2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Comparison

MotorcycleUSA Staff | June 20, 2011

The Harley-Davidson VRSC (V-Twin Racing Street Custom) motorcycle was first introduced a decade ago with the newest crop of Japanese performance cruisers set squarely in its sights. Dubbed the V-Rod, this totally new motorcycle design for H-D featured a liquid-cooled overhead-cam engine that was developed with the help of Porsche and a uniquely styled perimeter frame. One of the most aggressive iterations of the VRSC family to date is the Night Rod Special. Looking like it lives life a quarter-mile at a time, this Harley is long, low and full of attitude.

Right from the get-go the whole crew wanted to swing a leg over the low-slung Sedona orange Night Rod. We all wanted to know if the motor could back up its tough-as-nails image. Throughout the testing process hordes of bystanders, motorists and other riders were drawn to the Harley, even though our fickle crew rated it second in the appearance department with its blacked-out wheels, lack of chrome and the ghost flame racing stripes.

2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special Dyno Chart
The 2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special was a solid
performer on the drag strip as well as the MotoUSA Dyno.

Thumbing the starter you would expect a racket that would cause grown men to wet their pants and children to cry for their mommies, but instead a low rumble that is surprisingly quiet emanates from the dual shotgun-style exhaust canisters. Sound testing confirms our suspicions that the Night Rod is the quietest, producing the least amount of noise in the test with 95 decibels at idle and 103 db at half throttle.

Just because the high-tech Harley doesn’t boom like thunder and shake the fillings out of your teeth doesn’t mean it’s a slouch when you twist the throttle. Acceleration is smooth and fast, and personally I had suspicions the Night Rod was the quickest bike in the bunch, even if my seat of the pants told me to the contrary. Testing at the airstrip confirmed my theory with a 12.36-second blast through the quarter at 114.91mph. When we rolled it up on the dyno, the H-D produced the most ponies with 113.9 horsepower while kicking out the lowest torque at 78.5 lb-ft. Although the torque number was at the bottom, the Night Rod’s low curb weight of 696 pounds and the high revving horsepower ended up being a winning combination for this slingshot of a cruiser.

However, when you get to the end of the track or if there is a curve down there somewhere, things begin to get dicey. While the 240-series rear tire gives the Night Rod massive traction to get up to speed, the skinny front tire hinders braking performance. The Harley’s braking distance from 60mph is over 18 feet further than the best performer in this test. Our test rider Brain Steeves thought he could do better without ABS as he felt it kicked in a fraction of a second too early.

“Everything was fine until the ABS kicked in,” said Steeves. “When the ABS engaged it felt like Barney Rubble and the rest of the Flintstones were trying to slow this thing down out there in the desert.”

2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
The low cornering clearance on the Harley-Davidson hurt the its performance up in the mountains of Southern California. The 120/70ZR-19 front tire combined with the Night Rod’s ABS system made for the longest braking distance in the group.

Though the ABS system was a problem for our hired gun who is a master of traction management and brake modulation, for the average rider it’s a great feature, especially on a long bike with a narrow front skin like the Night Rod.

So what about the curves? With such a slammed stance, the Harley’s cornering clearance is really limited. Just a moderate pace on the mountain roads will have the footpegs dragging in no time. Even our mellowest rider complained about dragging his heels in the tighter curves. Keeping the rest of the performance cruiser pack in sight required hanging off the Night Rod like a GP rider to decrease the turning radius and increase the speed without grinding the pegs into stubs.

2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
The smooth power of the Night Rod makes it feels slower than it really is. With a snap of the clutch and a twist of the wrist you unleash this beast. That’s when the fun begins.

The lack of cornering prowess combined with a harsh ride from the Night Rod’s suspension knocked it towards the bottom of the board in handling and suspension scores. In the world of cruisers there are always trade offs when it comes to looks, performance and handling. And for the wicked stance of the orange Vee-rocket, Harley accepted the inability to do anything besides go in a straight line like a scalded cat, with genuine H-D pride.

The narrow handlebars require a long reach over the faux fuel tank and the pegs are equally protracted. For our 6’ 5” Ray Guager, the elongated cockpit isn’t a real issue, but for us normal-sized humans, any extended time in the saddle could be classified as torture by UN Conventions. Thankfully, with the lowest fuel economy result of 31.32 mpg and a five-gallon fuel tank under the seat, the pain will end before any of the other machines at just over 150 miles.

“That aggressive seating position may result in having to sit on a donut pillow for a day or two,” commented Agustin. “Its a tailbone terrorist. Definitely not something you want to ride to Vegas and back on. But if you are cruising down the 101 for a little weekend ride to meet the boys for lunch, then get this bike. You will look bad-ass on it.”

Joey’s sentiment perfectly sums up the Night Rod Special. It’s an absolutely amazing motorcycle for smoking the tire and blasting from stoplight to stoplight. It looks mean as hell and will always draw a crowd, but living with it as a do-it-all motorcycle will leave you sore and avoiding any road that looks at you crooked.

2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special
You can’t help but feel tough when riding the Night Rod Special, and you had better be if you plan on riding further than 100 miles.

With the 10 subjective and 10 objective scores tabulated, the Night Rod Special’s high marks in the acceleration and appearance categories weren’t enough to bolster its poor handling, braking and comfort scores. In this muscle mash-up the Harley smoked its way into fourth place in this contest for the best all-round performance cruiser. It may not be the best all-round performer, but if you are all about profiling and burning through tires, the Night Rod Special is the cruiser for you.

MotorcycleUSA Staff