Smackdown in Chi-Town

Milwaukee Iron Comparo

It is cliché, but it is also generally true: you can only compare a Harley to another Harley. Comparisons to other brands usually miss the point. Harleys are not bikes sold from the specification sheet. Rather they are desired, dreamed about, and obsessed over. The purchase of a Harley is never a rational purchase, at least to the extent that any motorcycle purchase is. Riding a Harley-Davidson addresses an emotional need, one that is shared with generations of riders. As a result, the copycats come off looking a bit anemic.  Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but it makes for weak motorcycles. Maybe not from a specification standpoint, but they do lack passion and authenticity.

Stand out in a crowd?On the other hand, buying a Harley does not enter you into any kind of brotherhood. You're a fool if you think it does. Nor does it make you a rebel or an independent spirit. You've either got that in you or you don't. If you're an insecure, arrogant prick when you go into the dealership, you're an insecure, arrogant prick on a Harley when you leave. What Harley does offer the buyer is a solid, classic motorcycle with real history; a history that you can -- in some way -- feel a part of. One that is both good and bad, gritty and sad, inspiring and depressing. How that history informs your riding experience is up to you.

So we're agreed that Harleys can only be compared to one another. Let's start comparing. Your humble servants at MO have set up the battle royale of the Juneau Avenue product line; a Milwaukee iron cage fight, if you will. Something we like to call "Smackdown in Chitown."

    Three engines

  • Evolution Sportster
  • Revolution
  • Twin Cam

    Four displacements

  • 883 cc
  • 1200 cc
  • 1130 cc
  • 1450 cc (1584 for '07)

    Five frames

  • Sportster
  • Dyna
  • Softail
  • Electra Glide
  • V-Rod

It's a great time to buy a Harley-Davidson. The long lines are gone. Most models are available on demand and added dealer mark ups (aka. gouging) need not be tolerated. Reliability is rock solid, as is resale value. Plus H-D offers the most diverse line of motorcycles in their history. By the numbers:

Under the `L' in Chicago.But which one to buy? That's where MO comes in. We suffer so you don't have to. We started to pare our choices down by tossing out the big touring bikes. If you need an Electra Glide, you need an Electra Glide; nothing else will address that Jones. Then we threw out the chrome poser wagons known as Softails, the bikes we all love to hate. That leaves us with three frames, three engines and four displacements. Just to make things even we eliminated the smaller displacement Sportster from the mix, which left us with a perfect three-three-three.

Next we had to pick from the many models within each platform. From the Rod family we picked the new-for-2006 Night Rod, from the Sporty line a 1200R Roadster and a new Dyna Street Bob rounded out the group. We conducted the comparison in the Midwest: Evo Don's town of Chicago to be precise. We enlisted Longride from down the street and asked Gabe to fly out to the Windy City from his Oakland, CA home.

To put the bikes through their paces we tried to hit them with everything a typical rider would. We took the bikes through downtown Chicago on city streets, back alleys and scenic Lake Shore Drive - from the Museum of Science and Industry in the South to Wrigley Field up north. Then we headed out onto 80 mph toll roads and into the suburbs - we even went to Home Depot and a few dozen Starbucks, all the time dodging SUV drivers. Finally, your intrepid motojournalists rode all the way down to the Peoria TT dirt track race on two-lane country roads. We watched the race and then tried to hotwire a few bikes. Sound like a typical week of riding in your neck of the woods? Thought so!

What about test criteria? How do we judge these bikes against one another? Do we focus on fit and finish? Reliability? Comfort? Performance? Sex appeal? How about all of those distilled down to the essential: "What would you buy with your own money?"

Frame Year Revision Engine Year CC's
XL (Sportster) 1957 2004 Evolution 1986 1200
FXD (Dyna Glide) 1991 2006 Twin Cam 88 1999 1450
VRSC (Rod) 2002 2002 Revolution 2002 1130

What bike would you want to live with, commute on, and work on? Here's how we answered that question.

Third Place VRSCD Night Rod 

Out in the soybean fields of Illinois. With a motorcycle, as its very name implies, the motor is the thing. The powerplant makes or breaks a great bike. A great engine can excuse a multitude on shortcomings in suspension, handling, and comfort. If a rider falls in love with an engine, the rest of the motorcycle is just so much metal. The Revolution is just such an engine. It is a monster. It has a great vibe and gives you wonderful feedback. It's delightfully powerful and always predictable in its delivery of grunt, not to mention an amazing exhaust note when you get on it.

Luckily the V-Rod chassis needs no excuses. Stiff is the word. Long and low are a couple others. The VRSCs are unique motorcycle animals. Not really cruisers, not sport bikes, but with elements of both. The original V-Rod had forward controls and a mondo rake; great for cruising but poor for turning. The second VRSC was the Street Rod. It dialed up the performance with upside down forks, a tighter rake and well-positioned foot pegs. This time around the Night Rod lands somewhere in between the other two. We think the result is the best combination yet.

Model Ground Clear Rake / Fork Trail Seat Height Lean Angles
Street Rod 6.7 in. 30° / 32° 4.3 in. 31.0 in. 40° / 40°
Night Rod 5.0 in. 34° / 36° 4.6 in. 27.1 in. 32° / 32°
V-Rod 5.0 in. 34° / 38° 3.9 in. 27.1 in. 32° / 32°

Brembos are never a bad idea. While the Night Rod rides quite differently from the V-Rod, the specs don't seem to bear that impression out. Looking at the table, the Night Rod is basically a V-Rod with mid-mounted controls. But that change in riding position makes a world of difference. It should be noted however, that even though the lean angles are listed as identical, the mid controls position your foot to hit the ground well before the pegs. So unless you like riding with your boot on top of your shift lever, you have even less usable lean angle on the Night Rod.

The low-slung, dragster look draws J.Q. Public like a bug zapper. During the test, there were many queries as to how the Night Rod rides, how much it costs, and then the interrogators would tell us how they would really like to get one. The Rod brothers are all attention getters, but Night seems to draw the most attention.

The brakes are all Brembo. One-finger Italian stopping power is always a good idea. Riding the Night Rod is a wonderful experience. The bars are low and a bit forward and, combined with the stepped seat, put you in a perfect riding position for anything from cruising to blasting down the freeway.

Longride catches a Cubs game The power really comes on at four grand. Below that mark some lean fuel mixture stumbles creep in. A Power Commander and freer-flowing pipes would do amazing things to this already powerful machine. The seat is comfy enough to place your behind for a tank full of miles, mostly because that tank of petrol won't get you too far. After about 100 miles you need to look for a fill up, pronto. If you like to twist the throttle hard -- and you will enjoy that on this one -- you might start looking a few miles earlier.

It has its pegs under the seat in the traditional position, as well as a set of highway pegs for stretching your legs. And stretch them you will at times, because with that low seat, the legroom is short and the cornering clearance is, too. With those low pegs there is just no way to get all the way to the edges of the 190 rear tire without some hard parts seriously throwing sparks. We never felt very comfortable cornering hard because there is no spare lean angle on this Rod. The toes on your boots are the first things that touch, and then the frame isn't far behind. If aggressive cornering and carving is your thing, the Night Rod isn't your best choice; brother Street addresses that need. However, for everyday riding it's a good choice.

Gabe's Impressive Table of Impressions

Styling/Build Quality: Painting the aluminum parts on this bike is a visual mistake; it looks too bland and generic. The bare aluminum on the original V-Rod gave the bike a visual center to bring the eye to; this bike just looks like a big, long cruiser. Build quality, fit and finish and attention to detail are all world class. Touches like the freeway pegs and bikini faring are slick and well-appreciated.

Ergos/Controls: The bike is actually as comfortable and easy to sit on as most any other cruiser, horror stories about the V-Rod aside. The mid-mount controls and low seat create a jockey-like riding situation, but if you are jockey-sized (like me!) it's actually pretty nice, although even my knees started to cramp after a while. Firefighter-sized people might want a bike with forward controls. The fairing and low bars actually provide a little wind protection to 80 mpg.

Motor/Transmission: Compared to any other brand of motorcycle, this motor is pretty nice, a good compromise between a screaming top-end racer and a chugging tractor. Compared to air-cooled Harley motors, it's flabbergasting.

It is smooth, perfectly fueled and makes an amazing amount of power. This powerplant has tremendous potential and I can't wait to see what else the Motor Co. does with it. My only complaint is the amazing amount of heat that bakes your right leg at stops.

Handling: It's long and low and lacks cornering clearance but it does have a rigid chassis, so it holds its line well. Like the other bikes, it's slow steering, but with modern wheels and tires it's quicker and easier than its bros.

Suspension/Ride Quality: The front is good (although the extreme rake minimizes the advantages of the giant forks), but the rear is typical cruiser; not so much travel and harsh over bumps and expansion joints.

Braking: Like the motor, the brakes are good enough to check the name on the tank. These triple Brembos have enough power and sensitivity for a mere single-finger stop, although stoppies might be unobtainable for now.

Observed fuel economy: Highway 40.79 mpg, City 34.13 mpg

Evo Don's last word: While it is clearly the most advanced and powerful bike in the group (and I want one), the sticker shock of the Night Rod killed its chances against this competition.


Length: 93.0 in. (2363.0 mm)

Seat Height: Laden 26.0 in. (660.4 mm), Unladen 27.1 in. (668.3 mm)

Ground Clearance: 5.0 in. (127.0 mm)

Rake 34°, Fork Angle 36°, Trail 4.6 in. (116.3 mm)

Wheelbase: 66.9 in. (1699.8 mm)

Tires: Dunlop® Harley-Davidson Series

Front - D207F 120/70ZR-19 60W

Rear - D207F 180/55ZR-18 74W

Fuel Capacity: 3.7 gal. (14.0 L)
No reserve due to fuel injection

Oil Capacity: 4.5 qts. (4.3 L)

Dry Weight: 607 lbs. (276 kg)

Vehicle Weight in Running Order: 629 lbs. (286 kg)

Gross Vehicle Weight Rating: 1022 lbs. (464 kg)


Engine: Liquid-cooled, Revolution®, 60° V-Twin

Bore x Stroke: 3.94 in. x 2.84 in. (100.0 mm x 72.0 mm)

Displacement: 69 cu. in. (1130 cu. cm)

Compression Ratio: 11.3:1

Fuel System: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection

Air Cleaner: Down draft intake - hidden

Lubrication System: Wet-sump, integrated w/powertrain crankcase


Primary Drive: Gear, 117/64 ratio

Final Drive: Belt, 72/28 ratio (72/30 ratio)

Clutch: 9-plate, wet

Transmission: 6-speed

Overall Ratio: 1st 11.752 (10.969), 2nd 7.898 (7.371), 3rd 6.322 (5.900), 4th 5.459 (5.095), 5th 4.899 (4.563)


Frame: Steel perimeter upper frame w/hydroformed main rails and bolt-on lower frame rails, MIG welded. Swingarm: Polished, 1-piece cast aluminum

Front Fork: 49 mm custom fork

Rear Shocks: Coil-over shock

Wheels: aluminum, 10-spoke option

Front - 19 in. x 3.0 in. (482.6 mm x 76.2 mm)

Rear - 18 in. x 5.5 in. (457.2 mm x 139.7 mm)

Brakes: 4-piston front and rear
Front Rotor: dual, 11.81 in. x .197 in. (299.97 mm x 5.0 mm), Rear Rotor: 11.81 in. x .276 in. (299.97 mm x 7.01 mm)

Suspension Travel:

Front & Rear Wheels: 4.0 in. (106.60 mm)


Engine Torque: 80 ft. lbs. @ 7000 rpm (109 NM)

Lean Angle: Right: 32°, Left: 32°

MPG: 37 urban/470 highway (6.4/5.0 L/100 km)

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