Road Test: XB12R vs. VTR1000 vs. SV1000

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By Tim Dickson on Wed, 7 May 2008 - 08:05

Visordown Motorcycle News


"Are they still making these, then?" We're standing on a bright, mid-Wales hilltop and Niall is kicking the VTR1000's tyres with a puzzled look on his face. Yes, they are. It's a beautiful day to be pondering bikes - the FireStorm, a Buell XB12R Firebolt and Suzuki's SV1000SZ - and we've got ace roads wandering off in most directions to try them out. There are also a lot of sheep around. Now don't take this the wrong way but they struck me as rather attractive. Neatly trimmed, firm bodies and strong, handsome faces I thought.

Despite their fine good looks, they have something of a death wish. Riding bikes fast across blustery Welsh moorland is out of the question no thanks to sheep. They stand at the edge of the road, chewing cud or growing wool or doing whatever sheep do, oblivious to passing traffic. So oblivious that they occasionally walk out in front of it. Sharp brakes, quick steering and a keen eye are prerequisites for safe transit through rural Wales by motorcycle.

So is a Buell XB12R Firebolt up to the job? Could be. If you want a thumping great, bug-eyed lump of American differentness your search stops here. Buell has been turning heads with its own unique uses of Harley-Davidson motors for a while now. The 1203cc XB12R Firebolt has been around for a couple of years and replaced the outwardly similar yet underpowered 984cc XB9R. The Firebolt is the nearest thing Buell does to a full-on sports tool, but pitched against a Ducati 999, Aprilia Mille or Honda SP-2, the XB12R would be left standing. Performance and price-wise it's closer to the VTR and SV.

Practicality is a different matter. While the Suzuki and Honda will prove themselves to be most things to many people, the Buell ploughs a more mono-functional furrow. I'm not sure where you'd attach any luggage to, and I certainly wouldn't invite a passenger on board. Instead, the riding position and chassis shout racer, as do the lightning steering and fierce brakes - or rather brake, as you only get the single rim-mounted disc. And it's all you need. Any more would show up the Firebolt's main weakness more than the single stopper already does: the forks are a bit soft. Nearly all the time this isn't a problem; it's only when you press on that they're lacking.

Other than that the chassis is a gem. Accurate, light steering - perfect for sheep dodging - excellent feedback and mostly rock solid stable. It was only gassing hard out of a bumpy turn here and there that I felt the vaguest of headshakes, and the roads we were on were particularly bumpy.

But the shiniest jewel in the Buell's odd-looking, offset crown is the motor. Smooth, flexible and torquey, it's a joy to use. As was the gearbox on this particular machine but, as Jon noted, every Buell you ride seems too differ in this respect. Some are sweet, others like dropping bricks into a meat grinder. Even when they're good they work best with a deliberate, well-planned action - and forget trying clutchless - but it's satisfying enough. The belt drive too adds to a silky smooth feeling of connection with the rear tyre that the other two bikes are lacking. Buell touts the Firebolt as 'less a machine, more an extension of your body'. And once you get over the initial shock of its all-round quirkiness, you kind of begin to see their point. Get used to it and the Buell is involving and rewarding to ride. But it won't necessarily be to everyone's tastes. A yellow tinted screen, cartoon numbers on the clocks and all that old-school metal on display won't please all. However, if you're Buell-curious then get yourself a test ride.

Speaking of beasts, remember the TL1000? Suzuki's modern day take on that is the SV1000. If you're a former TL1000 owner looking to relive that bike's lairy, lunatic lifestyle, you could be disappointed by the SV; it's a softer machine for gentler times. That said, cruising around, avoiding sheep and enjoying the view, the SV is quite nice to ride. This version, the SV1000SZ, gets a full fairing, GSX-R-esque colours and, thanks to higher compression, new cams and fuel injection mods, an extra 5bhp or so at the top end over the standard SVs. On the minus side it feels a bit, er, cheap. While bikes like the GSX-Rs, Hayabusas and shiny chrome customs get Suzuki's special treatment, others, such as the GS500, Bandits and the SVs, seem second rate. The finish isn't as good, styling isn't as sharp and footrests, brackets, levers and the like seem a bit 'that'll do'.

Despite that the SV is comfortable and roomy enough, and the engine delivers a fair amount of crisp, accessible stomp. The steering is light and accurate and the whole package works as a well composed whole. There's a surprising amount of feedback at medium speeds, and the crumbling imperfections of the bleak Welsh B-roads could be felt through bars and footrests.

Wind it up a bit and some limitations are apparent. For a start it's soft. That light, easy steering soon gives way to an unsteady, spindly feeling and lots of weight transfer. The forks collapse under hard braking and the shock extends and compresses for too long after dealing with bumps. The brakes aren't eyeball poppers but they're more than the forks can deal with - one time I had them crashing against their bumpstops when I late-braked on Shellgrip into a roundabout at the end of a dual carriageway. Everything is adjustable, so some unpleasantness can be dialled out, but there's only so far you can go. If that sounds like a major issue, you're probably looking to buy the wrong bike.

Suzuki bills the SV as a sports tourer - less of the sports, more of the tour - but more than that it's a capable all-rounder. Easy enough to ride every day, quick enough to excite at the weekends and with the legs to go the distance if you want to travel further afield. Over 150 miles from a tank of fuel should be within reach if you take it easy-ish, and there's adequate power to haul a passenger along too.

The VTR will do passengers too but you'll not be getting 150 miles from a tank. Big capacity Hondas have always been thirsty, and the VTR can dip down to 30mpg or below. At that sort of pace the LCD fuel gauge will flash 'empty' with little more than 100 miles on the clock. A steady hand will improve that, but not by a huge margin. It's a shame, because the VTR is a nice tool to cover miles on. It's sporty where the SV isn't, yet comfortable and complete in a well thought-out way. The motor feels a little featureless compared with the SV's but no slower on the road, and it's easy to maintain a flowing rhythm. There isn't quite the low-down kick you'd expect from a V-twin, but the delivery is smooth and seamless.

The VTR is marginally less manageable in town than the SV, marginally more so than the Buell. Steering lock is the worst of the three bikes here, and I found my wrists fouled the tank when the bars were turned to the stops. Brakes weren't all that either, although that's not normally the case with VTR stoppers. Lots of lever pressure was needed before any real slowing down occurred, then when it did there was little feel or control - Niall locked the front and almost dropped the thing while pulling stoppies. Not the sort of thing you want for emergency sheep avoidance. But the VTR is still an accomplished tool.

Like the SV it's easy to ride, but where the Suzuki falters as speeds increase, the Honda remains composed. The 150-mile late afternoon blast from Wales back to my Buckinghamshire (housing) estate was one of those that'll stick in the memory for a while. Late September sun setting slowly in the VTR's mirrors, threading eastbound on a gently fast, lightly undulating A40, I had one of those 'this is what it's all about' moments. I'm sure the SV or Buell would have delivered something similar, but I was on the Honda so that gets the credit.

The VTR is the most 'grown up' bike here. It's a superb all-rounder, and will as happily take you to work every day as it would the South of France (with a few fuel stops on the way). It'll also hold its head up on a track day, something I suspect the SV, but not the Buell, would struggle to do. If you like your bikes well built, reliable and predictable, then a VTR1000 could be for you.

Gripes? I was regularly confused by the analogue speedo, with its needle starting from the four-o'clock position; 100mph came up where I'd expect 20mph or so to be, and the numbers are hard to read at a glance. It's something you'd get used to. Honda's over-long ignition keys annoy me too. Open the fuel cap and half the key is left sticking out, where it's too easily bent out of shape. Shorter keys please, Honda.

But it's still the bike I'd buy. For £200 over the SV's asking price, you get a better-finished, more together motorcycle. The SV100SZ's breathed-on motor is more exciting to use, it's a shame the chassis can't quite match. Both would make a great first 'big' bike, and both excel at doing lots of things reasonably well. Then there's the Buell. While Niall would be a happy man with the Firebolt's keys in his pocket, it's not for me. As a toy - and a talking point - it has the others knocked for six, and if all you want is a tool for two-wheeled fun and games, then look no further than the XB12R. But those looking for more of an all-rounder may find the Buell a bit quirky. In this company it lacks flexibility and all-round ability. Make mine a VTR, please.

"Are they still making these, then?" We're standing on a bright, mid-Wales hilltop and Niall is kicking the VTR1000's tyres with a puzzled look on his face. Yes, they are.

It's a beautiful day to be pondering bikes - the FireStorm, a Buell XB12R Firebolt and Suzuki's SV1000SZ - and we've got ace roads wandering off in most directions to try them out. There are also a lot of sheep around. Now don't take this the wrong way but they struck me as rather attractive. Neatly trimmed, firm bodies and strong, handsome faces I thought.

Despite their fine good looks, they have something of a death wish. Riding bikes fast across blustery Welsh moorland is out of the question no thanks to sheep. They stand at the edge of the road, chewing cud or growing wool or doing whatever sheep do, oblivious to passing traffic. So oblivious that they occasionally walk out in front of it. Sharp brakes, quick steering and a keen eye are prerequisites for safe transit through rural Wales by motorcycle.

So is a Buell XB12R Firebolt up to the job? Could be. If you want a thumping great, bug-eyed lump of American differentness your search stops here. Buell has been turning heads with its own unique uses of Harley-Davidson motors for a while now. The 1203cc XB12R Firebolt has been around for a couple of years and replaced the outwardly similar yet underpowered 984cc XB9R. The Firebolt is the nearest thing Buell does to a full-on sports tool, but pitched against a Ducati 999, Aprilia Mille or Honda SP-2, the XB12R would be left standing. Performance and price-wise it's closer to the VTR and SV.

Practicality is a different matter. While the Suzuki and Honda will prove themselves to be most things to many people, the Buell ploughs a more mono-functional furrow. I'm not sure where you'd attach any luggage to, and I certainly wouldn't invite a passenger on board. Instead, the riding position and chassis shout racer, as do the lightning steering and fierce brakes - or rather brake, as you only get the single rim-mounted disc. And it's all you need. Any more would show up the Firebolt's main weakness more than the single stopper already does: the forks are a bit soft. Nearly all the time this isn't a problem; it's only when you press on that they're lacking.

Other than that the chassis is a gem. Accurate, light steering - perfect for sheep dodging - excellent feedback and mostly rock solid stable. It was only gassing hard out of a bumpy turn here and there that I felt the vaguest of headshakes, and the roads we were on were particularly bumpy.

But the shiniest jewel in the Buell's odd-looking, offset crown is the motor. Smooth, flexible and torquey, it's a joy to use. As was the gearbox on this particular machine but, as Jon noted, every Buell you ride seems too differ in this respect. Some are sweet, others like dropping bricks into a meat grinder. Even when they're good they work best with a deliberate, well-planned action - and forget trying clutchless - but it's
satisfying enough. The belt drive too adds to a silky smooth feeling of connection with the rear tyre that the other two bikes are lacking. Buell touts the Firebolt as 'less a machine, more an extension of your body'.

And once you get over the initial shock of its all-round quirkiness, you kind of begin to see their point. Get used to it and the Buell is involving and rewarding to ride. But it won't necessarily be to everyone's tastes. A yellow tinted screen, cartoon numbers on the clocks and all that old-school metal on display won't please all. However, if you're Buell-curious then get yourself a test ride.

Speaking of beasts, remember the TL1000? Suzuki's modern day take on that is the SV1000. If you're a former TL1000 owner looking to relive that bike's lairy, lunatic lifestyle, you could be disappointed by the SV; it's a softer machine for gentler times. That said, cruising around, avoiding sheep and enjoying the view, the SV is quite nice to ride. This version, the SV1000SZ, gets a full fairing, GSX-R-esque colours and, thanks to higher compression, new cams and fuel injection mods, an extra 5bhp or so at the top end over the standard SVs. On the minus side it feels a bit, er, cheap. While bikes like the GSX-Rs, Hayabusas and shiny chrome customs get Suzuki's special treatment, others, such as the GS500, Bandits and the SVs, seem second rate. The finish isn't as good, styling isn't as sharp and footrests, brackets, levers and the like seem a bit 'that'll do'.

Continue the Budget Sports Test - 2/2

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