2012 Harley-Davidson XR1200 | Gas It And Turn Left

By Joe Gresh, Photography by Joe Gresh

Reviewers at Motorcyclist are supposed to be unbiased, but I’ve had a woody for the Harley-Davidson XR1200 ever since the new model introduction was wasted on Europeans in 2008. Inspired by the best looking motorcycle ever built, H-D’s long-in-the-tooth XR750, Harley’s 1200cc street-going fantasy flat tracker grabs my heartstrings the way B.B. King plucks Lucille. So I’m not going to be fair. I’m going to tell you how cool this bike is and paper over any flaws with a sticky enthusiasm that goes well with fawn. And maybe have a cigarette after.

I realize the XR1200 has been thoroughly covered in the pages of this magazine, just as I realize that Harley has dropped the model for 2013, a travesty. But this particular XR…well, every man-jack on the staff, even the guy that changes the toner cartridges, has had a crack at her. Which brings to mind the cliché Key West joke: You never lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn. I don’t know why it’s taken Harley-Davidson four years to find me but it’s my turn now, baby.

Those rough-handed Motorcyclist staffers have not diminished the XR’s desirability: I like vulnerable motorcycles covered in daddy-issue patina. The XR has an eager, willing-to-do-anything attitude that brings out a sadistic streak from deep within me. Harley’s adding the X suffix along with upgraded suspension components makes it clear that this motorcycle will stop at nothing to please its rider.

For all its racy styling, the XR1200X is essentially a standard motorcycle. The footpegs are in the correct location, the seat is normal height and the handlebars are usable for anything from trail riding to road racing. This is the most amazing part of the bike because most of the other Harley-Davidsons I’ve ridden force a rider to slouch in a passive position.

Several exotic-for-Harley features make the XR1200 a blast to ride. That big upside-down fork stiffens the front, making the bike handle beautifully. Four-piston calipers and dual front discs give the bike braking power nearly on par with my old ZRX1100 Kawasaki. Actual rear suspension travel in lieu of a ground-scraping seat allows the XR rider to plough over potholes and road-swarf that would pulverize an H-D Forty-Eight rider’s vertebrae into fine white talc. There’s no traction control or ABS. The cycle parts of the XR1200 are nothing earthshaking but this bike is a keeper: you don’t need expensive electronics failing 20 years from now.

The XR’s powerplant is a huge part of its styling. The re-vamped Sportster engine looks like a well-fed XR750 and is not too far off the race bike’s horsepower level, which makes you wonder how AMA expert flat trackers get around those miles so fast. The 1200 runs out of breath well before redline; you’ve got to do your living in the verdant Gruntosphere below 5000 rpm.

A motorcycle that looks this good could get away with murder. Yet the XR’s torque-centric, low-rpm power is merely a flesh wound. For those who can’t understand, here’s why Harley-Davidson gets away with it: I rode the XR several hundred miles through Wisconsin and parked the bike near the Vance & Hines tent in Road America’s paddock. Harley gave me some track-food vouchers ($9!) so I traded them for a nice Philly steak and settled on a picnic table to gaze lovingly at my borrowed XR. Among all the exotic race machinery, the bone-stock XR drew the most curiosity. No lie—nearly every person who walked by stopped to look at the pearl white dirt-tracker just like I was doing.

The XR1200X shakes and it’s slow. There’s nothing truly cutting-edge on the thing. A V-Strom 650 outperforms it in most every measurable metric.

But I tell you there’s magic in the XR1200X. The white-hot testosterone of ten-thousand metal-shoed young men drifting sideways through a half-century of rutted turns has soaked into this motorcycle’s DNA. The XR1200 succeeds because somewhere inside this fantasy of aluminum and steel there’s that one atom, that one tiny fragment that makes it so real: your dreams. Find one before they’re gone.

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