Buell Gets Wet With The Liquid-Cooled, Rotax-Powered 1125R | First Ride

Austria helps build a high-performance Sportbike to make America proud

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Brian J. Nelson, Kevin Wing, Tom Riles

Americans are a patriotic lot. Whether talking sports, politics or cultural exports, the average American citizen maintains that Made in America is synonymous with The Best (never mind the Barry Bonds controversy, the ambiguous Iraq War, American Idol or other evidence to the contrary). Such overt nationalism is even less convincing in the motorcycle industry. Sure, Harley-Davidson has the cruiser market in a red-white-and-blue headlock, but the sportbike universe is ruled by Japanese and European hardware, with American machines usually running a few laps down.

Buell, America's only major sportbike manufacturer, is set to shake up this status quo with the new 1125R-the company's first mass-produced, liquid-cooled motorcycle and its most serious sportbike yet. With specs to make even the most anti-American enthusiast drool, the 1125R appears on paper to hit the mark. Claimed output is 146 horsepower and dry weight is said to be just 375 pounds. The bike is undeniably aggressive, with piscine, purposeful styling reminiscent of a Great White shark. And when you fire it up, a throbby bark replaces the air-cooled XB's agricultural chum-and-chuff.

Is this long-awaited, highly anticipated American sportbike as good on pavement as it looks on paper? To find out, we headed to Monterey, California, for a 200-mile street ride along the Pacific Coast followed by a day circulating the legendary Laguna Seca Raceway. Unfortunately, we rode pre-production "validation" prototypes and certain calibrations-specifically fuel injection and suspension settings-were off the mark, making it difficult to accurately assess the ultimate performance of this new machine. Set-up issues aside, though, the basic package was solid and we trust that once the engineers get things dialed in, the 1125R will be far and away the best sportbike Buell-and America-has built yet. In fact, foreign journalists who rode the bikes in the days following the American press reported that this was indeed the case.

Buell didn't do it alone-it got lots of help in the powertrain department from Canadian-Austrian engine manufacturer BRP-Rotax. Namesake Erik Buell petitioned for a more modern powerplant for some time, but after developing its Revolution V-Rod motor, parent company Harley-Davidson lacked the time and resources to support him. Instead, Harley gave Buell permission to contact Rotax, where it found a perfect development partner. Both companies share a passion for sporting performance, Buell says, and past business connections-Rotax worked with Harley to build motorcycles for the United States military as well as flat-track racing machines-made it easy for Harley to buy into a joint Buell/Rotax partnership. The final product, an all-new, 72-degree, 1125cc V-twin called the Helicon (named for the Greek mountain where the mythical Pegasus released the knowledge of the Muses), will be manufactured and assembled in Austria, then shipped to the Buell facility in East Troy, Wisconsin, where the motorcycle will come together.

Why 1125cc? Buell is adamant that this new model wasn't built to conform to any particular displacement category or racing rule but rather to satisfy a carefully defined "customer experience expectation" in terms of performance and power delivery. Aiming for the power of a superbike and the abundant torque characteristic of a V-Twin, the Rotax engineers drew up a compact, oversquare (103.0 x 67.5mm) V-twin with lots of valve area for free breathing and a short stroke to increase the rpm range and give the bike an aggressive, quick-revving character.

The Helicon hits those marks with a 10,500-rpm redline and a claimed output of 146 bhp and 82 lb.-ft. of torque. On the racetrack, it feels very fast indeed. The 1125R doesn't have the same neck-snapping top-end rush of a Ducati 1098-power delivery is more linear and consistent-but it has a similar appetite for revs that drastically shortened Laguna's straights and made us wish for a steering damper (none is fitted) as it lifted the front wheel everywhere on the gas. It is a tad vibey, despite no fewer than three counterbalancers. A band of high-frequency vibration comes through the bars between 5000 and 6000 revs and a stronger vibration surfaces through the footpegs (mounted directly to the engine cases) around 9000 and maintains to redline. It's still a Buell.

Fuel injection is managed by Harley's DDFI3 direct-digital, closed-loop system, monitoring two injectors per cylinder. Fuel-injection programming wasn't optimized on the first day's street ride, with rough performance and abrupt throttle pickup below 3000 rpm and a disturbing tendency to maintain acceleration momentarily after the throttle was closed-later attributed to a maladjusted air-idle valve setting. The bikes were remapped for the track the second day and seemed to inject cleanly, though we had little chance to experience the low-rev conditions that had been most problematic.

This is Buell's first liquid-cooled streetbike and execution is typically unconventional. Twin compact radiators are mounted in outboard pods to keep the engine as close as possible to the front wheel, better centralizing mass. The radiator cowlings were shaped using computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to create a pressure differential and pull cooling air through the radiator core, while sculpted airflow channels inside the frame suck hot air off the motor and out the back of the bike. Despite these details, the pre-production bikes ran very hot-we saw temperature readings as high as 230 degrees. In addition, super-heated air off the back of the motor barbecues your right foot at slower speeds, virtually unbearable in thin Sidi Vertigo Corsa boots. Buell said both issues would be addressed before final production.

Made in Illinois using a cutting-edge process called "ablation casting," the 1125R frame is said to be Buell's stiffest yet, despite weighing 10 pounds less than that of the XB. The new oversized frame is mated to a new swingarm that mounts directly to the engine cases and an oversized 47mm inverted fork that Buell claims is the largest ever fitted to a production sportbike. Again, it was difficult to assess outright handling as the suspension settings had not been finalized. The 1.0 kg/mm fork springs were too stiff, at least for someone of my weight (145 pounds). The high-riding front end didn't want to compress fully even under hard braking, and this, coupled with excessive rebound (either too much spring, too little damping, or both) limited front-tire feedback and, likewise, confidence. The rear was similarly oversprung, resulting in excess wheelspin whenever the throttle was screwed on. Buell had just two of the two dozen testbikes fitted with lighter, .095 kg/mm fork springs, and while I only managed one session on the lighter-sprung bike, I immediately noticed an improvement in handling. We'll have to wait until we test an actual production bike before we can speak with authority.

The 1125R's front-end geometry is identical to that of the XB and, not surprisingly, steers similarly-it wants a more forceful steering input than a typical sportbike, but rewards with neutral mid-corner manners and impressive line-holding ability. This was perfect for hammering Highway 1's high-speed sweepers south of Monterey, but less optimal at Laguna, where quicker direction changes would help navigate the challenging left-right transition over the lip of the infamous Corkscrew.

Buell nailed the ergonomic package; in fact, this is one of the most comfortable sportbikes we have ever ridden. The more compact motor and narrow chassis allowed the footpegs to be positioned lower and further inboard, rotating the rider's hips forward to open up more legroom without sacrificing cornering clearance. The saddle is broad and supportive with plenty of room to move around. Bars are high and wide, and the bulbous, CFD-shaped fairing provides a huge pocket of calm, stable air in the aptly named Quiet Zone cockpit.

The single, eight-piston front brake generated adequate clamping force to slow the 1125R at the end of Laguna's fast, 140-mph front straight, though it requires a firm squeeze on the lever and would benefit from better initial bite. The effort required to engage the clutch is remarkably light, thanks to Rotax's patented Hydraulic Vacuum Assist system that commandeers unused vacuum pressure from the intake manifold to reduce clutch lever effort. This same HVA circuit also operates the slipper-type clutch, relying on pneumatic force instead of a complicated, ball-and-ramp mechanical system. It's somewhat inconsistent, however, as the activation varies slightly depending on throttle position. The new, close-ratio six-speed transmission is faultless, providing exceptionally smooth, light-action shifts in either direction.

It's hard not to be excited about the 1125R, in spite of the aforementioned complaints. The essential character of the bike is fast, thrilling and unlike any American sportbike we've ever ridden. We're optimistic that Buell's capable engineering staff will sort out the calibration issues-our criticisms have to do with set-up; the underlying engineering seems solid. Let's hope then that they get things sorted soon, and the bike we see in showrooms in a few months is one that will really make our overdog nation proud.

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