A friend of mine refers to Harley Davidsons as “Hardly Rideables”; and to a fair extent I’ve had to agree with him. From that first Sportster 883 I rode, with its horrible vibration and tractor-like mechanicals, to the diabolical Nightster, I’d never ridden a Harley I could live with or even like. The 1200 Custom was better, but it still wasn’t a comfortable ride, and it didn’t like corners. I almost liked the V-Rod, despite the weird riding-position, because it went well and even rode reasonably well; but when it came to corners it felt like it’d have to bend in half to go around. Horrible! And then there are all the big boys that weigh about as much as a small car, and probably handle worse. No, I’d never ridden a Harley, or even sat on one, that I liked. Until now!
The Harley Davidson XR1200 is different. And it looks different. The first thing you notice is the exhaust. Instead of the usual twin pipes running horizontally along the bike, there are twin (“conjoined”?) mufflers angled up beside the rear bodywork. And as your eye is drawn to the lower regions of the bike, you notice there aren’t foot-boards or anything else hanging down to scrape the road at the first sign of a corner. Yes, it is a Harley, Jim, but not as we know them!
Harley Davidson says that the XR1200 is, “Inspired by our racing heritage.” It’s a kind of road-going tribute to the XR750 race-bike that won more than the odd race for the company. It’s still a Sportster, and uses the usual Sportster frame, but it has new suspension – from Showa, no less! – to suit its new role. Here we have a bike that is still very much a Harley, but also a bike that is designed to live up to the pretence of its “Sportster” name. Harley claim the XR1200 is, “The best-handling production Sportster that’s ever been built.” So I was keen to take one for a ride.
Fraser Motorcycles were happy to oblige, and provided the orange-coloured example you see here. The ride was arranged by the friendly and professional Katrina, who told me that she is the only woman selling Harleys.
First, a look around the bike. The seat looks pretty narrow, and the plain vinyl covering looks a bit cheap. I feared it would be hard, but it’s not too bad. It’s firm, but actually fairly comfortable. My only complaint is that you can’t move around on it because of the step-up to the rear section; although that does provide a bit of support to your backside. Seat height is 742mm. You can pretty much forget about carrying a pillion; unless it’s someone you don’t like! Sit someone on that downwards-sloping padded bit at the back (and there’s no grab-handles either), give the throttle a good twist and they’d be left behind as road-kill!
The tank looks small; and with a capacity of just over 13 litres, it is.
This wasn’t the first Harley I’d ridden to have a tacho (that honour goes to the V-Rod), but the XR1200 makes a feature of it; sitting it up high and proud. The tacho is numbered to just 8, with the red-line at 7. There’s a little digital speedo beside it, which looks a bit of an after-thought. You can imagine the bike rolling off the assembly-line and someone runs up and says, “Hang on, we better whack a speedo on it! Just stick it up beside the tacho, that’ll do!” It’s fairly easy to read though, despite the small size. The only thing is that a “1” looks a bit like a “7”. I looked at it as I was going out the driveway and thought I was doing 70!
Another item that enjoys a strange (and off-centre) position, is the oil-cooler; which is mounted vertically on the left-side of the bike.
The riding-position is very upright, of course, but with a slight lean forward to the bars. The ends of the bars are angled down nicely; which I like, and is something I feel many other manufacturers get wrong, on naked bikes especially. The bars are quite wide too, giving you good control.
The foot-pegs felt higher than expected at first, but it’s not a problem, and it suits Harley’s style with the bike.
Typical of Harley, the blinkers are operated by a button on each end of the bars; very logical. They’re self-canceling too; but I sometimes forgot this and pushed the button to turn them off, which actually turned them back on again!
Being a Harley you know it’s going to be heavy, and at 255kg it is. You feel the weight as you lift it off the side-stand, but after that the weight seems to melt away and you really don’t notice it very much. Sure, if you want to flip-flop through some S-bends, you’re going to notice the weight; but if you want to do that then you’ve gone into the wrong shop! (Well actually, the same shop sells Ducatis, so it’s not the wrong shop, but you know what I mean!).
Fire up the big donk and there are the usual Harley vibrations – enough to shake the whole bike at idle. The engine is a V-twin of course, with 1202cc and running a compression-ratio of 10:1. Harley is a bit thin on details, but state power as 67kW. I’ve seen torque for the other Sportsters quoted at 101Nm, so this is perhaps a tad more. Pretty good figures actually, especially given Harley’s traditional low power-output relative to engine-size.
The test-route included a run through suburban traffic, a mountain pass, some undulating highway with flowing corners, a suburban arterial road and a few city back-streets. So a wide variety of conditions to see how the new Harley handled the real world.
The XR1200 began to impress before I’d even got out of 1st gear! Just going out the driveway showed promise of a better standard of ride than others (like the Nightster, for example!). And it was easier to steer too. Hmm, I might actually enjoy this!
As I threaded through the traffic I got further proof that the handling and ride are very different to other Harleys I’d ridden. It was responsive and easy to change lanes and turn into corners. And it absorbed the usual suburban ripples and bumps quite well. And out on the open road the ride continued to impress. It isn’t plush, and bigger bumps did bounce me off the seat, but most of the time it was actually pretty good. Yep, I actually was enjoying it!
Performance is impressive too. It’s not brutal, but it is quick! Easy to blast clear of the traffic, and out on the open road if you open the throttle the numbers on the little speedo flick over at an impressive rate.
There’s heaps of torque, of course. Engines like this are always going to be more about torque than out-right horsepower. And that torque is developed low in the revs. The other Sportsters develop their 101Nm at 3,500rpm, so that gives a good indication of where the grunt is.
The vibration smoothes out as the revs rise. It’s not terribly happy at 2,000rpm, but by 3,000rpm it’s settled down nicely. It’s never totally smooth though; there’s always that typical Harley harshness about the engine. Give the throttle a twist and it revs out well, even getting to the (admittedly fairly low) red-line pretty quickly. But you wouldn’t describe it as smooth and free-revving. The best way I can describe it is that it feels powerful despite the design of the engine rather than because of it.
The gear-change still clunks, but if you match the revs properly it’s smooth. It doesn’t like changing without the clutch, although if you carefully match the revs it’ll take a clutch-less change into top okay. Using the clutch is no problem anyway, because it’s quite light – surprisingly so considering it is cable-operated. Neutral was always easy to get. As you’d expect, it’s a 5-speeder.
Harleys always feel high-geared, and this does too. Around town you’re often riding in 2nd or 3rd. Top runs at 29kph per 1,000rpm, so it’s got to be doing about 90 – 100kph before it feels happy to be in top. Cruising at 110kph the engine is spinning at just under 4,000rpm, and the whole thing is quite relaxed and smooth.
Being a naked there is a quite a bit of wind, of course. Even at town speeds you start to feel a bit like a wind-sock. But you do get used to it. Long trips at high speed would no doubt get a bit tiring.
Brakes, which are Nissin, aren’t overly powerful, but they seem pretty efficient, and work as well as you need them to – or at least as well as I needed them to!
But let’s get back to the real surprise again – the handling. It really does handle well! Yes, you read that correctly; this is a Harley that handles! It responds well to counter-steering and shifting your weight on the bike. Even turning into tight corners the steering remains light and easy. You do feel the weight of the bike a bit sometimes, but mostly it’s responsive, stable, accurate, and even fun! And of course, with the good ground clearance you could crank it over a long way before anything scrapes. (I didn’t try that though!).
My test-route took me up Bulli Pass. This is a well-known mountain pass to the north of Wollongong. It’s not long, but it is very steep. It begins as a 4-lane road that climbs up from suburbia, then flattens out for a section before reducing to 2-lanes as it rounds a sharp hairpin, and then snakes its way to the top of the mountain.
Any decent bike would pull it in top if it weren’t for two things – corners and a 60kph speed-limit. The speed-limit alone is enough, on most bikes, to require a down-shift or two to get into a workable rev-range.
With bikes like this though, the low-down grunt can be enough to make top gear a viable option. On my present bike (a big-bore Japanese multi) I like to stick it in top, keep pretty close to the speed-limit, and just let it cruise up at about 2,500rpm, needing only about a quarter throttle. Even at the steepest section (known locally as “Green’s Pinch”) which is a swoopy S-bend, just a slight nudge of the throttle has it accelerating easily. I love that sort of power! So I was interested to see how the Harley handled it.
And, of course, it handled it well. Top gear pulled it easily. As I mentioned before, it isn’t totally happy under 3,000rpm, so this mightn’t be the preferred way of riding it, but there was heaps of torque there to let it pull top gear with only about a third throttle needed. The hairpin requires a couple of down-shifts of course, and then I prefer to enjoy a few revs in 4th for the next section (the section in the photo above). Often you get stuck behind a semi as it crawls its way to the top, but this time the road was clear and it was a real joy to power the big Hog up the mountain, leaning it left then right through the curves. That grunty power and great handling bringing a big smile to the dial! (By the way, I didn't take the photo while I was riding; it was one I'd prepared earlier!).
At the top of the pass, if you want to go south there’s a dinky little tightening-radius turn onto the highway. I was only going slowly, but the easy way the Harley just tipped in and tightened its turn showed how nimble this bike is!
Along the highway it was enjoyable too. Good power, easy cruising and good handling. In some sweeping turns the weight was noticeable, but it always felt stable and very capable.
I returned to the dealer very impressed. Without any doubt this was the best Harley I’d ever ridden! I had thought it might be good, but it was better than I expected!
Of course it’s not perfect. When reporting in Cycle Torque, Chris Pickett wrote, “The bike judders and shudders beneath you.” And I suppose it does. It’s what could be described as “an involving ride.” There’s the vibration, the gear-changes that often produce a bit of a jolt, and the way the bike, well, kind of “judders and shudders.” Chris Pickett said he found this “oddly calming”; and I have to say that I didn’t really find it a problem when I rode it; probably because I was enjoying so much of what else it had to offer!
I thought about it more though a couple of days later when I rode my own bike. The smooth surge of acceleration, the smooth gear-changes, the relaxed way it travels along; just like most modern bikes of this type. This kind of smoothness is missing from the Harley. And unless Harleys are your thing, I think you’d probably notice them missing after a while.
So it’s still very much a Harley, with all the character and quirks that brings, but it is very impressive! At the end of the test I was commenting to Katrina how impressive it was, and how different it was to other Harleys; especially in its handling. She said, “This is the Harley we’ve been waiting for since the 1970s!” I reckon that sums up the bike pretty well!

Ridden 2009.

P.S. The 2009 Harley catalogue is a great read! It’s full of inspiring words on the image, the Harley lifestyle, and interesting anecdotes and historical facts.

Chris, who owns a 1993 Harley Electyraglide, wrote in with some comments on the test above. I thought that - especially coming from a Harley owner - his comments were worth including as an addition to my report. He makes some very good points.
"I have to agree with just about everything you wrote; my only real disappointment being the exhaust note (easily fixed with after market stuff) and that oil cooler; it looks as though they completed the bike then added the cooler as an afterthought.
"Although we agree about the XR-1200, I'm afraid I don't share your feelings about other Harleys; but then Harleys have always been more a state of mind and tend to suffer when examined objectively against other bikes. What people tend to forget is that Harleys were first and foremost designed for American roads, and in that they are unsurpassed. Big lazy engine, extremely comfortable and designed to cover very long distances with minimum discomfort. It's only in recent years the Motor Company has started to listen to their European and Australian customers and I think the HR-1200 is a result of that. In fact when it was first released Europe got the bike before the USA."
Some very intelligent words there! He goes on to say that his bike has covered 100,000km without major drama. He admits that the bike is "challenged" when it comes to negotiating winding mountain roads. His statement that "Harleys have always been more a state of mind and tend to suffer when examined objectively against other bikes" I think nicely sums up the situation with Harleys. In one way it validates what I've written about Harleys in other reports - because I am commenting on them more objectively. But we must bear in mind that they are a particular type of bike that might not necessarily be good at some things, but will still provide a style and a state-of-mind that other bikes do not. It all comes down to personal preference, and, as Chris said, a "state of mind".   
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