2006 Buell XB12X Ulysses

The Best Buell Yet

"A Buell adventure-tourer? Are you kidding? After all the mechanical problems those things have had, I wouldn't trust one to ride around the block, let alone the world!"

Those words, spoken by a hardened moto-journalist who has twice limped home on self-destructing Buell testbikes, pretty much sum up the feelings of those who have spent time on America's sportbike. Why spend your hard-earned money on something "different" when there are plenty of other bikes with much more enviable reliability records?

OK, so the scribe in question was me. So fed up was I with Buells after suffering near-identical chains of events that I sketched a schematic of an Aerostich suit showing which parts went in which pockets. Lessee, muffler discs here, shock reservoir there ... It was like riding the world's loudest pogo stick!

Thing is, each of those events happened with older-model Buells--RSS 1200, S2 and S3T, to be specific--examples from what's now referred to as the tube-frame era. Not surprisingly, when Harley-Davidson purchased Erik Buell's company in 1998, the first thing it did was issue a recall on every single bike built since '94, some 18,000 units in all. Four years later the Harley connection helped usher in the new XB series, innovative sport and naked bikes that house fuel inside their twin-spar aluminum frames and oil in their swingarms; the engine is still based on a dry-sump Sportster, after all. More to the point, the XBs let Buell do an about-face in terms of reliability, making them as mechanically sound as anything this side of a Honda.

They'd have to be if they were going to form the basis of an adventure-tourer such as the 2006 Ulysses XB12X. Actually, Erik prefers the term adventure-sportbike, saying his original design brief was for a touring supermotard. To that end, the Ulysses utilizes sportbike-size 17-inch wheels front and rear, making it more Ducati Multistrada than BMW GS.

At first glance, the Ulysses appears to be built on the existing XB12 platform, and it is--to a point. The engine is the same air-cooled, fuel-injected, 1203cc pushrod V-twin, pumping out an identical 103 horsepower and 84 pound-feet of torque. But while the chassis looks the same, it's not. To adapt it for the Ulysses (and Buell's other new-for-2006 model, the Lightning Long--see page 170), the frame grew a bit longer and wider, and lost the hole through which the engine's air intake used to pass. As a result, fuel capacity is up from 3.8 to 4.4 gallons, and air now enters the airbox via a screened passageway surrounding the fuel filler cap--careful at fill-ups.

To increase stability, rake was relaxed from 21 to 22 degrees, trail from 3.3 to 4.8 inches, and the swingarm was lengthened a tad, increasing wheelbase by 2 inches to 54; longer, yes, but still short by any standard. To cope with rough roads (paved or otherwise), suspension travel was increased to 6.51 inches up front and 6.38 in rear, and the heavier-duty cast wheels were shod with purpose-built Dunlop D616 tires featuring a supermotard tread pattern. Topping it all off, and reinforcing the bike's adventure-touring pretensions, is new plastic bodywork with an enduro-style headlight/numberplate, a long, flat seat and a motocross-style crossbraced handlebar.

Buell introduced the XB12X to the motorcycling press in the days following the 2006 Harley-Davidson dealer show in Denver, Colorado, this past July. "We've been naked, now we're going to get dirty," joked Amy Giuffre, marketing platform lead. And we did, taking the Ulysses on an approximately 200-mile test ride that was about one-third dirt.

First thing you notice when saddling up is how tall the Ulysses feels. Although its 33.1-inch seat height doesn't seem that dizzying, the width of the saddle between your thighs makes for a tiptoes stance at stoplights, even for 6-footers like me. Next thing you notice after thumbing the starter button is mind-numbing engine vibration, which fortunately all but disappears once under way. Credit Buell's clever rubber-mounting system for that.

Our test ride started with a long drone on the freeway, and here the XB12X proved plenty comfortable. With its wide bar, tall seat and footpegs 3 inches lower than the Lightning's, it has a nice, roomy riding position, and the tiny windscreen does a decent job of deflecting windblast--though we'd probably want something bigger in colder weather. Exiting onto a twisty backroad, the XB-X did a fair approximation of a sportbike, flicking from side to side almost as easily as the Lightning Longs with which we occasionally shared the roads. All Sportster-based engines get new dog-ring-style gearboxes for '06, and as a result the Ulysses shifts with, if not Japanese then certainly Italian, precision. My only gripes here concerned how quickly the engine reached its low, 7000-rpm redline, and how much travel the fork used under braking. That latter observation had a few of the more impatient testers stopping to make roadside suspension adjustments even before they'd hit the dirt--some literally!

While the 425-pound machine is obviously no motocrosser, it worked surprisingly well on the graded dirt roads we sampled, the plush suspension sucking up the various rocks, ruts and creek crossings in our path. The 17-inch front tire makes for a shorter footprint than the 19- or 21-inchers on other adventure-tourers, and as a result you can't lean it over as far in the dirt, but it's far more sure-footed than the similar-size street tires on a Multistrada, for example. It helps to ride Supermoto-style: Keep the bike as upright as possible in the dirt, brake and turn early and steer with the throttle. All that is much easier than it sounds thanks to the highly tractable engine.

There are a couple of places where the Ulysses misses the mark. For example, while the engine's heavy flywheels undoubtedly help traction off-road, they greatly diminish engine braking, which means you sometimes find yourself rolling into a corner too fast. Your natural reaction is to snatch at the front brake, which has a strong initial bite that makes it easy to break traction on a loose surface. Add to that the afore-mentioned too-soft fork springs and you've got a recipe for an instant lowside. I saw three highly skilled racer-types hit the deck in just such a fashion--and no, I wasn't one of them!

I fiddled with the fork but reached the limit of the adjusters before finding a good setup. Buell needs to take a page from KTM's book and tune the Ulysses' suspension like that of the 950 Supermoto, which somehow manages to be stiff yet plush.

Also, making U-turns is difficult due to limited steering lock.

Overall, though, Buell has done an amazing job of transforming a sportbike into an adventure-tourer ... er, excuse me, adventure sportbike, and one that shows no sign of being anything less than stone-ax reliable. As evidence, not one mechanical problem was reported over the two days of testing. Thanks to the clever frame protectors and handguards, even the crashed bikes were ridden back to civilization.

Since the XB series was introduced in '02, there have been a couple of recalls for faulty wire routing and sidestand bolts, but that's it. And in the interest of further improving reliability, Buell put the Ulysses through tens of thousands of miles of R&D; testing.You could call that an Odyssey, but you wouldn't. MC

MSRP $11,495
Type a-c 45-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement OHV, 4v
Displacement 1203cc
Transmission 5-speed
Weight 425 lb. wet (193kg)
Fuel capacity 4.4 gal. (17L)
Wheelbase 54.4 in. (1382mm)
Seat height 33 in. (841mm)
Standard Triple Tail flips from luggage rack to passenger backrest with the push of a key. Optional German-made Hepco & Becker luggage is priced at $700 for saddlebags, $995 for the complete set including top trunk. GPS will be available in the near future.