Sportbike killer, a chick's Cruiser, or is it something else? After a month in the saddle, Bikeland's Gabe Ets-Hokin reports back on Harley Davidson's 2009 XR1200…
Small Man on a Big Bike
by Gabe Ets-Hokin
Even though I’m not a Harley Guy, I still remember the day Harley-Davidson introduced its newest Sportster model, the XR1200. This wasn’t the same old Sporty that’s been on the road since before Don Rickles stopped being funny. No, this was a different bike, one that looked as if it were designed to stop, turn and accelerate rather than be an affordable way to get your spouse on a Harley. Sleek new bodywork, inverted forks and radial tires…even an aluminum swingarm. It dripped with cool - a street-legal, factory-warrantied street-tracker that needed no excuses. At last, I thought, wiping a tear from the corner of my eye, I can ride American Iron and keep up in the twisties with 10-year-old sportbikes.
Only a non-Harley guy would get weepy over such a machine. After all, Sportsters get no respect from the H-D orthodox. For them, a Sportster is a chick bike, something you ride if you can’t afford a “real” Big Twin hog. And that’s a shame, because the latest version of the Sportster, introduced in 2003, is a good motorcycle. It’s got reliable, torquey power, decent handling and is much smoother than it used to be, thanks to a more-rigid frame that allows the paint-shaking 45-degree Evolution motor to vibrate in isolation mounts without transmitting too much buzz to the rider. But with bias-ply rubber, skinny forks, a mildly-tuned engine and soft brakes, it’s not exactly track-day material unless we’re talking about a pleasant ride to the dog-racing track.
The XR1200 changed all that. H-D decided it needed a more performance-oriented Sportster to take advantage of the European market. But European roads and traffic conditions demand good handling, strong brakes and enough power to get out of one’s own way. If you’re ever ridden an 883 or 1200 Sportster, you’d know that’s a tall order.
H-D’s engineers took it all in stride, revamping almost every component. The engine got some serious re-working: Buell Thunderstorm cams, hotter compression ratio (10.1:1 compared to 9.7:1), reworked exhaust and a new 50mm throttle body for the EFI and an oil cooler to handle the extra heat. Better-funded magazines have measured about 80 hp at the back wheel, compared to about 60 from a standard 1200 Sportster.
The frame looks the same, but it’s different too, with .3 percent less rake (29.3 compared to 29.6 degrees on the Sportster 1200 Low). A modern-looking and very light-looking swingarm holds a 17-inch, 3-spoke alloy wheel in its cast aluminum embrace, held up with dual preload-adjustable-only Showa shocks. The front end uses an inverted 43mm Showa fork with an 18-inch wheel. A pair of Nissan 4-piston calipers grab 292mm rotors. Tires are specially-developed Dunlop Qualifier radials, a 120/70-18 front and 180/55-17 rear. It’s a package good for road-burning, but not exactly a supermoto: wet weight is a claimed 580 pounds and wheelbase is a short-for-a-cruiser-but-long-for-everything-else 59.8 inches.
The styling’s modern, too, but despite the new-fangled, sporty look of the XR, it draws attention like a burning parade float. The bodywork is modern, yet conservative. The instruments, lights and controls carry on familiar H-D themes, like the 1-inch bar, small hooded headlamp and front turnsignals slung under the bar, but with modern styling and finishes to update the look. The instrumentation is compact but complete, with a tachometer, digital speedometer and even a digital clock. The package looks remarkably similar to the XR-1200 that Storz Performance developed as a kit to transform stock Sportsters into street-going XR-750 replicas. Not too surprising, given H-D purchased the right to use the name “XR1200” from Storz last year.
If you’re like me, you’ve zoned out on all that technical stuff and want me to STFU and tell you about riding the bike. It’s all about pleasant surprises, at least at first. The seating position is humane and rational, with a comfy (if small) seat, a natural reach to the handlebar and modern, rearset footrests. The bike doesn’t feel heavy when lifted off the sidestand, and was comfortable for a range of riders, from 5’4” to over six feet. The motor runs a little lean until it warms up, but the clutch and gearbox work lightly and smoothly. The levers are easily controlled even by small hands, despite their beefy, fat shape. Low-speed handling is as easy as a full-figured bike can offer. The only real complaint is from the way the motor shakes its mechanical booty at idle. That shake (mostly) goes away when the throttle is twisted, and is little noticed except for blurry mirrors and some vibes through the pegs and seat. But above idle that motor is very smooth and well-fueled, aided by a computer-controlled flapper in the airbox.
Where the XR shines is in its intended mission: aggressive riding on fast, crowded public byways. That’s where the long-ish wheelbase and slow-revving, torquey motor make the most sense. Find a gap in traffic, aim that stylistically shrouded headlight into the mix, roll on the throttle, and the bike responds in a satisfying way: no downshifting or worrying about upsetting the chassis. The brakes are strong but require a big squeeze to work, great for everyday riding. Fuel economy is okay if you don’t push it; H-D claims 50 mpg on the highway, but my mileage was mostly in the mid-30s. With the small 3.5-gallon tank, aggressive riding garnered no more than 128.5 miles before looking at my iPhone to find a gas station within pushing distance. Windblast gets a little tiring over 70 mph, but H-D has a page in its accessory catalog for the XR, with a windscreen and soft luggage options. Sorry, no chrome or conchos for this bad boy.
So it’s great fun and practical around town or as a commuter, but is the XR machine enough to teach them whippersnappers on their sportbikes a thing or two in the twisties? This depends on how brave and skilled you are and how lame your friends are. We all know it’s the man, not the bike, and there are plenty of riders who could soundly humiliate me on a Big Wheel. But if you clone me and pit me against myself on just about anything sportier, I will come in second place, panting and sweaty, every time.*
This is mainly because the XR is 100 pounds heavier than it needs to be, and no amount of high-tech componentry or tricky engineering can mask that pork. Sure, the claimed lean angle of 40 degrees (39 on the right side) is plenty for sporting street rides and the tires grip nicely, but the bike is still limited for really fast riding. Tight turns take effort and nerve, as you’d expect from something this big, and although faster bends let the chassis show off its planted feel, the heavy steering and relaxed feel of the bike tend to slow you down. The motor is revvy and willing, with a nice hit over 6000 rpm, but it’s overburdened with the XR’s mass. Same with the brakes; I don’t know if it’s the master cylinder’s leverage ratio, wimpy rubber brake lines, inefficient pad material, small-ish rotors or just the challenge of slowing 770 pounds of bike, leather and bulgy-eyed rider, but the brakes lack the sharp bite and precise feel a sportrider might want.
If you are mid-pack or slower in your riding group’s fast-guy pecking order, expect a jeering crowd of so-called friends waiting at the rest stop, cigarettes lit, helmets off and singing “Born to be Wild” at the tops of their stupid lungs.
But we sort of expected it to be a little heavier, a little slower, a little more old-fashioned than something from a Japanese or European factory, didn’t we? And that’s just fine, because a bike as satisfying as this needn’t be equipped to win races. It just has to be comfortable, durable, dependable, affordable and fun to ride. At $10,799 (for black; if you want Orange or Pewter Denim you’ll pay $300 more) it’s only $720 more than a 1200 Sportster Low—an absolute steal for a motorcycle with so much more performance, panache, history and charisma than its pedestrian stablemate.
*I am not advocating human cloning for the purposes of motorcycle comparison testing.
Roll Your Own XR1200
Some of us weren’t so excited about the XR1200 because we already had one. Years ago. San Leandro musician and sound technician Jeff Winfrey bought his 1999 Harley-Davidson 883 Custom new and proceeded to ride the hell out of it. On a two-up trip to the Grand Canyon, an exhaust valve burnt up, and it turns out it was covered by warranty. Jeff got his dealer to apply the warranty money to souping up the engine. They bored it out to 1200cc, installed Buell Thunderstorm heads, 10.0:1 pistons and Screaming Eagle cams. Now the motor was making over 83 hp on the dyno and 90 ft.-lbs. of torque, and that was before Jeff added a 41mm Mikuni carb and a custom Hooker header (mated to a generic Supertrapp muffler by a local muffler shop). The cost? About $600 out of pocket.
But something with power like this needs better running gear than a stock Sportster offers. Jeff ’s bike currently runs the adjustable, longer-travel suspension from the Sportster Sport (remember those?) with 4-piston brake calipers and semi-floating discs from a donor Street Rod. The rear wheel gets an 18-inch rim and a radial Bridgestone Battleax 160/60-18 tire. The front wheel is a H-D “Narrow Glide” item and is a 19-incher, with a 110/80-19 Conti Road Attack radial: Bridgestone doesn’t make a matching front. Storz rearsets and a sidestand modification add cornering clearance, and combined with hard-to-find 1-inch clubman bars and a Hotwings flat-track tail section, give the bike a most non-Sportster-y riding position. A forkbrace and steering damper keep things under control.
I took the bike for a brief ride, and it was fun, but not the sanitized, friendly experience the XR1200 is. That huge front hoop makes the steering feel like it flops into turns and the buzzing and shaking from the solidly-mounted motor will seem alien to those upstarts who ride modern (post-Nixon) bikes.
“You get used to it,” said Jeff. I looked for signs of nervous-system damage in his facial expressions and body language, but could find none. Then again, I’m not a trained neuroscientist.
Judging by tire wear, Jeff rides the bike hard, and why not? Sportsters were derived from competition machinery, even if the competition was in the Middle Ages. It’s a reliable machine (Jeff’s breathed-on motor has 50,000 miles on it), the original all-American musclebike that rewards good riders and better mechanics.
Take it from Jeff: “For a working stiff like me who wants something simple to work on and fun to ride, it’s great.”
Steve Storz Weighs in on the XR1200
As mentioned in the story, Harley-Davidson bought the right to use the name “XR1200” from Steve Storz. But what does this former H-D racing mechanic and dirt-track parts supplier think of what was wrought with his name?
“I do like it,” said Storz, when I asked if he liked the new bike. “I just don’t understand why it has to weigh 580 pounds.” This is a predictable response, given his modified Sportster, based on a similar motor and frame, weighs in at 474 pounds, according to a Motorcyclist article. “The rear wheel, tire, pulley and disc weigh 43 pounds, but the swingarm weighs almost nothing; it's a bitchin’ part,” said Steve. “I guess the guy that designed it didn't design the wheels...if you start with a clean sheet of paper, why does it weigh so much?”
I’d say the reason has much to do with price: Steve’s bike is festooned with about $14,000 of hand-crafted deliciousness, where the Motor Company’s ride doesn’t cost much more than a garden-variety Sportster. But Steve is all ready to lighten the XR1200’s load, if you don’t mind lightening your wallet. New parts from Storz include a BUB exhaust system (that saves 15 pounds over stock and adds “big gains” in midrange and top-end power with FI mapping), billet footpegs, a solo tail section, ride-height adjustable YSS shocks and 320mm full-floating front brake rotors. Storz is developing more stuff, like a rear-brake kit, steel-braided brake lines and possibly, a wire-wheel kit that could go a long way towards slicing enough pounds off the XR1200 to make it a really memorable ride; Storz told me the rear wheel, disc and pulley weighed in at over 45 pounds.
You can see the new parts at storzperf.com
or call Storz Performance at (805) 641-9540.
Story: Gabe Ets-Hokin
Photos: Bob Stokstad