First Ride: 2008 Harley-Davidson XR1200

With the launch of the XR1200, Harley-Davidson has achieved several firsts.

Click to read: Harley-Davidson XR1200 owners reviews, Harley-Davidson XR1200 specs and to see the Harley-Davidson XR1200 image gallery.

One is to build a bike exclusively for the European market. The XR1200 is a design initiative of Harley-Davidson Europe, borne almost of a frustration of trying to sell bikes built for the American market to European bikers who expect a minimum level of performance from their motorcycles – performance defined as handling, braking and power delivery, facets that seem to have different benchmarks in the USA.

The second achievement is to succeed in building a traditional Harley-Davidson that you can actually ride quickly without getting in a mess. Traditional is the key word, as the bike is styled on the legendary XR750 flat-tracker, a pure race-bike which has dominated a domestic dirt track sport for 35 years and incidentally, has helped the career of several Grand Prix World Championship contenders and a champion – Nicky Hayden. It was also the bike that carried Evel Knievel over a load of parked buses, ad nauseum (his, quite often).

Harley’s third achievement is yet to register I think. They may have deeply offended their most loyal Stateside customers by taking a Harley icon, making it into a road bike and selling exclusively to a bunch of foreigners. If I were at Harley-Davidson I’d homologate it for the US market and quick. The fact that hardly any of us journalists at the launch were erm, familiar with Scott Parker, says it all. Scott attended the launch. He’s nine-times AMA Grand National Dirt Track Champion and the most successful dirt-track racer ever. He won all his championships on the XR750. He also helped develop the XR1200 for us Limeys (the traitor).

Another first, was to impress a load of cynical European journos with by presenting a truly sporty Harley. Not sporty like a GSX-R, more like a Ducati Monster. They call this a roadster, rather than a sportsbike.

That said, this is still a Harley-Davidson. In Milwaukee they plough their own furrow in motorcycle engineering (pun intended). Style and engineering design is all bound up with its history, on which it trades successfully. The heart of a Harley has been, for over 100 years, a big, tall shaking slow and low-revving V-twin motor. Without this, it isn’t a Harley-Davidson. No-one in Milwaukee has a blank design sheet; it always starts with a V. So they present themselves with a lot of challenges in order to keep up with the competition in pure performance terms.

The XR1200 is a perfect example of a modern Harley-Davidson, harking back to an iconic model in its glorious history and being lumbered with all the design baggage and compromise that brings.

For example the big 45-degree V sits in a simple, heavy steel double-cradle frame. If you’ve been brought up on modern Japanese bikes, you’ll be peering across what seems to be a Grand Canyon in terms of sophistication. But approach with an open mind and don’t judge until you’ve tried it. This is what Harley-Davidson is all about.

Based largely on a Sportster XL1200 road bike, the XR1200 has some Japanese-style technology added in order to meet the European brief – Showa suspension, cast alloy wheels and Nissin brakes, although not radial. The engine is retuned with some essential performance tweaks.


The design team, headed by Willie G Davidson himself, has also nicely captured the look of the XR750 – a stripped, essential bike with wide bars, upswept Siamese exhausts and that distinctive orange paintjob – though there are two other colour options, Vivid Black or Pewter Denim (grey). European influence has given the bike neat, folding rearset footrests and slim handlebar grips, in contrast to the thick, clumsy things Harleys usually wear.

We tested the bike near Valencia up in the mountains on some tremendous twisty roads. The first hour was spent in rainy rush hour traffic and on a busy motorway which gave an insight into everyday useability. It showed an easy, gentle side.

Hammering around the hills, hairpins and gorges revealed the more sporting nature of the XR. The riding position is excellent for transmitting a feeling of control. You accustom to the bike instantly. The wide bars offer leverage, the seat is easy to slide a cheek off, or shove back along to crouch for the straight bits. The rearset pegs weren’t too high for comfort and weren’t too low to compromise ground clearance.

The XR is heavy. At 250kg dry, it is 60kg more than a Ducati Monster, a bike against which it is benchmarked. And that tall engine puts a lot of weight high up. Yet the bike has real poise, good balance. You only really feel that weight when you’re up towards three-figure speeds and need to slow down quick. You don’t even feel it at walking pace – I could turn it around in the road with feet up. But dab a foot down and that all soon changes.

As well as flat-trackers Scott Parker and Rich King on the development team, Harley enlisted ex-endurance and GP racer Adrien Morillas to get the bike handling. They’ve also spent some money on chassis components. The alloy swingarm is a beautiful thing and light as a feather, well almost, you know what I mean. This along with the three-spoke alloy wheels has brought the unsprung weight right down.

The cartridge-type 43mm Showa USD forks are quality though unadjustable (pity). Rear shocks have no damping adjustment either, though for my weight (90kg) the suspension set-up worked very well.

There was some debate about the front not being damped well enough, but I felt it was more that the otherwise excellent Nissin front brake was a bit oversensitive. It’s a four piston caliper and powerful enough but it’s very easy to grab too much and send the front diving too fiercely. It needs a smoother and more progressive action.

I questioned the 18-inch front wheel and was told a 17 was tried but made the front a little twitchy. But it doesn’t feel slow to turn and tracks extremely well with no hint of understeer. You really can chuck it around and it settles straight down and holds its line. This is no doubt helped by the Dunlop Qualifier tyre which was specially developed for the XR. Well, good job well done. Ground clearance is good too, with hero blobs touching down and giving you warning way before anything solid.

The engine makes a healthy 90bhp. It’s a linear delivery pulling cleanly from 1,500rpm right up to the 7,000rpm redline – which is where it makes its peak power. Peak torque of 74ft.lb is at 3,500rpm, so there are no dips or rushes, just steady thrust and plenty of go from low revs.

The Sportster primary gearing has been lowered for the XR which gives the delivery some urgency. It actually makes the bike feel a little undergeared and busy, especially on the motorway. I kept looking for a non-existent sixth cog. It revved out in top with exactly 200km/h (125mph) showing.

It’s not hard to find 90bhp from a 1,202cc V-twin, but there are refinements which make it useable and reliable too. Harley usually puts its intake manifold on the side of the motor; this bike is, uniquely, down-drafted with the fuel charge coming from injectors above. The ‘tank’ is half airbox – note the scoop at the front. Visually it cleans the bike up too but there is a serious loss of tank range – it holds just 13 litres which will get you 100 miles if you’re lucky. The extra heat generated by higher rpm and increased 10:1 compression ratio is offset by new oil-cooled heads; the Sportsters being air-cooled.

The bike sounds good too if necessarily a little stifled. It could do with being noisier and hopefully there’ll be some Screamin’ Eagle (Harley’s tuning brand) options in future.

Besides the sharp brakes and lack of an overdrive gear, gripes are few. The seat could be better padded, the edges of the pan dig into your thighs after a while. And the pillion pad is hopeless. It has no real padding is the wrong shape and is very hard.

A lot of the charm of the XR is how it makes you feel rather than what it actually does. I felt like I was having fun, riding it just as I wanted to without ever feeling like I was fighting with any aspect of it. For all I know a Ducati Monster could’ve run rings around us. But so what? As an XR750-inspired motorcycle, it fulfils its visual brief perfectly and in pure performance terms gave me a really good time. Would I have one? Well I am a Harley fan, but I’m also a lover of sportsbikes. So I guess there’s your answer. Yes.

Harley Davidson XR1200 Specs

Price: £7655

Engine: 1202cc, air/oil-cooled, OHV, 45° V-twin

Power: 90bhp @ 7000rpm

Torque: 74ft.lb @ 3700rpm

Front suspension: 43mm showa usd, unadjustable

Rear suspension: twin shock, adjustable preload

Front brake: 292mm disc, four-piston calipers

Rear brake: 260mm disc, single-piston caliper

Dry weight: 250kg (claimed)

Seat height:  742mm

Fuel capacity: 13l

Top speed: 125mph (est)

Colours: orange, black or grey