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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