We Rode A Japanese Harley That Feels Nothing Like a Harley

The Star Bolt is better to ride than the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster, but you won’t want to be seen on one.

The ignominy I feel if I enjoy a cover version of a classic song—like Limp Bizkit’s cover of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes” or Joss Stone’s re-gendered version of The White Stripes’ “Fell In Love With A Girl” or Guns N’ Roses’ go at Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”—is the same gut-wrenching sense of shame I get when I’m on the 2016 Star Bolt, a Japanese take on the Harley-Davidson Sportster.

Introduced a couple years back by Star, a subsidiary company of Yamaha, the Bolt has the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster’s same low-slung look, same bobber style, same uncluttered packaging, same 540-lb curb weight, and same sub-$8,000 price tag. The Bolt, like the Iron 883 Sportster, also has a compact footprint, slim body, squat seat, and big, air-cooled V-Twin engine paired to a 5-speed transmission. The Bolt isn’t so much a carbon copy of the Sportster as it is a slightly modified reproduction that apes the successful Sportster in just about every way imaginable. 

So it’s strange the Star doesn’t feel anything like the Harley.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster is coarse and commanding, whereas the Star Bolt is smooth and restrained. The Harley shakes and rattles while the Bolt vibrates and purrs. The Sportster is more enchanting than the Bolt, but the Star is more surefooted and easier to toss around. You’d never confuse it for a Harley from behind the handlebars—or in a parking lot. While the Star’s silhouette may be spot on with the Sportster’s, it’s not nearly as attractive. Actually, the Bolt is sort of tacky. It’s bedazzled with an ugly suede-wrapped seat, rubbery grips, a cheap-looking concentric LCD gauge cluster, a honking exhaust that isn’t the least bit handsome, and an abhorrent circular LED taillight atop the rear fender.

It sort of sucks because the Bolt feels like a far more thoughtfully engineered product than the Harley, but a smattering of chintzy finishes and an afterthought design have turned something good into something gaudy. The Star Bolt is better to ride than the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Sportster, but you won’t want to be seen on one. It’s a knock-off bobber I don’t want to admit could be better than the original. 

It’s the same way I feel about 311’s cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong.”