New Motorcycle Review: 2022 Harley-Davidson Sportster Nightster

The entry level Harley gets a redesign; is it still OK for beginners?

By Genevieve Schmitt, Founder / Contributor

Sportster Legacy

I’ll be honest. When I first laid eyes on the 2022 Sportster Nightster during its unveiling in April, I was skeptical. “That’s a Sportster?!” I exclaimed to myself. I wasn’t a fan of the first model in the redesigned Sportster family, the Sportster S WRN reviewed here, because visually, to me, it skews muscular, meaty, and aggressive. The Nightster looks similar. Is this the future of motorcycling? Sport cruisers sneakily edging out my beloved laid-back cruiser style motorcycles?

Harley-Davidson Sportster Nightster 2022
The Sportster Nightster is a completely redesigned Sportster for 2022. It is offered in the three colors shown here: Vivid Black, Gunship Gray, and Redline Red.

Mind you, my first Harley-Davidson back in the early 1990s was a ’93 Sportster 1200 so I have a soft spot for the platform. Plus, for the longest time, I considered Sportsters to be a good beginner bike for many women and men. Remember the Sportster Hugger, the low-seat height version of the popular 883 model introduced in 1988? This was the first Harley-Davidson for nearly an entire generation of Harley-owning women riders today.

Then my thoughts went to the original Nightster, a blacked-out Sportster that I test rode back in 2008 with its ground-hugging seat height of 25.3 inches and its mini cruiser profile. With 65 years of history, many Harley riders have some memories of life with a Sportster. Tell us in the comments below your history with Sportster.

Sportster legacy
Attending the press launch recently in Southern California, Harley had a well done display of the 65-year legacy of the Sportster.
Sportster Nightster
The new Nightster is a new kind of Sportster—a sporty, fun, modern motorcycle.

First Impressions

When I threw my leg over the diminutive Nightster, pushed the ignition button, and headed down the highway, my old idea of what a Sportster should be faded away fast.  I was transported to this new era of the  Sportster. With every mile, I honed in on how all the technological advancements came together to create this new model from the ground up. It felt so good and so right. 

First, the Nightster is noticeably lighter than any Sportster I’ve ridden. Harley executives joked that one must be careful lifting the bike off the sidestand as it might tip over to the other side. It’s that light! Harley shaved off 80 pounds from the previous Sportster platform with this one weighing in at 481 pounds.

Sportster Nightster seat height woman rider
I am 5 feet 7 inches with a 31-inch inseam and easily touch the ground on the 2022 Sportster Nightster with its 27.1-inch seat height. Women shorter than me will embrace this seat height as the bike’s narrow profile and light weight will allow them to touch feet to the pavement. Get to a dealership and sit on one. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Sportster Nightster man rider seat height
How does a 5-foot 11-inch man fit on the motorcycle? Derek Mayberry, associate publisher of Vahna magazine, says, “Very comfortable. The pegs are slightly forward. I don’t feel too cramped, it has a neutral riding position, and I like the low slung bars.”

Is This Sportster a Beginner Bike?

Let me address one burning question: is the Nightster ideal for beginning riders? Some may say a 975cc engine may be too powerful for new riders, but considering how light and easy to handle the Nightster is, confident beginners will have a blast eating up miles and should consider it. 

Another reason for my thumbs up is Harley engineers developed a way to throttle down the aggressiveness of the Revolution Max 975T powertrain making for a subdued ride, ideal for new riders. You accomplish this by switching from the standard Road Mode to Rain Mode through the flick of a button on the left handgrip. Rain is one of three ride modes a motorcyclist can choose from.

Rain mode gives the rider greater confidence when traction is limited (like when it’s raining) by changing the throttle response and power output to significantly restrain the rate of acceleration. Engine braking is limited as well, while the highest levels of ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) and TCS (Traction Control System) intervention are selected. I noticed when I toggled into Rain Mode from Road Mode the motorcycle was less jumpy with throttle response lagging a bit. But, this is all good when you’re new to riding a motorcycle, or when you’re sloshing through the rain. Road Mode is intended for daily use, delivering a balanced performance of all features. Sport, the third mode, provides the quickest throttle response and full power.

Sportster Nightster ride modes
I love that Harley-Davidson incorporated the high-tech Ride Modes into the Nightster, a feature not found on many entry level models. Each mode consists of a specific combination of power delivery, engine braking, ABS, and TCS settings.
Sporster Nightster woman riding
Powering around Southern California’s tight curvy roads, I found the “sharpness” of Sport Mode ideal for the constant upshifting and downshifting while entering and exiting the endless S turns.

New From the Ground Up

How do you reinvent a motorcycle with more than six decades of love from its customers? Very carefully and with a lot of thought. The Harley design team was tasked with how to fit the large, liquid cooled 60-degree V-twin Revolution Max 975T engine (T for torque), into the diminutive Sportster. The answer was to make the engine a stressed member of the frame. The result is a bike that feels compact and “tight,” with the stiffer chassis rendering a solid, balanced ride, which inspires confidence.

The new frame allows for a greater lean angle so no more scraping the pegs easily in turns. You have to be riding very sportily to scrape the pegs in the twisties.

Sportster Nightster woman rider
The Nightster shines in the canyons just as easily as it does in town putting along on city streets, making slow-speed maneuvers like U-turns and backing into parking spaces effortless.
Sportster Nightster
Harley’s design team wanted the Nightster to look familiar to its predecessors, so the round air cleaner cover, classic solo seat, and chopped fenders are all in place. And what appears to be the fuel tank hints to the classic Sportster peanut-shaped tank. The actual fuel tank is located under the seat.
Sportster Nightster Revolution Max 975T engine
The “diamond in the setting,” as Harley executives refer to it, is the Revolution Max 975T engine. The shade of gray, a lightweight nickel silicon carbide-surface galvanic coating, stands out among the blacked-out components, which is all the rage on new bikes today.
Sportster Nightster riding left woman rider
Lightweight motorcycles tend to feel like they’re screaming when reaching 70 to 80 mph with nothing remaining in the power curve. The Rev Max engine in the Sportster Nightster has a ton of grunt left when I rev up to 70 mph on the straightaways. Vibration is minimal due to internal balancers.

Sportster Suspension and Comfort

As tight as the motorcycle feels, I was expecting to be thrown out of the saddle when hitting a bump. Pointing the bike towards a decent size pothole, I anticipated the spine-jarring jolt. I was instead pleasantly surprised as I glided with relative ease over the bump.  Both the front 41mm SHOWA forks and exposed rear shocks soaked up the bump like a cantering pony.

Sportster Nightster riding woman
The stock setting on the rear shocks was fine for my 125-pound weight.
Sportster Nighster shock adjust
One of the conveniences Harley-Davidson incorporated into the Nightster is the ability to adjust preload settings on the rear shocks using the supplied spanner wrench. The wrench is stored under the seat and is easily accessible.

The Nightster’s seat is a step-up in “plushness” from the flat seat on its sister model, the S. My fellow journalists and I lasted about 90 miles on the Nightster’s solo saddle before we started wiggling around and standing up at stop lights to reduce pressure. As with most smaller motorcycles, you’ll need to stop often to give your tush a rest and fuel up.

Additionally, I wanted to stretch out my legs as the miles wore on. The mid-mount controls and forward handlebars are a decent setup but again, after 90 miles, my wrists needed a rest and my legs needed to move. Harley-Davidson offers higher handlebars and forward controls for riders like me who prefer a more laid back cruiser set-up.

Sportster Nightster
The Nightster holds just 3.1 gallons of fuel. At an estimated 52 miles per gallon, you’ll need to stop every 150 miles or so for gas. This fuel capacity is one gallon more than the peanut tank on the current Sportster Forty-Eight model still in the lineup.

One of the most ingenious parts of the new design is that the fuel storage is under the seat. The Rev Max powertrain has a large airbox that sits on top of the powertrain forcing designers to house the fuel somewhere else. It made sense to put it under the seat, which lowers the bike’s center of gravity and makes for better handling.

Sportster Nightster fuel filler
The fuel filler cap is located under the seat. The bike key inserts into a lock on the side of the bike that pops up the hinged seat to access it.

More Conveniences

I remember the day when the Sportsters got gypped on technology. If you wanted ABS or a sixth gear, you had to get a Dyna or Softail model. Now, the Sportster line boasts accoutrements like anti-lock brakes and traction control. Additionally, Drag-Torque Slip Control System (DSCS) adjusts how much torque is coming from the engine to prevent the rear wheel from slipping under certain conditions. 

Sportster Nightster lever reach adjustable
I have larger-than-normal hands for a woman so stock lever settings fit my fingers fine. For riders with smaller hands there’s a dial on the lever to adjust the reach.
Sportster Nightster kickstand sidestand
A large “grab tab” on the sidestand helps find it with our toes to flick it up and down.
Sportster Nightster power leads
Battery charging leads are conveniently placed under the seat, along with leads for heated gear attachments. Thanks Harley! The battery is now housed in the front of the motorcycle by the radiator and not that easy to get to without removing a few parts.
Sportster Nightster dash
I like having an old-style analog speedometer mounted on the handlebar riser. You can choose what you want to see in the digital display at the bottom toggling between tachometer, fuel range, odometer, etc. with the switch on the left control unit.
Sportster Nightster reach seat
Harley’s aftermarket Reach Seat has a narrower front and pushes the rider forward .5 inches and lower .3 inches for an easier reach to the ground. (Part number 52000550, $249.95)

Final Thoughts on the Newest Sportster

While the Nightster can be accessorized for long distance riding (Harley is already out with aftermarket parts like forward foot pegs, passenger seat, saddlebags, higher handlebars, and detachable windshield) 58-year-old me can’t imagine riding long distances on it on an extended road trip. To me, the Nightster shines as a zippy meet-your-friends-on-the-weekend-motorcycle for an afternoon of canyon carving, and as a daily commuter bike. If cost is a consideration, the Nightster, like its Sportster cousins before it, can be anything you want it to be through the beauty of customization. Harley is positioning this bike as an “instrument of expression,” expecting owners to personalize it like they’ve done with Sportsters for 65 years.

Sportster Nightster around town riding
Because of its lightweight and compact size, the Nightster is an ideal commuter motorcycle for fun jaunts to work or to your local coffee shop.
Sportster Nightster Jody Perewitz
Motorcycle customizer, racer, and Sturgis Motorcycle Museum Hall of Famer Jody Perewitz got a hold of a Nightster to show us what can be done to make it your own.
Sportster Nightster Jody Perewitz
Jody Perewitz changed the paint and added some custom parts like a Rinehart Racing exhaust to jazz up her Nightster.

The Nightster is $13,499 for the black version, a decent entry level price for buying into the Harley-Davidson family. Add $400 for the gray and red colors. If you can’t wrap your head around that this new design is considered a Sportster, thankfully, The Motor Company is still offering two carry-over models, the 1200cc Forty-Eight for $12,299, and the Iron 883 for $11,249.

Specs at a Glance: 2022 Harley-Davidson Nightster
Engine Size: 975cc
Seat Height: 27.1 inches
Fuel Capacity: 3.1 gallons
Wet Weight: 481 pounds
Colors and MSRP: Vivid Black, $13,499; Gunship Gray, $13,899; Redline Red, $13,899

WRN Recommendation

The Nightster is a fabulous re-invention of the Sportster that both beginner and experienced riders will appreciate. It's definitely sporty but not in the old "Sporty" way (the slang short way we referred to Sportster). Rather it delivers an aggressive performance type of ride, so if you're expecting a cruiser with that thump-thump Harley-Davidson exhaust, this is not your bike. If that’s what you want, opt for a Big Twin with the Milwaukee-Eight motor. However, if you want to see what engineers and designers have been up to in 2022, go test ride the 2002 Nightster. You'll be pleasantly surprised as you experience what I see is a nod to the next generation of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

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