The Harley that handles
Years Produced: 2008-2009 (Europe only for 2008)
Claimed power: 90hp @ 7,000rpm
Top speed: 120mph (est.)
Engine type: 1,202cc OHV air-cooled 45-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 250kg (550lb)
Price: $11,079 (as shown; $10,799 in Vivid Black or Pewter Denim)
I’m rolling on the throttle and pushing lightly on the inside bar, the big V-twin emitting a subdued but pleasing burble as the XR1200 obligingly leans over and I carve a nice controlled arc through one of my favorite turns. It’s effortless fun, this Harley-Davidson, and as the big twin catapults me forward, I’m looking ahead for the next turn. What’s that? A Harley that handles? Yeah, a Harley that handles.
Forget everything you thought you knew about Harley-Davidson motorcycles, because the XR1200 is like nothing H-D’s ever made, including Harley’s 1970-1980 XR750 flat tracker that inspired it. Although everything about the XR1200 screams yesterday, it’s a thoroughly modern machine.
Riding the XR
Harley-Davidson actually introduced the XR1200 in early 2008, but as a Euro-only offering. It wasn’t until December 2008 that H-D announced it would sell the XR1200 in the U.S. Potential buyers had been flummoxed by The Motor Company’s apparent lack of interest in selling the XR1200 in the U.S. — and this despite the fact the bike is built at Harley’s Kansas City factory.
One possible holdup was the odd fact that until June 2008, Harley didn’t have U.S. rights to the XR1200 name; it was registered to Storz Performance, a Harley hop-up shop in Ventura, Calif.
We logged some quick first impressions on the new XR1200 in the July/August 2009 issue. Since then, we’ve had the chance to put some real miles on an XR — 757 miles, in fact — and we think Harley’s got a hit on its hands.
To begin with, everybody loves the XR’s looks. Black wheels, black bars and black fork cartridges contrast perfectly with the bike’s gray engine and satin-silver exhaust system. And brother, you can’t miss that exhaust, with twin canisters on the right side, stretching up at a steep angle in concert with the lower line of the seat cowl. And while you can get yours in one of three color schemes (Mirage Orange Pearl, Pewter Denim or Vivid Black) Mirage Orange is the only way we’d order one, if only because it amps up the XR750 connection.
Starting the XR is, as you’d expect on a new machine, fuss free. Insert key, turn, listen to fuel injection pump spool up, hit starter button, pull in clutch, go. The engine fires first time every time (with a slightly raised idle when cold, courtesy of the electronic engine management) and quickly settles into a familiar H-D thrump, the big 1,202cc twin rocking authoritatively in its moorings.
Compared to the average Hog, the XR is decidedly muted. Although the pipes look big, the exit holes for all that exhaust rushing out from its big twin pots are quite small, resulting in a decidedly hushed thrump. This seems slightly odd until you remember the XR was originally targeted for the European market and its increasingly stringent noise and emissions standards.
Pullback bars and an upright riding position make the XR easy to settle into, aided in no small part by a comfortable 30.5-inch seat height. Controls are logical and easy to decipher, with the exception of the odd pairing of a digital speedometer with an analog tachometer. Clutch pull is moderately heavy, and it takes a firm push to plonk the XR’s 5-speed tranny into first gear. On the move, however, the transmission shifts well, its action smoothing out as the gearbox warms up, and with no false neutrals.
Low-speed handling is exceptional, belying the XR’s 550-pound dry weight. Chalk that up to a relaxed frame geometry and those wide bars, which combine to make the XR feel like an overgrown Schwinn at anything under 20mph. And it doesn’t fall apart at speed, either, where the XR shines. Although it’s far from a high-speed canyon cruiser, the XR is supremely stable when pushed, the sticky Dunlop Sportmax Qualifiers inspiring confidence in high-speed sweepers and helping make the XR a blast to hustle down your favorite 2-lane blacktop.
The XR’s mill plays a huge roll in all this, tuned as it is to deliver more horsepower at higher rpms (90hp @ 7,000rpm) than a standard Sportster (70hp @ 6,000rpm), even if it’s at the expense of torque, traditionally a Harley hallmark. Granted, it still pulls like the proverbial freight train, but it does start to stutter a bit below 2,500rpm. Brakes are excellent, with no fade and good feedback.
There are a few odd bits on the XR, however, like a rear brake master cylinder and reservoir placed so it’s sitting just inside your right boot. The fact it has a nifty guard protecting it suggests someone at H-D thinks it looks cool, but it’s really just in the way. And while the pop-up dipstick for the oil tank is neat to operate, it feels cheap and looks like something that’s going to break just when you don’t need it to.
There are also some cheap fittings (like the zinc-plated steering head bolt — what, no chrome?!), but really the list of negatives is pretty short.
The XR is an interesting proposition. Although heavy, it feels fast and light. And while it looks old, it’s gushing with new technology. In the end, the XR1200 is exactly what it’s supposed to be, a modern interpretation of an old classic. Good looking, easy to ride and loaded with character, it’s a welcome addition to the growing retro category.
XR1200 Ride Impressions
My favorite part of this bike is the engine. The way the stock Evo has been retuned for a nice surge of middle-rpm torque (instead of lower-rpm torque) makes it feel like a completely different engine from the standard 1200 Sportster. Though it’s a lot of fun on a back road, the mid-rpm torque curve also means it’s not very happy in low-speed traffic. It’s got a great induction sound, and though I don’t like my bikes overly loud, the exhaust on this one could be just a little bit louder. But it sounds quite soulful.
The throttle return spring is way too weak. Bumps in the road, reaching your thumb for the blinker and gusts of wind can all upset the throttle. I thought I hated the handlebars for about a week. After 150 miles of back road speeding I was sure their low, wide stance was the reason I was having trouble accelerating cleanly out of corners. But it’s the throttle that’s the problem, not the bars.
The seat is nice for the first 100 miles or so — after that, it’s a bit too soft. My leather riding pants and the seat cover material are a bad combo. They stick together instead of allowing you to slide from side-to-side to corner. For a bike that’s more sport-oriented than anything else in H-D’s line, you’d think they’d make the seat cover out of something that would allow movement when wearing protective leather gear.
I’d have one in a heartbeat if I had the dough. I’d put a Vance & Hines exhaust on it, fix the throttle return spring problem, and then use it for running back roads at quasi-legal speeds.
Richard BackusIt is amazing to ride a Harley that actually likes to rev the way the XR does. The engine is serenely smooth at 4,000rpm, and from three grand right up to its 7,000rpm redline the power just rolls on.
Hall is spot on about the light throttle spring. Just stretching my thumb to the blinker switch was enough to rotate my palm and induce a throttle change. It’s the single most annoying “feature” of the XR — bad enough to make me want to avoid using the blinkers. Not good.
I don’t get the tiny, 3.5-gallon gas tank, but then, I like to put on the miles, and this really isn’t a road machine. I found the riding position a mixed bag. On the highway the bars are awkward; the pullback makes it hard to put your head down and into the wind, something you really need to do on this bike once you get rolling at any kind of speed. But around town or on smaller two lanes, which is where we expect you’ll find most XRs, they’re great, giving excellent leverage that makes the XR a joy to ride slowly and for short bursts of speed.
The XR strikes me as the motorcycle equivalent of a late Sixties Pontiac GTO; it’s a hot rod for the street. Although the engine’s actually a bit too quiet (when was the last time you said that about a Harley?), the overall effect is of a big, loud, imposing machine. The look is muscular and athletic, and the XR promises action just sitting still. And it’s a hoot when you’re not.