2009 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200 Comparison

Adam Waheed | April 20, 2009

The XR1200 represents Harley’s first real sport-oriented motorcycle built for mass consumption. It’s cued heavily off the XR-750 dirt track racing motorcycle that is, without doubt, the most successful flat track racing motorcycle ever built. For decades people have been trying to assemble their own home-made street-legal version of this bike. Now making one your own is only $10,799.

(See and hear Harley’s new XR1200 in action in the 2009 Harley-Davidson XR1200 video to the right)

Visually the Harley-Davidson XR1200 gives off mixed signals. The thick Showa inverted fork, oversized brake rotors, stout brake calipers, and the tall triangular shape of the Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier front tire, trick you into thinking the bike is pure sport and definitely not made in America. However, as your eye moves rearward past the gas tank and onto the rear section of the bike with its twin rear shock absorbers there is no mistaking it for anything other than a Harley-Davidson. We especially dig its slick upswept exhaust that not only looks the part but sounds mean too.

Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200
The new Harley-Davidson XR1200 represents Harley-Davidson’s most sport-oriented model in its 2009 model year line-up.

Once in the seat, the ergos on the XR are a bit of a cross between that of a sport machine and standard cruiser. If you’ve logged a lot of seat time aboard other Harley’s you’ll instantly be at home on the XR. If you haven’t though, it feels downright odd. The seat itself is relatively low and positions the rider in an upright contour with the majority of your weight distributed directly to the seat.

Reach to the handlebars isn’t a stretch like it is on the Guzzi and keeps in-line with the relaxed theme, plus there isn’t a hint of pressure placed on your hands or wrists. Place your feet on the mid-mounted footpegs and you’ll notice how awkward it feels as the pegs are positioned in such a way that it feels like your feet are perched in front of you farther than they actually are.

Once you reach a curvy stretch of pavement its curious riding position suddenly makes sense. Despite its 607-pound curb weight, hustling the XR through second- or third-gear switchbacks will surprise you. At these speeds the Harley maneuvers from side-to-side with just only a light touch on the wide handlebar before falling predictably into the turn.

Aiding the H-D XR1200’s maneuverability is its traditional engine mounting position as compared to the Guzzi’s traverse engine mount set-up. This translates into a substantially slimmer chassis, which does a great job of camouflaging the XR’s mass.

The Evolution engine inside the XR1200 puts 66.6 ft-lb of torque at 4000 rpm.
The heart of the Harley-Davidson XR1200 is this 1203cc Evolution V-Twin. Harley infused it with some classic hot-rodding techniques including higher-spec cams, more compression and large throttle bodies.

“I was really surprised by how well the Harley scoots around in the corners,” said Motorcycle USA VP Ken Hutchison. “Initially when I lifted it off the kickstand I presumed that it was going to be a total pig. But that’s simply not the case.”

Once turned the Harley continues to impress with its stability. The chassis does a fantastic job of compensating abrupt brake or throttle inputs and keeps you in command even if you get ham-fisted with the controls. Simply point turn, accelerate then repeat. On the XR it’s that easy. Really aggressive riders will drag hard parts but it takes some serious speed to do so.

Out on the freeway the XR’s sporty suspension components equate to a rough ride while cruising in a straight line. Yet the seat is super plush and helps counteract the suspension’s jarring effect, making a hundred mile trip more than plausible.

Powering the XR1200 is a 1203cc Evolution engine that has some mild hot-rodding including 50mm throttle bodies, higher-spec cams and more compression, all engineered specifically for its application. Thumb the starter button and the engine rattles to life with that unique Harley thud-thud sound. At a stoplight the engine vibrates so much that the driver next to you can’t help but instinctively stare at the gyrating H-D lump.

Once the stoplight turns green, over 60 lbs-ft. of torque from just 3000 rpm make escape especially entertaining. The engine is especially apt down low in the rev range, pumping out a steady and highly useable spread of torque that makes accelerating from a standstill a blast.

Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200
The Harley-Davidson XR1200 will suprise you with its quick handling. It’s Dunlop Sportmax Qualifer tires will also take a lot of cornering abuse, however at speed the footpegs will drag on the road below.

Throttle response is also first-rate, no doubt in part to its well-sorted fuel-injection as well as the right side belt final drive, which helps make the connection between your right hand and the throttle especially precise.

“The XR’s engine comes on strong down low. It’s got so much torque right off idle that you don’t even need to give it any gas when launching from a stop. But the engine spools up slowly and power signs off way earlier as compared to the Guzzi,” stated Hutchison.

Not only does the XR’s engine spin up slowly once it gets past 6000 rpm acceleration feels like it tapers off thereby necessitating an upshift.

Fortunately, while the XR doesn’t have the top end power of the Guzzi, where it does beat it is in the transmission department. As you maneuver through all of the XR’s five gears you’ll really be amazed with how well it shifts. Gear changes are accompanied by both an audible “clunk” and a solid feel at the end of the shift lever. We do have some complaints however: First, the manual cable-actuated clutch requires way too much lever pull. Unless you’re a gym rat or blessed with superhuman arm strength working the stiff clutch quickly becomes tiresome. Plus the spacing between each of the five gears feels too wide. We would have preferred an additional final cog which might allow the individual gear ratios to be closer together.

Although the Harley-Davidson XR1200 makes use of some stout braking hardware, including three thick 292mm cross-drilled brake discs controlled by dual four-piston Nissin calipers up front with a single-piston controlling the rear disc, braking performance feels lackluster.

Slowing the bike down in a hurry requires a minimum of two fingers along with some serious pull on the brake lever. Conversely the rear brake set-up felt strong and when used together with the front brake drastically reduces stopping distances to a more acceptable measurement.

The XRs 1203cc Evolution engine will rev out to 7000 rpm.
The Harley-Davidson XR1200’s minimalistic instrument display provides the rider with the bare essentials including speed, rev counter, odometer and double trip meters.

The XR’s instrumentation consists of two rounded gauges that sit atop the upper handlebar clamp. The smaller gauge to the left houses an orange-backlit digital speedometer. Next to it a larger white-face tachometer with an integrated digital odometer/trip meter and assorted engine warning lights relays information to the rider. Despite its minimalistic design the gauges are clear and easy to read day or night.

In terms of overall build-quality the Sportster XR1200 is without a doubt a quality piece of machinery. Its components have a very solid, weighty feel to them and appear very high quality. Stylish touches like the exhaust system’s satin chrome finish and the engine’s silver powder coat set it apart from other motorcycles you might see on the street.

Our biggest gripe however is the fuel filler cap. Not only is it keyless, which makes it easy for a crazy ex-girlfriend to pour sugar into the gas tank (that never happens, right?), but the unusual open/close design had me completely befuddled at fuel stops. Way too complicated.


Adam Waheed

Road Test Editor | Articles | Adam's insatiable thirst for life is only surpassed by his monthly fuel bill. Whether rocketing on land, flying through the air, or jumping the seas, our Road Test Editor does it all and has the scars to prove it.

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