Harley-Davidson Roadster 2016 Review: Modern Rock

Harley-Davidson’s sportiest Sportster, the Roadster, is the sort of modern motorcycle anyone can get behind

Text: Deyna Chia
Photos: Derryn Wong

Singapore –
In 2008, Harley introduced a truly sporty Sportster, the XR1200R. Inspired by the iconic flat tracker XR750. This model featured a high-compression, sporty 1,202cc Evo engine that kicked out nearly double the engine output of the regular run-of-the-mill sportster, a whopping (pun also intended) 90hp. 

But alas, customers and heritage are a weird lot – the XR didn’t sell well and was discontinued in 2012. If there was one un-selling point, it was that the XR didn’t look like a traditional Harley. Most keen riders loved it, but it was perhaps a bike out of its time.

Arguably, that time is now. Bear in mind that in 2008, the cafe racer/retro craze was nowhere near as strong as it is now: Plaid shirts were worn by real lumberjacks, and full beards were not to be seen anywhere outside of a proper, old-school motorcycle club. 

You can see what sort of backdrop the new sporty Sportster, the Roadster, lands in, and why it might fare much better than its indirect predecessor.

“We’ve watched our customers take the Sportster in so many different directions. The Roadster is a mash-up of styling genres, but the intent was to build a rider’s motorcycle, a Sportster that’s lean and powerful and connects the rider to the road. We wanted to give the Roadster some DNA from the high-performance KHR (Competition KH – Flat Track, various years) models of the mid-50s, and later Sportsters tuned for the drag strip,” says Harley-Davidson Director of Styling, Brad Richards. “Those bikes had fenders cut to the struts, the small fuel tank, and were stripped to their bare essentials to achieve a singular performance purpose.”

The Roadster features 19-inch front and 18-inch rear wheels (both offset-split five-spoke cast aluminum) resulting in an arse-up stance that’s rare on a Harley. A Sportster 883 has 19-inch front and 16-inch back, for instance, while the Dyna Street Bob has a 19-inch front and 17-inch rear.

Front end duties are managed by a 43mm single-cartridge inverted fork,  (yes, upside-down forks on a Harley!) and the rear by twin gas-charged emulsion shocks adjustable for pre-load. Not a huge deal in this day and age, but trust us, something notable on a Harley.

While big travel suspension is all the rage with adventure bikes, the Roadster has generous travel for a Hog – 114mm and 81mm  fore and aft. Compare this to the Iron 883 and 48 which have 91mm front travel, and just 54mm and 41mm rear travel respectively.

Read More:
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A taller bike means better ground clearance, so the maximum lean angle is 30.8 degrees (R) and 31.1 degrees (L), compared with 29 (R) and 30 (L) degrees for the Iron 883, and much better than the relaxed 48, which has just 27 degrees of lean angle.

If the suspension is definitely on the sporty side for a Harley, the design and ergos are certainly in that vein too, with mixed results. The Roadster has slammed-down (Harley-speak for lowered) bars, mid-mount controls and a new two-up seat, which looks more like a single seater with integrated speed hump. This results in a peculiar riding position, particularly with foot-peg position (not forward or rearward enough, just in the middle of nowhere). The low bar does however aid steering and places the rider’s torso slightly canted forwards, suiting the “spirited” riding the Roadster is designed for.

Handling is definitely the Roadster’s strong suit (yes, your read right), perhaps even better than the the XR1200. We took the Roadster across patched, broken, bumpy and sandy roads – there’s bit quite a bit of road refurbishment and cable works in recent months – roundabouts, switchbacks and sweeping radius corners, and our chief concern was allayed: the Roadster’s footpegs refused to ground out. It’s a huge contrast to the 48, whose chassis felt agile but would scrape its pegs if you so much as sneezed at an apex aggressively.

Unlike typical cruisers, the bike leans easily without flopping, its non-adjustable suspension pliant and controlled. The inverted fork composed on all but the most “broken” of roads. Likewise the shocks keeping the rear in check even when pushed. Pleasantly surprising, to say the least. When it comes to slowing down, the twin 300mm disc setup can stop on a dime but does require a firm pull on the unadjustable American sized lever.

The Roadster is powered by the 1,202cc Evo engine also featured on the Forty-eight (and with roots from Sportsters since 1984), its 96Nm peak torque propelling the 250kg bike forward purposefully. Sitting at the lights, the usual off-beat vibes are obvious – deliberate and intrusive – and an essential part of ‘Harley-ness’. What’s different with this engine is how buttery smooth it feels when the bike is in motion.

Just like the XR1200, the 1,202cc Evo on the Roadster has a raised compression ratio of 10:1. Power delivery is linear and instant, even with part throttle. This results in seamless and almost Honda-like progressive acceleration that feels like a brisk walk, but gets the Roadster ahead of traffic surprisingly quickly.

We found the engine vibey only between 3000-3250rpm and revving past that would “silence” the engine as it accelerated towards peak torque at 3750rpm. In fact, this engine likes to be revved, accelerating harder from 3,750rpm towards an indicated 6,000rpm redline. On closed road runs, we managed to hold 135km/h at 4,000rpm, and the engine felt oddly smooth. Back on public highways, 90km/h is achieved at 2,500rpm in fifth gear, which feels like an over-drive gear. Perhaps why twisting the throttle in anger only results in a delayed, “brisk walk” forward. Not quite the arm-wrenching torque we remember.

Another first for a Sportster is combination analogue tachometer and digital single gauge, displaying gear position, speed, trip 1 and 2, rpm and odometer though it unfortunately leaves out time and fuel level. Accessing information is now possible by toggling (another first) the top left Menu switch on the left hand control. Like other Harleys, including the 48, the Roadster is now keyless, with the alarm auto-arming a few seconds after toggling the engine kill switch. The steering lock still requires a key.

Harley build quality has been improving with each successive generation, and the Roadster exudes this. Attention to detail is evident in the quality of plastics, shorter more positive throw of switches, Milwaukee embossed into the handlebar clamp, drive belt cover, stitching on the seat, matt black heat-shield, granite-textured air-cleaner cover.

The fact that the Roadster rides like a regular bike speaks volumes about the ethos and intent of Harley to woo a new generation of customers. We are told that it’s positioned as a cruiser racer/ cafe racer, we’d be inclined to agree that the Roadster has some semblance to either but not entirely.

We prefer to think the Roadster is still quintessential Harley, timeless in design and unpretentious. Something we’d commute, ride to dinner, the pub, city hop (to KL or Kuantan) or spend hours detailing. Whereas the spiritual predecessor to this model, the XR, was a bike out of time, the Roadster is good enough that it’d fit well in any era, including this one.

Harley-Davidson Roadster
Engine 1,202cc, 4V, V-twin
Bore X Stroke 88.9 x 96.8mm
Gearbox type 5-speed manual
Max power 70bhp(estimated)
Max torque 98Nm at 3750rpm
0 to 100km/h Not quoted
Top speed Not quoted
Weight 248kg wet
Seat Height 784mm
Price $31,900 OTR*
Availability Now

*On the road: Includes COE, Road tax and insurance.

Text: Deyna Chia
Photos: Derryn Wong

about the author

Derryn Wong
Has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. Is particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats.