Decades ago, I worked with an engineer whose first job out of college was with Harley-Davidson. On his first day, his boss told him, "You do anything you want, just don't change the look, the sound, or the way the bike rides."
I thought of that as I threw my jacket on over my most Harley-appropriate t-shirt: an old Motorhead tee with "Everything louder than everything else" on the back. That line could easily double for the motto for H-D, especially the Sportster line that was all about customization, like beloved loud pipes.
The Harley-Davidson Nightster, a pared-down evolution of the Sportster S, proves that a bike with a smaller engine and less horsepower can still punch above its weight when paired with a sporty chassis.
Splitting the difference between the heritage of the past and performance fun of the future, the Nightster does the impossible: deliver a spirited ride for H-D traditionalists and a tempting entry to folks who want to buy their first Harley.
Is the Harley-Davidson Nightster new?
Yes. Very new. Harley-Davidson announced Nightster on April 12 this year, and started shipping to dealers immediately thereafter.
What makes the Harley-Davidson Nightster special?
Just about everything. The Sportster is the longest-running model in H-D's lineup. Endlessly customizable, the Sportster cultivated a cult-like following, partially because it didn't evolve that quickly.
The legendary classic loop frame that held the moto? No mas. The new Sportster frame is modular. This frees up designers, giving them practically a blank slate. Since the engine bears the weight of the rest of the bike, the ride quality is stiffer and nimbler.
The Nightster's powerplant is similar to that of the game-changing Sportster S released last year, powered by a v-twin Rev Max motor. The Nightster's big bro features a 1250 cc engine that produces 121 ponies, compared to 975 cc's that hit 90 horsepower at full gallop. The smaller motor translates to a lighter bike — 481 pounds wet versus 502 lbs — that's lighter on your chain wallet: $13,499 instead of $14,999.
Standing still, the Nightster feels like an even lighter bike since the 3.1-gallon fuel cell — the "gas tank" covers the airbox — is beneath the seat. You notice this as soon as you hop on the Nighter, center it, and kick up the side stand. It practically stands on its own, all but whispering sweet, sexy promises of flickability.
How does the Harley-Davidson Nightster ride?
This thing rips. The Nightster's one-two punch of light weight and low center of gravity delivers a sporty ride that begs for canyons, not just open road.
Although my heart has always been partial to Hondas and Triumphs, I felt at home on Nightster before we pulled out of the parking lot. The low saddle height of 27.5" is comfortable even for taller riders (I'm 6'2"). That's with the mid controls — putting your feet, and therefore body in a sportier position — than the more traditional forward pegs you find on most Harleys that make you feel like you're on a La-Z-Boy.
The seat is narrow, so getting on this bike is easy. There are three drive modes: Road, Sport and Rain. Put it in the rain and the subdued throttle response, shift power levels in the rev range, and tweaks to the traction control, ABS, and engine braking make the Nightster an excellent option for newer riders.
Intuitive controls mean changing modes and cycling through the display quickly. The hybrid of analog and digital is intuitive and easy to use. No manual or YouTube video is necessary. Before riding this Nightster, the gold standard for hop-on-and-feel-immediately-at-home was BMW's 1250 GS. These were just as simple. If this is the future of H-D, I might be ready to start picking up my mail in Detroit.
We rode this bike with a bunch of other journalists in Santa Barbara, one of California's most beautiful beach towns surrounded by small farms, lush hills, and mountains. Just a minute or two from the road that parallels the Pacific, we dove into some medium-speed twisty-turnies.
The Nightster felt right at home in what soon felt like California's bit of Tuscany. It was peak spring. You could smell blooming flowers, crops ready for the picking, and the recurring scent of folks self-medicating their glaucoma. Don't call it a contact high: as the hills gave way to mountains and higher speeds, the Nightster flourished.
Like Sportsters of yore, the Nightster uses a 19-inch front and 16-inch rear wheel combo. Unlike Sportsters of yore, leaning into a turn does not mean scraping a muffler. You can tilt this bike to 32 degrees before scraping a peg.
The liquid-cooled motor doesn't vibrate as much as some Sportsters, but it's intentionally not balanced, so you don't forget you're on a Harley. Both the power curve and torque curve are linear. The motor's happy place is between 5,500 and 7,500 rpm. The exhaust emits a wonderful rumble, especially at higher revs.
Does anything else stand out?
The original Harley-Davidson Nightster was introduced in 2007. A version of the blacked-out bobber-style bike was a part of the lineup until 2012, when it was cut. Many Nightster fans gravitated towards the Forty-Eight. You can still see this heritage in the new Nightster.
Like other Sportsters, the old Nighter included a mono-shock. The 2022 Nightster includes two outbound shocks, each with 3" of travel instead of the more traditional 2" that makes for a more plush ride, even with a more aggressive riding position.
How much does the Harley-Davidson Nightster cost?
The black Nightster is $13,499. Colors (red and gray) are $400 more: $13,899. Not cheap. And it's not going to win any best value awards. Most, if not all, of its competitors, most notably the Indian Scout 60, cost less. But Harley-Davidson bikes always included a premium price tag. You're buying into a heritage that's tough not to love.