2012 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special | First Ride

New and improved nasty

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Nelson

With its drag strip stance, Pro Stock pedigree and black-x-infinity color scheme, the Night Rod Special is the nastiest bike in Harley-Davidson’s lineup. And unlike the Milwaukee manufacturer’s air-cooled offerings that are more bark than bite, the liquid-cooled V-Rod packs a legitimate performance punch. With its 1250cc Revolution V-twin delivering a claimed 125 horsepower and a fat, 240-width rear tire to put that power to pavement, this V-Rod hits like a hammer out of the hole. For Harley haters who insist The Motor Company knows performance like the Golden Arches know haute cuisine, the Night Rod Special is a Supersized helping of shut the hell up.

Though often overshadowed by Harley-Davidson’s more traditional offerings, the high-tech V-Rod lineup still sells well. Especially the Night Rod Special that particularly attracts the young, under 35 “core competitive” customers that Harley-Davidson wants so badly to lure away from competing brands. With this goal in mind, H-D design staff tightened up the Night Rod Special for 2012 with sharper styling, better handling and more comfortable ergonomics that make the black knight more attractive to an even wider range of riders.

This is the first aesthetic update since the V-Rod’s introduction 10 years ago. The original whale tail has been binned in favor of a flat track-inspired “fastback” to show off more of that fat Michelin Scorcher rear tire. This is topped with another of Harley-Davidson’s DOT-defying minimalist taillight designs and hung with a pared-down license plate hanger. At the other end a reshaped headlight capped with a postage stamp-sized speed screen replaces the old mini-bullet fairing. Every piece of trim is blacked out except for the brushed-steel muffler sleeves. The result is a sleeker, faster, lighter-looking muscle bike.

A new inverted fork from Showa presents a bulkier, broad-shouldered look, and a slightly reduced rake angle tucks the front wheel in tighter for an aggressive, snub-nosed stance. Though it looks more brawny, new ergonomics make this latest Night Rod Special more compact and easier to handle than before. The c-clamp riding position that defined the previous NRS looked tough but limited the number of riders that comfortably fit the bike—it was literally a stretch for anyone under 6 feet tall. Pulling the low drag bar back 3 inches and moving the footpegs 1 inch closer to the rider has made the Night Rod Special accessible to average-sized riders. And if you can’t deal with the conventional, feet-forward cruiser position, Ducati Diavel-style mid-mount foot controls are an available option—though we didn’t have an opportunity to test this set-up.

The more compact riding position also lets riders make better use of body positioning to steer the bike, making it easier to exploit this year’s stiffer fork and other chassis updates. These include new split 5-spoke cast aluminum wheels that slash rotating weight by almost 9 pounds, making the Night Rod Special more responsive to steering inputs and quicker to accelerate than ever before. Handling is credible for a sport cruiser, though excessive compression damping in the retuned rear shocks makes hard hits a bit jarring. Harley-Davidson would benefit from benchmarking the 17-inch-diameter, 240-series rear tire Ducati uses on its Diavel power cruiser, which isn’t nearly as bossy as the flatter-profile, 18-inch 240 fit to the Night Rod Special. The Harley’s low-speed handling is high-effort, and a slight self-righting tendency demands constant bar pressure to keep the bike turning on the desired trajectory at elevated velocities.

Straight stretches of pavement approximately 1320 feet in length are the Night Rod Special’s native habitat, however, and that’s where you best appreciate the 1250cc, DOHC, four-valve V-twin engine as well. The Revolution engine isn’t as overwhelmingly torquey as a traditional, long-stroke V-twin cruiser motor, trading low-rev lunge for a racy, revvy character that really comes alive on the upper half of the tach. Experienced sportbike riders feel right at home on the V-Rod. Run it out to redline in every gear and you’ll be rewarded with unexpectedly brisk acceleration for a nearly 700-pound bike, and a soundtrack worthy of a superbike. The clunky, 5-speed gearbox isn’t on the same level as this charismatic motor, however. The clutch engagement zone is narrow and at the absolute end of the lever travel, and the transmission makes a discordant grinding sound each time a new gear is taken up. The slipper-clutch mechanism works well, however—a good thing with such a big, grippy tire at the business end of the drivetrain.

Not only does the Night Rod Special offer better performance and more sinister styling than anything else in Harley-Davidson’s otherwise retro-minded line, at $15,299 it’s also among the most affordable non-Sportster offerings. Now with better fit and improved handling to boot, there’s never been a better time for so-called “conquest” buyers to wander through the local Harley dealer’s door.

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H-D needs to put the Revolution engine in the XR1200 - then they would have an excellent heavy standard.

Of course, it would still be sold at H-D dealerships, with all the negative baggage that brings for those not wanting to join the H-D "Lifestyle".
A successful diet perhaps?
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