Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Top 10: superbikes

The British Superbike Championship features some of the closest, most exciting racing you'll see anywhere in the world.
Machines which can do 0-100mph in around two seconds and reach almost 200mph while battling elbow to elbow - no wonder crowds of up to 60,000 pack in to see the action.
But what really makes fans connect with the racing is that the bikes on track are modified versions of what you can buy in the showroom and ride on the road.
The fat bloke wobbling around on his Ducati 1098 gets some reflected glory from the fact that Shane Byrne breaks the lap record at Brands Hatch on the same machine.
And we British love our sports bikes with a passion. Every year these 180bhp monsters, dripping with carbon fibre and expensive rare-metal alloys top the sales charts, but which is the best superbike? Here's our choice.

1. Honda CBR1000RR Fireblade
What more can be said about the Fireblade that hasn't been said a thousand times. More than any other machine the 'blade defines the term superbike. Since 1992 it has been the benchmark for others to meet.
It epitomises state-of-the-art performance in a package that can feel civilised on the road and brutally cutting edge on the race track. New for 2008, the latest model's daring looks have divided opinion. One thing the critic's aren't arguing about though is its performance and after 16 years it's still as breathtaking as ever.

2. Ducati 1098
No other manufacturer has enjoyed as much success in superbike racing as Ducati. The Bologna factory has even provided us with three British world champions - Carl Fogarty, Neil Hodgson and James Toseland.
The new 1098 has not been without its controversy - many rival manufacturers are unhappy it has a 200cc advantage, introduced to allow twin-cylinder machines, which don't rev as high, to compete with the fours. The 1098 picks up where the 916 left off; gorgeous to look at and a thumping mid-range.

3. Suzuki GSX-R1000
More than any other maker, Suzuki has brought the superbike to the masses and its sports bikes top the sales charts seemingly at will. The GSX-R1000 is one of the most powerful, but also one of the cheapest.
The Gixxer, as it's known, is no bargain basement duffer, in fact Troy Corser proved just how quick the GSX-R1000 can be when he claimed the World Superbike crown in 2005. Go out for a ride on any sunny day and you're guaranteed to be overtaken by at least 10 GSX-R1000s - so if you're happy to blend into the crowd, the Gixxer is probably best superbike in the world.

4. Yamaha R1
The fifth generation of the R1 now boasts more technology than Currys. The fly-by-wire throttle means wherever you are in the rev range you're guaranteed smooth and linear power delivery.
The R1 is also surprisingly comfortable to ride, unlike some other superbikes there's less weight on the wrists and your legs feel less cramped. However, in the ultra-competitive world of superbikes it would seem Honda's Fireblade has just edged its (somewhat squashed) nose in front and it's up to Yamaha to catch up.

5. Kawasaki ZX-10R Ninja
Kawasaki has always enjoyed its brutish reputation in the sports bike market. Next to the finesse and over-engineering of Honda comes Kawasaki's savage power and explosive delivery. This is no-holds-barred performance and the rider can just hang on and suffer.
But with 175bhp propelling you forward, all thoughts of discomfort will jump out of the window as the adrenaline kicks in. Without a major revision since 2006, the ZX-10R is, in the fast moving current of superbike development, a bit long in the tooth and it's soon going to be time for Kawasaki to unleash its next generation Ninja.

6. KTM RC8
The newest superbike contender thinks the future is orange. When we rode the RC8 last month at its world launch at Spain's Ascari circuit we described it as: "a very mean pussycat" - gentle when you wanted, but able to spit and snarl with the best.
The styling is going to divide opinions; described as 'like looking at a superbike through a cracked mirror'. But it's on the track that matters and the RC8 is making its race debut in the World Superstock Championship, possibly heading to superbike racing in 2009. KTM has a proud competition history, so its entry into production road racing will cause quite a stir.

7. MV Agusta F4 1000R
The F4, penned by legendary bike designer Massimo Tamburini, is the very pinnacle of what a great Italian sports bike should be: it's beautiful, focused and depressingly expensive. It just loves to be photographed and you can't take a bad picture of it.
But the F4 isn't all beauty and no brawn, this is a tyre-shredding superstock race winner at heart and faster than most mortal riders would dare go. Top of the range components, a highly tuned in-line four and a chassis capable of delivering the sharpest possible handling combine to make the F4 1000R one of the most desirable bikes on the planet.

8. Aprilia RSV1000R Mille
Aprilia had never made a superbike until it turned its hand to the RSV Mille and if this is the fruit of its first labour then it makes you wonder just how good its V4 superbike will be when it's unveiled later this year.

The RSV Mille utilises a punchy Rotax V-twin and brings Italian exotica to the mainstream, tempting a few would be Ducati owners away from the red-side. If the standard bike is just too soggy for you (which I very much doubt) then an ultra-trick RSV-R Factory version is available with the highest spec racing components - naturally, a higher spec credit card is also required.

9. BMW HP Sport
This is a bit of a departure from sensible, old BMW. For so long BMW has only dipped a toe in the sports bike market but now it's only gone and launched a full-on carbon factory racer. Just how BMW has squeezed nearly 130bhp from its air-cooled flat twin is almost more stunning than the bike's class winning victory at the Le Mans endurance race first time out.

Light and flickable with bags of torque, whatever this superbike loses on sheer top end it will make up for in its usability - however, don't lean too far or you'll scuff those carbon tipped cylinder heads.

10. Buell 1125R
The 1125R had a rocky start when the original bikes, plagued with fuelling glitches and other faults, were withdrawn and tweaked. Now, with the problems ironed out, we have America's first real superbike in all its glory.

It's been a controversial move by Erik Buell, not least because he ditched Harley-Davidson's air-cooled, 45-degree lumps in favour of an Austrian Rotax liquid-cooled monster of an engine. If you want something a little bit different from an inline-four Japanese rocket (and for a reasonable price) then the Buell 1125R is a worthy contender.

Friday, April 16, 2010

BMW S1000RR (2010 onwards)

Can the Germans really produce a superbike capable of rivalling the Japanese and Italians at the first attempt? It appears about as probable as me beating Valentino Rossi to the chequered flag.

But I have to say, after riding BMW's new S1000RR; the bike is more than just impressive; it really could be a future champion.

Slip streaming another rider; I dive into Portimao's last right-hander high in third gear, skimming the apex with my knee. I whack the throttle open as the rider in front traces a fat black line on the asphalt. I'm probably laying equally impressive darkies but as he insists on keeping the throttle to the stop, I follow his example without question. Of course I'd normally exercise far more caution, but the S1000RR's traction control has boosted my confidence.

The gear-shift light blinks furiously, encouraging me to shift without shutting the throttle. I grab another gear; the optional HP quick shifter cuts the ignition for a fraction of a second and enables fourth to be engaged. I do my best to find shelter behind the small windscreen as the needle runs to the red zone like a madman. The front wheel lifts briefly to crest a small rise and when the front tyre reconnects to the tarmac, the steering damper tempers the flailing handlebars that threaten to flap wildly out of control.

Up to fifth and sixth, I dive into the madness. I force myself to keep the throttle to the stop for gear after gear as the horizon rushes towards me in a wall of speed that is almost too fast to register.
Portimao's straight never seemed this short before, not on Ducati's 1198S or on KTM's RC8R. With the security of ABS brakes, I grab the anchors without hesitation, especially as in slick mode, the ABS won't be activated when the rear starts to step out. I shift down to third and stay late on the brakes to the apex. There's a light vibration in the front forks, but that doesn't prevent me from putting the S1000RR exactly where I want it. At this very moment, I feel convinced that this is the very best stock superbike currently available.

However, I wasn't a fan from the first encounter. A day earlier, I'd studied the S1000RR on display in the launch hotel in Portugal and was torn by the combination of innovative design at one side and a finish that leaves room for improvement on the other. The asymmetric fairing and headlight design has divided biking population; but in my opinion, it's not only brave, but stylish too.

However, there are a few incidentals that are less attractive. The windscreen has no less than eight visible bolts compared to the flush finish on Yamaha's R1, the seat lock is sunk into passenger seat rather than being housed underneath the rear unit, and the plastic additional parts on fuel tank look cheap.

If the S1000RR had shared the same price tag as Aprilia's RSV4 Factory or Ducati's 1198S this would be unacceptable. But at £10,950 for the basic model - and £12,235 for the Sports version with ABS and DTC (Dynamic Traction Control) the standard bike's cost is comparable to Japanese superbikes. Admittedly, it is still far from cheap and it doesn't quite have the exquisite finish of a Fireblade but it does offer a more sensational ride.

For my first few laps on track, I select the most restrictive of the four electronically controlled ride options - Rain Mode, where the ABS and traction control have the most sensitive settings and power is limited to 150bhp. Unlike the RSV4 Factory, the S1000RR doesn't feel like it's been brutally castrated but more 'pinched' instead. Power build up is extremely linear and useable and, after three measured laps to scrub in the tyres and dust off my track knowledge, I'm beginning to feel frustrated. The bike feels as though someone has tied an elastic band to the sub-frame and anchored it to the ground.

Still in Rain Mode, I crank the S1000RR over on Portimao's bone-dry track and confidently add more throttle. There's no need to stop to activate a different mode, just press a button, pull the clutch in and shut the throttle to activate the system. Sport Mode is essentially full power with a slightly less restrictive safety net. It's designed for sporty road use, which on track translates into traction control that's activated way before I'm on my own limit. Although the throttle response is still direct and without hesitation or delay, the power delivery is measured and progressive until you reach the throttle's half way point. Past that, it's ballistic.

On the straight the 192 sleeping stallions stampede towards the horizon with a breathtaking force that feels similar to Suzuki's GSX-R 1000 K5. Unfortunately the rear suspension, just like the old Gixxer, also appears to lack adequate damping force. As a result, the S1000RR feels unstable over bumps and is reluctant to maintain its line. For the next session, I make one simple adjustment by switching to Race Mode and I'm instantly rewarded with a performance that clearly belongs to a 1000cc superbike.

Experienced track day addicts are unlikely to find the traction control restrictive on this setting, but you will be comforted by the little jerks which indicate the system is quietly preventing the rear from stepping sideways. However, after another 20 minutes in the saddle, I've got forearm pump that would put Popeye to shame - and indication how hard I'm trying.

After a short break, I'm back on track in Slick Mode and it all makes perfect sense. Although the S1000RR isn't as agile as the Fireblade, it is extremely precise and stable on the brakes. I follow another rider who has disengaged his traction control and I'm instantly aware of how the electronics are holding back my bike's acceleration in some areas. But in the circuit's more technical sections, I gain ground due to the freedom and confidence the traction control offers me.

For the last session I ride with the traction control turned off and allow the bike to show me its true, brilliant potential as the Metzler semi-slick rear tyre flirts with the limit of grip. This is BMW first attempt at producing a really competitive superbike and they've hit the nail head on. It's not only cracking good fun; it's easily capable of holding its own in a group test and it is even more likely to be crowned champion.

Facts at a glance
Model BMW S1000RR £10,950
(£12,235 with ABS and traction control)
Engine liquid-cooled in-line four of 999cc
mounted across the frame, producing
192hp at 13,000rpm at 83 lb ft at 9,750rpm
Transmission chain drive through six-speed gearbox
Weight 204kg (dry weight 183kg)
Seat height 820mm
Fuel capacity 17.5 litres

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Yamaha v-max

The sudden explosion of power as you wind the throttle back can only be likened to those fairground catapults that turn you into a human projectile. The rear's fat, the wheelbase is long and the bike carries its centre of gravity lower than a snake. Even with 123 ft lb of torque, you're likely to see a Wigan lift the Premiership title before you'll see the front wheel rise.
It's all about laying the power down with a knock-out rip of a punch. The engine's an all new 1679cc V4 with that massive torque punch and 197bhp at 9,000rpm. That's a lot of power - the same as Ducati's £42,000 Desmosedici RR - so expect the rubber to suck in cat's-eyes and spit them out behind like bitter lemon pips. You're also likely to need a couple of new rear tyres every year.

Nothing feels quite like this; it's ludicrous, hilarious ... and expensive. But let's pretend for a moment that you do have a spare sixteen grand burning a hole in your pocket, and that you do want a head-turning beast of a bike to administer your weekend shot of adrenalin, or make you laugh until your cheeks hurt, or massage your ego. If that's the case, the VMAX has been built especially for you.

Let's not pretend that the bike will carve through the countryside quite as successfully as it does a straight line. However, it is fairly capable, and more so than you'd expect given its sheer size. For slow speed work - even U-turns - the bike feels steady and the steering lock is fairly good.

It's ludicrous, hilarious... and expensive...

At a faster pace, you'll need to take command of the wide bars, work with the bike's natural balance and the VMAX will happily fall through bends, although keeping it leant over on rough surfaces at speed (which you will be) challenges the bike's suspension.

I hit a rut several times and felt my rear lose contact with the bike's. The obvious solution would be to slow down. But somehow that's never the most attractive course of action. So I hooked my knees under the 15-litre tank's protruding lips (the capacity of which suggests this bike's more suited to short, adrenalin packed mini trips than longer adventures) and took a more authoritative stance. If you can avoid pot holes and bumps, the bike handles well enough to explore the ample ground clearance before charging full steam ahead once more.

Speed - there I go again. Perhaps it would be best to join a 'run-what-you-brung' club because I can't see how on earth you could own a bike like this and not let it off the leash once in a while. The top speed's capped at 137mph, but you'll still get through a quarter-mile run with your head held high. Not only is it fast in a straight line, it's steady too and even waggling the bars does little to unsettle it.

At sometime, you may want to slow down, or dare I suggest, stop pummelling your internal organs. Thankfully the anchors do a respectable job of hauling the 310kg motorized monster to a standstill.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Ridden Voxan Street Scrambler

France has so much to offer - steady on chaps, we're not talking about Carla Bruni.
 One of my favourite things about France is its splendid roads - often through fine scenery, connecting historic towns and far less congested than here in Britain.

What a shame they don't have a French motorcycle to ride on them. But wait, you may not have heard of it, but there is a French bike and guess what - it's just as quirky as you'd expect from our friends across the Channel.

Voxan was established back in 1995 in Issoire in France and whilst their first prototype was released two years later, it wasn't until 1999 and beyond that their Roadster, Café Racer and Scrambler models were in the showrooms, with the Street Scrambler appearing in 2003.

Classic cool
Its styling is timeless and classic. There's a distinctly classy air about the bike which is perhaps why they haven't messed with the design in the five years of its existence. Next to rivals like the Benelli TNT Café Racer or Moto Morini's Corsaro Veloce 1200, the Street Scrambler looks petite and unfussy.
And to ride, it feels like a chopper in comparison. The seat's soft and low and you feel as though you've slipped inside the bike rather than sitting on it. As a result, the flat handlebars feel strangely high.
The instrument display consists of two circular dials which are perched above the bike's headlight. Both the rev counter and speedo have an old fashioned look about them and yet the design suits the bike perfectly. Dual slim exhaust pipes are stacked on top of each other to one side, just below seat height.

And although there's a real elegance about them, they emit a sound not dissimilar to a Harley-Davidson with full Screaming Eagle kit. All Voxan motorcycles are powered by the same 996cc, 72-degree V-twin engine.

French Harley
It is very much in the Harley mould - there's a certain degree of mechanical noise and obvious vibrations, enough to tickle your fingers, shudder the mirrors and encourage you to keep the revs nice and low. Tingling extremities weren't the only reason I kept the needle below 7,000rpm though.

Despite the red-line being at an indicated 9,500rpm, the bike insisted on spluttering way before that, and never at the same place in the rev range. I'd just executed a swift exchange of ticket and Euros, together with my very best smattering of French at the toll booth and had nailed the throttle.
I'd been keeping my focus firmly on the road ahead until the power delivery suddenly felt stifled. Red line, I thought, but glanced down to see the needle swaying at 7K. It seemed odd, but I shifted up and tucked in.
Another splutter: this time at 8K, as if to confirm the bike's individuality and unpredictability. This was clearly a random fault on this particular bike. It's the first I've ever ridden, so I can't give any direct experience of reliability or other mechanical quirks. For everyday pottering and gentle playing, the Voxan Street Scrambler has much to offer.

Gallic ease
It's very easy to ride and the torquey engine favours a lazy attitude towards the six-speed gearbox. The brakes do manage to bring 190kg of bike to a complete standstill, but they're not sports bike sharp in doing do and feel as soft as the bike's suspension.

Push on and the Street Scrambler wastes no time in reminding you of its restricted ground clearance, amongst other limitations. I was still steaming ahead on the same stunning three lane ribbon through southern France when I became acutely aware of the bike's handlebars swaying under the pressure of both the ride and the strong side-winds.

The movement didn't appear to show any signs of slowing, and oddly enough, neither did I! As I continued my constant (and healthy) pace into the fast right-hand sweeper, the side-to-side motion of my arms progressed into a gentle but very definite rotational twisting throughout the bike's steel twin-spar chassis.

Needless to say I backed off and silently apologised to my French friend. I felt inconsiderate and over demanding, like I'd just dragged my 90-year-old nan to an all-night rave.

This bike's strengths are very much in the sporty cruiser mode - perhaps I've invented a new class there - it handles better than a Harley, but not as well as a Ducati Monster. There is a handful of UK dealers and the rarity value is currently part of the attraction.

People tempted to buy one will do so for its character and individuality - it's for posing, not track days. I found it good fun, a likeable bike as long as it's in a relaxed environment. And no-one wants to live life in the fast lane forever, do they?

Need to know
Engine :666cc V-twin
Power :100bhp@8,000rpm
Torque :68.6lb/ft@6,500rpm
Top speed (mph);n/a
Transmission: six-speed, chain drive
Weight (kg): 190
Seat height (mm): 810
Fuel tank (litres): 14.5

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

KTM 990 Adventure

This machine is up against the German's R1200GS in the adventure-sports arena but where there's a clear winner and loser in most competitions, in this instance, both manufactures are worthy champions for different reasons.
The KTM has one distinct advantage - its heart; and I don't just mean the 999cc V-twin engine which now has an improved power delivery and a few extra horses, but the sporty soul of the bike.

KTM throttles can feel snatchy, they react instantly to the slightest input and sometimes, it can feel annoying. I began to associate that feeling with the colour orange like a Pavlov dog and bells until now. Although there's a hint of the familiar throttle response in the latest model, it feels immediate rather than snatchy. There's a subtle difference; and it's a good one.

It's rather like the increase in power. Nine brake horsepower isn't going to set the world on fire, but the KTM smoulders with intent anyway. Indeed, the extra power is barely noticeable on an engine that's like Marylyn Monroe - on paper the vital statistics look pretty good enough, but in reality they're amazing! Whack the throttle wide open and marvel at how KTM has made 105 ordinary horsepower feel like stampeding stallions. It's what the company stands for, it's what we ride for, it's orange-tipped fun, it's at its core; its heart.

In a straight line, to the south of France and back, nothing can top BMW's GS if adventure sports bikes are your thing. But for a shorter trip, the KTM is more than capable of holding a three-figure steady speed in relative comfort. The small screen does well to shield you from the elements and the hand guards deflect the blast from your knuckles. The seat, like the ride, isn't as plush as a BMW but then you'd have to shove an engine in an armchair to match that.

Take the KTM to the twisties and it will dart through the countryside like a fly on acid, flitting from side to side and dashing at bends. That's where it really comes into its own. The more corners I attacked, the more I wished I'd left my Gore-Tex pants at home and donned some knee sliders.

In a straight line, to the south of France and back, nothing can top BMW's GS if adventure sports bikes are your thing. But for a shorter trip, the KTM is more than capable of holding a three-figure steady speed in relative comfort. The small screen does well to shield you from the elements and the hand guards deflect the blast from your knuckles. The seat, like the ride, isn't as plush as a BMW but then you'd have to shove an engine in an armchair to match that.

Take the KTM to the twisties and it will dart through the countryside like a fly on acid, flitting from side to side and dashing at bends. That's where it really comes into its own. The more corners I attacked, the more I wished I'd left my Gore-Tex pants at home and donned some knee sliders.

With a name like Adventure, KTM doesn't necessarily expect you to stick to the tarmac. I did, and so I left the ABS (now standard) fully activated. However, dirt busters take note; you can deactivate it with a touch of a button. Fierce brakes are as appropriate off-road as a stripper at a church wedding.

In the event of a dust-up, KTM has integrated protectors in the side panelling, but prevention's better than cure, so the brakes are far from harsh in the first place. Hence it's the only thing I questioned during my road ride. The Brembos do their job in the same way as some folk leave the office at 5pm and not a minute later, no matter what needs doing. They work and the standard is ok. But that's all.

Other changes include a lockable glove compartment, and a new dash to mimic the SMT's (Supermoto Traveller) which is another brilliant orange bike.

Model: KTM 990 Adventure, £10,895
Engine; liquid-cooled V-twin of 999cc, producing
105hp at 8,250rpm and 74lb ft @ 7,750rpm
Transmission: chain drive through six-speed gearbox
Dry weight: 209kg
Seat height: 860mm
Fuel capacity: 19.5 litres

Monday, April 12, 2010

Ducati's 1198S

Ducati's 1198S is something of an animal, especially in comparison to its predecessor, the equally stunning, but less potent 1098. Ducati's superbikes always look so intimidating and serious. Perhaps it's the deep red paint that highlights the athletic bodywork. Perhaps it's the legendary badge that has graced the top step of MotoGP and World Superbike podiums alike.

Or perhaps it's just the thought of straddling all those thoroughbred stallions in a focused racing crouch and wondering if I've really got the guts and skill to stick the throttle on the stop. Can I trust myself not to get carried away with £14,950 of Italian magnificence? Or can I trust the new traction control system?

Power and performance
The 1198S, as its name suggests, has a 100cc capacity hike, which has resulted in an increased power output of 10bhp to 170bhp at 9,750rpm. Wind the throttle back and the 1198S is capable of rendering you utterly speechless. It fires you forwards like a human cannonball with a rush of power that batters your senses.

The power that surges from the two beefy cylinders is utterly predictable. It's linear and precise, running hard until it hits the 10,500rpm redline, unless you slide up another gear and renew the charge. A track you know and pace you're comfortable with suddenly seems like a distant memory as corners fill your vision with alarming speed. Braking markers fly past as your throttle hand falls for the Italian's spell and sticks the ride on fast forward.

Such explosive power needs to be harnessed in a way that will encourage you to exploit the bike's potential ... or at least try to. The lighter S version is a higher-spec model than the standard 1198, with extras like GP replica seven-spoke forged wheels and fully adjustable Ohlins as opposed to the base model's Showa suspension. Not to mention the traction control ...

Overcooking corners can be easily rectified by leaning the bike outside your comfort zone. Its high-speed stability is as impressive as its eagerness to turn sharply or correct a wayward line. And despite feeling initially cautious, it soon became apparent that the bike responds best to a firm hand and a confident rider. That said there's also a kindness to its nature that guides you through mistakes, rolling through turns as if your excessive speed is just a number.

Ride and handling
Did I mention traction control yet? The R version was equipped with DTC, Ducati Traction Control and I loved the idea of having a safety net against my clumsy throttle hand. But it worked by retarding the ignition before eventually cutting the spark, instead of the fuel supply, and the technology was suitable only for use in conjunction with a non-cat race exhaust.

The 1198S also benefits from having DTC as standard but because its system works by interrupting the fuel injection when the level of grip is compromised, it's safe to use with road-legal catalytic exhausts and the standard ECU. It also has DDA, Ducati Data Analyser (a nice toy) which records the performance of you and the bike which you can download and produce later as evidence during the inevitable pub banter.

There are eight different settings on the traction control system and the higher the digit displayed on the MotoGP-styled dash, the more secure the safety net. Here's where the trust comes in. The trouble with safety nets is that you can't always see them. Try standing 40ft in the air and jumping onto a black net, suspended above black carpet, in dimmed light ... in Lycra.

I've done it and it's not pleasant. So it's little surprise that I selected level eight on my first track session at Pau Arnos in France, to build my confidence in the system. I needn't have bothered. It's so effective you can snatch the throttle back, with a healthy degree of lean, with zero risk of orbit-launch. A row of red lights flash on the dash to show the system has been activated and it continues to serve and protect until the appropriate traction is resumed. Rumour is that it's nigh on impossible to highside above level three. Level four it is then!

More throttle, more acceleration, more fun. The bike lights up on the exits and takes the edge off the power without interrupting the flow of your riding. It's confidence inspiring and it flatters your riding, whatever level that may be.

The 1198S and I devoured an afternoon on track and I savoured every moment. The riding position is focused and firm, and ideal for these circumstances, although less so for the road. But the traction control system will suit both environments and most riders. Trust it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Harley-Davidson's XR1200

Harley-Davidson's XR1200 was introduced to the European market last year and it had the sole intention of appealing to sportier riders, bikers who might otherwise overlook the iconic American brand. By building on its famous flat track racing heritage, Harley-Davidson produced a motorcycle with more athleticism and ground clearance than anything else it had in its range.

It impressed on many levels - the 1202cc V-twin stored its strength predominantly in the midrange, with a livelier buzz nestled close to the 7,000rpm red line. The stylish but sizeable 250kg mass was masked by the bike's fairly satisfying handling and the footpegs on our launch models were ground to a pointed slant as a result.

However, there were a few subtleties that needed addressing. The footpegs inconveniently and consistently flicked upright whenever caught, instead of springing back to a useable position. It was a relatively minor but still very irritating detail and although the Showa suspension was clearly capable up to a point, with a bike so willing to be ridden, that point was reached too easily.

The new XR1200X (note the extra X) is less of a new model and more of an improvement over the original, an evolutionary step for the XR concept. The spring-loaded pegs now return to the correct position if kicked so there's no more sudden flailing of unanchored legs, and the suspension has been upgraded with fully adjustable 'sport-tuned' Showa rear twin shocks and inverted front forks.

A lick of dark denim paint blackens the engine casing, mudguards, forks and tail unit and the straight-shot pipes are bathed in the same moody shade. It's attractive, provided you like black. It has all the same style cues of the base model, but there's an aggressive edge to its appearance that makes it look solid, dependable and serious. The XR1200X is supposed to challenge Europe's other popular air-cooled twins, bikes like Ducati's Monster 1100 or BMW's R1200R. Are these changes enough to make it a competitive alternative?

Every bike has its own unique sense of identity, in both performance and styling and compared to the sensible-looking German boxer, the XR1200X stands out like the cool kid in class. It oozes confidence and individuality. That is until you ride it back to back with the R1200R. Where the BMW is smooth and effortless in all respects, the Harley-Davidson can't help but feel agricultural. Admittedly, this is a character trait that appeals to many Harley-Davidson fans, and in isolation the XR1200X can provide a relatively impressive and rewarding ride. But knocking through the five-speed gearbox feels clumsy and laboured in comparison to the competition.

The 90bhp evolution engine remains untouched from last year's model, and in that respect, there are no surprises. The power delivery is predictable and linear, with a lazy rolling character that becomes more energetic higher up the rev range.

Vibrations are present throughout, but they are by no means obtrusive and the bike shudders far less than the stumpy air-cooled Buells. Their short wheelbase design makes them agile and sometimes even twitchy under the weight of a heavy-handed rider. So it stands to reason that while the Harley-Davidson definitely requires more pressure on the handlebars to make it turn into a corner, it can also feel more planted as a result of its 2.2 metre length (100mm longer than the XR1200).

With the addition of fully adjustable suspension, it should be possible to find settings that suit your riding style and your expectations of the bike. On standard settings, the XR1200X proves it can handle the challenge of pleasing a European market. It needs to manhandled, you have to take charge and be decisive about attacking corners and the bike doesn't exactly fall into bends with over eagerness, but it does dive readily in when pushed.
On the straights, the XR1200X is more than capable of sustaining healthy motorway speeds, and while the protection is obviously limited and far less than the BMW's it wouldn't become an issue until you've delved into license-losing territory. Of course, all Harley-Davidson's come with a truly comprehensive list of optional extras and the original bike had a variety of touring accessories.

Unfortunately, the XR1200X's tank is actually a gnat's whisker leaner (from 13.3 litres to 13.25 litres) and after just 109 miles, mine ran only on fumes and sheer determination to make it to the nearest garage, so touring paraphernalia seems a little ambitious. As does taking a pillion - the passenger seat is quite small and along with the absence of grab rails, the XR1200X is obviously designed with solo riders in mind.

While the small ribbed protection on the upper pipe should prevent your pillion from melting the soles of their boots on the exhaust, it may be a different story for your thighs. The heat radiating from the cylinder heads is pleasantly warming on winter rides but I wonder how cool the XR1200X will feel in the summer sun? It's worth noting too, that the bike I rode had obviously been standing in the rain at some point. It was already weathered, with two small patches of brown rust forming from the pools of water that had previously collected in the ends of both exhausts.
Whether the XR1200X is athletic enough for sports riders to make the switch from their naked roadsters or sports bikes remains to be seen. I don't think performance alone, however impressive "for a Harley-Davidson" will quite cut it. But when you buy a bike, it's usually an emotional decision; you're also buying into the brand and a lifestyle image. And that's never been truer than with Harley-Davidson.

Model: Harley-Davidson XR1200X, £9,170

Engine: Air-cooled V-twin of 1202cc, producing 90bhp
at 7,000rpm and 74 ft lb at 3,700rpm

Transmission: Belt through five-speed gearbox
Dry weight: 250kg
Seat height: 795mm
Fuel capacity: 13.25 litres
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