With a name like Sportster, Harley-Davidson's line of smaller, stripped down motorcycles should evoke visions of curve carving or straight-line bravado. While this may have been the case many decades ago, today's Sportys have largely been relegated to filling the "lower priced and less cumbersome" niche left vacant by their larger brethren.
Many old timers can still be heard reminiscing of a time when Harley-Davidson's Sportsters were the kings of the strip. Beefy V-twins and no-nonsense demeanors had these bikes running neck and neck with the Brit brutes of the day. But when the Japanese wave of lighter, more powerful, and less expensive machines rolled ashore, the Sportster's racy name quickly became more boulevard badge than stoplight statement. Yet while these models have spent the last several decades riding the performance pine, the company's true blue-chip player has never even seen a headlight or turn signals. Introduced in 1970, the XR750 has long been (with the exception of four years of Honda dominance in the mid-1980s), the premier player in the dirt-track arena. And while the Motor Company has made several short-lived street-going attempts to capitalize on their numerous checkered flags, the bare-bones, pure competition look has never garnered much favor within the chrome and fringe community. But today, demographics are changing and economic realities are ushering in a new era of consumers proudly celebrating "less is more." The time may be right to seize on both the racetrack pedigree and the simple, straightforward cool of the XR750. And so, with their new XR1200, Harley-Davidson appears poised to get back in the performance game with a Sportster that's legitimately ready for the starting lineup.
At the heart of every Sportster is an air-cooled, pushrod V-twin. True to its bloodline, the XR1200 is motivated by the 1,200cc (73.4ci) version of the Evolution power plant. But this particular mill is packing a few interesting features to give it a performance advantage over the others in the livery. The first trick piece catching the eye is the rakish, large-capacity oil cooler protruding from the left front of the silver powder-coated cylinders. It's the heart of the plumbing that feeds the precision oil-cooled cylinder heads while also adding a certain "competition-only" note of authority. The high-output cams and a slightly higher 10.0:1 compression ratio help keep the XR a step ahead of the standard Sportsters too. Go-juice delivery is admirably handled by Harley-Davidson's downdraft Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI) system. And despite the burden of a 200-pound operator and a full load of gear, the XR absolutely jumps at the twist of the wrist, even in top gear. Great throttle response is one of the perks you get from a pair of big jugs slamming down a claimed 74 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Start-ups are painless no matter the temperature, and fuel mileage figures are quite impressive at 46-50 mpg, with absolutely no right-hand attempts at economizing necessary. The upswept 2-1-2 straight-shot exhaust system is finished in superb satin chrome and pays proper homage to its dirt-track roots while keeping the decibels at a neighbor friendly level. Though any self-respecting hooligan will scoff at the rather mellow-sounding idle, the auditory growl becomes increasingly fierce with the clockwise swing of the tach needle. Still, there's that underlying feeling that this beast could stand to breathe better and, undoubtedly, the aftermarket will offer plenty of options to address the issue.
The impressive power coming through the rubber-mounted motivator is delivered to the road through a five-speed gearbox that spins a sportbike-standard 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop Qualifier rear tire via belt drive. Shifting is surprisingly smooth and free of the clunkiness often associated with Harley trannys, and the clutch, though a bit stiff, is easy to modulate. It only begins to feel heavy in prolonged bouts of stop-and-go traffic. Though the ratios, especially in fourth and fifth, are close to ideal for spirited romps across twisty tarmac, on longer highway jaunts reflexive stabs at that nonexistent sixth cog occur.
Most Harleys handle well when kept within their parameters of leisurely cruising, but foot pegs and floorboards stamped from Milwaukee iron do tend to take a beating when the road kinks up. The XR1200, on the other hand, has all the hard parts tucked well away from the asphalt. The rear-set pegs allow for some overly entertaining lean angles on par with the sportiest nakeds on the market today. Up front, a set of inverted, sport-tuned 43mm Showa forks do a fantastic job of keeping the sticky 120/70ZR18 Dunlop Qualifier radial pinned to the pavement. Though not adjustable, these legs' 4.9 inches of travel handled fully loaded touring duty and solo sprints with equal ease. Even some really rough winter-ravaged routes snaking the mountains of Vermont couldn't derail the unflappable XR. Simply pick your line, roll on the gas and enjoy the show.
Out back, a hollow aluminum swingarm is kept in check by a pair of preload adjustable shocks that tame the road quite well considering the meager 3.5 inches of wheel travel. Toward the end of the day though, dealing with said rough riding conditions did get a bit cumbersome. Unavoidable sections of larger frost heaves and potholes quickly overrode the shocks' short stroke in a manner guaranteed to attract commendations from the American Chiropractic Association. Overall though, the stability and razor-sharp handling exhibited by the admittedly hefty (580 pounds wet) XR are absolutely impressive. Tight twists and especially sweeping, smooth pavement are guaranteed to keep the grins flowing in abundance too.
Another omnipresent Harley-Davidson characteristic not associated with this Sportster is marginal braking. The twin Nissen four-piston calipers up front grab their 292mm rotors with such aplomb that real care must be exercised in just how much pressure is applied to the lever. Seriously, these binders will have you nose-first with the front fender if you're not paying attention. But on that note, don't think they're all bite. Two-finger modulation in traffic or setting up for a rapidly approaching corner is an effortless proposition. On the back wheel, a single piston caliper plays equally well with its corresponding 260mm rotor. Whether used in full lockup for an encroaching Buick or for slowing slightly during trail braking, these stoppers are completely modern and perform exquisitely.
First and foremost, the XR1200 is designed to be a viable choice for those in search of a sporting ride with an American flair. While Buell's roadracing-inspired models do offer a Harley-Davidson derived engine, their layout and handling are considered by many to be quirky and too unconventional. Conversely, the XR could not be easier to ride. With a set of wide handlebars that perfectly offset a downright girlish slenderness, this machine screams Saturday nights under the lights. Even the invisible air filter mounted beneath the fuel tank and the factory-racing inspired graphics are important components in completing the XR750 vibe.
But the best part about this bike is just how well it works. In the world of touring, commuting, and tackling the mundane tasks of everyday riding, this is one exceptionally well-rounded, competent motorcycle. The seamless fuel injection system delivers a strong, user-friendly torque curve. The comfortable, upright seating posture assures an enjoyable all-day ride. And to seal the deal, a selection of quality suspension and braking components, along with a welcome helping of ground clearance and lean angle, keep the wheels firmly on and the foot pegs well away from the road. And though, in my opinion, the XR can't be encumbered with many negatives, it must be noted that pillion consideration was a mere afterthought. The token passenger perch is far more form than function. Another weakness from a touring perspective is the smallish 3.5-gallon fuel capacity. While it does deliver excellent mileage ratings, the bike is still only good for 140-160 miles before the feed-me light comes on.
When all is said and done, however, the most important aspect the XR1200 embodies is the fun factor. This is just an unbelievably entertaining two-wheeler. Any road, any speed, the choice is yours. The compliant V-twin and performance-inspired chassis deliver the goods. And showing up nearly anywhere on the XR creates an instant buzz - so be prepared for numerous Q and A sessions. It seems that people instinctively flock to winners, and from where I've been sitting, the XR1200 has never failed to draw a crowd.
+ sharp handling, quality brakes, easy to ride
- small fuel tank, a little heavy
Distributor Harley-Davidson Motor Company
MSRP $ 10,799
Engine 45º V-twin, OHV
Bore and Stroke 88.9x96.82mm
Fuel System ESPFI
Power 73.9lb-ft torque @4000rpm
Final Drive belt
Frame tubular steel
Front Suspension 43mm inverted, 4.9in travel
ear Suspension twin shocks, preload adjustable, 3.5in travel
Rake/Trail 29.3°/5.1in (130mm)
Front Brake twin 292mm discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear Brake single 260mm disc, 1-piston caliper
Front Tire 120/70-ZR18
Rear Tire 180/55-ZR17
Curb Weight 580lbs (263kg)
Wheelbase 59.8in (1519mm)
Seat Height 29.2in (741mm)
Fuel Capacity 3.5gal (13.25l)
Fuel Consumption 47mpg
Colors Vivid Black, Pewter Denim, Mirage Orange Pearl