The latest generation of Buells have always held a special place in my heart. I know many riders instantly dismiss them as quirky, unreliable bikes but the chances are that these doubters have never actually ridden, or indeed owned, a Buell.
I have been lucky enough to do both of the above, on a number of occasions. When the Firebolt was launched I was one of the first to ride it around a sunny Valencia track in Spain before running one as a longterm bike for a year and over 10,000 miles and also being amongst the first to ride the Lightning on a rain soaked weekend in Southern France. So when it comes to these oddballs from the sports arm of Harley I have probably done more mileage than most other testers.
So what have all these miles told me about the bike? Well, for a start both in naked and half-faired form the Buell is a great handling bike, quick and light-steering while still totally stable at speeds. But it has faults. For a start the 984cc motor always leaves you feeling that you could do with more power, especially in the sportier Firebolt which has the riding position and attitude to really make you explore the potential of the chassis. And then there's the old Buell problem of reliability. Reports of the belt snapping on the XB9R were not too hard to find and the gearbox is horribly agricultural.
But Buell does listen to customer complaints and it reckons that, in the new XB12R Firebolt and XB12S Lightning, it has created two bikes that should put these demons to rest. Well, on specs alone things look good. I love the styling of the XB9 bikes but the XB12s look even better. Buell has kept everything on the bike identical that matters. The frame is the same and doubles up as a fuel tank, the swingarm is identical, rim mounted front brake disc etc. To separate the bike visually the 12s get the frame and swingarm painted black, anodized gold wheels, a funky yellow screen and very classy deep red or mean black paint schemes. And in red they both look simply stunning.
But it doesn't stop there. The 984cc engine has been given a longer stroke to take its capacity up to 1203cc and increase the power to a claimed 103bhp and torque to 84ft.lb (the 984cc makes a claimed 75bhp and 61ft.lb) while a new exhaust valve similar to Yamaha's EXUP valve and larger diameter exhaust pipes boost the mid-range even further. To help cure the belt snapping problems, which Buell claim is due to people twisting the belt which weakens it when removing the rear wheel, the drive belt is of a different construction and the guards have been redesigned to make it easier to remove the rear wheel. And finally a new gear change pedal to give a more positive feel to the gear changes and two-inch longer mirror stalks so you can see something other than your elbows in 'em.
So what do all these changes add up to? Well, in my humble opinion these are the bikes that Buell should have launched first. The styling alterations are beside the point, it's the changes to the motor that make the world of difference.