Harley-Davidson introduced the Sportster S in the summer of 2021 during the throes of the pandemic. The Sporty redux was the most radical reimagining of the 65-year-old design to date, and even the raging Delta variant couldn’t distract from its seismic impact on Harley diehards. Blowhards might have been skeptical about the liquid-cooled, Pan America-sourced 1,250cc mill that replaced the ancient air-cooled 883cc and 1,200cc lumps, but that didn't bother the Motor Company.
Along with the new mill, Harley upped the ante with unorthodox moves like a pill-shaped LED headlamp, a hidden rear monoshock that replaced the conventional coilovers, and funky styling that left the Sportster’s trim, simple lines behind. Though it stirred controversy, the new model begged a deeper question: Do younger buyers even covet heritage enough to make them turned off by a modern Sportster?
Looks and Ergos
Enter 2022, and the Nightster spinoff is instigating further change with its significantly revised package. There’s a smaller engine—975cc versus 1,252cc—a lower MSRP ($13,499 versus the S’s $15,499), and a number of mechanical and stylistic tweaks to the Sportster S’s formula. Like the big Sporty, the Nightster’s Revolution Max engine acts as a stressed member, enabling the traditional hoop frame to be ditched. But the smaller bike is also able to pack a narrower radiator, thus helping its visual proportions.
Speaking of looks, you could call the Nightster a tale of two sides: on the right, a sharp, impactful vision of an aluminum engine case topped with magnesium cylinder caps. But looks can be deceiving, as what appears to be a fuel tank is actually a false cover for the engine airbox. The 3.1-gallon tank has been relocated beneath the seat, which flips sideways to reveal a plastic filler cap. What the bike’s right side lacks in busy bits, the left more than makes up for with a mélange of wayward cables, hoses, and plastic covers. It’s almost like so much effort was spent on making the right side look presentable, that the left side suffered the disturbing consequences of neglect. However, traditionalists will dig that the Nightster’s round headlamp and exposed coilovers make it look closer to the familiar old Sportster.
Saddle up on the 27.8-inch seat, and the Nightster presents a rather different view over the handlebars than the Sportster S. For starters (pun intended), the start button is positioned atop the handlebar (a la Sportster S), requiring an awkward forefinger maneuver to bring the downsized engine to life. The switchgear is a bit more sparse due to the technological de-contenting, which leaves some uncomely expanses of black plastic exposed. Straight ahead is an analog speedo that replaces the S’s 4-inch TFT, with a multifunction LCD inset into the lower portion of the display. At least it only needs a tap to initiate the starting procedure, which activates the dual-downdraft throttle bodies into pumping fuel and air into the 975T powerplant. The engine, which is scaled down in bore and stroke from 1250, is fully balanced but allows enough movement to produce a pleasant pulse at idle.
The 481-pound Nightster—21 pounds lighter than the Sportster S—doesn’t feel particularly heavy at rest, perhaps because the fuel is positioned low in the body and most of the mass is close to the ground. With a light clutch lever and a tap of the shifter, the Nightster pulls ahead with enough grunt to feel like it’s a workable alternative to its bigger-engined sibling. The v-twin produces 90 horsepower at 7,500 rpm and 70 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm, figures which would have been unusual for the Motor Company not all that long ago. If you start in the default ‘Road’ mode, the throttle response is a bit dull at tip-in but gains strength as the revs rise. Toggle into ‘Sport’ via the button on the right switchgear, and the added sharpness brings a welcome snap to the acceleration. Tap the shifter, and the lever enters each gear gently. That chamfered action feels refined, though some might desire a more positive “click” as they swap cogs on the six-speed gearbox.
The Nightster’s larger 19-inch front tire manages to turn in nicely, offering a bit more nimbleness than the Sportster S’s fat 160mm 17-inch rubber. Handling is relatively easy with a prevailing sense of stability, though the Nightster touches down more readily with max lean angles of 32 degrees, which underperforms the Sportster S’s 34-degree maximums. There’s also a compromise in the brakes, as the Nightster’s axially mounted four-piston front stoppers don’t offer quite as much feel or response as the more premium model’s radially mounted units.
Quibbles aside, our test ride along Highway 33 north of Ojai, California, revealed that it’s possible to enjoy a modern Sportster on epically windy roads despite the Nightster’s cruder outboard rear suspension and tight lean angles. Our lead-follow group was constrained by a maddeningly modest pace, but solo runs for photos drove home the reality that spirited riders must resign themselves to some boot lifting as the footpegs drag and fold up during hard cornering.
Speaking of cornering, the ABS and traction control systems on the Nightster don’t take lean angles into account, unlike the more advanced setup on the Sportster S—which is just as well during fair weather riding, since the bike’s inherent grip and stability make it easy to manage. The motor will oblige with a healthy run-up to redline upon request, though it doesn’t quite churn the power as massively as the 1250-powered model. While Santa Barbara County’s smooth roads meant weren’t able to confirm or deny whether the Nightster’s suspension damping is as jarring as the Sportster S’s, the heat expelled onto our right leg despite mild ambient temperatures suggested that thermal discomfort might become an issue on hot days.
At the end of the day, there’s almost no way not to judge the Harley-Davidson Nightster against the pricier, more powerful Sportster S. The more expensive model made major waves when it debuted in 2021, presenting a design language and performance approach that seemed alien to the way hardcore enthusiasts viewed the Milwaukee brand. Now that the Sportster doesn’t seem so shocking, the Nightster feels like more of a step back than simply a trimmed down version of the top model. If you’re okay with less power, simpler suspension, fewer electronics, and a more conventional look, the Nightster gets the job done. That said, the Sportster S’s mere $2,000 premium opens up a significantly more well-rounded package with a performance punch that lives up to its controversial styling.
2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster Nightster
Ultimately—and with all due respect to the Nightster—it’s near impossible not to want the flagship model, even if you’re on the fence about its styling. Not that the Nightster isn’t a solid and satisfying bike, it’s just not quite as evolved as the Sportster S. Also, if you’re adamant about that OG Sportster life, Harley still builds the old vibey, stripped-down, air-cooled 883 and Forty-Eight models. How’s that for keeping it real?