Buell XB9R Firebolt review

An impressive and innovative sports bike but with the accent on street cool. Reliability concerns could colour the ownership experience

Ben Cope's picture
By Visordown on Wed, 1 Jan 2003 - 12:01

Details
Manufacturer:
Buell
Category:
Naked
Price:
£ 7345
Overall
3
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Innovative design has resulted in a capable machine that is stable and handles
Toy-like looks, poor pillion provision and reliability may be an issue

After pinning the throttle down Valencia’s main straight, he pops out of the bubble on the Buell XB9R Firebolt as the big hand points to the 220km/hr sticker (that’s quite fast you know) and with his wobbly head lolling about in the 136mph airstream he uses his big shiny boots to go down two gears before pitching into turn one. “Ooooh, Bertie, please be careful,” squeak the Buell technicians, worried the Firebolt may get squashed under 18-stones of ginger beer and potted meat sandwiches. But although this weeble may wobble, he doesn’t fall down and takes the corner, knee-down at 70mph. Damn. I must remember that Erik Buell, not Enid Blyton, designed this bike.

Not only does it look small, like something from your toybox, it’s so simple to ride with confidence any one of the Famous Five could be knee-down in three laps. And that includes Timmy the dog. Its dimensions are teeny. It weighs 175 kilos, the head angle is 21 degrees – most race bikes are around the 23-26 degree mark, and the wheelbase is just 1,320mm (most sportsbikes fall around the 1,390 to 1,420mm bracket). I apologise for using so many figures, but these deserve it – last time I rode something this short I kept snagging my flares in the chain.

The finish makes it look like a toy too. The bodywork is moulded in colour plastic, not sprayed, which is cool, but makes the bike look a little like the moulded plastic cars you had as a kid. And when you look at the clocks – you can now as they don’t vibrate half as much as on the previous Buells – the numbers look like they’ve been rubbed on by an eight year-old with a transfer sheet. Or should I say a conscientious eight year-old with a transfer sheet, as they’re all lined up nicely. There are other lovely touches too, like Buell’s Pegasus logo which turns up in places like the footpegs, the front forks, the brake calipers and the pushrod covers.

Overall, the bike looks very neat, almost like a miniature kit of itself and is an improvement over earlier Buells as far as quality of finish goes.

While it may look like a toy, the design brief behind the Firebolt was very serious. Erik Buell wanted a bike which mated the handling of a 250cc racer with a big Harley engine. To make a bike like this, Buell had to innovate.

That wide aluminium beam frame holds the fuel, and the equally weird-looking swingarm holds the oil – after a thrash the pivot point gets warm. The front disc is rim mounted and so on. These things were developed for a reason as the major parts had to have more than one function so something else could be left out of the equation.

Buell were talking low unsprung weight, mass-centralisation and chassis rigidity as if they were designing a sports bike. Instead this is a ’Sports Fighter’, something halfway between a sportsbike and a streetfighter. So why launch it at a track? Well, I guess it shows whether it all works. Let’s re-join Tweedle Dee out on the circuit…

Whack on the brakes and there’s a gradual building of resistance and then that six-pot rim-mounted set-up really starts to work. The whole deal with the rim-mounted disc is braking forces are transmitted directly to the rim, not through the spokes, so you can use lighter spokes. Either way the anchors work really well, although you could argue for more initial bite, but this could probably be sorted with different pads.

Now comes the part I was a little worried about when I saw the specs – turn in. A bike this short should be twitchier than a hide full of bird watchers, but it just isn’t. First time out on a bike you’re not familiar with you’ll find yourself misjudging apexes and making corrections as you learn how fast the bike beneath you is steering. There’s none of that on the Firebolt, it just lets you know straight away what it can do.

And it was stable in a straight line too – no wobbles down the flat-out main straight. Suspension is quality Showa, front and rear, with both units being fully adjustable. The clever technicians even took our weights and set the bikes up accordingly. My settings were (unsurprisingly) fairly solid and I wasn’t bottoming out on braking anywhere. I felt happy with that set up so I left it, although a few laps on the standard machine did feel squidgier all round.

So how the hell have Buell made something that looks like it should bite your hand off on paper feel like it’s taking you by the hand through the corners? Well, without spilling all their beans Vance Strader, the lead chassis engineer and Erik Buell both say it’s all down to good weight distribution and an optimised centre of gravity.

And it all adds up to a bike Jack the Ripper must have ridden because you can get away with murder on it. It’s five years since I’ve had my right knee down thanks to an accident that left me a bit stiff on that side, but on the Buell it happened in complete comfort before I knew it.

Beneath all the innovation lies a 45-degree, 984cc air-cooled pushrod V-twin. Now then, stop laughing at the back. It’s all-new, although very obviously based on what Buell and Harley know best, but it does have fuel-injection, ram-air and 92bhp. I asked Erik Buell why the V-Rod’s excellent liquid-cooled four-valve motor wasn’t used, but he said it was too big and heavy for this sort of bike. Shame.

Out on track you can really enjoy the motor which produces power in a single, straight line. So straight, in fact, that the redline comes up before you know it because you don’t feel any noticeable tail-off as you pass max power at seven grand.

This doesn’t spoil the bike, but you wish there was some way it would tell you to change up rather than hitting the limiter. With more grunt than a ’70s porn star, you can – should you feel lazy – leave it in one gear and whang around from 3,000rpm to that 7,500 redline, hearing the rorty exhaust note emanate from that traditional (for Buell) underslung exhaust. And this is just how I spent the following day on the mountain switchbacks around Valencia. And where at the track you could sometimes fancy another 20bhp or so, on the road the power was spot-on.

Road riding also made you think about gear changes. You could whack down through the gears with hardly a lock-up from the rear Dunlop, despite the lack of a slipper clutch. But while gear selection is stacks better than the Lightning, it’s still Harley-esque so you still need to be deliberate with it. Any pussyfooting around and you’re in false neutral territory. On track you can shift up without the clutch if you fancy, but mechanical sympathists may feel it better to whip the clutch in and give that belt drive an easier time.

Another feature is the way the engine takes time to rev down on a closed throttle. It feels like it’s got a heavy flywheel, but technicians say the fuel-injection system makes it behave like this so you don’t always need to spin it up again after up-changes.

Overall, this is one hell of a motorcycle which in performance terms is the best mass-produced Harley-powered machine ever. It also makes the Lightning and Cyclone obsolete, at least as far as performance goes, but leaves us with a little problem. It’s hard to categorise this bike and stick it in a group test, and we journalists like to do this sort of thing. Herd it in a pen with its peers, throw in some sharpened sticks and let them fight it out to see who’s on top at the end. But what goes up against a Firebolt? Answers on a postcard.

Dan Grein is the lead powertrain engineer for the project and he mentioned that when he took the first development bike home, he figured it was worth $1.5 million, considering the investment Buell had made. Three years in the making and from April of this year you can buy one for considerably less than that. In fact it’s yours for £7,345 of our pounds sterling. That’s still a lot of money on a toy but if you like your sportsbikes easy-going and quirky but with sharp handling, the Buell Firebolt could be worth its weight in gold.

After pinning the throttle down Valencia’s main straight, he pops out of the bubble on the Buell XB9R Firebolt as the big hand points to the 220km/hr sticker (that’s quite fast you know) and with his wobbly head lolling about in the 136mph airstream he uses his big shiny boots to go down two gears before pitching into turn one. “Ooooh, Bertie, please be careful,” squeak the Buell technicians, worried the Firebolt may get squashed under 18-stones of ginger beer and potted meat sandwiches. But although this weeble may wobble, he doesn’t fall down and takes the corner, knee-down at 70mph. Damn. I must remember that Erik Buell, not Enid Blyton, designed this bike.

Not only does it look small, like something from your toybox, it’s so simple to ride with confidence any one of the Famous Five could be knee-down in three laps. And that includes Timmy the dog. Its dimensions are teeny. It weighs 175 kilos, the head angle is 21 degrees – most race bikes are around the 23-26 degree mark, and the wheelbase is just 1,320mm (most sportsbikes fall around the 1,390 to 1,420mm bracket). I apologise for using so many figures, but these deserve it – last time I rode something this short I kept snagging my flares in the chain.

The finish makes it look like a toy too. The bodywork is moulded in colour plastic, not sprayed, which is cool, but makes the bike look a little like the moulded plastic cars you had as a kid. And when you look at the clocks – you can now as they don’t vibrate half as much as on the previous Buells – the numbers look like they’ve been rubbed on by an eight year-old with a transfer sheet. Or should I say a conscientious eight year-old with a transfer sheet, as they’re all lined up nicely. There are other lovely touches too, like Buell’s Pegasus logo which turns up in places like the footpegs, the front forks, the brake calipers and the pushrod covers.

Overall, the bike looks very neat, almost like a miniature kit of itself and is an improvement over earlier Buells as far as quality of finish goes.

While it may look like a toy, the design brief behind the Firebolt was very serious. Erik Buell wanted a bike which mated the handling of a 250cc racer with a big Harley engine. To make a bike like this, Buell had to innovate.

That wide aluminium beam frame holds the fuel, and the equally weird-looking swingarm holds the oil – after a thrash the pivot point gets warm. The front disc is rim mounted and so on. These things were developed for a reason as the major parts had to have more than one function so something else could be left out of the equation.

Buell were talking low unsprung weight, mass-centralisation and chassis rigidity as if they were designing a sports bike. Instead this is a ’Sports Fighter’, something halfway between a sportsbike and a streetfighter. So why launch it at a track? Well, I guess it shows whether it all works. Let’s re-join Tweedle Dee out on the circuit…

Whack on the brakes and there’s a gradual building of resistance and then that six-pot rim-mounted set-up really starts to work. The whole deal with the rim-mounted disc is braking forces are transmitted directly to the rim, not through the spokes, so you can use lighter spokes. Either way the anchors work really well, although you could argue for more initial bite, but this could probably be sorted with different pads.

Now comes the part I was a little worried about when I saw the specs – turn in. A bike this short should be twitchier than a hide full of bird watchers, but it just isn’t. First time out on a bike you’re not familiar with you’ll find yourself misjudging apexes and making corrections as you learn how fast the bike beneath you is steering. There’s none of that on the Firebolt, it just lets you know straight away what it can do.

And it was stable in a straight line too – no wobbles down the flat-out main straight. Suspension is quality Showa, front and rear, with both units being fully adjustable. The clever technicians even took our weights and set the bikes up accordingly. My settings were (unsurprisingly) fairly solid and I wasn’t bottoming out on braking anywhere. I felt happy with that set up so I left it, although a few laps on the standard machine did feel squidgier all round.

So how the hell have Buell made something that looks like it should bite your hand off on paper feel like it’s taking you by the hand through the corners? Well, without spilling all their beans Vance Strader, the lead chassis engineer and Erik Buell both say it’s all down to good weight distribution and an optimised centre of gravity.

And it all adds up to a bike Jack the Ripper must have ridden because you can get away with murder on it. It’s five years since I’ve had my right knee down thanks to an accident that left me a bit stiff on that side, but on the Buell it happened in complete comfort before I knew it.

Beneath all the innovation lies a 45-degree, 984cc air-cooled pushrod V-twin. Now then, stop laughing at the back. It’s all-new, although very obviously based on what Buell and Harley know best, but it does have fuel-injection, ram-air and 92bhp. I asked Erik Buell why the V-Rod’s excellent liquid-cooled four-valve motor wasn’t used, but he said it was too big and heavy for this sort of bike. Shame.

Out on track you can really enjoy the motor which produces power in a single, straight line. So straight, in fact, that the redline comes up before you know it because you don’t feel any noticeable tail-off as you pass max power at seven grand.

This doesn’t spoil the bike, but you wish there was some way it would tell you to change up rather than hitting the limiter. With more grunt than a ’70s porn star, you can – should you feel lazy – leave it in one gear and whang around from 3,000rpm to that 7,500 redline, hearing the rorty exhaust note emanate from that traditional (for Buell) underslung exhaust. And this is just how I spent the following day on the mountain switchbacks around Valencia. And where at the track you could sometimes fancy another 20bhp or so, on the road the power was spot-on.

Road riding also made you think about gear changes. You could whack down through the gears with hardly a lock-up from the rear Dunlop, despite the lack of a slipper clutch. But while gear selection is stacks better than the Lightning, it’s still Harley-esque so you still need to be deliberate with it. Any pussyfooting around and you’re in false neutral territory. On track you can shift up without the clutch if you fancy, but mechanical sympathists may feel it better to whip the clutch in and give that belt drive an easier time.

Another feature is the way the engine takes time to rev down on a closed throttle. It feels like it’s got a heavy flywheel, but technicians say the fuel-injection system makes it behave like this so you don’t always need to spin it up again after up-changes.

Overall, this is one hell of a motorcycle which in performance terms is the best mass-produced Harley-powered machine ever. It also makes the Lightning and Cyclone obsolete, at least as far as performance goes, but leaves us with a little problem. It’s hard to categorise this bike and stick it in a group test, and we journalists like to do this sort of thing. Herd it in a pen with its peers, throw in some sharpened sticks and let them fight it out to see who’s on top at the end. But what goes up against a Firebolt? Answers on a postcard.

Dan Grein is the lead powertrain engineer for the project and he mentioned that when he took the first development bike home, he figured it was worth $1.5 million, considering the investment Buell had made. Three years in the making and from April of this year you can buy one for considerably less than that. In fact it’s yours for £7,345 of our pounds sterling. That’s still a lot of money on a toy but if you like your sportsbikes easy-going and quirky but with sharp handling, the Buell Firebolt could be worth its weight in gold.

Length (mm) 1924
Width (mm) 768
Height (mm) 1092
Tank (litres) 3.1
Dryweight (kg) 175
Seats 0
Seat Height (mm) 775
Tank Capacity (litres) 14
Ground Clearance (mm) 127
Chassis Aluminium beam
Cubic Capacity (cc) 984
Valves 2
Max Power (bhp) 83
Max Power Peak (rpm) 7400
Torque (ft/lb) 63
Torque Peak (rpm) 5600
Bore (mm) 88.9
Stroke (mm) 79.38
Valve Gear OHV
Compression Ratio 10
Valves Per Cylinder 2
Exhaust Layout Free breathing 2 into 1 collector 0 resistance Air Box, Ram Air Intake
Cooling Air cooled
Fuel Delivery 45mm downdraft DDFI fuel injection
Stroke Type Four Stroke
Drive Belt
Top Speed 134.5
50-60mph 1.47
50-70mph 3.07
50-80mph 4.97
50-90mph 7.03
Max Power 92.3
Max Power Revs 7411
Standing Quarter Mile - Terminal Speed MPH 112.25
Standing Quarter Mile - Time 13.22
Standing Start 0-100mph 10.28
Standing Start 0-60mph 4.78
Time to Top Speed 27.65
Score Breakdown
Overall
3
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