Husqvarna’s US media guy, Andy Jefferson, is a little worried about Husqvarna’s name recognition in the States, though worried is probably not the right word. More like “interested in” or “amused by.” Husqvarna’s been selling bikes in the US for decades (Andy raced them in the early ’80s), but it still seems like the few Americans who do recognize the name Husqvarna associate it with chainsaws and sewing machines. Dirtbike people have no excuse since Husky’s won a couple of US championships lately. But you do have to give streetbike people a break. I mean, Husky’s only been back in the streetbike market in the US, since, uh, 2018.
Last year we slagged off the Vitpilen 401 a little, but only in order to heap more praise on the highly contrasting sister-ship Svartpilen 401, mostly because of its much friendlier ergonomic triangle. Then we gave reasonably high marks to Vitpilen 701. Well now, here’s Svartpilen 701, and there’s roughly twice as much to love: Svartpilen 401 is a tarted-up KTM Duke 390, and Svartpilen 701 is, correct, a tarted-up – but visually toned down – Duke 690.
What happened was, in case you haven’t been paying attention, KTM bought Husqvarna from BMW in 2013, and ever since then the Austrians have been on the gas with the storied old Swedish marque in a way the staid BMW never was. In 2013, sceptics said Husqvarna would be lucky to move 20,000 bikes a year. In 2018, Husky’s marketing people tell us, they moved 48,000-some bikes. Very healthy numbers in a stagnant market.
Count me among the sceptics who saw the Svartpilen at the big Milan show two years ago and was slightly underwhelmed, in spite of the attention slobbered upon it from the younger, hipper set who were crawling all over it. Actually I remember sitting on the Vitpilen and hating the long reach to the bars; the Svartpilen was guilty by association without so much as a sit. Now I think I might be one of the Svart’s biggest fans: The 690 Duke is one of those bikes everybody loves, a thing that evolved from kind of a street-legal dirtbike into a civilized street-going Norton Manx. The Svartpilen just takes that to the next level.
Norton Manx? Now I find myself writing about bikes that glazed my eyes over when I started writing about bikes, but that was before I was able to appreciate that big English Singles were still beating way more advanced multi-cylinder motorcycles well into the 1960s, with light weight, right-now power, and the great, quick handling that results from those two attributes.
If older Singles were buzzy or thumpy or unsophisticated, that’s right out the window with this proven KTM engine. Dual counterbalancers, one driven off the crankshaft and one off the cam, render it smoother-running than most Twin-cylinders and quite a few Fours. With 75 horsepower at the crank, it makes more power than any thumper you’ve ever ridden, too, and more than a lot of Twins. My, what a big piston you have. Yes, 105mm – that’s 4.13 American inches across.
It’s the character of that power, too: Though it revs on to 9000 rpm, there’s plenty of thrust right off idle and even more in the meaty midrange – and its fuelling is impeccable as well. Crack the throttle back on halfway round a bend on the edges of the tires, and it feeds back in with zero lurch. Some sort of “intake resonator” in the 50mm Keihin intake tract helps with that smoothness, Husqvarna says. We wish Keihin would share it with some other manufacturers.
We could sing the praises of the Husky 701/ Duke 690 engine all day (actual displacement 692.7 cc), but the real beauty of the new Svartpilen is that it’s not all about performance. If performance was all you wanted, you’d save a few bucks and buy one of the orange bikes that flashes READY TO RACE in your face every time you turn the key on; both the 690 and the all-new 790 Dukes are less money. But the kids have moved beyond all that competitive spec chart stuff, and just want a bike that’s fun to ride and easy to keep.
Husqvarna thinks there’s a market out there for people who just want an under-the-radar, lightweight, fun-to-ride bike that’s the opposite of ubiquitous, something stylish and non-threatening but with more than enough power to thrill – and don’t forget Husqvarna is also a premium brand. It’s $12k, but that includes the quickshifter, ABS, upscale suspension…
Superficiality is no good, but we’re still a sucker for a pretty face. From its round LED headlight right through to the ducktail of its neoprene-ish passenger seat and asymmetric tailsection with flat-trackeresque numberplate, the Svart makes a strong if subdued visual statement, but one it takes a second to recognize.
Throw your leg over and grab the wide aluminum fatbar, and the flat-track essence becomes a bit more believable. You can hear it’s a big Single when you fire it up and twist the grip, but you can’t really feel it – and the lever pull of the Adler slip/assist clutch is easier than it should be on a motorcycle this capable. There’s an unmarked button on the round LCD instrument that disables traction control; push it just the right way (I never could), and the Svartpilen will pull the front wheel up even in third gear.
Or not. In Lisboan traffic, a light, torquey, skinny bike is really the absolute best weapon you can bring – especially one that brakes and changes direction so well. Setting out from downtown Lisbon in the morning, our guide (crazed Husqvarna Product Planner Justin Maxwell) made a couple of quick transitions onto unexpected full-lean 270-degree on-ramps: No problem for the Svart on its 18-/17-inch Pirelli MT60s, and no problem for it merging into and beyond the flow of traffic up to 150 kph in the blink of an eye in the left lane – 90 mph.
Slower traffic a lane over had us dialing it back down to 80 because safety first, but the Svart, like its brother Duke 690, is perfectly content to run smoothly at 90 all day if that’s what you need to do (it’d make an excellent lane-splitting commuter) and it feels like it could easily pile another 30 mph on top of that. The addition of an excellent quickshifter, up and down, makes it even easier to deploy the Svartpilen. (Amazingly, in Portugal, nobody jumped suddenly into the left lane to claim it as their birthright.)
We stayed on pavement on our all-day ride, but just barely. One particular one-lane road that climbs up through the forest from the Atlantic was in a sad state of disrepair, and on it the Husqvarna’s dirtbikey roots shone through; the bike very seldom uses up all 5.9 inches (150mm) of well-damped wheel travel it’s got at both ends, including its linkage-mounted rear shock, and even without a steering damper, the Svart and its “tuned flex” chrome-moly tube frame chassis blasted right through all of it with nary a waggle from the handlebar. On the smoother sections of asphalt in the lower gears, it’s even got enough grunt to activate its TC system accelerating out of dry corners.
The dream for many was always to ride a dirtbike on pavement, but why would you want to ride a tall, pitchy thing with a hard narrow seat trying to insinuate itself, when you could ride the Svartpilen, which seems to have all the right moves with none of the negatives. Its seat looks thin, but sits like something you’d find on a German sport-touring bike, thanks partly to the bike’s long suspension travel.
This is also a ride-by-wire bike, and it runs so smooth and comfortably you can only complain, once again, that they left off the cruise control.
There’s no other reason you couldn’t do hundreds of miles on this bike – on a temperate day anyway. There is no wind protection, but if you have a snug jacket you lean forward just enough to slice through the air at cruising speed and become the Black Arrow…
Because despite its excellent functionality, this one’s supposed to be a film noir star; Husqvarna’s marketing is all about light to dark, a bike for the suave after-dark creeper about town. Your Duke 690 feels right at home outside your local coffee shop, but that extroverted orange thing’s just not going to elicit nearly as many inquiries from curious onlookers as the dark, brooding Svartpilen smoking in the alley.
You don’t have to be a modern caffeine fiend to appreciate this motorcycle’s appeal, though. Yes, it is as much money as a new Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe or a Honda Neo Retro CB1000R or a new Katana, but in the real world performance envelope we inhabit, I have to say I’m pretty certain the Svart’s greatly reduced mass will trump all those bikes’ horsepower advantage 99% of the time just like the old Manx used to do; the tighter the road the quicker the Svart will leave them behind. It will also leave them behind in its reduced consumption of gasoline, tires and maintenance – all things worth considering in the green new world we find ourselves inhabiting. I think this is one of those times we’ll find less really is more. If the Austrians keep this up, pretty soon we won’t think “chainsaw” first when somebody says Husqvarna.
|2019 Husqvarna Svartpilen Specifications|
|Engine Type||693cc liquid-cooled Single cylinder, SOHC, four valves per cylinder|
|Bore and Stroke||105 x 80 mm|
|Rear Wheel Horsepower||75 hp @ 8500 rpm (claimed, crankshaft)|
|Torque||53 lb-ft @ 6750 rpm (claimed, crankshaft)|
|Transmission||Close ratio 6-speed, slip/assist hydraulic clutch, quickshifter up and down|
|Front Suspension||43mm inverted WP fork with spring preload, rebound and compression damping adjustability; 4.9 in. (150 mm) wheel travel|
|Rear Suspension||Single linkage-type shock with spring preload, rebound and compression damping adjustability; 4.9 in. (150 mm) wheel travel|
|Front Brake||Floating 320mm disc, Brembo 4-piston caliper, Bosch 9M ABS|
|Rear Brake||240mm disc, 1-piston caliper, Bosch 9M ABS|
|Front Tire||Pirelli MT60 RS 110/80 R18|
|Rear Tire||Pirelli MT60 RS 160/60 R17|
|Rake/Trail||25 deg/4.7 in (119 mm)|
|Wheelbase||56.5 in. (1436 +/- 15 mm)|
|Seat Height||32.9 in. (835 mm)|
|Curb Weight (Claimed)||349 lbs. (158.5 kg) (claimed, no fuel)|
|Fuel Capacity||3.2 gal. (12 L)|
|Warranty||Two years or 24,000 miles, whichever comes first; extended coverage available|