The Harley Forty-Eight Sportster comes in a standard version and a more upright Special version. We ride them both to let you know the differences... Review: Jeff Ware Photography: HMC Photography, BikeReview

The H-D Forty-Eight comes in two versions, upright Special or rider forward Standard. Both are identical in spec aside from seat height, weight & handlebar height but offer different ride experiences. We put them head-to-head for you…

The standard Forty-Eight has low, forward reach handlebars and drop down underslung mirrors but still a feet forward leg position.

The standard Forty-Eight has low, forward reach handlebars and drop down underslung mirrors.

After riding the big Harley’s over the COVID-19 restrictions period, from March through to September it was a fun experience to drop back to the smaller 1200 for a week and use the standard Forty-Eight version as a daily rider. I’d previously tested the Special and really liked it but I was surprised at how different the standard version is to ride, so it made sense to compare the two Sportsters.

2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster FortyEight Special

The Forty-Eight Special isn’t available with the orange pin striping anymore but is still the same bike, taller ‘bars and a lower seat height than the standard version of the model.

The Forty-Eight is powered by the popular Evolution 1202cc V-twin motor which produces 96Nm@3600rpm but produces that over a wide torque-curve, making it available in any gear at just about any speed. The air-cooled fuel injected (ESPFI) motor has a long stroke dimension of 88.9 x 96.8mm and runs a compression ratio of 10.0:1. With the five speed wide ratio gearbox and tall final 30/68 gearing, the Forty-Eight is happy between the 70km/h and 120km/h range.

The chassis, like the engine, is virtually identical on the two bikes sans the handlebars on the Special, which are a taller mini ape hanger style, and the seat height, which is 5mm lower than on the standard model. Suspension travel, geometry, wheels, tyres, brakes are all the same, however, the Special is a few kilo’s heavier than the standard for some reason I can’t work out. With the bigger ‘bars, the Special is of course wider and taller. Both bikes are identical in price, $18,995 Ride Away, but with the chrome highlights and details, the Special seems to be the better value on paper.

The Special has black mufflers rather than chrome, so while added chrome is on the engine, to give a more retro and tougher look, the muffler tips are blacked out. The fat Michelin Scorcher tyres look chunkier on the Special, particularly the front, but it is an optical illusion caused, I guess, by the handlebar bend. I reckon, looks-wise, the Special gets the gong but it is an individual thing!

Both versions are super stylish, well finished and great fun to ride…

2018 Harley-Davidson FortyEight Special

The controls on both bikes are the same and standard simple H-D jobs. There is the dash scroll button on the left, a fob instead of a key as usual, indicators on left and right switchblocks, auto cancelling on the indicators as well as the usual – horn, high beam, kill/start, hazard.

The dash is a simple but stylish centrally mounted clock on the top triple clamp and the same on both bikes, it features the speedometer with odometer, clock, dual tripmeter, low fuel warning light, low oil pressure light, engine diagnostics readout, LED indicator lights.

The Evolution 1200 motor is fairly restricted to meet emissions regulations, so the note from the mufflers as the V-twin fires into life within a few cranks is underwhelming. The quietness means that the loud mechanical noises of the engine are more exaggerated, or noticeable, than usual, so as the engine idles away and warms up, it dominates the sound track. Fitting pipes, or at least slip-ons, would be my first job if I had a Forty-Eight. Regardless, it idles smoothly, chugging along…

2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster FortyEight Special

The Special is nimble in the corners, with the wide tall ‘bars helping with quick turn-in. If only there was more clearance.

Sitting on the Forty-Eight Special revealed a relaxed and comfortable position with a super low 705mm seat and natural feeling foot placement. The handlebars are just the right height and the bike is narrow between the knees. At 187cm, I fit into the bike well, which is a surprise.


The standard version is a different story, with the handlebars lower by approximately 100-120mm and a reach forward, it puts my arms closer to my knees and feels more cramped than the Special. I don’t notice the 5mm seat height difference, even with both feet on the ground.

Ground clearance is a limiting issue on the Forty-Eight. If it was increased, it’d make the bike a lot sportier.

Rolling off for some time in the twisties and then the open country roads, I was immediately impressed with the way the weight of the Special vanished as the low centre of gravity just made the bike so easy to ride and to manhandle through the tight twists and turns.


The wide tall bars, wide ‘pegs, low C of G and lively for a cruiser geometry make the bike almost as nimble as it would otherwise be on skinnier tyres, so hat’s off to Harley for getting that right without compromising the styling, keeping the fat Michelins for good looks.

The Sportster FortyEight Special has plenty of hustle while ground clearance dictates keeping the bike upright if you're really moving

The Sportster Forty-Eight Special has plenty of hustle but ground clearance dictates cornering pace unfortunately.

The stock version, through the same sections, is almost identical in speed but needs a little more influencing and effort through the ‘bars to get it turned and that fat front tyre is more noticeable with the lesser leverage at the handlebars.


I noticed it tended to track badly in road grooves, while the Special didn’t, but I would assume it was the tread shape of the Scorcher. There are better tyre options out there for the Forty-Eight that may improve this along with poor the wet weather performance, which Kris reported after two weeks riding the Forty-Eight in wet weather.

On or off the brakes, themselves powerful enough for the job at hand and with reasonable feel, although the chunky levers do rob a lot of that at the fingertips, both the Special and standard version turns in with accuracy and confidence and it is only limited by ground clearance. Once you figure out the limitations there, you can ride accordingly…

Out on the open country roads the 1200 can be a nice, relaxing lump to motor along with and relatively smooth.

In the open stuff the ride is very harsh at the back over the bigger bumps due to such minimal suspension travel, worse on the standard version where the forward reach prevents you from using your legs to a product of the suspension travel, but overall powering along with that fat wide torque curve, via the long gears, using old school sweeping cornering style was a blast and I could have ridden either bike all day as with a 7.9L tank, stops are frequent anyway…

On both machines, I was averaging around 80km before the fuel light came on. In theory, 130km should be possible but I got nowhere near that. In fact, I ran dry at one point after just 65km of hard riding and luckily rolled to a stop very close to a servo.


The fact that the low fuel light was only on for the last 15km of that was also a worry. The tank looks cool but that range is a total pain is the arse, which is a bit of a strange one as the Forty-Eight name is based around the tank shape!

2018 Harley-Davidson FortyEight Special

Is a fuel range that averages under 100km of riding really acceptable despite the styling? We don’t think so…

Compared to, say, the Street 500 or the 750cc Street Rod, the Forty-Eight and its Evolution motor offer a more raw and visceral experience, with the traditional Harley V-twin feel and experience and that instant grunt as soon as the throttle is opened. It really is fun and fast through the mid-range.


The gearbox action is positive and there were no false neutrals or missed gears, the clutch action is smooth in take-up if a little heavy at the lever and of course, the throw between gears and the throw at the gearlever is long. Rushed gear changes are not possible.

There is a lot of engine braking as well, which takes a bit of getting used to for those not familiar with Harley Evo engines. That engine braking is really handy though, particularly into flowing corners where you just want to wash a little speed off without upsetting the chassis too much.

There is plenty of customisation available for the Forty-Eight and the entire Sporty range. They are a fantastic urban bike, which is what they were designed for, but that 1200 Evo motor really is fantastic out of town as well, shame about the range, as it is a viable weekend touring option not just a fun city blaster. I’d opt for louder pipes, find a bigger tank and increase the rear ride height and travel with aftermarket shocks. This would give better cornering clearance and a nicer ride over bumps.

GS Adv

The Special is my pick and the bike I enjoyed and felt most comfy on out of the two. It is also, by some margin, the most visually appealing to me and that is important to me with Harleys. So that leaves us to mention the price, which at $18,995 Ride Away is premium when you realise that you could, for example, buy a Softail Standard for $2500.00 more, or an Iron 1200 for two grand less…

At the end of the day though, the seat height, weight, small physical size and fun factor all make the Forty-Eight a great option for those looking for an easy to live with Harley that can be commuted on and still fanged on weekends. I’d suggest riding both examples if you are in the market as they are quite different despite their similarities on paper.

2018 Harley-Davidson Sportster FortyEight Special

Check out our Video Review of the Forty-Eight Special here 

2020 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Special (Standard) Specifications

Price: $18,995 Ride-Away (both same price)
Warranty: two-years unlimited km
Colours: Black, Red, White – (Black, Grey, White, Orange, Red)
Claimed Power: N/A
Claimed Torque: 96Nm[70fft-lbs]@3500rpm
Wet Weight: 256kg (252kg)
Fuel capacity: 7.9L
Service: First 1600km every 8000km thereafter

Engine: Air-cooled, Evolution V-Twin, 1202cc, 88.9 x 96.8mm bore x stroke, 10.0:1 compression ratio, ESPFI, Black staggered shorty dual muffler exhaust
Gearbox: Five-speed
Fuel Consumption: 5.2L/100km (claimed)

Chassis: Mild steel, tubular frame, cast junctions, steel swingarm
Rake: 30.2°
Trail: 135mm
Suspension: 49mm cartridge type forks, 91mm travel, ‘Emulsion’ 39mm piston dual rear shocks, preload adjustable, 41mm travel
Brakes: Dual-piston front caliper, disc rotor, dual-piston rear caliper, disc rotor
Wheels & Tyres: Black split nine-spoke cast aluminium, Michelin Scorcher tyres, 130/90B16 73H, 150/80B16 77H

Wheelbase: 1495mm
Seat height: 705mm (710mm)
Ground clearance: 110mm
Overall Length: 2165mm
Lean angle: 27.1º
Width: 870mm (835mm)
Height: 1240mm (1100mm)

Instruments: Speedometer with odometer, clock, dual tripmeter, low fuel warning light, low oil pressure light, engine diagnostics readout, LED indicator lights.

2020 Harley-Davidson Forty-Eight Gallery

Avon Cobra Chrome

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