H-D’s Righteous Rod review50a

by Brian Day

Whether you love or hate the idea of a modern Harley Davidson, this motorcycle has generated more heat and smoke than any other new machine in recent memory. It’s a Harley that appeals to non-Harley riders and the definitive reaction to the Oriental cruiser clone invasion. It’s also the result of an enormous amount of development money and years of undercover design effort to morph a failed superbike racer into arguably the best and most original new American motorcycle ever. The envelope, please: allow me to introduce Mr. VROD himself.

The VROD is a savvy, calculated gamble for Harley Davidson, a company smarting from it’s own success and caught between the proverbial rock and hard place in this world of topsy-turvy cruiser marketing. Hordes of low-volume custom bike makers nibble rodent-like at H-D’s bottom line. Tsunamis of me-too Oriental bikes with fat tanks and bobbed fenders wash ashore every month to divert thousands of potential customers. On the home front, the latest”new” Indian appears to be finally getting itself together and Polaris just lobbed in the upgraded Victory, a genuine made-in-the-USA factory alternative. What’s an American motorcycling icon like Harley to do?

Enter the VROD, resplendant in any color you want as long as it’s glowing melange of silver, chrome and satin aluminum. It breaks cleanly with significant historical weight, but remains true to the Motor Company’s independent core values. It was developed in secrecy that bordered on paranoia. Harley’s long and winding road to production included shipping a rowdy and not altogether reliable VR1000 race bike engine to Germany for etiquette lessons from Porsche. While foreign engineers taught the powertrain to stay together and play well with others, Willie G and his development crew secretly massaged the new bike’s details for several years. Finally, to paraphrase William Mulholland, the curtains rose on the VROD and Harley said “There it is… take it!”

I’ll take it.

But should we consider the VROD as a Harley Davidson, as a motorcycle, or as a high-concept two-wheeled design statement? Breaking with hoary Motor Company aircooled V-twin tradition (In fact the company has marketed various configurations of singles, V-twins, opposed twins both across-the-frame and fore-and-aft, and even two-strokes) the ‘ROD is nothing short of heretical: a 60 degree oversquare V-twin with liquid cooling, four valve heads, overhead cams, dry sump, supple suspension, sticky tires and a hideous gas tank. I refer not to the aluminum velocity stack cover, which is mondo sexy, but the molded under-seat plastic piece that actually holds around 3.7 gallons of gas.

Conceptually, it’s a perfect example of a fifteen year old Japanese design. Comparisons with Yamaha’s venerable V-Max are rife: on paper it’s one-half of a marginally detuned 1985 ‘Max. If Harley really wanted to shock the troops, the VROD would sport a supercharged stepped-piston direct-injection 2 stroke V-5 with carbon monococque frame, maglev suspension and ceramic rim brakes. Truth is there’s far more technological innovation in the manufacturing process of this motorcycle than in the machine itself. And in direct contradiction to how other manufacturers frequently introduce racebike-derived technology, Harley slapped the powerful rev-happy Revolution engine into a long low cruiser chassis instad of something more akin to a Ducati 998.

review50bThing is, it works like gangbusters. Grumbling over the paper specs of the VROD ignores the refined animal magnetism of the bike’s actual presence. In person the VROD is stunningly designed and forcefully executed. It’s a large bike that appears weightless and light, a flowing collection of pure muscle, curves and unexpected styling touches washed by subtle distinctions in surface texture and monochromatic reflective tone. Extroverts will love this machine, because even people who have no interest in motorcycles stroll over and blurt out their unashamed adoration. It takes guts for a frail white-haired suburban grannie and her two shy grandkids to tell a burly, unshaven, leather-clad biker that his machine is one hot and sexy thang, but it happened to me.

Bystanders who knew their Harley history made the expected XLCR/FXS &endash; VROD comparison. Willie G. Davidson has clearly learned an awful lot in the years since this pair of “shake up the troops” designs hit the streets in the late 70’s. The menacing-looking XLCR was originally a sales flop but has since become extremely collectable in spite of the fact it is an evil-handling, slow, clanky brute of a motorcycle. The FXS Low Rider, inspired by hand-built choppers and one-off customs, was available only in dark gunmetal grey livery the year of its’ introduction. This one soared like a screamin’ eagl. It was so beloved that it became the defacto standard for factory cruiser design ever since. Neither bike offered much in the way of mechanical surprises, unlike the silvery VROD.

History lessons aside, I’m blasting down the freeway at 85 mph on the glowing VROD with a huge grin plastered on my windburned face. I understand perfectly how Pam Anderson feels riding shotgun in Kid Rock’s Caddy convertible, working on her bikini tan. Every molecule in my body is jitterbugging with pleasure, my legs are being pushed open by forces beyond my control and google-eyed yahoos pull alongside to drool. This is not your granpa’s Harley Davidson. Forget the crusty old myths, the arcane rituals, the idea that it’s anything but thoroughly modern. The VROD has impeccable street manners and handles great. It doesn’t vibrate and the meaty sound pouring from those massive, flamboyantly curvaceous pipes is enough to make me plunk down twenty-four large and take it home. $24,000 is what my local H-D dealer wants for the $16,995 list price ‘ROD. The extra seven grand? Various chrome plated cruiser doo-dads and a foot of braided steel water hose. Don’t whine into your double latte Biff, it’s simply the cost of being gawked at by the less fortunate. Blatant price gouging isn’t confined to dealers, either. A suspiciously large number of VRODs chugged immediately into the hallowed databases of eBay.review50c

Besides being a hoot to ride fast, the ‘ROD is one slick low ‘n slow boulevard poser. It’s superbly balanced with light, precise steering and loads of torque. Make peace with the awkward footpegs and stretched-out body position, and you can track it easily with minimal effort. The center of gravity is right under your butt so stability at around-town speeds is excellent. H-D’s first hydraulic clutch engages smoothly and progressively with the lightest pull I have ever experienced on a big Harley. Keeping the clutch disengaged at stoplight was easy, even for a long time. My pre-production bike had been through something like 300 drag strip runs, according to the H-D Fleet Center tech, yet the original clutch worked perfectly, never dragging or slipping.

Pre-production or not, The 1-2 shift was notchy, and occasional klunks at low speeds remind you this is a Harley and not a Honda. Neutral is easier to engage from first than second, but I always snagged it fine from a dead stop. Cleanest shifts came when preloading the lever before barely dipping the clutch and pulling upward hard for fast, positive cog swopping. Both up and downshifting at freeway speeds required no clutch at all, courtesty of the helical gearset. Of course I discovered this by accident, and I would never recommend treating any VROD so cavalierly, but it’s simple to synch the throttle to road and gear speed, then tap up for go, down for slow. With a little practice it’s almost like an automatic transmission.

But being 6’ 2″ and 230, the “feet forward” riding position was just awful. On the freeway, my left shoulder and right thigh muscles call in AWOL, and both hands cramp trying to keep upright in the wind blast. Blame it squarely on the extended cruiser riding position, a torture-rack remnant of H-D’s Bad Old Days. The deeply scalloped seat, forward pegs and upright handlebars held me hostage in a Neanderthal-style pose, forcing my ass and lower body to lock in one position. Harsh suspension jolts were channelled directly upward to my spine, and soon a circle of white-hot pain bloomed there. Shoulders and neck throbbed from the effort required to hold myself upright against the wind. The VROD is a veritable Master’s thesis on the ergonomic dilemma of riding an unfaired cruiser at high speed. You will love riding it fast but you may hate riding it fast and far.

Freeway droning aside, flinging the ‘ROD up and down curvy canyons like a WSB qualifier was really fun. My favorite run is fifty-odd miles up and back with good elevation change and some nice fast sweepers, plus a precipitous, snaky backside drop that has even taut sportbike suspension working to the limit. Despite the unabashed cruise-miester position, my test ‘ROD hustled through the twisties with a lot of verve. It’s stable and predictable, with linear response and supple front and rear suspension that inspires confidence. The hydroformed perimeter chassis tracks neutral and stiff, so you concentrate on riding the line accurately rather than worrying about bottoming out on the tarmac. Boots on the front pegs create built-in road feelers. Stick ’em high up and lean the bike way over. Drop your feet down on the pegs and the heels touch at a less perilous lean angle, creating that warm and fuzzy feeling of really honking even when the speedo proves otherwise. The wheelbase, some 7.3 inches longer than a 1200 Sporty, and kicked-out front end cause the VROD “flop” in corners. This trait is evident at all speeds and takes some getting used to. U-turns in your local parking lot require mucho concentration and a foot ready to be extended. That same long stretch to the front tire is probably responsible for some vagueness in the contact patch. Still, for a machine being marketed to a poseur crowd, I found the ‘ROD’s handling to be excellent.

review50dHow many V-twin Harley street engines routinely turn eight grand plus change, yet still live to run another day? With 1130cc’s and 11.3-1 compression, the oversquare, DOHC rubber mounted and internally counterbalanced Revolution engine does. Chug the VROD around town like a FXDWG and you’ll be wasting far too much of the potential locked inside this flexible and lionhearted engine. I soon learned to cane the VROD like a pure sportbike, revving the living crap out of it. Stay in first until the music pouring out of the pipes set off every car alarm in two neighboring counties, then, and only then, hit second and rev it up some more. No vibration, no chattering foot-long pushrods threatening to jump ship, no tortured valve noises, just sweet lashings of meaty torque and big-time horsepower across the rev band.

Ok, if you live in a mobile home and enjoy kicking your dog, then pop ‘er into high and lug around town with a fresh Winston dangling from your lip. The bike will actually pull from 2000 rpm in top, courtesy of the spot-on fuel injection and engine management system. Full throttle sound mimics a Big Twin until 3500 or so when the exhaust note hardens and all those moving parts spool up for the party ahead. Keep the tach over 4000 and things get downright interesting. Whack the injectors open around 5500 and hang on for an e-ticket ride until peak power at 8250 and the rev limiter kicks in at 9000. Truly, this bike just lives to rev hard and high and riding it like a traditional air-cooled Hawg is missing the point entirely.

The VROD easily satisfied my need to be reassured of its’ Harley-ness by retaining lots of home-boy character, yet suffered few DNA-level design faults. Don’t ask me how or why I know, but this could only be an American-made motorcycle. It would have been easy (and it was probably tempting) to massage the bike into the appliance-level mode that blands-up so many Japanese and German motorcycles. Without vision, money and huge amounts of determination, Mr. VROD could well have ended up with the same watery curb appeal as a thrashed Yamaha Virago. But the singlemindedness of purpose shows up everywhere, and I think the VROD is beautifully realized for the most part. The simple and intelligent switchgear is a fine example. Chubby, round-edged lozenges of black plastic are positioned spot-on for gloved hands to operate. Tactile feedback is superb, and I appreciated the logical turn signals: one click on, another click off. Most of this motorcycle is very well thought out and highly effective. So if God is truly in the “ROD’s details, what happened when a human being over six feet tall evaluated the seating position? Does H-D think no one will ride this bike long distances?

A couple of niggling faults did crop up after I’d logged several hundred miles in the saddle. Thumbs down to the tiny dim digital odometer… too hard to read by far. The ignition key is awkwardly placed underneath your right thigh. It pops out easily when in the “off”position and disappeared into the depths of the organically-shaped cast aluminum swingarm more than once. No coolant temp gauge? The radiator fan comes on, the radiator fan goes off leaving you wondering if the engine is comfy or ready to melt down. The gas tank iself is too small and hard to fill completely without spilling gas on the rubber apron. Raw gas then drips down the sides of the machine and can splash the underneath of the seat itself. Fuel mileage according to H-D is 37-47, and I consistently got 36-42 real-world miles per gallon riding in a very sprightly manner. That’s not terrible, but the tank is so small you will watch aghast as the gauge freefalls while the miles click off. The low fuel light regularly winked on around 80 miles. On one trip of just over 230 miles, I had to refuel four times on a fine spring afternoon. The VROD badly needs another gallon tucked somewhere for it to be more of a motorcycle and less of a pure design exercise. And, um, whatcha gonna do if you scratch the anodized aluminum tank, panels or fenders? Scotchbrite, anyone?

Minor bitching aside, my overall opinion is that Harley has just upped the power cruiser (and possibly the whole motorcycling world’s) ante in a significant and unexpected way. This bike is a hard runner and a major looker, no two ways about it. Appearance-wise there’s nothing comparable to the VROD short of an all-out custom. The engine, gearbox and suspension all deliver more than promised, and it has focussed breeding and good table manners like no previous Harley. If it proves reliable and fits you (or if H-D comes out with seating for “real-world” riders) then you’ll be able to tour on it, too.review50e

I enjoyed the VROD tremendously for exactly what it is, not what it should have been. I want one and you might too, if you have a chance to test ride it and judge the reality for yourself. Plenty of old-guard Harley types claim the VROD isn’t a “real” Hawg for various reasons mostly having to do with fixing broken engines by the side of the road using baling wire and duct tape. But logic says that anyone who asks you to live in their personal interpretation of the good old days prevents you from creating your very own good old days. Those great days and fine nights of motorcycling satisfaction can easily be yours, right here, right now with the Harley Davidson VROD.

M.M.M.

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