Buell XB9R vs. Ducati 900SS

The Italian Campaign and other Amazing Revelations

story by John Burns, Created May. 29, 2002
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The Italian Campaign and other Amazing Revelations

Torrance, California, May, 29 --

Look, I'm not saying that if somebody offered me my choice of Ducatis I'd pick this Senna replica 900 Supersport over a new 998, but I'd have to think about it. Obviously the 998 is much more powerful and far more track-worthy, but I mean if I was looking for a STREETBIKE, I think I prefer the SS.

The controversial Terblanche plastic has grown on me, for one thing, the egos and seat of the SS are friendlier.

Maybe I'm getting old, but something about the old air-cooled two-valve twin makes me feel like I'm having a purer Ducati experience; it rumbles and clatters a little more--and I know for a fact it's fairly easy and inexpensive to turn these engines into midrange monsters. Fat midrange, shorter gearing than the 998, 20 pounds less weight, a 15mm shorter wheelbase and higher clip-ons--add up to a bike which needs no excuses and has no trouble keeping up with any sort of street pack. (The race track, naturally, where the pack is often moving over 100 mph, is a different story.)

It seemed only natural to compare the old SS to the all-new Buell, to us at least. The old Italian L-twin must still have some adherents, obviously, since it makes up a big chunk of Ducati sales. And while we weren't convinced in the beginning that Erik Buell's use of the venerable H-D Sportster was a particularly good idea (not that he had much choice), the old beast has actually reached a high-enough level of refinement in this most recent Buell that I'm beginning to grow all moist and teary-eyed with nostalgia whenever I look at it, and I'm not even a Harley guy. It's been around since 1957. Don't tell me it hasn't earned its place in the pantheon of Cool Motorcycle Engines.

When Calvin got the drop at the light, the Ducati would hold its two or three-foot advantage all the way through the quarter mile, and vice-versa on the Buell.

"And, as it turns out, the Firebolt engine and the old Ducati twin make almost exactly the same power"

A fact driven home both on the dyno and at the drag strip: When Calvin got the drop at the light, the Ducati would hold its two or three-foot advantage all the way through the quarter mile, and vice-versa with myself on the Buell. Neither bike is any longer what you'd call blazing fast, but both provide plenty of the kind of midrange thrust that works best on our favorite roads.

And our favorite favorite road, to which we somehow return again and again, is a saucy little two-lane number in the San Gabriel range called Sand Canyon. We took the Buell there a couple of weeks ago only to return with a slightly inconclusive road test; we liked the Buell--some of us more than others--but felt it had some unusual handling characteristics, to wit, it's heavy-(though not slow) steering, and some members of our party felt it particularly so with the brakes on. We also noted that, even though Mini felt that way, he seemed to have no problem not only running with a new `02 Honda RC51, but actually drawing away from it a bit. This not only shocked and amazed us, it elicited several expressions of disbelief from a few MO readers, one of whom conjectured maybe Burns was impaired that day? Looking back upon it through my usual beery fog, I don't recall having had anything stronger that day than my usual Cheerios in Stolichnaya and Kahlua coffee. Was it just a fluke then?

The old SS is still an enjoyable old bomb and stays pretty much on the pace. But jumping off the Firebolt and onto it is somewhat like hopping onto a vintage bike... though that's not always bad.

This time, we set out upon the Firebolt and the lovely new Ducati Supersport, with an `02 Yamaha R1 as chase vehicle because it was there. Lo and behold, upon reaching our favorite set of curves once again (which we all know by now like the dorsal surfaces of our own John Thomases), not only did the little Buell draw away from the Ducati, it actually gapped the Yamaha as well--a 139-horsepower chariot of the gods that weighs not much more! What the?!

We swapped bikes several times, field-sobriety-tested each other repeatedly, and the same scenario kept repeating itself while Mini kept up a steady rant about the Buell STILL being an ill-handling piglet, and how could this be? Well, all I can tell you after all my years of riding motorcycles, is that strange things happen sometimes.

"There's enough power there to send the bike down the road faster than you think"

For one thing, a bit of familiarization with the Firebolt has taught us how it needs to be ridden. If we found ourselves at first running out of revs (the Buell's done at 7500 rpm), we've since learned that the little dear pulls just as hard in the next lower gear, doing so lets you get back on the gas even sooner--and no bike on the market lets you get the throttle open as early as the Firebolt does. In theory, we've always known that a short wheelbase is a good thing. In practice, the Buell's stubbiness makes clear why that's so: It finishes a given corner while the other bikes are still turning, and by the time the R1 is pointed in the right direction and its pilot feels safe enough to whack open the throttle, the Buell has already scooted halfway down the straight. The Yamaha, of course, closes the gap a bit, but here comes the next corner, the Buell flicks into it quicker--and if there are more corners than straights, you should be getting the picture by now. The Buell's extremely short wheelbase (aided by its superior "mass centralization") means it gets to full lean almost instantly and needs to spend less time there.

It's a matter of gearing, too. Our friend the R1 is geared to do 170 mph, the little Buell maybe 140. Up until 6000 rpm or so, the R1 produces no more than 60 foot-pounds of torque. As low as 3500 rpm, Mr. Buell's already reached the leading edge of its broad, flat torque plateau.

There's enough power there to send the bike down the road faster than you think, but not so much that you're afraid to open the throttle wide the instant the straight opens up. Some bikes, particularly really powerful ones ridden on really tight roads with sheer cliffs and rock walls, encourage caution. Others, like the Firebolt, like the KTM Duke, like the old Honda Hawk GT, encourage you to flog the socks off them. Sports, motorcycling included, are games of confidence, aren't they? Adjust to the Buell peccadilloes, and the thing flies.

Crack it open (or whack it open) before the apex, and you can fully experience what the bike is about. Nothing can carve such tight arcs.

Peccadillo-wise, Minimeat is right; the Buell does steer a bit heavier than you'd expect, and it does have a bit more self-righting tendency than most, ie., you need to "hold it down" in turns. Naturally, I have a theory as to why that is, but we haven't gotten round to investigating it yet. We know one thing that causes that sort of behavior is the difference in width between a motorcycle's rear tire and its front. The Buell rides on a 120mm-wide front tire and a 180mm rear--like many current sportbikes--but could the fact that its contact patches are fully two inches closer together than the next shortest sportbike (Yamaha R6) exacerbate that tendency to stand up? I wouldn't be surprised if a 170 rear alleviated the Buell's heavy steering. (And once again, to me it's not even a problem. It's a thing I can feel which doesn't really bother me. Other riders are off-put by it.)

Number two, Mini and Calvin are bothered by the Firebolt's chassis reactions to opening and closing the throttle. "First," Mini says, "it doesn't want to turn in with the brakes on, then, when you release them, it falls into the corner."

Young Min is more sensitive than I, but I think what he's feeling is caused by the bike's zero-slack drive belt (which uses an idler wheel to eliminate slack from the final drive). On other chain-drive bikes, closing the throttle makes the bottom chain run go taut and has a mostly neutral effect on the swingarm--which leaves the bike free to transfer weight forward, compress the fork and steepen rake. The Firebolt, conversely, with the big idler wheel in its bottom belt run, looks like closing its throttle will make the rear wheel want to move upward in its travel, which means it's not going to transfer as much weight forward on the brakes--which makes it feel unwilling to turn, maybe especially if you're a big guy accustomed to lots of weight transfer.

As the corners open up and speed increases, the Ducati comes more into its own, maintaining that high-speed stability Ducatis are famous for.

Then, releasing the brakes (and opening the throttle), again thanks to the zero-slack belt, means you're going instantly from a state where the belt wants to compress the rear, to a state where it wants to extend the rear suspension--suddenly, then, the rake steepens and the bike wants to turn.

The cure for this, I think we learn the more we ride the Buell, is to be as smooth as possible, carefully blending brakes and throttle--and when you get used to it, I for one like the fact that the Buell seems to maintain more of a level attitude than most bikes--sort of like a BMW Telelever/Paralever feel. To me it feels very solid, and that's backed up by the fact that you do have to steer the Buell where you want it to go.

"As the corners open up and speed increases, though, the Ducati comes more into its own, maintaining that high-speed stability Ducatis are famous for."

Or, if you're like me and being really smooth is out of the question, you can just keep the gas on almost constantly. Getting back to the part about how early you can open the Firebolt's throttle: Crack it open (or whack it open) before the apex, and you can fully experience what the bike is about. Nothing I can recall riding can carve such tight arcs, and that's what allows the Buell to scamper away from more powerful bikes.

The Ducati features a nice Ohlins shock, working without linkage, and a new, 40-percent stiffer swingarm.

We know not if the roads you ride are as tight as Sand Canyon. If you ride big, open Roadrunner-cartoon roads and your group routinely see 100 mph plus, we salute you and advise you to buy something other than a Buell.

Wait! Wasn't this a comparison?! Where'd the Ducati go? The old SS is still an enjoyable old bomb and stays pretty much on the pace too, but jumping off the Firebolt and onto it is somewhat like hopping onto a vintage bike. Saaay, the front wheel's way out there and slightly disconnected-feeling, I'm way up in the air in the nose of a B-25, and why are we bouncing up and down so much? Even with the nice Ohlins shock working, without linkage, its new, 40-percent stiffer swingarm, the Ducati doesn't have the Buell's nice snubbed-down wheel control.

On the other hand, some of the same attributes the Buell has let the SS hang not far off the R1's tail: low gearing, good midrange power, light weight. The SS engine is revvier than the Buell's, with a better (six-speed) gearbox--but its chassis is archaic next to the Buell's. It feels long and rubbery ridden alongside the Buell, but in fairness, so does the R1 to a lesser extent. A Buell with a Ducati two-valver... that would be the bike...

As the corners open up and speed increases, though, the Ducati comes more into its own, maintaining that high-speed stability Ducatis are famous for. In fact, a little sport-touring on this Ducati, with a tankbag full of socks and toothbrush, wouldn't be a bad idea at all.

"That thing between your legs... that's not a Buell is it?"

For the rat race, bigger riders prefer the Ducati's slightly more expansive riding position over the Buell's higher-footpegged one. As for 5'7" me, the more I ride the Firebolt, the more in love I grow. In freeway-commuter mode, even, the little XB sops up bumps smoothly in spite of its taut suspension, the seat is fine, and suddenly I'm thinking the bars are not so far forward as I did at first. Now with a couple thousand miles on the clock, the old Sportster motor seems to be running freer, the gearbox is shifting better--and an average of 46 mpg means 3.4 gallon-fuel-capacity isn't such a bad thing. Right, the Firebolt is the best new toy I've gotten in a long time. Say, do we pick a Motorcycle of the Year at MO?

Second Opinions

Brent "Minime" Avis

My sense and sensibilities tell me the Buell is, despite our hard work, still an ill-handling machine. The Ducati, on the other hand, is a terrific bike in that time-honored Ducati fashion. It clanks, shudders a bit, and it still makes that cool clattering sound when you pull in the clutch lever. And, as a throwback to the earlier 900 (and 750 Supersport) that came before it, the front end feels like it's waaaay out there when you peer over it from the saddle. It feels a lot longer than that cigar butt of a Buell, too. The Ducati, you see, fits me nicely. It also looks just beautiful in these Senna edition colors. Yessir, if you were to ask me, I'd say it's just about my favorite air-cooled twin to date.

Sure, John can relate tales of how the Buell held off an R1 up our favorite road, then with riders swapped proceeded to deal the same fate to the high-zoot in-line for once again. He can tell you he thinks it steers light, that it shifts well, and I will continue to disagree. Respectfully. As I can only say this: the more I ride the XB9R, the more it confuses me. It's the fastest slow bike I've ever ridden. It's the best-handling, ill-handling bike I've ever ridden. It's uncomfortable yet I ride it nearly every day. It seems that I ride the Ducati only to prove to myself that I don't really like the Buell. And it seems I keep failing.

Calvinius "Hackfu-ium" Kim

John thinks the Buell is a great little bike. Mini thinks the Buell is confusing. Me, I just like riding it. Yea, it feels bizarre when you tip it in, especially when you're in a pitch adjustment phase, but overall none of us have fallen off the thing (this is good).

As for me, I like the Ducati just a bit more than the Buell. The other people at the office are faster than me regardless of which bike I ride, so for me, it comes down to things like; feel, color, design. You know, stupid subjective things. The 900 has enough feel and performance for my sporting needs, I also find the color scheme of our particular model to be particularly striking. I love the motor and the sounds it makes. But its still a pretty hard decision.

The reason being? The Buell is Cuell. Okay, that really sucked. But its still neat-o. All the neat techno bits make the XB9R stand on its own. Now, its not, "ew, a Buell, run away!" its more like, "a Buell? You mean the thing with the stuff?" See what I mean?

Specifications

Buell XB9R Firebolt

ENGINE
Type: 984cc air-cooled 45° V-twin OHV 2v/cyl
Bore x stroke: 88.9 x 79.4mm
Compression ratio: 10:1
Ignition: electronic, digital
Fuel delivery: FI, one 45mm throttle body
Valve adjustment: hydraulic, self-adjusting
Transmission: wet multiplate clutch, 5-speed
Final drive: belt

CHASSIS
Frame: aluminum alloy w/ Uniplanar engine mount system
Wheelbase: 52 in. (1321mm)
Rake/trail: 21 degrees/3.3 in. (83mm)
Seat height: 32.25 in.
Thumb height: 36 in.
Thumb-to-thumb: 19.5 in.
Wet weight (full tank): 425 lb  (193 kg)
Fuel capacity: 3.7 gallon

SUSPENSION
Front: 43mm inverted fork; 4.7-in. travel; adjust for spring preload,
rebound and compression damping
Rear: single coil-over shock; 5.0-in. travel; adjust for spring
preload, rebound and 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

1/4-mile (corrected): 11.86 sec. @ 114.93 mph
Fuel mileage: 45 mpg

Colors: blue, white

Suggested price: $9,995


Ducati 900 Supersport

ENGINE
Type: 904cc air-cooled 90° V-twin SOHC, desmodromic, 2v/cyl
Bore x stroke: 92 x 68mm
Compression ratio: 9.2:1
Ignition: electronic, digital
Fuel delivery: FI, 2x 45mm throttle bodies
Valve adjustment: 6000 miles
Transmission: dry multiplate clutch, 6-speed
Final drive: chain

CHASSIS
Frame: round-tube steel trellis
Wheelbase: 54.9 in. (1395mm)
Rake/trail: 24 degrees/3. in. (  mm)
Seat height: 32.5 in.
Thumb height: 34.5 in.
Thumb-to-thumb: 18.5 in.
Wet weight (full tank): 440 lb  (200 kg)
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gallon

SUSPENSION
Front: 43mm inverted Showa; 4.7-in. travel; adjust for spring
preload, rebound and compression damping
Rear: single coil-over Ohlins; 5.7-in. travel; adjust for ride
height, spring preload, rebound and compression damping

BRAKES
Front: two 320mm discs, four-piston calipers
Rear: single 245mm disc, two-piston caliper

WHEELS/TIRES
Front: 3.50 x 17 cast aluminum/ 120/70ZR-17 Michelin Hi-Sport
Rear: 5.50 x 17 cast aluminum/ 170/60ZR-17 Michelin Hi-Sport

1/4-mile (corrected): 11.94 sec. @ 114.61 mph
Fuel mileage: 43 mpg

Colors: yellow, red, grey

Suggested price: $11,395

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