Some may argue that this is a bizarre comparison, but these machines are similar in as many ways as they differ.
Both come from two of the most authentic brands steeped in legacy with both cracking the 100-year vintage with HD slightly edging BMW by a few years.
Both bikes are air-cooled, twin-cylinder engines boasting approx. Each run 1200cc engines that have had plenty of years running their respective unit.
RRP for these bikes is quite close. Here in Australia The top-spec BMW R Nine T is around $1000 more than the HD, while the ‘pure’ model can be had for even less than the Roadster. Harley’s exorbitant pricing of the Harley Roadster has effectively put them head-to-head. And I suspect there are soon-to-be owners out there debating these two models.
Looks, while vastly different belong in the same bracket of riders who like a little, or a lot, of nostalgia in their bikes.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in my opinion, both bikes are works of art. The Harley Roadster being more nostalgic of the two and a bit more bad-ass. Let’s just say that if you rode around with a sawn-off-shotgun tucked away in your pack, you would look more at home on the Roadster. The BMW R Nine T has plenty of retro-cool with a modern take. No tattoos or shotguns are required, but maybe a beard or two.
No clear winners here as they both pulled aces at this aesthetic level.
Sound - the hum vs rumble.
Similarly, the sound is subjective. The BMW R Nine T purrs at most engine speeds and boasts a deep note at idle with almost no mechanical engine noise. While the stock Harley Roadster (in typical sporty fashion) sounds like a symphony of steel cogs lubricated by sand and gravel. The amount of mechanical noise from the pushrod HD v-twin can be surprising to the uninitiated. Spend another $1200 on a high-flow air cleaner, and slip-on and the Harley Roadster will sound like it’s supposed to - like a p51 Mustang fighter plane.
What are they like to ride?
Chalk and cheese to compare. The Air-cooled ‘Evolution’ engine is a bit of a paradox in the title, as it really hasn’t evolved much at all over the last 30 years. Sure, some updates along the way, namely EFI in 2007 but that’s about it. The Evo lump is rough, noisy and really nothing to write home about performance-wise. However, what it lacks in refinement it makes up in character and is virtually indestructible. I’ll have to admit that while the Sporters, in both 883 and 1200 guises really are quite primitive, there is a certain allure about them you won’t find elsewhere. Fire it up, and it will chug, burp, shake, grind and remind you that you are indeed on a combustion-engine powered machine. Quite satisfying. For its lack of horsepower, there is plenty of torque, and the old Evo lump pulls fairly cleanly from just about anywhere.
The cold hard truth in numbers
Facts being facts the BMW R Nine T is a far superior motorcycle in every objective way. It weighs far less and is up on horsepower by a long shot for starters. More torque and a vastly broader usable rev range. The ’17 Nine T handles and stops like a sports bike that feels better the faster you push it, while the Sportster is ‘OK for a Harley’ but still rides like a dump truck in comparison. To drag the BMW pegs on the tarmac, you have to be pushing very hard - on the Harley Roadster its part of the regular riding experience. Gearboxes rate from one being pulled from a post-war tractor vs one of the slickest in the category - I’ll leave it for you to guess...
On paper selling at roughly the same retail prices, the asking price of Harley Roadster is eye-watering. And that’s taking into the fact that the BMW is already an expensive bit of Hardware. Looking at the used market, the Roadster’s resale value plummets like a rock and can be bought quite reasonably at around 60% of the new cost with only a few thousand km’s on the clock. This indicates to me the Harley Roadster is overpriced in the first place and they would really do much better to drop it to an appropriate level for what you get. Love of the brand can only get you so far.
For the record, there are some worthwhile improvements over previous Sportster iterations. ABS as standard in Australia here, with twin disc brakes up front are significant in the braking department. The suspension is graced with the new emulsion shocks out the back. THis imporves the ride from terrible to the vicinity of OK. The combination of analogue / digital tacho is exciting but a bit hard to read in the sunlight. For my money, I would prefer the original Sportster tacho unit.
I won’t continue as this is not a Sportster-bashing exercise, but you just can’t ignore the massive disparity in dynamics between the two, especially for a similar price point.
Fortunately for Harley, not all things can be measured rationally - and there is plenty I like about the Roadster even though it doesn’t make sense.
A matter for the heart
So while the Harley makes no logical sense, it still looks cool and plays the correct heartstrings if you’re that way inclined. There are plenty of riders around who don’t give a toss about performance - so in that case, they could be equally charming rides.
Just to be clear, these were unmodified bikes. I’m well aware the Sportster can be tuned a lot - but that tuning comes with a hefty price tag for a bike that should already perform. To get the Roadster to perform like the Nine T, I’d wager you’d fork out the cost of two roadsters and then you’d still be lacking the handling.
If you’re after a bike that looks cool and performs (out-of-the-box) - that’s a no-brainer.
Both of these machines are also highly customisable/tweakable and are encouraged to do so via a vast array of genuine and 3rd party aftermarket goodies. Goodies to not only make it your own but keep you occupied for many years to come.
For any Sportster, or Harley for that matter: A High flow air cleaner, less-chocked up pipes and an EFI map that allows enough fuel is a must - otherwise the go and sound like crap. Some people go a lot further, but these basics make them much much more enjoyable. No one beats Harley for the aftermarket.
If you are looking at either of these bikes, clearly you are seeking more with your heart then head. Both of these bikes are relatively impractical, uncomfortable, thirsty and expensive. - but very likeable.
Some people sneer at nostalgia, while others pay extra for it. Both would bring their owners much joy of ownership as long as you know what you can expect from your bike. Speaking from experience, I’ve tested and owned both of these bikes.
To all the Harley lovers, while comparisons can be cruel, take comfort in the fact that I love both of these bikes for what they are and despite differences, both are great fun to ride, and that’s what it’s all about.
If you toss the specs aside, both of them feel great to ride, are a pack of fun and look great. Just choose one, and go ride it and in the end, it doesn’t matter what the competition is doing - unless you are a GP rider of course.
A motorcycle is supposed to feel great to ride - specs aside, the bike that floats your boat is the right one.
2017 Harley Davidson XL1200cx Roadster
- 66 hp, 97nm torque,
- 260kg road-ready
- 5-speed transmission
2017 BMW R Nine T
- 110 HP, 119nm
- 220kg road-ready
- 6-speed transmission