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Harley-Davidson XR1200X press launch 2011

By Dain Gingerelli

An X you can live with

A street smart mount gets some track savvy

Elkhart Lake, Wisc.—So there I was, tucked aboard Harley-Davidson’s latest edition of the XR1200, what’s now termed the XR1200X, racing in top gear through the back section of Wisconsin’s celebrated road-race course, Road America. I glanced at the XR’s speedo long enough to see 119 mph register on the digital readout before clicking down a couple gears for the approaching right-hand corner. I was hard on the brakes, too, because if I didn’t whoa that Sportster down I surely would have tossed myself (and bike) into the picturesque Dairyland landscape, no doubt prompting the headline for the local evening edition to read: “Lame motojournalist face-plants into retaining wall—Widow cited for littering.”

But let’s not kid ourselves. Harley-Davidson motorcycles aren’t necessarily prized for their corner-hugging prowess. Even the ill-fated VR1000 Superbikeproject of yore somewhat mocked the sport of road racing; in the eight or nine pitiful years that the VR program carried the Bar &Shield livery into AMA Superbike combat, the Milwaukee brewer achieved only a handful of podium finishes. That included no wins. Folks, we don’t call ’em Hogs for nuttin’, and generally speaking we piggyback aboard our Harleys to ride the road for pleasure, touring or commuting.Racetrack duty, for the most part anyway, is left to the Mountain Dew-hip, pimply-face young-uns on their metric-size crotch-rockets.

In truth, the XR1200X, even equipped with Harley’s new fully adjustablesuspension, is in essence a road bike that, at its best, is capable of tackling—if not outright conquering—the twisties. After all, we’re talking about a 551-pound motorcycle with a family tree that took root in 1957. When all is said and done it’s not a full-on sportbike with DNA you can trace to the serpentine racetracks of America.Oh, press kit propaganda makes note of the XR1200X’s link to the XR750 flattrack racer, but let’s be honest. Short of sharing the same surname and a handful of nuts and bolts, the two XRs have about as much in common as Palin and Pelosi.

Yet there I was, aboard the street-wise XR1200X (among my favorite daily rides, I might add) highballing around one of the most revered racetracks in America. So why not enjoy myself for the day? I was there on Harley-Davidson’s nickel to evaluate the bike under conditions that even Harley’s spokesman, Paul James (an accomplished road racer in his own right), described as “more severe than anybody [read: customers] will ever experience on the street.” Actually, I think we (members of the fourth estate’s irrepressible moto-branch) simply wanted to ride the new model on one of our favorite pieces of asphalt.

And so we romped and frolicked for the day, extending the XR in the turns as we challenged our manhood to see just how good this new model behaved under extreme riding conditions. In the end it behaved quite well, thank you.

The XR1200X is essentially an improved version of the original XR1200 that bowed last year. Most notable improvements for 2011 are the fully adjustable suspension (front and rear spring preload and compression and rebound damping), Nissin brakes with full-floating rotors, blacked-out exhausts and new paint schemes. Bearing in mind that nothing is free, the improvements add another grand to the MSRP, so the new bike takes an $11,799 bite out of your wallet.

While you chew on that figure, consider that last year Harley’s P&A division offered a similar upgrade suspension kit for the XR1200, at a cost of $1,500, parts alone. If you weren’t handy with the wrenches, installation set you back even more greenbacks. The 2011 model shares the same suspension, plus it checks in with better brakes (those floating rotors deliver linear feedback under heavy braking conditions). And believe me when I tell you that the new Showa-based suspension package transforms the XR1200X into the best Sportster ever in terms of handling and ride performance (see sidebar).

I say ride performance because that adjustability allows you to tune the suspenders for a cushy ride while touring. I had occasion to ride a 2010 XR1200 with the P&A kit on the street and it served upthe best ride I’ve experienced on any of the X bikes. Think in terms of the old Sportster Sport of pre-rubber-mount days and you should get the picture. The XR1200X will be no different.

Later in the day the James Gang treated us to a session on Road America’s go-kart track—known as the Briggs & Stratton Circuit. This is a tight, low-speed track that, for the most part, demanded second-gear riding. Truly, the hefty XR was out of its element here, but it showed how versatile the suspension can be when negotiating tight turns. As on the big track, the XR’s foot-peg feelers were touching the pavement in practically every corner, but never was the bike’s stability questioned. By the end of the day I walked away convinced more than ever that if it’s performance you’re after (in terms of ride, handling, and engine performance, because the XR’s 1200cc engine sports some rather sporty hardware inside those cases), this is the Sportster to have. Life with an X doesn’t always have to be miserable.

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