Oh, Buell. The red-headed stepchild of The Motor Company, it seemed like Erik Buell tried his best to make a sporting motorcycle with the scraps he was given. Lemonade out of lemons, if you will. However, despite being hampered in the, of all places, motor department, Buell churned out some rather interesting motorcycles. Not least of which is the 2003 XB9S Lightning, the subject of this week’s Church of MO feature. Penned by recent MO re-hire, John Burns, it’s nice to see Mr. Burns’ bike eval skills haven’t changed much over the years. Read on to see his thoughts on an early example of what we would now call a streetfighter (In fact, Buell gets some of the credit for creating that term)
Oct. 20, 2002
Torrance, California, October 25, 2002 — You know what bike this bike reminds me of? It reminds me of a KTM Duke, but with a bunch more power, a KTM Duke you don’t need a crane to mount. I thought I’d be able to write that “only the KTM is as stubby and small as the Buell,” but my spec charts inform me that the Duke is in fact five inches longer of wheelbase than the 52-inch Buell. Come to think of it, the Lightning is closer specwise to my beloved little Yamaha TT-R125L–which has a 50-inch wheelbase and also a higher seat than the Buell. When the TT-R collapses under my (m)ass, though, it and the Buell have nearly the same ergoes. The Buell does weigh substantially more–at 420 pounds all gassed up–but carries it so well you barely notice. (Pretty cool how Buell was able to use that big old engine and still wind up with a package smaller, and just as light as all the Japanses 600s, huh?)
My 8-year-old sprog, though, likes the Buell. “These Buells look like the motorcycles of the future,” he says. Yeah yeah, I can already see the lips quivering out there: But it only makes 80 horsepooooower.
Well a KTM Duke makes less than 50, and it’s another favorite motorcycle. (Difference being, the KTM is a drag on the freeway if you have to go somewhere more than 20 miles away, and the Buell’s a sweet cruiser indeed.) Right, any Japanese 600 or liter-bike will bore any bike with 80 horsepower a fresh rectum any time speeds become elevated, but in most street situations I must ask you yet again: How many times do speeds become “elevated” above 100 mph or so? This, friends, is the key to Buell performance. Those screaming four cylinder sportybikes will disappear into the distance above 100–but the XB9 packs all its performance below 120 mph or so–and down there I for one am of the opinion it will hang with anything. A GSX-R 600 out-torques the other 600s with 46.5 foot-pounds at 10,5000 rpm. Well, Mr. Buell’s already past 46.5 at 3000 rpm, and goes on to pump out 65 foot-pounds at 5500 rpm. The Buell produces 80 percent of peak torque all the way from 3200 rpm `til lights out at 7500–the GSX-R from 6500 rpm until 13,000-whatever.
Meanwhile, the Buell pilot simply leaves it in top cog and twists the grip. The difference is sort of like between driving a hot rod with a built small-block or a finicky Ferrari. There’s a place in the world for both, of course. The place for most of us MO-ites being the U.S. of A. though, I would contend that the former has the kind of power you can enjoy much more often, not to mention the cacophonic soundtrack.
Running ever-so-smoothly at 4500 rpm and 80 mph, the Buell is in the heart of its powerband, and top gear is good for anything from between 40 and a hundred-however-many mph the twin can stir up. The big silver gas tank, has a pass through for the air intake in the left frame spar. The airbox connects to this and fills the gap between the spars, where the fuel tank would normally be. Chassiswise, though, the Buell turns the tables by having the sort of nimble reactions you’d expect from the exotic sports car instead of the solid-axle Nova. With its stubby wheelbase, steep rake and very short trail figures, you might expect a certain skittishness, but nothing could be further from the truth. At 90 mph over the very freeway slabs that make our much heavier and longer ZRX1200 Kawasaki feel a bit, ahem, nervous, the little Lightning remains completely unflappable. It is the world’s fastest Schwinn Stingray.
Credit must go to that stiff frame and to some highly competent suspension calibration. The ride over sharp pavement is not Gold Wing or even Ohlins plush–but it really is a reasonable facsimile when the compression adjusters are backed out a tad. A suprisingly comfortable deep-dish saddle and a handlebar which falls naturally to paw make it a bike you could ride all day. As a matter of fact, our main complaint with the XB9R was its low, narrow clip-on bars and highish footpegs. The “S” is the bike we wanted all along, and our sources tell us there was quite a bit of discussion as to which Buell should’ve been introduced first. Should’ve called me and asked.
The ergoes, it seems, were primarily responsible for the confusing handling signals picked up by our own Minime and various print magazine journalists who thought the XB9R was just too heavy-steering for a bike its size. No more. Now, the tighter the road, the bigger the XB9S’ advantage over just about anything else trying to keep up with it. Now there’s enough handlebar leverage, and enough less weight on the riders’ hands, to allow flinging the Lightning into corners like yesterday’s boxer shorts. And if there’s still a slight tendency to stand up on the brakes–which there is since “S” and “R” share all chassis dimensions–the wide bar makes it easy to ignore.
Better yet, think of the tendency to stand up as “feedback” worth paying attention to. Whatever, Don Canet of Cycle World, the fleetest motojournalist of all by a margin, found the XB9R to be a mere tick back from the winning Honda F4i in a multibike handling test in that magazine a few months ago–and the S should run rings around the R on any public road. Alas, what fun would life be if things were perfect? The gearbox and clutch, while light-years ahead of the run-of-mill Sportster, remain a few orders or magnitude behind the best Japanese cog-swap mechanisms. Clutch pull is heavyish and long-throw, and you need to use it for nearly every shift–not to process the actual shift, but because the zero-lash drive belt’s ahh, zero lash, gives no cushioning at all like you get from a chain with an inch or two of slack.
All I (an admittedly huge fan of these new Buells) can say is; you get used to the way these things shift, and the beauty is you don’t have to shift them much. In sporting use they’re really not bad at all; when you’re deliberate, the box is good. It’s around town–stop and go and in traffic–when your mind is on other things, that the 2-3 shift hangs fire about half the time–but I think ours is getting better as the miles break it in. Wait, here’s another bummer: That beautiful gas tank of a frame only holds 3.7 U.S. Gallons. Our R always got around 45 mpg; the S is lucky to get 40, and the low fuel light is on at around 120 miles (whereupon the LCD tripmeter automatically begins displaying miles-travelled-on-reserve). Gearing is the same. Maybe your big head poking up higher produces more drag? Maybe the S just encourages us to twist the throttle harder? In the end, I just like the Buell’s attitude, its sunny disposition. It managed to pry me off my Kawasaki ZRX–a thing not managed by a Ducati S4 Monster, a Honda 919 or a Yamaha FZ-1 that were also taking up space in the MO cave–even though all those bikes make more power.
My approach to the mighty ZRX, in particular, is a respectful one. With its size, power, lack of handling refinement (and its tone of voice, with the Muzzy pipe), it’s obvious to most sentient beings that here is a speed tool that wouldn’t even shed crocodile tears if it killed or maimed you. The Buell is the complete opposite. It’s a dachshund puppy with a wagging tail not a Rottweiler. Its tiny size and anti-peaky power delivery encourage you to wheelie, ride on peoples’ lawns, take kids for rides `round the block even if they don’t want to go, honk the horn at teenage girls in Britney-wear–and if I weren’t too lazy to round up tires I’d really like to take it to Maely’s Ranch for a little dirt-oval action (especially since somebody at Buell mentioned “street-legal dirt-tracker.” ) I think it would work pretty well, and if it didn’t, well ahhh, you guys were the ones who brought it up…
Certain people must always spoil the mood by pointing out things like, for $10,000 you could have an R1–and which would you rather have if you were a one-bike family? Tough call. For me, a man with an intimate fastrackriders.com relationship which allows me more than my fair share of track days, I would need the R1. However, if I were John Public and track days were few and far between, and if I lived in a climate with hot summers especially–then I could see myself becoming a Buell man. Lately it seems there are a lot of multi-bike owners out there. If you already have some sort of serious sportbike, this Lightning is the perfect stable pony.
My only regret is that the Advertising Department informs me we have a new Buell campaign running here at MO, and so many of you won’t believe me when I tell you how really good this little bike is. Your loss. Cynicism does not always pay.
Point not Counterpoint
I admit I was quite skeptical before riding the new Buell XB-9S. As it turns out, in many regards, that skepticism was totally off base. It was well-founded in others. There is no problem with the engine. A rocketship it ain’t, a slug it ain’t. The XB-9 does possses the vibes that tickle your netherbits in that Harley way, but it also possesses the lungs to happily rev smack into the rev limiter just north of 7,500-RPM. It delivers healthy torque and easy wheelies in a linear rush that (VFR riders, may I borrow your cliche?) feels like an electric motor. Other than the lack of a choke knob and the whine of the fuel pump, you’d never know the bike was fuel injected. It doesn’t hitch, jerk or surge. The handlebar bend is perfect. The throttle feels like it rotates on precision ball bearings and the grips are nice and fat with just the right firmness.
For such a compact package, the seat and overall riding position are excellent. Niggles and gripes? The clutch feels like you are compressing a garage door spring, using a rusty cable connected to a lever clamped in an over tightened pivot made from the same pot-metal as a Dnepr Nepal. The clutch problem is amplified by a gearbox that dislikes clutchless shifting. Furthermore, this bike possesses a touch of schizophrenia. It has that big American-looking air-cooled V-twin, but it is topped by thst very plasticky faux gas tank with glitzy raised chrome Buell appliques that looks for all the world like one o’ dem plastic fantastic rice burner thingys.
Then there is the cruiseresque, antique sterling-silver tea steeper between the subframe rails behind the seat. When parked at the curb in its yellow paint scheme, the 9S can resemble the cutesie Blast, those of you who weren’t comfortable wearing pink Polo shirts in the 80s may have a problem with that.
As a general purpose motorcycle, the Buell is hard to fault. It’s fun around town, fun on the freeway and fun in the canyons. Riding the 9S in traffic is an absolute joy. With its delightful midrange and high leverage bars, it makes rush hour feel like asphalt surfing. If it wasn’t for the clutch it would be the ultimate commuter. IMHO, the front end feels a little vague, for a banzai canyon blaster or track weapon. The front brake is slightly grabby, yet not incredibly powerful. Reapplication of front brake after turn in, causes a noticeable hitch in the front suspension, which saps confidence in those close-quarter streetfighter wars. I never got used to this in my limited test time, but if I lived with the bike on a daily basis (Not an unpleasant prospect at all) I would most likely be able to dial out the traits I didn’t like, or learn to ride around them more effectively. Bottom line? It’s fun with its own unique character. I like it, warts and all.
Specifications: ENGINE Type: 984cc air-cooled 450 V-twin OHV 2v/cyl Bore x stroke: 88.9 x 79.4mm (3.5 x 3.125 in.) Compression ratio: 10:1 Ignition: electronic, digital Charging system: 540-watt three-phase AC alternator Fuel delivery: FI, one 45mm throttle body Valve adjustment: hydraulic, self-adjusting Transmission: wet multiplate clutch, 5-speed Final drive: belt, 2.4:1 CHASSIS Frame: aluminum alloy w/ Uniplanar engine mount system Wheelbase: 52 in. (1321mm) Rake/trail: 21 degrees/3.3 in. (83mm) Seat height: 31.5 in. Thumb height: 37 in. Thumb-to-thumb: 21 in. Wet weight (full tank): 425 lb (193 kg) Fuel capacity: 3.7 gallon GVWR: 850 lb. SUSPENSION Front: 43mm inverted fork; 4.7-in. travel; adjust for spring preload, rebound/compression damping Rear: single coil-over shock; 5.0-in. travel; adjust for spring preload, rebound/compression damping BRAKES Front: single 375mm disc, six-piston caliper Rear: single 230mm disc, single-piston caliper WHEELS/TIRES Front: 3.50 x 17 cast aluminum/ 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop D207 Rear: 5.50 x 17 cast aluminum/ 180/55ZR-17 Dunlop D207 Fuel mileage: 40 mpg Colors: black, yellow Suggested price: $9,995