When I was approached by Harley-Davidson in early July to test ride exclusively a new Sportster called the SuperLow for 2011 model year, with a name like that I envisioned a ground hugging, peg scraping Sportster, very different than the already “Low” designated Sportsters, the 883 Low and 1200 Low. Turns out the SuperLow isnt that much lower in actual seat height measurement, but because of a complete overhaul by Motor Company engineers in steering geometry, wheel and tire sizes, and suspension tuning, the SuperLow feels lower to the ground and, for the first time, I feel like Im sitting “into” a Sportster as opposed to “on top” of it as is the feeling with many of the classic Sportsters to date.
Sitting into a motorcycle allows for a feeling of a low center of gravity, an important quality for women just learning how to ride. A low center of gravity gives the rider a feeling that she is one with the motorcycle as opposed to feeling like an appendage of the motorcycle. Feeling part of the motorcycle allows a rider to sense “rider input” from the motorcycle immediately creating interaction with the bike that leads to faster learning of the skills required to ride a motorcycle proficiently.
Knowing a bike with the name SuperLow would attract the fastest growing demographic of new riders, women, Harley-Davidson called me to be the first online journalist to spend an entire day by myself with the SuperLow exclusively putting on 150 miles riding the canyons, freeways and coastal roads of Southern California.
Lets start with seat height, a spec so important to women riders as they like to be able to reach the ground for maximum control of the bike. The SuperLow is 25.5 inches, which is the actually .2 inches higher than the 2010 883 Lows 25.3-inch seat height. But like I said, the bike feels lower so lets not mince fractions of inches here. The SuperLow is 20 pounds lighter than the Low weighing a manageable 563 pounds.
Many women say they feel Sportsters are top heavy. That feeling is eliminated thanks to a new bucket shape seat that cradles the riders butt so she feels like shes sitting “into” the bike. In addition, the handlebars and front-end geometry render the front end more solid with a much better fit to the bike giving the rider a feeling of being more in control overall therefore less likely to drop the bike.
Amazing how subtle changes affect ergonomics. Check out the comparison photos of the handlebars on the SuperLow (left) and the 883 Low (right). The SuperLows bars are similar to the Lows but the bend is slightly flatter and wider rendering a more rider friendly reach. To me, they feel like they are in just the right place for a variety of sized riders to feel comfortable.
As you can also see in the SuperLow photo above on the left, the bike has the larger 4.5-gallon Sportster fuel tank—same one as on the 1200 Low—rather than the peanut style 3.3 gallon on the 883 Low. Harley-Davidson specs say the SuperLow averages 60 mpg on the highway and 45 mpg in the city. When my trip meter indicated 100 miles I started get antsy to find a gas station. Then I reminded myself that the SuperLow has a generous fuel capacity and that I could probably go at least 150 miles before the low fuel light illuminates on the control gauge. Limited time did not allow me to run the fuel to that point.
The most noticeable and pleasing qualities of the SuperLow come when you ride it as the new front end specs create a completely different Sportster feel, a more linear ride as the marketing notes indicate; thats really the best word to describe it. A significant increase in trail on the front end of the SuperLow, now measuring 5.7 inches, means the bike tracks better, rolling forward more precisely. For comparison, trail on the 883 Low is 4.6 inches, and on the 1200 Low its 4.7 inches. Trail is the horizontal distance from where the tire contacts the ground to the where the angle of the steering axis intersects the ground.
The bike feels securely planted to the pavement as I cruise down the road. This is due in part to new Michelin Scorcher 11 radial tires, a 120/70 on the front and a 150/60 on the rear, designed specifically to enhance the handling of the SuperLow. New wheels were designed for this bike as well, an 18-inch front and 17-inch rear, combined with the new tires contribute to the revamped ride on this Sportster.
All this firm and precise handling gives me confidence to lean the SuperLow over in the corners more than I normally do breaking through my comfort zone. Im quickly deterred on the lean on more than one occasion when the little metal tab sticking out from the foldable footpegs comes in contact with the pavement sooner than I expect. Sure I could lean and let the tab scrape and do its job, but like a lot of riders, that split second contact startles me for the moment. While the tab is there to protect the footpeg and help it fold when it touches the pavement, to me the tab touchesway too soon limiting my lean angle.
Other than on those really tight corners where I scrape the peg tab, the sweepers are where the SuperLow shines. I enjoy pushing on the handgrips as I countersteer the bars sweeping gracefully through the soft S turns. This way and that way and this way and that. The smooth “go right where you point” handling is due to the aforementioned new front end geometry, wheel and tire design, and suspension tuning—development that comes out of lessons learned when engineers created the racy flat-track inspired XR1200X Sportster. While the bikes have two completely different missions, the goal of finding just the right balance of these specifications is the same making the SuperLows ride noticeably better over existing Sportsters.
Since I ride 6 speed motorcycles most of the time these days including my own touring bike, the Street Glide, while cruising on the SuperLow between 70 and 70mph I keep pushing up on the shifter with my toe to doublecheck I was in top gear. Indeed I was in top gear, 5th. Im used to Harleys 6th gear Cruise Drive that lowers rpms when cruising at higher speeds.
That said, having not ridden an 883 in awhile I was pleased with the power this middleweight possesses coming off the line as my riding buddy and I race through the gears in an effort to dart back to our starting point to return the bike on time. It also handles smoothly at cruising speeds. I never feel the bike lag or become underpowered.
I keep envisioning myself touring on the SuperLow. Yes, I’d need a windshield; yes, I’d need forward mounted pegs to stretch my legs; yes, I’d need saddlebags and yes…well, that’s about it. Got the bigger fuel tank to accommodate longer distances between fuel-ups. Got a comfy seat. I’d just keep my speed around 70 mph as over 70 I feel engine vibration transfer to the footpegs and mirrors. I did not feel it in the handgrips. Over 70 the images in the mirrors resemble a blurry photo. I can make out how far the car is behind me in the next lane, just can’t decipher what type of car it us, say an SUV or a truck. When my speed backs down to 70, the blurriness disappears.
To mitigate the buzzing in my feet, I rest my thick rubber soles on the pegs instead of placing the peg in the recessed part of the sole where the sole is thinnest. This is a rubber-mounted engine, but the “smaller” middleweight size and coordinating XL chassis have their limits.