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2003 Buell Lightning XB9S: MD Ride Review

I’d been bugging the editor for a while about getting a ’03 Lightning from Buell. My wish was fulfilled, and for two weeks, I rode this bike on the freeways, twisties, and surface streets of So Cal. The look of the bike had me eagerly anticipating excellent performance. In many ways, it delivers. In a couple critical areas, it doesn’t.

The bike has a street fighter style, with no fairing of any sort (don’t let that piece above the projector beam headlights fool you), and high(ish), dirt bike-type handlebars that place the rider in an upright position and give the rider good leverage for steering input. The bike strikes a very aggressive stance, with the new frame and swingarm giving it a “just got out of the gym” look that I found very appealing. It’s a stubby, compact motorcycle that, metaphorically at least, walks around with its chest puffed up out and arms out wide. Of particular note concerning the design and appearance of the bike is that the Chicago Museum of Architecture and Design bestowed upon the XB9S Lightning the 2002 Good Design Award. The award “acknowledges the best and finest design innovation for products and graphics.”

The aluminum frame of the Buell is pretty much the center of attention for this bike. A huge, twin-spar design not only promises stiffness, but houses 3.7 gallons of fuel in the steering head and those frame spars, while 2.5 quarts of oil for the dry-sump v-twin engine reside in the swingarm.

Chassis specs reveal a 52 inch wheelbase, 21 degree steering head angle and 3.3 inches of trail. Compare that to a typical Japanese middleweight sport bike chassis with numbers of 54.5 inches/24 degrees/3.8 inches, respectively, and on paper it would seem that you’d have at the very least a twitchy, unstable motorcycle ready to tank-slap the rider into the nearest ditch. Riding the bike reveals behavior exactly opposite this expectation. The steering is laser accurate and cat quick, yet supremely stable. Hanging off the inside of the bike, road race-style, has the bike steering almost as much by the rider’s weight shift as with handlebar inputs. Riding the bike with a motocross, or supermotard style, where the bike is forced below the rider in a turn, works as well, but particularly so at slower speeds. As was stated before, the bike remains very stable, yet quick to react to rider inputs.

Suspension front and rear is by Japanese manufacturer Showa. The front fork is a 41mm upside-down unit, adjustable in all the usual sport bike ways. One end of the rear shock bolts directly to the swingarm and the other to the frame just behind the rear cylinder. Rising rate is achieved through shock mount position, rather than linkage geometry. Simple, light and effective. The suspension adjusters make a noticeable difference when they are tweaked, and it doesn’t take a half turn of rebound or compression damping to make a difference. This allows the rider to tune in a ride to handle the twisty stuff on the weekend, or a softer ride to handle the rough surface streets and freeway expansion joints. On a motorcycle that has such a short wheelbase, it is important that the suspension work well, and it does.

Another feature of this bike that catches the eye is the front brake. It looks to be rim- mounted, but the engineers are quick to correct this. While the rotor resides at the outer reaches of the wheel, it is in fact fastened to mounting tabs that are located on the inner circumference of the wheel, rather than on the outer portion of the rim. At 375mm, the front rotor has no equal in size, and is grabbed by a six-piston Nissin caliper. Buell calls it zero torsional load (ZTL) braking. Braking forces are transferred to the outer rim, rather than into the hub and, subsequently, the spokes of the wheel in a conventional design. The resulting benefit is reduced unsprung weight. The other benefit is the stopping power. Although, initial bite is not what you’d expect, there is a great deal of fade-free power and feel at the lever. Stoppies are not a problem with this bike, but that can be attributed as much to the ultra-short wheelbase as to the brakes.

The engine . . . ahhhh, the engine. A big, 984cc, 45 degree thumping, air cooled, two valve per cylinder, v-twin from Milwaukee. This engine architecture has been the single most identifiable element of Harley’s design since well before I was born, and continues to this day to power Harleys around the world. In the earlier days of Erik Buell’s manufacture of the Lightning and White Lightning, the motor displaced 1200cc, and the White Lightning model had re-worked cylinder heads that allowed the motor to inhale deeper, making more power. In-your-face torque, and midrange power that revved out respectably, is what I remembered of this motor. Carburetors mixed the air and fuel back then, which worked well enough. Wheelies came often, and as easily as rapidly opening the throttle. I told Dirck that this is how the motor of this Buell would be, especially with the fuel injection – before I factored in the smaller displacement. I still held out hope, though, especially since all the parking lot performance articles of this bike I had read told of the very type of wheelie antics I remembered.

The reduced capacity of the engine has effectively neutered the engine, stripping its performance portfolio of a majority of its redeeming qualities of low to midrange torque, making it a bad heir to the legacy set before it by the previous generation Buell engines. Although the motor smooths out at 3000 rpm, it doesn’t make decent power until 4500 rpm, and then runs out of breath around 6500 rpm, making the trip to the 7500 rpm redline largely wasted time. The heavy crankshaft makes gaining rpm a more leisurely affair than with other sportbikes, or other v-twins, even previous Buell engines for that matter. Engine braking with the heavy crank is rather minimal, so reducing your speed by rolling off the throttle is not as effective as you’d expect. EPA noise and exhaust emissions have likely played a hand in emasculating the Lightning’s engine performance. Being an air-cooled, pushrod v-twin in today’s environmentally sympathetic society does not make an easy life for the creator’s engineers.

There is a “race kit” available from Buell (for closed course use only) of course, that adds mostly to the midrange power of the bike and increases both the horsepower and torque peaks slightly. The kit consists of a dual exit muffler, an air filter, and a new ECU. It costs $620 and would be something that I’d have installed before it left the dealer if I were to buy one.

Shifting through the gears on our test unit was a dreaded task, rather than an enjoyable one. Heavy clutch pull, and exceedingly stiff action at the shift lever makes selecting the next gear a test of your determination. Since the clutch cable was adjusted to spec, I thought that maybe the linkage needed lubrication, but shifting remained an arduous task, despite the presence of slippery stuff. The relative low output of the motor would not be so much of an issue if the transmission made accessing it easier.

Fuel injection, a new addition to this model, works very well and is another highlight of this bike. Turn the key and hit the starter button as the fuel pump pressurizes the injection system, and the motor comes to life, settling at about 900 rpm. You can ride off immediately after starting the engine with no throttle response glitches. After reaching operating temperature, the idle settles at 800 rpm. The fuel injection works as well as the best F.I. systems on the market, regardless of origin of manufacture.

Heat management is more of an issue on this bike, especially for the rear cylinder, which is mostly hidden by the frame. A thermostatically controlled two-speed electric fan just behind the rear cylinder extracts unwanted heat and blows it right onto the rear shock, although the shock did not seem to suffer any ill effects from the heat gun treatment. Trolling through traffic had the fan running a majority of the time, and whenever the bike was shutoff, you’d walk away to the sound of the fan keeping the rear cylinder from meltdown.

Vibration is pretty well controlled with Erik’s unique and effective uni-planar engine mounting system that allows up and down movement of the Milwaukee power plant, but not fore/aft, or lateral movement. I’m glad it’s there. At idle, the bike shakes comically, kinda like a “Polar Bear” club member who stayed in the frozen lake’s water a little too long. Once underway, but still below 3000 rpm, the motor has the bike buzzing rather vigorously at all contact points, while the mirrors have a Mazda Miata taking on the appearance of a full size van, but once above that mark it’s almost as if the motor has shut off and something else has taken over propulsion duties. Only a light thrumming in the footpegs could be felt while above that magic threshold, and the bike stays pretty smooth all the way to redline. At these engine speeds, Mazda Miatas look like . . . well, Mazda Miatas.

Belt drive gets power to the rear wheel, and it works well in this application. Light, efficient, quiet and clean, it needs no maintenance, not even the occasional tension adjustment since there is now a spring-loaded idler pulley in place to maintain constant, proper tension. This method of tension adjustment allows the Buell to keep wheelbase measurement static, and therefore the excellent handling characteristics remain consistent.

Buell claims a dry weight of 385 lbs., which feels a bit optimistic. Even if you keep in mind the weight of fuel and oil stored in the various crevices of the bike, it feels a good bit heavier than advertised as you move it around the garage.

The bike’s seat is improved over the previous generation’s perch. The shape, size and foam augmentation under the vinyl cover are all much better now. The rider is placed well forward, almost up against the “gas tank”, which is actually just a plastic facade covering the airbox. There is a step in the seat, dividing rider and passenger portions, and this step would dig into my tailbone whenever I wanted to slide back in the seat for a different riding position. Mr. Buell, it seems, is very particular about how the rider will sit on this bike.

Passenger accommodations, while improved as well, really don’t do much to make the prospective back seat rider look forward to the experience. I didn’t bother to put anyone back there; sometimes you can pretty much anticipate what the reaction will be . . . I’d vote for a seat that allows the pilot more room to move fore and aft and forget the passenger arrangements. The rider’s footpegs seem a little further to the rear than you might expect, but not uncomfortably so. The handlebar is well placed, with a bend that places the hands in a comfortable position. Although the rider is in a fairly upright position, leaning forward to counter the wind does not put you in an uncomfortable or awkward position.

Day to day living with the bike isn’t unpleasant, at least when the rider maintains a proper context of what the bike isn’t about. What the bike *is* about, I’m not sure. Freeway riding is acceptable as long as the distance doesn’t take you much beyond getting to your favorite backroad. Fuel mileage is around the 42 mpg mark, which is good when you consider that my speeds were not exactly commensurate with the posted limits. The 3.7 gallon capacity of the frame should take you 150 or so miles before the pushing begins. The seat probably won’t let you get to the far end of that range, though.

The twisties and city surface streets is where this bike belongs. Long distance riding, or riding in cold/foul weather would be an exercise in self-torture, so it is best to save this bike for the nicer days and shorter rides.

In the end, the engineering of the chassis, frame, and brakes point the bike in a sporting direction, then the motor and transmission spoil the party. With all the financial and engineering clout that a company like Harley can apply, I don’t understand why Erik is burdened with a 1950s (despite the updates) era engine that does not keep pace with modern middleweight machinery past the 1/8 mile mark. His chassis deserves better.