This is a fundamentally important motorbike. Really, it is. It's Buell's first bike without a Harley engine. More than that, it's Buell's first bike with Buell's own engine. Well, sort of, anyway. Take a close look and you'll see some distinctly familiar design in that new liquid cooled motor. Buell aren't a motor manufacturer, and they know it. They make frames, they make interesting motorbikes but they don't make engines and gearboxes. Harley Davidson do, but Buell needed something different. The V-Rod engine is just to big and heavy to fit in a sportsbike. The Sportster engine does the right thing for some bikes, but moving on needs something more sophisticated. So they turned to Austrian engine gurus Rotax to come up with the goods. That's the same Rotax who produced the power plant for the Aprilia Mille. And it shows. The casings are vaguely similar, and there are other likenesses too. But we'll come onto those later.
Externally, there's no getting away from the fact that this is a Buell. The rim mounted front brake disc, the belt drive, the wide, deep frame holding the fuel tank, all the cues are there. Obviously, there are some radical departures from the norm as well. There's a pair of radiators for a start, which obviously haven't been a requirement before. And the fairing is much wider and more substantial than we've seen on Buells in the past, partly to accomodate the radiators. But the back end is pure Buell, with the little oval rear light, the cut away rear mudguard and the short tailpiece all being pretty much standard fare. It's a good looking bike, but not in a conventional sense. There are some really neat touches too - the frame, rather than the usual black or silver, is a rather nice blue. The lights are widely spaced and extremely effective, with both sides providing separate dip and high beam lights instead of the more normal single bulb in each side, and the mirrors are widely spaced and work reasonably well.
It's not a small bike, which comes as a welcome change to anyone of reasonably normal proportions. The trend for ever shrinking sportsbikes is fine if you're young and bendy or if you're the size of a jockey, but for us normal folk it's really rather nice to get on something where you can move your legs and stretch about a bit. I was quite surprised to find that I actually had to straighten my legs at standstill rather than the usual bent knees. It's a bit of a throwback to the eighties where bikes were, well, bigger. But in good way - it's actually very comfortable. Bars, pegs and levers are all where you'd expect them to be and the ignition has, at last, moved from the side of the headlight to a conventional place in front of the top yoke. Switchgear is all Buell conventional, which in this case means perfectly normal, if a trifle old fashioned looking. But it all works admirably. The instrument binnacle houses a large analogue rev counter and a multifunction LCD panel. There are many, many things the panel can display but I didn't figure them all out. Certainly there are two trip meters, a clock, a fuel guage, an instant fuel consumption meter and a lap timer. I just have no idea how at least some of them worked as we don't generally get (or, in fairness, need) handbooks with press bikes.
Turn the key and "Buell Wisconsin" scrolls along the LCD as the bike runs throiugh its pre-flight checks. Cool - it's always useful to be reminded of what you're riding before pressing the button. And actually it is useful, because logos and scrolling LCDs apart, start the engine and you would never guess it was a Buell. It sounds flat, lifeless and emasculated at tickover. The liquid cooling silences the mechanical clatter of the engine almost completely, while the factory standard exhaust does the same to the emissions. It's a very quiet bike. Perhaps that's a good thing, though I'm not sure as, to be honest, it doesn't actually sound very nice. It reminds me far too much of a Honda CX500, which will either immediately strike a chord or will leave you shaking your head. Trust me, it's not a flattering comparison.
Anyhow. Snick it into gear (yes, I said snick rather than boot, stamp or force), let out the surprisingly light clutch and off we go. Low speed handling is good, though not as frisky as, say, a Lightning. It's stable, and you know you're on a fairly large bike but the steep steering angle means that direction changes are still pretty quick. One thing I discovered fairly quickly was that it's not a good town bike. Steering lock is diabolical, your weight is too far over your wrists, you get boiled as the engine, despite being liquid cooled, chucks out an inordinate amount of heat, the throttle is horrendously snatchy and it, basically, just isn't any fun. I put up with it for a few days before having a chance to ride it out of town and was ready to dismiss the whole bike as an heroic failure.
But one day changed everything. A glorious sunny day and a trip out of town with only one small meeting to attend and the rest of the day free. Two tanks of fuel later and I was converted. The snatchy throttle had become a scalpel-sensitive way of adjusting my line through bends. The riding position was perfect for relaxed but fast road work (or track work as I had already found out) and the steering had become the dermatome to the throttle's scalpel. And it was hugely entertaining. Plus, freed of the constraints of camera and traffic bound urban riding, the exhaust sounded a lot better, too.
Back in town and I found that the experience remained as satisfying as it had the day before. Because I had remembered I was riding a Buell and started to ride it accordingly. And suddenly it all became a laugh and worked properly. The weight over the front was needed to keep both wheels on the ground. The sharp throttle and accurate steering were perfect, while the brilliant brakes allowed me to scrub off speed and get the bike turned early enough that the steering lock stopped being an issue. In fact, the only thing that caused me a problem was the occasional worrying thought - "What the Hell is that Harley doing right behind me?" It's bizarre - from on board the Buell sounds completely un-Harley like, but then you get an echo of the exhaust noise from buildings or whatever, especially when you're riding in a style that works properly, and it sounds exactly like a Harley. Which is a little disconcerting.
Now let's look at that engine. As I said before, the engine bears some very clear resemblance to the Aprilia Mille. That's a double edged sword, because although the Mille has a brilliant motor, at least when it was launched the fuelling was lambasted for being far too snatchy. Hmm, sounds familiar. Because there's no doubt this is a brilliant engine, mated with a sensitive and pleasant to use clutch and a gearbox that's up there with the best in terms of accuracy and ease of gear selection. But the fuelling, though I understand it to be far better than when the bike was launched, is still overly snatchy and does feel distinctly peculiar on the over-run as well. But it's only software and it will no doubt get fixed by the time most owners get in for their first services.
The large fairing is slightly odd in that you can see everything inside it. rather than the Japanese style of putting a liner in and hiding everything behind it, Buell have gone doen the race bike route and left everything in fairly plain view. The big screen goes down a long way as well, adding to the racebike cockpit feel. But despite the occasional little quirk, it feels as though the Buell is very well built indeed, with nothing rattling, shaking loose, corroding or breaking. Though the fuel warning is useless as I ran out just fifteen miles in. And found out just how heavy the Buell is, even with an empty tank.
So to sum up. This is not a perfect bike. But it is an extremely good one. Remember what it is and ride it like Erik Buell intended and you absolutely will get off it grinning every time. Ride it like the anodyne Japanese machine it presents itself to be at first and you'll get off frustrated, hot and unhappy. Ridden properly it's fast (actually, thinking about it, it's fast regardless of whether you ride it properly or not), it handles like a dream and it's got masses of character. Once we bonded the only criticisms I had were the fuel consumption (not good) and the noise. The rest was just...excellent. And once Buell have sorted the fuelling issues then the whole thing will be bloody brilliant from the off. So come on, folk, get on with it!.