The Nightster is Back. Is That a Good Thing?

Harley-Davidson offers up a lower-cc version of its liquid-cooled V-twin to serve as ‘baby’ of the fleet

There is nothing “entry-level” about the new Harley-Davidson Nightster. Publications that suggest otherwise are unintentionally showing that they have lost touch with the motorcycling world.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad to see H-D has brought back one of its more iconic Sportsters. The original Nightster (XL1200N) was a 1200cc air-cooled machine introduced in 2008 (I think; feel free to correct me on that one). Mid-control pegs gave it a slightly more athletic feel than many other Sportsters of the time. I was a fan of the bike but perhaps in the minority because it wasn’t around for long. Dropping it left a gap in Harley the line-up that wasn’t filled until the introduction of the Iron 1200 in 2018.

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The new Nightster isn’t really anything like the Nightster of old but for the fact it has two wheels and wears a Harley badge. It doesn’t even fill the same niche as the old Nightster. Ostensibly the gap being filled by this new model is the one that was created in 2020, when the Sportster 883 was dropped from the international line-up – along with the Sportster 1200, both driven by the iconic air-cooled Evolution V-twin engine first introduced in 1984.

2022 Harley-Davidson Nightster

If we pretend the whole Street experiment never happened (which Harley seems keen to do), the Sportster 883 used to be considered the starting point of one’s Harley journey. Costing £8,895 in 2020 it was certainly the most affordable of Harley’s bikes (again, ignoring the Street models). It cost £2,403 more than a Yamaha MT-07, though, so affordability is relative. 

For what it’s worth, if you adjust for (wildly out of control) inflation, a 2020 Sportster 883 would cost £9,895 in 2022 money. Whereas the new Nightster has a starting price of £12,995.

£12,995, for the love of Pete. £12,995! TWELVE-THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED NINETY-FIVE POUNDS! If we assume that entry-level riders are under the age of 29, the Nightster costs more than half the average annual wage of people aged 22-29 (£24,600). 

The Nightster’s front suspension uses 41mm SHOWA Dual Bending Valve conventional forks; rear suspension features dual outboard emulsion-technology shock absorbers with coil springs and a threaded collar for preload adjustment.

Meanwhile, I question whether the Sportster 883 was ever an entry-level machine. In addition to its cost, the thing weighed close to 260 kilograms and delivered delightfully arm-ripping torque that might have presented unwanted challenges for entry-level riders. But, considering the Sportster 883 produced “just” 44 hp (less than Triumph’s Street Twin/Scrambler/Cup/Bonneville T100), I wouldn’t fight very hard against someone who wanted to put it in the entry-level box.

The 975cc liquid-cooled Revolution Max engine driving the new Nightster, however, delivers a claimed 89 hp. That is more horsepower than was on tap for the Street Bob that I was so madly in love with a few years ago. 

So, again: the new Harley-Davidson Nightster is not an entry-level machine and anyone claiming otherwise should fuck the fuck off.

Not an entry-level machine


Putting aside my rant about what the Nightster isn’t (and perhaps acknowledging that not being able to buy things on credit makes me a little bitter about all the cool stuff I’ll never have) let’s take a look at what it is.

According to Harley, this new Sportster model is “a leap forward in performance and design,” and certainly that’s true when compared to the previous Nightster. In addition to its liquid-cooled V-twin powerplant (a smaller-bore version of the delightful 60-degree V-twin that powers Harley’s Pan America 1250 and Sportster S models), the Nightster comes equipped with the kind of technowhizbangery one would expect of a motorcycle that costs almost £13,000 (sorry, I’m really having a lot of trouble letting that issue go). ABS, of course, but you also get three riding modes (Sport, Road and Rain), traction control and a so-called Drag-Torque Slip Control System, which I think is a fancy term for “slipper clutch.”

“The Nightster is an instrument of expression and exploration, underpinned by performance,” said Jochen Zeitz, chairman, president and CEO of Harley-Davidson. “By building on the 65-year Sportster legacy, the Nightster provides a canvas for creativity and personalisation, offering the ultimate platform for customisation and expression for new and existing riders.”

The Nightster comes with mid foot controls and a low-rise handlebar. Unladen seat height is 705 mm

Apart from suffering the misfortune of looking dangerously similar to a Honda CMX1100 Rebel (which has quite similar horsepower and torque figures, comes with cruise control as standard and – at £9,499 – costs considerably less) the Nightster is almost certainly a fun machine. I got a chance to ride the larger-engined Sportster S about a year ago, when I had the good fortune to be working for Harley’s UK and Ireland marketing team and had a lot of fun.

That said, I’ll admit that my overall impression of the bike was less than great. As with the Nightster I wasn’t a huge fan of the aesthetic. Harley seems to be leaning ever more towards a design language of the sort seen in the Fat Bob and short-lived FXDR – post-modernist industrialist styling and plasticky bodywork. It’s a design language that I do not like. 

When the Sportster S was first launched in July 2021 Harley VP of Styling and Design Brad Richards quietly promised H-D traditionalists that something more to their tastes was on the way. 

“We’ve got some cool things up our sleeve. We always do,” he said. “There will be future models that will definitely tap into some of the more classic form factors of Sportster.”

The Nightster’s more traditional styling cues are easier to see from behind

And, yeah, I guess the Nightster shows more classic lines than the Sportster S, but not enough in my opinion. My issue is that the new Sportsters don’t look like they’re worth the money. Part of the appeal of Harley-Davidson for me, and the justification for its higher price tags, has always been its bikes’ timeless nature. A Low Rider S, for example, looks cool today but it also would have looked cool 20 years ago and odds are good it will look cool 20 years from now. The aesthetic of the Nightster – the look of its engine and exhaust, in particular – has a definite sell-by date.

The bike looks manufactured – made by a machine – rather than crafted.

Harley is hoping you’ll decide to do the crafting yourself – with Genuine Motor Parts and Accessories, of course. Harley’s 27-minute YouTube video about the Nightster spends a solid 17 minutes with custom builders telling you it’s possible to make a Nightster not look so much like a Nightster.

Looks a bit like a Honda Rebel 1100; isn’t a Honda Rebel 1100

The problem with talk of customization, though, is that there’s only so much you can do. As with the Sportster S, the engine is a structural component of the chassis. This reduces weight and makes for a better performing chassis but it inherently limits what and where you can cut.

Meanwhile, in terms of performance I would expect the Nightster will be somewhat similar to the Sportster S, which is largely a good thing but could be disappointing to hard-core traditionalists. The TL;DR version of a Sportster S is that it is an Indian Scout Bobber that performs better but looks worse. Its engine and chassis have a modern feel, which means you’re better able to hustle down modern roads but you don’t get the weird joy of sitting on a machine that shakes itself apart at traffic lights.

By extension, I’d guess the Nightster is a little bit like the Indian Scout Bobber Sixty, but, you know, nominally more powerful and markedly more expensive. As such, getting the most of the engine will mean revving higher than cruiser traditionalists are used to. The rest of the motorcycling world won’t notice – peak torque comes in at 5,000 rpm – but old-schoolers may not like it.

Based on this photo, the Nightster is a motorcycle for that cool teacher who sits in chairs backwards

Here’s another thing they may not like:

“The 11.7-liter lightweight plastic fuel cell is located below the seat – what appears to be a traditional fuel tank forward of the seat is a dummy fuel tank; a steel cover for the airbox,” explains a Harley media release. “The fuel filler is reached by lifting the hinged locking seat.”

Ignoring how tiny that fuel cell is, I feel like a lot of riders are going to hate having to lift the seat to refuel their bike. Especially after they end up splashing gasoline onto the seat. Obviously, the benefit of doing things this way is that it helps to lower the center of gravity, but, yeah… I just don’t know.

Indeed, therein lies the summary of my overall response to the Nightster: I just don’t know. I liked the old Nightster. I generally agree with the argument that Harley should be pushing forward in terms of technology and styling. I’m pretty sure this will be fun to ride and if I had £13,000 to throw at a motorcycle I might feel differently, but overall, I’m not sure.

I look forward to having this bike show up in dealerships so I can test ride it and get a sense of what it is (or isn’t) really worth.

The tank is tiny but that’s OK; it’s not a tank