by Brian Day
It’s all Victor Wanchena’s fault – he said to ride fast and take chances, so that’s exactly what I’m doing on the Buell SB12S. I’m also braying like a horny teenager inside my helmet while the grunty exhaust wails. Whooooompaaah-braaaah. See ya Mercedes soccer mom. Whoooompaaah-braaaah. Bye-bye Toyota two-door. Whooooompaaah-braaah. Arrividerci silver Porsche pilot, I’m flying Buell Airlines tonight. Squirting past slower vehicles,basically everyone else, I whip the squat red sportfighter through traffic slick as a razor slicing pate. It’s huge fun on this tiny, nimble machine with the torque-monster engine.
Buell’s lineup for 2004 includes five models, starting with the entry-level 492cc Blast single. Next up are a pair of 984cc twins, the XB9R/XB9S and finally the big-boy XB12R/XB12S, both of which have the new 1203cc long-stroke motor. My test bike-theSB12S- had flat, wide handlebars, a numberplate style flyscreen and an upright riding position. Both 12’s share identical chassis and running gear with the 9’s. The Buell twins are all beautifully designed motorcycles with radical features and an in-your-face pugnacious stance.
The SB12S Lightning is a contradictory but cutting edge machine. The stubby 52-inch wheelbase is some 1.4 inches shorter than a Yamaha R6. With 21 degrees of rake, I expected a skittish ride but the Lightning combines brilliant handling with unflappably stable road manners. On paper, the old-school pushrod twin should be reluctant to rev. It’s defiantly undersquare with .7 inch longer stroke for ’04, but spools up quickly so caution is required to avoid hitting the limiter. At 6 feet plus and 235 pounds, I was clearly too big, like a lumpy scarecrow perched bolt upright super-motard style over the flyscreen instrument pod. Oddly enough, this proved comfortable in spite of the cramped pegs and tight ergos. In fact, the Lightning was the best-feeling poorly-fitting motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.
Colin Chapman, the engineer extraordinaire who founded Lotus racing cars once quipped “…to make it go faster you will have to add lightness.” Eric Buell brings lightness and more to the party: his bikes are examples of the “Buell Trilogy of Tech.” Buell takes a clean-sheet approach to 3 critical design parameters: frame rigidity, mass centralization of components and the lowest possible unsprung weight. Fanatic adherence to these principles- plus parent company Harley-Davidson’s 800-lb gorilla financial resources &endash; means the Lightning is stuffed with trick bits. The frame spar gas tank, swingarm oil reservoir, front perimeter brake and underslung exhaust system are all Buell trademarks. Lofty theories and ten-dollar words aside, I thought the Lightning worked great.
The Buell’s chassis is resolutely unconventional. Graphite-toned aluminum frame rails run deep laterally and thinner vertically. It’s an exceptionally rigid and light piece that doubles as the 3.7 gallon gas tank. Lower down, the curvy alloy swingarm carries 2.4 quarts of oil in a cast chamber. At the rear, a Showa monoshock offers the usual range of adjustments like spring preload, compression and rebound damping. Up front, a matching 41mm Showa inverted fork is compliant and supple except for freeway riding where the bike bucks jarringly over expansion joints. This bike is clearly not meant for droning all day in a straight line.
Good things frequently come in big pairs, and the 1203cc V-twin’s fat cylinders nestle snugly inside the unusual frame. Last year’s 3.5 inch bore is retained but there’s a new stroke of 3.812 inches. The 49mm intake throttle body is enlarged from 45mm in ’03, and compression bumped to 10:1. The fuel injected engine is cooled by a combination of air, oil and one really noisy fan that sucks cool air up and over the partially shrouded cylinders. Both the Uniplanar vibration-isolated Buell and Sportster engines were developed in parallel so that their basic architecture is identical according to H-D. Same heads, cylinders, cases and most internal bits for ’04 but a significant step forward from the 2003 engines.
A claimed 103 hp and 84 ft/lbs of torque &endash; some 4 ft/lbs more than a Kawasaki ZX-10R- is taken to the 5-speed gearbox by a duplex chain. Primary gearing is slightly taller this year at 1.5:1. Buells and Sportsters also share notchy-feeling gearboxes with excessive lever travel from first to second. A lingering flywheel effect was also evident as spinning cogs struggled to synchronize with crankshaft inertia. After the bike warmed up, gear selection was generally drama-free although phantom neutrals pop up if your foot gets lazy. My best technique was preloading the lever first, then dipping the clutch and feeling for positive gear engagement before giving the machine full stick again.
The 45 degree V-twin motor shakes like crazy at idle. The turn signals bobbled, dancing wildly on their weird ribbed rubber stalks, but when the tach swept past 2500 rpm things smoothed out. Thanks to Buell’s Uniplanar vibration isolation system, steady cruising prevailed with a lovely sweet spot right around 4000 rpm. Power delivery was immediate just as you’d expect with the big displacement, 400 lb dry weight and chunky-monkey flywheels. Final drive is 14mm Aramid reinforced Hibrex belt, although Buell racers sometimes use chain conversions for quick track adjustments. The stock belt sports a massive tensioner pulley to mutes driveline lash. The belt itself supposedly lasts 25,000 miles.
Another trick bit is the Buell InterActive Exhaust. This is an electronic actuator valve inside the muffler that adjusts exhaust backpressure. The ECM (engine control module) senses rpm’s and throttle position, then modulates the valve for optimum torque and horsepower under specific riding conditions. Spent gases are channeled along two separate paths. Under full throttle the muffler valve opens at low rpm, reducing back pressure so the engine spools up fast. The valve closes during mid-range for maximum torque, opening again at high rpm for best cylinder filling and peak horsepower. The ’04 header pipes are 1.75 inches, up from 1.5 inches last year. My test bike had the optional race kit including a sexy polished alloy muffler with split beveled tips. I thought this was a huge improvement over the ungainly stock flat-black collector.
Gee-whiz engineering aside, the Lightning’s raunchy sex appeal centers squarely around that charismatic lump of an engine. The soft rustle of rocker arms and sub-sonic rumble of massive slugs lurching up and down reinforce that this is a classic American design. Old style or not, there’s more than enough urge for any sane rider coupled with the brutish mechanical presence of a Pratt & Whitney aircraft radial. Even at idle the engine exudes thinly veiled menace as the ground shakes in time to the distinctive Harley Davidson firing order. Pedestrians stare, babies wail and cage drivers avert their eyes submissively. Voila, instant bad boy.
My gas mileage was steady right around 40-43mpg, but riding the Lightning super-aggressively might kick you down to the high 30’s. There’s a handy “F” function on the digital tripmeter which activates automatically telling you exactly how many miles you’ve ridden on the .7 gallon reserve. I got about 120 miles on a fill-up before the reserve light came on. But gas mileage is the last thing you’ll be worried about when the front wheel lofts at redline in first.
So the Lightning has mondo power and it handles beautifully. It’s sexy and loaded with pretty bits, but all is not perfect in the Kingdom of Buell. The under-seat cooling fan randomly bursts into loud, irritating life. One factory technician surmised the ECM controlling the fan has “memory,” thinking the engine is still hot even on cool restarts until the module resets itself. I’d park the glittering beast, dismount and strut away in my leathers and Ray Ban sunglasses, only to have some pert teenager chirp that my motorbike was making rilly loud noises and, like, was it broken or something? As a result, my fragile biker-boyz ego suffered intermittent bruising until the Buell shut up and sat there sullenly.
Thinly padded and with a cramped bucket, the seat was uncomfortable. “Passenger” accomodations are a cruel joke: Eric Buell should be forced to do two hundred miles back there as penance. The truth is brutally simple: no one’s going to ride pillion unless they’re wearing handcuffs and a leather gag. Note to Eric: pad the seat better, move the hump back and forget about the duoposto fantasy. Use the money saved by deleting passenger pegs and their mounting brackets to upgrade the switches.
Long rides, meaning over an hour, are discouraging by design. Getting comfortable with the Lightning around town, I decided to throw on a magnetic tank bag, load the cameras and take an all-day mountain photo ride. Oops… The “gas tank”, really just an airbox and frame cover, is something called Surlyn plastic, so magnetic bags won’t hold. There’s no provision for strapping gear to this bike and that’s a shame. It’s so much pure, unadulterated fun I wanted to take longer trips, but the Lightning can’t carry a thing.
Japanese manufacturers do such fabulous fit and finish that the Buell’s improved engine, chassis and brakes are subtly undermined by a wiggly lack of refinement. Detailing is a blend of fastidious and irritating. Flexible hoses are braided stainless steel, but the switch gear looks and feels uninspired. On my 3900-mile test bike the clutch lever rattled up and down sloppily. Both mirrors succumbed to vibration and blurred wildly. With all the avante garde engineering, how hard could it be to make functional rear view mirrors?
Minor complaints aside, I enjoyed riding the little Buell bad boy daily for nearly two weeks. Flogging it hard on tight, twisty roads reminded me of why I fell in love with motorcycling in the first place. The SB12S Lightning is slam-dunk easy to ride fast and I doubt there’s another stock streetbike that can out-handle it. Eyeball bulging power is available at the flick of your right wrist, with impressive compression braking that makes shifting optional. Gas on, go fast; gas off, slow down quick. The chassis radiates confidence, it’s easy to flick side to side and holds a line with neglible rider input.
The Buell is striking in appearance and works so well for the most part that I’m tempted to add one to my garage. Upgrade the switches, throw on a Corbin saddle and even a big lumpy guy like me could fall in love with the quintessential, petite American sportfighter. Eric Buell is onto something important here, and I can’t wait to see how this motorcycle evolves.