The handling characteristics of the XB series seem a bit strange until acclimated. Then it rips.
Getting back into the twisties, the XB proves to feel a bit different than most corner-carving machines. Its extra-steep 21-degree rake and miniscule 83mm of trail makes quick-steering promises the bike can't keep. That's not to say the 440-pound (tank empty) 12R can't make rapid turns, just that it takes greater effort than the specs might indicate. The higher handlebars of the 12S offer greater leverage than the 12R's clip-ons, so that bike might be a better option for those who ride on the squiggliest roads.
To explain this odd condition, I speculated that its slowish steering was at least partially due to the efforts made to lower the XB's center of gravity (under-engine muffler, oil tank in the swingarm, fuel in the frame) and the rotational inertia of the large engine internals, but I figured there is more to it. In an effort to divine the definitive answer, I banged off the question to Mr. Buell himself.
"Exactly as you've surmised, there is much more to it than the items you've mentioned," explained engineer Buell before keeping his cards close to his chest. "Much more than a layperson would understand and more than we would like to tell our competition. Achieving this unheard of combination was the core of the whole XB product. It required a great deal of analytical and experimental work over a number of years, which resulted in combining a significant number of pieces together that work well as a package."
There you have it, sort of.
The huge perimeter-mounted single front disc brake and translucent wheel paint attracts plenty of attention.
Once leaned into a corner, the XB demands additional inside bar pressure to keep lowering its lean angle. It's not linear but it ceases to become a problem once accustomed to the way it works. More disconcerting in the XB's tendency to stand up under braking. If a rider is applying the brakes midway through a corner, the last thing he/she wants is to run it out even wider. We were also surprised at the way the XB became a little unsteady when hitting mid-corner bumps. It's not that it would shake its head, but it seems as if the stiff twin-spar frame and short wheelbase react with more force over bumps compared to other sportbikes. Thankfully, a handful of tractable power is available at any rpm to power out turns with steamy grunt, especially past 4200 rpm.
Trolling the Firebolt around town revealed a few other idiosyncrasies. That bitchin' looking side-exit exhaust outlet from the underslung muffler dumps hot exhaust at a rider's left foot at a stop or when leaving a light, eventually making boots and pants smell like burned fuel. In addition, heat radiating from the exhaust header pipes warms a rider's right leg.
And it's heat that is the enemy of an air-cooled bike, especially on a V-Twin with the front cylinder blocking the rear. To solve this problem Buell created another, what ended up being my biggest annoyance with the XB. To keep rear cylinder temperatures reasonable and to prevent oil from baking inside the rear cylinder head after the bike is shut of and oil stops flowing, Buell uses an electric fan to suck heat away from the rear of the engine. While the fan may aid long-term durability, it is also an irritation as it whines like a trust-funder forced to work at Starbucks. Not only does the fan activate when riding slow, it also comes on as soon as the ignition is shut off, sounding like a warning system alarm or a small jet engine. Please, Erik, make it quieter!
While the XB12R isn't designed for sport-touring, the bikini fairing offers a good deal of wind protection and its ergos aren't torturous.
There are a few other items on the Firebolt we'd like to see improved. The unfinished (non-glossy) inner fairing panels look a bit cheap from the cockpit, and the plastic turn signal switch and bar control housings look and feel chintzy. While we're at it, we'd like to see some bungee hooks for strapping some luggage to the XB, and it would be nice if the clutch cable didn't rub away at the plastic lower fairing. And that yellow-tinted windscreen looks a bit too fast-boy for our tastes, and it also causes the yellow fuel light to appear illuminated in daylight. Also, a CHP officer told an XB12R rider that it is illegal to have a yellow windshield, though it wasn't enough to earn the rider a citation.
In many ways, the Firebolt is like an American version of a Moto Guzzi or older Ducati: You get clever engineering combined with some measure of exclusivity that comes at the price of some idiosyncrasies. Near the end of 1200 miles in the XB's saddle, I was really starting to warm to its charms. Shortly before returning the bike to Buell, photog Eric Putter and I took it out for a photo shoot along with Triumph's new Daytona 600. I spent most of the day enjoying the squirt and raw-knuckled panache of the Firebolt. When we finally switched bikes, I became frustrated with the Trumpet's dearth of low- and mid-range power, its buzziness and it relative lack of character. So I quickly made up a lame excuse to get Putter off my Buell.
There's plenty to like about the XB12R. Buell has thankfully abandoned the barrel-type key and separate fork lock of previous models in favor of a regular slot key and integrated fork lock. The analog instruments with two tripmeters and a clock are easy to read, and the bike never fails to attract attention, whether it's because of the rad-looking wheels with spokes that appear impossibly thin and a translucent gold color that glows in sunlight, or if they turn their heads to wonder what's making that high-pitched fan whine. Fuel mileage, consistently averaging in the 40-mph range, was excellent, making the most of the puny 3.7-gallon capacity of the frame tank.
The XB-R's tailsection is sleek thanks to the muffler placed under the engine. The standard seat cowl removes to reveal the passenger seat.
I did become a little wary when our XB sprung a slow leak at its oil cooler fitting, and it got a little worse when I saw another XB12R with a similar oil leak. I brushed that off as a supplier problem and rationalized that it probably wasn't endemic to all the XBs.
I got a little more worried when I loaded the Firebolt into the MCUSA van to return it and noticed the cast aluminum "front isolator assembly" (engine mount) had a crack running two-thirds of the way through.
Buell, too, was anxious to understand what went wrong with the cast aluminum part and it began a thorough investigation. It turns out that the bolt in the left mounting hole was loose. Buell suspects the bolt must not have been torqued to spec after this particular bike had been serviced in the field, not in the controlled assembly environment of the Buell factory.
"Our initial analysis indicated this particular part met its material specifications, showed no manufacturing flaws, and failed due to an overload condition (not fatigue)," said Paul James, Harley-Davidson/Buell communications manager. "Finite element analysis showed the only way to produce stresses high enough to crack the component in the area and manner you observed was if the left mounting bolt to the engine was loose."
James noted that the same part has been used on the XB series since it debuted in 2002, adding, "That component has never failed in any of our testing or with our customers, so it appears it was an aberration."
Buell's Firebolt is different than anything else out there, and we're happy to have it as an alternative to the run-of-the-mill sportbikes.
To assuage any fears of unreliability, Buell now offers a two-year, unlimited-mileage warranty on all 2004 models that replaces the previous one-year coverage.
The XB series appears to be a major hit for Buell. Sales are up 26% in total over last year, and a company spokesman says the number of units sold through the months of August and September have doubled compared to the same time last year. The American-made sportbikes appear to be in high demand off this continent, also, as there are more Buells sold overseas than in the U.S.
It's easy to see the attraction to this unique machine. When riding previous Buell offerings, they provided a satisfyingly unique experience that faded with time in the saddle. After many miles on the new Firebolt, I never tired of going out for another ride on it. Dare I say that I even considered it as a possible addition to my garage of the future.
The XB12R is worthy of consideration, especially to those who enjoy riding something a little different. And if the power ever becomes insufficient, there are plenty of hop-up parts for the motor. At $10,995, the XB12R is quite a bit pricier than the $9195 XB9, but it's worth the extra cash over its relatively anemic brother. Or if you've got a clever pair of greasy hands, you could use the $1800 you save to pump up an XB9.
The bottom line: The XB12R Firebolt is a breath of fresh air in a mostly cookie-cutter sportbike scene, and it offers a robust platform to personalize an interesting bike even further.
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