Sportster XR1200 handles well, and looks and sounds gorgeous
Steve Bond Special to the Star Jan 03, 2009
San Diego–Last year, Harley-Davidson's new XR1200 (a motorcycle so gorgeous that anyone around it with a pulse immediately starts baying at the moon) was only available in Europe. Harley, I thought, you got some 'splainin' to do. But the reason for stiffing North America was simple: In Europe, sportiness and naked bikes are hugely popular, while we Colonials favour cruisers two-to-one. The Europeans applauded with their chequebooks and now the XR1200 is available on this side of the pond as a 2009 model. With styling based on Harley's XR750 flat tracker (the most successful racing motorcycle of all time), the XR1200 is available in black, silver and (the only logical choice, really) traditional Harley racing orange. Heavily based on the Sportster platform, the XR retains the rubber engine mounting system but has its own unique cast aluminum swing arm that's 1.5 kilograms lighter and considerably stiffer than the tubular steel stocker. The non-adjustable 43mm male-slider Showa forks offer 124 mm of travel while the dual Showa shocks have a meager 89 mm of travel with preload adjustment only. Spring and damping rates were calibrated for European roads and speeds (smooth and fast) but even in California, the shocks felt a bit harsh and underdamped. The wheels are lightweight cast aluminum, mounting Dunlop Qualifiers developed for the XR in 120/70-18 front and 180/55-17 inch sizes. The engine is a hot-rodded 1203cc Sportster unit with increased compression, hot cams, lighter flywheels and improved oil cooling. With a respectable 90 horsepower and 74 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, there is ample power everywhere, with excellent throttle response. The fat part of the powerband resides between 3000 and 5500 r.p.m. and, even though the mill revs quite freely to 7000, there's no reason to wring it that tight. On the freeway at a California-legal 70 m.p.h. (112 km/h), I was pleasantly surprised that I wasn't experiencing any wind blast, even though there's no wind protection whatsoever. When asked, one of the engineers smiled and said a "fair bit" of effort went into the design of the instrument pod and eyebrow on the top triple clamp. Cruising at 112 km/h equates to 4000 r.p.m., while at the Ontario maximum of 100 km/h it is a smooth and relaxed 3500. The rubber-mounted mill has the typical Sportster shake-shake-shake yer booty at idle but simmers down nicely once you hit 2500 r.p.m. In the mountains, the Santa Ana winds were in full force, with gusts to 75 km/h. Like a scene from a bad Western, tumbleweeds bounced everywhere, and I managed to annihilate a very large one that leapt out in front of me. The flat tracker-inspired seat looks a bit iffy but was surprisingly comfortable, even after a full day in the saddle. The riding position is very good, with a comfortable reach to bars and the pegs down under your butt, where they should be, although six footers may wish for a bit more leg room. Clutch pull is on the heavy side and at the end of a long day (including a one-hour stint in rush-hour traffic), my twice-broken left wrist was crying "No mas." Instrumentation is simple, with a large analog tachometer flanked by a small, digital speedo. The handling was above average, and you don't have to add the "for a Harley" disclaimer. The long wheelbase and conservative steering geometry means it's not exactly flickable, but the initial turn-in is good and the XR is very stable and confidence-inspiring mid-corner. The longish footpeg feelers will eventually drag but only after you're going a pretty good pace. The road to the crest of Mount Palomar was built to transport a giant mirror for the observatory. The smooth turns traversing up the mountain are of constant grade, radius and banking – in other words, perfect for motorcycling. On the way up, the XR was right at home, braking right up to the apex, sweeping around the corner and then allowing the ample torque to catapult me to the next turn. Lather, rinse, repeat as required. On the way down, good brakes are necessary to keep you from sleeping with the eagles, as there are no guardrails on the outside of the turns – and it's a long way down. The XR's new 4-pot Nissin calipers squeezing the twin 292mm discs provided excellent stopping power and were fade-free, even when worked hard. Pull at the non-adjustable lever was firm but the initial bite was good and I'd judge feel and feedback as above average. The intruding airbox limits fuel capacity to only 13.2 litres, which is a shame because the XR is a fun ride and comfortable enough for a day-tour. A claimed fuel consumption of 4.5 to 6L/100 km area translates to a pretty short cruising range, making Harley's optional soft luggage a bit redundant. The XR1200 is also a bit on the porky side, checking in at 263 kilograms with a sump full of oil and a full tank of gas. A byproduct of extra horsepower is heat and, even with the ambient temperature a pleasant 20C, when in traffic I noticed a fair bit of heat coming from the exhaust header on the right and the oil cooler on the left. The XR1200 is the best-handling, most performance-oriented Sportster yet. It's drop-dead gorgeous in orange, it sounds great and good-quality aftermarket shocks will easily fix the somewhat weak rear end. When riding this motorcycle, the only way you could be any cooler is if you were Steve McQueen.