I Love When a Plan Comes Together
I recently spent a week with the brand new Harley-Davidson Sportster S. A water-cooled muscle bike is something we haven’t seen from Harley since the V-Rod was discontinued in 2017. Flat-track styling is something we haven’t gotten from Milwaukee since the XR1200 was discontinued in 2012. Putting both in the same package sounded like a winning proposition to me, so I was dying to find out where the Sportster S landed on a scale of styling exercise to must-have machinery. After a week with the new model, I almost found myself thinking more about marketing strategies than the motorcycle itself. I’ll sum it up with three moments in my life.
About ten years ago, I got some sage advice from my boss at the time. Allow me to paraphrase.
“Bubba,” he likely began. “If someone tells you to do something that you know is going to take a week, tell them you can have it done in two. If everything goes right, you’ll look like a genius because you got it done early. If everything goes wrong, you’ll have time to fix it. But you can’t use that trick with me, because now I’ll know what you’re doing.”
It’s not a tactic that can be used every time, but it’s paid off big for me on several occasions. The moral of the story is to under-promise and over-deliver. Doing the opposite will almost guarantee disaster––and I have an example for you.
I Don’t Think That Means What You Think it Means
I spent several days in 2016 eagerly consuming teaser videos put out by Victory Motorcycles. Each day, a new video offered hints about an upcoming model a few seconds at a time. One claimed that even standing next to the bike was frightening. Another described it as “[expletive] nasty.” My heart raced with anticipation. Roland Sands had recently teamed up with Victory to build and race the Project 156 bike at Pikes Peak, and there was chatter about the brand becoming a performance-oriented alternative to sister company Indian Motorcycle’s heritage-based approach. The videos suggested that Victory was about to drop a true American sportbike, and I was all about it.
Then came the reveal. The Octane was, for all intents and purposes, a rebadged Indian Scout minus all the pretty parts. I was genuinely angry and, admittedly, felt a little vindicated when the company went out of business shortly after. You see, the Octane was not a bad motorcycle. It was a logical tangent to the entry-level Scout and should have had similar sales success. But Victory promised something else. Consumer expectations were raised sky-high and immediately bashed against the ground with no remorse. The marketing team had over-promised and the product planners had under-delivered.
A Winning Strategy
That brings us to the third moment in this trilogy: the one when I flicked up the Sportster S’ kickstand for the first time. Harley-Davidson suits have been promising big things in response to the company’s recent sales skid. They promised out-of-the-box thinking and innovative products aimed at a broader customer base. The Pan America exceeded all expectations. The Sportster S faces a different challenge because its goals are more subjective. It’s one thing to achieve off-road capability and technical functionality; it’s another entirely to make something that sells solely on the basis of being cool.
It’s impossible to look at the Sportster S without being struck by its visual presence. As timeless as the old Sportsters looked with their peanut tanks, air-cooled engines, and stubby tails, this one takes it to a whole new level. It’s imposing. It’s mean-looking. It’s loud with the engine turned off. At the same time, it begs––in a way that feels surprisingly disarming––to be ridden. It’s hard to believe this is a production motorcycle and not a wild-eyed concept vehicle. The front tire is sized like a rear tire and the rear tire is sized like a car tire. The instrument cluster is beautifully simple. The swingarm-mounted license plate gives a strong scofflaw vibe. And then there’s the exhaust. It’s perfectly civilized in terms of volume, but those pipe shrouds look like something out of a comic book in the best way possible.
After being warned about how the torque curve had previously resulted in another journalist being chucked down the street, I pulled away from Harley-Davidson’s headquarters and set my sights on westbound county roads. The puffy tires weren’t even scrubbed in yet, but they handled better than I expected, given their width. The Revolution Max 1250T engine, which was retuned for low-end torque compared to the engine in the Pan America, doesn’t feel at all like a lazy cruiser mill. It revs freely to 8,000 RPM and builds steam the whole way. If there isn’t a streetfighter in Harley-Davidson’s future, I’ll be disappointed because this engine deserves to flat-out run.
Only two things kept me in check during my week of backroad blasts with the Sportster S. One was the two inches of rear suspension travel. The adjustable rear shock absorbs bumps admirably, but it can only do so much and I found myself preemptively pulling myself over the bars to avoid being launched off the seat. The other limiting factor was (as always) my friendly local law enforcement. The Sportster S had a way of egging me on. I felt like Bradley Cooper’s character in “War Dogs” when he said “I am not a bad man but, in certain situations, I have to ask myself, ‘What would a bad man do?’”
These are all feelings that can only come from an authentic motorcycle. This is no Octane, trying to convince us it’s not a Scout by hiding behind matte gray bodywork. It’s also not a traditional cruiser that looks wild but can’t back it up with matching performance. The Sportster S is a blacktop brawler that was unleashed on this planet to put smiles on faces and do nothing else.
I suppose that’s the big takeaway from my time with this bike. It doesn’t try to be everything for everyone; it is what it is and it doesn’t make excuses. Anyone who sits in the saddle feels like a superhero. And who doesn’t want that?
Scott is a lover of motorized fun, whether on four wheels or two. A child of the ’90s, he has a particular soft spot for hatchbacks and believes all aging cars deserve a second chance at life. If he’s not behind a camera or a computer, he’s probably chasing down new coffee shops with his wife or throwing a frisbee for his dog.
The views and opinions expressed here are his own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.