Sometimes it's hard to make out if Harley Davidson motorcycles are better to arrive on, or to ride on. We test the newest motorcycle in the Sportster line-up, the 1200 Custom, to see where this apple falls.
The first thing you notice when you approach the 1200 Custom for the first time is its non-intimidating size. It sits between the Iron 883 and the Forty-Eight, its siblings in the Sportster series, so it isn’t a small motorcycle either and has the presence to draw glances even in this understated paint scheme. The 1200 Custom is derived from the Forty-Eight and so shares the V-Twin engine in the same state of tune. It also uses the same tyre sizes and is only a few ten-thousand rupees cheaper than the Forty-Eight. So, what sets it apart?
When it comes to the dimensions, it is slightly larger; the Custom being a bit longer. The seat is also a bit higher (but at 725mm it's still very low), it has a slightly longer wheelbase and it weighs a little more. The good part is that the 1200 Custom comes with a more touring-friendly 17-litre tank, instead of the miniscule 7.9 litre peanut tank that’s found on the Forty-Eight. Then there’s the addition of Harley’s traditional high-quality chrome that is well distributed all over the motorcycle. The chrome 5-spoke cast-aluminium wheels are most certainly a testament to that. It also comes with a more pulled-back handlebar that aids comfort on longer rides. There’s a chromed-out lip that’s been added over the headlight for reasons unknown; maybe Harley’s intention was to make the 1200 Custom a tad more aerodynamic. Or it could just be to deflect the bugs and keep them from flying into your mouth.
Swing a leg over the saddle and you’re greeted with that familiar retro-cockpit layout. There’s a single-dial analogue speedometer with a small digital display for the odometer, trip-meter and tachometer. There’s a small bar above the speedometer which houses the neutral light, indicator lights and a fuel warning light. Sadly, the 1200 custom does not come with a fuel gauge. The switches are the same as on other Harleys; with the indicator buttons on either side of the handlebar, which sits below the other buttons. Now it could just be that I have really small hands, but reaching for the inner buttons seemed like a massive stretch and not natural at all. There’s also the fact that it’s going to be impossible to reach for the right-side indicator button if you’re still on the throttle; you will need to roll-off the throttle to reach this one. The seating position is also rather relaxed, with a nice long seat, forward-set foot-pegs and the handlebar has a swept-back design as compared to the forward set unit on the Forty-Eight.
Thumb the starter button and the engine thunders to life. This is the same air-cooled 1,202cc V-twin Evolution unit that’s also found on the Forty-Eight. The engine vibrates massively at idle, which could seem a bit unnerving at first. But rest assured, the engine never threatened to part ways with the chassis on our test schedule. An absolute joy is the familiar Harley rumble that emanates from the chromed, staggered twin exhausts that sounds ever so good. As you get ready to get going, the gear shift, which although light by Harley standards, is clunky and notchy. It inevitably engages first gear with a violent thud. But that’s just another customary Harley gearbox thing. These thuds will keep making appearances all through the gear-shifts, albeit without any real menace.
Once you get a move on, the 96Nm of torque is instantly noticeable, and the engine really gets going from just over 2,000rpm. Even though torque peaks out at 3,500rpm, there is still plenty of usable performance even as the rpm counter clocks over 6,000rpm until the limiter kicks in. However, due to fuelling issues, the Custom felt a bit difficult to flow along smoothly on. An abrupt throttle and a huge chunk of torque meant that a lot of involuntary head-nodding was involved in low speed city crawls. One way to work around it was to pick a higher gear; but even then the throttle response didn’t feel smooth and seemed hesitant.
The clutch also feels heavy and starts to get rather cumbersome while riding through traffic. Not to mention the massive amount of heat that creeps out from the air-cooled unit sitting right between your legs. Also, 1,200cc and air-cooled are not features you want together in one engine on a 40deg Celsius day while crawling from traffic light to traffic light!
One could argue that Harleys are meant for the highway; but most of us live in or near cities and will end up riding through city traffic at some point. If you happen to end up in this conundrum, know that my prayers are with you. On the highway the Custom felt better, but the troubles didn’t disappear. Yes, the in-saddle experience is much cooler and the Custom feels particularly serene between the 100-120kph mark. However, the meditative-cruising experience required a watchful right wrist to make up for the lumpy fuelling when rolling on and off the gas. The 1200 Custom returns mileage figures of 15.21kpl in the city and 18.38kpl on the highway, which is respectable for a 1,200cc motorcycle.
The 1200 Custom, like most Harleys, is best enjoyed on the highway with near-perfect road conditions and minimal traffic. The comfy seating posture and the supple saddle make this a potential long haul machine. However, the suspension setup does affect this promise. Our Indian highways are not always in the best of conditions and the stiffer suspension setup of the Custom makes the going painful. Harley claims to have improved the suspension setup on the 2016 line-up, but it still needs to be fine tuned further.
What’s surprising is that despite having a heavy front end, the motorcycle does feel easy to manoeuvre; the fat front tyre does not affect flickability much. However, the suspension setup also impacts the fun potential as the Custom tends to gets unsettled even over slight mid-corner bumps; that makes holding a line an unnecessary trial. Let’s not forget, that’s 268kg of motorcycle you’re throwing around.
The Michelin Scorcher 130/90 front tyre and 150/80 back tyre also have to shoulder some of the responsibility. While these made-for-Harley tyres look great, the grip levels fail to give you a sense of confidence. The desire for more grip is intensified by ample evidence of ABS missing on the Custom. Kudos to Harley for offering new, improved brakes that offer great stopping power with a light lever feel. However, the strong brakes, the lack of ABS and less-than-ideal grip levels make emergency braking quite a nervous affair. Any sudden braking causes the front tyre to protest extremely loudly as the wheel heads toward a lockup.
So, for all the die-hard Harley fans out there, the 1200 Custom is a handsome-looking motorcycle for a decent amount of money. At Rs 8,90,000 (ex-showroom Delhi), the 1200 Custom sits Rs 50,000 shy of the Forty-Eight and is the more practical of the two. That extra range while out touring is definitely a bonus for all the highway aficionados. Its classic styling and low price-tag are what make this motorcycle so appealing. However, mechanically the Custom falls short on fronts that sit at the very core of this motorcycle and genre. Also, the lack of ABS makes the Custom less appealing. Yes, the Custom offers something different from the other Sportsters in the line-up, but clearly, this isn’t the Sportster to ride, or arrive on.