Harley-Davidson's Sportster lineup has been around since 1957, and though popular, the low-slung, small-tanked two-wheeler has also endured criticism for its stiff ride and limited cruising range.
Though the Sportster has been widely considered Harley's best bike for beginners (and is one of our Ten Great Beginner Motorcycles) the Motor Company re-imagined the bike for 2011 in order to make it better suited to new riders.
Does the 2011 Harley Davidson SuperLow succeed at effectively welcoming new riders to the brand?
The Goods: Harley's Iconic Sportster, Optimized
The research revealed three needs: 1) more cruising range, 2) better suspension, and 3) greater overall comfort. Low (no pun intended) and behold, the Sportster XL883L SuperLow! Though it doesn't boast the least seat height in the 2011 Harley lineup (that honor goes to the Fat Boy Lo, with its 24.25 inch tall saddle), the SuperLow's 25.5 inches tall seat receives a deeper bucket and thicker cushioning. Front and rear wheel diameters have shrunk an inch for better low-speed handling, suspension travel has been bumped to 4.1 inches at the Showa forks and 2.5 inches at the rear coilover shocks. Incidentally, the SuperLow's five-spoke wheels are lighter, and sit on new Michelin Scorcher radial tires designed specifically for this model.
In order to accommodate more riding range, the SuperLow features a 4.5 gallon low-profile gas tank, which should enable a theoretical range of 236 miles, based on a combination of its fuel economy estimates of 45 mpg city, 60 mpg highway. Power comes from a rubber-mounted, fuel-injected 883cc v-twin with dual-staggered exhaust pipes, mated to a 5-speed transmission. Aiding its ease of operation are redesigned handlebars with more reach, recalibrated steering geometry, and a tighter turning radius.
On the Road: Does This Sportster Make Me Look Confident?
Low speed maneuverability is as sharp as promised, and an informal (and admittedly unscientific) bounce test performed by jumping on the footpegs revealed a surprising amount of shock absorption, thanks to suspension travel measuring 4.26 inches at the front and 2.12 inches at the rear. But there's a tradeoff for this bike's low seat height that becomes evident during mid and higher-speed turns: early footpeg touchdowns. Maximum right and left lean angles measure 24.7 and 24.4 degrees respectively, though those figures reflect so-called "soft" contact points (ie, when the slightly asymmetrical peg feelers touch); lifting feet off the pegs and letting them fold up enables more aggressive leans, though there's another ruder awakening lurking when those pretty, chrome pipes make contact with pavement, putting an abrupt end to banked leans.
Though its handling certainly has its limitations— especially on even moderately curvy roads— the SuperLow is surprisingly capable of absorbing bumps and offering enough compliance to enable long rides. Interstate hours are relatively comfortable, with a chair like posture enabled by the nearby grips and mid-mounted foot controls that transmit low levels of vibration at highway speeds. Touring is also aided by the 4.5 gallon fuel tank, which put our past experience of running out of fuel aboard the Sportster Forty-Eight into perspective; at 2.1 gallons, that bike has less than half the fuel capacity of the SuperLow. And when the going gets slow, the dual-piston, single 292mm front and 260mm rear disk brakes do a solid job of slowing down this steed.
The Bottom Line:
Beginner bikes are, by definition, hard sells for newbie riders, primarily because they lack the inherent sense of "cool" exuded by more menacing bikes. Sportbike enthusiasts are often drawn to widow-making literbikes, and cruiser fans tend to be attracted by big-bore bikes, not skinny-tired wannabees.
The 2011 Harley-Davidson SuperLow succeeds by offering both a husky stance and a level of on-road comfort and confidence-inspiring maneuverability that was previously unheard of in the Sportster family. Though hampered by limited lean angles, the SuperLow's decent shock absorption, comfy saddle, and longer range readiness make it the most functional Sportster to date.
Starting at $7,999 in black, the SuperLow runs a grand more than the outgoing 883 Low, which was the cheapest bike in the 2010 Harley lineup. Though it lacks the slicker, pared down styling of Dark Custom Sportster variants like the Iron 883, Forty-Eight or Nightster, the SuperLow's added practicality is a welcome tradeoff for riders who love to pile on the miles and actually ride-- and that's a principle sure to attract both newbies and old pros to Harley's new 2011 SuperLow.