This issue was originally published in the December-January 1998 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin magazine.
Four sparkplugs. High-compression heads. Hotter cams. More power. The new, 1998 XL1200S Sportster Sport promises to beat with a hot-rod heart. But think again. All the engineering changes made to this first “P-3”-powered Sporty have resulted in more of a seamless, torquey type of acceleration rather than brute, wide-eyed, idle-skipping power.
When you first lay eyes on this latest Sportster, the detailing impresses: black cylinders with polished fin ends; black fender stays and handlebar; a new, aluminum-powder finish on the cases, sidecovers, and top and bottom rock-er covers that makes them look like sand-blasted alloy. The bike looks purposeful and a little nasty.
Fire it up and the purposefulness remains, but not much of the nasty. This new XL quickly falls into the smoothest idle of any Sportster ever, and with the least mechanical noise. There’s little of the loping, syncopated, random misfiring that traditionally has defined H-Ds at idle; instead, you find the same kind of regular beat as with the fuel-injected FLs.
Ride off, and increased torque makes itself known immediately; no stock Sportster has ever pulled harder from low rpm than this one. It’s a short-shifter’s delight that will accept full throttle from as low as 1500 revs. If you shift by ear and feel, you’ll seldom exceed 3500, yet will still be impressed by the quickness. If you watch the tach and rev it out more, this newest XL will keep pulling out to 5200 rpm, but you’ll feel the torque falling off. And if you try to reach the 6200-rpm redline, you’ll find a surprise: The rev limiter in the ignition system has the bike staggering with misfires by 5500 rpm.
What Harley’s engineers have done with the P-3 Sportster engine is to enhance what Sportster powerplants have always done well; but they have done so without magically transforming the Sport into a rocketship, regardless of what the marketing department may indicate. The emphasis has been on increasing low-speed power and throttle response down in the engine operating range most used by real-world riders, rather in coming up with top-end numbers that look impressive on a spec sheet.
The starting point was new cylinder heads based on the ones introduced on the Buell S1 Lightning in 1996. The heads mate the compact combustion chamber of the 883 Sportster with 1200cc-size valves and better-flowing ports. The combustion chamber yields a 10.0:1 compression ratio and allows quick burning of the mixture, even with a single sparkplug per cylinder; but Harley has given each head (on the 1200S only) two plugs.
This exemplifies the difference in tuning philosophy between The Motor Company and its Buell division. Buell works with rubber-mounted machines that run smoother and smoother the higher they rev; the newest Buell engines peak about 1000 rpm higher than this Sportster P-3 engine, and concentrate their best power in the 4500- to 6500-rpm range. But on the solid-mount Sportster, those kinds of revs risk homogenizing a rider’s internal organs, not to mention eventually leaving a trail of parts scattered along the road-way. Buell also has been willing to mount huge, if not graceful, airboxes and mufflers to allow a Sportster-based engine to make power up high; it’s simply not possible to design shorty duals and a classic-looking air filter that breathe as well as they look, at least while passing the government’s mandatory sound checks.
So, Harley took a different road with the new Sportster, one similar to that followed with the fuel-injected FLs. Since high-rpm power couldn’t be had with the standard intake and exhaust plumbing, the new engine would instead make the best possible low-end power.
To that end, the 1200S Sport—much like the injected FLs—got new, short-duration camshafts. And the Buell heads helped raise peak power through improved breathing and higher compression ratio. The torque cams, however, increased low-speed cranking pressures even beyond the ability of the new combustion chamber to tolerate.
So, the solution was a classic one often employed to curtail detonation problems: dual sparkplugs. Using two plugs speeds up the combustion process by starting the fire in two locations, so the end gases don’t have a chance to explode uncontrollably. Assisting was a new, mapped ignition system with an intake-manifold-pressure sensor that would dial-in exactly the amount of spark needed, no more and no less. This helps reduce detonation while improving throttle response and fuel economy.
What results is an engine that produces more power and torque down low with improved throttle response, makes a couple of more peak horsepower and foot-pounds of torque than previously, and signs off a little earlier. Previous Sportster cams peaked the engine at 5800-6000 rpm when aftermarket exhausts and a Screamin’ Eagle air filter and ignition box were fitted; the new cams are optimized to peak at just over 5000 rpm.
When you ride the XL1200S, you find it has a nearly ideal powerband for a Sportster. It grunts out torque where you want it, and runs smoothly up to about 67 mph in top gear. That’s the point, at about 3000 rpm, where the handgrips begin buzzing and growing; if you want to go faster, you have to have a fair tolerance for vibration. But short-shift around town, or ride at a mellow pace on country lanes instead of freeways, and you’ll really appreciate the new engine.
The rest of the Sportster Sport retains XL1200S virtues and vices. The brakes are the strongest on any Milwaukee machine outside of a VR1000 racebike, and the suspension is both notably compliant and adept at keeping the wheels under control. The riding position is—for better and for worse—classic Sportster. The pegs are slightly forward and high, the seat low and close. It’s neither as comfortable as a stretched-out Big Twin nor as control-oriented and sporty as any Buell. The handlebar puts you close to bolt-upright, and the wind pressure and lack of Softail-like back support turn you into a human sail at about the same highway speeds at which vibration begins to annoy. Keep the needle under 65, though, and this is a motorcycle that could carry you through several tanks of fuel without regrets.
In the end, what Harley has built with the XL1200S Sport is the most competent and civilized Sportster ever—though “civilized” is perhaps the least likely word to tag on a descendent of an XLCH. But Harley dealers are already selling the spiritual descendent of that legendary machine in the Buell White Lightning. If what you want is a performance-intense, Milwaukee-powered hot-rod, the Buell is your bike.
But if you want a quick, solid, thoroughly competent machine with a Sportster’s unique looks, long traditions and respectable sport handling, the XL1200S is right up your alley. All it has to offer is the best, most seamless engine and most charismatic powerband ever found on an XL.
Precise and smooth shifting
Compliant and controlled suspension
Sounds better than most Big Twins
Solid-mount vibration at higher speed
Not quite the rocketship expected
Footpegs still too close to seat