Ask any CWstaffer to compose a master list of favorite motorcycles and you’re likely to find a sporty standard-style bike residing at or near the top of the page. While there was a time when the term “standard” referenced a rather pedestrian, utilitarian mode of two-wheel transportation, those days have been obscured by the tire smoke and incredible performance from these new machines that rival all but the most track-oriented hardware. Not too shocking considering many of our favorite sit-up naked bikes of the past decade have liberally drawn from the parts bin of a superbike sibling.
Perhaps last year’s selection of Best Standard in Cycle World’s annual Ten Best Bikes balloting bucked the trend as the winning Harley-Davidson XR1200’s styling may pay homage to the fabled XR-750 flat-track racer, but any similarities remain only on the surface. So how is it that this thundering neo-vintage street-tracker won our acclaim? Perhaps those crafty Motor Company execs successfully played on the human emotion of desiring what you can’t have? We here at Cycle Worldare only human, after all, and admittedly coveted the XR1200 all the more when it debuted in Europe a year prior to its Stateside release. But there’s more to it than that: We found the XR to be the best-performing production Sportster we’ve ever tested and an exciting, sweet-handling American standard that taps the soul of a winding backroad.
Harley’s XR1200 is also available in Silver Denim or Vivid Black (the latter costing $290 less.) Our test bike’s Mirage Orange Pearl paint inspired a Springfield Mile-style racing tuck.
The honeymoon may be over, though, as 2010 ushers in significant competition from Kawasaki and MV Agusta. Each manufacturer is well-versed in the naked-sport arena and intent on stripping Harley of its Best Standard mantle. To settle the debate, we gathered this trio of nominees for a straight-up smack-down to see if a higher standard has been achieved.
Our first task involved weighing each in on CW’s certified scale. If road-hugging weight is a desired attribute, the 561-pound hulk of a Harley would squash its foes. While the mad Kaw tips the scale at a formidable 457 pounds, the Italian brute’s svelte physique holds true to form at 438 pounds without fuel.
Pulls on the CW dyno provided insight into the power delivery characteristics of these three tuned-for-midrange-torque machines. We were impressed with the output of last year’s XR testbike and even more so with an additional four ponies cranked out by this particular test unit. While strong by Sportster standards, the long-stroke, overhead-valve, air/oil-cooled 1200cc V-Twin was no match for its liquid-cooled, liter-class inline-Four sparring partners. While the Big Twin holds a torque advantage below 4500 rpm, the higher-revving MV and Kawi match or beat the Harley’s peak torque figure with an even broader and flatter spread. Comparing the three reveals the Kawi to not only have the strongest output, but the smoothest, most linear delivery, as well.
Dyno results were mirrored in our acceleration testing conducted at the dragstrip. Even when nailing a wheel-floating holeshot, the XR took 2 seconds longer to move its mass through a standing quarter-mile than the very closely matched inline-Fours. An unfair matchup, it would seem, underscored by its 119-mph measured top speed being well shy of the 129-mph dragstrip terminal speeds posted by the Z1000 and Brutale. Whereas Thursday-night bracket racers will appreciate the ease with which the Z1000 rockets out of the hole and snicks cleanly up through the gears, the MV proved wheelie-prone and its longer-throw shift action was problematic at times.
Thus far, it appears that the XR has been laboring under the weight of wearing a target on its tailpipe in the harsh world of empirical data-gathering, but real-world riding around town, on the freeway and down a few favorite backroads was still to come.
Commuting to work aboard each in turn answered the questions of practicality and overall civility while serving as daily transport. Each offers good ergonomics with the MV having the most comfortable saddle. The Z1000’s forward-inclined seating position put undue tension/pressure on the rider’s, uh, stuff, while the outer edge of the Harley’s seat pan penetrates its padding and pokes at the rider. The MV and Kawi also provide a hint more seat-to-peg room than does the H-D, and both have a more sensual, smooth midsection contour for gripping the tank with your knees. By stark contrast, the XR is akin to huggin’ a boney broad (though having personally straddled an XR-750, I can attest to the street-tracker’s symmetrical physical layout making for a far more hospitable perch beyond race distance).
Road Test Editor Canet asked his sons to each pick a favorite based on styling. Eight-year-old Cameron preferred the Z1000’s “clone trooper” looks.
Plentiful low-end grunt makes these bikes a joy in city traffic, with little need to drop down into the lower gears unless coming to a dead stop. The Kawi is particularly adept at smoothly idling along at a crawl while in a tall gear. It has exceptional fluidity in response and delivery when rolling into the throttle at basement revs. And while the MV comes close in this regard, it exhibits a trace of fueling irregularity at small throttle openings. The Z is so torquey and smooth, in fact, that leaving the line in second gear would be a real option except Kawasaki’s Positive Neutral Finder doesn’t let you shift from neutral to second at a stop. The throbbing nature of the XR’s twin slugs require revs to remain at or above 2500 rpm to minimize driveline lash.
Freeway cruising speeds on each of the bikes offer a generous low-vibe sweet spot, although I did long for an additional up change in the XR’s five-cog box when keeping pace with the 75-plus-mph traffic flow common in our part of the world; the H-D’s final drive feels geared for acceleration.
An interesting side note: MV claims that 85 percent of the Brutale’s parts are newly designed or refined, including the larger, higher mirrors. As far as we can see, these offer an even better view of your arms and shoulders, remaining less effective than those on the other bikes. Worse still, after a few wheelies into a video shoot, the mirror glass popped out of both MV housings and shattered upon impact with the ground. Talk about bringing years of bad luck!
When flogging choice sport-riding roads, however, no rider felt as fortunate as the lucky SOB aboard the Brutale. This is arguably the best-handling naked bike we’ve ever tested. Its light, neutral steering is backed with solid stability that bolsters a rider’s confidence. The MV also has the most cornering clearance and best brakes of the lot, not to mention the stickiest rubber (Pirelli Rosso Corsa radials). While the Brutale features traction control with eight levels of adjustment, oddly enough I can’t say I ever felt its effects. The bike also has two power-delivery maps, Standard and Sport, but the toned-down response of Standard mode tended to accentuate soft spots in the engine’s delivery that are less noticeable in Sport mode.
Road Test Editor Canet asked his sons to each pick a favorite based on styling. Alex was all about the Brutale. “I like red!” said the kindergartner emphatically.
While the Brutale rocks the twisties, the Z1000 is no slouch, either. While it feels slightly heavier-handling and a bit more fore-aft pitch-prone, the Z can zip at a spirited clip through curves in a way that will have you seeking a more interesting route between home and work. Its fully adjustable fork and sporting shock, plus quality brake components, have elevated the Z chassis’ sporting potential well beyond that of its predecessor.Keeping pace aboard the XR through the canyons is a matter of being cognizant of its less-abundant cornering clearance. Steering is lighter than one might expect, and the chassis communicates a super-planted feel. The standard, H-D-issue fat brake and clutch levers, smooth grips and switchgear—all common to Softails and such—is like performing a surgical incision with a buck knife compared with the clinical tactile sensation of the Kawi and MV’s sporting control interfaces.
In the end, Harley-Davidson’s XR1200 succeeds in delivering fans of the brand’s race-inspired styling and a broader performance envelope than ever offered by the Motor Company in one of the sweetest all-around packages out there. But there’s no slowing progress, and the standard has once again been elevated to new heights. We might ignore the $4500 premium commanded by the Brutale 990 R, particularly because of its stellar handling, but we can’t overlook areas in need of further refinement. Not at least when Kawasaki has delivered a knockout blow with its fast, smooth and well-rounded Z1000, a bike that’s ready to rip backroads or crush the daily commute while carrying the burden of wearing a brand-new bull’s-eye on its back.