2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X | First Ride

The X-Factor

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Tom Riles, Brian J. Nelson

It's fair to say that Harley-Davidson racing development peaked in 1970 with the release of the iconic, instantly successful XR750. That platform, which continues to dominate dirt-track racing to this day, has made the XR prefix synonymous with Harley performance. That's why The Motor Company's hottest streetbike is branded the XR1200, and isn't an XL1200 variation like its more conventional, baby-cruiser brethren. Now Harley-Davidson has deployed an additional X to create the XR1200X, upgraded with fully adjustable Showa suspension and higher-spec brakes. This is by far the sportiest Sportster yet.

Aesthetically, the X-model is mostly unchanged. The bodywork, drawn by industrial designer Mark Daniels in homage to the original XR750, is faithful in shape if not scale, and cleverly incorporates fresh-air intakes under the 3.5-gallon fuel tank. Black-wrinkle powdercoating on the engine and a satin-black exhaust make the bike look more sinister, and an orange pinstripe accents the cast three-spoke wheels.

The engine is likewise unaltered. The rubber-mounted, air-cooled, 1200cc Evolution V-twin is equipped with high-flow heads, high-compression pistons and aggressive cams to provide performance deserving of the XR name. A high-capacity oil cooler keeps engine temps down, and a downdraft 50mm throttle body, equipped with electronic sequential-port injection, meters fuel. Flawless fueling, quick throttle response and surprisingly light clutch action make the claimed 74 lb.-ft. of torque accessible and easy to exploit.

Harley-Davidson invited us to historic Road America, located an hour north of its Milwaukee, Wisconsin, headquarters, so we could best assess the new model's much improved suspension and brakes. Up front is a bespoke version of Showa's Big Piston Fork (BPF), which uses larger-diameter internal pistons to reduce damping pressure for better compliance and improved front-end feedback. Out back, the shocks are Showa's finest fully adjustable, nitrogen-charged Monotube units, with piggyback reservoirs and oversized 36mm pistons for more consistent damping action. This same suspension package was available last season as a $1500 option. The XR1200X retails for $11,799, just $1000 more that the standard XR1200 it will replace in 2011, making it a bargain, too.

The Nissin four-piston front brake calipers are unchanged from last year, but the 292mm rotors are now fully floating for increased stopping force. Braking power is better but still only adequate for truly aggressive riding, and the rubbery brake lines are prone to swelling after a few hard laps. Radial-mounted calipers would be a worthwhile upgrade for this big boy, as would a slimmer, adjustable brake lever that's more conducive to one-finger braking.

We ran a modified version of Road America's legendary, 4-mile layout, deleting the long front and middle straights to concentrate on the tighter, more technical back half of the course. This altered layout highlighted the revised XR's handling prowess without drawing undue attention to its lowly 125-mph top speed. It's a brave OEM that chooses a racetrack debut for a 550-pound streetbike, but to Harley's credit, the XR-X negotiated the road course remarkably well. The engineering team did an excellent job of juggling the XR's geometry to deliver a surprisingly neutral-handling and agile machine, with none of the floppy turn-in or mid-corner wallow you would expect from a bike with a 60-inch wheelbase and 29 degrees of rake.

Give credit to the upgraded Showa suspension for keeping what could be a runaway train firmly under control. Run the XR-X hard into Road America's famous Canada Corner and the firmer Big Piston Fork resists bottoming and reduces forward weight transfer, providing vastly more predictable, controlled corner entries. More reactive damping at both ends pays dividends in fast spots like the long and bumpy Carousel, and helps keep the Sportster chassis, with its rubber-mounted engine/swingarm assemblage, from tying itself into knots.

Specially designed Dunlop Qualifier D209 tires-"painstakingly developed" for this bike-provide more than enough grip, and quickly reveal limited cornering clearance. Footpegs touch early and often, followed by the kickstand on the left and the exhaust on the right. "It sounds like a frickin' machine shop out there," commented one photographer after the first track session, as we all did our best to improve on Harley's claimed 40 degrees of cornering clearance by grinding the footpegs away a little at a time.

Ride away from the track, however, and those low, rearset pegs and wide, dirt-track-bend handlebars describe a commanding riding position that's perfect for spirited street riding. And the backroads really are where this bike belongs, despite the race-ready Showa suspension, the racy XR prefix and all those stripped-down doppelgangers competing in the new AMA Vance & Hines XR1200 spec racing series. Harley-Davidson can crow all it wants about racing heritage and race-bred performance, but the XR1200X is fundamentally a streetbike-and a very satisfying one at that.

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