Harley Davidson VRSCA V-Rod

What is it with air-cooled engines? Read any Porsche or VW magazine and there are die-hards bemoaning the loss of their beloved air-cooled motors. Now there is trouble in the bike world, as those last bastions of air-cooled V twin motors, Harley Davidson, have launched a water-cooled engine. To listen to some of the old stagers, you might think that Armageddon was a comin'.

Truth is, it is getting ever harder to make air cooled engines meet the requirements for emissions and noise, and even Harley have had to admit that having some H2O in the cylinder blocks is the way to go. But HD know their customers very well, and they are not about to scare the horses too soon. They have therefore released just this one bike with the new "Revolution" motor, and deliberately made it as far removed from their mainstream products as possible. The V-Rod is therefore styled as a power cruiser, a very small niche in the bike market, and frankly not one of much significance in Britain. On this basis they can make a pretty radical bike as a test bed for new ideas, and hedge their bets on how it is received, before they commit themselves to introducing this engine across a broader range of bikes. Yup, when it comes to marketing, they take no chances.

All of which makes it difficult to review this bike. Looked at solely as a product, it is easy to dismiss it as a small volume seller, an expensive niche item, of limited use in Britain, and of little importance. Review it however as a technology showcase for most Harley Davidson's of the decade to come, and it has significant way beyond its status. I will attempt to do both.

The V-Rod is certainly striking, with all panels in brushed aluminium, but for this year only; it will be painted next year. This fact alone guarantees this years model a future collector status. What looks like the fuel tank is a dummy, which hides the air intake box, and the fuel cell lives below the saddle, all good stuff for lowering the centre of gravity. Some individual pieces are worth admiring in their own right. The rear swing arm is enormous, and a fine example of the alloy caster's art. Ditto the spun aluminium wheels, and the neat attachment of the disks. The instruments cluster would not look out of place on the art deco stand of the "Antiques Roadshow", simply delightful. All very new and different, but squeeze the brake or clutch levers, and they have an indefinable Harley feel to them. This bike has not forgotten its roots.

Very low with a long wheelbase and extravagantly raked forks, suggests that it should not handle, but it does, even at walking pace. One of the principle reasons that it handles so well is the huge rigidity of the frame (so there's a change!) which allows this thing to corner, and brake with a vigour never before seen in anything with HD painted on the tank. Trouble is, this power cruiser nonsense insists that the footpegs are out by the front axles somewhere. This may be fine on some chuffy old Soft-tail custom, but the first time you open up the V-Rod in anger you will wish it had stirrups. I found it a real strain just to keep my feet on the pegs.

You will also find it a helluva strain on your shoulders, arms and wrists too, as the all-new "Revolution" engine propels this thing with ferocity never seen in any Harley other than on the drag strip. Even short shifting it at 4,000 rpm it is very quick, but really open up the taps and you have to physically hang on to the bars. 100 mph comes up very rapidly, and I wasn't for pressing further, not until I'd pumped some iron and built some upper body strength.

This is a fantastic engine. It has torque and power all over the range, and it is a joy to use. There are other terrific, modern, fast V twins doing the rounds from Honda, Suzuki and Ducati to name but a few, but the Revolution has key card up its sleeve. Despite being water cooled, despite being a 60 degree V rather than a 45, and even despite a red line at 9,000 rpm … it feels like a Harley. The bike I tried had the optional Screaming Chicken pipes, and it sounded just fabulous, although the stocker is good too if a mite more civilised. OK so it don't go potato, potato any more, but it has just enough vibe, and a guts and thunder feel to it, to mark it out from the more antiseptic Japanese offerings. I'll betcha this is no happy accident either, and that Willie G and the boys spend squillions on getting the motor to feel just right.

For me, this is where all the investment starts to pay off. Harley could easily have turned out a bike that felt like the Jap copies, and in so doing, flushed all their much vaunted heritage down the pan. These guys are just too smart to fall for that trick though, and they have done a brilliant job in producing a chassis and an engine to match anything on the market, but one which has Harley Davidson cast right through it like the lettering on Blackpool rock. Note that I said chassis and engine, not V-Rod. There is a subtle difference.

I don't like the V-Rod. The seat position forces my legs into an uncomfortable position. My feet are dangling out in the breeze like a bowsprit on a boat, and the raised handlebars have me hanging on for grim death into an industrial strength gale. I can admire the effort, and it may work for some folk, but as a bike it doesn't do it for me.

But boy do I like the bits that the V-Rod is made up of, and in Harley terms this is frankly more important than the bike itself. That super stiff frame will appear in lots of shapes and sizes, names and guises. Word is that the venerable TC88 engine is certified good in emissions and noise for the next ten years, and don't expect it to vanish overnight, ''cos it won't. Be assured though that the Revolution engine will slowly encroach its way across the range, as surely as the sun comes up, and HD are being very coy about which will be the next model to feature it. You'll just have to wait for the 2003 model year launch in late summer.

Another dead cert is that the number of air cooled die-hards reaching for their pens and paper to write to magazines to complain will increase yet further, to swell the number of old Porsche fanciers who refuse to believe that the 911 is a goner. The supreme irony is, guess who Harley went to for engineering support to help develop the Revolution engine? None other than Porsche of course. It's a small world eh?