The B-Team: Value Supersport Shootout 2005
Every motorcyclist dreams of owning the perfect motorcycle. One that is perfect for touring, commuting, cruising back roads at an extra-legal pace and doing the occasional trackday. But like the dog chasing the car, what would you do if you actually discovered that bike? Would you buy it?
The Honda is a kind of mishmash, comfort-wise: they took the front end from the F4i, which was a sharp-edged racetrack-oriented bike in 2000, and slapped on the tail and seat from the older F4, which was more of an all-arounder. Pete described this perch as being a "great compromise between being firm enough to give support and yet comfortable for many, many miles." But although the seat is broad and supportive, the fairing is a little short on wind protection. With slightly higher bars, it loses the edge to the Yamaha on the freeway, but is still better than the Kawi, with a better seat and smoother engine. Gabe rode our test unit up to Streets of Willow, put in a day at the racetrack, and still felt good enough to ride Angles Crest Highway 100 miles back to MO. A Goldwing it's not, but it's still plenty comfortable enough to burn through a few tanks in a day. That afternoon riding a deserted two-lane road through the mountains was memorable.
Memorable thanks to the F4i's excellence in almost every category. The brakes are the best, according to Pete, and Sean declared "the Honda feels the most modern of these bikes, with the best fuel injection and a linear powerband that pulls well everywhere." However, he went on to lament "The Honda gets way too hot between your legs, when you're riding in 90°+ heat." The transmission and clutch are "invisible", according to small-but-mighty Pete, and Gabe declared it "one of the easiest bikes to ride fast out there...you just sit on it and point it in the direction you want, and the bike becomes transparent." Is the perfect bike one that disappears beneath you?
"I felt instantly comfortable on the CBR"
On the racetrack, a novice rider is best served by a motorcycle that has few bad habits, so they can learn the track and focus on the basics of fast, smooth riding. "I felt instantly comfortable on the CBR", said Pete, who is a relative newcomer to the racetrack, "by the third turn of the first lap on my first session of the day I was able to put my knee down immediately and without any trepidation about what the bike would or wouldn't do. That's a milestone for me." But it's not just good for newbies: both Gabe, who has 11 years of track experience and Sean, who is fast enough to hang with the best of them, were entertained as anybody, faulting only the lack of cornering clearance caused by the big muffler and low footpegs. But those faults are a mere slip-on muffler and adapter plate away from correction.
It's smooth, seamless and does nothing wrong. We really found this bike hard to fault. Sean nit-picked: "You'd think Honda would re-route that f'ing clutch cable, but nooooo... it's still right there smack-dab across the digital speedo", and Pete noted engine buzz thru the foot pegs and clip-ons, which is most notable around 4,000 rpm. Gabe, of course, complained of a sore back after too much freeway droning. But overall, the F4i is almost a perfect bike: "The very picture of refinement", according to Pete. Is perfection good enough? Apparently not...
Pete The Million Mile Man says: "It Ain't That Easy!"
Looking over our current line-up of bikes in this test it's easy to see how bikes that were once at the top of their game are now being referred to as "value" super sports. If you're honest with yourself you can't deny that first, micro-second impression you get when you hear the word "value" is really "cheap" or somehow "less than" in terms of quality or performance. In my opinion, with the current state of the motorcycle industry having record sales of sport bikes driven by ultra high-performance and race ready technology the term "value" can take on even more of a negative connotation.
Of the four in the shootout, one is an aging remnant; another has employed some modernizing but still uses what is quickly becoming dated technology; one has essentially stuck with the times and the remaining bike is almost out of place with its complete re-thinking of what a sport bike should be. But does this change of perception about bikes that were once the definition of their class mean that they're more of a value now than before?
I'm going to suppose that most MO readers fit the "all arounder" mold. The need to have a bike to commute on, do the occasional track day, some light sport-touring and a spirited ride up and down your favorite local twisty. When you really consider all of those requirements, that's a tall order for one motorcycle to fill. What I need from a bike to perform all those duties are: ergonomics that will keep me comfortable any where from a quick 20 mile trip or as far as the full range of the gas tank; overall dimensions that offer a sporting ride to keep me entertained without being overly aggressive; enough horsepower to make freeway droning less of a chore on the bike and myself; enough torque to make minced meat of city driving and/or the really tight stuff; brakes worthy to help give my over enthusiastic throttle hand a reality check and finally fuel injection (a new bike in this day and age without it? Come on!). Additionally, the older I get and the more time I spend around bikes the more I want some unique quality to what I own.
"What it boils down to is the need to have a bike that I can ride day in and day out for any reason. On that one prerequisite alone I could rule out the Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha. But it's never quite that simple."
Breaking the mold is often an exercise in futility. Thankfully for motorcyclists Buell scoffs at futility and the XB9SX CityX is fully capable of scoffing at traditional sport bike design. With bolt-upright seating position; a short reach from the saddle to the one-piece, motor cross style handlebars; super smooth motor for a Harley based V-twin; outstanding brake design and function; virtually maintenance-free belt drive; a wheelbase short enough to compete with a bicycle; stout USD forks that offer a plush ride and a super quiet but nonetheless cool sounding exhaust note, the CityX has a lot going for it. Let's not forget one of the biggest mold-breaking ideas: fuel in the frame and oil in the swing-arm. The CityX is like a Hyena in a pack of dogs: Similar in function but way different in appearance and attitude. Awesome!
As for riding comfort, none in this pack can compare to the Buell. It's incredibly comfortable to ride. Even over 80 mph, windblast really isn't a problem despite the teeny-tiny windscreen. Foot peg position and saddle to bar relation combine to make a nearly perfect set-up. And lest I forget, the tremendous amount of torque offered by the Harley twin is perfect for just about any type of riding except maybe for going all-out on the track. But it's still good for track days especially considering the great grip offered by the Pirelli Scorpion Sync's and the incredible lean angle you can achieve by what seems like limitless ground clearance.
On the gloomy side of things the Buell does lack in a few key areas. Such as passenger accommodations that are almost non-existent thanks to one of the smallest, albeit comfortable, seats. Additionally, the clutch pull and tranny are reminiscent of a 1968 John Deere: clunky and a little notchy. Even though it's fuel injected, fuel and air mixing seems average at best with the occasional stall at stop lights and the poor throttle response off idle only adds to its sub-standard performance. Getting back to appearance, the Buell is hands-down the most fun to be seen on. Especially with the transparent, colored faux fuel tank. It should be noted that the material choice for the fuel tank may prove to be a problem in the not too distant future of ownership as it mars and scuffs easily.
The CityX may just be the perfect canyon carver, everyday city thrasher/commuter, hooligan machine, and weekend sport-tourer (so long as you've very little to carry) of the group.
Like I mentioned earlier it's never as simple as a black and white choice. Especially when we have a highly refined, years-in-the-making machine like the CBR F4i and the cutting edge of design meets function with the Buell XB9SX CityX.
So, to reiterate, ruling out all but one bike is never quite that simple and Buell and Honda certainly haven't made it easy. Their pros and cons seem to balance each other out so as not to make the choice between them clear or easy. Yet with the close race between the two I have to give the slightest of edges to the CityX due mostly to rider ergos. Use my opinions and observations as little or as much as you like. Hopefully I've made it a little easier.
-- Pete Brissette
First Place: Buell XB9Sx
If the Buell is a loveable little puppy dog, it's a pit-bull puppy, with a solid, muscular feel and a powerful bite. The Buell is a bundle of contradictions and unexpected engineering solutions that somehow all work well together, like Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor or a peanut-butter and banana sandwich. It's not the fastest, best-handling, lightest, or cheapest bike in the test, but three of our four testers preferred it and picked it as the "best" bike here.
The first surprise is freeway comfort. It looks like an overgrown Super Motard, with the vestigial fairing, tiny seat and tall, braced handlebar. However, that seat is much plusher (for the rider!) than it looks, with extra foam to make it higher. That extra height makes it hard for the "little people" like Gabe and Pete to get their feet flat at a stop, but the extra foam makes the perch surprisingly able for a long day of riding.
"Over 2,000 RPM it is as silky as a Ducati or even a Japanese liquid-cooled twin."
"I rode it 480 miles down Highway One in a day, and I could still walk at the end of it" said Gabe. The comfort is furthered by that teeny slip of a fairing, which actually works well enough to manage the windblast at speeds up to 80 MPH. Faster than that and you are fighting the wind, but this bike is better to tour on than you'd think.
The passenger seat on the CityX is a terrifying thing, but truly, it's not as bad as it looks. It looks like an afterthought, and is thinly padded, but the pegs are placed humanely, and as long as you're not too large, it's perfectly fine for short trips. Sean took Gabe over to Buell's fleet center to pick up a test unit, and aside from being scared silly on Dirty's favorite on-ramp, he weathered the 20-minute trip with no lingering effects. It's definitely not for touring, but it won't result in divorce the way a Ducati 916's passenger seat would.
Another surprise is a smooth sweetheart of a motor. Pete remarked that it was "smoother than any other in the group", and Gabe preferred the smoother and easy-to-manage XB9 motor to the rambunctious 1200 motor on bigger Buells. It's "perfect for just about any type of riding", according for Pete. Sure, it shakes like a diesel generator at idle, but over 2,000 RPM it is as silky as a Ducati or even a Japanese liquid-cooled twin. This smoothness means you can access the 72 horsepower output quickly with a minimum of shifting and revving.
And that is a handy feature, because this bike lags behind the Japanese machinery in the clutch, fueling and transmission departments. Both Pete and Dirty noted the poor off-idle response from the fuel injection, calling it the "least-sorted" and "sub-standard." That poor response can also be noted in the dyno chart as a big dip between one and two thousand RPM. The "clutch and tranny are reminiscent of a 1968 John Deere" according to Pete, and Gabe couldn't help but notice the long throw and crude feel from the gearbox. Finding neutral was about "as easy as finding a kosher butcher in Baghdad", according to the Visceral Wordsmith.
If you can overlook the crudeness of those items, you can find yet another pleasant surprise: handling on par with a custom-built roadracer.
"Surprising comfort, great handling, flexible motor and wicked good looks are sufficient to place this bike in first place over the more refined and polished CBR."
With a tiny wheelbase, well-calibrated, stout suspension components and a massive frame, the Buell manages to be passably stable while at the same time incredibly light and flick-able. "Handling is super responsive and quick...overall it's like riding a bicycle" said Pete, who had a blast riding the CityX on both the street and track, and even cynical and hard-to-please Sean noted the Buell possessed a "nice neutral toss-ability that just begs to do anything you ask of it." The big pink man flew around the Streets of Willow (on the Buell's stock Pirelli Scorpion Sync tires) like he was in a centrifuge, passing racers with double-digit number plates. A novice or expert rider -- and anybody in between -- will benefit from a fun, great-handling ride.
Surprising comfort, great handling, flexible motor and wicked good looks are sufficient to place this bike in first place over the more refined and polished CBR. As Sean says, "the Buell is the only bike in this test that makes you want to just hop-on and ride... to the store, to work, next door to your neighbor's house, up the mountain and back for lunch, anywhere, any time", and Pete thinks it "may just be the perfect canyon carver, everyday city thrasher/commuter, hooligan machine and weekend sport tourer." Gabe struggled to describe why he liked the little bike so much, especially after he had to ride it 500 miles in one day, but he summed it up by just saying, "it offers a great combination of usability and uniqueness for those who aren't happy with mere competence."