The Harley-Davidson Sportster ’s roots go all the way back to the 1952 flathead-powered K-Model. Harley went to an over-head cam engine in ’57 and slapped the XL designator on the family.
Conventional wisdom holds that the letters come from “eXperimental modeL” because that’s exactly what it was at the time, a market study to see how well a smaller, sportier product would perform in a market dominated by larger and heavier cruiser -style bikes. I suppose you could call the “eXperiment” a success given that we are still seeing XL models here in 2016.
One problem you run into with such a long-lived family is that you can run out of new things to do to keep it fresh, and the 2017 Sportster 1200 Custom demonstrates that Harley isn’t quite out of ideas yet, even if it borrows ideas from its own customer base.
The 1200 Custom sports the usual narrow “L” frame and skinny “X” front end (these designators came to reflect these components after the original XL was named) one normally associates with the Sportster look. In spite of that, the overall look of the Custom is very different from the norm.
A fat, 16-inch front wheel and thicker-than-usual chrome tripletree lend a certain beefiness to the front end that you usually don’t see in a Sporty. That custom look continues as we move up to the chrome riser/wire cover with short-rise handlebars and teardrop-shaped fuel tank. I think it’s the shape of the fuel tank that changes the look the most. Dropping the classic peanut tank in favor of the teardrop lends the bike a big-twin look not unlike the Super Glide, which was also a factory-custom bike built on changes customers have made to their own bikes.
The rest of the package contains lots of chrome and polished aluminum cooling fins over black powder-coated jugs. Harley offers the usual Vivid Black base model with Charcoal Pearl or Superior Blue as the solid color options and Mysterious Red Sunglo/Velocity Red Sunglo, Deep Jade Pearl/Vivid Black and my fave, Amber Whiskey/Vivid Black as the two-tone options for 2016. New for 2017, they included Corona Yellow Pearl and Superior Blue/Billet Silver as color choices.
Buyers also get a choice of wheels with cast-and-chromed Five-Spoke rims, Contrast Cut Five Spokes, bright steel laced or blackout steel laced wheels that offer further customization right off the floor, and really set the tone for the rest of the look.
For folks that need to put their rides into winter storage, you’ll be glad to hear that Harley added the battery tender harness as standard equipment for 2017.
As one of the XL models, the 1200 Custom rolls on Harley’s skinniest frames and front ends. The double-downtube double-cradle frame is made from mild tubular steel, and it supports and protects the bottom of the engine/transmission unit. It’s not a fancy frame, just simple and pragmatic like the Sportster line itself.
Part of the custom look is owed to the steering head angle that kicks the forks all the way out to 30 degrees for a 59.8-inch wheelbase and 4.2 inches of trail. The front forks are plain vanilla, but 2016 saw the addition of cartridge-style forks for better ride quality. One can hope this is a prelude to adjustable front forks, but no such luck yet.
External, coil-over emulsion shocks — also new from 2016 — float the rear with variable preload as the only adjustment. I can’t say I’m surprised or even disappointed with the suspension, it is typical for the less-expensive bike brackets, but there are so many options available out there that would add a lot in the way of comfort control. Just sayin’, Harley.
Brake disc diameter got a boost up to 300 mm from 292 mm, and the dual-pot calipers run 34 mm pistons to effectively convert lever/pedal pressure to braking power with the help of the zero-expansion, braided stainless brake lines.
Unladen seat height of the new-from-2016 optimized seat design is up around 28-inches tall, so even the shortest riders should be able to comfortably reach the ground from the saddle, and if not, there are always lower shocks to be had.
The Evolution Sportster engine has been around for a minute, since 1986 in fact, and while one might be tempted to call it out-of-date, I prefer to think of it as matured to the point where the factory has it just right. As with the Ironhead (Shovel) Sportsters and even earlier iterations back to 1957, the “Evo” carries the transmission in a common case with the engine, so you end up with an all-in-one drive unit.
The 45-degree mill runs a long-stroke configuration with an 88.9 mm bore and 96.7 mm stroke for a total displacement of 1,202 cc. Self-adjusting hydraulic lifters and external pushrods time the two-valve heads, and the 10-to-1 compression ratio should keep you on the middle hook and off the supreme-grade champagne.
Electronic fuel injection and ignition control manage the induction and the timing, and help keep emissions down and mileage up around the 48 mpg mark. A five-speed transmission (No, it can’t be GP shifted!) keeps the engine in the usable rpm range and a belt drive sends power to the rear wheel.
As usual the Vivid Black unit bears the lowest price with a $10,899 MSRP for 2016 and only $100 for 2017. The solid-color upgrade bumps that up to $11,349, and the two-tone bikes fetch $11,549 for 2017. As far as options go, Harley thoughtfully offers the $395 security feature and $795 ABS along with a $100 California emissions package and $360 freight fee if you need to have the unit shipped ’cause you couldn’t find exactly what you want on a showroom somewhere.
Sportster-like rides are popping up here and there as “standard ” or “classic” offerings from various companies, but none have quite the extensive pedigree enjoyed by The Motor Company save one; Indian Motorcycles . Looking at the current Indian lineup, I noticed they had no direct equivalent to the Sporty, but instead offer a smaller-engine model with a look all its own. Let’s see how Indian’s “anti-Sporty” Scout stacks up against the tried-and-true H-D.
Harley calls this 1200 a “Custom,” and that’s exactly what it looks like, a customized standard cruiser. In other words, not exactly the same figure a typical Sportster cuts with its traditional peanut tank. The Scout carries a curious blend of progression and nostalgia that doesn’t exactly scream custom, but does manage to exude an Indianishness that is difficult to ignore. The Sporty runs altogether traditional suspension components, but the Scout lays the rear shocks over at about 60 degrees to sort of mimic the lines of a rigid frame. Sort of like the Softail , but not.
Indian shows a progressive bent when it comes to the mill. The 1,130 cc plant comes with liquid cooling rather than the old fashioned air cooling Harley still uses for all its engines. Fuel injection and electronic engine management is consistent across the board, but neither offers anything in the way of rider modes, traction control or any of that sort of thing. I’m not saying that is good or bad, just that it is.
Power numbers from the two are fairly close, and show the typical gruntiness inherent in V-twin designs. Indian gets a minor victory with 72.2 pound-feet of torque at 5,900 rpm, a bit more than the 1200 Custom with its 70.8 pounds of grunt, but the Harley comes on earlier with max torque being produced at 3,500 rpm.
As usual, Harley offers a range of prices that are dependent upon your choice of color. Basic Vivid Black will set you back $10,999 while the top-of-the-line, two-tone paint will cost you $11,549. Indian does it a little different. It offers the base Scout in one set of colors for $11,299, and the ABS version in a different set of colors for $12,899. Not enough difference to make a difference, and as much as I love my Sportys, the Scout would make a good alternative for someone who wants an American bar hopper but doesn’t really dig the Harley scene.
My husband and fellow motorcycle writer, TJ Hinton, says, “I would tend to agree with Allyn, the 1200 Custom is cool and all, but so is the Scout. Having said that, I love how the factory was able to lose the Sporty look with just a few simple changes. I realize this isn’t the first time they have done so, but it’s still fun when they do it. Now if they would just make a proper Softail Sportster frame…”
“I really like these Sportsters. I find the 1200 Custom has more power than say a Boulevard C90T . I know people complain about the vibration, but it isn’t as bad as it was when they were rigid-mount engines. Of course, people have it in their heads that Sportsters vibrate so that’s all they’ll think forever.”
|Valves:||Pushrod-operated, overhead valves with hydraulic, self-adjusting lifters; two valves per cylinder|
|Bore x Stroke:||3.5 in. x 3.811 in. (88.9 mm x 96.8 mm)|
|Displacement:||73.4 cu. in. (1202 cc)|
|Fuel System:||Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)|
|Air Cleaner:||Paper cartridge type|
|Primary Drive:||Chain, 38/57 ratio|
|Final Drive:||Belt, 29/68 ratio|
|Gear Ratios (overall) U.S. :|
|Frame:||Mild steel, tubular frame; circular sections; cast junctions|
|Swingarm:||Mild steel, rectangular tube section, stamped junctions; MIG welded|
|Front Forks:||39 mm|
|Rear Shocks:||Dual coil-over; threaded preload adjustment, emulsion|
|Wheels (Steel Laced option) (CAN):||Chrome 5-Spoke Cast Aluminum|
|Front:||16 in. x 3 in. (406 mm x 76 mm)|
|Rear:||16 in. x 3 in. (406 mm x 76 mm)|
|Caliper Type:||Dual-piston front, dual-piston rear|
|Rotor Type (diameter x width):||Solid, uniform expansion rotors|
|Front:||11.8 in. x .2 in. (300 mm x 5 mm)|
|Rear:||10.24 in. x .28 in. (260 mm x 7 mm)|
|Anti-lock Braking System:||Optional|
|Front Wheel:||4.12 in. (105 mm)|
|Rear Wheel:||2.13 in. (54 mm)|
|Engine Torque (per J1349) North America:||70.8 ft. lbs. @ 3500 RPM (96 Nm @ 3500 RPM)|
|Lean Angle (per J1168):|
|Fuel Economy (EPA urban/highway test):||48 mpg (4.9 L/100 km)|
|Length:||87.6 in. (2225 mm)|
|Overall Width:||33.1 in. (840 mm)|
|Overall Height:||45.3 in. (1150 mm)|
|Laden:||26.6 in. (676 mm)|
|Unladen:||28 in. (710 mm)|
|Ground Clearance:||4.3 in. (110 mm)|
|Rake (steering head):||30°|
|Trail:||4.2 in. (107 mm)|
|Wheelbase:||60.2 in. (1530 mm)|
|Tires (Michelin®Scorcher® “31” front and rear):|
|Front – Scorcher® “31”:||130/90B16 73H|
|Rear – Scorcher® “31”:||150/80B16 77H|
|Fuel Capacity (warning light at approximately 1.0 gal.):||4.5 gal. (17 L)|
|Oil Capacity (w/filter):||2.8 qts. (2.6 L)|
|Transmission Capacity:||1 qt. (.95 L)|
|As Shipped:||559 lbs. (254 kg)|
|In Running Order:||587 lbs. (266 kg)|
|Gross Vehicle Weight Rating:||1000 lbs. (454 kg)|
|Gross Axle Weight Rating:|
|Front:||335 lbs. (152 kg)|
|Rear:||665 lbs. (302 kg)|
|Battery (per Battery Council International Rating):||Sealed, maintenance-free, 12V, 12 amp/hour, 200 cca|
|Charging:||Single-phase, 30-amp system (357W @ 13.5V, 2000 RPM, 405W max power @ 13.5V)|
|Starting:||1.2 kW electric with solenoid shift starter motor engagement|
|Lights (as per country regulation):|
|Headlamp (Quartz Halogen):||55-watt low beam, 60-watt high beam|
|Tail/Stop Lights:||8W/28W per lamp|
|Indicator Lamps:||High beam, neutral, low oil pressure, turn signals, engine diagnostics, low fuel warning, low battery, security system (optional)|
|Model ID:||XL 1200C|
|Warranty:||24 months (unlimited mileage)|
|2016:||Vivid Black with Med. Silver pinstripe, Charcoal Pearl with Black pinstripe, Superior Blue with Blue and Med. Silver pinstripe, Amber Whiskey/Vivid Black with Med. Red and Pale Gold pinstripe, Deep Jade Pearl/Vivid Black with Lt. Green and Pale Gold pinstripe, Mysterious Red Sunglo/Velocity Red Sunglo with Med. Red and Pale Gold pinstripe|
|2017:||Vivid Black; Velocity Red Sunglow, Corona Yellow Pearl, Superior Blue/Billet Silver|
|2016:||Vivid Black: $10,899, Color: $11,249, Two-Tone: $11,449|
|2017:||Vivid Black: $10,999, Color Option: $11,349, Two-Tone Option: $11,549|