Buell XB9R Firebolt

Cutting Edge American Steel

We ask that you surrender all biases, predilections, prejudices and predictions at this time. All will be safely returned to you unharmed at the conclusion of this test. From here on, clear your mind and realize no matter what you think of Erik Buell's 2003 Firebolt now, it will surprise you. America's only sportbike maker has never taken the conformist approach to motorcycle design. Having gone that far, the Firebolt is a radical departure, even for Buell. It would be a singular piece compared with any other motorcycle...if there were any other motorcycle to compare it with.

Those of you paying attention should be dialed in on all the Buell bright-think expressed throughout the XB9R Firebolt. Our October Firebolt preview covered all the mechanical minutia, and our February '02 cover story went for a quick scrape around Las Vegas Motor Speedway's small track on the little brute. For everyone else, we'll hit the high spots again. The Firebolt isn't a conventional sportbike. It isn't a racer replica. It isn't an anything replica. Buell calls the Firebolt a "sport fighter"--a fuel-injected 45-degree Milwaukee V-twin torque-pump, artfully shoehorned into a chassis with dimensions resembling a 250cc racebike's. Wrap your frontal lobes around the idea of 21 degrees of fork angle buffered by just 84mm of trail. As you might expect, persuading the latest 984cc Sportster-derived motor into a chassis with axles just 52 inches apart took some very atypical design thinking.

To make those numbers and that engine play nice together, Lead Chassis Engineer Vance Strader and company pushed all the bike's heavy bits down toward the center of the motorcycle. The resulting architecture gives major Firebolt chassis components more than one job to do. Cast for Buell by Verlicchi, that aluminum-spar frame is also the gas tank, carrying 3.7 gallons (not much, really) of unleaded in its specially sealed interior. All 3.5 quarts of engine oil live in a Brembo-cast one-piece aluminum swingarm. A single 375mm rotor bolts directly to the front rim instead of the hub. Weight, especially the unsprung kind, is our enemy. With braking loads sent (almost) directly to the tire, the inverted Showa fork has less work to do, carrying a nine-pound front wheel on a light, hollow axle.

Buell's latest Uniplanar engine-mounting system restricts the 45-degree V-twin's innate thrashing to a vertical/longitudinal plane while using its structure as part of the chassis. Moreover, the Buell people are specific as to what they feel this particular twin isn't. It shares only 88.9mm x 79.4mm cylinder dimensions and pushrod covers with the Buell's single-cylinder beginner bike, so don't call it a double-barrel Blast!. Various strands of design DNA come from Harley-Davidson's XL family, but it's not really a Sportster engine, either. The transmission, primary drive and clutch come from existing Buell parts bins. From there the engine team mixed and matched, making the most of Harley manufacturing capabilities to keep the price out of Ducati 998 territory.

Still, everything from the pistons and connecting rods to the crankcases and valves are Firebolt-specific. Higher-flow cylinder heads are new, and NASCAR-inspired valve-train trickery fends off float up to the 7500-rpm redline. The motor weighs in at 169 pounds dry, complete with oil coolers and attendant mounting hardware--41 pounds lighter than the 1200 Sportster mill, but still 46 pounds up on KTM's new superlight V-twin.Hop on and you're aboard an exceedingly compact motorcycle. Everything looks cleanly styled and nicely bolted together from the saddle. Instrumentation--featuring an LCD clock, two trip meters and mileage on reserve--is complete and well placed, though the speedo is the quaint analog type, and some found the numbers hard to read. Keeping heavy bits low on the chassis makes the Firebolt feel lighter than its 455-pound wet weight would suggest.

Ergos are a mixed bag; clip-ons are a comfortable reach from the seat, but the foot pegs are high enough to require yoga classes.Fuel injection takes all the spit/stumble/pop out of the mix during startup, but the ensuing mechanical commotion is pure Sportster: Whether that's cool or archaic is in the ear of the beholder. Having warmed up to forward motion, the Firebolt is perfectly cooperative around town. The 45-degree twin's endemic flailing behavior remains at idle, but the engine mounts smooth things out from 3000 rpm on up, though somewhat more vibration gets through than on previous Buell systems. Clutch pull is on the heavy side, but the revamped linkage allows smooth shifting as long as you take your time. Power builds adequately from idle, though basement-level grunt is less impressive than, say, a Honda VTR1000's.

That cute little idler pulley keeps the driveline lashfree. It also maintains drive-belt tension so you don't have to. In fact, a fixed rear-axle position means you can't.Slow-speed steering is maybe a touch heavier than chassis numbers would suggest. Still, the Firebolt is a nimble, serviceable urban tool. Showa suspension bits deliver a taut ride without loosening one's dental work over potholes. Another plus: The underslung 11-liter muffler is quiet enough to sneak out of the condo complex at 5:55 a.m. with no nasty letters from the homeowner's association. The intermittent blow-dryer whir of the rear cylinder's cooling fan isn't something you expect from the engine bay of a Milwaukee twin, but it does help avert the heat-induced pinging of previous models. The problem is, it tends to run once you've parked, which is embarrassing at the Sunday-morning hangout.

Wound up to freeway speed, top gear (fifth) turns 4500 rpm into a placid 75 mph. The string-bikini fairing provides decent protection for its size. Limp seat foam and scarce legroom will squelch most interstate-touring aspirations after 90 minutes, which is approximately when the low-fuel light wakes up anyway. Expect about 150 miles between fillups if you're relatively easy on the throttle.Going easy on the throttle becomes increasingly unlikely once the pavement gets a few kinks in it. The power curve is relatively linear, showing none of the dips and chasms blighting Buell's higher-performance-spec engines. Extra tractability comes at the expense of peak power. The massaged 1200 Sportster mill in Buell's S3 Thunderbolt made 90.1 ponies at 6500 rpm vs. the Firebolt's 78.2-horse peak at 7250 rpm. Put to work pushing a 455-pound motorcycle, Firebolt horses have a lot of work to do. They're most enthusiastic between 5000 and the 7500-rpm redline, and as long as you're not riding in faster company they provide a tasty little rush between corners.

For those who must consider the Big Picture, 78.0 horsepower from 984cc does beat Ducati's 77.5-horsepower 900 Supersport (barely), but it's nothing special on streets full of 100-horse TLs, VTRs and even GSX-R600s. OK, so 90 or 95 horsepower would make the Firebolt more fun to ride and make it a more viable mainstream contender. For now, the chassis plays the starring role. On paper, all that extremist steering geometry could add up to one edgy little twin, but mostly it doesn't. As you'd expect with such racy numbers, the bike is tremendously sensitive to suspension settings. The difference between love and hate is just a few clicks in the wrong direction. However, dialed in correctly and ridden on its own terms, the Firebolt can be a serious back-road tool.

The key is keeping most of the bike's weight on the front wheel by dialing up rear spring preload, with just enough up front to keep the fork from bottoming. Unbolting the seat (after peeling up the edge of the foam, yick!) with a Torx key from the abbreviated tool kit reveals a ramped adjuster set on the second (of seven) preload settings, with compression and rebound screws dialed out 1.5 turns. The fork preload adjusters come with four (of seven lines) showing, with compression and rebound screws unwound 1.5 turns from maximum. Thus set, the Firebolt should work for an average 140-175 pound rider possessed of average skills on average roads.

For an aggressive, 200-pounder on diabolically convoluted pavement, stock settings don't work, making the Firebolt only slightly more nimble than a '66 International Harvester milk truck. Heavier riders place more weight on the rear of the bike, and the Buell definitely doesn't like that setup. To compensate, bump shock preload to number five (moving the weight forward again) and you'll be able to filet a decreasing-radius right--or just about any other corner you're likely to dive into--with near-amazing grace. Set up thusly, steering is light, linear and precise as long as you use at least a little throttle to keep the chassis loaded and happy. The fork and shock are compliant enough over all but the nastiest pavement, though midcorner bumps and grooves a longer bike would ignore can unsettle the Buell's composure.Life is beautiful as long as you play by the rules.

Keep the tach needle between 5000 and 7200 rpm for maximum thrust, and be smooth. Momentum is the name of this game: Once you've got it, keep it. There's a lot of heavy metal spinning around between your feet, so don't rush the gearbox. Slamming the throttle shut on the way into a corner--a bad idea on any bike--cranks up the steering effort considerably and puts precise cornering somewhere between difficult and impossible. Even if you forget the other stuff, remember to brake, then turn. The big inside-out rotor and six-pot caliper are a reasonably powerful combination. Initial bite is good, but feel disappears under hard braking. Credit some measure of this vagueness to a caliper that flexes visibly under a handful of front brake. Once heeled over, even a little front brake makes the Firebolt stand up and run wide. Experienced testers who carry a little front brake into corners complained about spooky, unpredictable steering until they changed their ways. You can forget dialing in more mainstream handling with some extra trail. Dropping the fork legs in their clamps and softening the shock to neutralize the chassis makes for painfully slow, heavy steering no matter how smooth your style.

When the credits roll, Buell's Firebolt is either a breakthrough or a bomb depending upon those expectations you checked at the door. Devotees of American iron and ingenuity are already dancing in the streets. Here's a domestic sportbike with technical credentials anyone can be proud of. But a truly capable American sportbike? Hard-nosed speed freaks will recite the litany of faster machinery at or under the Firebolt's $9995 sticker price, and dismiss it as an oxymoron powered by an anachronism. And what about the great huddled masses camping out in between? If you're looking for the ultimate back-road weapon, look elsewhere. But if something truly unique is what you're after--a viable American alternative to the Ubiquitous Japanese Racer Replicant--and you can accept life strictly on its terms, this could be your bike.

Off the Record

Dear Mr. Bleustein: Good seeing you at the V-Rod intro, where your minions were justifiably proud of that bike's high-tech engine and cutting-edge chassis, to say nothing of its stunning styling. Job well done, I say, and ya'll have a happy 100th birthday. Now, about this Buell. I'm sure Buell has been a pain in your checkbook for too long now, and I hear you've told the boys in Buell's garage to get it right this time or start lining up a moving company. But here's the problem: Where Erik has had some freedom--styling, build quality--he's done extremely well. The XB9R Firebolt is beautifully finished, in some ways more so than the core Harley-Davidson products, but it's still saddled with that lump of an engine. You may remember 1957 wistfully, but for the enthusiast the Buell brand needs to capture, that cranky, lumpy, too-large dinosaur is a huge dissuasion. Be strong, Big J, and call down to accounting and loose the cash for Buell to have its own engine, a truly modern engine. It's the only way for the brand to survive.Warmest regards.--M.C.

It's hard to disagree with Cook on the whole "engine" thing. Erik Buell's team deserves big-time credit for making what's arguably a Sportster-based engine perform decently in terms of power delivery, shifting and--so far, at least--durability. But even after all the improvements and effort, the end result is only comparable with, say, Ducati's Pantah-based 900 Supersport engine, hardly a shining example of 21st-century design or engineering. Even worse are all the design gymnastics the chassis team had to undergo in order to package everything around that tall and heavy engine. The Firebolt is neat-looking, unique and plenty charismatic. But functionally it's quite a few years behind the times, and that's a shame given all the money, effort and sweat that went into it.


|| |---| Buell XB9R Firebolt|PRICE MSRP $9,995| |ENGINE Type: a-c 45-deg. V-twin Valve arrangement: ohv, 4v Bore x stroke: 88.9mm x 79.4mm Displacement: 984cc Compression ratio: 10.0:1 Transmission: 5-speed Final drive: #525 chain | |CHASSIS Frame: aluminum alloy twin spar Weight: 455 lb. (wet)/433 lb. (fuel tank empty) Fuel capacity: 3.7 gal. Rake/trail: 25.0 deg./3.27 in. (83mm Wheelbase: 52 in. (1321mm) Seat height: 30.5 in. (775mm) Seat to bar: 27.5 in.Seat to peg: 16.5 in.Bar rise: 4.0 in. Suspension, Front: 43mm inverted cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping Suspension, Rear: single shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping Brake, front: single six-piston caliper, 375mm discs Brake, rear: single one-piston caliper, 230mm disc Tire, front: 120/70ZR17 Dunlop D207ZR Tire, rear: 180/55ZR17 Dunlop D207ZR| |PERFORMANCE Horsepower: 78.2 ft.-lb. @ 8750 rpm Torque: 61.8 ft.-lb. @ 7000 rpm Corrected 1/4-mile*: 11.71 sec. @ 113.74 mph 0-60 mph: N/A. 0-100 mph: N/A. Top-gear roll-on, 60-{{{80}}} mph: 4.73 sec. Fuel mileage (low/high/average): 37/43/41 | |*Performance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury)|

The XB9R's rim-mounted perimeter brake is the first of its kind for a production vehicle.
Executive Editor
Marc Cook
Mitch Boehm