COMPARING CRUISERS MODELS from Harley-Davidson and Honda is like renewing a rivalry.The two titans of theheavyweight motorcycle market have always had their own variation of what a cruisershould look, sound and feel like. However, with the introduction of the Shadow RS, Honda is really taking the gloves off to vie for a share of Harley-Davidson’s ubiquitous Sportster market. The Shadow RS looks surprisingly similar to a Sportster, and it offers reasonable performance at a reasonable MSRP of $7799. But before the RS has even gotten off a clean shot, Harley-Davidson appears to have answered right back with its new XL883L Sportster SuperLow, the latest addition to the popularselling family of Milwaukee iron that debuted in 1955. One of six models in the 2011 Sportster clan, it replaces the XL883L Sportster Low (the XL1200C Sportster Custom has also been dropped for 2011), and its chassis has undergone some interesting updates in order to make it the “easiest to handle, most confidence-inspiring Sportster ever,
according to the Motor Company’s press releases. The changes are intended to cultivate more Harley-Davidson riders out of Harley-Davidson’s “Dreamer Pool,” a group of potential customers who have shown a marked interest in the idea of owning a Harley-Davidson.
Honda’s Shadow RS is the latest in a line of Shadow cruisers debuted in 1983 with the Shadow 750 and then branched out into various displacements from 500cc to over 1000cc. Perhaps the most rider-friendly machine in the current Shadow clan, the RS’ upright seating position and roadster styling are clearly aimed at attracting Sportster buyers to the fold, all but demanding that we compare the RS and the Sportster SuperLow to determine who can really claim to be king of the value-priced cruisers.
Engine—Sportster Super Low 1st; Shadow RS 2nd Both the Shadow and the Sportster feature V-twin engines that honor their respective heritages. The Sportster’s ancestral roots date back to the first 45° V-twin Harley-Davidson, which debuted in 1909, but the Sportster underwent a real transfiguration when it was fitted with the alloy-barreled Evolution V-twin in 1986. The Evo’s air-cooled, pushrod-activated twovalve engine is still traditional to the core, but it received a host of updates in 2004, including revised Buell-style XB cylinder heads, lighter pistons and connecting rods, additional cooling fins on the cylinders and heads, and oil jets that spray the undersides of the pistons. Electronic sequential port fuel-injection and updated cams were added in 2007. It also uses hydraulic lifters, which add reliability and eliminate the expense of having to deal with frequent valve adjustments. The Sportster’s single-pin bottom end with “knife and fork” rod architecture remains unchanged. Its 883cc (53.9 cid) displacement is achieved via an undersquare bore and stroke measuring 76.2mm x 96.8mm. Its 8.9:1 compression ratio pistons squeeze the intake charge fed by single 45mm throttle body into the Sportster’s single-plug, two-valve cylinder heads. Spent exhaust gasses then escape through a 2-into-2 exhaust system with a crossover tube. The Shadow RS’ 52° V-twin has a more modern lineage, dating back to 1998, when it was introduced as a successor to the original Shadow’s 45° V-twin, which was clearly an attempt to copy the vee angle of Harley-Davidson. As such, its design includes modern conveniences such as liquid-cooling, a vibration- reducing counterbalancer and overhead camshafts that operate its three-valve (two 26mm intake, one 33mm exhaust) cylinder heads, which are fed by Honda’s PGM-FI fuel-injection through a Keihin 34mm throttle body. Its valvetrain uses simple screw and locknut adjusters to keep its valves within spec., but these do add maintenance time to the RS.
Unlike the Harley, the Honda’s connecting rods are offset, but they ride on a single crankpin. The engine features a slightly oversquare bore and stroke, measuring 79.0mm x 76.0mm. Its multi-valve heads and liquid-cooling also allow for a highercompression to squeeze more power out of its 745cc (45.4 cid) without detonation. We expected that the Sportster’s 138cc displacement advantage would make it a winner in the battle for Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 vs. Honda Shadow RS by Scott Rousseau Model Evaluation An age-old rivalry is renewed with this pair of V-twin roadsters. So which one rules the road? Scott Rousseau dyno supremacy, and the Harley didn’t disappoint us. Rated by the factory at 55 lb.-ft. of peak torque @ 3500 rpm at the crankshaft, our test Sportster pumped out 47.5 rear-wheel hp @ 5900 rpm before smacking into its 6000-rpm rev limiter. Its peak torque of 48.02 lb.-ft. occurred at 3900 rpm, but typical of a Milwaukee V-twin, the torque curve was broad and flat, never dipping below 41 lb.-ft. throughout the useable rev range. The Shadow motor isn’t as strong, but it still posted respectable numbers despite its displacement handicap, generating 37.79 rear-wheel hp @ 5300 rpm and 41.45 lb.-ft. of torque @ 3500 rpm. A look at the dyno graph also shows that the Shadow’s torque spread remains above 40 lb.-ft. only from 3000-4300 rpm. With its overhead cam design, we would’ve expected the Honda to make a little more power closer to its 6300 rpm redline, but it just isn’t there. The Sportster’s healthier engine performance manifested itself in performance testing as well. It recorded a slightly slower top speed of 105.2 mph compared to the Shadow’s 109.8 mph, but it cleaned house in our acceleration trials, zipping from 0–60mph in 6.37 sec. en route to a best quarter mile run of 14.60 sec. @ 89.15 mph. Try as we might, we could not get the Shadow to break into the 14s. Its best quarter-mile run was 15.32 secs. @ 82.58 mph while going from 0–60 mph in 7.02 secs. In the real world, both machines are adequate for their intended roaming about town or short excursions, and both offer acceptable throttle response with a linear engine feel. It’s just that the Sportster offers more grunt everywhere.
Transmission—Honda 1st Clutch—H-D 1st Both machines use cable-operated clutches and five-speed transmissions, and the Honda’s clutch and shifting action can best be described as silky, while the Harley’s clutch pull is heavier and its shifting clunkier. Harley has made great strides in improving quality in these areas, but still has a long way to go to match the smoothness and consistency of the Honda’s transmission. But while the Honda narrows the overall gap by offering a lighter, smoother clutch pull, we did notice a tendency for the clutch to slip under the strain of heavy acceleration. This was most obvious when launching from a standing start while applying a lot of throttle, and it raises a concern about the clutch’s long-term durability. The Harley’s clutch pull may be heavier, but its engagement is more positive, something that certainly helped it during our quarter-mile testing. The broader torque spread of the Harley engine means that you can get away with fewer shifts, and when cruising along in top gear, there is a noticeable difference in gearing. The Sportster’s final drive has been relaxed with the addition of a one tooth larger front sprocket, allowing it to purr down the road at 70 mph. We can’t accuse the Honda of being undergeared, but its secondary vibration does creep through the hand controls at 70 mph, 10 mph sooner than the Harley- Davidson. That could be a consideration if long highway trips are part of your riding agenda.Lastly, the Shadow RS uses a chain rather than a shaft final drive. We would applaud this move more if the Honda were equipped with a rear disc brake, as it would open a wealth of wheel/tire choices. As it is, the chain’s simplicity is overshadowed (no pun intended) by the Harley’s belt drive, which is practically maintenance-free.
Chassis, Suspension & Handling—Tie The Sportster’s last major chassis renovations came in 2004, when its steel chassis received rubber engine mounts in an effort to quell vibration and kill off its negative “paint shaker” reputation. As the engine was no longer a stressed member of the chassis, H-D engineers regained the lost rigidity via a 3/4" increase in the thickness of the backbone, going from 1 5/8" to 2 1/8". The changes marked a significant improvement in both vibration reduction and torsional stiffness (a 26% increase), but the downside was that the chassis gained 60 lbs. in the process. Such a weight increase was bound to adversely affect the Sportster’s steering, not that the Sportster could ever be accused of being quick-handling in the first place.
So to understand the changes that have been made to the Sportster Super Low, one must first understand that—perhaps for the first time ever—Harley- Davidson perceives this particular Sportster as a “beginner’s bike,” a vehicle it hopes will attract more first-time motorcycle buyers to the brand. As 25% of Harley’s customers are also new to motorcycling, it only makes sense to have such a bike in the fleet, thus the Super Low’s 59.3" wheelbase chassis has been modified to accommodate newcomers. H-D engineers started by changing the triple clamp offset to increase rake from 29.6° to 31° and increase trail from 4.6" to 5.7". That might sound like a step in the wrong direction, but Harley engineers then decreased both the front wheel’s weight and diameter to quicken its steering, taking it from 19" to 18", and they also increased the amount of steering radius from lock to lock. At the same time, the rear wheel diameter was increased from 16" to 17". Funny enough, the Super Low isn’t lower than the Sportster Low that it is replacing, it’s actually a tad taller in all respects. Its non-adjustable 39mm Showa fork actually offers 4.26" of suspension travel (vs. the Low’s 3.62"), and its preload adjustable-only twin coil-over rear shocks boast an underwhelming 2.12" of rear wheel travel while the Low’s rear wheel travel was a scant 1.63." Honda doesn’t expressly market the Shadow as a beginner’s motorcycle, but its chassis geometry numbers and suspension components tend to fall right in line with the Harley’s. The Shadow RS’ steel chassis has a slightly longer 61.5" wheelbase and a slightly more relaxed 32° rake but a shorter 5.27" of trail. It, too, is equipped with Showa suspension components, but they offer more suspension travel than the Harley’s. The Shadow’s 41mm conventional fork provides 4.6" of travel, while its dual shocks offer preload adjustability only and 3.5" of travel. So, which motorcycle handles better, and which has the better suspension? It really depends on what kind of rider is aboard either machine. For casual cruising, the Shadow is an excellent mount, offering a steady feel with comparatively light steering while maintaining excellent stability. It almost encourages you to ride it faster, but as you do, the steering begins to feel vague and the front tire less than planted on the road. The Shadow is also slower to respond when hustling it from side-to-side through sweeping corners. Overall, the Shadow shows its true spirit when the pace isn’t so spirited. By contrast, the Harley-Davidson’ssteering is more deliberate, though it tends to feel better when ridden more aggressively. That’s when its chassis really comes into its own, offering precise steering and excellent feedback from its front tire. In fact, it could be the best handling XL ever (remember, Harley’s newest performance Sportster, the XR1200X, is actually designated as an “XR”), but the problem with the Super Low—and it’s a big problem—is that it possesses ground clearance that can best be described as sorely lacking. With a claimed 24.7° of available lean angle on the right and just 24.4° on the left, the Super Low offers precious little lean angle before its peg feelers begin to gouge the pavement, and it is very easy to snap them off entirely during cornering at what might seem to most MCN readers as a slow-tomoderate pace. Experienced riders soon learn to use special cornering lines and exaggerated body English to guide the Sportster through tighter corners without scraping the feelers at faster speeds—that is, if they haven’t already gone missing in action, exposing the clutch cover on the left and the exhaust pipes on the right to serious road rash. If the Sportster has a single serious flaw, this is it. The Shadow’s fork and shocks are fine for casual cruising, but upping the pace reveals that both ends are light on damping, and cornering at a moderate pace tends to make the suspension pogo up and down too much. The Harley is just the opposite. It feels very rigid until ridden with some aggression. Then, somehow, its scant travel seems to come into its own and provides a very controlled ride best characterized as being on the taut side. In the end, we left this category as a draw. In theory, the Harley- Davidson has better handling and suspension than the Honda, but neither in sufficient quantity to give it a clear advantage and certainly not enough to offset its terrible lean angle issue.
Riding Impression—Tie If both of these machines are designed to attract beginner riders, then both should find favor with them. They offer tough, Unfortunately for the Honda, most of its best detail work is on the inside. Honda’s engineering has a welldeserved reputation for quality and durability, but on the outside the Shadow RS is a very stark, very plain-looking motorcycle that actually looks like a cheap imitation of the Sportster when the two are placed side by side. Its blacked-out engine looks unfinished next to the Super- Low’s and its drum brake looks like it was pirated from an early 1970s CB750. We’re well aware that looks aren’t everything, and the RS certainly isn’t unattractive, but if its purpose is to lure customers who might otherwise be considering a Sportster model, it doesn’t offer nearly as much eye candy as a Harley.
Overall—Sportster Super Low 1st; Shadow RS 2nd This comparison really isn’t as close as it appears. Neither of these motorcycles is perfect, but both should satisfy demand for a low-cost, easy-to-ride cruiser, and both make a great, “next step up” for novice riders ready to trade a lightweight machine for something bigger. The Shadow RS is a balanced package, but it could use a bit more grunt. If the RS were an 850, perhaps the outcome of this comparison might have been in doubt. Honda should also address its uncomfortable seat and bin that drum rear brake. For the most part, the Harley-Davidson Sportster SuperLow upholds its family tradition of providing a solid-performing, good-looking and relatively economical entry into the club of Harley ownership. Its lack of lean angle is appalling, and yet it still handles well and offers an enjoyable riding experience. As roadster-style cruisers go, the Sportster SuperLow is as real as it gets, and that’s what makes it the winner here.