2011 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200X Review

Back on home soil ... Again!


Ask and ye shall receive.

The squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Good things come to those who wait.

Patience is a virtue…

Those cliché adages sum up perfectly the American motorcycle market’s experience with a specific Harley-Davidson model: the XR1200.

When Harley announced in late ’07 the XR1200 as a 2008 European-only model, the decision seemed confounding to Americans who couldn’t buy the Americana-infused XR.

Here’s the XR1200 that we didn’t get first.

First and foremost because it is, after all, a Harley-Davidson; secondly because its styling is directly inspired by the iconic XR750, Harley’s famous, purpose-built flat-track dominator.

It seemed crazy the States wouldn’t see this “all-American” machine. However, sensible marketing logic was behind excluding the XR1200 from the U.S. market.

As we’ve noted in numerous reviews, the European sport-standard segment is remarkably stronger than is the same segment in the U.S. For reasons not very well understood, we just don’t seem to have an appetite for the nakeds and standards.

Despite this reality of poor sales for sport-standards in the U.S., Harley said it heard enough requests for the XR from its home market, and so by the end of 2008 the Milwaukee-based company introduced the XR1200 for America as a 2009 model.

Now we, too, get the new XR1200X that was first released in Europe. For 2011 the X model will come in White Hot Denim or Black Denim colors and will replace the XR1200.

As something of a cautious homage to the original XR750, the XR1200 saw an initial limited run of only 750 units. Hurray for us anyway!

However, only one year later we were back in that “Europe first” loop.

For 2010 the European market received the XR1200X: an XR with uprated suspension and some additional touchups. American XR owners could have the same suspension package, but only as an optional kit on the order of $1500. Dang.

Welcome home! Round two

Finally, we, too, will now have the XR1200X. It’s the first release of Harley’s 2011 models and it’s slated to hit dealers by this August.

The X model trades the XR1200’s 43mm non-adjustable inverted fork for Showa’s fully adjustable 43mm Big Piston Fork, first seen in wide release on the ’09 ZX-6R. Also swapped out are the fairly basic twin coil-over shocks in favor of fully adjustable 36mm Showa shocks.

The front half of the XR’s suspension consists of Showa’s Big Piston Fork.The new Showa shocks retain ramp-style preload adjustment, but the simple compression damping adjustment dial atop the piggyback reservoir(s) is handy.

Also easy to access is the rebound damping adjustment screw found at the bottom of the shock. One caveat: the exhaust impedes access to the right-side shock’s rebound adjuster, so it’s not as easily reached as the left side.

Although the XR-X still employs the same powerful dual, four-piston Nissin calipers from the previous XR model, the 292mm rotors are now of the floating variety.

The spirited 1200cc Sportster engine in the X model gets the black-out treatment, as does the dual upswept exhaust system that’s reminiscent of the XR750’s high pipes. The XR1200’s engine and exhaust were finished in a silvery color.

Orange pinstripes for the three-spoke cast aluminum wheels round out the cosmetic updates.

But perhaps best of all is the X’s MSRP of $11,799, a $1000 increase over the XR1200 model. Recall that the same suspension that’s now on the X model was last year offered as a $1500 upgrade for the standard XR.

The X model’s engine and exhaust are all black, creating a more cohesive appearance, especially on the Black Denim color scheme.

Also worth noting, the XR1200X model will replace the XR1200 in 2011.

An American track for an American bike

Harley-Davidson chose a street-only setting for the December 2008 press launch of the XR1200; but for the X’s launch it was wheels up on a famous American racetrack!

New fully adjustable Showa coil-over shocks offer easy access to compression damping via the simple dial atop the piggyback nitrogen reservoir. Rebound adjuster is at the shocks’ mount point.
Brake rotors are now floating type. The XR-X retains the dual four-piston caliper set from the XR1200.

Road America, located in the lush countryside of Elkhart Lake, Wis., – about an hour north of Harley’s Milwaukee home – was the venue where American motopress would sample the X. This track was also the first stop in a five-race schedule for the AMA Vance & Hines XR1200 Series.

We ran an abbreviated version of the 14-turn, 4-mile-long circuit, as there was little point in subjecting the XR and its 7K-rpm redline to Road America’s long front straight.

As it was, while in top gear (5th) with the throttle twisted to the stop, the rev limiter routinely cut in to limit my top speed to around 122 mph on the shorter straight between turns 11 and 12. The thing to take away from my rev-limiter-bouncing is that although the XR’s gearing is a wee bit short for track use, this means it has close to ideal gearing for street riding.

While on the subject of redline, the XR-X wasn’t too keen on high-rpm clutch-less upshifts.

The gearbox often resisted such shifting shenanigans, and generally it felt sticky. But on this issue I’m giving it a pass, as the big flywheel in the Twin means lots of engine momentum, which in turn can contribute to lunky shifting. But this isn’t news for a Harley.

Also, most of the bikes we rode displayed low three-digit figures on the odometer. Additional miles might see the trans loosen up.

Best shifting practice was to shift as infrequently as possible. Instead I let the Sportster’s copious low-end torque and large flywheel action dig me out of slower turns.

In 2008 I was impressed by the strong initial bite from the Harley-branded Nissin brakes.

The powerful binders are more than sufficient for street duty, but hauling down the X’s claimed running-order weight of 573 pounds (as well as extra weight from the rider!) from racetrack speeds proved taxing for the brakes.

The closing laps of a 20-min session usually meant some brake fade, and a four-finger grab on the lever in order get the XR-X slowed enough at the end of the aforementioned back straight.

If you plan to take your X model to the track (or XR for that matter), a simple swap to race-compound pads should serve well to improve feel and power. If you’ll only ever ride the streets and canyons, then the XR-X has all the brake you could desire.

Something else Road America revealed about the XR was the bike’s limited lean angles. Of course, this wasn’t a big surprise, as even assertive street riding will result in the long-ish footpeg feelers scraping.

Nevertheless, feeling and hearing the lower exhaust heat shield touch down during the long right-hander (Turn 10), known as the Carousel, was a disquieting experience.

Although the XR1200X is reasonably eager to turn and provides good handling, in stock form shallow lean angles are the limiting factor to white-hot lap times. Note the minimum clearance between the lower exhaust heat shield and the track surface. Scrape!

In the time between the first XR’s appearance over two years ago and now, surely Harley would’ve heard enough bellyaching from riders and reviewers about limited ground clearance. It’s a wonder then why The Motor Company didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to increase clearance on the X model, especially in light of its improved performance parameters thanks to the new suspension.

Despite good grip and feedback from the Dunlop Qualifier D209 tires, I wasn’t in a hurry to lever them off the ground by way of grinding the exhaust header into the track surface. These lean-angle annoyances aside, we must remember the XR-X is a streetbike, not a race-prepped supersport.

With that in mind, I must give due credit to how easily the X bike set into turns considering its ready-to-ride weight mentioned above along with its un-sportbike-like 60.0-inch wheelbase. Transitioning from left to right required deliberate action, but leverage offered from the XR’s wide handlebar helped reduce steering input effort.

On the subject of the new suspension, I was content with its performance.

Damping qualities and spring rates seemed perfectly suited for my weight (geared up, roughly 170 lbs) and abilities. Stability was sufficient, as was front-end feedback. However, I can say – again considering weight and skill level – the XR1200 was also up to the task of track duty.

I seized the opportunity to ride an XR1200 back-to-back with the new X model. Although the new BPF front-end and improved shocks provided a moderately firmer feel, the standard suspension on the XR12 wasn’t far off pace in terms of stability and damping quality.Despite the reality that the XR1200X isn’t ideally suited for racetrack duties, caning a street bike powered by a big Harley Sportster engine around Road America provided endless entertainment.

Although the previous model’s suspension performed well enough for me on the track, it’s likely a heavier or much more aggressive rider would give a different report and thereby see big benefits from the X model’s adjustable springy parts.

I also took the opportunity to do a 75-mile or so street ride aboard the 2011 XR1200X.

Suspension action was forgiving without sacrificing feel, and it generally provided a decent ride over even the crummiest sections of pavement. All this performance without ever having tweaked suspension settings speaks highly of the upgrades on the new XR1200X.

Small price to pay

The new XR1200X brings the ability to fine-tune suspension adjustments, and as such most riders will find they can resolve most individual handling issues they might encounter on this sportiest of the Sportsters. For this reason alone I cannot conjure a good reason to lament the X’s added cost.

With this latest update to the modern XR series, we can once more thank our motorcycle-loving European brethren (sisters, too, I suppose).

Back on home soil: the 2011 Harley-Davidson XR1200X.

Though it seemed a little odd we were runner-up for an American motorcycle with such an iconic American appearance, I guess, as the saying goes, it was worth the wait, even the second time.

Related Reading
2009 Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200 Review
AMA Vance & Hines XR1200 Series
AMA XR1200: Road America results
Ducati Monster 1100 vs. Harley-Davidson Sportster XR1200
2010 Harley-Davidson Sportster Forty-Eight Review
2010 Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Low Review
All Things Harley-Davidson on Motorcycle.com

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