Ride review: Harley-Davidson XL 883 L (aka Sportster SuperLow)

Yes, as a matter of fact, it is like riding a tractor.

That's the criticism so consistently levied against Harley-Davidson motorcycles: that there is something agrarian to the experience. And I can now say from personal experience that all those critics are right. But I can also say those critics are leaving out a key piece of information, which is this:

TRACTORS ARE FUCKING AWESOME!!!

It's a tractor that hurtles forward with roller-coaster intensity, a tractor that goes really fast, a tractor that makes you feel like Brock Lesnar in a children's ball pit. A tractor from the Land of Bad-Ass, with which you can sow the seeds of awesomeness.

But let me back up a bit...

A few days ago, I decided to take the day off, solely for the purpose of getting a chance to ride around and finally make use of the free breakfast coupon sent to me by Thunder Road. As I was gearing up, I suddenly decided that since I was already heading west, I might as well push a few miles further and check out Swansea Harley-Davidson –– Wales' first and only full-on H-D dealer. The place had opened up in March, but due to my deep animosity toward Swansea, I hadn't before made time to visit.

I went simply with the desire to look at the bikes –– nothing more. I wanted to see the Iron 883 in person, wanted to see if it could even pass the very first test of any motorcycle I would consider at the moment: Is it thin enough to fit through my garden gate?

Any bike too big to manoeuvre into the relative safety and shelter of my garden is too big for me too own right now. The good news is it appears –– though be it from visual guesstimating –– a Harley-Davidson 883, whether in Iron, SuperLow or Roadster form, passes the gate test.

The next question I had was: would I even want to ride a Harley? In all my (limited) motorcycling experience, I've only ever ridden in the sit-up-and-beg position of a modern standard or sport tourer: a Yamaha YBR125, a Suzuki GS500, a Honda CBF600, and now a Honda CBF600SA. The riding position of motorcycling's most-iconic and sometimes most-divisive brand was an unknown to me.

I had heard all kinds of horror stories about Harley-Davidson dealers, with some people claiming to have not even been allowed to touch bikes. So, I was very timid in wandering around the shop (side note: it has air conditioning, which is very rare in Wales, so Swansea Harley-Davidson is my new favourite place to go on a hot day), doing my best to not even breathe on the machines. Eventually, I was approached by sales executive Paul Chapple, who asked if he could help out.

"Well, uhm," I said nervously. "Would it be, uhm,  alright if I were to, uhm, sit on the Iron 883 over there?"

"Of course," he said. "Sit on as many of the bikes as you'd like. Though, you'll get much more sense of a bike if you try out one of the demos, take them out for a test ride. That way you get the sound, the feel, the whole experience. That's what these bikes are all about."

What?! A test ride?!!

I had always been conditioned to believe that HD dealerships were run by dicks. But here's Paul offering me the keys. After a tiny bit of paperwork, we were outside and standing next to an XL883L SuperLow –– effectively the same machine as the Iron 883, with more chrome and a lower riding position. He explained the basics, suggested a route and left me alone.

Perhaps Paul understands that a man needs a little alone time for his first Harley experience.

"Fwahwahwahwahwahwahwah," growled the bike as I started it up.

"Oh, my," I said to myself. "See. This. This is why Harley-Davidson sells so many of these things."

The bike shuddered and growled. I thought of the slogan for Victory motorcycles, "Ride one and you'll own one," and thought to myself: "Good Lord, how could anything be better than this mind-blowing sex machine? This thing is fucking amazing!"

KAKUNK! I put the bike into first gear. I instantly understood the comparison to a tractor. There is no doubting gear changes on a Harley. Sometimes I'll be riding along on Aliona, will shift gears but not hear or feel anything, and think: "Did that shift take? What gear will I be in when I let out the clutch?"

This would never, ever happen on a Harley. Never. Ever. People half a block away will hear your gear changes.

The second thing that makes one think of a tractor is the fact it feels as if you are being pulled by one when you twist the throttle. Acceleration on Aliona is quick but relatively gentle –– nimble. On the glorious devil tractor that is the 883, I felt I was being launched. It was terrifying for half a second, unnerving for two seconds, and super-amazeballs awesome for every second thereafter.

At the A484 I brought the bike easily up to 65 mph and shouted above the roar: "I'm on a fucking Harley!"

I felt giddy and excited. I was laughing and whooping. It occurred to me that this bike was adhering to Lucky's first rule of motorcycles, which is that it should put a huge smile on your face. This thing was making me grin so big it hurt my face.

What I loved:

I loved the pull of the bike. I can't think of any better way to describe it; I felt I was hooked to some sort of industrial device that was aggressively dragging me from one place to the other. With Aliona, speed and movement are more fluid –– you think about being in a place and you are just there –– but with this terrible wonderful machine the movement was felt. There was no doubting I was on a machine. I was sitting on an engine.

It reminded me of an old drunkard I used to know in Minnesota who worked in construction. As a party trick he would pull down a large, industrial plastic barrel from his pickup truck. He would light a stick of dynamite, set the barrel over it, then sit on the barrel. When the dynamite exploded it would send him 10-15 feet into the air and he would laugh with the full of him. This is what I felt. I was on that dynamite barrel.

I loved, too, the machine's distribution of weight. Although the 883 is a good 100 lbs. heavier than my CBF600SA, that weight is lower to the ground, meaning the bike felt just a little more steady. Possibly not as nimble, but more solid. Within just a few minutes of being on the bike I felt at home enough to filter through traffic.

Indeed, the whole experience felt intuitive and natural to me. It felt right. In fairness, I suspect this may have a lot to do with the fact that in the United States I always chose pickup trucks as my mode of transportation. I prefer, it seems, a rougher, more industrial ride. Though, I have to point out that the seat on the 883 is markedly comfier than the one on my Honda.

I loved the constant drone of the engine, and the way it shuddered and growled when at stops. It reminded me of the 1969 Ford F250 I drove in high school. And indeed I felt a deep awareness of the fact that a Harley was the sort of machine that could help me get a girl.

"Jenn would really dig this," I thought.

What I didn't love:

With all of the above said, I have to admit that I don't think it very likely you'll see me cruising around on an XL 883L SuperLow. It is an incredible machine, but, it turns out, not quite my kind of machine. First of all, it felt cramped. I am 6-foot-1 and the SuperLow was clearly not designed with me in mind. It is targeted at shorter riders. I kept trying to push the seat back, trying to give myself a little more legroom. On the afternoon of the test ride there was pain in my left knee that I think may have come from being cramped up on the bike.

Additionally, there was some lower back pain that I think may also have originated with the 883. A major issue I had with the bike was: How to sit on it? Slightly slouched forward? Slightly leaned back? I wasn't sure. No posture felt exactly right. Thanks to getting lost while out on the ride, I spent a solid hour on the 883, and toward the end of the experience some of the initial lustre had worn off.

To that end, I can't imagine myself being able to tolerate particularly long rides on this bike. It would cause me physical pain, and I wonder if perhaps the constant roar and shudder of the engine might get on one's nerves after a while. Perhaps not. Perhaps it would just become part of the experience. Hard to say.

Perhaps, too, suffering all that wind would become acceptable –– after I had developed strong forearms. As is, however, the 883 wasn't terribly pleasant at high speeds. I found myself hanging onto the bike with almost the same level of strength I'd need to hang from a chin-up bar. In motorcycle training, I had ridden naked bikes but for some reason the wind on this machine was considerably worse. Again, this may be an ergonomics thing because I was the wrong size for the bike. And, obviously, Harley-Davidson sells windscreens.

One thing Harley-Davidson does not sell, however, is a particularly good solution for the heat that comes off the engine. I was wearing high-quality motorcycle trousers and the temperature was no more than 20C (68F) but heat was pouring into my leg as I rode. I'd be a little concerned about riding such a bike in anything other than British weather. That said, the air-cooled engine did make that strangely therapeutic "tink-tink-tink" noise of cooling when I stopped to take pictures.

Overall:

As I say, by and large I was enamoured with this machine. I felt instantly an understanding of why some people hold such a strong allegiance to them. But I felt I could understand, too, why some people are equally critical. It is a motorcycling experience that spurs an emotional response: if you like the Harley-Davidson riding experience, you're probably going to really like it; conversely, if you don't like it, you may really not like it. For my own part, I really liked it.

The Harley-Davidson 883 answers a number of questions to the affirmative –– Would it fit in my garden? Yes. Does it put a huge grin on my face? Definitely. –– but I'm a little uncertain on the last of the questions I'd ask of any new bike: Is it better than my current motorcycle?

Comparing the Harley-Davidson XL 883L SuperLow and the Honda CBF600SA is, admittedly, a pretty apples-and-oranges exercise. The wind protection, antilock brakes, good gas mileage, more dashboard information, additional horsepower and lower asking price make my Honda appealing, though I'll admit that the emotional draw of the Harley-Davidson is considerably greater. Based on my budget and needs I think that if given the choice I might just stick with the Honda. Maybe. But maybe not...

Comments

  1. Life is made up of memorable experiences and I am sure this is one of them. "Awesome" I think is the phrase :-)

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  2. Great job getting out there and riding other bikes. I also find it interesting to see the different styles of riding out their in comparison to your usual ride.

    Interesting that you mention how loud the bike is. It is my experience that many cruiser riders in North America are obsessed with having a loud bike. There is a saying, "Loud pipes save lives." Perhaps making the bike loud is an attempt to adhere to those who believe in this idea.

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  3. Of course, every person's experience and preference is different. I know a guy who rode his Sportster through Death Valley during the day in July...

    But most people (who are willing to admit that Sportsters are cool - which they are) will tell you it's an in-town bike, or a canyon carver. You don't really want to go out for the whole day on one. Instead, you take it out for a high speed blast yelling "WHEEEEEEEEEE!"

    And I've heard the heat coming from the rear jug will cook you in the summer.

    Of course, if nothing else is right for you, nothing else is right. :D

    I'm kind of afraid to go to the local HD dealer... If I do a test ride and love it, will I be able to leave without one?

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  4. Chris:

    I am not sure I would like the seating position of being on your tailbone nor put up with the loud mufflers, or the vibrations. I think I would rather have your Honda too

    bob
    Riding the Wet Coast

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  5. Hi Chris,

    I've been reading your articles for a while and they are a hoot and a half to read :)

    I'm glad you enjoyed the HD experience (having recently purchased an Iron 883 myself) I can tell you with confidence they are great machines but as depicted in your article not so great on the motorway, the wind will definitely try to take you off the bike at any speed of more than 60mph. I see holding on to it is as part of my workout routine.

    As per the loudness it is epic! people will move away and make space for you in traffic (a courtesy I never experienced on my little Duke125) perhaps they are just afraid that the brakes won't be able to stop such a heavy machine at speed, they do (Just!)

    I think you're spot on, for a daily bike Honda's do the job (really well) but when you see a guy/girl explaining to a non biker why their (Insert Japanese Brand)XZYXXX190000fire-razor-(generic macho nonsense) is a good bike you can clearly see people dozing off, the moment you say "Harley" the bored-ness stops and it becomes an interesting topic all off the sudden.

    As you say comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Gotta say I love all bikes as long as they put a massive grin on your face.

    "Love what you ride, whatever it may be"

    N

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  6. Hi Chris,

    I like the review; I haven't ridden a Harley before but I've got my heart set on a Triumph America, which is often compared with the Superlow. Let me know if you ever get a chance to ride one, I'd like to know what you make of them. Supposedly they're very similar but Triumph have at least tried to address the issues you mention.

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    1. I had my heart set on a Triumph America before I got my Sportster Iron. At 6'0, the triumph seemes like it would be much more comfortable to sit on and ride. I had trouble finding a good used one here in the states though, so I went with an Iron 883, and had forward controls installed.

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  7. Thank you for expressing what I feel for my 883. For my posture is not much of an issue (I have shorter legs...) but I love the fact that it doesn't sound like a sewing machine ;-)

    Of course it is not the perfect touring bike but I have been traveling many klicks without ever adding more than fuel and the odd oil drops. Nothing ever broke down while on a trip, can you imagine? Well, I am so much in love with my bike that I brought it back from Canada, when I moved to Germany.

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  8. Hi Chris, great piece, like your honesty. I bought my first Harley, an 883 Sportster twelve months ago. I'm 5'10", and the first thing I did was fit 12 inch mini-ape handlebars and forward controls. The apes allow my hands to sit below my shoulder height. So your hands don't go numb from lack of blood supply but it gives you a great reach and easy for counter-steer. The forward controls give you all the leg room for those with the longer inseam. Mid controls are good for slightly shorter riders. Clocked up 320km yesterday with mates up in the mountains west of Brisbane Australia. Got home, no back aches. Worse part was having to park it in the garage and be handed a list of domestic chores from the Minister of Domestic Affairs (my loving wife). Cheers Tony R (Bris Vegas, Australia)

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  9. I recently bought a mint 2007 XL883L with less than 2,000 miles. A critical modification is to replace the mid-controls with forward controls for the shifter and rear brake. I ordered the parts from the local Harley dealer and installed them myself in a couple of hours. This is a relatively inexpensive modification and has added immensely to my enjoyment of the ride and the bike.

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  10. I just traded in a 2013 SuperLow for a 2014 Iron. I've experienced no lower-back pains on the Iron like I did on the SuperLow. The Iron also allows me to lean more into the turns. It also makes my teeth brighter, my hair shinier, and even makes women swoon... mostly at the bike. The noise keeps motorists off their phones. The vibrations keeps me from going into Trance Mode. And then there's that public reception that's usually reserved for returning astronauts. Everyone waves at me: women, children, scary old Harley men with long beards and face tattoos.

    I would prefer quieter bike with fairings and windscreens for long commutes and tours. But then again that's why I have a car.

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  11. Hi everyone who has commented i am a new rider and at 5ft 1 i am unsure i could ride this harley even though it is my dream to own one and living in Scotland the heat should'nt be an issue, thoughts on this please

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    1. I think you probably could. Being a foot taller than you, I found the controls really cramped. The best thing to do is just head into your local Harley dealer and ask to take a seat on one, just to get the feel of the thing. If you can touch your feet down I think you'd be alright because the weight is kept low. What bike do you ride at the moment?

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  12. Hi Chris,

    This post has been awesome as I own a CBF600 myself and thinking about switching to a HD Sporster iron 883 too.

    Just reading it put a smile on my face too :) I am 6'1" as well but I think I could do a little relocation with the footpegs. The wind is inevitable obviously but I just cannot stop the desire for this tractor :)

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  13. Bottom line is narrow glides are just fun to ride unless your 6 foot tall. They corner great and are just fun to run.

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  14. i'm looking at a 2009 883l, 491 miles. set up for years, lady did not like to ride. dealer asking 4500. totally basic 883l. looks like new. i would appreciate any and all comments ASAP. TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY, that is my question. tks, allen june 3, 2016

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  15. I liked your thoughts' on the bike but there are other things' you can think about . I own a 05 xl883 and up until this past year rode most every day , i have forward controles , crah bars and hirise handle bars . these things kind of take care of the posture problem and the heat on your leg . I have just over 35000 miles and travel to FL. GA. and the south east , with a peanut tank you are limited to distance and the vibration will also tend to have you takeing a brake now and then but for me it's my kind of bike :)... I would also mention i'm 68 yrs old !

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  16. I have a honda cbr600rr..I went into a new Harley dealer for first time Sunday thinking A) never be able to afford one B) I'll look, go home and dream C) they would be don't touch, dont look and please move your bike off our forecourt types...lol
    How wrong was I, I ended up walking out having agreed part ex on my bike and buying a new 883 super low with stage 1 exhaust kit to make it even louder...roll on next Friday I get to collect my new beast :-)
    My wrists no longer love my sports bike and I'm too short an small to manage a pillion on my bike so hopefully next summer my partner an I can both enjoy the shiny shiny deafening gorgeous bike ����
    Also can't wait to be a H.O.G member an join a Harley chapter...happy days

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  17. So. I'm all of 5ft 2" and weigh in at 60kg..... and ride an 883xl..... at 120km/h, and 140 occasionally. ... and up to about 120km at a stretch.... sometimes 450k's in a day..... Yes, she's a tough and hard ride. I often feel as though I'm hanging on for dear life trying to catch up to my partner on his bigass RoadKing. Not the easiest ride for a girl, but I absolutely love riding my spunky little tractor.

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  18. Most stock Harleys are well not actually great, I say that mainly after one month on owning a 883 superlow was mad as a hater at the bit of junk I had spent a ton on. After 2nd service I changed the rear suspension, full screaming eagle exhaust system, stage 1 filter, and power commander FI controller, then mini apes 11" forward controls, two up get seat, new speedo with the Fuel Gauge and a more Digital look. Its almost like a completely different bike. I am looking at a touring windshield and a even better gas rear shocks.

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