Pics: Phil Steinhardt
Sometimes, the weirdest thing is when you experience something that's quite familiar, but in an unusual way. Like seeing your parents in your school when you were a kid. Or bumping into a very senior lady boss from your work while on a lad's stag do holiday in Benidorm. Awks.
I'm getting this double today here on the Husqvarna Vitpilen and Svartpilen 401 riding gig. Firstly, I'm on a new bike launch – lots of PR speak, a nice hotel room, lunatics like Chris Moss and Al Fagan talking drunken shyte in my ears. But rather than being in Almeria, Monaco, Qatar or Sepang, I'm in Bristol – that trendy but hard-edged city of the South-West of England. Weird.
The other double take revolves around the bikes themselves. Because, while they look dead trendy (but hard-edged) on the outside, under the trendy Scandi clothing, they're essentially the (very familiar) KTM Duke 390. Now this is no bad thing at all – the light-middleweight Duke is a punchy little bugger, with a great engine and sweet chassis. In the 400cc-ish class, it'd easily be my choice for laughs, so it's a solid platform for Husqvarna to use. And since KTM took over Husky a few years back, it's an obvious move to make. Like Volkswagen making a quirky Audi TT out of a mainstream Golf, the KTM folks are getting more value out of their squillions of engine and chassis development Euros, by using a tried-and-tested platform to build these new Husqvarnas.
But what are these new Husqvarnas? The names look mental but are actually simple enough to translate – 'pilen' is Swedish funny-foreign-speak for 'arrow', 'svart' is 'black' and 'vit' is 'white'. The Svartpilen – black arrow – is, yes, black, and comes with higher bars, a different exhaust and some dirt-a-like Pirellis. The Vitpilen is the white chappie, and has low clip-on bars, its own pipe design, and road-ready Metzeler rubber. Those changes apart, the rest of the bike is identical – a 375cc single-cylinder motor, with 43bhp, shoving along a steel tube trellis framed chassis, weighing just 148kg (wet but no fuel), with decent-spec running gear.
The numbers are good, and the precedent of the Duke 390 is also good – so I'm expecting to be quite happy as we pull away from the trendy Paintworks cultural venue in Bristol, for a day-long blatt round the area. But a couple of things are putting me off. First, the weather is truly shonky: eight degrees C and a blustery drizzling wind is spoiling any cool, trendy hipster vibe I might have fancied. My chic Alpinestars Oscar leather jacket and arty-pants jeans are in my kit bag, eschewed for some proper Cordura touring trews and winter jacket. Bah.
And I'm not feeling a lot of love for the Vitpilen I've jumped on first either. The low bars make for a fairly committed wrist-heavy riding position, and I'm getting a dull ache in my neck and my forearms already. The seat is also a proper plank – hard, unyielding, and actually a bit high (at 835mm) for my short Scottish legs.
Things get better on the move of course, and the little 375/390/401/whatever engine is a treat. Strong low-down grunt of course, as you'd expect from a chunky single, but it doesn't tail off too much as the revs rise either, and KTM's reputation for strong, gutsy engines is underlined once again. The suspension is a little bouncy at the front, and purists might be looking for some adjustment on a 'premium' model like this. There's none on the forks here – but to be honest, you don’t really need it. Brakes are strong and give good control on the slick Bristolian tarmac, and the low weight really shows through in the easy, light steering.
I'm keen to try the Svartpilen though, to see if the riding position makes much difference. So after the first photo stop, I jump on one for a spin – and things instantly look up. The upright riding position is much more comfy instantly and while the seat is still pretty unforgiving, my neck and wrists are far happier. The Svart is a good bit easier to wheelie if that's your thing too, and the dirt-style rubber doesn't really make many compromises in terms of on-road performance in these conditions. There's no more suspension travel or wheel size changes, or any other mods that would improve off-road ability, so it's essentially a cosmetic changeover, apart from the riding position. But even just that makes the Svartpilen the better choice for me so far today.
We scoot around town for a few hours, and get our heads right round both bikes. There are no real surprises – the performance package is very capable indeed for this sector, and the styling seems to be a hit with passers-by in the city while we're parked up for pics. They are handsome little bikes I think, with just the right level of 'quirk', and have a definite appeal for those looking for something little different.
A spot of lunch at an excellent BBQ spot by the river, then we head out of town towards Cheddar Gorge. Now, as ever on a smaller bike launch, this ends up in a Deathrace 2000 battle, daft journos slipstreaming like GP racers at Mugello, except about 120mph slower. The 'pilens are even more fun out here, on the twisty roads round Cheddar and up through the gorge itself. The roads are in terrible shape from the winter freeze, there's gravel and mud everywhere, and while the rain has stopped, the asphalt's still soaking. But the little 45bhp beasties are spot-on – not too much power, plenty of feel from the tyres, the usual ABS safety net. Where you'd maybe be floundering a little on a bigger, more powerful machine, you feel like you can just put the hammer down on the wee Huskies, holding as much speed as you can through sweeping bends.
The Vitpilen is arguably a little bit sharper in the bends from the head-down riding position, but there's not really much in it, apart from maybe a couple more mph at the top end from being more tucked-in.
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