In the Autoblog Garage: Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special

Click on the image for more high-res shots of the Night Rod Special

Harley-Davidson and the cruiser segment in general is currently being forced into the realization that such bikes are often considered playthings by their owners. Sure, there are plenty of die-hard HD fanatics who ride their bikes thousands of miles annually and attend faraway rallies to gather with other enthusiasts who share their passion. Many owners, though, spend more time polishing their chrome than out riding. Such weekend warriors make up a large portion of the cruiser market, and those owners are being forced to hold onto their current rides a bit longer than normal due to the slowing economy in the U.S. -- a country which easily makes up the bulk of cruiser sales.

Harley-Davidson and the rest of the industry could see this change coming long ago, and the V-Rod was its opening defense to this looming issue... and it was a good one by most accounts. The Motor Company, though, has not been content to rest on the original V-Rod as the only alternative to its classic line of air-cooled V-twin powered bikes. Thankfully, we have machines such as the Night Rod Special to provide a welcome diversion from the rolling pieces of nostalgia that make up the majority of HD's line. Does the Night Rod Special's riding experience live up to the promise made by its menacing looks? Read on to find out.

Photos copyright Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs Inc.

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After being lowered just under an inch from the standard V-Rod chassis configuration, the Night Rod Special benefits mightily from the full blackout treatment, with the night-like hue covering nearly the entire bike, including the 1250cc liquid-cooled Revolution engine. That engine certainly proves that the collaboration between HD and Porsche was as successful as could be. Punching out 125 horsepower along with 86 ft-lbs of arm-stretching torque, there are few bikes that transition from stoplight-to-stoplight as rapidly as the Night Rod Special.

Due to the lowered stance and the wide 240mm rear tire, that straight-line performance had better make up for the lack of cornering clearance to owners of the machine. A good push on the bars is required to lean the bike over at any real angle, but once there, it is supremely stable and holds its intended line very well. In all honesty, though, cornering clearance is mostly superfluous with this bike, 'cause being seen is what it's all about.

We got plenty of stares while riding the VRSCDX, much of it coming from the younger crowd that Harley hopes to attract with this bike. In fact, one 22-year-old blonde's first words upon seeing the machine were, "Wow, that bike is gorgeous." Those words should be music to the ears of the HD marketing team, because that's exactly this bike's goal.

When we first learned that the Night Rod Special was equipped with a slipper clutch, we didn't understand the need. Nobody is likely to be flinging this particular machine around a race track after all. After riding around town, though, we found that the slipper allowed for very easy shifts, even at relatively high RPM, making the overall transmission seem quite slick. The clutch was a rather easy affair to pull as well, surely an important improvement over past efforts from Milwaukee.

The abundance of torque makes shifting an optional affair most of the time anyway, but riders are sure to appreciate the smooth feel when pulling away from a stop. The only problem we encountered from the drivetrain was the fact that the clutch doesn't really begin to engage until over half the lever's travel has been used up. After a few harrowing green light stalls, we got used to it.

Comfort is a bit of a sore point with the Night Rod Special... literally. The stretched-out, foot-and-arms-forward position forces the rider to imitate a clam that has been rudely yanked from its resting place. Comfortable it's not, but the look mimics that of many custom bikes on the market, so it's probably a good selling point. The seat proved unremarkable, which is to say that it worked fine. (If you don't notice a motorcycle seat, that's likely a good thing.) Long trips on this bike should be considered very carefully, however, as it's a long reach to those low-slung drag bars and forward controls, and wind-resistance threatens to blow your parachute shaped self right off the back at extra-legal speeds.

Once planted firmly in the cockpit, though, the view out is awfully pretty. Short trips reveal another problem: heat. Get used to your right leg being roasted and hearing the cooling fan kick in when stuck in traffic. Our test bike was painted gloss black with a contrasting orange stripe running the length of the machine. As previously mentioned, it was quite the looker. An easy-to-read gauge cluster sits atop the bars, not on the tank as with many bikes of the cruiser genre, making it much more in line with your eyes when peering ahead.

The sound of the bike is just as radical a departure from the Harley norm as its looks. We enjoyed a nice ride with a Road King owner and never once heard the Night Rod Special over its forebear. Depending on which side of the "loud pipes save lives" argument you stand, the stock pipes could be the first things to get trashed. That would be a mistake as far as we're concerned, as the stock duals look very nice hanging off the right side of the bike.

Substantial is the word that comes to mind when giving the bike its first walkaround, with every part of the machine very beefy and heavy in appearance. In fact, all of these bits and pieces are actually heavy too, which you're sure to feel every time you lift the machine off its sidestand. That stand always feels ready to let the bike meet the pavement when it is initially deployed. Though it always held, we never stopped worrying.

Riding the Night Rod Special is what it's all about, though, and the bike never disappointed. Though the $16,695 asking price may seem a bit steep at first glance, the competition is equally as expensive, making the V-Rod line seem almost a bargain as compared with the rest of HD's offerings. The Revolution engine is a real gem, and the Night Rod Special is the best wrapping that Harley has put it in so far. While sportier versions of the 'Rod line exist and are better choices for the cornering-is-bliss populace, we feel that the Special is the one to get if being seen is of paramount concern... and for many prospective owners, it is.

Photos copyright Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs Inc.

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