Harley Davidson Sportster XL883L

If you want speed, economy and practicality, then look the other way. But if you want fun and a bike that oozes retro style, read on.

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Brakes: single 292mm rotors at front and rear
Seat height: from 660mm (on 'L' version) to 693mm.
Dry weight: 251 kg
Price: from £5,195
Engine/transmission: 883cc air-cooled 45-degree V-Twin; 70 Nm @ 3,750 rpm; five-speed gearbox, belt final drive.

The XL 883 Sportster is the cute baby in this iconic brand's range of crafted, retro-style motorcycles; a bargain-budget way into a version of motorcycling that can encompass an entire lifestyle - if that is your thing.

But what it lacks in size (and price) is more than made up for in distinctive V-twin charisma. If you long to wear fringed leather jackets and fingerless gloves beneath an open-face helmet and shades, there is no better mount on which to start.

But the little Harley-Davidson is no longer a triumph of style alone. Ten years ago, basic Sportsters were crude machines that looked great but felt like pigs. Modern versions retain the aesthetics, but while the bike still looks as if it might have been ridden to a Doors concert, it is good for more than posing.

The clutch is light and the big, rubber-mounted 883cc engine has been honed by years of modification. The outcome is a power unit that retains the classic silver, powder-coated look of street machines while achieving surprising smoothness and sophistication. It sounds gorgeous, too. Enhancements to a once-heavy gearbox have rendered the bike pleasingly manageable.

The Sportster is huge fun in town, powerful enough to entertain on country lanes and nimble. Looks still matter enormously. With its "peanut" fuel tank, old-school spoked wheels and ample portions of chrome, the Sportster is not a bike to hide away. Nor is it a practical motorway performer, still less a long-distance tourer. Tank range is barely 100 miles, weather protection is non-existent and carrying capacity limited.

In common with larger, more expensive Harleys, the Sportster comes in assorted guises with each variant denoted by a different letter. There is the flat-track race-inspired XL883R, the low-slung XL883 L designed for small riders (and ridden in this test) and the XL883C, which comes with forward controls and pullback handlebars for a truly laid-back riding position. If that alphabet-soup leaves you intrigued, check out the ample accessories manual.

If you love modern motorcycles for their speed, economy, practicality and handling the Sportster is not for you. The engine generates less power than 500cc Japanese machines and the look makes it a magnet for thieves and vandals. But if you regard travel on two-wheels as a weekend luxury or summer-only treat, then this is an ideal hobby bike. And if you graduate to something faster and less traditional you will discover that Harley-Davidsons have some of the highest resale values in modern motorcycling.

Deborah Street, 42 University lecturer, Gloucestershire

USUAL BIKE: YAMAHA SRX600

It fitted my five-foot frame admirably. The weight and shape allowed plenty of parking agility and all controls were reachable. As the day started with thick fog, the Harley roar was a great advantage. The riding position felt just right and it didn't take long to get up the gears and away into the hills. Winding highways were a treat. The gearbox forgave rash decisions, but the brakes initially left me cold. This is not a sports bike. The switchgear is easy to find, but the self-cancelling indicators left me confused. The triumph is the proximity alarm; just a simple on/off capability that works. This bike would not suit commuting, but I would consider one for the weekend.

Dave Ward, 39 Nuclear power station electrician, Bristol

USUAL BIKES: KTM DUKE620E, HONDA FIREBLADE

Heavy, hairy and slow was what I always said about Harleys, so it was nice to have a positive experience to change my mind. It feels no heavier than any other bike. There's no hair, only shiny chrome and it wasn't slow. I loved the proximity alarm and the exhaust pipes sounded excellent. You have to lean a Harley for any swift cornering and you should avoid potholes. The handling was responsive and acceleration was good. The gear change is quick and I began to enjoy swooping through bends. The riding position was the most comfortable I've had. If you ride a sports bike, try one of these - you might begin to understand why they are loved so much.

Tim Allbone, 41 Engineer, Hertfordshire

USUAL BIKE: TRIUMPH TIGER

It looks just as a Harley should. There is a lot of torque for such a slow-revving twin and it will pull sharply up to 40mph. After that, it starts to run out of puff. But 70mph is as fast as you want. Any quicker and the lack of wind protection has an effect. Controls are all in the right place. The speedo is easy to read. Self-cancelling indicators work very well and the brakes are more than strong enough, even with a single disc on the front. Ride quality is harsh. My main concern was ground clearance. On roundabouts and corners the exhaust hits the deck very quickly. It works well at what it is designed for, but if I had a spare five grand, it would not go on one of these.

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