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First Ride: Buell XB9S

Buell's naked, promises big kicks from its punchy motor but with a wheelbase smaller than a gnat's wheelbarrow, sharp handling too

Click to read: Buell XB9S owners reviews, Buell XB9S specs and to see the Buell XB9S image gallery.

"So, gentlemen, as you can see, the new XB9S Lightning is the latest generation in the street-inspired Buell family and a different take on the Buell XB series."

The speaker is rewarded with a couple of bemused looks as the assembled journalists scratch their heads and look at each other in some confusion. Then one brave soul, after looking at the specs of this new, third generation Lightning, puts his hand up and says: "Isn't this just a FireBolt with straight bars, lower pegs and the bikini fairing ripped off?"

Silence from the Buell bigwigs. Bugger, looks like we'll be paying our own mini-bar bill this trip, lads...
And that's pretty much what the new Lightning is. But while you could argue that there aren't many changes, the Lightning is a demonstration of how things can actually be different the more they stay the same. After all, if Buell spent money making the Lightning slower, longer and worse handling, (i.e. more 'street' orientated) all we'd do as potential purchasers would be to complain, while actual purchasers would spend more time and money to bring it up to FireBolt spec, so they could proudly tell their mates how their Lightning is as fast and light as a FireBolt. So what Buell has done does  make sense.

The important changes are to the seating position. Where the FireBolt is contorting the rider into a semi-tuck, the Lightning's more relaxed seating position is apparent as soon as you fling a size nine over the teeny-tiny pillion seat. Wide bars replace clip-ons and the high pegs which give the FireBolt such excellent ground clearance are replaced with ones that are an inch lower.

This means you're given perhaps even more control over that stable, yet wicked set of geometry figures. As a reminder, they are 21-degrees of rake and 83mm of trail - the kind of figures normally only seen on Marco Melandri's Aprilia 250 GP bike.

Wheelbase is also identical to the Bolt at 1,320mm and 45mm shorter than Aprilia's road-scalpel stroker 250. As with the XB9R, its street sibling doesn't suffer any sudden cold turkey twitches, even though those figures suggest it should be dancing on the twilight of stability. What you do get, thanks to the disappearance of that bikini fairing, is a feeling that you are perched on a precarious crow's nest right above that front wheel spindle. But wind-in-yer cheeks is what this bike is about, even if the rakish wind-deflector-cum-number board does a top job of deflecting up-to 90mph windblast.

Under that number board (Erik Buell still wanted the road-biased Lightning to have the odd hints of his racing past) are a set of clocks that are much clearer and neater than the Bolt's. Buell say they listened to press and owner comments and changed the clocks accordingly. Top job as they are much clearer and easier to read than the 9R's. Gone are the numbers in daft Sesame Street kiddie's font, replaced by something you can read at a glance. You've got a speedo, tacho, indicator lights, low fuel warning indicator, two trips and one fuel trip which starts to count mileage when the low fuel light goes on, oh and a clock.

As you have the bones and muscle of the very capable FireBolt underneath your cheeks, this means you get all the various new technology gizmos that we all thought wouldn't work on the XB9R, but actually did. Such as... fuel in the frame. This helps with mass centralization and stability. A normal full fuel tank sloshing around can make for an unstable bike. ZTL brakes... Zero Torsional Load brakes set the disc on the rim, so the transfer of forces goes direct to the rims, which means spokes can be lighter. Oil in the swingarm... again, no need to sod about with a separate oil reservoir, as it's in the swinger (mass centralization again, see?).

The brakes are probably the best single disc set up I've ever used. Despite the slippery conditions at a very wet location in the South of France, you could chuck out the anchors and get the rear skipping a millimetre off the tarmac. Plenty of feel and feedback, too, as despite power plus slippery Gallic roads, it didn't equal crashed bikes.

The looks of the bike are largely very similar to the FireBolt. The bike is dominated by that massive wraparound frame and the snug-fitting 984cc fuel-injected 45-degree ram-aired motor. But the front-end has a more aggressive look, thanks to those twin bug-eye headlamps and number board. At the back you have the after-thought of a pillion seat (may as well cover it up and unbolt the pillion pegs) followed by a cut-back exposed fender, with the Lightning logo in it, similar to the previous version's hewn from solid ally one. In total, I reckon it looks better than the FireBolt, but I guess it's a matter of taste. Still not quite as aggressive looking as the old Lightning, though...

Motorwise you have the same gearing and same claimed power and torque figures as for the XB9R. This means a claimed 84.2bhp (real-world 75bhp...) which arrives just 100, yes 100, rpm short of the 7,500rpm rev-limiter. That means as soon as the fun is over, the rev-limiter will kick in before you have a chance to kick that sticky, clunky gearbox into the next cog. With its street use, the Lightning may not suffer as much as the FireBolt from both the clunky nature of the gearbox (in fact the Lightning did feel better, although it's the same) or the brick-wall limiter, but another 500rpm to play with would be nice.

Whatever criticisms of the nature of what happens at the top-end of the rev counter, you do get a linear, stepless torque wave, which means from around 3,000 revs you can stick the bike in any gear you like. Some may say this is un-involving, Buell would say it means you can concentrate on enjoying the road. And should the road be bumpy, the Showa suspension front and rear (same again as on the Bolt) can be adjusted to suit. Remember, as it's the same motor as the Bolt, this means the hop-up kit is the same (see Jim's long-term piece on page 60 for details.)

And so to the price. At £7,345 it's exactly the same as the FireBolt. Don't moan - that's still less than the Lightning it replaces, it's also lighter, handles better and doesn't suffer from the old model's occasional fuel-injection glitches. Mind you, it's less powerful (claimed...) and the old X1 did look rather good.

Before you complain, consider this. If Buell made it any cheaper they'd shoot themselves in the foot with the FireBolt. Can you imagine the furore as smug Lightning owners pulled up at the lights next to a FireBolt which cost a grand more for basically the same bike? Exactly. Whether it could tempt people from the comparatively priced, equally good handling but faster and slicker-boxed Aprilia Tuono is another matter...