In many ways, Harley Davidson took a real gamble with the XR1200. With a name like that, drawing on the heritage it has, it would have been very easy to make nothing more than a cosmetic revamp of an existing bike. It would have looked great, would have sold bucketloads and would, quite rightly, have been seen as nothing more than another marketing exercise by a company who are, without a doubt, at the very top of the game when it comes to that. So the fact that Harley turned to Europe for help in making the XR1200 something a bit special is rather a surprise. So is the extensive reworking of the engine and the adoption of a different frame and suspension. But the real surprise is the way it works.
Let’s get the basics out of the way first. The XR1200 is lighter than a normal Sportster, primarily I’m sure down to the use of plastics. Yes, plastics – the tank, mudguards and side panels are no longer the traditional steel plate but are instead injection moulded plastic. Don’t be concerned – such chrome as there is remains reassuringly solid and real. The wheels are cast alloy, carrying twin discs, gripped by meaty four piston calipers, on the front and shod with proper sporting tyres. And the engine, while still a Harley Sportster at heart, has been tweaked and lightened. And it shows. While still no featherweight, the XR1200 feels noticeably lighter and easier to move around than its more conventional stablemates. It's a neat trick as the total weight saving is just about five kilos over what you'd otherwise expect. It must be the way the weight is carried instead.
The pegs are in the standard mid mounted Sportster configuration, which is comfortable enough, and the bars are also nicely positioned. Instrumentation remains, um, minimalist, though the sporting pretensions of the bike are given away by the big analogue tacho which takes pride of place in the middle, shoving the slightly out of character digital speedo off to the left. Suspension is essentially non adjustable, with preload at the rear the only concession to potentially changing riding conditions. This particular bike came with Harley’s excellent proximity ignition system, which means that as long as you have the key fob with you then the bike will sense it and disarm the immobiliser, allowing you to turn it on and ride away. It’s a great system provided, as we may have mentioned once before, that nobody loses the fob. Because if that happens you’re in trouble. Build quality is pretty much the usual Harley fare. That means a mix of brilliant - thick, lustrous chrome, for example - and the rather less brilliant - Harley's patented rust-o-matic fasteners spring to mind. But enough of this, let's ride...
Swing a leg over the Harley and everything seems both reassuringly familiar and strangely different, both at once. The view is pure Harley Davidson, with the main dial on the top yoke between a pair of raised bars and the chunky switchgear. Then the alloy quick release fuel cap comes into view, which seems somehow wrong. Buell, yes, but not Harley. Settle into the seat and something else makes itself felt. Literally. Yes, the seat isn't actually very comfortable. Which is definitely not the norm for Harleys. Just in case it was down to my having an unusually shaped backside I asked some of my colleagues to try it. One at a time, obviously. The conclusion was the same. It's not a particularly comfortable motorbike. Ah well, once it gets moving of course everything changes. That old Harley magic will do its thing and we'll soon be wafting along in big cube vee twin heaven, marvelling at just how wonderful the world is and how great it is to be riding a bike.
Well, partly, anyhow.
Because it is a wonderful world, and it is great to be riding a bike. This much is guaranteed. But somehow the XR1200 fails to give that warm glow of Harleyness that Milwaukee metal normally generates. It goes like a Harley, it steers like a Harley and it stops like a Harley. Actually that's not fair. It stops far better than any Harley I've ever ridden before. And the tweaked Sportster engine seems just that little bit happier to rev. And the handling is just a little taughter than usual as well. So why, then, does it not do the business in the way it should? I believe that I have found the answer. What makes Harley Davidsons so special is that they are Harley Davidsons. Made for big roads, big spaces and big riders, and bringing big vibrations, big turning circles, big weight. The Harley experience is inextricably associated with all those things. If we were to be completely honest and take them in isolation, the bikes themselves just don't work. But as is so often the case, especially with big vee twins, the sum of the parts is so much less than the whole. Harleys are fantastic to ride because of their character, and their on paper failings are part of that package. The XR1200 has lost some of that appeal. In making a bike for the European market it seems to me that Harley have fallen into the trap that the Japanese factories fall into when they make a custom type machine. It's a very good bike, probably better in every way than a Harley. But it isn't a Harley. And that makes it just another bike with a compromised chassis and slightly asthmatic engine pretending to be an icon.
In many ways the XR1200 is an improvement on the basic Sportster. The engine revs more freely though it doesn't sound quite as meaty as usual. It's got more torque than the standard unit but higher up the rev range. The brakes are a huge improvement and add massively to the confidence with which you can fling the XR1200 around. The improved ground clearance helps as well. It's funny that the weight loss programme has resulted in a bike which weighs just one kilo less than the 1200 Nightster. So perhaps five kilos less than it would had it have been made of all metal instead of having plastic bits. Personally, I don't think it's worth the trade off. Not when the result is people saying things like "Oh, it is a Harley then. I thought it was a Suzuki..." No slight intended to Suzukis, but that is not a complimentary remark about a Harley.
So the bottom line is this. The XR1200 is, in isolation, quite a good motorbike. It goes OK, stops well and handles as well as could be expected for something of this ilk. But it's not that comfortable and it's not that charismatic. So yes, it's a good bike. But no, it's not a very good Harley Davidson. Personally I'd buy a Nightster for a grand less and then put some decent pipes on it and still have change.