Harley-Davidson’s new entry-level Sportster has unapologetically retro styling that hides a massive leap forward in tech and performance. The budget-priced Nightster will appeal to enthusiasts who long for a lightweight blend of nimble handling, heritage styling and a more sophisticated ride.

The first water-cooled Sportster in the model’s 65-year history, the Nightster replaces the iconic 883. A low-slung street bike, it packs ingenious features that combine the very latest in Harley-Davidson thinking with the brand’s undeniable old-school charm.

At the heart of the Nightster is a new, 975cc version of Harley’s Revolution Max engine. The powerplant is based on the same unit that appears in the more powerful, 1,252cc Sportster S model and the Pan America.

And if the name sounds familiar, that’s because ‘Nightster’ previously appeared on the 1200N bobber tank that proved popular from 2007 to 2012, before it was unceremoniously chopped from the Harley line-up. Fans of the old 883 and 1200 Sportster bikes will note a big boost in performance, but not on a par with the pricier Sportster S launched last summer. However, the V-twin’s 89bhp feels just the right amount of grunt for a bike this size, with variable valve timing (VVT) delivering a broader spread of power.

Harley Davidson The Nightster

Another benefit of this modest bhp is that it can be limited to the 47bhp maximum allowed on an A2 licence – making the bike a tempting proposition for the growing raft of riders without a full bike licence.

The real talking point surrounding Nightster is the decision to shift the 11.7 litre fuel tank beneath the seat. The Sportster’s traditional ‘walnut’ tank casing is still there but that shell is a dummy and only acts as a cover for the air intake.

The filler and tank are now directly under the rider. That means flipping open the hinged seat, although oddly, the solo seat is hinged on the opposite side to the key lock. It also requires the rider to hop off when filling up, instead of staying in the saddle. 

However, the Nightster is a low bike and with the weight of a full tank of fuel now beneath the rider, the bike feels even lighter to handle. Thanks to the low centre of gravity, it’s also incredibly easy to push around the garage using muscle power alone.

Harley Davidson The Nightster

Unfortunately, while the dummy tank looks real enough side on, from the front it’s easy to spot wires and components poking out from underneath. Not quite the standard you would expect from Harley-Davidson.

Sportsters don’t offer the gizmos of some premium Harleys but those machines can cost more than double the price – and there’s still enough technology on Nightster to make it a competent machine for short and medium distance rides – just not touring. 

Flick between three ride modes that perfectly suit British use – Road, Sport and Rain. I found Road was best suited for daily use, with a gentler throttle response and less mid-range power than Sport mode. Rain cuts the power and selects higher levels of traction control and ABS you need in wet conditions.

The single seat might look uncomfortable but it’s perfect for most backsides. Combined with the mid-mounted foot pegs, Nightster is a comfortable place to spend an afternoon tootling around town, or opening up the revs on a back road. The exhaust note has just the right amount of snarl to be enjoyable rather than annoying or, even worse, embarrassing.

Up front, Nightster has non-adjustable suspension, while the rear is manually tweaked using a spanner neatly tucked away under the seat. There wasn’t much give when I slung a leg over the bike, so the following ride was far more comfortable than I expected.

A single disc Brembo front brake is adequate but some riders might expect the rear to offer a more progressive feel than it does. The traction control is switchable and Harley also uses an engine braking control system that stops a rear wheel lock-up on downshifts but otherwise there is none of the high-tech, lean-sensitive ABS aids you might find on other machines.

The instrument panel is basic in the extreme, with just one dial housing the speedo and a tiny LCD display showing basic menu functions. It’s not a high resolution TFT screen like those featured on many bikes these days and anybody hoping for Bluetooth connectivity is looking at the wrong machine.

But for those hoping to dip a toe into the Harley-Davidson lifestyle, the Sportster range – and the Nightster in particular – makes a lot of sense. It’s a stripped back-to-the-basics special that will tick a lot of boxes for fans of the American dream – riders who perhaps have never ridden a Harley before and like the sound and look of a silky-smooth machine that revs all the way to 9,000rpm.

Harley Davidson The Nightster

The Nightster draws a lot from the Sportster models of old, the V-twins that inspired generations to get out there and ride. It’s also pricey at £13,000 and there are several exceptional rivals to consider, such as the BMW R nine T and Triumph Bonneville Bobber. 

Quick revving and eager to please, the Nightster offers a decent amount of pull from a standing start but feels most at home on a 50-60mph weekend cruise – with enough low-end grunt to overtake when required. It’s well behaved and isn’t about to throw up any unpleasant surprises – even in Sport mode.

Die-hard Harley fans might scoff at the water-cooled set-up but the Revolution Max engine gives Nightster a personality of its own. Owners can add their own accessories – fancy foot pegs, mirrors and optional lower or higher handlebars – but as a starter Harley, the Nightster really has everything you need. 

For more information: harley-davidson.com