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

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kevin Wing

Extremist Or America's Most Wanted Expatriate?
They're both V-twins. Both aim at an erudite sporting audience, and both wear the orange and black racing livery of their respective factories. Beyond that, the XR1200 and Super Duke 990 R are farther apart than the 4531 miles between Harley-Davidson's hallowed Milwaukee, Wisconsin works and KTM Sportmotorcycle AG headquarters in Mattighofen, Austria. But both are clear reflections of their parents' best competitive instincts.

Like most Harleys, the XR1200 is homage to a beloved piece of Motor Company history: the XR750 that has ruled big American dirt ovals from San Jose to Syracuse since the alloy XR was instituted in 1972. Harley already owned 12 of the 13 AMA Grand National Championships since '54, and the new XR carried the illustrious number-one plate 20 times over the following 27 seasons. Though it remains the best tool for sliding around the county fair circuit, a domesticated XR750 on the street is like Big Brown pulling a plow: unhappy. That's why the only direct carryovers to Harley's new XR1200 are the sacrosanct 45-degree arrangement of its air-cooled cylinders, assorted styling cues and a coat of Jet-Fire Orange paint.

KTM has been building motorcycles exactly half as long, and can't touch Harley in the history department. Duke singles have been thumping around since '94, but the 990 Super Duke-complete with second-generation LC8 V-twin-has only been around since '04. With more than 120 world championships in the corporate trophy case, however, "Ready to Race" is more than a trite tagline. Still, from its humble beginnings as a repair shop in 1934, Kraftfahrzeuge Trunkenpolz Mattighofen has been too busy looking ahead to spend much time basking in the bygone. Harley has a museum. KTM has the Red Bull Rookies Cup. Any questions?

This latest 990 Duke is a predictable move, putting a sharper, R-spec edge on our 2007 Motorcycle of the Year for those who insist that way too much is just about right. And despite its glaring absence from the '08 lineup, the XR1200's arrival in the U.S. is more a matter of when than if. The KTM looks like something Milwaukee might have come up with if it didn't look at the future with one eye on the past. Park them next to each other and differences bury similarities, polarize opinions and show you just how much corporate persona these factories can build into a naked sporting twin.

The KTM feels half as long and twice as tall as Harley's sportiest Sportster. Okay, so the Super Duke's wheelbase is only 2.5 inches shorter, but its cruel excuse for a seat is 5 inches taller, which makes more legroom for tall types. Dig deeper and the differences just get bigger. At 448 pounds complete with life-giving fluids, the Austrian bike is fully 138 lbs. lighter than the American. But wait, there's more: Park both tach needles at 7000 rpm and the Harley's 1202cc OHV twin is tapped out at 80 horsepower. The KTM's DOHC 999cc mill makes 89 horsepower at 7000, but it's open for serious business all the way to 10,000 rpm, when all 118 horses are let out of the gate.

At this point you could be forgiven for thinking this contest is like the New England Patriots vs. Devils Lake School for the Deaf, but there's more to it than that. For one thing, the Firebirds were 10-2-0 last season, one win short of a state championship. The overdog, in this case, has only one thing on his mind, and Harley's tribute to the blue groove is a whole lot more fun on pavement than it appears on paper.

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.

Unfortunately, that Marquis de Saddle is also part of the deal, along with a WP Roma 4860 fork and 4618 shock that are better suited to landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. That shock is 10mm longer than a standard Super Duke's which, along with a new milled triple clamp, sharpens the front-end geometry with a crazy-steep 22.7 degrees of rake and a skimpy 3.7 inches of trail. Are these people serious? Of course they are-they're Austrian. The R comes with everything except a sense of humor.

This KTM is not your friend. It's a scalpel, honed exclusively for high speed and smooth pavement. Indecision, indiscretion and ham-fisted behavior will not be tolerated. That much is clear as soon as you start the engine. Blip the throttle. The tach needle flicks to the right quicker than anything else with two cylinders and a license plate, accompanied by a taut, angry bark that could only come from a racy 75-degree V-twin. Everything else happens just as fast.

Treat neutral throttle as an oxymoron and acceleration is startlingly immediate beyond 3000 rpm, but not terribly compelling until the tach strikes 6000 and punts you forward with an immediacy usually reserved for R-suffix Ducatis and select theme-park rides. Expect some amount of daylight under the front Pirelli in the first three gears. A determined two-finger squeeze cues the radial-mount front calipers to scrub off speed with exactly the sort of reassuring precision we expect from the House of Brembo. Brake ridiculously late and the R nails the apex precisely as directed, leaving you with plenty of pavement for a graceful exit. Take your time to get the fork and shock right-Suspension 201 is a prerequisite here-and front-end feedback is quite good. Cornering clearance is effectively unlimited with the gummy, Pirelli Diablo Corsa 3 radials. Unless you're a neurosurgeon or commandant of the local bomb squad, going through all that 90 or 100 times on Saturday morning takes its toll on the old neural circuits.

So relax and have a go on the Harley-middle-American yin to the KTM's overwrought Austrian yang. The undersquare twin can't spin up anywhere as quickly, and nothing happens any faster than you want it to, but there's a surprising amount of practical thrust in the fun zone between 4000 and 7000 rpm. That's enough for a GPS-certified 123 mph on top, vs. 158 for the KTM. Nissin front calipers and 292mm rotors are a high-water mark for Milwaukee braking hardware, with feel that lets you brake all the way to the apex plus all the power you need from a one-finger squeeze. The key to speed on the XR1200 is the same as the XR750's: Brake lightly and haul around corners. Rearset pegs help the cause, touching down only occasionally on the street once those cute little feelers are gone.

Compared to the KTM, the Harley arcs into bends in slow-motion and tracks around on the proverbial rails from there, always letting you know how the 18-inch front Dunlop is getting along with the pavement. We never found a road the XR-specific Qualifiers didn't like. The 43mm Showa fork does a decent job despite a lack of external adjustments. The preload-adjustable shocks that can't quite manage comfort and compliance are the weak link in any cornering equation.

In the end, which one of these two bikes you like says more about who you are and how you ride than anything else. Professional bull riders, Formula 1 drivers and pathological adrenaline addicts will throw down for the KTM, dismissing the Harley as an overstuffed American artifact for schmaltzy Europeans. Anyone who knows which foot the steel shoe goes on will pine for the XR1200 and lay down cash money the day it materializes in their local showroom. And if such a deal could be done for, say, $12,000, bring lunch and a lawn chair. It's going to be a long line.

Ari Henning
Off The Record

The XR plucks a cool cord in riders who wouldn't look twice at any other Harley.

Like, um, me. I typically don't dig Hogs, but the XR is different. Purposeful styling, no chrome and a seating arrangement that lets you ride the thing, which I did-for several hours-on the way to the drag strip.

I enjoyed cruising the XR, but where's the power? I can't understand why Harley does so little with displacement while KTM and every other builder does so much. It may be mean, but I'd rather take the Duke's punishment than make apologies for the Harley's deficiencies. Swap those pushrods for cam chains and America will have a bike to brag about.

Age: 23 Height: 5'10" Weight: 165 lbs. Inseam: 33 in.

2008 Harley Davidson XR1200 | Price approx. $14,500 At Current Exchange Rates
Hard Parts

The pipe-rack steel skeleton is essentially what came on-line with the 2004 Sportster. The XR steepens rake and cuts trail to sharpen the steering. There's also a tasty cast-aluminum swingarm. Rubber mounts spare us from nasty engine vibration.

The 43mm Showa cartridge fork offers no external adjustments, but it's still Harley's best yet. Shocks deliver a harsh ride over rough pavement if you choose the stiff end of the spring-preload range. Adjustable damping would help there. Maybe next year?

The sportiest Sportster makes about 18 more horsepower than a standard XL1200 thanks to 10:1 compression, Buell cams and extensive respiratory therapy. Buell's SuperTT feels stronger, but the XR spreads power over a broader range.

Nissin supplies four-pot calipers for the hardest-stopping Harley-Davidson street machine yet. The 292mm Sunmax rotors are a bit smaller than what you'll find on frontline Japanese supersports, but never lack for power and wilt only slightly at a malicious street pace.

Tech Spec
Engine type: a-c 45-deg. V-twinRear brake: Single Nissin two-piston caliper, 260mm discCorrected 1/4-mile: 12.28 sec. @ 107.8 mph
Valve train: OHV, 4vFront tire: 120/70ZR-18 Dunlop D209 QualifierTop-gear roll-on 60-80 mph: 3.87 sec.
Displacement: 1200ccRear tire: 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop D209 QualifierFuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 43/36/41 mpg
Bore x stroke: 88.9 x 96.8mmRake/trail: 27.8/5.1 in.Colors: Orange, black, gray
Compression: 10.0:1Seat height: 29.2 in.Availability: na (overseas only)
Fuel system: Delphi/Dell'Orto EFIWheelbase: 59.6 in.Warranty: 24 mo./unlimited mi.
Clutch: Wet, multi-plateFuel capacity: 3.5 gal.Contact:
Harley-Davidson Motor Company
3700 W. Juneau Ave.
Milwaukee, WI 53208
Transmission: 5-speedWeight (tank full/empty): 586/565 lbs.
Frame: Tubular-steel double-cradleMeasured horsepower: 77.1 bhp @ 6750 rpm
Front suspension: Showa 43mm inverted forkMeasured torque: 67.9 lb.-ft. @ 3750 rpm
Rear suspension: Dual Showa shocks, adjustable for spring preload
Front brake: Dual Nissin four-piston calipers, 292mm discs

Harley's strongest Sportster favors quality over quantity. Torque production tapers steadily beyond 3750 rpm, but the horsepower curve is about as linear as you'll find. Buell's SuperTT is 8.5 horses stronger, but the XR is much easier to ride.

Pegs ride higher and migrate a bit farther rearward than we'd like relative to your basic Sportster. Good cornering clearance comes at the expense of some legroom for lanky types, though the dirt-track-style handlebar welcomes long arms.

2008 KTM Superduke R | Price $15,598
Hard Parts

KTM's signature chromoly-tube skeleton weighs 19 pounds complete with the obligatory orange powder coating. A bolt-on aluminum subframe carries the R-spec solo seat and muffler. Milled triple clamps define geometry steep enough to demand a steering damper.

Inhaling through 52mm Keihin throttle bodies pirated from the RC8 superbike and exhaling through Akrapovic headers, the 75-degree V-twin fits thoroughly reworked heads in between. The result will wallop anybody's naked anything this side of a Suzuki B-King and do mid-10-second quarter-miles at more than 130 mph.

Stiffened considerably from standard Super Duke specs, the 48mm WP fork and shock serve up a cruel ride on all but the smoothest roads. Rear suspension does without a linkage, which would have allowed a more compliant shock.

Four-pot Brembo calipers are a bit short on initial bite, but squeeze a little harder and stop the 448-pound package with the reassuringly linear feel you expect from track-spec brakes. The single-piston rear caliper and 240mm disc are just as good.

Tech Spec
Engine type: l-c 75-deg. V-twinRear brake: Single Brembo single-piston caliper, 240mm discCorrected 1/4-mile: 10.43 sec. @ 130.3 mph
Valve train: DOHC, 8vFront tire: 120/70-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo Corsa 3Top-gear roll-on 60-80 mph: 3.48 sec.
Displacement: 999ccRear tire: 180/55-ZR17 Pirelli Diablo CorsaFuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 41/35/36 mpg
Bore x stroke: 101.0 x 62.4mmRake/trail: 22.7/3.7 in.Colors: Orange, black, white
Compression: 11.5:1Seat height: 34.0 in.Availability: Now
Fuel system: Keihin EFIWheelbase: 57.0 in.Warranty: 12 mo. or 12,000 mi.
Clutch: Wet, multi-plateFuel capacity: 4.9 gal.Contact:
KTM North America, Inc.
1119 Milan Ave.
Amherst, OH 44001
Transmission: 6-speedWeight (tank full/empty): 448/420 lbs.
Frame: Tubular-steel trellisMeasured horsepower: 118.4 bhp @ 10,000 rpm
Front suspension: WP 48mm inverted fork, adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound dampingMeasured torque: 70.4 lb.-ft. @ 8000 rpm
Rear suspension: WP shock, adjustable for spring preload, high/low-speed compression and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 320mm discs

Harley's strongest Sportster favors quality over quantity. Torque production tapers steadily beyond 3750 rpm, but the horsepower curve is about as linear as you'll find. Buell's SuperTT is 8.5 horses stronger, but the XR is much easier to ride.

Pegs ride higher and migrate a bit farther rearward than we'd like relative to your basic Sportster. Good cornering clearance comes at the expense of some legroom for lanky types, though the dirt-track-style handlebar welcomes long arms.

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