Do I Want a Buell XB12S or a Harley-Davidson XR1200 Sportster?

John Burns
by John Burns
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Ask MO Anything: To Buell or Not to Buell?

Dear MOby,

Help. I can’t decide if I want a new (to me) Buell XB12S or an XR1200 Sportster. Prices seem to be roughly equivalent (cheap!), and they both appeal to slightly different parts of my medulla oblongata. What do you think?

Feeling Sporty

Dear Sporty,

A highly placed ex-executive within Buell answered thus: “Well, that would depend on whether you wanted light weight and super handling, or wanted to hang out at a biker bar, wouldn’t it?”

It’s not quite that simple, but… according to this little 2009 comparison involving the XR1200 (and a Ducati Monster), H-D claimed a dry weight of 562 pounds for its bike, which made 79.2 horses at 6950 rpm on our dyno and 66.6 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.

Meanwhile, in this 2006 shootout involving the Buell XB12S Long, that bike – using Buell’s heavily revised version of the same basic 1200 Sportster V-Twin – produced 91 hp at the back wheel, with 73 lb-ft of torque. More significant than the power difference, though, is the weight one: Buell claimed a dry weight of just 400 pounds for its aluminum-framed XB.

In any contest of speed, then, given equal riders, the Buell should be able to wipe the floor with the XR, but if it’s not about speed, then it’s totally up to you. With its new alloy swingarm and adjustable Showa 43mm inverted cartridge fork, the XR was the sportiest (by far) Sportster to date when it got to the U.S. in 2009 (it was actually released in Europe a year earlier), and I think most of us could agree the XR is still the sportiest Sportster. Many of us would even agree it’s the best-looking Sportster.

do i want a buell xb12s or a harley davidson xr1200 sportster

H-D in fact borrowed a few parts from Buell, including camshafts, in an effort to close the performance gap. While the XR motor didn’t achieve Buell performance levels, it did make a bunch more power than the other Sportsters. With really good cornering clearance and powerful dual front disc brakes, it’s also a seriously fun motorcycle to ride aggressively.

Still, 30% more weight than the Buell and lazier geometry – 130 millimeters of trail and a 60-inch wheelbase versus 83mm trail and a 52-inch one – mean the XR is going to feel like a sport-tourer ridden back to back with the Buell. We’ve got nothing against sport-touring. If you carry a passenger a lot, the XR has more room. (Matter of fact, the Buell XB12S Long mentioned above was an answer to criticism that the original XB was too compact for long rides two-up.) If you want a sport bike to chase the GSX-Rs, you want the Buell. If you want one to cruise around on with your BFF on back in search of a nice ceviche, the XR is probably the more reasonable choice.

What do we know? I think both bikes are going to be collectible at some point, as people recognize the error of their ways – the Harley for being the sportiest Sportster ever and for paying respect to the mighty XR dirt tracker that inspired it; the Buell for being a somewhat rare and delectable high-tech artifact of one man’s inspiring success in bucking the system. They’re both surprisingly practical, everyday rideable, easily maintainable plain old fun-to-ride motorcycles. At these prices, maybe one of each?

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John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 39 comments
  • Monfort lane Monfort lane on Jan 21, 2018

    Buells are a torture rack for larger humans, There should be criminal penalties for HD making the XR 573 lbs. I've test ridden both. the Buell was so painful I hardly got back from the ride without stopping from a disabling leg cramp.The XR is a grin machine and in typical Harley style the weight disappears over 3mph.You can cut weight from an easy 50 lbs thru exhaust and wheels, A custom builder claims 25 more lbs by converting to carb. Another claims to have cut over 100 lbs. See Phaedrus' Stuff for weights of stock pieces. Steve Storz gets stock Sporties down to 474 lbs, streettracker style. Choose yer 'paisin' and spend what you want to GEt what you want. Stop when broke or satisfied.

  • Kevin Kevin on Mar 05, 2018

    Go to YouTube and watch the AMA Vance &Hines road race series and all XR1200 racing in Europe. A new exhaust, tuner and a K&N. I live in South Florida so my XR works for me. I see a shit load of Buells but I have only seen maybe? The Dania Beach Vintage show was about a month ago. Out of at least 750 bikes parked in the parking lot. Walking around looking at bikes is just as fun as the show. Most of the XRs I have seen are trackbikes.