2006 Harley-Davidson VRSCR Street Rod - Breaking The Mold - Road Test

Even if you aren't a devotee, you have to be impressed by the remarkable accomplishments of Harley-Davidson over the last two decades. In the early 1980s, it was a company recently liberated from an uninterested parent and on the very brink of collapse. There was still some charisma in the name and the brand had a devoted but increasingly disenchanted customer base. However, Harley's products were dated to the point of obsolescence, and the big Japanese companies had begun to take an interest in Harley's primary market segment-V-twin cruisers.

The introduction of the Evolution-series engine in the mid-1980s signaled that the company wasn't willing to roll over and die. Even if that engine didn't give the company technical or performance parity with its competitors, the new motor-and the continuing stream of improvements and upgrades that followed-was proof Harley was serious about competing. The company also displayed a knack for attracting attention, creating an enviable image and bonding with its customers. You might argue Harley's successful appeal for a tariff on imported bikes over 700cc did little to actually protect the company, but it's hard to dispute that it did paint Harley sympathetically as the little local guy trying to defend itself from the big foreign bullies. The company also changed almost all other aspects of its business plan, from the practices of dealers to the ways it built bikes and thousands of details involved in everything it did and made. Motorcycle buyers responded, and Harley's future suddenly began to look very bright.

Those of us assigned to critique its products have been more interested in the steady progress of its motorcycles' quality and performance. We watched as virtually every component was upgraded-starting with transmissions shortly after the Evo engine arrived and culminating with the introduction of the Twin Cam engine in the late '90s and the new Sportster chassis last year. The Twin Cam engine, especially in counterbalanced form, equaled or exceeded the technology and performance of its Asian competitors.

By that time, though, Harley almost didn't need new technology. It had been so successful at creating an image and position for itself and its motorcycles that many people simply thought there was no other brand worth owning. With bikes such as the Fat Boy, it created machines that defined what many people thought motorcycles should be and set sales records-not only for Harley but the industry. Its products were also very profitable, and the Harley-Davidson that had been just one loan away from financial oblivion became a bad memory.

With huge sales, an enthusiastic following, products no one had to make excuses for and new sales records every year, by the turn of the century Harley was ready to take some chances. Enter the V-Rod. Except for the handlebar switches and a bit of the same attitude, the new bike had virtually nothing in common with the Harleys that came before. Its 1130cc engine, designed in conjunction with Porsche, was liquid-cooled and used rpm and efficiency instead of displacement to make power, and with more than 110 ponies in the herd, it made significantly more horsepower than any other Harley as well.

But would Harley customers buy it? Maybe, maybe not. Harley was more interested in finding new customers. With increasing production capability, H-D knew it would soon be able to meet demand for its existing motorcycles from traditional customers. The V-Rod was intended to bring in more than the usual suspects, and it did. It became the company's best-selling bike in other countries. In America, V-Rod buyers often came from other brands, attracted by its modern engine, excellent performance and not-the-usual-cruiser style.

Obviously, Harley was going to expand on the original V-Rod and the very similar B model. We wished for somewhat more rational ergonomics and maybe a chassis that could exploit the power on twistier roads. We sort of expected a sport-touring bike. We got the Street Rod.

Harley calls it a roadster, which is the same term it uses for the Sportster 1200R and the new 883R, which have set-back footpegs under the rider and more suspension travel than straightforward cruisers such as the Sportster Custom models. The Street Rod goes perhaps even one step further, enough that we debated whether it actually is a cruiser.

The new Rod's lines are similar to the V-Rod's-a small, raked-back headlight leads you to the same faux fuel tank (the real tank is still under the seat), but the seat's profile is flatter and, thanks to longer suspension with more substantial travel, about four inches farther from the pavement. Up front, there are stout-looking inverted 43mm fork legs. The fender is smaller, the fork legs' stance more upright and the handlebar flatter on shorter risers than the V-Rod's. The pipes are higher and more horizontal. Instead of the disc wheels standard on V-Rods, the Street Rod gets less dense-looking 10-spoke wheels (an option for the V). The differences sound substantial, but apparently not everybody sees them that way. While riding our sample (before it was announced to the public) the few other motorcyclists we encountered-even one V-Rod rider-didn't register that it was something new.

If you step in for a closer look, you'll discover further changes. The most prominent is the massive triple clamp, which reduces rake, changes the offset forks' angle and also provides a much more rigid grip on the legs. The instruments are set atop a pedestal similar to the V-Rod's, but their faces, especially the tach's, are much more readable. The ignition lock, set on the right side under the seat, where it also serves as a seat lock on the V-Rod, has been moved forward between the engine and triple clamp and allows you to remove the key after it's turned on. The saddle, which you still must flip up to reach the fuel filler, is held down by grommets and the passenger grabstrap instead of a lock. No key is needed to reach the tank, which now holds 5.0 gallons (compared to the V-Rod's 3.7). The underseat section of the frame has been expanded to accommodate the added fuel. The brakes are Brembos, a first for Harley streetbikes, and each caliper's four pistons squeeze discs that are 0.3 inches bigger than the V-Rod's. The front brake offers more power with less pressure than the V-Rod's, making hard stops effortless with excellent control.

The extra braking power is needed not only because of the Street Rod's more sporting intent but also because it weighs about 20 pounds more than the V-Rod and has a bit extra power. The added power-about three more horses for a total of 120 at 8250 rpm-comes not from any internal engine tweaks but from the Street Rod's exhaust, which is less restrictive (and a bit throatier) than the V-Rod's. Our impression from the saddle was that the power boost was even greater, because when you hit 5000 rpm the motorcycle kicks you in the pants harder than three more horsepower working on 20 extra pounds would suggest. The power rush definitely feels stronger than the V-Rod's, with 80 foot-pounds of torque at 7000 rpm compared to the V-Rod's 74. Otherwise, the powertrain feels very similar to the V-Rod's components. You need to apply a bit more rpm to get away than with other cruisers, but the bike responds briskly when the throttle is applied at relaxed engine speeds. The clutch requires the stiff pull typical of Harleys, but offers good control. The gearbox is even smoother and lighter than the already good units in recent V-Rods. With V-Rod-like fuel mileage in the mid-to-high 30s, the Street Rod offers an extra 50 miles between fill-ups.

You'll appreciate that additional range with the Street Rod's more accommodating ergonomics. The V-Rod's laid-back riding position, with its footpegs well forward and handlebar up, may allow you to stretch your legs, but it also puts virtually all your weight on your butt. On the thin, narrow seat standard on the V-Rod, that's a recipe for almost instant monkey-butt (though we found a huge improvement with Harley's Sundowner accessory saddle). The high handlebar also stretches you in the wind more than the lower bar on the Street Rod. The Street Rod's riding position rotates the rider about 20 to 30 degrees more forward than the V-Rod's and lets your legs take some of your weight. The seat is also roomier (except in the passenger portion, which is still just a thin pad) and slightly flatter, making it easier to endure for long rides, though we still swap it out if we ride more than a half day. At riding speeds, wind pressure takes any weight off your hands. Since your legs are under you, you can also stand over bumps, something your back is sure to appreciate.

Your back will also be pleased by the suspension's extra travel. There is an inch more movement available at each end, giving much more stroke to handle big bumps. And because it doesn't have to be so stiff to avoid bottoming out, small bumps that would judder the V-Rod pass unnoticed under the Street Rod.

That additional four inches of saddle altitude will worry a few riders, but probably more than it should-and we think the trade-off for a much more comfortable ride and greater ground clearance is well worth it, even if that's an uncruiserly sentiment. Our 5-foot-8 tester had no problems standing flat-footed on the Street Rod despite the 31.0-inch saddle height. In fact, he preferred it to the V-Rod's because he didn't have to deal with the long reach to the footpegs (which Harley offers kits to remedy). His only complaint was that the handlebar seemed a bit distant, but it offered good leverage. Overall, he, like everyone else who rode both, felt more in control on the Street Rod than on the V-Rod.

Of course, some of that is due to the Street Rod's superior handling. Although the V-Rod has been one of our favorite cruisers to scoot down a winding road, its steering geometry definitely takes some getting used to. The V's steering is most neutral if you can accelerate all the way through a corner. The Street Rod's steering head is raked to a moderate 30 degrees instead of the V-Rod's 34 degrees (the triple clamps change the fork legs' angle to 32 and 38 degrees respectively), and it has slightly more front-wheel trail (4.3 inches instead of the Street Rod's 3.9 inches). These differences make the steering just slightly quicker and lighter, but it is much more linear and tolerant of midcorner power adjustments.

Of course, the Street Rod handles bumps much more effectively than the V-Rod, and it has a lot more cornering clearance. The V-Rod lets you lean farther. Harley says it offers eight degrees more lean angle (40 degrees versus 32 for the V-Rod), allowing you to tilt it in more than any cruiser we have ridden. Although the tires are almost the same as the V-Rod's, they still feel firmly stuck when you lean far enough to drag. In fact, it's generally more assured when banked over hard than any cruiser. A very few, like the now-discontinued Honda Magna, steer a bit more nimbly, but none feel quite as settled, especially if the corner packs some bumps. However, the steering is not as responsive as a lighter naked bike or standard-style motorcycle-a Yamaha FZR1000 or a Ducati Monster, for example-with a real sporting bent.

So what is the Street Rod-sporting cruiser or stylish naked bike? If you like it, we don't think it actually matters. Roadster will do just fine as a description. It should fulfill its purpose-to attract new customers whose heads wouldn't be turned by current Harleys-quite nicely. And those drawn to its V-Rod flair, rational ergonomics and sporting capability-and who can manage the $17,000 buy-in-will probably be pleased by Harley's turn away from Main Street.

Specifications
2006 H-D VRSCR Street Rod
Suggested base price: $16,495
Standard colors: Black
Extra-cost colors: Black cherry, blue, orange, yellow, add $245
Standard warranty: 24 months, unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 5000 miles

Engine & Drivetrain
Type: Liquid-cooled, 60-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: DOHC, two intake valves, two exhaust valves
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1130cc, 100mm x 72mm
Compression ratio: 11.3:1
Carburetion: EFI
Lubrication: Wet sump, 4.5 quarts
Minimum fuel grade: 92 octane
Transmission: Wet clutch, five speeds
Final drive: Belt

Chassis
Wheels: Cast alloy, 19 x 3.0 in. front, 18 x 5.5 in rear
Front tire: 120/70ZR-19 Dunlop D207F
Rear tire: 180/55ZR-18 Dunlop D407
Front brake: Two, four-piston calipers, 11.8 in. discs
Rear brake: Four-piston caliper, 11.8 in. disc
Front suspension: 43mm inverted fork, 5.0 in. travel
Rear suspension: Two dampers, 5.0 in. travel, adjustable for spring preload
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal.
Wet weight: 651 lbs.
GVWR: 1060 lbs.
Seat height: 31.0 inches
Wheelbase: 66.8 in.
Overall length: 93.7 in.
Trail: 4.3 in.
Rake: 32 deg.

Electrical & Instrumentation
Charging output: 439 watts
Battery: 12v, 12 AH
Forward lighting: 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: Single bulb
Instruments: Speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, LCD odometer/dual tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, oil pressure, coolant temperature, engine diagnostics, security system

Performance
Fuel mileage: 31 to 40 mpg, 35.3 mpg average
Average range: 177 miles 200-yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph,
terminal speed: 83.0 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 11.94 sec. @ 112.9 mph

High Points
*Harley style meets real handling
*Riding position more rational than
V-Rod's
*Lots of power
*Brakes to match

Low Points
*Passengers need seats, too
*Hand levers best suited to large hands
*Heavier than V-Rod

First Changes
*A real seat for passengers

Riding Positions
Harley has finally created a bike for people who are attracted to Harleyness but want a bigger portion of function in terms of handling and comfort. Here is a Harley without all the compromises mandated by low seat heights so you can enjoy real suspension travel, cornering clearance and a roomier motorcycle. And even if you don't consider it a cruiser, it will be a bike you can customize like one because Harley already has an extensive Street Rod accessory line, and it will grow.

If you are attracted to the Street Rod, you'll probably do best to wait several months to get one. Some dealers charged more than $30,000 for their first V-Rods during the initial surge of demand. But because it wasn't a mainstream model, you can now find dealers who discount them from the MSRP. Wait awhile and you might even get a great bike at a price that's as rational as it is.-Art Friedman

Futuristic, groundbreaking design saddled with Jurassic-era ergonomics-that was my beef with the V-Rod back in 2001. I'd ridden the thing from L.A. to Sturgis, and even though I gushed over the brilliant engine characteristics, my spinal column was crying uncle thanks to the torturously jacked-up footpegs. Someone heard my yelps, though, and those disparate elements have been synced up in the new Street Rod. A taller, better-positioned saddle, pulled-in front end and added shock travel add up to sprightly, more responsive steering and better-controlled bump absorption. I'm still not nuts about the porky exhaust poking my lower right leg at stops, and I'm not even sure it qualifies as a cruiser, but I'll take those bitchin' Brembos anytime.-Andrew Cherney