2009 Harley-Davidson XR1200 - First Ride!

So Nice, They Brought It Back Home

No matter how much we like to bash `em, occasionally our pals across the Pond get their mitts on a motorcycle design so wickedly well-thought out we're jealous the manufacturer didn't release it in the States. The latest Euro-spec model, though, owes its very existence to a completely American concept. Fortunately for us, this time the manufacturer decided to share the wealth.

What the Europeans had purpose-built especially for them was the Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200--a riff on one of the most iconic bikes in the annals of motorcycling. In case you need to thumb through your old copies of Motorcyclist, that would be Harley's old XR-750 dirt tracker. Kenny Coolbeth's championship last year in the US flat track series on an XR-750 only cements the bike's timelessness.

When the new XR1200 was rolled out in Spain last April, it was the first new Harley to be launched exclusively in Europe. With the XR750's race-winning DNA in its genes the XR1200 was an unmitigated hit in Euro Zone, right out of the gate. That stands to reason--our overseas biking brethren have always had a greater passion for naked bikes. This time, however, Harley heard the screams of protest from U.S. riders after that launch and decided to bring the XR1200 home after all. Hallelujah.

Break It Down
As you might already know, the XR's air-cooled, silver powdercoated 1203cc Evolution mill is nearly standard issue Sportster equipment, but with notable upgrades under the hood. The major bits include a larger, more efficient airbox, performance cams, downdraft fuel injection and new oil-cooled heads. An upswept, high-volume 2 into 1 into 2 exhaust system is likewise optimized for efficiency. Toss in a higher 10.0:1 compression ratio and an increased redline of 7000 rpm, and the result is a claimed torque figure just shy of 74 lbs-ft at a low 4000 rpm, with an alleged 90 horsepower at 7000 rpm (more horsepower but less torque than you'd find in other 1200 Sportsters).

A stiffer, hollow cast aluminum swingarm also promises better stability than the box-section steel unit found on your run-of-the-mill Sporty, and Harley uses an old trick to finagle the steering geometry. A "split-rake" sets the fork angle at an aggressive 27.8 degrees, with the steering head angle at 29.3 degrees. That 43mm upside-down Showa is non-adjustable but offers more than five inches of travel. Traditional twin coil-over shocks out back offer preload adjustment, though as usual for a Harley, no tool is included. At least the Motor Company wised up and called on 9-time AMA Grand National Champion Scott Parker to help develop the chassis and handling for this machine. And it really shows.

The XR's lightweight 3-spoke cast wheels get shod with Dunlop Qualifiers developed specifically for it. Mounted on the 18-inch front wheel is a pair of 4-piston dual disc Nissin calipers to handle the `whoa' power. A wide dirt track-style handlebar lends the XR1200 a distinctive look, and those ummistakeably retro tank graphics seal the deal.

Road Course
It's hard to pin down the XR1200's niche, so we'll just paraphrase Bill Davidson, VP, Core Customer Marketing for Harley in saying, "this is not your granddad's Sportster." There are a few surprises to be had here.

Ergonomically the XR1200 strikes an appealing compromise between aggressive canyon bomber and upright daily driver. The reach from the saddle to the wide bars is a breeze, though the seat-to-peg angle may feel cramped for six-footers. Also, the seating position is slightly upright, which might alienate diehard cruiser types used to a more laid-back slouch.

The seat is somewhat thin and narrow, though its height is a friendly 30.5 inches. A large analog tach is centered just above the handlebar, with a small digital speedometer squatting to the left, positioned conveniently within the pilot's line of vision.

On our ride through the hilly terrain north of San Diego, we have the privilege of tailing Scott Parker on the XR1200. The most successful rider on the most successful flat-track racebike had a ball wheelying the thing around all day long, but we were more impressed by this XR's ability to blitz the tight mountain corners. The 580 lb XR1200 moves well and the monstrous torque curve is a delight. And those Dunlop Qualifiers certainly help the cause. The 18-inch flat-track-style rubber has been specially designed for this bike and it sticks you to the tarmac.

The fork sucks up most deflections and does an excellent job of keeping the front locked onto the asphalt but it also doesn't offer much compliance over sharp-angled bumps. For its price of admission, we think the XR should have adjustable damping upfront. When the road tightened up, the XR1200 held its own with solid grip and stability. The bike turns surprisingly well and stays on target through the arc with plenty of room for lean angles on either side (40 degrees on the left side, with no pipes in the way), though you can scrape footpeg feelers during hard cornering.

Once you hit the highway, the XR1200 can cruise comfortably, if a bit harshly. Acceleration is stout, and although gearing feels a bit tall, it never got in the way of our more spirited excursions. And those Nissin brakes are the cat's meow: the new dual four-piston pinchers provided such good feel and stopping power, we almost forgot we were riding a Sportster.

We felt the non-hydraulic clutch was surprisingly usable (by Harley standards, it's practically hair-trigger), and the 5-speed transmission shifted cleanly, with a distinct engagement. And that small, unfriendly looking seat?--No one I spoke to in our group had any complaints as it proved to be comfortable during over 150 miles of riding.

Will It Fly?
The Harley-Davidson XR1200 is a solid piece of work. Though there are plenty of great details on the XR1200, there are also some disappointments. Aficionados will frown at that plastic tank and oil tank shroud. The single bolt on the steering head is straight out of Home Depot and some of the welds are messy. If you've a 30 inch inseam or less like me, the kickstand is nearly impossible to deploy. Still, on balance, the XR1200's design offers a nice combo of retro touches and modern details in a package that looks like no other bike on the road.

In fact, when asked which bikes they considered to be the XR1200's competition, Harley representatives at the launch sort of shrugged. It's understandable: the XR is neither sportbike nor cruiser, but rather a weird kind of standard hybrid machine. Its combination of retro styling projected onto a modern road bike offers great all-around fun, whether cruising at lower speeds or blasting up a windy mountain road.

Naturally, we still wonder if this bike will fly in the good ol USA. Let's hope the riding public's ready for the homecoming.

2009 H-D XR1200
MSRP: $10,799 (Black)
Add $280 for other colors

Type: air-cooled 45 degree Evolution V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1202.81cc, 88.90mm x 96.82mm
Compression Ratio : 10.0:1
Fuel Delivery: Electronic fuel injection
Transmission: 5-speed; multiplate wet clutch
Final Drive : Belt

Front Suspension: 43mm inverted fork, 5.3-in.travel
Rear Suspension: Dual dampers, 4.3-in travel, preload adjustable
Front brakes: 320mm discs, 4 piston caliper
Rear Brakes: 298mm disc, single piston caliper
Front Tire: 130/70-18M/C 63H
Rear Tire: 170/70-16 M/C 75H
Wheels: 3-spoke cast aluminum

Overall length: 85.40 in
Seat Height: 29.20 in
Wheelbase: 59.80 in
Rake/trail: 29.3°, 6°trees)/5.12 in
Fuel Capacity: 3.5 gal
Wet Weight: 580 lbs. (claimed)

Helmet: H-d Jet II
Jacket: H-D Thunder Hill
Gloves: Olympia Sports Full Throttle
Boots: Icon Super Duty 3
The XR1200 gets much of its inspiration (and a few design elements) from Harley's championship-winning XR-750.
A cast aluminum swingarm said to be 40% stiffer than the steel ones on most Sportys makes for better stability.
The large tach centered over the handlebar gives you a great view of the rpms (as well as odometer, tripmeter and clock functions)
No question about the sporting intent: with a stout, inverted fork, lightweight cast wheels, mini fenders and dual four-piston front disc brakes, the XR lives up to its Sportster moniker.