The term "power cruiser" seems an odd, oxymoronic descriptive. Cruising, by its general nature, implies taking one's time and embracing a heightened level of relaxation that allows for an in-depth exploration of the aesthetics of the ride, or a quick trip down to the local watering hole, whichever comes first. Whereas power (i.e., velocity) seems an element that should sit on the cruising priority list somewhere between the taller sissy bar and chrome gas cap.
But as tastes change, cylinders expand, and urges for bragging rights flourish, cruising for cruising's sake is a concept that to some is going the way of carburetors and cooling fins. And while more power is never a bad thing, squeezing some quality juice does seem to fly in the face of the average Harley-Davidson. Now don't start reaching for your torches, Harley folks; I'm perfectly aware that you can make push-rod engines go fast, real fast. I know a guy with an Ultra Classic that can flat out rip by any standard of comparison. Granted, his wallet is over 30 grand lighter for it, but it can be done. Same goes for the CVOs, no slowpokes by any means, but you sure have to have the means to afford one. So what's a red-blooded American boulevard bomber with a yen for wrist-wrenching performance and a real world budget supposed to do? Fear not, dear Citizens, with Harley-Davidson's VRSCD Night Rod, you can have your mom's apple pie and eat it too.
But Is It A "Real" Harley?
Of course it is - it says so on the gas tank. Oh wait. That's not a gas tank, it's the air cleaner cover. You refuel under the seat. Oh, and those nifty looking scoops up front are radiator shrouds. Push rods you ask? Why, there aren't any push rods here; this is a thoroughly modern overhead cam engine with design roots trailing across the Atlantic to Germany. Porsche to be exact.
Shh, listen. Somewhere in the distance you can hear a Motor Company purist's blood pressure rising. Don't worry. They'll get over it. They'll have to because they probably won't be able to run you down. About the only thing the VRSC Revolution engine shares with its air-cooled stable mates is the V-twin configuration. Inside, it's a whole different ball game.
The 60º, liquid-cooled, 1130cc two banger may seem a little small by today's cruiser standards, but bigger doesn't always mean better. Sporting dual overhead cams and four valve heads, this compact package pounds out an impressive claimed 120 horsepower and 80 ft. lbs. of torque. And with a 9000rpm red line, there's plenty of room to use this ample mill. Power hits right off the bottom and pulls in a strong, linear fashion, with only a minor stumble detected just before the rev limiter kicks in. The engine is surprisingly quiet yet still manages to deliver a nice V-2 pulse, but don't expect that signature Milwaukee throb. From the exhaust note on up, it's obvious that this is not your daddy's Harley. Whether employed on the freeway or strafing the back roads, muscle comes in buckets no matter the gear. On several mountain rides, I enjoyed letting the tee-shirt and sneakers sportbike squids pass, only to repay them with unwelcome doses of Harley headlight in their rear views. Now that's fun.
The rubber hits the road by way of a five-speed transmission. I had no issues with the shifting either on the up or down stroke though a quick boot out of first on spirited starts is necessary to avoid the aforementioned rev limiter. And out on the freeway, despite a fine collection of ponies, I was constantly jabbing for that nonexistent sixth cog. Come on, Harley, I know for a fact you guys have a nice six speed, how about a little open-road love for the Night Rod? Overall, the clutch feel is solid and easy to modulate, although some may say it's a bit on the heavy side. But believe me, that's more observation than complaint.
Does It Handle?
Yes, but with limitations. Although the Night Rod certainly has the power end of the equation well in hand, the cruiser part of the description is there for a reason. With a wheelbase of 67.2 inches that includes a 34º rake, the VRSCD sits nearly half an inch longer than Honda's Gold Wing and over 3.5 inches longer than the Ultra Classic! Needless to say we won't be seeing too many Night Rods harassing the Buells through the corkscrew at Laguna Seca. But again, remember that "cruiser" thing. Main Street and the boulevards are this bike's intended purpose, and it hammers the straights with gusto. The rigid, hydroformed perimeter frame handles the abundant torque with ease and the ultra-low, 26-inch seat height combines with a meager five inches of ground clearance to give that slammed, almost dragster look. In the suspension department, things come together surprisingly well. Up front, 49mm forks match the twin shocks out back with four inches of travel. For their somewhat limited range of motion, I found both ends perfectly acceptable, especially for a low-slung cruiser. However, my pillion had a very different take after a few too many highway joints. The majority of my miles were ridden solo.
In the braking department, I wholeheartedly say "Thank You, Harley-Davidson." The Night Rod comes outfitted with twin, four-piston Brembo calipers up front, and another one in the rear, with all units squeezing 300mm rotors. Stopping power isn't exactly one-finger, sportbike effective, but considering the portly poundage (629 ready to roll) I felt they did a fine job. Even with a head of steam coming down some steep mountain roads, the binders performed commendably in scrubbing off the speed for the impending peg dragging.
And drag pegs you will when the briskness bug bites in the twists. Though not truly intended to chase the repli-racer crowd, the Night Rod, with its mid-mounted controls strikes a surprisingly sporty pose should that mood gain sway. Granted, you will touch down and sparks will be flung, but as long as care is exercised and you stay out of the rigid frame parts, this can be a rewarding experience - enough so to inspire wicked grins on par with that creepy cat's from Alice's Wonderland. It does take a good bit of physical work leaning off the bike and working the bars, but the solid chassis and stout motor are up to the challenge and the back road payouts are a great bit of fun.
Can It Go the Distance?
Last spring I picked up the Night Rod in Daytona. Having never thrown a leg over this bike, I set out north for the 550-mile return trip to North Carolina with some understandable apprehension. After a couple of hours, I realized my concerns were unfounded. The firm, contoured seat held up admirably throughout the tedium of Interstate 95. Another welcome addition is the extra set of highway pegs, allowing me to stretch my legs. On those longer reaches of highway, these gems prove to be just the right accent to offset the somewhat confining nature of the mid-mount controls.
Our VRSCD came equipped with a set of optional Sport Saddlebags (readily available from Harley-Davidson's extensive accessory catalog). Though fairly small and a bit pricey at $ 550, including mounting hardware, they are factory pieces that fit nicely while still complementing the Night Rod's racy lines. Some creative packing will be required for even brief solo tours; but for around town duties, they're fine.
As for fit and finish, I found "love-hate" to be a fairly apt description. Aesthetically, the Night Rod has the uber-cool look of a drag racer waiting to pounce. The deep, rich Pacific Blue Pearl paint melds perfectly with the chrome and aluminum accents. Design-wise, this machine's hotrod roots are proudly celebrated. I especially like the fact that the bike feels tiny when you're in the saddle. I also appreciate the wide, comfortable bars and narrow faux gas tank/air cleaner cover that work in concert with the inseam-friendly seat height, which despite its true girth creates the feeling that you're on a very slight machine.
The Night Rod hadn't failed to put a smile on my face - until I examined it up close. Some things got a little hinky then. Upon receiving the bike, I was told it had spent part of the winter in the road-salted Northeast and it showed. The otherwise sharp-looking slotted disc wheels were already hazy and pitted, with bits of surface rust appearing on some of the front brake components. A number of the fasteners were coated in a layer of light oxidation. With the exception of the wheels, you had to be looking to see these anomalies. But let's face it, cruisers are as much about looks as anything else. Now, I understand the effects of road salt and inclement weather, but this bike only had a few thousand miles on it.
Mechanically, we also had one issue that popped up. On two occasions the engine dropped a cylinder just as the check engine light came on. Trust me, this bike does not work well as a single. The first time, our local dealership told us we had fouled a plug, an easy fix indeed. The second time it happened, we were on tour in Helen, Georgia, and far away from a Harley dealership. We took the plug wire off and determined that a special spark plug tool would be needed. We replaced the cap and put everything back together. Crossing fingers, we fired the bike back up and it ran fine, never giving us a lick of trouble again. Most likely, this was a one-off oddity, but a little investigation may not be a bad idea if a Night Rod is in your future.
Overall, I really enjoyed the VRSCD. Sure, I have some quibbles about the finish, ground clearance, and the spark plug hiccup, but out on the road this bike never failed to generate a smile. It's a very capable representative of the oxymoronic 'power cruiser' category and with a little accessorizing it makes a nice little touring mount. Bottom line: I'd have no problem hopping on the Night Rod and riding anywhere.
Distributor Harley-Davidson Motor Company
MSRP $ 14,995
Engine Revolution® V-Twin
Displacement 1130cc (69ci)
Bore x Stroke 100 x 72mm
Fuel System Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection
Power 120hp / 80ft. lb. claimed
Transmission five speed
Final Drive belt
Frame hydroformed perimeter frame
Front Suspension 49mm inverted fork, 4 inches travel
Rear Suspension twin, coil over shocks, 4 inches travel
Rake/Trail 34º/4.6in (116.3mm)
Brakes Front/Rear 2 Brembo 4-piston caliper, 300mm rotors/Brembo 4-piston caliper, 300mm rotor
Tires Front/Rear 120/70ZR-19 / 180/55ZR-18
Dry Weight 637lbs (289kg)
Wheelbase 67.2in (1706mm)
Seat Height 27in (688.3mm)
Fuel Capacity 5gal (18.9l)
Fuel Consumption 44mpg
Colors Vivid Black, Pacific Blue Pearl, Yellow Pearl