Buells are interesting things. They take Harley running-gear, tweak it a bit, and put it in a light-weight sports-type chassis; and then add their own individual touches to make it stand out a bit. Like the styling, which is in-your-face mean and purposeful. So when an opportunity came up to take a Buell for a brief test, I was keen to try one out. (It would also be an interesting comparison with the Harley Sportster I rode a while ago).
I was interested particularly in the Ulysses, mainly because I'd recently read a report in Motor Trader magazine where they'd taken this bike, plus a bunch of other "adventure-tourers", and gone on a 4,000km trip out to Lake Eyre and back. In this particular test, which included bikes such as the BMW R 1200 GS, KTM 950 Adventure, Triumph Tiger, and even more road-orientated bikes like the Suzuki V-Strom and Yamaha TDM900, the Buell ranked second-last. (The only thing it beat - and that only just - was the Honda Transalp, which was seriously out-classed in this company by having just two-thirds the engine capacity of it's nearest rival). So, what did The Old Bloke think of it? Read on!
The styling is similar to other Buells, except this one is obviously in the "all-roads / touring" category. As such, it stands tall; disproportionately tall! And this impression is further enhanced when you sit on it. Motor Trader's Barry Ashenhurst described it in these words: "My arse was in the air and my head was pointing at the mudgaurd". And that's exactly how you feel when you first climb aboard. It's like sitting on a sports-bike - parked on a second-floor balcony! You lean forward in sports-bike style, but you're also way up high. I'm tall and lanky, but sitting on the bike I was still tippy-toe to reach the ground. Ashenhurst went on to describe the riding position as being "like riding a chain-saw downhill".
The seat is reasonably comfortable though, and after a while you do get used to the riding-position; although in the brief time I spent with it I was never entirely happy on it. The steering-angle seems quite steep, and there doesn't seem to be much bike out infront of you. The bike never felt unstable, but I felt I was sitting up high with the front-end tucked back; which didn't inspire confidence.
Start it up and the vibration is horrendous! The whole bike shakes. From the front it's almost comical as it sits there flapping it's blinkers up and down like some deformed bird trying to take off! Sitting on it at idle the whole world infront of you jumps around (at least if you're wearing glasses it does). So, typical Harley here then! But once you get a few revs up, it smoothes out in a way the Harley never did. From around 2,500 rpm, it's quite good. Of course, being a big twin there is still vibration, but it's quite acceptable; it doesn't rattle your teeth the way a Harley does!
The engine also seems a lot more willing to rev than the Harley did! The Harley was harsh everywhere and felt unhappy to be revved out; the Buell was much smoother and more willing to rev. Buell has apparently done quite a lot to dampen the engine's vibrations, and their efforts have obviously worked. It's still not a high-revving engine though. Maximum power comes in at 6,800 rpm, and maximum torque at 6,000 rpm. The engine is red-lined at 7,000 rpm, with an "orange-line" at 6,500.
Maximum power from the 1200cc twin is 75kw; not a lot for that size motor perhaps, but similar to the other bikes in Motor Trader's test. (The 955cc Triumph Tiger, for example, develops a couple of Kw more, but has a little less torque).
Performance is good, but it never really felt quick. Twisting the throttle brings a surge of acceleration that is really quite good, but it just didn't feel quick. And at just under 200kg, it certainly isn't heavy. The gearing is probably one reason it doesn't feel as quick as you'd expect. It's quite high-geared. Top gear runs just on 35 kph per 1,000 rpm. Dropping back a gear or two improves the rate of acceleration, although it still seems perhaps a little unhappy to be doing that; it certainly doesn't rev-out like a sports-bike!
The high gearing does give it good cruising ability though. Out on the highway in top gear it really wants to stretch it's legs. I sat it on 120 kph for a while and that was an easy, comfortable cruise. And it begs to be cruised faster! There didn't seem to be a lot of wind at that speed either. The flimsy little rubber-mounted windscreen is designed to allow some wind into the cockpit area to reduce buffeting, and it certainly seems to work.
Speaking of gears, the 5-speed box is a big improvement on the Sportster I rode. I described the action of that as being "like changing gear on a tractor", but the Buell is much smoother. It does still "clunk" into gear, and the changes are never seamlessly smooth, but it's not so annoyingly agricultural as the Harley. Perhaps that's the engine-vibration-isolation thing again?
There are some annoying things about the bike though; well, more annoying than the things I've already mentioned! If you look at the photo of the bike, you'll see that the exhaust runs forward from the motor and then down into a collector-tank thing hanging underneath the bike. It then exits on the left side just infront of the rear wheel. When stationary, an enormous amount of heat rises up from the motor and that big exhaust tank; especially on the right side, which has the exhaust pipes as well. But even when moving, you almost need fire-proof clothing for your right leg! That's because where the exhaust exits the rear cylinder is just under your right leg. And the pipe then runs along beside your leg. That makes sure your right leg is just about sizzling; especially when stopped or in heavy traffic.
Still on a motor / heat issue, there is a big fan that kicks in to help keep the beast cool. This is on for a lot of the time, even in multi-lane suburban running. And it's annoyingly loud. It whines like a Qantas jet taxiing down the runway!
Suspension is pretty good, being kitted out with fully-adjustable Showa units front and back. Both ends claim more than 160mm of travel; so the ride is good. It's not trail-bike soft, and doesn't dive too much under brakes etc, but it's still soft enough to give a good ride. It's very compliant, soaking up bumps very well.
Handling, though, I found was a bit weird. Especially at lower speeds, there seemed to be a reluctance to turn-in. I'm not sure if this was a suspension thing or a tyre thing. The front tyre is a 120 section while the rear runs a 180; so maybe it's that combination that causes the problem? Whatever the reason, I found it hard to get it to flow smoothly through corners.
I didn't get to ride it off-road, but I'm not sure I'd want to on a brief test. If I couldn't get totally confident with it on the bitumen I don't think I'd be happy with it on the dirt! It's a strange thing, given it's design intention, but it seemed happiest when cruising at high speed down the straight bitumen highway. Of course, if you owned one you'd no doubt get used to a lot of these things I've been mentioning, but these were my impressions after my relatively short ride on it.
So, that's a Buell! As I said, they're interesting; and this one especially. But I wouldn't buy one. At $17,995 they're expensive for something that has significant basic design flaws, like the riding position and the leg-scorching exhaust system. The BMW R 1200 GS (which won Motor Trader's comparo) is a lot more expensive, but the Triumph Tiger (which came third) is $2,000 cheaper. And as Motor Trader's Rob Smith said, the Buell "lacks the ease and finesse" of those two.
I sat on a couple of other models, and while the riding position might be a bit more acceptable, the exhaust lay-out is exactly the same. So you'd get the same heat; and probably a few of the other "faults" as well. Yes, they're interesting, but I reckon they're for the dedicated Harley rider who'd secretly like to be riding an R1. And as that, they're probably a good thing!
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