Buyer Guide: Buell XB Range

With a reputation for constant niggles and occasional disasters, our survey says Buells are by no means the nightmare of common lore

Click to view: Buell XB Range owners reviews, specs and image galleries.

There’s a bit of biking which is all about giving convention the middle finger, doing it your own way and having fun. That’s exactly what Buells do. They’re weird, they’re lairy and despite a few problems and some surprising paradoxes, they’re ahead of the pack in some areas.

This Lowdown focusses on the XB Buells: the XB9S and XB12S Lightning factory streetfighters, the XB9R and XB12R Firebolt sports bikes and the adventure touring XB12X Ulysses. To many they’re the consummate examples of the breed, dynamically superior to the early tube-framed machines and more appealing than the latest water-cooled offerings with their ‘controversial’ looks.

The XBs fill different roles but share an awful lot of parts. Engine and frame are nearly identical on all of them and both contribute to what makes these bikes unique and enjoyable. The frame, like much of the chassis, is high-tech and dripping with innovation. Buell was first into mass centralisation, fitting underslung exhausts and using the frame as a fuel tank. Their single rim-mounted discs match the stopping power of conventional twin rotor set ups – and the consequent reduction in unsprung weight helps suspension performance. This, allied to to laser-sharp geometry, means bikes with exceptionally alert handling.

Mated to this edgy, innovative chassis we have ancient air-cooled Harley-Davidson V-twin engines which don’t match rivals for outright power but blitz most on character and low and midrange torque.

They’re kinky, brash and great to ride. But rumours of poor finish and bad reliability dog the brand and put some buyers off. Fortunately an impressive 102 XB owners filled in our on-line survey telling us what these bikes are really like to live with. They’ve covered almost a million miles among them on their Buells so believe what you read here.

Buell Specifications

2002 Buell XB12R Firebolt

Engine a/c, injected, 4v, V-twin, 1,203cc (984cc) Power 103bhp (92) Torque 84ftlb (71) Weight 179kg (175) Seat height 775mm Fuel capacity 14 litres Top speed 155mph (150) (XB9R figures in brackets)

2003 Buell XB12S Lightning

Engine a/c, injected, 4v, v-twin, 1,203cc (984cc) Power 103bhp (92) Torque 84ftlb (71) Weight 197kg (175) Seat Height 755mm Fuel Capacity 14 litres  Top speed 140mph (xb9s figures in brackets)

2006 Buell XB12X Ulysses

Engine a/c, injected, 4v,  V-twin, 1,203cc Power 103bhp Torque 84ftlb Weight 193kg Seat Height 840mm Fuel capacity 17 litres Top Speed 135mph

The nuts & bolts

Forty five percent of riders reported no problems with their bikes. 24% had suffered one, 29% a few and an unfortunate 2% had loads. That’s not brilliant. The Ducati 749 and 999s we surveyed recently came out better, so did Aprilia Tuonos. Even the Triumph T595 and 955i Daytonas recently surveyed suffered fewer problems and they’re much older bikes. So Buells have issues, but some more than others.

What are the problems?
Well, there are lots of different ones reported in our survey. The most common is wheel bearing failure with 13 people complaining of this in as little as 2,300 miles. More worryingly, several owners suffered major engine problems like a snapped conrod, broken piston and two cases of crank bearing failure. Many owners suffered minor electrical faults, two of which were caused by wires under the seat chafing. Two owners reported problems with: engine mounts, exhaust bolts breaking, regulator rectifier failure, warped brake discs and detached side stands.

One 2005 Ulysses rear subframe completely broke although the bike was rarely used with a pillion or luggage. Buell replaced it even thought the bike was not in warranty. Another Ulysses (a 2008 bike) needed a new engine after just 1,000 miles and the replacement gave trouble too – these problems were traced to a batch of dodgy oil pumps. Some bikes don’t run well in the rain or after being washed but new HT leads seem to help.

Quite a few had drive belts snap too but these can be considered consumables – a Free Spirit belt tensioner seems to help the belt and more importantly the gearbox output bearing too. 52 faults were reported in total, not including failed wheel bearings and snapped drive belts. It sounds a bit grim but XB9X City X owner, Simon Mapp, sums up most Buell owners sentiments. He says, “Normal wear and tear for a Buell is not quite the same as for other bikes.”

Many of the XB’s problems can be sorted fairly easily. It helps to belong to a good owners forum such as the excellent

Finish is generally pretty good with one exception – the exhaust. Mild steel and located where it gets a pasting from the front tyre, it can rust within 500 miles. Thirty six percent of owners said they were disappointed by this. A few also said fasteners corroded, paint came off in a few areas including rear plastics and wheels. A handful commented the switchgear was pretty antiquated but otherwise there were no real problem areas. Overall that’s pretty good and plenty of owners said their Buells had a better finish than Japanese bikes they’d owned.

Owner Case Study: "I rode a Ulysses up to the Arctic circle"

Alastair Clegg has owned four of these quirky devices and doesn’t have a bad word to say about them

“They’re an obsession for me. I love their quirkiness. Every time I fill up, someone comes up to me to talk about the bike. I like the fact they’re designed by one man, not a team of accountants.

“I’ve had four – a Lightning Long, a Super TT and two Ulysses and never had a single problem with any of them. I rode my Lightning Long to the south of France and almost ran it dry. I ended up filling it with diesel car oil – and it still ran like clockwork.

“I rode one of the Ulysses about 15,000 miles from Anchorage in Alaska, up to the Arctic Circle, then right down North and South America to Buenos Aires. At one point I rode with an Irish guy on a R1200GS but his immobiliser failed, stranding him. The Buell coped with everything – me falling off, a hurricane, gravel banks, poor quality fuel and never missed a beat.

“I had an Aprilia RSV Factory before and I think I’m faster round a twisty circuit or tight country roads on a Buell. I have total confidence in the Buells – you can just throw them into any corner and they’ll get round. The Super TT was the best for road blasts but the Ulysses is more versatile.”

Running costs
For a big, rapid bike, these Buells are good on fuel. The 1,200cc bikes are pretty frugal with the XB12R Firebolts averaging 46mpg, the XB12S Lightnings 48mpg and the XB12XX Ulysses 50mpg. The 984cc machines are better still at 48mpg for the XB9R Firebolt and 52mpg for the XB9S machines.

Service costs aren’t such good news. Services are due every 5,000 alternating minor/major. Looking at the 1,200cc bikes as a whole, average price paid for a minor service was £242 and a major one £589. The smaller-engined bikes are fractionally cheaper to service but only by a few quid. Some owners are using independent mechanics and others official dealers. Lots of them say servicing costs are too high, quoting £70-£75 an hour labour rates at official dealers which can bring in the major service around the £700 mark.

Despite these high rates a handful of owners say they’re not impressed with the treatment their bikes get at main dealers too. If you can find one, a good, independent with Buell knowledge can make ownership much cheaper and more enjoyable. Loads of owners heaped praise on The Emporium (0161 343 3077) – an independent Buell specialist in Dukinfield near Manchester.

Tyres and pads
Tyre life varies massively and depends how each bike’s ridden. With loads of torque, these machines shred rubber fast if used hard. Average tyre life, according to owners, in miles: XB12R 3,416(f), 2,818(r); XB12S 5,856(f), 4,011(r); Ulysses 6,673(f), 5,079(r); smaller engine models 5,946(f), 5,035(r).

The most popular tyres for Firebolts are Pirelli Diablos. On Lightning’s the Pirelli Scorpion Sync – these have some off-road bias and are standard fit on some small engine City models and the XB12S Super TT. The Pirelli Scorpion Sync is also top choice on the Ulysses. Dunlop D616s are not well liked.

The most popular brake pads are the original Buell ones. Owners are quite lukewarm about them and some say they’re expensive and can leave deposits on the discs. The second most popular are from EBC and most think they’re an improvement. Almost as many use Braking pads and say Braking CM55 are the best option.

What to check
Buying used? Here’s the best advice for what to look for. Frame damage – it’s vulnerable and minor damage can easily be enough to write-off the bike. Drive belt tensioner – some owners say without an after market (Free Spirit) tensioner, the gearbox output bearing can fail which is an enormous and consequently expensive job to replace.

Wheel and steering head bearing condition are vital to assess. Seized wheel spindles or tickover adjusters are an essential check. Service history is crucial as these bikes need the right care; some owners say an oil change every 2,500 miles is well worthwhile and regular checks on the oil level never hurt, especially on older models.

Your Reviews

There are 14 Buells in our reviews section including the XBs, we're looking for your views on the range from the eccentric American manufacturer.

Owner Case Study: “I run a Buell (and Harley-Davidson) dealer”

Steve Loxton is dealer principal at Black Bear Harley Davidson and Buell in Newmarket.

"I love Buells to bits. I’ve got a S1W White Lightning as well as a XB12X Ulysses. They’ve got so much character and the Ulysses is a really practical bike, it’ll do anything. It is the most versatile bike you can buy. It’ll go scratching like a supermoto after work, then load up and go abroad at the weekend and ride bumpy tracks to get to those slightly out of the way places.

“Some owners aren’t keen on some official dealers. They’re all H-D dealers and tend to like Harleys, not what they see as sports bikes. We love Buells at Black Bear and own five among the staff.

“My experience of their reliability has been very good but you can’t buy one and expect it to be like a Japanese bike. If you buy a Honda you can expect 99% reliability. With a Buell it’s going to be more like 90%.

“They’re never the sort of bikes which will sell in high volume as they appeal to a certain sort of rider – people who want something a bit different. They tend to be the sort who like Moto Guzzis too. is a really useful website for anyone owning a Buell. They had a meet-up recently and 76 Buells turned up, three from Holland.”