2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200X

Road Test Review

Three things I’ve never experienced on a Harley-Davidson happened at this press launch: riding on a racetrack, getting my knee down and seeing nearly 120 mph on the speedometer. But then again, the 2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200X isn’t your everyday Motor Company machine. With a modest race kit, it’s ready for the new AMA Pro Racing Vance & Hines XR1200 Series, which kicked off at Road America the day after we rode there.

Harley-Davidson caught flak when it designed the XR1200 for the European market and didn’t sell it here. Inundated by angry pens and pitchforks, Harley relented and put the XR1200 in U.S. dealerships last year. Enter the XR1200X—also designed for export markets and sold overseas last year—which now replaces the XR1200. The price has gone up by a grand, to $11,799, and the cool orange paint scheme has gone bye-bye. But what you get is well worth the bump in price: upgraded suspension ($1,500 in Harley’s P&A catalog), full-floating front brake rotors, a blacked-out look and orange pinstripes on the wheel rims.

Along with nine-time AMA Grand National Champion Scott Parker, who helped develop the XR1200, we lapped a shortened version of Road America’s big track. Almost immediately I felt comfortable on the XR1200X, dishing out huge scoops of torque and quickly finding its cornering limits. Unique to the XR1200(X)’s air-cooled, four-valve 1,203cc Evolution V-twin are oil-cooled heads, an electronically controlled active intake system (for less noise and emissions) and an upswept 2-1-2 exhaust finished in satin black. Output is further boosted by a 10:1 compression ratio, high-performance cams and 50mm downdraft throttle body injectors. When we ran an XR1200 on the dyno (see Rider, June 2009), horsepower peaked at 81.1 just before the 7,000-rpm redline and torque peaked at 70.4 lb-ft at 3,700 rpm, but it never fell below 60 lb-ft! Powerful yet user-friendly, it’s the Gentle Ben of motors.

Midmount foot controls and a natural reach to the grips give the XR1200X a comfortable, upright seating position. Gripping the small, 3.5-gallon tank between my knees was a chore, in part because the wide-spaced pegs splayed my feet apart. Our street ride included a 50-mile freeway blast that made my knees and hips sore from my legs being pushed out by wind. It’s easy to move around on the narrow seat, but comfort goes off around the century mark; that’s OK, you’ll need to stop for gas by then anyway.

Though the XR1200X begs to be ridden aggressively, its limited cornering clearance demands restraint; if restraint can’t be had, then wide, flowing lines. Its 29-degree rake, 5.2-inch trail and 60-inch wheelbase make for a dead-nuts stable ride, but not at the expense of handling. With its 573 pounds (claimed wet) carried low, wide, dirt-track handlebar and grippy XR-specific Dunlop Qualifier tires, the XR1200X goes where you point it.

Hitting Road America’s teeth-rattling asphalt patches and rumble strips at speed, the XR1200X took it all in stride. The rigid tubular steel frame, cast-aluminum swingarm and belt final drive are more than up to handling the XR’s weight and torque. New for 2011 is a male-slider Showa Big Piston Fork with 43mm stanchions and 4.9 inches of travel. The BPF’s design eliminates many components used in a cartridge-type fork for less weight, and its large-diameter internal piston reduces damping pressure for smoother action. Having first experienced the BPF on the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, on the XR it was similarly supple and well controlled, with good initial damping during braking. Along with the dual Showa shocks with remote reservoirs and 3.5 inches of travel, suspension front and rear is now fully adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound.

Precise fuel injection and a smooth-shifting transmission make the XR1200X easy to ride. The bike feels solid and capable at speed, and its Nissin brakes slow things down with authority. The dual, 292mm front discs are now full-floating, and the fixed, four-piston calipers have progressive feel. The single-piston rear caliper does its job settling the suspension, but is pretty wooden otherwise.

The XR1200X is a no-frills bike, providing just the basics for an exhilarating experience: thumping motor, rock-solid chassis, good binders and dampers and minimalist rider cockpit. I’d complete the dark look with flat Black Denim rather than the White Hot Denim, but the choice is yours.