By Adam Waheed, Road Test Editor

A muscle cruiser that provides a fun, easy ride

Harley-Davidson riders seeking a more performance-oriented motorcycle will be interested in the 2012 H-D Night Rod Special. Based off the American Motor Company’s iconic V-Rod platform, this new muscle cruiser features an updated chassis that makes the bike easier and more fun to ride.

At the heart of it is Harley’s liquid-cooled 1250cc Revolution-series V-Twin engine. This fuel-injected power plant was designed by Porsche, so it goes without saying that this motorcycle has some get up and go. It features double overhead camshafts and dual four-valve cylinder heads along with a five-speed transmission with a sportbike-derived clutch that puts power to the fat 240mm rear Michelin Scorcher tire via a belt final drive. The engine and chassis components are powder coated black for a more sinister look.

In our recently published 2011 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Comparison, we measured the engine’s power output at 78.5 peak lb-ft of torque at 7200 rpm and nearly 114 horsepower at 8300 revs on our in-house Dynojet dyno. While the numbers aren’t earth-shattering in the sportbike realm, they are still pretty respectable for a performance cruiser.

One of our biggest complaints with the previous generation V-Rod was its awkward ergonomics – something that is addressed for ’12. The handlebar is repositioned and is now three inches closer to the seat. The location of the foot controls is also modified for a more traditional and upright riding position. Other chassis upgrades include the use of an inverted fork and the addition of black five-spoke cast aluminum wheels that are said to be three pounds lighter than before. The dual Brembo front disc brakes and single rear disc setup with optional ABS is retained.

Swing a leg over the Night Rod Special and it’s obvious how much more relaxed the new riding position is. While the reach to the controls is still a bit of a stretch for a six-foot-tall rider, it’s way better than before. With a wheelbase of 67-inches it’s still a long motorcycle, but since the seat is only two feet off the ground it’s fairly easy to command even at slow speeds.

Press the starter button and the engine fires to life, settling into a slightly faster idle compared to air-cooled Harleys. The sound of the engine is muted by the stock exhaust, so if there were one model that would benefit from a set of Screamin’ Eagle pipes, it would be this one.

Dial-in some throttle and the bike gets with the program. Power comes on smooth and lacks any real aggressive snap or hit – it’s very linear, which could be considered a good or bad thing depending on your preference. Grab a shift through the precise-feeling gearbox, which offers both a short shift lever throw and an audible thud during gear changes. The clutch lever still doesn’t offer that much feel, but since the engine offers such a high-level of immediate torque, launching away from a stop is a simple exercise.

On the road the water-cooled Harley delivers a firmer ride compared to other models in the H-D lineup. It isn’t uncomfortable for short rides, but it might not be conducive to 100-plus-mile rides if you have a sensitive backside. Further limiting its potential cross-country appeal is its lack of wind protection and modest 5-gallon fuel capacity. Steering effort is light, but when leaned over in a corner the chassis doesn’t offer a whole lot of ground clearance, which limits its outright cornering ability. But that’s the price you pay for riding a bike with this much style.

And that in essence is what the Night Rod Special is more than anything else. It’s a modern-looking and stylish performance cruiser that gives potential H-D owners an option, something different and arguably a little more cutting edge, than some of the company’s traditional motorcycles. In its Vivid Black color way, the Night Rod Special might be the best looking Harley V-Rod built to date. And with its starting price of $15,299, it’s one of the more affordable models too.