Harley Davidson XR1200 Ride Review

I should have posted this earlier, but Chris Chornbe took a ride on the Harley XR1200 Sportster, and he gives a comprehensive report on the newest Sporty experience.  He concludes:

This bike is best suited for those who want a Harley-Davidson branded motorcycle, yet also want a bike that is fast, handles well and is a real competitor for sport-oriented riders. It isn’t the best available in its class, but yeah… it’s serious and it’s well worth a look.

Given the non-adjustable suspension that is good enough but needs work for enthusiasts, the ride comfort, features and aftermarket support – if I had to buy a twin-powered naked, I would opt for the Buell (for similar money), or the smaller Ducati (for less money) and forego this bike, simply on price and its lack of better suspension. But hey… it’s a Harley! And that is not an insignificant point of fact. It ooozes Harley sexiness while still being something of a new breed. It’s a good bike. Period.

Read the whole thing.

Another R1200RT Test Ride

I took a trip down to San Diego BMW Motorrad today to see what kind of deal they’d give me on a R1200RT, so I could compare and contrast it to North County BMW.  Turns out that they want to do a deal a little more than North County does.  Not only did they offer me a black RT with a couple of more options than the one at NC BMW, they offered me more for the FJR, and came up with a deal that cost $900 less.  So, if I buy one of these things, I think San Diego BMW is the place to go.

Anyway, while I was there, they offered to let me take another RT test ride, which, of course, I did.

This time, since we were in the urban setting of San Diego, I did some different things with the bike, and tried out some of the options a bit more, so I could get a better feel for the details, instead of the overall impression, like I did last week.

Handling in the city was still fantastic, of course.  For a 571 lb bike, it really is flickable.  On the FJR, I feel like I need to lean down a bit over the tank to lower my center of gravity a bit to get the bike into a more maneuverable attitude.  That just isn’t necessary with the RT.

I went down the long open stretch of Kearny Villa Road.  There’s no cross traffic, it has a 65MPH speed limit, and it’s a bit of a bumpy road for some reason.  It was the perfect place to try out the ESA option.  On the sport setting, the suspension transmitted every bump in the road right to the seat of your pants.  But push the ESA button to set it to “Comfort”, wait about 10 seconds for the suspension to adjust, and all the little bumps in the pavement just disappear.  It had a really nice, smooth ride, even on a relatively bumpy stretch of road.  So, the ESA really does work as advertised.

I also found an empty parking lot to try out some slow-speed maneuvering in.  The handling of the RT shines just as well at slow-speed, tight maneuvers as it does on the twisties.  Give it some gas, find the friction point on the clutch, apply some trail-braking, and you can do lock-to-lock figures 8 with no problem at all.

This is in sharp counterpoint to my FJR AE.  Since the AE has an auto-clutch, you have to keep the RPMs above 2500, and apply lots of trail braking.  This really requires very fine throttle control, because if you let the RPMs drop too low, the clutch kicks in, and your trail-braking is instantly transformed to “stop now” braking, right in the middle of your lean.  This is not a good thing.   At very slow speeds, the RT is supremely controllable in comparison.

I really can see why cops love the RT as a police bike.  It’s very confidence-inspiring, and makes you look like a better rider than you are.  It rewards you for doing the fundamentals right, and doesn’t require you to learn quirky little compensatory riding habits to make up for the bike’s shortcomings.

Airflow management is quite a lot better than the FJR.  Even with my Scorpion EXO-1000, which is a sort of noisy helmet, the RT is noticeably quieter with the windshield at the lowest position.  At highway speeds, you can bring the windscreen up to the point where the wind noise almost goes completely away.

I really like the boxer engine.  The I-4 powerplant certainly has it’s charms, but the boxer has a lot going for it, too.  It has a really low center of gravity, which makes the bike easier to pick up, hold up, and maneuver.  The noticeable torque and low-speed vibration gives the bike a much more visceral feel, but wind it up, and the balancers kick in, the vibration goes away, and it feels much more like an I-4 powerplant than a twin.  It seems like a better motorcycle powerplant than the V-Twin does, because the weight distribution is more friendly for a motorcycle, because it’s down so low.

I fiddled with the rear-view mirrors with a little more rigor this time, and got them aimed properly.  I’m still not overjoyed about seeing the handlebars in the top of the mirror, and the top of the saddlebags at the bottom, but once they are adjusted properly, they give you an acceptable field of view at whats going on behind you.  At speed, they are rock-steady.  And their placement is part of the RT’s terrific wind management, so they perform an additional useful purpose, keeping your hands out of the airstream, unlike the FJR.

Street performance on the RT seems similar to the FJR AE, with a couple of exceptions.  From a standing start, the FJR responds much quicker off the line–although that could be just my unfamiliarity with the clutch on the RT, which would improve pretty quickly.  They both seem to hit 50MPH in about the same time, according to the “One Missisippi, Two Mississipi…” Timing method.

The FJR has taller gears, however, and doesn’t need to shift into second gear until about 60+ MPH or so.  The RT hits the rev limiter in 1st at just slightly above 50 MPH in first.  The RT’s 60-80MPH roll-on in 4th gear takes about 3.5 seconds.    The FJR AE does it in about the same time in 5th gear.

Interestingly, the better air management on the RT doesn’t give you the same feel of acceleration as the FJR does.  The RT is doing pretty much the same thing, stoplight-to-stoplight, as the FJR AE, but it feels less dramatic doing it.

“Dramatic” is a good word to describe the difference between the bikes.  I think that comes as a result of different design philosophies.  BMW puts a premium on rider comfort, while Yamaha puts a higher priority to giving you a more sporty feel.  So, when you do X on the Yamaha, the bike seems to be saying “Woo Hoo!  Isnt this fun?!”  When you do it on the BMW, the bike says, “Well, we are proceeding at quite a clip, aren’t we?  You comfy enough?  That nasty wind isn’t bothering you, is it?”  The FJR has drama.  The BMW doesn’t.

They’re equally fun, but the fun comes in different ways.  The RT really is about the handling.  It acts like it wants to lean into the turn for you.  It’s as if the RT senses what you want to do, and then does it instantly.  The FJR, on the other hand, wants to be told what to do.  It wants you to dominate it, and it rewards you with the gratification of accomplishment in making it do your will.  In short, the RT is a sub, the FJR is a dom.

And there’s lots of fun in exploring both of those personalities.

Yakima PD Dumps Harley

Harley-Davidson has seen a lot of competition for the police bike market over the last few years, most notably from BMW, starting with the R1100RT-P to R1200RT-P.  Honda has been making inroads on Harley’s market share, too.

Yakima, Washington is now is the latest police agency to dump the Harley bikes they’ve been riding, to switch to the Honda ST1300-P.

The California Highway Patrol’s dismissal of the HD bikes in favor of the R1100RT-P back in 1997 was the first major blow to harley’s dominance of this market in the US–although Kawasaki had made some inroads with the CHP with the Kawasaki 1000 Police Bike.  And once the CHP made the switch, most other agencies went along with it too, either wholly or in part.  And, since California tends to be a trendsetter in police operations, as in popular culture, that gave BMW a big and continuing boost with agencies all across the country.

It’s difficult to see how the MoCo reverses this trend with their current lineup of bikes.  Police bikes generally have to do things that civilian bikes usually don’t. As Yakima PD spokesman Sgt. Gary Jones puts it:

“We have to be able to go over the curb, sidewalk ditches and [the] low ground clearance on Harley got hung up on breaking the stand kicks,” said Sgt. Jones.

Apparently, reliability was an issue to, as the (poorly written) story notes:

Riding more than 50,000 miles [per year], officers say, the Harley Davidson’s only lasted a few years and maintenance was costly. Agility is a top priority for the way police use motorcycles.

The trouble with Harley’s touring bikes, which are the generally used models for police purposes, is that they reflect design trends of 60 years ago.  Now that’s something about which HD is proud, and it’s also a key selling point for their rider community.  But that very design makes them, in the modern world, less suitable for police use when more up-to-date bikes are available, with their shorter wheelbases, higher ground clearance, lighter weight (not that the ST1300 is a lightweight bike by any means), and significantly better handling and performance.

The Buell division does make the Ulysess available in a police model, and that seems like a fine choice, especially for rural agencies, where dual-sport capability might be a positive point.  But it’s not particularly well suited for a daily urban environment, sine the bike’s tall height is somewhat inconvenient for constant stop and go riding.

What HD does have going for it the tendency among some government agencies to buy American, but that’s solely a political, not technical decision. Having been a Harley owner, and having ridden the Sportster, Road King, and ElectraGlide, I’d take the R1200RT over those bikes any day if performance and handling ability are a major criterion.

It’s hard to see how the MoCo stays competitive in this market over the long term–except, of course, for the politics of “Buy American”.