If you told me to draw a motorcycle in 1992, I would have drawn an 8-year-old’s version of a 1970s-era Super Glide. That was what popped into my head when the “m-word" was spoken, and still does to this day.
When the suits told me I’d be reviewing a Harley motorcycle, guess what I assumed I would be on? I eagerly awaited keys to the FL or FX I was certain to be astride. I was unceremoniously issued this... this... thing. The V-Rod thingy. This bike was created for guys named Chad who wear designer jeans and pink shirts unbuttoned at the collar to show off gold chains, right?
But hey, what better way to flog a bike than to do it on someone else’s dime, right? Just give me the keys, already. Let's get this over with.
Reading the stats of this bike — 673 pounds, 76-cubic-inch engine, 34 degrees of rake — you might imagine it looks and acts like that stereotypical Harley I mentioned earlier. Like so many other bikes, to understand the V-Rod you have to experience the motorcycle, not the spec sheet. In reality, it’s hard to find anything about this Harley that is typical for the brand, and that was intentional from the start. The original V-Rod was introduced for the 2002 model year for the purpose of attracting new customers by breaking the H-D mold, and various versions of it have been coming out of Milwaukee ever since. For 2014 and 2015, H-D's V-Rod offerings have been this Muscle and the Night Rod Special.
A few things were apparent immediately. That rake angle, coupled with a slightly anemic horsepower-to-weight ratio, preclude the V-Rod from making any serious appearances at the roadrace track. The drag strip, however, is another matter. In fact, several years ago, Harley made a version of the V-Rod called the Destroyer that was specifically built for customers who wanted to go drag racing. It wasn't even street-legal.
Like her forebears, the V-Rod is porky. Fortunately, though, she wears her weight well. It’s positioned correctly in the chassis, making the V-Rod feel athletic, and the weight helps keep her planted when you’re gassing it.
The de rigueur V-twin engine displaces 76 inches. (That's 1,250 cc for you enlightened folks who have gone metric.) Sky-high compression, dual overhead cams, liquid cooling, fuel injection, and a 9,000 rpm redline all contribute to the V-Rod being an atypical Harley, but it is unmistakably still a Harley. The noise it makes simply commands attention. The engine is huge visually. It is the main feature of the bike. Oh, looky-here, I forgot to mention the output figure. This motor makes 122 horsepower in stock form. That is not a typo (or a non-Harley).
This bike sports triple four-piston Brembo calipers that actually work, a far cry from typical H-D braking fare. Standard ABS sweetens the deal. Does it stop sportbike-fast? Nope. Stoppies are not happening with a wheelbase this long, but stopping sure is.
Let's talk a minute about that wheelbase, because it's the drag racer style of this bike that mostly defines its character. It's long. The V-Rod Muscle is less than a foot shorter than one of those wind-up Smart cars. The contact patches are 67 inches apart. Add that length to the width of the 240 mm rear tire and you can see why design and styling choices have a big effect on how this bike performs.
The V-Rod’s stiff, sporting ride is due in part to its unconventional, hydroformed frame. Hydroforming, the process of using highly pressurized fluid to make metal into light and structurally strong shapes, is a far cry from H-D’s usual frame technology. The combination of an inverted fork and standard twin shocks in the rear is an odd pairing, but it’s effective. I cranked up the preload on the back, and I was able to get the firm, nearly harsh ride I enjoy.
There are other important stats: five-gallon fuel tank, 86 foot-pounds of torque, and a unitized transmission. Ultimately, though, you need to know only two things: It’s a Harley. It’s fast.
Testing the V-Rod
I put a little over 1,000 miles on the V-Rod, and I rode it like something was on fire. She commuted, ran the city alleys, buckled down for some freeway stints, and tore up backroads. This bike is fast. Not “fast for a Harley.” It’s just a quick bike. You won’t embarrass some guy on a race-rep plastic-fantastic, no sir. However, if you know what you’re doing on a bike, and you can find some squids who don’t know what kind of heat the V-Rod’s packing, you’re in for a treat.
On a muscle cruiser, the powerplant better be the star of the show. H-D delivers the goods. This is not Pop-pop’s Big Twin chug-a-lugging along at low rpms. The Muscle is snoozing until she’s turning four grand. From there, it stretches your eyeballs all the way up to the 9,000 rpm redline.
A word about that: Redline is where the rev limiter kicks in. I gave up staring at the tiny tach, and just clutchless-upshifted every time I banged off the rev-limiter. For normal riding, I short-shifted, and the bike was well behaved. Top gear in the V-Rod is fifth. Some will sniff at a low-tech five-speed. I never found myself wanting for different gear ratios. When I kept the mill spinnin’ over 4,000, I felt like Casey Jones with a crystal meth problem.
The bike consistently returned 35 mpg, which was right in line with H-D’s claim of 37. Consider the bike’s weight and horsepower, and the fact that I ride, um, less than conservatively, and the mediocre mileage starts to sound about right. That 11.5:1 compression ratio means you’ll be buying premium fuel, which makes the gas stops more painful. The underseat fuel filler, though, means that you stop worrying about marring your paint at the fuel station.
The V-Rod was a more competent commuter than I expected. Range was good because of the tank size, and the belt final drive eliminates chain maintenance. The handlebars are only a hair too wide for splitting lanes comfortably, but it should be noted that they’re not easily swapped out for aftermarket units, as with most H-Ds. Still, its unexpected versatility makes this bike a more realistic option to me. It’s hardly a long-range weapon, but with a set of soft bags, the V-Rod can handle most impromptu weekend excursions — if you’re going solo.
This bike’s power is fun to apply to the road. It’s no accident that H-D worked with Porsche to develop the Revolution engine. Porsche made the switch from air-cooling to liquid-cooling very successfully, without losing its rabid fans. Harley saw the obvious parallels, and the result of the collab is extremely satisfying.
The seat on this bike has to be the very best factory saddle I have ever sat on. It forms a pronounced shelf at the rear, which allows you to brace your ass against the seat right before hard acceleration. It’s probably worth noting that the Muscle wears a different saddle than the Night Rod Special.
The final attraction for me was this bike’s general adhesion to the pavement, both going and stopping. The rear Michelin Scorcher puts a lot of rubber to the road due to its 240 mm width. (Let’s also not forget the increased length of the contact patch due to the 18-inch wheel size.) The V-Rod sticks to the road like bubblegum to hot tarmac. I was positively hauling over chip-’n’-seal country roads as well as freeways in a minor downpour, and the only slide I detected was self-induced, as I gassed the bike hard coming over a Botts Dot. The ABS was very unobtrusive. I rode this bike like a complete idiot, and I could only get the ABS to engage when I was trying to. (I did this many times. The system is a hoot, and is way better at modulating brakes than I’ll ever be!)
The controls on the Muscle are so inappropriate for this bike. First, eff these pegs, man. They’re cheap-o Sportster footpegs. They are too small. My boots hit the ground constantly because they stick off the pegs so far. The second problem is the control location. Feet and fists forward may make you look like Jesse James, but it’s friggin’ uncomfortable. The previous Street Rod version of the V-Rod came with mid controls installed. (It also came with eight more degrees of lean angle, presumably due to this!) Fortunately, H-D offers a kit to convert the current Night Rod Special to mids, and aftermarket kits exist for the Muscle. If you enjoy using parts of your tires other than the centers, plan to buy a mid-control setup.
Harley installs not one, but two sets of those footpegs on this $15,849 motorcycle. It’s insult to injury on the Muscle, because I was scraping my dear wife’s boot rubber off not just one, but two pipes. In general, passenger accommodations are atrocious on the VRSCF. The pillion portion of the seat is comically small. No part of the pillion seat is flat. The whole thing slopes to the rear.
Look, if a bike has two sets of pegs, I expect a passenger to be comfortable for at least one tank of fuel. What’s the fix? There’s a sissy bar on the market called the Bicep backrest. If I had a V-Rod Muscle for any period of time, I’d have one of those on order as the ink was drying on the bike paperwork.
I was not a fan of the instrumentation. For a minimalistic motorcycle, I was pleasantly surprised to get dual tripmeters, miles-to-empty, and a clock (which makes it more commute-friendly; sometimes it's the little things in life, you know?). However, the speedo and tach are damn near useless. They are so unbelievably tiny that I gave up on watching the gauges and just beat on this bike until I hit the rev limiter, gear after gear. Would I engineer a new dash for this thing? Probably not. If it really started bugging me, I think I’d just wire in a shift light.
Another item of potential concern for some customers is upkeep-related. Different maintenance is part of the tradeoff to get all of this power from the same size package as the air-cooled models. Compared to modern bikes, the V-Rod’s requirements are little more than minor annoyances. For instance, valve adjustments on the V-Rod involve lowering the motor in the frame slightly. If you’re used to H-D’s non-existent valve adjustments on the air-cooled models, this could be a bit of a nasty surprise. However, if you’ve maintained a typical metric bike before, labor-intensive valve adjustments are probably not new to you. Long valve check intervals (every 15,000 miles) spread the pain out a little. Of course, you’ll also be replacing coolant from time to time as well — probably a strange task to most air-cooled H-D riders.
My final gripe was with the lighting. I needed more light. This headlight just doesn’t light up the road. I’m a firm believer that fast motorcycles need great lights. The fix is simple: install driving lights. Easy and pretty affordable.
The V-Rod competes with the Suzuki M109R, Ducati Diavel, Star VMAX, and to a lesser extent, the Triumph Rocket III. Let’s not beat around the bush. There are two things that drive the purchase of a power cruiser: the price tag and the look. These bikes provide gratuitous horsepower and ultra-aggressive looks. The V-Rod makes a little less power than most of its competition, but only the M109R and Rocket III have lower MSRPs. Ultimately, most folks shopping in this segment are likely going to sit on all four, and then purchase the one that tugs hardest at their heartstrings.
The V-Rod is a competent motorcycle with polarizing design elements. It was better than I ever expected at the variety of tasks I asked it to perform. However, it is not a do-all bike. It places a huge emphasis on straight-line performance, but I do not.
For that reason alone, I won’t buy one of these new, especially given the age of the design. However, if the long, low drag racer style and stoplight-to-stoplight performance is more your thing than strafing apexes, then a V-Rod Muscle makes more sense. And I admit, if a great deal popped up on a used model, I might scoop it up for a weekend bomber. I can recommend you do the same, and if you do wind up buying one, let me come ride it. Of course, I'll probably show up on a 1970s-era Super Glide.