First Ride: 2008 Harley-Davidson Night Rod

Milwaukee’s “other” V-Twin.

2008 Harley-Davidson Night Rod - First Ride

2008 Harley-Davidson Night Rod - First Ride

Mention "Harley-Davidson" to anyone even remotely familiar with motorcycles and it immediately conjures images of that company's Big Twins and Sportsters. H-D also produces the three-model V-Rod lineup, but those bikes rarely show up on anyone's radar.

That's too bad. With their 1250cc, dohc, liquid-cooled, four-valve-per-cylinder, 60-degree V-Twin engines churning out a claimed 125 horsepower, the V-Rods are by far the most modern, best-performing bikes in The Motor Company's entire 32-model arsenal. And of the trio, the Night Rod is the price leader, with a sticker some two grand below those of the other two.

Though it uses the same low-slung, dragbike-inspired chassis as all V-Rods, the Night Rod has mid-mount foot controls rather than the others' feet-forward arrangement—but with a separate set of fold-up "highway pegs" on the front downtubes for kicked-back open-road cruising. It also wears a 180mm-wide rear tire instead of the 240 on its siblings, and its handlebar splits the difference between the standard 'Rod's slight pullbacks and the Night Rod Special's semi-drag bar.

End result is a bike that most closely fits the "standard" mold. The handgrip placement cants the torso just a few degrees forward from bolt-upright, helping the rider better deal with windblast at higher speeds; and the peg location takes a bit of upper-body weight off the tailbone, making long stints in the deeply dished saddle a more pleasant experience. Combine that with a velvety-smooth engine and decent (if not great) rear suspension, and you have an enjoyable companion for the open road or around town.

What's most memorable about the Night Rod, though, is its engine. It's neither the fastest nor the raciest V-Twin around, but its seamless, responsive power, soulful exhaust note and visceral throb of its staggered power pulses combine to make it one of the most satisfying Vees in the business. Not that it's slow: It'll run circles around Big Twins and Sportsters, and hold its own with quite a few other so-called "performance" bikes.

It's not a bad handler, either. Rakish front-end geometry (34-degree head angle, 4.5-inch trail) yields a mildly ponderous feel in a parking lot, but the steering lightens up once you start moving. The geometry also works with a 67-inch-plus wheelbase to make the bike rock-steady at speed. Cornering clearance is good, though compromised somewhat by the ground-hugging chassis that helps provide a low, 27.1-inch seat height.

At $14,995 (in glossy Vivid Black or matte-finish Black Denim; the matte Crimson Red Denim seen here is another $305), the Night Rod isn't just the most affordable V-Rod; it's also the most practical—and a thoroughly enjoyable motorcycle by any standards, not just Milwaukee's.

Four-piston calipers and radial tires are another nod to the 21st century.

It's still no sportbike, though, judging by the beveling on Mr. Dean's boots. Harley claims 32 degrees of lean angle on either side.

Sinuous chromed exhaust headers have a more-classic look.

Crimson Red Denim finish is an $305 more than glossy or matte-finished black.

Sixty degrees! Sacrilege! But it means a smooth, powerful engine?well, with a counterbalancer.

Dean liked the standard-esque riding position.

The Night Rod's "tank" is actually an aluminum cover concealing the engine intake. Actual fuel tank is under the seat.