Road Test Review
I was riding along my favorite backroad, charging hard, slipping off the inside of the seat and sticking a knee out in turns, letting the high-end suspension suck up the bumps as the triple disc brakes sucked down the momentum. Then while leaned way over, my boot edge scraping the pavement, I grabbed a fistful of throttle and let the bike’s huge midrange surge fling me out of corners. This bike was rock steady, stable and predictable. But then I had that gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right, so I pulled into a gravel overlook to check the tank. I checked it on both sides and, yep, the words “Harley-Davidson” were still emblazoned there! Wow, how could this stock Harley be this much fun to ride fast?
Here’s how: The Motor Company designed the original 2008 Harley-Davidson XR1200 as a hot rod for the European market, and anyone who has ridden the Alps can testify to the needs there for torque, cornering clearance and stability. Its code name in the Harley skunk works was “Steroid,” and styling cues including the tank, tail section and upswept exhausts were lifted from Harley’s successful XR-750 dirt-track racer. In fact, H-D racing legends Scott Parker and Rich King participated in the bike’s development.
Most curious to American eyes is that the motor is finished in mostly gray and the upswept stainless mufflers have a satin chrome finish, but there is no bright chrome. What, a Harley with no chrome? The Sportster XR1200 drew raves in Europe, and soon Americans were directing calls, letters and rants to H-D headquarters in Milwaukee, asking why we Stateside folk were being deprived of our birthright, a Harley that actually handles! Well, for 2009 we got it, and it’s good!
To deliver on the street, the Harley-Davidson XR1200 was given the full treatment. Its new mild steel tubular frame has cast junctions, and the new cast-aluminum swingarm is 3 pounds lighter and 40 percent stiffer than that on other models. It’s bolstered by a pair of Showashocks adjustable only for spring preload, but which deliver 3.5 inches of taut travel. Up front is a nonadjustable 43mm Showa male-slider cartridge fork with 4.9 inches of travel; it’s kept in line by a nice pair of forged triple clamps.
If the XR1200 designation sounds familiar, note that Storz Performance Inc.of Ventura, California, actually owned the trademark rights to the name “XR 1200” and has been selling dirt-track-style conversion kits for Sportsters under that name since January of 2005. When it brought out this new model, H-D purchased the rights to the name only; Storz will continue to offer its flat-track-style conversions for 1986-2009 H-D Sportsters under a different name, and will continue to develop new products for that line of bikes.
The Harley-Davidson XR1200 is powered by the air-cooled, 45-degree, 1,203cc (73.4 cubic-inch) Sportster V-twin engine that utilizes pushrods to actuate its two valves per cylinder. A 10.0:1 compression ratio (other models have 9.7:1) and performance cams give it a power boost relative to other 1200 Sportster models. To deliver a straighter shot into the cylinders H-D has fitted the Sportster XR1200 with a single 50mm downdraft throttle body injector rather than feeding the beast from the side as with other models. This necessitated repositioning the air filter from the side of the engine, to lying it horizontally under the leading edge of the right side of the fuel tank behind a grille. We wonder how that exposed filter element will handle the rain.
The resultant horses are herded through that five-speed transmission to the rear wheel by means of a toothed belt final drive. Those horses are served by an oil cooler hung off the left side of the engine, the heads are oil cooled and an upswept stainless steel 2-into-1-into-2 dirt-track-inspired exhaust system flushes the toxins. Though the exit holes for the mufflers are much smaller than we would have liked, enough of that soulful Harley sound rumbles through to make things authentic.
You know this is intended as a performance bike when you notice that big, ol’ 3.5-inch-diameter analog tachometer and small, 2-inch digital speedometer beside it. I sunk my middlin’ avoirdupois onto the seat and noticed that its initial softness becomes firm, and there’s a ridge around its perimeter. The high, rearward-set pegs tuck the knees into a major bend, but it’s for the purpose of gaining cornering clearance. Seat height is 29.2 inches and the wide handlebar is placed so that the rider can sit relatively upright. The ignition switch is up near the right side of the steering neck, which is a long reach and hard to see.
Hit the starter button and the V-twin comes to life with a rumble, and that traditional shake. Hand levers are big and beefy, and the cable-actuated clutch requires a moderate pull. The engine is rubber-mounted, so once underway only a little vibration reaches the rider through the grips. In fact, maintain pressure on the shift lever and, during acceleration and deceleration, the rider can feel the engine pitch and rotate on its rubber mounts. The bike shifts with some effort, but cleanly, much more like a Harley than a sportbike.
Certain aspects of this naked Harley sport, namely its clean lines, spareness, the solidity with which it handles and the quality of its suspension, remind me of Ducati’s iconic Monster 1100. Obviously, I’m speaking more conceptually than in terms of a direct comparison, as the XR1200 lacks the Duc’s lightness, agility and finesse-heck, it outweighs it by 164 pounds (and is only 5 pounds lighter than a 2008 Sportster 1200 Roadster)! However, it’s a spare sportbike powered by a booming V-twin engine and it handles well-in that sense it’s an American Monster.
We trotted our XR1200 over to the Jett Tuning dynamometer where we learned that 60 lb-ft of torque are already available at grunt-rev 2,500 rpm, it peaks at 70.4 lb-ft at just 3,700 rpm, and more than 62 lb-ft remain available all the way to its 7,000-rpm redline. Horsepower, meanwhile, is already hitting 50 at 3,750 rpm when torque peaks, and rises in a linear fashion to 81 horses when the rev limiter kicks in and all bets are off. On the road you let out the heavy clutch, feed it some fuel and the XR1200 leaps forward. At 580 pounds wet it’s quite heavy for a performance bike, but with so much torque available from 2,500 rpm it’s always eager to launch.
Once aboard the XR1200, forget anything you’ve ever known about riding a Harley. Chunk it in gear, snap the throttle and run it up to around 5,000 or 6,000 rpm. Suspension action is firm, taut, but not plush as the bike soaks up and reacts well to bumps at each end. With a 59.8-inch wheelbase and rake/trail figures of 29.3 degrees and 5.12 inches the bike does not steer quickly, but that wide bar lends great leverage, the bike is dead stable in turns and holds a line very well.
To stop this big moose H-D equipped it with dual fixed four-piston Nissincalipers up front hugging twin 292mm rotors, while in back lies a single, floating one-piston caliper with 260mm disc. Braking action is impressive as the stoppers just smother momentum, and fork dive is well controlled. I cannot tell you what a pleasure it is to come steaming into a turn on this bike way too fast, rub off a little speed with mondo engine braking and the powerful brakes, then just sling it in sideways and feel those excellent DunlopSportmax Qualifiers bite and slow the bike as you fine tune its line with that wide handlebar. These tires, a 120/70-ZR18 front and wide 180/55ZR-17 rear, are a wonderful complement. Their just-right profiles allow the rider to bring it over in a solid, predictable arc rather than having the bike fall into turns as is common with more narrow tires.
For all the Harley-Davidson XR1200’s wonderful handling and power characteristics, certain niggles need to be addressed. For one, the rear brake’s master cylinder guard is placed precisely where the rider’s right ankle wants to be. The sidestand is buried down among some hardware, which makes it difficult to deploy. Placing the footpegs rearward on the XR1200 necessitated a lengthy shift linkage that protrudes beyond the cases and, like the oil cooler, it’s vulnerable to tip-over damage. The passenger seat is so short and narrow that your co-rider will be begging for frequent stops. And while the tank is certainly stylish, it holds only 3.5 gallons; despite our heavy use, the XR1200 still averaged 42.2 miles per gallon. The tank is composite rather than steel, so you’ll need a strap-on tankbag. Seating is relatively upright, and I found myself fighting the wind at speeds over 65 mph.
Accessories will be few at the start, but for travelers H-D offers a complete set of matching soft luggage including a tankbag ($139.95), a seatbag ($169.95) and Sport Saddlebags ($329.95). For wind protection, check out the Detachable Sport Windscreen ($339.95). At present no factory engine performance options are available, but we expect that if Screamin’ Eagle doesn’t come out with something soon, the aftermarket will. Colors include Vivid Black ($10,799), or for $11,079 choose the Mirage Orange Pearl shown or the Pewter Denim.
Take this baby out on your favorite winding road, unleash the beast and my guess is you’ll be checking the tank within a few miles, wondering what you got hold of. If it still says “Harley-Davidson XR1200,” chances are you’ll be saying, “This monster is the best-handling Harley I’ve ever ridden!”