honest here – a long-stroke, unbalanced 45-degree 1200cc twin is never going to be a refined or terribly efficient engine. Separate gearbox and crank-cases is something even Royal Enfield have abandoned. The engine rumbles to life at the touch of the starter, but noise regulations have strangled the exhaust to the point where it barely wheezes, regardless of revs. I can’t comment on fuel economy, due to the instrument cluster lacking anything beyond an odometer and speedometer, and I didn’t ride it far enough to run out of fuel, despite the tiny 7.9 litre tank. I’ll say that again – less than 8 litres of fuel. Don’t go riding this thing in France on a Sunday, that’s all I’m saying.

The whole bike shakes, rumbles and vibrates when that 1200cc monster springs to life.

The whole bike shakes, rumbles and vibrates when that 1200cc engine springs to life.

Riding the bike is…interesting. Pulling away from a stop is nerve-wracking if you’ve never ridden a cruiser with proper forward-controls before, but it becomes second-nature soon enough, and it’s something I could really get behind for long-distance riding. The seat could work too – styling dictates that almost all other motorcycles have narrow, thin seats that cause discomfort after a very short period of time. In this case, the faux-retro styling means that wide, supportive seats fit aesthetically as well as anatomically, and it’s easy to see why Harley’s touring models are so popular in the US. But while Sportsters come in all shapes and sizes (using easily replaceable and interchangeable parts, no less), Harley have chosen to combine forward controls with flat drag-bars, just like you’d get on a naked sportsbike.

Forward controls make sense. Flat bars make sense. Combining the two does not.

Forward controls make sense. Flat bars make sense. Combining the two on one bike does not.

This combination, along with the surprisingly long reach from the seat to the bars means that the rider is stretched out like someone trying to touch their toes. It’s bizarre, and makes this the most uncomfortable motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. After just five minutes I considered turning around and going back to ask for something else. Swap the handlebars for something pulled back about 12″, and you could cruise with comfort, but set up like this there was no way that the bike could possibly live up to it’s mission statement. Trundling slowly and trying to enjoy the scenery was impossible, and looking cool hunched over like that was equally improbable.

Stock seat is a sensible shape and surprisingly comfy, although footpeg and handlebar geometry ruin things.

Stock seat is a sensible shape and surprisingly comfy, although footpeg and handlebar geometry ruin things.

And so, I was a bit stuck. I couldn’t ride it like a cruiser – it was just too uncomfortable. And as much as I enjoy it from an aesthetic perspective it’s hard to recommend a £10,000 piece of art to someone making less than £500,000 a year. The brakes…work, in so far as they slowed the bike down, and now that they’ve finally got ABS you can stamp on the big foot pedal with impunity. And once I’d gotten the hang of the rather agricultural 5-speed gearbox and learned to use big handfuls of throttle I could get up to speed quickly enough, despite the stone-age engine design. Well, you work with what you’ve got, and so I decided to forget about the marketing, and ride it the same way I ride all of my bikes.

I rode it like a sportsbike. And you know what? It worked.

Reduced-chrome versions of the standard pipes look good, but with the 2020 EU noise regs looming they sounds like an angry sewing machine.

Reduced-chrome standard pipes look good, but with the latest noise regs looming they sound like a sewing machine.

Now I’m sure the Harley-Davidson faithful would be horrified at the suggestion that I review one of their “small”, “entry-level” (Harley’s words, not mine) cruisers in the same manner I would a Triumph Street Triple R, but hear me out. Because what sportsbike riders crave, ultimately, isn’t speed or noise, it’s excitement. And believe me, when you’re hurtling down a twisty country road, flitting between lines of trees at 60mph you feel like you’re doing twice that. You feel like the whole bike is going to shake itself apart as the engine tries to throw the bike through the countryside. The suspension takes the edge off the bumps but still bounces and skips along the surface, and knowing you’ve only got a wooden-feeling single disk on either wheel makes you take care about your lines when approaching corners; you’re going to make really, really sure you won’t have to stop in a hurry.

2015 model finally gets cast wheels as standard, losing weight. Weak brakes remain.

2015 model finally gets cast wheels as standard, losing weight. Weak brakes remain.

When ridden hard, the Forty-Eight really does require you to know what you’re doing. It won’t flatter you, instead punishing you for clumsy lines by making every corner feel much sharper than it really is. Ground clearance is better with the forward-controls than it is on models with mid-controls, but this is a Harley where I’d fit rear-sets. Modern motorcycles excuse poor riding by giving you one-finger brakes that can scrub off any speed, with clever ABS that will save you on any surface, in some cases even while leant over on gravel in the rain. Try that on a Harley and you’ll experience a messy and expensive accident. And if you’re one of these people who never bothered to learn how to go around corners properly, instead gunning it in the straights and using horsepower to make up for talent, again – the Harley will punish you. 260kg takes a while to get up to speed. You’ll be left in the dust by skilled riders on 125’s.

Deceptively quick if you work it hard and keep it spun up, and the more chrome they remove the better it looks.

But if you keep the speed up, using the correct lines through corners, using engine braking instead of the wooden two-pot sliding front or rear brakes then I challenge anyone to not have as much fun hanging on to a Forty-Eight as you would on a modern sportsbike. I might go so far as to say you’d have less fun on something smoother, more powerful, more composed – it’s difficult to feel excitement at legal speeds on something with top-of-the-range suspension and brakes; they make everything too easy, too safe, and therefore less thrilling. Approaching a sharp bend on a Harley Davidson at 50mph is very, very exciting – trust me. And at the end of the day, isn’t that the point of sportsbikes, or motorcycles in general? To be exciting?

When I handed the keys back to the gentleman from Harley-Davidson he asked me jovially if I’d be buying one then, and I had to be honest with him – I would not. There was too much about this specific bike that I’d be compelled to change in order for it to fit into my lifestyle. I’d want better brakes, a (slightly) louder exhaust, more power, better suspension, more ground clearance, a much larger fuel tank and certainly a different ergonomic setup. And while Harley encourage their customers to customise their bikes to fit them and their tastes, I reckon I could find a better starting point than this particular model.

Do they look cool as hell? Yes. Can you see what's behind you while riding? No.

Do they look cool as hell? Yes. Can you see anything behind you? No.

But there’s real potential here, there really is. Harley may be famous for selling every imaginable chrome bauble to their tirelessly-customising customers, but imagine my surprise when I discovered that a large chunk of their accessories catalogue is given over to serious performance modifications, dyno charts and all! With a new exhaust system, cams and a few other mods you could double the horsepower without voiding the warranty. And given that I already tend to modify, tweak, adjust or upgrade just about everything on any bike I buy, often fighting the manufacturer every step of the way, it might be refreshing to own a bike where the dealer isn’t going to give me a funny look every time I ask about changing the original design.

And there’s more. Hydraulic valves mean clearance-checks are a thing of the past on Harleys, bringing servicing costs down. Oil changes are every 5k, just as they have been for several decades, but there’s no coolant to replace and no electronics to go wrong. No chain to oil either – maintenance-free belt drive is standard across their entire product lineup, and although the motorcycles cost a lot of money if you’re comparing features and performance to European or Japanese manufacturers, the build quality and stories of 100,000-mile engines with nothing but routine maintenance suggests that they could go the distance. And if/when you eventually sell it, residuals are the best in the industry so you’d get more of your money back than from almost any other bike.

I'll take mine with rear-sets, a 20-litre tank and a stage-3 tune, please.

I’ll take mine with rear-sets, Brembo brakes, a 20-litre tank, hard luggage and a stage-3 tune, please.

Of course, you’d still be riding a Harley, with all the stigma that brings in the UK. Motorcyclists can be a judgemental lot, and here we have something of an inversion of the situation in the US, where anything other than Milwaukee metal is seen as garbage. Harley riders seem to be treated with slightly less contempt than scooter riders in the UK, which is a real shame. Harley’s faux-hipster marketing may be hurting more than helping here, but then record sales of Ducati’s Scrambler suggest there may be new audiences that love it.

In any case, my position stands: I think the cruiser marketing is all wrong. In a world where the latest fire-breathing sportsbikes are so loaded with traction control and self-adjusting suspension that they might as well be on fixed rails, Harley-Davidson have the opportunity to sell a really raw, intense, brutal and extremely exciting motorcycle. They could offer a sportsbike that offers the kind of experience that grumbling men in pubs regularly bemoan the more modern manufacturers have engineered right out of their two-wheeled products.

So go ride a Harley. Just don’t ride it the way you’re “supposed” to, and you may be surprised. I guarantee you’ll be entertained.

I wonder how I'd fit in at Sturgis wearing full leathers and a race helmet...

I wonder how I’d fit in at Sturgis wearing full leathers and a race helmet…