If the only motorcycles you allow yourself to appreciate are air-cooled and make potato-potato noises, you’ll automatically be disappointed with the new liquid-cooled Nightster. But to dismiss it out of hand would overlook one of the most competent bikes Harley-Davidson has ever made.
After rocking us back on our heels by the 1250 Sportster S last year, with its bold styling and caricatural-fat front tire, a smaller version of the formidable Revolution Max V-Twin is adopted by this more traditionally styled Nightster. You’ll recall the Nightster name from the dark custom Sportster that debuted in 2006.
H-D says this new Nightster “redefines the Sportster motorcycle experience for a new generation of riders.” Riders who care more about performance than a devotion to tradition will be happy in the seat of the Nightster. It’s a 90-hp entry to win the hearts of tech-savvy riders who also value the legacy of the Harley brand.
For what it’s worth, the Iron 883 ($11,249) and Forty-Eight ($12,299) Sportsters remain in production.
What Is the Nightster?
At the core of the Nightster is the Revolution Max 60-degree V-Twin engine. It’s a variant of the 1,252cc powerplant from the Pan America adventure bike and the Sportster S, but it has been downsized to 975cc. Also, the variable timing on the 1250’s intake and exhaust valves gets decontented to just the intake valves on this 975T version. The powerplant’s outer dimensions are identical to those of its bigger brothers, so it’s likely we’ll see someone stuff a 1250 in the Nightster one day.
But rather than curse the lack of the bigger motor, appreciate the free-revving nature of the 975T that delivers a reasonably impressive 70 lb-ft of torque peaking only halfway through its rev range at 5,000 rpm. Horsepower crests at 7,500 rpm with 90 galloping ponies, with a nice spread of overrun until its 9,500-rpm rev limit. As on all Harleys, hydraulic valve lash adjustment eliminates expensive servicing to manually adjust valves.
Moto visionary Erik Buell discovered decades ago that high-performance V-Twins need a generous amount of airbox volume to breathe adequately, which demands space where a fuel tank would normally be placed. Buell used the frame for a fuel tank, while Harley has positioned the Nightster’s fuel tank behind the engine under the seat. This keeps the walnut-shaped faux tank from jutting upward obtrusively.
The Revolution Max isn’t just an engine, it’s a structural component to which everything else is bolted, including the steel trellis front frame around the steering head and the aluminum subframe that supports the tailsection. It’s this modular design that allows motorcycles as diverse as the Pan America and Sportster S to share the same engine. It also allows the Nightster to weigh just 481 lbs, nearly 80 lbs less than its air-cooled brethren.
From 30 feet away, the Nightster looks terrific, with low-slung lines, dark finishes, and a silhouette that resembles a Sportster. The airbox cover carries the rough form of a Sportster fuel tank, and the actual fuel tank behind the engine is disguised with a side cover that looks similar to the oil tank of the previous Sportster. The round air intake cover is also reminiscent of a Sporty’s, as are the exposed dual rear shocks, “table stakes for Sportster,” commented Brad Richards, H-D’s VP of Design.
A closer inspection reveals a few scruffy bits, particularly the frame area ahead of the airbox cover that is strewn with an assortment of wiring and plastic covers, with various other wires and hoses on the left side above the radiator. The routing of the front brake line also looks awkward. The airbox cover is steel like a real tank, but it’s kind of flimsy and actually flexes when pushed.
Careful when picking the Nightster off its sidestand, as it seemingly takes half the muscle required to heave up an Iron 883. Once aboard, the Nightster surprises for the relatively low placement of its handlebar, which forces a sporty riding position. Harley says the rider triangle nearly matches the recent air-cooled Sportsters. The mid-mount footpegs suited my 32-inch inseam just fine, but Harley will sell you a set of forward controls for $599.95 if your preference is pegs 10 inches ahead and 1.5 inches upward.
The seat is quite low at 27.8 inches. Hand levers are conveniently adjustable for reach to suit various hand sizes, and round bar-end mirrors are borrowed from the Sportster S. The reach to the turnsignal switch is needlessly long, as there’s room in its housing to have placed it further left toward a rider’s thumb. All lighting is LED, unlike Indian’s Rogue, and the rear turnsignals double as brake lights, like the Rogue. Both have side-mount license plate hangers.
Fire In the Hole!
The only time the Nightster’s key is needed is during fuel stops, as an electronic fob offers ignition without taking the fob out of pockets. Lighting off the Nightster produces a thrum unlike traditional Harleys, as its 60-degree vee angle simply can’t duplicate a 45-degree Twin with a single crankpin. Brushing familiarity aside, the Rev Max motor emits a low-/mid-tone note through its 2-into-1 exhaust that sounds aggressively fresh.
Instrumentation is basic but all that’s really needed, including gear position, fuel level, fuel range, and a numerical tachometer. Riders have the choice of Rain, Road, and Sport modes to choose from. Rain would be ideal for a newer rider; Sport is exciting but a little too jumpy in its responses; and Road is the Goldilocks of ride modes.
The Nightster also features Harley’s Drag-Torque Slip Control System that eases engine braking when rear-wheel slip is detected during sloppy downshifts or on slippery roads. ABS is standard equipment. Hooligans (who, me?) can switch off traction control with a single button push. Wheelies aren’t easy to pull but are possible in the right circumstances (see our YouTube video).
When Brad Richards described the Nightster as “a rowdy, fun bike” before our ride, I was a little skeptical. But then I grabbed a handful of throttle and scythed my way around corners and became a believer.
It’s a much more playful bike than its older siblings, offering eager responses to a rider’s whims. It feels 50 lbs lighter than the Sportster S, even though the difference is only 20. The chassis feels composed when slicing up traffic and carving twisty corners, and it’s able to lean up to 32 degrees before dragging pegs or boot edges. That’s a deeper lean than the Rogue or older Sportsters, but still we wish for more.
One inch doesn’t sound like much, but it makes a considerable difference when discussing rear suspension travel. The Rogue and the Sportster S have 2 inches of it; the Nightster has 3. The extra 25.4mm really pays off when encountering rough pavement and mid-corner bumps, and the 4.7 inches of travel from the Showa fork shames the S’s 3.6.
A single-disc front brake on a fast bike doesn’t sound like enough, but it is. The Brembo caliper biting on a 12.6-inch rotor through steel-braided lines does a fine job of slowing the bike and offering clear feedback through the lever.
The Nightster is reasonably comfortable on the highway, with the mini fairing diverting some air around the rider and dual counterbalancers in the engine subduing vibration. The rear cylinder and header heats a rider’s right inner thigh in traffic, but it’s far from unbearable. One of my few gripes is the amount of effort needed to shift gears, but perhaps that would ease after more than 200 miles on the odometer.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time aboard the new Nightster and didn’t want the ride to end. It’s one of those rare machines that add up to a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Most importantly, it’s playful and makes its rider feel like a boss.
With its overall competence and fun-to-ride quotient, the Nightster’s base price of $13,499 seems quite reasonable. But if you’re a Harley traditionalist, note that pricing for the timeless Softail starts at $13,949 – you might choose to hedge for the potato-potato.
As for me, I’d choose the more enjoyable ride of the Nightster over the more beautiful look of the Softail, as I value performance over style. If you’re looking for a sporty Harley, the Nightster is the clear choice.
You say potato, I say po-tah-to…
2022 Harley-Davidson Nightster Specs
Base Price: $13,499
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled Revolution Max 975T 60-degree V-Twin
Displacement: 975cc (59.5 cu in.)
Bore x Stroke: 3.82 in. x 2.6 in.
Compression Ratio: 12:1
Valvetrain: DOHC, 4 valves/cyl., variable intake valve timing
Horsepower (factory claim): 90 hp @ 7500 rpm
Torque (factory claim): 70 lb-ft @ 5000 rpm
Final Drive: Belt
Frame: Steel and aluminum, stressed-member engine
Rake/Trail: 30 degrees/5.4 in.
Wheelbase: 61.3 in.
Suspension (F/R): Non-adjustable Showa Dual Bending Valve 41mm fork/Spring-preload adjustable emulsion shocks
Suspension Travel (F/R): 4.5 in./3 in.
Brakes (F/R): 320mm hub-mounted floating rotor w/ 4-piston caliper/ 260mm floating rotor w/ single-piston caliper; standard ABS
Tires (F/R): Dunlop D401 100/90-19 57H / 150/80B16 77H
Lean Angle: 32 degrees
Seat Height: 27.8 in.
Fuel Capacity: 3.1 gal.
Wet Weight: 481 lbs.
Warranty: 2 yrs., unlimited miles