Harley Sportster is Badass Reborn

Harley's latest specialized Sportster lives up to its name

The grass is always greener. People long for what they can't have. American riders know this all too well, and pine for Japanese- and European-market bikes that magazines parade before us on their pages, before crushing our desires with the phrase, "Not for the U.S. Market." The marketing gurus at Harley-Davidson turned this scenario on its ear by launching in Europe a genuine American-made Harley Sportster that we couldn't get here. Brilliant!

And it's not just any Sportster, but a gorgeous 90-horsepower, sticky-tired, sport-suspension-equipped high-piper whose looks evoke memories of Jay Springsteen's XR750 flat-tracker, devoid of chrome. What did those sissy Europeans do to deserve such a motorcycle? The U.S. moto-press raved, and clamored for the XR to come stateside (or should that be stay stateside?). No one has ever accused Harley-Davidson of poor marketing, and in this case the appetites whetted by the Euro launch and subsequent press were allowed to build for a year before—surprise!—the XR1200 was released in America. But it was a cautious launch, with a limited offering of 750 machines by deposit only to test demand.

If Harley wanted to build a bike to generate interest among riders outside its existing customer base, the XR1200 is it. All those riders of imported machines who have claimed "I'd buy a Harley if they made something that stopped and handled" now have to put up or shut up. First-time Harley buyers Butch Sprain and Danny Hughes elected to put up, and bought the first two XRs in Knoxville on the same day. Make that two in orange, thank you. We borrowed one for a cold Sunday afternoon ride in February.

According to Terry Birnbaum, sales manager at Harley-Davidson-Buell of Knoxville (West), the XR has been selling very well in the upper Midwest, where flat-track has a large fan base. His dealership was only one of two in the southeast to sell five XRs during the initial offering. "Am I gonna get the guys off CBRs, the 18-25-year-olds? No," he explains. But, ahem, "mature" riders of mostly European machinery, like Butch and Danny, have gravitated to the sporty new Sportster, and sales during the trial period pleased Harley enough that they added the XR to its 2009 lineup.

When the XR1200 hit the U.S. motorcycle press from Europe last year, the price in U.S. dollars was estimated at more than $14,000 at then-current exchange rates. A year later, the U.S.-market XR's MSRP is $10,799 for basic black, and $11,079 for the two-tone schemes in orange and grey.

This sportiest of Sportsters is quiet, but not strangled-sounding. The two-into-one-into-two exhaust system terminates in twin high-mounted mufflers on the right side of the bike (opposite from the real XR750 flat-track racers). The stainless system is prettied up with trim pieces hose-clamped onto the headers themselves, and both they and the mufflers are finished in matt chrome that looks great. In fact, all the metal finishes on the bike are just about perfect in a high-quality but understated way, right down to the "Sportster" cast into the right case cover.

The one jarring note from the rider's point of view is the big zinc-plated bolt head at the center of the top triple-clamp, which looks like something you'd find at Tractor Supply. If there's not a beauty cover available through the Harley-Davidson accessory catalog, there's an opportunity missed. Aesthetically if not functionally, the rear muffler caps are screaming for a 3 1/2" hole-saw, but otherwise the look is perfect.

The XR1200 is equipped with Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI), and starts instantly on the button and settles into a fast (1200-1300 rpm) idle, the rubber-mounted V-twin shaking in the frame as the bike warms up. No "potato-potato" here, but a more staccato thudding from the big 10.0 to 1 compression pistons. The start button is a little oddly located, and riders of Japanese and Euro bikes will find themselves activating the right turn signal a few times by mistake. The turn signals are activated by one button below each grip: one push activates; a second push cancels, if you don't want to wait for the self-canceling feature to do it for you.

Once warmed, the air-cooled 45-degree motor idles at a bumpy 1,100 rpm, and enough of the shakes reached me to bobble my head inside a full-face helmet. This is still a 1200-cc twin, after all. The throttle is light, maybe too light, and there was no discernible free-play in the throttle cables. Combined with a responsive, torquey motor it generated some exciting lunges until I moderated my Dellorto-calibrated throttle hand.

"Carburation" off idle from a stop was crisp, and the vibes only hung around until around 2,800 rpm, where they smoothed away to nothing. I was being mechanically sympathetic to Butch's new baby, but this is a very healthy motorcycle. Application of the throttle induces rapid forward progress, accompanied by a nice honk from the airbox under the tank, whose intake looks a little exposed to the elements. I wondered what effect an all-day ride in the rain would have.

The XR is not exactly petite at 562 pounds claimed dry weight, the exact same weight claimed for the Sportster XL1200 Custom, but the pounds are carried low, and aren't noticeable once you're rolling. But the XL, according to most tests, has around 68-70 horsepower. The XR's Evolution twin has been massaged internally to turn more rpm and breathe better than the XL1200. The extra 20 horsepower in the upper rpms make this Sportster sporty.

Those extra ponies are managed by great brakes and suspension. This is a stiffly suspended motorcycle. Powering across abrupt pavement changes common in East Tennessee in winter, the ride is harsh, especially at the rear, where the rear shocks can be adjusted for spring preload only. But smooth twisty pavement will make you forget all about a little butt-pain. The XR1200 eats curves, with ground clearance to spare for almost any street situation. The four-piston Nissin calipers, with subtle bar and shield logos, are powerful and easy to modulate with just a finger or two.

The frame is Sportster-based, but the rake has been pulled in with different alloy triple clamps to 29.3 degrees, versus 30.1 for the XL1200. The steering is plenty light enough for the wide low bars, and stable at speed due in part to the 18" front wheel. Out in the country, on backroads, this orange Harley was a blast, with strong brakes, stiff forks, and sticky Dunlop Qualifiers.

Turning 4,000 rpm at an indicated 71 mph, right at the beginning of the motor's sweet spot, the belt-driven XR1200 is a relaxed traveler, if not exactly comfy. Harley sells a full compliment of sport-touring accessories for the long-distance rider, but that's not really what this bike was built for. It is made for blasting across Bells Campground Road on a cold sunny day, or just tooling around town, or carving up a twisty mountain. And it may be the best Harley-Davidson ever made for that purpose.

Spiritual Forefather: XLCR Café Racer

In 1978, Harley-Davidson launched a Sportster in the U.S. that was aimed squarely at customers looking for something outside the existing Harley model line-up. The all-black XLCR Café Racer was black and sinister, but functionally not all that different from the standard XL1000, other than the signature siamesed headpipes, bikini fairing, cast wheels. and rear-set pegs.

We invited local enthusiast George Brown to bring out his XLCR for some glamour shots with its hot rod grandson. His CR is not quite stock: A previous owner, also looking for a Sportster that could handle and stop, added Performance Machine brakes and Works shocks. While lighter than the XR, the chain-drive iron-head CR can't compete in the horsepower or handling departments. The Harley signature vibrations are similar, but they don't sign off at 2,800 rpm on the CR. "They don't stop, period," George quips. The Cherry-Bomb-esque OEM mufflers do sound great.

The XLCR was a sales flop, selling around 3,200 units in the two years it was offered. As is usual with small-number niche bikes, it's now a collector's item. It appears the XR is headed for a more popular fate.