In the often illogical world of Harley-Davidson riders, the Sportster has always been a bit of an anomaly. Admired and praised for its performance, yet often derided and scorned because it's smaller and less physically imposing than many of the company's other offerings.
Indeed, the Sportster is disdained by some hard-core riders as being "a girl's bike" or a "training Harley." Never mind the fact that it can run away and hide from many of its stable-mates, and has always been one of Harley's faster bikes, featuring better handling and braking than many of its larger brethren.
Many of Harley's now-commonplace engineering features have also been introduced via the Sportster - front suspension, disc brakes and various internal engine refinements, for example.
Plus, the Sportster has also been in continuous production since 1957, making it one of the company's longest-running models and has been utilized in Harley's racing programs more than anything else it makes. It may not be as big or expensive as some of the other models in Harley's stable, but the Sportser has paid its dues and doesn't need to ride at the back of the pack.
With the 1200 Nightster, it's also achieved a level of cool it's never had before. This is a slick-looking ride, with intriguing styling cues and hip finishing touches all over the place. Introduced in 2007, the Nightster has attitude and presence.
Power is delivered via a 1,200-cc V-twin that is air cooled and features electronic fuel injection and a five-speed transmission. Power output is about 60 hp with 79 lb-ft of torque. Given the bike's dry weight of 247 kilos, this makes for lively acceleration and plenty of reserve power.
Final drive is belt, and the Nightster - like all Sportsters these days - has isolated engine mounts, which means the ride is a lot more civilized than it used to be when the engine was bolted directly to the frame. Those former varieties of Sportster imparted the legendary "numb bum" sensation if you rode them for more than a couple of hours at a time, and the rubber engine mounts were a welcome innovation when Harley started to fit them, in 2004. Been there, done that.
The suspension on Sportsters has always been a little on the harsh side, and the Nightster is no exception. This is not a bike that absorbs bumps easily, and still isn't really designed to be ridden from dawn to dusk. It tends to feel every dimple and irregularity in the road and larger riders will bottom out regularly.
With its mid-mounted controls, it's also a little snug in terms of riding position. You can't stretch out and relax, and the shift lever is located awkwardly close to the left foot-peg. Always has been with Sportsters, now that I think of it, although you can get aftermarket forward riding pegs if you plan on doing a lot of highway riding.
Brakes are single discs front and back, with the front end getting a two-piston caliper and the rear a single. Because of its relatively modest dimensions, the Sportster/Nightster has decent braking, though not in the same league as a sport bike.
It also has a modest seat height of about 642 mm, which means that smaller riders are able to get both feet flat on the ground when stopped. This may explain why so many women ride Sportsters.
Fuel economy, not usually a consideration with motorcycles, is surprisingly frugal: 6.7 L/100 km in town and 5.0 on the highway. This assumes, of course, that the rider is behaving and not hitting the throttle every chance he or she gets. An unlikely scenario, if ever there was one.
One complaint here. My test bike displayed the "low fuel" warning light randomly; once even though I had just filled it less than 20 kilometres previously. In short, a reliable fuel gauge of some sort wouldn't hurt.
But that would probably corrupt its basic character, because what stands out about the Nightster (and it's smaller-engined twin, the Iron 883) is it's minimalist visual appeal.
From its front fork gaiters, to the solo seat, to the blacked-out paint scheme and chopped rear fender and side-mounted licence plate, this has loads of rock and roll panache. It's kind of a retro rat-bike/bobber and bound to appeal to those riders who like things to be uncomplicated and bare-bones, with a little of the urban outlaw thrown in for good measure.
Although the 2011 edition of the Nightster is hitting showrooms right about now and gets new paint, it's pretty much the same bike as the 2010 model. Prices start at $11,879, and you can order a variety of aftermarket goodies, such as mini ape-hanger handlebars, rear sissy bar, two-up seat, leather tractor seat and glitzy flame paint.