Road Test Review
photography by Rich Cox
[This 2010 Harley-Davidson XL1200X Sportster Forty-Eight Road Test was originally published in the July 2010 issue of Rider magazine]
Darkness is spreading among the 2010 Harley-Davidson lineup, but that’s a good thing for fans of backyard, bobber, bolt-on and mostly blacked-out customs who don’t want to create such a bike themselves. Harley’s “Dark Custom” gang (Nightster, Iron 883, Cross Bones, Fat Bob and Street Bob), often seasoned with descriptions like “raw, sinister, gritty, dusty, hotrod” and “bulldog,” grows by one XL1200X Sportster “Forty-Eight” for 2010. Ironically, this ultimate Sportster expression of The Motor Company’s retro styling capability gets its numerical name from the year its peanut-style tank was introduced, on—believe it or not—the diminutive Harley-Davidson S 125. This was a DKW-powered single aimed at World War II soldiers returning home who were looking for practical and inexpensive transportion. It wasn’t until the peanut found its way onto the (hmmm, 1968?) XLH Sportster that a tradition was born.
Fittingly for a dark custom, except for that peanut tank the Forty-Eight is just as much a departure from a traditional, rider-friendly Sportster 1200 as the S 125—but in another way. Except for its oddly comfortable crouched seating position and low seat height, the ultra-low and long Forty-Eight is all about form-over-function. This is an insanely custom, factory retro bobber cruiser first and foremost. Rolling back from the fat 16-inch front tire, clues of this include the very cool but totally unusable under-mounted mirrors, on lever brackets that were rotated skyward on our test bike (fortunately, mirrors and levers were easily put right with some Torx wrenches). Witness the, er, gritty lightening holes in the tank mount and fork brace, and both a speedometer mounting bracket and rear suspension that were mercilessly but beautifully “slammed” in the name of fashion. That tiny solo seat shows off a naughty (not really) chopped rear fender, with a foldaway license plate holder to enhance the bad-boy image when desired. It looks so bad, I mean good, I wish it were here in my office right now, perhaps draped with a supermodel holding a bottle of Jack.
Turns out that’s one of many more appropriate looks for such a bike than a corpulent editor in a full-face helmet and (egad) colorful Cordura nylon riding suit. As you might imagine, although the air-cooled, OHV, 1,200cc V-twin churns out plenty of torque and rumble, and the bike shifts and stops well, everything else about actually riding the Forty-Eight is a compromise with its looks. With just 1.6 inches of rear suspension travel the ride is harsh, even brutal over sharp bumps, and more vibes than found on most Sportsters creep into, well, everything. The seat is no more comfortable than it appears, and though the bike steers well despite the big front tire, it runs out of cornering clearance almost immediately. I have put fewer than 100 miles on it and know all I need to. This is a bike for looking cool parked, or short rides on the boulevard, maybe to work and back or perhaps on display in your living room. With 80 miles of range, it just doesn’t go well with Gore-Tex.
There’s much to like about the basic Sportster 1200 platform. Self-adjusting valves, EFI, belt final drive, abundant torque, and since Harley rubber-mounted the engine, minimal vibes in most models. The new Forty-Eight oozes with retro sytle and has its place among Harley-Davidson’s best-looking bikes, but with its comparable price tag of $10,499, we’ll take the elegant looks, comfort and rideability of a Sportster model like the 1200 Custom, or the handling performance of the XR1200.