Harley-Davidson XR1200 VS. KTM Super Duke 990 R - Opposites Attract

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

This is considerably more than a Sportster with a racy paint job. As you may remember from Alan Cathcart's July '08 cover story, the chassis as well as the rubber-mounted, 45-degree V-twin therein have been significantly tweaked in the transformation from XL to XR. A set of Buell XB cams, 10:1 compression and a yawning 50mm throttle body inside the all-new airbox artfully disguised as the bottom of the 3.5-gallon fuel tank add up to about 15 more bhp. Oil-cooled heads plumbed with external lines and a six-row cooler fend off the added heat. You'll feel said heat, especially in traffic.

The XR is quite the effective urbane urban tool. Delphi/Dell'Orto EFI delivers fuel flawlessly after a little fluffy patch just above idle. The cable-actuated clutch is a bit stiff, but still friendlier than the KTM's hydraulic unit. Progress through the five-speed gearbox takes a bit more effort than the Duke's, but this one is streets ahead of its predecessors. Wide bars make herding Milwaukee metal through Los Angles traffic a bit easier, but with 486 lbs. balanced on axles nearly 5 feet apart, slow-speed handling is somewhere south of agile. Nonetheless, there's something to be said for steady and predictable.

In traffic, the KTM acts like spit in a hot frying pan-a little jumpy. It changes direction as quickly as you can change your mind, and revs quicker than any twin outside the Ducati World Superbike paddock. The sound from those tailpipes is indescribably delicious. Throttle response, however, isn't: You're either accelerating or slowing down, with no in between. If you can't decide, the Keihin EFI does it for you, turning the slightest throttle input into instantaneous forward motion or the sort of abrupt deceleration generally left to the kill switch. This lurch-fest goes on until you develop a steadier hand or give up and drive the Camry to work. Standard suspension settings make it stiff enough to blur vision on cratered city streets, while that muffler under the cruel excuse for a seat radiates enough heat to cut a healthy male's sperm count in half.

Just don't get us started about that seat again. Crafted from evil plastic billet in clear violation of the Geneva Convention, it turns an hour on the freeway into an exercise in pain management. The constant buzzing through the handlebar takes your mind off the gnawing monkey-butt for a few exits. Trying to figure out whether that blurry thing in the mirrors is a CHP Ford or a Geek Squad VW is good for a few more, but fresh, twisty pavement is the only real relief.

Loping along at 4000 rpm in the next lane, Harley's XR is a veritable Electra Glide. Rubber mounts soak up offending engine vibration. But the half-mile-style handlebar feels just about that wide beyond 70 mph, moving with all the aerodynamic efficiency of a garage door. The rear view isn't much clearer than on the KTM beyond 75 mph, but you can put 145 miles of interstate between gas stops. Any pillion junior-high graduate foolish enough to climb aboard will mutiny by the end of the block. Both bikes are most comfortable within a 100-mile radius of home. The best way to cover that distance with the Duke is 50 miles in the van and 50 more after you unload at the track.

You thought the '07 Super Duke was hardcore? So did we-heavy emphasis on the past tense. The R is lighter, stronger, faster, considerably less subtle and $1600 more expensive than an '08 Super Duke. The parts manifest says that's a steal. Heavier-breathing heads put 41mm titanium intake valves downstream of big 52mm throttle bodies lifted from the RC8. That superbike also donated its valve springs, which bump the rev limit to 10,500 rpm. Lighter pistons and connecting rods spin a meticulously reworked crankshaft, and the R exhales through boa constrictor-sized Akrapovic headers coiled under the engine. Revised coolant passages along with a new pump and thermostat dispose of heat more efficiently.

Tim Carrithers
Off The Record

You expect Harley-Davidson and KTM to head off in different directions to build a marquee naked twin. The surprise is Mattighofen missing this badly with what should have been a slam-dunk. Milwaukee nailed the XR idea, only to introduce it across the Atlantic, where most people think Jay Springsteen is Bruce's little brother.

Turning something as brilliant as the Super Duke into such a colossal letdown proves you really can have too much of a good thing. But fear not, if the editorial inbox is any indication, the national clamor for a U.S.-spec XR1200 is clearly audible in various powerful corridors at 3700 West Juneau Avenue. Our homegrown contender is more than homage to American dirt-track. It's our best twin by a mile.

Age: 50 Height: 6'3" Weight: 215 lbs. Inseam: 34 in.

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