2008 Buell Ulysses XB12XT Review

Lower, better handling Ulysses ‘Shortcake’ sure to appeal to fans of this brand


As a company, Buell's products not only defy many conventions, the business itself seems to be defying the trend of challenging sales in some parts of the industry. "Sales were up in January and February," Paul James, Buell’s Director-Product Communication told Motorcycle.com. Though exact figures weren't available, that’s an interesting fact considering Buell's parent company, Harley-Davidson, has felt a bit of an impact from the tightening U.S. economy.

No doubt the forward momentum owes a great deal to the company's late-2007 release of the highly-anticipated liquid-cooled V-Twin 1125R, especially considering "dealer fill" (each dealer that wanted an 1125R has received at least one unit) has already been achieved. But the company's current sales success is also due to the humble Ulysses. Of the nine bikes making up the product line, six of those carry the letters XB; of those, the Uly is the strongest selling machine according to Chris Nelson, Director of Product Planning for Buell.

2008 Buell Ulysses XB12XT.

So, despite Erik Buell's venerable racing history and the influence it's had on many of his bikes, the odd-looking and strangely-named (Eric likes Greek mythology) Ulysses with 17-inch wheels, sporty rubber, dirtbike-style handlebar and over 6-plus inches of suspension travel wins the day.

Buell has had the time, so it must have wisdom. Or at least they've heard the cries of the media, consumers and corporate execs. If there was one thing about the Ulysses that could be perceived as an Achilles tendon to further domination of sales by the adventure-tourer, it would probably have to be all the spring in its step. With the aforementioned suspension travel, seat height is a short-statured pavement-loving rider's nightmare at 31.8 inches. Enter the 2008 Ulysses XB12XT: a Ulysses for those lusting after a Uly that they can climb aboard without actually having to "climb aboard." Seat height is 30.7 inches. We should note here that Buell (as well as Harley) list saddle heights as "ladened, " meaning the seat height stats are measured with a "design rider" (180 lbs, give or take) and full of all fluids. Just some seat F.Y.I.

"Nine-tenths of wisdom consists in being wise in time."-Theodore Roosevelt

Official marketing speak for the Ulysses XB12XT is that it is an adventure "sport-touring" motorcycle. Each bike is aimed at experienced riders, but with different backgrounds: the X model for those with dirt experience, and dedicated sport riders for the XT; both with wanderlust in their hearts.

With the lower, sport-tuned suspension on the new Uly, stability in the corners is enhanced when compared to the longer-travel Ulysses XB12X.

The great thing about the new Ulysses is that it's largely the same as Uly numero uno. Very few things separate them. The XB12XT uses a new 43mm fully-adjustable inverted Showa fork with 4.9 inches of travel (similar travel to other XB models) while the XB12X's 47mm fully-adjustable inverted Showa fork travels 6.5 inches. Rear suspension travel on the XT is 4.9 versus 6.3 inches on the X, and the XT uses the same rider-accessible remote preload adjuster. Digging into that lower suspension, John Bunne, Test Technical Expert for Buell, informed Motorcycle.com that the fork is unique to the XT and not just a hack job on the springs. "It's a different fork altogether. Both bikes have triple rate progressive springs, but the rates on the XT aren't the same as on the X."

Additionally, Buell worked with Showa to develop a new urethane bumper on the shock that "spreads compression forces," allowing for a more forgiving ride over crummy pavement or when loaded with gear and passenger.

The XT comes with a taller windscreen, hard saddlebags and trunk case as standard; you'll have to pony up extra to get those on the X model. The new XT uses Pirelli Diablo Stradas for better feel and higher mileage while the adventure-touring bike is plied with the Pirelli Scorpion Sync, primarily because that tire's more aggressive tread pattern is better suited to off-pavement excursions.

Both Ulysses use the ZTL perimeter-mounted rotor brake system, but each bike has a slightly different wheel. They look alike, but the wheels on the XB12XT are lighter by a pound a piece. Wheels on the X have added material for durability.

A couple other details complete the very thin line between the two Ulysses. The original Uly's 6-spoke wheels are reinforced with more material around the tire bead area for added strength. The new Uly isn't targeted for single track use (or as much) so its wheels needn't be as durable and thereby are nearly one pound lighter, each. That's a significant savings considering rotating mass, inertia 'n' all that stuff. Though function could be debated, the X's fender is still reminiscent of a certain "other" A-T bike on the market, while the XT's front fender is rather traditional.

Dimensionally, the XT chassis varies a half degree here or a tenth of an inch there (including less than an inch difference in ground clearance) but only as a matter of course from the lower suspension. Otherwise, the bikes share the same 1203cc rubber-mounted air/oil/fan-cooled 45-degree V-Twin, fuel-in-frame and oil reservoir/swingarm chassis and 375mm perimeter-mounted rotor ZTL front brake. The bikes are like fraternal twins, really, but, like twins, act differently though they look a lot alike.

Buell: Coming to an H-D dealer near you...again

It's no secret that Buell bikes haven't been readily embraced by the ultra-devoted Harley crowd. It's highly probable that if they didn't at least have an American powerplant they would've been driven from the village by pitch fork and flaming torch (or at least flaming paint job). If you've been to two different H-D dealers that carry Buell then you may have seen one dealer shoving its three dusty Buells into the corner next to practical riding gear, while another dealer may have gone so far as to create a separate entrance for the Buell side of the shop.

In an effort to raise brand awareness and foster current growth, Buell has created a dealer within a dealer, called The Buell Experience. For now, this will still be at H-D dealers, but two stand-alone Buell dealerships are running, though they are an extension of existing Harley dealerships.

The entire retail environment is designed around creating a "garage feeling" as well as an atmosphere of being uniquely Buell, catering to those riders who currently love their Buells, and enticing those that may have been interested in a Buell but most likely wouldn't have set foot in an H-D dealership. Along with displays tailored to the Buell fan, areas to hang out and general Buell goodness, each Buell Experience will have a "Knowledge Center." This will be an interactive information kiosk replete with computer terminal there to help you get Buellified.

Three Buell Experience shops exist with more in the works: Skip Fordyce Harley-Davidson & Buell, Riverside, CA, Granite Mountain Harley-Davidson, Conyers, GA and Harley-Davidson of Ocala, Ocala, FL.

To sample the new Ulysses, Buell invited us out to the surprisingly tranquil wine country of Temecula, CA as the ride start point. From there we worked our way to the accessible and inviting mountain community of Idyllwild via state highways 74, 79 and 243, and then back again. Fortunately for us we had the grand opportunity to ride both bikes back-to-back.

Even without having sat on a standard Ulysses in at least eight months, saddling up to the new Uly was exceptionally easier and inviting. Please don't be fooled, though, into thinking that the XT has a different saddle to achieve the lower height; both bikes use the same seat. More than just an easier straddle, the new XT feels more stout, "like a bulldog," said our faithful photog Fonzie. You can almost sense the sporty intentions of the new Ulysses. Astute Fonzie also wisely observed that the taller windscreen doesn't necessarily generate more turbulence, but does increase wind noise. This will probably turn out to be one of those love it or hate it things once more XT bikes make it to the public, depending on the size of the rider.

Despite a little less than an inch decrease in ground clearance, scraping hard parts wasn't an issue on the XB12XT. We weren't dragging knees during the ride but could reasonably assume that it would take some aggressive riding to touch a peg.

With a lower center of gravity we were eager to see how the new Ulysses would handle the moderately-tight and often fast, sweeping turns of the mountain roads. The XT transitions into and between turns more readily if for no other reason than you're not levering the bike over as far from one side to the other as on the taller X. But we can't forget about those lighter wheels stepping in to help. The other generous contributor to handling on the XT is its sport-oriented state-of-tune in the suspension. Where the X will experience chassis pitch during on/off throttle, a bit of wallow mid-turn and substantial dive under braking, the XT eliminates virtually all of those issues. Bends in the road were met with stability, little to no protest due to line changes, and a fraction of the brake dive.

Considering its dry weight gain of 40 lbs (thanks largely to the hard luggage), the XT's tarmac prowess is all the more impressive. Winding ribbons of pavement only encouraged me to ride the Ulysses XT more like a sport bike.

Another notable characteristic was ride quality. The XT was far more plush without being spongey, and this with still more "sport" left in its tuning range, according to Bunne. Conversely, frost heaves, expansion joints and generally rough pavement revealed a harsher ride from the X's suspension. The original Uly isn't particularly bad in handling or ride comfort, we just have to remember its broader focus; compromises have to be made. The differences between the two Buells become clearer with each mile: one loves the street while the other embraces both pavement and dirt, excelling at neither, but handling each with confidence.

You, sitting there at work, dreaming about my job. Me, sitting here dreaming about the next new bike I'll get to ride...

The Ulysses is a favorite among fans of the brand, and a leader at Buell. The Ulysses XB12XT should only prove to expand the legion of believers.

The Ulysses XB12XT will be available in Thrust Blue, Racing Red or Midnight Black and retails for $12,995.

The Perfect Bike For...
The shorties among us who've always wanted a Ulysses but didn't want to carry a step ladder and would prefer to stay on the tarmac.
 Highs:     Sighs:
  • Shorter 30.7-inch saddle height
  • Turn-key tourer thanks to hardbags as standard
  • Improved on-road, sport-inspired handling
  • Taller windscreen seems to aim airflow at helmet
  • Need to keep engine on the boil (over 4500 rpm) for best performance
  • 40 lbs dry weight gain

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