Back when the world was flat, the maidens launched ships with their faces and there was a god for everything, Ulysses was the ultimate adventurer. He battled men, monsters and even had a run in with the odd god or two. He was cunning and resourceful; women swooned and enemies fled. To all intents and purposes he was a big old lump in a strong, athletic frame with oceans of torque and cities’ worth of power. And he looked good.
American bike makers Buell have named their “adventure sport tourer” well. Apart from the looks, about which I have my reservations.
At just under a metre and a half long, it’s stubby. And to my taste it looks like a bug. Not an insect, it’s too stocky and compact for lots of legs. But there’s something charming about it. No, charming isn’t the word, it’s more challengingly attractive. But the biggest impression I got, was something far more powerful. It promises. It carries itself as if it’s offering a truly extraordinary experience. If I’d consulted an oracle, it would have told me “today you will be naughty.” Oh yes. Naughty.
This is one naughty bike. It makes you do naughty things; finding gaps that milliseconds before didn’t exist; revving outside old people’s homes just because everyone should get a taste of the range of exhaust notes; accelerating just that little bit too fast and feeling the steering go very light because the front wheel’s left the ground; stopping too hard and feeling that slightly unnerving sense of the back wheel rising up.
With it’s Intuitive Response Chassis, rigidity, balance and, let’s face it, excitability, the XB12XT handles beautifully. It’s so exciting knowing that if you can do it, it most certainly can. I’d been told that it was a bit like having an excited spaniel waiting in your garage, which just wanted to play.
And this bike is almost intuitive; by the time you’ve thought about doing something, the Buell’s getting ready to do it and cane it on the exit. It feels light and flickable and is so easy to turn in to corners. The upright, tipped forward riding position seems to put you over the front wheel, so the feel is outstanding and that front wheel sticks.
The Showa forks give great feel and supreme confidence when you’re pushing hard and that mass centralisation that Buell is famed for, really is a bonus. I mentioned balance before, and it really does feel grounded. And when you need the brakes, they are awesome. The bite is initially sharp, but as you get used to it, you really can stop very quickly and in complete control. And those disks just look fantastic.
When you think of adventure tourers, there are some things you just know have to be there; hand protection, heated grips, comfortable seat, useful screen, good visibility from a high riding position, good luggage and - let’s not forget - excitement. And the Buell has all of these.
But you wouldn’t necessarily want to ride it all the time. I found it quite a tiring bike. I’m tall – over 6 feet – with long legs, and the riding position hoicks you forwards tucking your legs back, so better designed for a slightly shorter leg. At a stand still though, my feet were comfortably flat on the ground. But for someone a tad smaller, it’d be a tip-toe job, which is never fun with a V-twin banging away underneath you and unsettling everything.
But you know what, that engine is sublime. It makes all the right power in all the right places, producing 94 hp at 6,800 rpm and it’ll pull in any gear – and pull hard. There really is something special about a twin, and with Buell’s background, you just know it’s going to be lovely and it does not disappoint.
You could ride it like a little old man in cap out for a Sunday jaunt in his 30 year old Maestro and it’d be “nice”. But then you’d be a little old man out for a Sunday jaunt in your Maestro, wouldn’t you. You wouldn’t be on the Buell Ulysses XB12XT, because this thing eats scooters and then goes hunting for corners. And woe betide you if you don’t go out and let the inner spaniel loose. This is one fun bike, and you really would be missing out.
It’s let down by the tank range. For a tourer you’d want more than a little under 17 litres of fuel in your tank because it just won’t take you far enough, but play it right and it’ll take you from the city to the twisties and back again with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of fun.
In fact, town riding is a giggle. You can make gaps that are only just there. You can take charge in the traffic light grand prix. You could very well receive a “note of naughtiness” through your front door requiring a donation to the coffers and a black mark on your permit to drive – but you wouldn’t do that. And you don’t need to. It’s fun, no, exciting in a very good way at almost any speed.
However, if you are going touring, and you are going through town just remember this: the panniers are wider and as high as your wing mirrors. Where you might normally expect the back end to be narrower than the handlebars, this is a bike where the width has slipped, as if it’s been a bit fond of pies and sitting, despite taking care of the meet and greet. You’ll be smacking car wing mirrors unless you pay very close attention, which is not a good thing. And woe betide you if any passenger you carry doesn’t have a mountaineering background, because it’s a bit of a struggle getting settled, apparently. Once there, it’s comfy, roomy and provides a great view, without bothering the rider at all. But getting there is cross between martial arts, gymnastics and prayer - you only have to watch the video on Buell’s website to see – and she’s young, athletic and still won’t give me her number.
So, my advice is to take the panniers off. Because this is a bike that HAS to be ridden. One of the things that makes biking such a pleasure is the grin factor. My grin reached warp 9 on the XB12XT. If you’re looking for a bike that really will keep your pulse racing in all the good ways, you don’t mind filling up regularly and you have a “little bit” of self-control, this is a bike that will make you smile and get you where you want to go, in a very good mood.
Ulysses may have had the world, but he didn’t have a Buell. So, that’s 1-up to Mars, then.
2nd opinion - Simon Bradley
The vanilla Ulysses was one of my surprise favourites when I tested it back in 2006. It was comfortable, fast and handled fairly well. The only thing that let it down a little was the overly squidgy tyre construction which made it weave a little and a pair of heated grips. Then again, it was the depths of winter when I did that test. Typically, the XB12XT came to me in the height of summer, when heated grips were never going to be an issue. It's got them, though. It's also got different tyres which transform the handling from pretty good to astonishing. And it's got luggage. But more on that later.
Actually, no. Let's deal with the luggage now. Because, like the curate's egg, parts of it are excellent. I use that expression quite a lot, by the way, so if it makes no sense try Googling 'curate's egg' and see what comes up. Anyhow, the luggage is spacious enough, it appears not to leak too dadly and the locks are very good and simple to use. It also comes of quite easily, though mercifully only when that is your intention. However, we all know that Buell is a compamny staffed by people who like a laugh. There's no other way that they would have come up with most of their bikes. And nowhere is this better proven than with this luggage. Like most urban riders I work on the mouse whiskers principle - if my handlebars and/or mirrors will go through the gap then the rest of me will - and very well it works too. Bars are always wider than anything else so it stands to reason. Um, except for the Buell, where the panniers are a good few inches wider than the bars. Getting jammed solid between a couple of vans in the rush hour could have been icky - it was fortunate that the drivers both found it as funny as I didn't - and it doesn't half dent your confidence. But take the luggage off and oh boy is it a good town bike.
Get it out of town and give it some stick and you'll be rewarded with a bike that is satisfyingly quick, agile yet stable and enormous fun. With or without luggage, with or without passenger. Sure it's a bit of a climb to the bridge but when you get there the view is worth it and you'll be grinning like a loon for ages after a spirited ride.
Basically, Buell know how to hit the fun button on their bikes. And they hit it fair and square with this one.