We ride: Harley-Davidson Night-Rod

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IOL mot pic aug13 Harley Night Rod 1 Dave Abrahams Harley-Davidson Night-Rod Special has so much attitude it would be faintly ridiculous if it did not back it up with solid, no-nonsense straight-line performance. But it does.

When the Harley-Davidson V-Rod was first released in 2002 it came as a surprise to most Harley fans. Here was a bike that looked forward, not back, with a liquid-cooled DOHC engine, designed in collaboration with Porsche, that revved to 9000 and produced serious power by any standards, in a hydroformed tubular-steel frame with its fuel tank under the seat.

It didn't even look like a real bike, dammit, but it was the Motor Company's first power cruiser and it went like no street-bike from Milwaukee had ever gone before.

Ten years down the line, the engine has grown from 1130 to 1247cc, power is up from 85 to 93kW, the V-Rod has picked up about 13kg in weight (haven't we all?) and now there's a special anniversary model. This is Harley-Davidson, the company that gave nostalgia a part number - there would have to be.

The Harley-Davidson VRSCDX Night-Rod Special comes in plain matte black with blacked-out engine and loud orange stripes. Surprisingly, the only anniversary references on the bike are neat “10 Years” badges on the clutch and primary covers.

But there are also quite a lot of new features and some styling updates, starting with a slimmer, lower tailpiece incorporating a flush-mounted LED tail light. The brake lights, however, are integrated with the rear indicators, as on the Nightster.

'CLAMSHELL POSITION'

IOL mot pic aug13 Harley Night Rod 2 Porsche-designed 1250cc V-twin is Milwaukee's first liquid-cooled engine. Dave Abrahams

The front suspension's rake angle has been steepened from 36 to 34 degrees (which reduces wheelbase 10mm to 1705mm) to quicken the steering, and the handle-bars have been pulled back nearly 80mm to reduce the stretch to the grips for those of us not built like gorillas - apparently the seating on earlier Night Rods was being referred to by owners as the 'clamshell position'.

The five-speed gearbox now has a slipper clutch to prevent the rear wheel from locking on under injudicious downshift (always a consideration on a Big Twin with an 11.5:1 compression ratio) and the rear tyre is up from 200mm to a low-profile 240/40 gumball.

The test 'Rod also came with antilock braking (very reassuring, on a bike that weighs 302kg wet) and a 'security package' - an extra fob that, if moved further than about a metre from the bike, arms an alarm and prevents the engine from being started.

The convenience of not having to use an ignition key is great; just remember to take the fob with you if you need to move the bike to get to something in the garage - the ear-piercing alarm will upset your neighbours.

Thanks to the new 'bars the seating position is more comfortable than it looks around town - once you've heaved the bike off its side-stand - and the quicker steering a boon in traffic, although the ‘Rod does exhibit a tendency to fall into slow corners which I suspect is as much due to the disparity in tyre sizes as to the bike's still-lazy steering geometry.

NOT A COMMUTER SCOOTER

IOL mot pic aug13 Harley Night Rod 3 All-analogue instrument panel is easy to read at a glance. Dave Abrahams

The big V-twin only gets into its stride above 3500rpm and the clutch takes up very suddenly, rather closer to the grip than I would have preferred, so take-offs can be a little jerky, and smooth riding in traffic takes concentration.

But this is not a commuter scooter, as Willie G Davidson would be the first to tell you, so we deferred judgement until we got the Night-Rod out on the open road and stretched its legs a little.

And the first thing we learned is that the faster you ride a 'Rod, the better it goes. The power comes on strong as the rev counter needle rises past 4000 and clutchless shifts in both directions become the norm.

One hundred and eleven Newton metres at 7000rpm translates to a serious kick in the butt anywhere over 5000 and the bike runs up to its true top speed of 211km/h at 8100 remarkably quickly, with 225 showing on the old-fashioned analogue speedometer and a faint tremor from the front end that never really becomes a wiggle.

The steeper rake angle and new upside-down forks make throwing this heavyweight bruiser around the ride-and-handling section of our standard test route less of a chore than you'd expect, although fast S-bends are still more a test of upper-body strength than finesse.

LONG CRUISE

IOL mot pic aug13 Harley Night Rod 4 Fuel tank is under the saddle. .

The sheer weight of the bike keeps it from bouncing around on the bumpy test section, although the short-travel rear suspension (only 74mm) means the ride becomes jarring, making the rider grateful for the deeply padded, very comfortable seat, all of 675mm off the ground.

The less said about the postcard-sized pillion pad the better; Herself could not be persuaded to try it.

On the second weekend we had the Night Rod, we took it on a long country ride in atrocious weather. Even at modest speeds, however, the stretched-out seating position eventually became a pain.

Harley-Davidson say they have pulled the 'bars and 'pegs closer to the rider; well, they haven't been pulled back far enough for my 1.78 metres. I spent a fair percentage of the trip up with my feet on the passenger footpegs and I insisted that Herself should ride it part of the way back so I could relax behind the fairing of her sports-tourer.

But that long, gentle ride on wet roads highlighted another facet of Milwaukee's power cruiser: it's astonishingly fuel-efficient. The factory quotes combined fuel consumption of 6.3 litres/100km; we averaged 5.9 over a week's worth of commuting, performance testing and a long cruise.

VERDICT

Like most Harleys, the Night-Rod is a rolling contradiction; it's an efficient commuter that's difficult to ride in heavy traffic, a well-tuned tourer that becomes uncomfortable on long rides and a kick-ass, show-them-who's-boss power cruiser that's a real pain to keep looking good because its matte black paint shows every speck of dirt and can't simply be wiped down with a squirt of polish.

The Harley-Davidson Night-Rod Special is an urban warrior for riders who wear 'distressed' leather, who make a fashion statement out of always looking a little scruffy. It has so much attitude it would be faintly ridiculous if it didn't back it up with solid, no-nonsense straight-line performance.

But it does.

Price: R189 000.

Bike from: Harley-Davidson Africa.

SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: 1247cc liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin.

Bore x stroke: 105 x 72mm.

Compression ratio: 11.5:1.

Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.

Power: 93.3kW at 8250rpm.

Torque: 111Nm at 7250rpm.

Induction: Electronic sequential port fuel-injection.

Ignition: Digital electronic.

Starting: Electric.

Clutch: Hydraulically-actuated multiplate wet clutch.

Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by toothed belt.

Front Suspension: 43mm inverted cartridge forks.

Rear Suspension: Dual hydraulic shock absorbers adjustable for preload.

Front brakes: Dual 300mm floating discs with Brembo four-pot opposed-piston callipers and ABS.

Rear brake: 300mm disc with underslung single-piston floating calliper and ABS.

Front tyre: 120/70 - 19 tubeless.

Rear tyre: 240/40 - 18 tubeless.

Wheelbase: 1705mm.

Seat height: 675mm.

Kerb weight: 302kg.

Fuel tank: 18.9 litres.

Top speed (measured): 212km/h.

Fuel consumption (measured): 5.88 litres per 100km.

Price: R189 000.

Bike from: Harley-Davidson Africa.

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