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  • Scott Murdock

There’s a Fork in Harley-Davidson’s Road

The last time I pulled up to Harley-Davidson’s Milwaukee headquarters, there was a chilly breeze in the air and yellow leaves on the trees. I was wrapping up a string of bike reviews just in time for fall and a timely shift to vehicles of the four-wheeled variety. The rapid-fire string of loaners from Harley-Davidson had given me a lot to think about. Aside from scouring Facebook Marketplace to see if there are any deals on a Street Glide with a built 124-cubic-inch motor (yes, if you’re wondering), I was compelled to ponder the future of the brand and what it means for motorcyclists – especially newcomers.

According to Statista, Harley-Davidson remains the leading motorcycle manufacturer in terms of new units sold in the U.S., although the lead was historically much larger. For decades, new riders were welcomed to the brand with the Sportster, a friendly little bike with a tough aesthetic that gave it far more road presence than its performance would suggest. Pair that with endless aftermarket support and room for customization, and new riders had a lot to be happy about. There were alternatives along the way, like the incredibly cool Aermachhi bikes and the underwhelming Street 750 and 500, but the Sportster was always the primary access point for riders who still had wet ink on their motorcycle license.

For nearly my entire life, the Sportster welcomed new riders with a choice between an 883-cubic-centimeter or a 1,200-cubic-centimeter air-cooled V-twin. Before too long, that will no longer be the case. What fills that void might surprise you.

Welcome to the Future

If you subtract the Iron 883 and Forty-Eight from Harley-Davidson’s lineup, the least expensive model becomes the Nightster at $13,499. It looks a lot like the outgoing Sportster variations at a glance. Non-riders probably couldn’t differentiate between new and old. In reality, though, the new kid on the block provides a riding experience that’s worlds apart from that of its predecessors.

Instead of an Evolution engine that’s older than I am, the Nightster gets a brand-spanking-new Revolution Max 950T. This new motor is water-cooled, boasts three ride modes, and revs past 9,000 RPM. It’s a stressed member with a swing arm and trellis frame bolted directly to it. The Faux tank houses the bike’s airbox and computer rather than gas, which is stored under the seat. By the spec sheet, it looks more like a Buell or Ducati than a Harley-Davidson.

While the overall aesthetic looks like a traditional cruiser, the bike hardly rides like one. During a hot-blooded pursuit of my wife and her Volkswagen R32 through rural country roads, it was not lost on me that a Sportster of old would never be able to achieve such a pace. Dual rear shocks, a low-slung seat, conventional fork, and single front brake make the Nightster look a lot more sedate than it is. In rain mode, the throttle is severely muted. Even the greenest of riders would be in good hands during a downpour. Road mode provides a friendly home base with mild engine braking, predictable throttle response, and enough power for highway overtaking. When the opportunity arises, Sport mode sharpens throttle response and engine braking to make the Nightster feel more like a cafe racer than a cruiser.

The result is a bike that can be ridden home from the DMV motorcycle test with confidence and keep up with the pack as skill and confidence increase. The Nightster also has the potential to stick around and entertain owners longer than a Sportster could, thanks to the heightened performance ceiling. When riders are ready to move on, they’ll have the opportunity to upgrade to the 1,250-cubic-centimeter version of the engine they already know with the Sportster S or Pan America. Both are thrilling bikes, but neither is a traditional Harley-Davidson. Given how good these new models are, will they make big twins a thing of the past?

If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

My time with the Nightster was bookended by bikes that better fit the image of a Harley-Davidson. One of these was the Street Bob 114, a no-nonsense cruiser that’s as classic as small-block Chevies and drive-in diners. Its 114-cubic-inch V-twin translates to just a hair more than 1.8 liters – that’s automotive territory. Blacked-out components make the polished fins pop in a bold reminder that this mill is cooled by the air, just as William Harley, Arthur Davidson, and George Washington intended. Aside from the chrome pushrod tubes, headlight bezel, and front forks, the only parts that show any color are the fenders and tank. In this case, that paint was Harley-Davidson’s glorious Fastback Blue.

The riding experience is motorcycling at its purest. This is no touring bike, sportbike, or adventure bike. It only exists to be fun, and it does a fantastic job. Flying between rows of corn on a country road, fists at eye level on the ape-hanger handlebar, I felt a little bit like the easy rider himself. It’s really not that comfortable or practical, but neither is my Monster and it’s managed to hang around my garage for a decade.

What’s really interesting about this bike is the price: $15,349. The Softail Standard is about $1,000 cheaper, but it has the older 107-cubic-inch engine, one paint option, and a bunch of chrome. If I had to guess, I’d say its days are numbered. That makes the Street Bob 114 the least expensive non-Sportster bike in Harley-Davidson’s cruiser lineup. That price also puts it within $2,000 of the Nightster.

The Street Bob 114 is going to become the entry point for new customers – some of them, anyway. Those who aren’t interested in the new hotness of the Nightster will be charmed by the Street Bob 114’s thumping Milwaukee-Eight engine. They’ll fall in love with the aesthetic that’s somehow modern and straight out of the ’70s at the same time. From there, they can upgrade to a Fat Bob 114 or a Low Rider S. Both offer more performance and comfort, and both offer the same tractor-like torque and timeless sights, sounds, and smells of an air-cooled engine.

Decisions, Decisions

One day, the two riders will meet. They’ll look over each other’s bikes, nod approvingly, and exchange a few compliments. Then they’ll climb back on their respective bikes with an appreciation for their favorite motorcycle manufacturer’s alter ego. Yes, there’s a fork in the road for Harley-Davidson, but there’s great riding to be had in either direction.

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.

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