Harley-Davidson Sportster 883: Beginner Bike Profile + Owner Reviews

The Perfect Harley-Davidson for New Riders

Harley-Davidson began continuous production of the iconic Sportster back in 1957.  The Sportster Evolution engine has remained largely unchanged from 1986 to the present day, though changes to the transmission, final drive, and motor mounts have occurred. For the purpose of this writing, I am going to focus on the “Evo” bikes, those 883’s made since 1986 when HD introduced the Evolution series of engines.

Often referred to as the “Ladies Harley,” it’s a title generally spouted by members of the motorcycle world who are far too concerned over the size of what’s between their legs and the outward appearance of their fragile egos. Now just to be transparent, I own a 1995 Sportster 883, it is one of 4 motorcycles I own, and I can say without hesitation I love it, and I would never sell it. The 883cc, air-cooled, 45-degree, V-twin engine has the distinctive Harley idle and sound. The torque is quite strong in the low RPM range making the Sportster a blast around the city.

I don’t think any other manufacturer does paint and chrome to the level of HD -2014 every model benefits from that attention to detail. I smile every time I look at my Sportster, it just draws you in.

The Sportster family has always occupied the entry-level position in the Harley-Davidson lineup, follow along and I will break down why it makes such a great choice for a new rider.

Our Take: Why You Should Buy a Sportster 883

1995 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Hugger (XLH883 Hugger) Rear and Side View

For many people, at some point in their memory bank of reasons they wanted to ride a motorcycle, there is a memory of a Harley. They had a friend or a family member who had a Harley, and the look, or the sound, just the whole package triggered something inside them. I can think of no other motorcycle manufacturer that created its own lifestyle, its own deep soul-stirring connection with people. So the first honest reason to consider a Sportster 883 as a new rider? It’s bonafide, pure in its soul,  Harley-Davidson.

The Sportster 883 Evolution engine makes 49 hp and 54 lb-ft of torque, and on average weighs in at 550 lbs. This results in a fantastic power to weight ratio and translates into a very fun ride, especially between stoplights. Everything about the Sportster is stripped down and pure. Not much for modern technology, everything has a very mechanical feel and the cable-actuated clutch is heavy to pull,  and the brakes require more input. While some may consider these drawbacks, honestly it’s all part of the charm. The bike has some attitude and it expects you to forget your worries, mesh your vibe with it, and enjoy the freedom of the wind in your face.

On my first ride, I was shocked by how comfortable I felt on this low bike. I am 6’ tall and from the start, I was feeling right with my positioning. When I began to push the bike, the Sportster responded with great feedback through the frame and handlebars surprising me with its handling abilities. The bulk of the weight sits low and is much easier to transition side to side and through the corners than I was expecting. In comparison to other models in the HD lineup, the Sportster has a weight and balance that are more manageable for new riders.

Bottom line: The Sportster 883 has so many variations, finding a style that fits “you” is easy. Harley-Davidson builds great-looking bikes that draw you in and beg you to modify into an extension of your own self. The Sportster 883 is the right balance of power, torque, and smooth delivery which build new rider confidence, and never feels entry-level or girlie.

Reasons to buy the Sportster 883:

  •  49 hp and 54 lb-ft of torque will keep you smiling and with the group.
  • The suspension is a great blend between comfort, compliance, and performance.
  • The endless aftermarket support to customize your Harley to your style.
  • Parts and knowledge are everywhere and easy to access, when it’s service time.
  • The best value for entry to the Harley-Davidson world.
  • Shockingly easy and affordable to upgrade to a 1200cc engine when your skills reach the need for more power.

Reasons not to buy the Sportster 883:

  • The Sportster is just not as reliable as the imports.
  • ABS wasn’t even an option till 2014.
  • If you like new, it can be hard to distinguish a new Sportster from an old one.

Production Run & Notable Model-Year Changes

Production Run & Model Generations

The Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 doesn’t really follow a standard generational change. They tend to be a long stream of evolution. I will list these below. I will also highlight some key Sportster models that have been produced over the years.

  • 1986 “Evolution” engine introduced in 883 cc and 1,100 cc sizes.
  • 1988 Constant velocity carburetor replaces butterfly carburetor.
  • 1991 Five-speed transmission replaces four-speed.
  • 1991 Belt drive replaces chain drive on 883 Deluxe and all 1200 models.
  • 1993 Belt drive made standard on all Sportsters.
  • 1994 Improved oil tank, battery tray, and clutch made standard.
  • 1994 New electrical system with sealed connectors.
  • 1995 Speedometer is now electronic, not mechanical.
  • 2000 Introduced sealed wheel bearings and updated four-piston brake calipers.
  • 2003 Last year for the frame-mounted Evolution engine.
  • 2004 All-new frame including a rubber-mounted engine for decreased vibration. Elimination of the transmission trap door, exhaust balance pipe moved from running under the air filter and disguised and hidden behind the silencers to show more of the engine, new smoother style oil tank right-side panel with push and turn filler/dipstick, and the previously exposed battery is now enclosed in a matching side panel on the left
  • 2005 Enlarged rear axle to 1 inch (25.4 mm) for increased stability.
  • 2007 Fuel injection replaces carburetion on all models.
  • 2008 front axle enlarged from 3/4 inch to 25 mm, rear axle decreased from 1 inch (25.4 mm) to 25 mm.
  • 2009 “One size fits all” front mudguard approach replaced by improved mudguard contour to match each model’s respective wheel diameters.
  • 2010 The ECU is relocated to allow more variation in aftermarket seat selection. Side-mounted license plate option on some models.
  • 2014 new electrical harness, new larger brakes, antilock brakes (ABS) option, keyless entry, new speedometer with gear indicator/tachometer, increased engine compression ratio, and a catalytic converter.
  • Check out the current model year here.

XLH883 (1986-2008)

  • All new Evolution V-twin engine and updated chassis.

1986 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 (XLH883) Front and Side View

XLH883 Hugger (1988-2003)

  • Lowered suspension, Lowered seat, and Buckhorn handlebars.

1995 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Hugger (XLH883 Hugger) On Its Side Stand

XLH883 C Custom (1998-2009)

  • Standard 883 powertrain on a 1200C chassis.

Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Custom (XLH883C) Side View

XLH883R Roadster (2002-2015)

  • The racing look of the dirt trackers of the past.

Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Roadster (XLH883R) Front and Side View

XLH883N Iron (2009-current)

  • Beginning of the Blacked-out look.

Harley Davidson Iron 883 (XLH883N) Side View

Owner Reviews of the Harley-Davidson Sportster 883

2021 Harley Davidson Iron 883 Side View Outdoors

Press & Magazines

Harley-Davidson Iron 883 vs. Honda Shadow RS vs. Triumph Bonneville – Comparison Test – Cycle World

“Though the Iron 883 is 61 pounds heavier, it still beats the Shadow 0 to 60 and in the quarter-mile, and the poor little Honda is all tuckered out at 97 mph.”

Cycle World (Sept 2010)

2016 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Review | First Ride Test

“For me, riding the 2016 Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883 is a joy. It’s not great in any way, except for the feeling of being one with a bare-bones machine. As the Iron 883 is very compact, with mid-controls that make me feel long-legged at 5’ 10”, and with a narrow 3.3-gallon peanut tank between my legs, there’s nothing intimidating about the bike. I feel like its master, and nothing happens without my direct input and approval.”

Ultimate Motorcycling (September 4, 2015)

What Owners Like

  • It has great power and a smooth-shifting gearbox
  • Such a great looking bike, that I can customize forever
  • The price – yes you can get a great Harley for less than $10 grand new, and the used ones are a steal.
  • It has great handling for a low slung cruiser
  • The 883 engine has been very reliable.

What Owners Complain About

  • The stock seat sucks. ‘Nuff said.
  • The controls take strong hands, they are heavy pulls
  • The Peanut fuel tank is small, so the range isn’t great
  • The rear shocks aren’t great, if you are over 170 lbs you will want to upgrade them.

The Bottom Line

The Evo series of Harley-Davidson Sportsters are good bikes, even for new riders. Despite having more power and being heavier than most entry-level bikes, for a confident new rider this will be no trouble.

The Sportster 883 is nothing like its competition. The Japanese offerings are fine, kinda like khaki pants. They are acceptable everywhere. The Sportster gives you entry into what makes Harley-Davidson so damn appealing. The complete opposite of khaki. The Sportster is refined, smooth, and nimble-ish, while also being rough around the edges with a side of attitude.

This has zero to do with better and is all about the statement you want to make on the road. I have always believed myself to be a pure biker at heart, meaning I have a deep love of all things with two wheels and an engine. I am not one who is into the “Harley lifestyle”, and I am not suggesting that is a negative at all. I am simply making it clear that I don’t own a single bit of Harley-Davidson clothing or kit, but I do own a 1995 Sportster 883 Hugger, and good luck ever prying the keys out of my hands.

Woman Riding A Harley Davidson Iron 883

Sportster 883 Competitors

If you’re looking at a Sportster 883, you may also want to check out,

Sportster 883 Specifications

The important specs are listed below, for a 2000 XLH883. See the Wikipedia page for more detailed specifications.

Engine Air-cooled, 883cc, 45° V-twin, OHV
Top speed Est. 150 Kmh (93.2)
Power 57 hp (42.5 KW) @ 6000 RPM
Torque 53 lb⋅ft (71.9 N⋅m) @ 4500 RPM
Transmission 5-speed

F: 39mm Conventional Cartridge

R: Dual Shocks Coil-over, preload adjustable


F: Disc, twin-piston caliper

R: Disc, single-piston caliper

Tires F: 90 / 90 R19, R: 110 / 90 R16
Dimensions L: 2237 mm (88.3 in)
Seat height 711.2 mm (28 in)
Weight Wet: 263 kg (579 lb)
Fuel capacity 9.5 l (2.5 US gal)
Fuel consumption 49 mpg (4.8 L/100 km)

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