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Harley-Davidson XL1200N Nightster road test

By Terry Roorda

There’s something about the Nightster

In the thrall of Milwaukee’s new sensation

Our first exposure to the XL1200N Nightster came with the release of studio photos of the model during the Harley-Davidson winter dealers meeting at the end of January. Even though we could only experience the bike visually and in two dimensions, we were nonetheless smitten with it in much the same way we’re smitten with Bettie Page though our only experience with her has been in the same limited format. The first opportunity we had to actually get physical with the goods—the Nightster, not Bettie—was in Daytona during Bike Week when not only was the bike prominently displayed and causing a stir at the Ocean Center, the good folks of The Motor Company were kind enough to bring along a test specimen for the use of curious journalists. Our first in-the-flesh impression was a tired but utterly applicable cliché: Photos don’t do it justice.

There’s something about the Nightster; some quality that’s hard to put a word to, a quality you can’t capture with pixels. And while the bike is decidedly photogenic, it’s also illusive in some essential way. And it was only after riding the bike back to the house for a protracted session of intense professional study—which consisted of parking it in the yard, and appraising it with a few buddies from a perch on the porch with beers in hand—that the word to describe that illusive quality came upon me at last. Charisma. That’s it. This bike’s got charisma.

It starts with the fact that the Nightster’s a visual feast for the Harley aficionado, offering some unique detail from every viewing angle—details that take their cues from the seminal XLs and bobbed Sportys of a generation ago, but not in any overdrawn or piecemeal fashion. It departs from the basic Sportster package in a bewildering number of particulars, the boldest being the rubber gaiters on the front fork, the chopped rear fender sans protruding taillight, drilled belt guard and front fender bracket, chrome laced wheels with black rims and hubs, side-slash mufflers, and especially a side-mount license plate frame. There are a good many other Nightster-specific elements beyond that list, but what’s remarkable is not so much the number of departures from the basic Sportster package found here, it’s the way they’ve been carefully integrated into a fully realized, fully distinct and fully rowdy creation.

The result is a bike that oozes personality and exerts a palpable pull on you. The Nightster seems to whisper—telepathically, of course—Come ride me. Hop on and dig in the spurs. Oh you know you want to.

You bet I do
Describing a ride on the Nightster comes down to two words: effortless and exhilarating. You don’t have to throw a leg very high to get it over the saddle of this bike. With a seat height of 25.3 inches, this is the lowest XL model, matched only by the XL883 Low. And once aboard you don’t have to fiddle with a petcock or enrichener knob since like all 2007 Sportsters it comes standard with a closed-loop fuel injection system that takes all the guesswork and fickleness out of the start-up/warm-up protocol. And you don’t have to exert much effort to pull in the clutch lever and notch first, either. Lever effort on the XLs has been lightened up again this year, and is positively relaxed—fully 20 percent more relaxed than the 2005 XL1200 models. And the transmission, which was totally redesigned for the 2006 model year, uses helical-cut gears and sliding dog rings in the shifting mechanism to provide quick, quiet and positive operation.

That’s the effortless part. The exhilarating part is what happens when you twist the throttle and put the power of the new fuel-injected 1200 mill to the pavement. This motor has a gob of torque and delivers it lustily right off an idle, lightening the front end with each shift. Add to that the fact that the Nightster weighs less than any other XL model, either 883 or 1200 (it’s 20 pounds lighter than the XL1200R Roadster), and you’ve got the quickest pony in the stable. At cruising speed a quick burst of acceleration is just a twist away, owing in large measure to the seamless performance of the EFI system. The motor loves being revved and doesn’t shudder or complain when being inadvertently lugged.

Ergonomically, this bike is a tight package. That low seat height is achieved by a combination of a slammed rear suspension and a whittled down saddle, and the latter translates into an even shorter distance between the bum and the footpegs than found on the other midmount control XL models—which are not exactly roomy to begin with. That skinny saddle also means an austere perch for the hind quarters, but surprisingly it provides enough cushion and comfort for fairly long jaunts, and after a day of riding that included a two-hour continuous stint aboard the Nightster I wasn’t feeling any worse for wear—or at least not nearly as bothered as I anticipated.

Which is not to say that the Nightster—or any XL, for that matter—is a natural fit for a rider of my 6-foot-4-inch stretch. By the same token, I knew that going in and adapted to it quickly enough, as riders of my height are obliged to do on a goodly number of models. Still, I realized that for the sake of this article I wasn’t the ideal candidate for the riding shots inasmuch as my freakish physique would give a false impression of the bike’s relative size—to say nothing of obscuring a number of its unique styling attributes—so I pressed Stu Sutherland, the Thunder Press publisher, into gangsta duty for the shoot. For the sake of perspective I should tell you that Stu stands about two hands north of five-foot-fuhgeddaboutit. I hope that helps. I should also tell you that after a ride on the bike, he decided he needed to have one in the worst way.

I can’t blame him. Bikes like the Nightster can get to you that way and that quickly. Harley hit all the right notes on this creation, and its combination of styling, stance, performance and go-to-hell attitude make it a real killer. And perhaps the sweetest note of all is its $9,595 sticker price. Talk about charisma.

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