Riding A Hog - For The First Time
Yes, even if you don't own one, you've read about them; road-tests written by people with a vast experience of motorcycles of all types, and an intimate knowledge of  Harleys and what they are about. Most of us probably even know someone who owns one; and heard them waxing lyrical about the magic of their Milwaukee mount. But what sort of impression do they make on the average-Joe (or in this case, the average "old-bloke"!) who just rocks up and throws a leg over one "just to see what they're like"? Well, read on, because you are about to find out!
My opportunity to do this came courtesy of the 100th-birthday celebrations. Part of these celebrations involved holding a series of open-day / test-ride sessions at selected Harley dealers around the country. And when the Harley test fleet arrived at a local dealer it provided me with the perfect opportunity to experience the Milwaukee magic!
The rides were being organised in groups going out each hour for a run of about 25 minutes. The test fleet covered a good range of models, from a couple of Sportsters up to the impressive-looking V-Rod.
It wasn't quite mid-day when I arrived, but when I went to the tent to make my booking I was told that there was only one bike available, on the last run of the day. It was the Sportster 883R. I booked it. Yes, I know what many of you will be thinking: "It wasn't even a real Harley!" Well, to the purists it might be regarded as the poor-little-cousin of the range, but hey, that badge on the side still says "Harley Davidson"!
As I strolled around the shop, the test fleet rolled in from one of the sessions. And the first thing I noticed was the noise - or the lack of it! There were around 10 bikes in the group, but the sound was all rather subdued, and nothing like the window-shaking thunder you normally expect from a group of hogs. There was still that typical "potato-potato" idle, but quite clearly most of the bikes you see (and hear!) on the roads are  wearing after-market pipes!
With the fleet resting before being taken out on the next session, I walked over and sat on "my" test machine. With a dry weight of 228kg, this isn't exactly a lightweight, but it's a lot lighter than the others! And the thought of piloting over 330kg of unfamiliar motorcycle, worth well over $20,000, through the Saturday afternoon traffic would have been enough to make me choose the Sportster anyway.
With a low seat and wide handlebars it felt probably even lighter than it was. And it felt small. Yes, by larger Hog standards it is small, but this felt small even by "normal" bike standards! Maybe it was the lack of any kind of fairing that added to this. In any case it felt quite light, small and very manageable. It was comfortable too; with the high wide bars making me feel almost like I was back on a trail-bike again! The seat curves up behind you, which was quite comfortable for me, however those with a larger posterior might not find it fitting their shape. 
I left to get some lunch, and arrived back just as my scheduled test-ride was preparing to leave; and the staff member who was to bring up the rear of the group was actually on "my" test mount! As the rest of the group rode off, he handed me the 883R and grabbed himself a Sportster 1200. "Are you familiar with the controls?" he asked. I wondered what he meant: "How are they different?" I asked. He went through the usual gear-shift pattern etc, but the only thing that was unusual was the blinkers; there is a switch on the end of each handlebar; one on the left to turn left, one on the right to turn right. Hey, that's neat!
As we took off (with the staff guy leading, me following), the first impression was of how high-geared it was! It felt like I was taking off in 3rd! Just a couple of clicks with the left foot and we were sailing through the traffic at the legal town limit. My own "Universal Japanese Motorcycle" would have been in 5th by that speed, or even 6th if I was feeling lazy. This little Hog would easily pull 60kph in 1st; and 2nd had no trouble doing 80kph. But I don't think it's meant to be ridden like that. The engine specs tell the story: a big V-twin with a bore and stroke of 76.2mm X 96.2mm and a compression ratio of just 9:1. These donks are all about low-end torque; which is a characteristic I like. Harleys don't have tachos, but if they did you get the impression they'd have three readings: "Idle", "Not Many", and "Unnecessary"!
What was less appealing about the engine was the vibration. It really is quite harsh! I know it is these vibes that many Harley-riders really like (something about "the bigger the throb, the bigger the thrill"!), but I'm afraid I found it quite unpleasant. Twist the throttle and you get lots of vibration; and I'm talking "rattle-your-teeth, tingle-your-bum" vibration! Once up to 90 - 100kph though, things start to smooth out. It isn't smooth yet, but it's much better, and you start getting into what these Harleys are all about. They're cruisers; and it's cruising when they're at their best!
While I'm on things I didn't like, I have to mention the gearchange. It has a very clunky action that I found impossible to get smooth. It doesn't effect the bike at all, so it's not jerky, but it has a very harsh feel when you change. I tried to get it smooth, but there was a definite "clunk" on every change. It was like changing gear on a tractor!
Oh, one other thing I found annoying; I like to operate the front brake with 2 fingers, but on this bike I couldn't do that. The lever came too close to the bar. It was probably only a matter of adjusting the lever, but there, I've mentioned it anyway. 
The switch-at-each-end-of-the-bars blinker arrangement is very logical, and I easily got used to it. Although I did manage to hit the horn a couple of times when going left!
Now we're out on the expressway, in cruise mode. Ah, yes, this is what they're about! Check the specs again: a 19" front wheel, and a steering-head angle of 29.6 degrees. With high, wide bars it all means one thing; this little piggy is stable! Wind, road surface, bumps; nothing effects it. It just cruises, and feels like it could go on like that all day. And I'm sure it could. It's a good feeling; like it was inviting me to just take off for the horizon. Bringing myself back to reality though, I wonder how I'd feel about the vibration, which is still very much there, after a few hours in the saddle. I like stability in a motorcycle, but I also like smoothness. This bike has loads of one, and not much of the other!
The name might be "Sportster", but this is a long way from being a sports-bike! Twist the throttle and there is reasonable acceleration, but it isn't quick; and I didn't expect it to be. The specs don't give a figure for power, just for torque (66.5Nm @ 4,500 rpm); and that is where it's at, low-end torque.
It doesn't handle like a sports bike either; and again, I didn't expect it to. But having said that, I was actually impressed with the way it handled! The handling is very different though. It can be cornered with considerable confidence, but the technique is different to your typical "UJM" sports-mount. And I now understand the term "swinging"! On this bike you come up to the corner and just lean it in and steer. "Counter-steering" (where you push against the right bar to turn right etc) doesn't work on a bike like this. With a Harley you just sit up, lean, steer, and "swing" it through the corner! It's different, and it means planning ahead, setting the bike up for the corner then swinging it through, but I'm surprised at how confident I feel in corners; especially after only such a short time on the bike. Reality check: I wonder how it would feel on a narrow winding mountain road where the corner suddenly tightens; or when you need to do a quick swerve-and-recover to dodge that nasty pot-hole etc. Maybe not so enjoyable then! But when you know where you're going, it feels quite good.
By Harley standards, this is a cheap motorcycle; but it doesn't feel cheap. In fact there is a feeling of quality about the whole bike. Your typical UJM might feel all light-weight and plastic, but this feels like it is made of real steel! There is a solid, indestructible kind of feel to it all. There are nice touches too, like the words "Certified Harley Davidson" illuminated at the bottom of the speedo. It's just another little thing that says you are on something special!
The little Harley uses the last few seconds of the ride to leave me with a final impression. We're rolling up to the bike shop, which is on the opposite side of the road. I'm off the throttle, going slow, but still in 3rd. There is a break in the traffic, but not a big one. It's one of those situations where there is no time to shuffle down into the right gear; it's either go, or stop and wait for the next break. I go, instinct making me twist the throttle gently. On a UJM you'd need to be gentle; enough throttle to accelerate across in front of the traffic, but too much throttle and it might cough and die. The Harley just pulls smoothly across the road and into the driveway, with a kind of "what were you worried about?" attitude. With a Harley you don't have to worry about being in the wrong gear; you just ride it! Yeah, you just ride it. As I turn it off and hand back the keys I think of that final impression, and it pretty well sums up the whole bike; yeah, you just ride it!

(Ridden 2003)

UP-DATE 2009
A lot has changed over the past 6 years since I first rode this Harley. A lot of changes, but not changed a lot!
The most obvious change is the wheels, which are now cast alloy, not spoked. There have been a lot of other minor changes too; to reduce the vibration and improve the performance. All this has improved the product, but it's still basically what it was. It's just better.
It still feels pretty much the same to sit on. I haven't had an opportunity to ride one again though. Dealers tend not to have demos in stock.
It's still the "poor relation" to the 1200 really. Especially in terms of performance. And "street-cred". So if you're looking at Sportsters, you're probably better off going for one of the 1200s. Unless you're really restricted in budget - they are still the good value Hog they always were

UP-DATE 2011.
Getting a demo of one of these to ride is still difficult, (dealer test-fleets tend to concentrate on the bigger-engined models) but Harley seem to be taking more of an interest in them in recent times. And that has been rewarded by the public taking more of an interest in them; the 883 becoming Harley's biggest-selling model for 2010 I read recently. There are two models; the Iron 883 and the Super Low.
The Iron 883 is a mean-looking thing with all black paint and wild-looking alloy thin-spoked wheels. (Well the front one - which is bigger of course - looks pretty wild!). Actually it doesn't have to be black, as it is also available in yellow. I reckon the black looks the goods though!
Dry weight is 251kg. Engine output is quoted at 70Nm of torque, and it comes in at a full 1,000rpm lower than on the old 883 tested here.
The Super Low gets the same engine, but lowered suspension. Seat height comes down to 695mm - which is actually up a bit on the previous 883Low, but 40mm lower than the Iron. Ground-clearance falls by 20mm compared to the Iron also. And lean-angle comes down to just 24 degrees, compared to around 30 degrees that most other similar Harleys achieve. The good news is that the suspension is not quite as chopped-down as on the previous Low. The ride and cornering ability on that would've been about the same as the old Nightster - which I described as a joke! From a report I read, the ride isn't too bad; and they also reckon this is comparatively nimble to ride.  
These "entry-level" Harleys are still pretty good value. The Iron 883 now looks a whole lot meaner, which gives it a bit more street-cred, and I'm sure would be more readily accepted by Harley owners with bigger-engined models. And they're priced at under $12,000! It's a cheap way to get onto a brand new Hog.

From what I can see, the 883 Iron (to use that as the logical successor to what I actually rode here) hasn’t changed much, if at all. The price is now $14,995 ride-away.

Everybody should ride one. At least once. Just for the experience. You don't have to want one; you don't even have to like them; but you should ride one. At least once. Any bike that has been around for 100 years, has a cult-like following the world over, and evokes such passion from those who own them, deserves at least that! I'm talking, of course, about Harley Davidson.
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