First Ride: 2003 Buell XB9S Lightning

America's First Modern Streetfighter

Irwindale, California, September 9, 2002 -- After spending a significant amount of time on the XB9R Firebolt, we were pretty sure that Buell had something up its sleeve. The Firebolt is great, mind you, but we felt that the engine was somewhat "rustic" compared to the rest of the machine. But even with its character-enhancing qualities, we felt the XB9R was still a fantastic effort in the realm of modern sportbike design.

All the modern and technologically advanced parts were there for a reason. Even simple things were attacked and re-done for the sake of the Trilogy (low unsprung weight, mass centralization and chassis rigidity). For the most part, everything did work. Sure, sure it had its fair share of detractors -- mainly reactionaries deriding its peculiar front end feel or its engine or whatever.

But for the most part, Buell designed and built a motorcycle that worked and worked very well in its intended backroad environment. What could be better? Soon after the Firebolt hit the presses, rumors of a naked version -- the replacement for the venerable X1 -- began to circulate. Now that the S is here, how much of the R is in it anyway? It turns out quite a bit. In fact, most of the parts that are different relate mainly to the cosmetic aspect of the machine. During the press launch, it was revealed that about 40 parts were different.

Having a BattleTrax event in a parking lot brings new meaning to the term, "parking it in a corner."

To ride it, you would think it's a different bike altogether. For one thing, the top triple clamp is different. Instead of cast-in mounts for clip-ons, its just a regular top clamp with a set of risers for a regular handlebar. The dash is slightly different too. Of course the front fairing is different as well. The fuses that were located behind the fairing on the R now reside under the seat in the S and special headlights and front fairing give the S its flat-tracker appearance. Aside from these slight changes, the front of the bike remains the same. What's most different, however, is the seating position. They've got the bars perched about 5.3 inches closer to the seat now, and compared to the 'bolt, the bars are 3.55 inches higher. Also, while the seat height is only about, 0.4 inches lower, the distance between the seat and footpegs goes up by 1.25 inches.

Lower footpegs will be available as an accessory for XB9R riders. Stirrups are optional.

This means your feet aren't pretzeled behind you, rather they're sitting lower and more forward from the Firebolt. This is because the footpegs have a different mounting block which allows them to mount lower even though the footpeg brackets themselves are identical, namely because the frames are identical. How does it ride then? It's interesting to note, that even though so few parts actually are different, that the bike handles like a completely different machine. Those wide bars, and more upright seating position contribute to a slick handling bike. One that doesn't mind being ridden a little over the top. During the intro, we had a short amount of time to ride around in the flambéed mountains just northeast of Los Angeles. During that time, two things became abundantly clear.

Most of the meaningful differences between the 9R and the 9S is located right here. The number-plate-esque front fairing did a fair job of keeping wind at bay.

First, the motor that we were skeptical about on the XB9R is perfect for the 9S. Second, the handling characteristics of the bike are extremely different. Well, different enough considering we only had it for a few hours on the street. This proved to be an odd observation, namely because they're essentially the same bike. In-control ergoes as well as the inherent psychological positioning of the machine make the rider handle the XB9S differently then the 9R. One filled with decreasing radius turns, typically over slippery, parking lot paint strips. This venue really tested the mettle of the brakes and suspension even though most of it was strictly a first gear affair. One thing that we came away with was how easy it was to get it to turn. Power was extremely tractable, and the suspension was nearly perfect for these relatively easy conditions. We can't wait to get our paws on one and flog it next to the likes of our current batch of naked bikes.

"As if to further strengthen their assertion of the Lightning's nimble handling mannerisms, Buell set up a fantastically long and tight Battletrax course."

Elliot the Internal Expounds:

Compared to the XB9S, the XB9R's stretched out ergoes meant Elliot was more apt to tip-toe versus trample through corners.

Battletrax was difficult for me to adjust to at first on the Lightning, but after a few laps I started to smooth out and found that the whole venue was not only a great way to practice useful skills, but a complete hoot as well. The light, low and dirt-tracker feel of the Lightning contributed to my confidence- even though I remained the slowest man of the day. (Of those who rode, that is. Some big-magazine editors, *cough, cough* Marc Cook *cough, cough*, preferred to watch --Ed.)

For a comparison, I hopped on the Firebolt after the morning session on the Lightning to see if the bikes were really that different. Buell staffers had been talking about how the different seating position contributed to different handling characteristics, yada yada yada, but once I put the 9R through its paces 'round the course, all my doubts were permanently put to rest.

It was like my first few wobbly sessions around the track on the 9S, but worse. And I couldn't seem to smooth it out. If I hadn't known prior to the launch intro that both bikes shared a common foundation, I would have thought that Buell had built a completely different bike using only certain parts from the 9R as a base.

The Lightning felt tiny underneath me, more like an XR100 than a sportbike, whereas the Firebolt felt long and ponderous. Its narrow clip-on handlebars made handling around the tight course a chore but the wide, dirt-style bars of the naked bike made heeling it around the bends intuitive and a joyous experience.


Engine- Type: Air-cooled, four-stroke, 45 degree V-twin Displacement: 984cc Bore x stroke: 3.5 x 3.125in/88.9 x 79.38mm Compression ratio: 10:1 Valve train: OHV, 2 valves per cyl. Fuel delivery: 45mm downdraft DDFI fuel injection Intake: Zero resistance air box, ram air Power: 92hp @ 7200rpm Torque: 68 ft.-lbs. @ 5500rpm Lubrication: 2.5qts./2.3L oil cap., dry sump Charging system: 540W Drivetrain- Transmission: 5 speed, constant mesh Clutch: Wet, multiplate Final drive: 11mm Kevlar belt, 2.4 ratio Chassis- Frame: Aluminum frame w/ Uniplanar vibration isolation sys. Wheelbase: Rake: 21 degrees Trail: 3.3in/83mm Front suspension: Showa inverted forks w/ adj. compression & rebound damping, adj. preload Rear suspension: Showa shock absorber w/ adj. compression & rebound damping, adj. preload Front brake: ZTL, 375mm stainless steel floating rotor, six piston caliper Rear brake: 240mm stainless steel rotor, single piston floating caliper Wheels: 6-spoke cast Stardust Silver, 3.5 X 17in front/5.5 x 17in rear Tires: Dunlop D207 FY 120/70ZR17 front/U 180/55ZR17 rear Fuel capacity: 3.7gal/14L Dry weight: 385lbs. Seat height: 30.1in/765mm Ground clearance: 5in/127mm Length: 75.7in/1924mm Width: 32.7in/831mm Height: 48.5in/1232mm Instruments- Electronic speedo, tach, odometer, 2 tripmeters, reserve tripmeter, clock, low fuel light, engine check light, oil pressure warning light, high beam, turn signal and neutral indicator Colors- Midnight black, Sunfire Yellow MSRP- $9,995 ($10,095 CA model)

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