2002 Buell XB9R

Part One: Deciphering the Trilogy


Torrance, California, May 15, 2002 -- Hugh Hefner, sleeper with thousands of gorgeous women, was recently quoted as saying, "It's good to be selfish. But not so self-centered that you never listen to other people." Though Erik Buell and Hef are not exactly in the same business (we're certain each has its own perks), it seems that the Buell Motorcycle Company's founder follows a philosophy much the same. He sees what people want, even if they don't know what it is themselves, and aims to give it to them in his own stubborn way; tradition, conformity and nay-sayers be damned. A shock that gets pulled apart as the rear wheel goes through its travel? That was just the beginning of what was to become a trademark of the earliest Buells (and one that's been done away with on this new Firebolt).

In its place, the newest Buell features even more funkiness than the original specimens--but the same basic theory (either we do it my way or we don't do it at all) remains at the heart of every machine. If light makes right, then Buell's trying for complete infallibility. Buell's "Trilogy of Design" since day one has meant optimal mass centralization, minimal unsprung weight, and chassis rigidity. This theory has taken the new XB9R down an interesting road that, as it turns out, creates some new problems by so creatively solving others.

After the press introduction at Las Vegas a few months ago, Hackfu came back with an overall positive impression of the bike. He mentioned a few handling quirks however, so we were anxious to pick up our long-term test bike as soon as possible. "Snagging our blue unit, at long last, from Buell's fleet center, we spent some time chatting with the technicians about how they loved the new Firebolt." Everything our perked ears could pick up was positive-sounding, except for when one mentioned that, "even though it doesn't have as much horsepower as the old Buell it weighs less, so..." Come again? Yes, he said, the new bike is down a few horses when compared to the old X1 Lightning (but then that's to be expected with 20 percent less displacement). Just ride it, he said, you'll like it. And so off we went, hoping for the best while expecting the worst.

The new bike, idling beneath you at a stop, is way light--and the mirrors and fairing don't even flap anymore while you're sitting there waiting for the light to change. And it's small, too. It feels much smaller even than Yamaha's flickety-flick R6 between your knees. If not for the familiar sound and feel of that air-cooled 984cc 45-degree-twin whirring away below like something out of a WWII aircraft, you might think you were sat upon some sort of cool KTM or something. Alas, no, nothing but good old American Iron. Okay, aluminum. You notice the puffing exhaust gas on your left boot heel, just like Hackfu said, and spring back to the reality that you're on a not-like-anything-else Buell. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

With the clutch pulled back to the bar (which, thankfully, no longer palpitates like Hef's heart on its third Viagra of the morning), depressing the gearshift lever brings that familiar clunk to your ears before you feed in the throttle, slip out the nicely-weighted clutch and roll away. In the course of everyday riding, the seating position is definitely more aggressive than any previous Buell (be thankful you never rode the original, circa 1989, Mini--jb), though it's not intolerable. The pegs are pretty close to the seat, not unlike a GSX-R, but the grips are pretty close in too--even though the one-piece top triple clamp carries them about an inch more forward than where they need to be.

In general, ergos are relatively aggressive, and the riding position gives pretty good feel for how the bike reacts to what's being thrown at it. Though the motor is by no means a brute, it's deceptively fast as are most twins. Though it makes a few horses less than the old motor, it does a lot with a little. Checking in on our Dynojet Model 250 dyno, the XB9R's 984 cc twin makes 76.7 horsepower and 59.8 foot-pounds of torque. No, that's not much, when you mix in the XB's wispy weight and take into consideration that the bike seems to deliver a large percentage of its meager torque as soon as you open the throttle, well, you begin to understand what Erik Buell is on about.

The bike is so light and short, and the engine so unthreatening-feeling, you occasionally find yourself diving into corners without bothering to shut the throttle. And those numbers are nearly identical to what a 900 Supersport Ducati produces. At 425 pounds dripping wet, the XB is even 20 pounds lighter than that very light bike.

The XB, in fact, lends credence to the idea that reducing weight really is just as good as adding power when it comes to unraveling knotted pavement lines. While being chased around by a talented, RC51-mounted pilot (or two), I assumed the proverbial blowing-off-of-the doors was imminent at any second and so kept a wary eye on the mirrors. And yet... from the moment we picked up the pace and got down to the dirty business of "testing," that moment never came. A few days and a few hundred miles later, I'm still waiting.

Keeping up a spirited pace, the Firebolt's motor does its best work from 4,500 rpm right up to 7,000, whereupon it's best to grab another gear before bumping into the pop-pop-pop rev-limiter. Grabbing the next gear requires more effort than most other sporting twins, though the effort and response of the new five-speed is about half a light-year superior to the crashboxes found on previous Buells. And though we never missed a gear, we sometimes would allow the motor to drop well below its power peak to avoid having to row the gearshift lever too much, not that that seems to hinder forward progress much.

"The bike's fuel-injection and power delivery are so seamless that a fully-opened throttle is welcome as low as 2000 rpm."

Coming off slower corners, the bike's fuel-injection and power delivery are so seamless that a fully-opened throttle is welcome as low as 2000 rpm--and really, 60 foot-pounds of torque isn't all that meager when you consider that the typical 600 four cylinder makes around 42 foot-pounds at around 10,000 rpm.

Hustling the bike through rapidly-approaching bends, the Firebolt feels noticeably heavier than I thought it would, given its lithe feel at rest. With rake and trail figures of 21 degrees and 83 millimeters, the Buell has three degrees less rake and two more millimeters of trail than Yamaha's excellent R6 Supersport--and it's an amazing 2.3 inches shorter of wheelbase, too. On paper, it should turn super quick and light. And herein lies the crux of the frustration we have with the bike.

After the press introduction, a number of journalists mentioned the bike's tendency to want to stand up on the brakes, strongly resisting trail-braking into bends. Unfortunately, at elevated speeds even on the street, we're left with a similar feeling. Once you let go of the brakes, the bike falls in nicely and will carve a pretty good corner. Once settled in a corner, changing line requires a bit of effort as the bike feels like it constantly wants to stand itself up. But with force, you can place the bike pretty much anywhere before opening the throttle and running out of the corner.

That huge single rotor does a great job slowing the bike during pre-corner maneuvers, but something happens at that point which is still under investigation though the symptoms are clear. We thought, at least initially, the problem could be a too-steep steering angle or maybe too much trail? Then we wondered if maybe the large rotor placed so close to the outside of the front gyroscope (wheel) could be part of the problem? Then we wondered if maybe the forks weren't binding themselves up on the brakes, but then we realized they work pretty darn well everywhere else and realized maybe we didn't know what was going on after all.

We contacted a Buell spokesperson who admitted that, yes, the bike's designers have more of an "old-school" riding style, wherein all the braking is done while upright. So, for them it works great, but maybe we should try to adjust a few things since the XB9R's chassis is very sensitive to set-up? We were sent the recommended settings and found that we were right on target. So, the frustration continued.

Buell sent this e-mail:

"Keep in mind, every sport bike does this (attempt to stand up while braking) to some degree. Most bikes don't give you the traction feedback (confidence) that allows you to use this tool very often. Because the 9R has good traction feedback, you know there is some left for braking even if you're still turning. On bikes with vague feedback, you wouldn't dream of touching the brakes while turned.

Make sure they (MO) get the owners manuals, the basic setup chart should work fine for 95% of the "normal" riders, and all but the most picky journalists/racers.

The variables that affect the braking stand up are the same ones that affect running wide vs. finishing the turn. The XB9R prefers to have a 'nose down' attitude. Lower front preload, or higher rear should help, but not eliminate the feeling. You can keep reducing front preload till you get light bottoming under the most extreme upright braking.

Unless they're dragging pegs, tell them to stay on the gas and just lean more, the XB9R loves the inside line where others can't go."

So, there you have it. We had the settings pretty much where they should be, just like the good people at Buell said, but we were still not satisfied. We put in a few calls to other journalists to find out if it was just us MO people having issues with the bike's handling. As it turned out, the few people who've spent time with this bike post-intro are experiencing the same sort of issues. We put in a few more calls to the Buell people and explained again what was happening even with their recommended settings. This time they acknowledged that what we were feeling was consistent with their own findings. They say that, despite the chassis' numbers, the bike was designed to have a lot of high-speed stability (which it certainly does). However, they had no answer as to why the bike is still so reluctant to change direction, on the brakes or off. As you read this, the chassis engineers are working with Shawn Higbee and their lead test rider, trying to come up with new suspension settings they hope will alleviate the bike's handling ills as they stand.

So, we're not crazy after all, but that would make for an easier explanation. And the thing of it is, maybe thats why I'm so frustrated and why I'm making this bike my mission in life. Because I really think we can get Buell's new baby to do all the things a proper sportbike should, and do them as well if not better than most other bikes out there. It may take a little bit of time, that's all. We love the bike's against-the-grain styling and its complete Buellnocity: its fuel in the frame, its oil in the swingarm, muffler under the motor and the big-ass single disc brake. Sitting next to the Ducati 998 in our dungeon, the Firebolt looks way cooler and amazingly smaller. There's so much eye candy, so many conversation pieces to pick apart, it's a very distinctive motorcycle.

As it stands, we wish the thing had some more power, naturally, but all in all we have a fondness for the XB9R. It makes the most of what it's got, and people dig it. Stay tuned with us as we attempt to decipher Erik Buell's trilogy and fine-tune things: Different tires maybe? Further clicker fiddling?

Anyway, now that we've been living with the bike for a while, we can agree this is far and away the nicest put-together Buell ever made. No more hardware store fasteners, no more flapping plastic. And though Buell claimed this XB9R is the best handling streetbike ever, it unfortunately is not. Still, hope is not lost. I shall not rest until I have made it into one of the best-handling sportbikes -- just as Erik Buell intends it to be.

Second Opinion

JohnnyB

Frankly, I don't know what Mini's going on about here, but then Mini idolizes Hugh Hefner for God's sake. I agree that you'd expect the XB to steer a bit lighter than it does, given its specifications, but I fear his (and Calvin's) insistence that the bike is deathly reluctant to turn with the brakes on is slightly overstated (in fact I think the kids are on the drugs again). I dunno, maybe I'm insensitive? Ham-fisted? Delusional? To me, the thing feels great dragging both brakes all the way into corner apexes, with no more tendency to stand up than any other similar-sized bike. And maybe its slightly "heavy-steering" feel is attributable to the fact that you're going faster than you think you are over your favorite backroad, lulled into a feeling of mellow cruiserness by the low-revving Sportster engine? All I know is, for all Mini's whining, he and the XB were drawing away from me on a fresh RC51, about an inch per corner. God help us when he gets the XB's chassis to work the way he'd like.

All I can figure is that Mini and Calvin are both quite a bit larger and taller than me, and their extra weight on such a tiny bike, might cause more fore/aft pitching (a theory backed up by both of them claiming dragging the back brake into corners makes things better). Playing with different settings, though, isn't making Min any happier.

What bugs me about the XB is that the bars could easily be an inch closer to the seat than they are, but Buell chose to move them forward to allow the rider to tuck in at the track which is silly; if this one's supposed to be a "streetfighter," I'd rather keep my dukes up. And though the zero-lash driveline is kind of cool, the clutch spoils things by having some sort of internal buffer that occasionally causes some strange lurching in the lower gears. Overall, it's a much better Buell, but it's still a Buell, know what I mean? There are still a couple of quirks that you no doubt adjust to quickly and learn to ignore. (Speaking of zero-lash, we notice the tensioner wheel for the drive belt has grown much larger than on the bikes we rode at Vegas... We'll be investigating that too.)

As for me, I love the thing warts and all. Wendy F. Black walked into the shop and said, wow, it looks like a toy. That's it, it's a big kids toy. It's tiny (small riders will love it), it's brightly colored, it's a technological trump card, it's cute, it makes great air-cooled motorcycle sounds (I got to hear a B-17 bomber this week, too), it's not a bad around-town runner (though it's not that great either, again, thanks to the longish reach to the bars). Think of this as XB9R Part One, then. We're off to pick up a 900 Supersport Ducati to ride alongside the Buell, Senna model natch, and we won't rest until we get to the bottom of things. Well, maybe just a short nap...

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