“They ride like shit!” he said. I was sitting on a Harley Davidson Sportster 1200 Nightster, just about to leave on a group test-ride. The guy who came up had a long grey beard and was decked out in all Harley gear. He went on to say how a relative and he had both tested one and how terrible the ride was. I was thinking, "Don’t most Harleys have a bad ride?" but I thought I'd better not say that! But for a guy who was obviously a Harley man to say this was a bit of a worry! He suggested I try the Custom. "They ride better, eh?" I asked. "You try riding this over a pot-hole and you'll see how it rides!" he replied. (Mental note: "Avoid all pot-holes"!). He was right about the ride; but let’s look at the bike first.
The bike is, of course, part of the Sportster range, which includes several 883 models and several 1200 versions. The Nightster is intended to be a more “bare-knuckles” (to use Harley’s words) version of the 1200 range.
You’ll see in a moment what they did to the bike to achieve some of the look, but the first thing that strikes you, with the example I rode anyway, was the colour. It looks like Harley found some paint left over from pre-war days and said, “Let’s use this!”
Add to that a grey-painted engine, and it just looks dull, and certainly different to any other Harley sitting on the lot. (It actually looks better, or at least brighter, in the photo here than it does in real life). My first impression when I saw it was that it looked like a vintage! (And maybe that’s a look they were going for).
Another “interesting” styling exercise comes up at the rear; there’s no tail-light! The tail-light is cleverly incorporated into the blinkers. (Look closely and you'll see the red lights in the centre of them). Hmmm, obviously going for a minimalist look here! In the U.S. the back guard is completely bare; it doesn't have the rego-label attached as this one does.  
Also following the minimalist theme, (and usual Harley tradition), up front the  instruments consist of a speedo and ….. well, nothing else.
But enough of all this. It was time to ride! Hit the starter button and the engine fires into life with all the finesse of a Massey Ferguson tractor! Yep, at idle it’s typical Harley shake-your-teeth-out vibration. But increase the revs, even slightly, and it smoothes out. Rubber-mounting the engine really has made a big difference compared to older Harleys. The vibration is always there, of course, but nowhere near as much; and it’s not harsh and horrible like, for example, the Sportster 883 I rode a while back. Now it’s really quite smooth; once the revs are up a bit anyway. Try pulling away from low revs though and it shakes badly; but once the revs are up a bit it’s good.
The gearbox (still a 5-speeder) is better too. It still clunks from one gear to the next like the afore-mentioned tractor, but now it’s a cushioned clunk. It’s smooth, if still a bit noisy.
It’s very high-geared. Not having a tacho, I don’t know how high, but around town I was often riding in 2nd, and even 1st. In top gear it didn’t really smooth out until you got above 100kph. By 110kph it was fairly smooth and cruising easily.
Performance is actually pretty good. I suppose, being a 1200cc mill, you’d expect it to be; although Harleys never used to be known for their performance. But they’re much better these days. Twist the throttle and the Sportster gets up and goes impressively well! But it’s not just the actual performance that’s good, it’s the way it goes about it. The 883 I rode a few years ago was, as I mentioned above, harsh and horrible everywhere. It was rough at idle, and it was just as rough at higher revs; in fact it felt reluctant to rev at all. But this new Evo version of the 1200 revs out quite well, and feels pretty smooth doing it. With the rubber-mounting cutting down the vibration, and the efficient well-tuned fuel-injection giving it power and response, Harley have really brought the engine up-to-date. But, sadly, the engine performance is about where the good news ends.
The seat is low .... no, I mean LOW! It’s only 642mm! It’s the lowest seat-height of any Harley (except the 883Low, which I think uses the same frame and suspension). I felt like I was sitting on a chair at my grandson’s pre-school! My knees were almost up to my arm-pits! Apparently Harley achieved this low seat height not by cleverly redesigning the frame, but by chopping down the suspension-travel. (What were the designers smoking when they came up with that?). Suspension travel that, at the rear anyway, is always minimal, now becomes almost non-existent! And of course as this has the effect of lowering the whole bike, ground-clearance, which again is always marginal, now becomes something you’d measure with a feeler-gauge rather than a ruler! (Yeah, way to go boys!).
Oh yeah, the other thing Harley did to achieve this low seat-height, so I’ve read, was to take some of the padding out of the seat. (Were the designers drunk when they came up with this?). So the seat is, a bit untypical of Harley, quite hard. It’s also poorly shaped. It’s scalloped-out, supposedly to fit your rear-end. Now, I’m not a big bloke, but I felt kind of squeezed by the shape of the seat. People with more generously-proportioned rumps would be most uncomfortable I would think!
The bars are high and wide. So you sit way down low, with your hands high up in the air. I felt like a poodle sitting up begging for food! Not exactly what you’d call a comfortable riding-position! And on the subject of comfort….
Yes, the ride! “Grey-beard” was right! Even riding across the forecourt you could feel it; every ripple and join in the concrete. I hadn’t even got out of the driveway and I was beginning to wonder if it actually had a rear suspension at all! It did, of course, but it was certainly rough! I was avoiding anything that even looked like a bump, but even the slightest irregularities in road surface had the bike jolting harshly; with every jolt belting into your bum like a jack-hammer! By the end of the ride I was holding my breath when it ran over shadows!
On the positive side, it was very easy to ride. The wide high bars give you plenty of control. At 247kg, it’s not light (although it is by Harley standards!), but because all the weight (and the rider!) is down low, it doesn’t feel as heavy as it is.
It actually handled quite well; in terms of ease of turning into corners. But that’s about where it ends. As I said before, the bike sits very low, due to it’s chopped-down suspension, and there seemed like only a few millimetres of  ground-clearance below the exhaust on one side and the side-stand on the other; so I was careful not to lean it over too much. A few degrees off vertical was about as far as I was game to go! Even so, I think I heard the side-stand just snick the ground a couple of times. 
The brakes felt a bit weak. I didn’t try a quick stop, but even fairly normal stops required a firm pull on the lever.
Typical of Harley, the indicators have two buttons; one on the left handlebar to turn left, and one on the right to turn right. Somehow these didn’t fall as easily to hand as I recall on the 883. But I guess you’d get used to it.
Fuel-tank capacity is ridiculously small at just over 12 litres. Although maybe that’s not really an issue; with the stupid riding-position and that dreadful ride, I reckon you’d be wanting to get off the thing long before you ran out of fuel! And it’d make a good excuse for stopping. “I’ve gotta give my bum a rest from this @#$% bone-shaker!” could be translated to, “Sorry guys, gotta stop for juice again”.

My son-in-law (the one with the Kawasaki dirt-bike) came with me and also took the Nightster for a ride. This was the first big road-bike he’d ridden. He said the bike was better than he expected. “I thought it’d be sluggish, but it wasn’t; it really goes!” (Well it is a 1200!). At one stage he gave it a quick squirt up to (a very illegal!) 140kph. At that speed he said the wind was blowing both him and the bike around, and it was hard to hang onto. He also found the seating-position very uncomfortable and the ride very rough. He also commented on the clunky gearbox. In summary he said, "I wouldn't buy one, but it was better than I expected".
After riding the Nightser I went for a test-ride on the Sportster 1200 Custom.
The Custom is a very different bike. Where the Nightster is all dull paint and grey, the Custom is shiny black with lots of chrome. The bike looks good!
There’s a general feel of quality about the bike too; in the chrome and general finish, and even to things like the embossed pattern on the seat.
It felt bigger and much more comfortable. The seating-position is similar, but with the seat significantly higher, at 673mm. The seat is much better padded too.
Unlike the Nightster, the Custom runs forward-controls, so mightn’t be as easy to ride if you’re not used to this set-up. At the time I rode this, I’d only ridden one other bike with forward controls (the Triumph Speedmaster), but I didn’t have any problem with it. And you can leave the feet up until almost stopped. Like the Nightster, it’s very easy to balance at slow speeds.
The Custom is a bit heavier, tipping the scales at 255kg. Although again, with the wide bars, and the weight being mainly carried down low, it doesn’t feel that heavy.
The fuel-tank is bigger too, holding 17 litres.
Not having it’s suspension butchered, the Custom rides much better than the Nightster. It’s still rough over anything seriously resembling a bump, but it’s much more compliant.
Harley claims that the engine in the Custom is the most powerful engine in the Sportster range. It didn’t feel any quicker than the Nightster, but maybe that was down to gearing. With no tacho, there was no way of calculating the gearing, but the Custom felt even higher-geared than the Nightster; with top gear not really smoothing out until around 110kph. Brakes felt the same as the Nightster; okay, but not very powerful.
The front-end geometry is different to the Nightster too, with the forks being raked-out more. So the handling isn’t as good. In slow-speed turns the steering feels heavy and reluctant to turn. Once you do get it turning though, it is very stable. With the bike sitting higher on it’s suspension, the exhaust and side-stand are further from the ground, so the clearance is better. You can lean it over a bit further in corners, but the paradox of this is that the bike is a lot more reluctant to turn into them!
Despite the “bum-down, hands-up, feet-stuck-out” riding-position, and despite the harsh ride and the awkward handling, there were times when I was actually enjoying the ride. On a smooth straight road, just cruising along, the bike felt good. It was (at those times) reasonably comfortable, with the seat and even the thick hand-grips having an almost plush feel about them. And it even goes pretty well, should you wish to give it a squirt. It’s this laid-back, easy cruising, that Harley does best. But then I hit a couple of bumps. And came to corners.
I couldn't live with either of these, but the Custom is, without any doubt, the pick of the two bikes. If you like this style of motorcycle, and if you like Harleys, then the Custom is a bike you’d probably like. As I said, I couldn’t live with one, but maybe you could if you like this sort of thing.
As for the Nightster, well really, I reckon the Nightster is just a joke! From the ridiculous riding-position, to the almost non-existent rear suspension, the hard seat, the dreary paintwork, and pretty much everything else, it’s hard to believe Harley Davidson were serious when they made this thing! I reckon every time they sell one there’s a drunken designer somewhere saying, “Hey Willie, we done caught us another sucker!”
To many people reading this, the name will be intriguing; “Sportster”. These bikes are about the most non-sporting bikes I’ve ever ridden! Yes, they’ve got reasonable performance, but the engine-characteristics aren’t really sporting. And the handling? Well, with very limited ground-clearance, when it came to the tight-and-twisty stuff (that true sports-bikes love) I reckon you could leave these things for dead on a postie-bike!
Okay, I’ve been giving these bikes a bit of a serve, and if you think I’m being harsh and irreverent, I’m sorry, but Harley only has themselves to blame. When you read the brochure it’s hard to believe they’re being serious! Here’s what they say about the Sportster range. “At the heart of it’s performance is a narrow frame made to be thrown around street corners and curves.” Are they kidding? “Thrown around corners”? Try that and you’ll be throwing it down on corners! They go on to claim that the Sportster is, “One of the most versatile motorcycles ever to hit the street.” Come on guys, you can’t be serious! “Sportster?” “Versatile?” As I said in the title, “only in America!” Only in America could these things be considered “sportsters”!

Ridden 2008.

UP-DATE 2011
I'm actually writing this up-date in 2010, but it is for the 2011 range, which has just been released.
The Nightster has dropped the dowdy green paint and now comes in a choice of black, sky- blue, or red and black. And it looks much better for that! More importantly, it seems they've raised it up, restoring suspension travel (and height) to the something the same as the Custom. So the riding experience will also be much better. Now, it appears, it's more of a styling exercise than a mechanically different model. Although you still get slightly less power (98Nm torque) compared to the Custom. 
The 1200 Custom - or Dyna Super Glide Custom, which from what I can work out, is kind of the equivalent model - is basically the same as the one listed here; although there are differences. Specs state the weight is up to 295kg (yes, that's dry weight). Fuel-tank capacity is slightly better at a bit over 18 litres. As mentioned above, the engine puts out a bit more mumbo in this, being rated at 123Nm of torque. The bars are pull-back, and it doesn't use forward-controls. (Isn't it weird how Harley mix rider-styles - you'd think the pull-backs would go with the forward-controls, and straighter bars with normal, but no!). The front is still raked out though, so in that respect the handling would be similar to the Custom here.
For me, this would still be the pick of them. There's more power, and more comfort. And I reckon it looks better, although I'll put that down to personal taste - maybe you might like the more blacked-out look.

The awful Nightster has been discontinued.
The 1200 Custom (and this is what it is called again now) is very similar to the one tested here, but has a fat front tyre.   
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