The new Ulysses is set to bring the Buell nameplate to a whole new audience, boasting comfy ergos and sporting capability with its familiar thumping Harley-derived powerplant.
I was perhaps like some of you, wondering how the innovative sportbike guys at Buell could come up with something as daft as transforming their scalpel-like XB tool into an overgrown dirt bike. It seemed as if company founder (and former TZ750 racer) Erick Buell must’ve somehow been coerced into a VW Microbus and forced to sample some electric kool-aid.
However, the funny thing is Buell’s new Ulysses really impressed us during its press launch in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains-an acid test of a different kind-and we predict it will turn out to be the Harley subsidiary’s best-seller.
The Ulysses’ genesis came from Erik’s request that his team build a touring supermotard around the familiar 1203cc Harley-based V-Twin used in the XB12 series, the XB12S Lightning roadster and the XB12R Firebolt sportbike. What resulted is what the company says is an “adventure sportbike” and what we say is Buell’s most versatile bike yet.
The task wasn’t as simple as bolting on some long-travel suspenders on the XB. Buell engineers began by expanding the XB’s fuel-in-frame chassis and lengthening the oil-containing-swingarm by 2 inches. The larger frame results in expanded fuel capacity, up from an optimistically rated 3.7 gallons to realistic 4.4 gallons. With a sky-high EPA rating of 51 mpg in the city and 64 mpg highway, it translates into a 200-plus-mile range depending on the enthusiasm of the wrist attached to the cross-braced handlebar. (Apparently, I don’t ride like the EPA).
The Ulysses’ new chassis eschews the XB’s GP-racer geometry for something more conservative. Front-end rake has been relaxed from a twitchy 21.0 degrees to a more conventional 23.5 degrees, while trail is increased from a minuscule 3.3 inches to 4.8. The wheelbase extends 2 inches to 54.0 inches. (Incidentally, Buell takes its chassis geometry figures with 33% of its suspension used up, simulating its numbers with a rider aboard.) The company claims an ideal 50/50 weight distribution.
The XB’s close-coupled riding position has morphed into a roomier perch thanks to a 2-inch tailsection stretch and pegs that are mounted 3 inches lower. The Ulysses’ comfy seat was designed using a digital pressure mapping program, and passenger accommodations have not been forgotten, as there’s plenty of legroom, a backrest, grabrails and a reasonably wide saddle.
Buell has endowed the Ulysses with a plethora of off-road-style equipment such as dual-purpose tires, handguards, headlight grill and long-travel suspension.
Motive power is supplied by a mechanically unchanged 45-degree-V Thunderstorm engine, but the transmission of all 2006 Buells has received a total revamp. An internal change to a “dog-ring” design results in less required effort while new helical gears are quieter than the old straight-cut cogs. Incidentally, the “old-tech” air-cooled, two-valve V-Twin passes 2008 California emissions standards without a catalytic converter.
The gearbox sends power through a new drive belt from Goodyear that is stronger and more durable, protected on the Ulysses by an encompassing guard system and larger rear fender. While a rubber belt seems to be a strange choice for a harsh off-road environment, Buell has performed extensive debris testing by dropping steel “ballcones” directly into the drive system at 65 mph, which proved the belt’s durability. In addition, Buell likes to boast of a belt-drive system’s 75% lighter weight than a chain and that it requires no lubrication or adjustment. The new belt, incredibly, requires no scheduled replacement.
A walk around the Ulysses reveals several other changes aimed at making it capable on a variety of missions and road surfaces. A headlight grill similar to the CityX has off-road pretensions, while its cool Enkei wheels have been beefed up for off-road duty. Rubber pucks glued to the frame/fuel tank offer some crash protection to the aluminum piece, although one rider on our test loop proved that they could be ripped off in a spill. Under the seat is a decent sized storage area that also houses a tool kit which includes wrenches for the clutch, oil drain plug, mirrors and the fork preload adjusters.
Throwing a leg over the Ulysses seat requires a hurdler’s stretch, as the tall seat is not for shorties. Buell claims it sits 33.1 inches from the ground, but that’s measured with a 180-pound rider aboard, so it’s not directly comparable with the heights claimed by other manufacturers; it’s closer to 35 inches unladen. An optional shorter seat is claimed to be 2 inches lower, although my 31-inch inseam still wasn’t enough to touch flat-footed during a test sitting.
The Ulysses comports itself surprisingly well on graded unpaved roads, although its limited steering lock makes tight maneuvers and flat-tracking a little bit daunting.
Fired up, the 45-degree V-Twin does is customary shaking inside its rubber mounts. A heavy flywheel means it doesn’t rev up super-quick, but that extra mass pays off when applying throttle in low-traction situations. All 1203cc Buells get a revised clutch for ’06 that reduces effort by a claimed 22%, making navigating city traffic a relative breeze. The new tranny swaps cogs with less effort than previous, although it’s still not up to par with the best of the Japanese brands.
It only takes a few blocks to realize the extra travel offered by the Showa suspension pays real dividends. Its 6.5 inches of travel easily swallows tarmac potholes, and freeway slab joints are taken painlessly. Its fully adjustable suspenders are a nice touch some other similar bikes aren’t equipped with as standard, and it even includes a handy remote rear preload adjuster on the left side for on-the-fly spring tension tweaks.
Unlike the more dirt-oriented KTM 950 Adventure and BMW R1200GSbut like the Ducati Multistrada, the Ulysses is fitted with sportbike-sized 17-inch wheels front and rear. Together with New Dunlop D616s developed specifically for Buell that use a carcass similar to the D208 sportbike tire, the Ulysses’ steering response can be a little on the twitchy side, whether on the highway or off-road, though it’s not what we’d classify as unstable. Freeway rain grooves can cause a gentle oscillation through the handlebar.
The Ulysses’ cockpit is a comfy place to pile on miles. Its two-piece windscreen provides decent protection for such a small unit, and standard hand guards keeps both chilly winds and outstretched branches from reaching a rider’s hands. Two auxiliary power outlets-one in the dash and one under the seat-provides power for electronic accessories or heated apparel.
The Ulysses’ 1203cc V-Twin motor lays out its power smoothly for decent off-road traction at the rear end. You’ll want to stay out of the sand dunes, though.
With its well-padded and roomy seat (that received raves from several journos at the launch) and low pegs, only the most hobbled of knees will get cramped. Its steel pegs do vibrate at certain rpm and would benefit from removable rubber covers like the ones on BMW’s well-honed GS.
Being a Buell, the Ulysses takes naturally to twisty pavement. With its more relaxed steering geometry, it steers slower than the XB-S/R, of course, but it still can be tossed around like a much smaller bike. And those nasty mid-corner bumps that pockmark some of the best backroads are taken in stride, as the extra suspension travel all but makes them disappear.
Braking duties are handled by Buell’s now familiar ZTL brake system that features a 6-piston caliper gripping a single huge 375mm perimeter rotor. Its power is undisputed, but its response causes the front end of the Ulysses to dive excessively under braking, despite the straight-rate (non-progressive) fork springs. Similarly, the brake’s a little touchy for loose surfaces.
We had plenty of opportunities in the Rockies to sample the Ulysses on several off-road surfaces, and we came away with mixed feelings. Its front tire doesn’t supply the same level of confidence over loose surfaces as, say, the GS. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s worth noting. Also, its limited amount of steering lock can be problematic on tight trails or if you’re practicing your Jay Springsteen flat-track styling, and its handlebar is too low for stand-up, Dakar-style off-roading. Its non-cleated footpegs can be slippery in wet conditions.
But Buell engineers are quick to say the Ulysses is more dirt-capable than dirt-worthy – it’s designed to take you places where the pavement ends, not for entry into the Dakar rally. The bike is much happier on harder-packed two-track roads, and I had a particularly memorable experience hammering the Ulysses up a graded uphill gravel road full of switchbacks. Its torquey motor puts down power well in the dirt, pulling ably from below 2000 rpm and aided by a heavy flywheel that smoothes throttle application.
If your idea of adventure touring includes tilting the horizon at dizzying angles, the Ulysses has the grip and ground clearance to humble less-experienced sportbike pilots.
We were initially concerned for Buell’s under-engine muffler, as it doesn’t receive the benefit of a protective bash plate. However, Erik Buell notes the giant can was designed to be a jacking point, so its construction is plenty stout and any potential damage should be only cosmetic, aided by a generous 6.75 inches of ground clearance.
Versatility is enhanced by what Buell calls the “Triple Tail,” a rubber-covered aluminum gizmo that pivots from behind the seat to three positions. It serves as a useful luggage rack (with tie-down points) that flips forward onto the passenger seat or rearward behind the seat, and it also doubles as a pillion backrest in its upright position. Clever stuff, gang. Buell rates the Ulysses’ carrying capacity at a generous 452 pounds.
For those longer trips, Buell also offers lockable storage in the form of Hepco-Becker hard-shell luggage. The saddlebags can be had for $700, or you can include the top case for a total of $995. They are quite cavernous and appear well-made, but they aren’t keyed to the ignition, so they require a separate key. Buell reps brag that there are no speed limits with the luggage installed, as they have been extensively tested at high velocities. For comparison, Ducati recommends that its ST series should not exceed 70 mph (!) with its saddlebags mounted (although I can personally attest to it being just fine at 130 mph, two-up even).
The Ulysses is available in two color options: Barricade Orange and Midnight Black, both with Magnesium Tone wheels. Like all Buells, the Ulysses carries a two-year warrantee.
Just a few years ago, BMW was the lone purveyor of large-displacement adventure-tourers, but the Ulysses arrives at a time when this niche market is getting increasingly crowded. Along with the aforementioned Multistrada, BMW and KTM, there’s also Suzuki’s dirt-cheap V-Strom 1000. The Ulysses retails for $11,495, which is right in line with the $11,995 Ducati but much cheaper than the $15,000-or-so R1200GS and $13,898 KTM. The V-Strom retails for just $8999.
Buell claims a fully fueled weight of 498 lbs for the Ulysses, which is nearly spot-on with what Cycle World magazine measured on its test unit that it received months before the bike’s official launch, so about 471 pounds tank-empty. If that’s the case, then the Buell scales in about 30 pounds less than the GS but about 20 pounds more than the KTM. Ducati’s Multistrada is nearly 50 pounds lighter than the Ulysses, while Suzuki’s V-Strom 1000 is about 10 pounds less.
No matter where you decide to take it, the Ulysses presents a tantalizing option for consumers in an already competitive niche market.
The Ulysses showed 84 horsepower on CW’s dyno, which is about equal to the GS and Multistrada, while its peak torque of 69 lb-ft dwarfed the Multistrada’s 62 lb-ft but fell a bit short of the BMW’s peak of 72. The V-Strom wins the horsepower battle with 90, but its 66 lb-ft of torque is a bit less. In terms of performance, the Ulysses ran a 12.2-second quarter mile, just a tick behind the BMW but about three-tenths slower than the Ducati and Suzuki. The KTM’s 91 horsepower and 62 lb-ft of torque, along with its weight a few pounds less than the Ducati, makes it the drag-race champ, able to run an 11.7 quarter.
Despite its off-road pretensions, the Ulysses is as much a nimble backroad sport-tourer as it is an adventure-tourer, and as such it fills a void in the Buell lineup that was vacated when the old tube-framed S3T was axed. While Buell’s earlier XBs were a huge step forward in terms of quality and performance, their diminutive size and radical chassis geometry appealed only to a tightly focused market. With the appealingly versatile Ulysses, we expect a much wider range of buyers to come trotting in to Buell dealerships around the country, and we predict the 10,000 or so Buells sold worldwide last year will grow significantly for 2006.
“It could turn out to be our best-selling bike,” says Buell PR guy Paul James.
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