Yamaha Star Bolt vs. Harley-Davidson Iron 883 - Urban Cruiser Comparison

Can Yamaha build a better Sportster than H-D? Let's find out.

With motorcycles, it’s all about the motor, right? Bikes have two hoops, a seat and an engine. That was what Bill Harley was banking on in 1901, when he drew a picture of an engine affixed to a bicycle. It was brilliant. All the fun without the distracting effort.

The motor-as-dominant principle has been the modus operandi at Harley-Davidson for over a century, and nowhere can that intention be seen more clearly than in the Sportster lineup. Chick bikes? Yeah, right. For chicks with three balls. From their start in 1957, the Sportster models have been hardcore, and today's bobber-style Iron 883, though as entry-level a motorcycle as The Motor Company can muster, is no exception.

That's not to say the 883 isn't easy to ride—it is. But it's the only bike we can think of that's equal parts badass and beginner bike. At least until now, with the release of the Star Bolt.

This new player is a no-bones knock-off of the Sportster Iron 883: same low-slung, aggressive shape, bobbed rear fender, hulking engine, belt drive, solo seat, mid-mount controls, drag bars and nearly total absence of shiny geegaws. Promotional materials tap an identical buyer: hip, young, minimalistic, value-minded, lots of flannel in the closet. And lastly, the Bolt and Iron prices also match: $7999 for the Harley; $7990 for the basic Bolt (or $8290 for the up-spec “R” version tested here).

Yamaha Star Bolt and Harley-Davidson Iron 883 group shot

Let’s get this out of the way right now: If you’re looking at the Bolt, the R-Spec is it. The anodized remote-reservoir shocks alone are worth the $300 increase in price, and on top of that you get cooler paint choices—Camo Green or Matte Gray—with enhanced graphics, blackened turnsignals and a very attractive suede-like, tractor-style saddle.

Star has positioned the Bolt as an “Urban Performance Bobber,” a cruiser intended for styling around town, and we agree. Both of these bikes garner loads of attention, with the Harley being most admired. The Sportster’s Candy Orange paint is a real standout against its blacked-out landscape, and the quality of the paint itself is an obvious win. Plus, the Iron’s peanut tank isn’t burdened by the godawful lip that rings the Bolt’s. Both tanks are tiny, holding just over 3 gallons, and you’ll see the reserve light on both pop on at right around the 100-mile mark.

Overall, fit and finish is better on the Harley, where the few degrading items (cheap footpegs and kickstand, clumped-together cables) are forgiven by some super-cool details like the pop-up oil-filler cap. The Star also has some unique details, along with a few eyesores, like the plastic extension on the rear fender. Both bikes are ripe for customization, and well-supported by their manufacturers’ accessory divisions, although for sheer volume of aftermarket support, the Harley can’t be beat.

Harley-Davidson Iron 883 Easy to ride Poor brakes
Superior fit and finish Lots of vibration
Cool 13-spoke cast aluminum wheels Chiropractor's dream
Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec Easy to ride It's a knockoff
Great out-of-the box styling Unsightly gap between seat and tank
Affordable alternative Too dark a tint on speedo

With such motor-centric bikes you'd expect performance, and for the most part, you get it, at least in the shape of strong stoplight-to-stoplight torque. The Bolt's 942cc V-Twin, a reworked version of the mill found in Star's V-Star 950, delivers a few more horsepower most of the time and quite a bit more torque than the 883, especially at lower rpm. The Bolt also stops more quickly, thanks to high-tech wave rotors front and rear. In contrast, the Iron feels under-braked, with a dead sensation at the lever and a wooden feel to the under-sprung front end. The Sporty's rear brake, however, is not as inclined to lock up, an all-too-common event when braking hard on the Bolt. These bikes are slammed for style, and also to provide extremely low seat heights, which is all fun and games until someone hits a pothole. The Harley fork bottoms harshly if you just look at a bump, while the Bolt's somewhat longer travel feels almost cushy in contrast. Cornering clearance for both bikes is quite limited, with the Bolt kissing asphalt less often, and contacting hard parts later than the Harley. The Bolt is more manageable during aggressive riding and more comfortable for freeway stints. It's got a better power curve, stops better, turns better, doesn't shake your fillings loose. Overall, it's the bike that feels more like a motorcycle and less like a life-size toy. As minimalists go, the Star Bolt is the bike that makes more of less.


2013 Harley-Davidson Iron 883 2013 Yamaha Star Bolt R-SPEC
PRICE $7999 $8290
DRY WEIGHT 548 lb. 531 lb.
WHEELBASE 59.7 in. 62.2 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 26.8 in. 27.2 in.
FUEL MILEAGE 38 mpg 41 mpg
0-60 MPH 5.7 sec. 4.9 sec.
1/4 MILE 14.53 sec. @ 90.80 mph 13.78 sec. @ 93.47 mph
HORSEPOWER 46.7 @ 5970 rpm 46.2 @ 5480 rpm
TORQUE 48.9 ft.-lb. @ 3780 rpm 52.7 ft.-lb. @ 3020 rpm
TOP SPEED 103 mph 101 mph

View images in photo gallery:

Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec - static side-by-side shot

The Minimalist: Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec

Taking a break from testing the Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec

Jamie Elvidge and Don Canet take a break during testing.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883 - engine

Engine - Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883

Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883 - speedometer

Speedometer - Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883

Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec - engine

Engine - Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec

Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec - speedometer

Digital speedometer - Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec

Harley-Davidson Iron 883 and Yamaha Star Bolt R-Spec - group action shot

It's clear: Yamaha's new bobber wants a piece of the Sportster's turf.