Harley Davidson XR1200 – Press Launch

Mr Bond takes the new-for-North-America Harley-Davidson XR1200 for a ride through the mountains around San Diego.


Words by Steve Bond. Pictures by Tom Riles / Brian J. Nelson / Harley Davidson

While the rest of us were digging out from the first big dumping of snow (West Coaster allowed to gloat here), Mr. Bond was down in San Diego carving some of California’s fine roads in the “slightly chilly” mountains just east of the coast on Harley-Davidson’s new-for-America XR1200 Sportster.


San Diego, California


Sportiness sells in Europe — looks had nothing to do with it

Last year, the Euro-trash got Harley Davidson’s delicious XR1200 while we Colonials on this side of the pond had to muddle along without it.

But the reason was simple really. In Europe, sportiness sells, while six out of ten motorcycles bought by the Great North American Unwashed are (gaak) cruisers. As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste.

After a year of successfully passing Euro-muster, the XR1200 is now officially available in North America – and I was one of a select few invited to sample it under various conditions around sunny San Diego last week.



Finally, a swingarm designed not to flex

Based on the Sportster platform, the first thing you notice about the XR1200 is the drop-dead gorgeous styling taken from Harley’s XR750 flat tracker – the most successful racing motorcycle of all time BTW.

The frame is all Sportster (complete with rubber engine mounting system) but with the ass-end raised to steepen steering geometry. The swingarm is an all-new aluminum unit that’s both considerably
stiffer and almost four pounds lighter than the tubular steel Sporty

Forks are non-adjustable, inverted 43  mm Showas with 124 mm of travel and are unique to the XR, as are the twin preload-adjustable Showa shocks with a meager 89 mm of travel. The wheels are lightweight cast aluminum units mounting Dunlop Qualifiers specially developed for the XR in 120/70-18 front and 180/55-17 inch sizes.


The ugly airbox is banished inside the tank

The XR is ably propelled by a breathed-on 1203cc Sportster air-cooled mill pumping out a claimed 90 horsepower with 74 ft-lb of torque.

The engine is a focal point of the design and, as such, the engineers were told to lose the traditional oval air cleaner cluttering up the right side view, replacing it with a downdraft EFI system with the airbox incorporated under the fuel tank.

Hot cams, increased compression, lighter flywheels and increased oil cooling with attention given to the area around the exhaust ports complete the hot rodding mods.


No catalytic converter required

The 2-into-1-into-2 satin finished exhaust system allows the engine to breathe while putting out a pleasing, not obnoxious, tone. And, the XR1200 meets current Euro and California emissions requirements without a catalytic converter.

The light flywheels mean that throttle response is excellent with no flat spots and a very linear reaction. The power is not sportbike neck-snapping but certainly respectable – first gear power wheelies are a snap.

There is ample torque everywhere but the meat of the powerband seems to be in the 3,000 to 5,000 rpm range. And, although it spins eagerly to the 7,000 rpm redline, there’s really no point wringing it that tight.

Santa Ana Winds


In the wind … yet not

California freeway legal cruising at 70 mph equates to a relaxed 4,000 rpm, while a Dark Ages Ontario 62 mph (100 kmh) is 3,500. The rubber mounted mill has the typical Sportster shake at idle that smooths out nicely once you hit 2,500 rpm.

The belt final drive is clean, efficient and maintenance free and the overall gearing seems a good match for the XR.

Getting to the twisties required an hour of freeway droning and amazingly, even though there’s no wind protection whatsoever, I wasn’t getting beat up. I discussed this with one of the engineers who smiled and said that a “fair bit” of effort went into the design of the instrument pod and eyebrow on the top triple clamp.


Clocks are simple and help to deflect the wind … somewhat

Talking of which, instrumentation is simple, with a large analog tachometer flanked by a small digital speedo.

Once inland, the Santa Ana winds reared their ugly head with gusts to 45 mph (75 km/h) and I resorted to a race tuck to avoid the drumming that even good design couldn’t keep in check. On several stretches, the winds shifted to directly from the side and the chassis didn’t seem overly affected by the gusts.

The 29.2-inch (741mm) high seat looks like it might be a bit of a rack but it was surprisingly comfortable, even after a full day in the saddle. The riding position is quite good with a nice reach to bars and the pegs down under your butt, where they should be, not out near the front down-tubes.



Gone are the cruiser pegs

Once into mountains, I soon discovered the handling was exceptional and you don’t even have to say “for a Harley.”

Turn-in is quicker than the 29-degree rake would suggest and the XR has a very stable mid-corner composure. Over the few bumps I encountered, the front was fine but the rear exhibited signs of being under-damped. Keep pushing and the longish footpeg feelers will drag but you’re going a pretty good pace on smooth pavement for that to happen.

The road to the crest of Mount Palomar is a constant series of switchbacks that are posted as 25 mph. Hah! On the way up, the XR was an absolute hoot as it responds very well to trail-braking.


Four-pot brakes provide excellent stopping power

I felt right at home, applying the brakes right up to the apex, initiating the turn, sweeping around the corner and then allowing the ample torque to catapult me to the next turn. Repeat as necessary.

On the way down the mountain, the new 4-pot Nissin calipers squeezing the twin 292 mm discs provided excellent stopping power and were fade free, even when getting worked reasonably hard. Pull at the non-adjustable lever was firm but the initial bite was good and I’d judge feel and feedback as above average.

The clutch pull is on the heavy side and at the end of the day, my twice-broken left wrist was glad to see the hotel parking lot.

Proving that Harley will always sacrifice function for style, the intruding airbox into the tank means that the fuel capacity is a little light at 13.2 liters, which is a shame as the XR is comfortable and torquey enough to encourage a bit of touring.


Harley claims fuel consumption in the 4.6 to 6L/100km area, which translates to a pretty short cruising range (especially if you’re twisting the loud handle), making the attractive optional soft luggage rather redundant — unless you fill it with gas, that is …

The XR has a few warts on its attractive orange and black fanny. Weighing in at 580 lbs (263 kg) with oil and a full tank, it’s on the porky side and when in traffic on hot days, prepare yourself for a fair amount of heat from the exhaust header on the right side and the oil cooler on the left.

Sporty Sportster?


He’ll take one of each

Harley’s XR1200 is difficult to pigeon-hole. It isn’t retro or a hyper-naked bike; it’s not a sportbike and it’s not a cruiser. Even Harley spokesmen couldn’t come up with a direct competitor.

It does however, look and sound gorgeous, handles great and has a definite link to Harley’s rich racing history.

It was also well worth the wait.




  1. Maybe this bike is all of what we read it to be. And maybe this bike has a lot of potential. I do like some of the lines and the basic look. I feel that HD has missed the mark with this bike by 20 years. What they are offering has been done better by other manufacturers. Get out of the market for the good old boys (die hards) and start making a 21 century motorcycles. Where is our North American engineering?
    Just ask the big three auto makers, how is it working for you?
    I have a better than 40 year history with HD products that has come to an end. Too little, too late.

  2. Great report by Steve. For an old guy with more aches and pains than I have, to squeeze himself onto all those various bikes he tests, well I am a fan that he can still do it.
    But Steve … I am not surprised that you were speechless when you tried to pidgeon hole this genre of Harley. If you need help with HD ..Just contact me and I spring for the Coffee at Timmies off Wilson in the ‘Shawa.
    Storz Performance had a better Sportster 12 years ago. USD Forks too! Look at XR750s or even bikes from that Sportster racing class a decade ago …I think HD tried but missed style wise.

  3. This is one fugly bike. Explain how getting rid of an air cleaner with that rediculous “air box” is an improvement (Check the pics under the iconic Sportster tank). If they wanted to be true to the XR750 they would have stuck with a round air cleaner.
    The seat looks add on and unfinished as well.
    The exhaust system – Damn – What were they thinking there ? Thank Gawd for the aftermarket. Look at that dumb exhaust hanger ! Plus can’t someone at HD make a smoothe bend with the pipe bender ?
    Looks like a weak effort for a parts bin bike to me – And I like Harlies!

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