Some people are just never happy.
Here I am, owner of what may be the best all-around sporting streetbike on the road today, Triumph’s fun, funky, feisty Street Triple R: a hundred horses pushing you forwards, right around 415 pounds full of gas, and a motor that’s torquey on the bottom, free-revving through the middle, then spins to 13,000 rpm-plus and enjoys every minute of it. Top it off with brakes that feel like they’ll stop a runaway F-18, top-notch, adjustable cartridge suspension from the 675 Daytona, relaxed, upright ergos and a humane seat, and why would you need any other bike? Seriously, why?
Well, aside from my self-esteem issues that keep me from having anything too nice, the Strippler has its faults. Like most Triumphs, it’s sort of spendy to maintain. It returns lackluster fuel economy for a middleweight, has an absurdly sensitive throttle and styling that’s…well…it’s not the kind of bike you’ll want to write poetry about, let’s put it that way. I also realized the bike was worth more than I had paid for it, so I was thinking, shucks, why not cash out, get something equally fun and interesting, and apply the extra dough to something fun, like funding my kid’s college fund?
Why not? Well, the problem is finding the bike that will fill the Triumph’s shoes, performance and value-wise. A comfy, sporting standard, lightweight and torquey, for around $4,000. What was out there?
Well, I’ve always admired the fuel-in-frame Buell XB series. About 18 months ago, my pal Ivan emailed that he bought an XB9S, bringing back memories of how much I enjoyed riding theses bikes. Erik Buell intended them as true all-around streetbikes—comfortable, great handling, light and fun to ride. I mentioned on a local discussion forum (BARF) I was thinking about selling the Trumpet and buying a Buell. Before you know it, some friendly BARF-ers offered up a pair of XBs to ride, then my friend Alan wanted to ride, and then Ivan heard about it and wanted to come with his friend Dennis (who rides a ’97 Buell X1 White Lightning), so I had to have MD contributor John Joss come along as well — just to keep it real. Suddenly, we had a story on our hands.
What have you heard about the XB series? Here’s what I know. Introduced in 2002, the bikes use an exotic, made-in-Italy frame that puts fuel in the frame spars and oil in the swingarm. The motor was a first for Buell—purpose-built for the brand, it uses architecture similar to the Sportster mills used before, but with new cases and just about everything else. The 984cc version makes about 75 horsies at the wheel, add 12-15 for the manly-man 1203cc XB12. Front suspension is an inverted 41mm fork (43mm after 2004), and braking is by Buell’s ‘ZTL’ braking system, featuring a single rim-mounted 375mm disc and six-piston caliper. Wheelbase is a tidy 52 inches) and the bikes weigh in around 425 pounds with the 3.7-gallon ‘tank’ filled up.
That’s some serious tech, right? Given the bike’s history and quirkiness, you’d think they’d be rare collector’s items, with high resale values. Not. A local Craigslist scan showed you could buy Buell XBs by the metric tonne in the $2,500-$4,000 range, and they have a pretty good reputation for reliability, believe it or not. Spare parts are not just available, through 250 Harley-Davidson dealers, they also tend to be much cheaper than Japanese or European brands. Maintenance is also pretty reasonable — the Sporty-derived motor uses hydraulic valve adjusters and final drive is by a non-adjustable belt Buell claimed would last the life of the bike (but is easy and cheap to replace if it doesn’t). Icing on the cake—fuel economy is in the 50-plus range if you baby it, 40-plus if you don’t, fantastically efficient compared to my gas-guzzling Triumph, which returns 35 only if you ride like you ingested too much cold medication.
My memories of testing these bikes when I was a big-shot motojournalist are rosy — probably because I was riding brand-new, carefully prepped machines. The two machines BARFers Chess and Mandy own—a 2003 XB9S and a 2004 XB12S — are in good condition for decade-old bikes with five digits on the speedo, but still feel used. Ivan’s 2003 XB9S has the most miles, and is the most tired, but all three still fell a lot better than your average high-mileage machine and would greatly benefit from some TLC; fresh suspension and brake rebuilds, maybe some bearings and bushings. You’d have new bikes, essentially. Judging from the loyalty of Buell owners, the last generation of the 126,000 bikes produced by Buell are solid, reliable rides that will probably outlast most of their owners.
So what are they like to ride? For a motorcycle in that price range, excellent. Let’s start with the good stuff — torque and handling. Even the revvier (but softer) XB9 mill has more power available right off idle — hell, at 500 rpm — than anything short of an electric motor. Handling isn’t what you’d expect, given the chassis numbers and relative low mass of the bikes, but at a 7/10ths pace, they are so easy to ride — stable, predictable and balanced. Comfort is also remarkable for this kind of bike; relaxed seating position, comfy seat and smooth running for a 45-degree V-Twin.
That motor won’t dazzle you unless you’re moving up from a Ninja 500 or a cruiser, but it’s still really fun. It’s not a lot of power, but it’s there everywhere, in every gear, even more so on the 12, which is like riding some kind of automatic wheelie simulator. The bottom end of the rev range is so burly you start to think about how incredible it would be if the powerband went on to 10,000 rpm or more. Instead, it peaks at around 7,000 and is bouncing off the limiter around 8,000. Still, for regular riding on bumpy two-lane roads at 60-80 mph, it’s clearly a great mill, an elegant pairing with that special chassis.
In the ‘fail’ box are two niggles: power and brakes. Low-end torque is great, but sometimes you just need that top-end hit, maybe to break the law with a little more style, or when you want to relax a bit at a trackday and not be a hazard in the B group. The Buell mill — 9 or 12 — just doesn’t quite cut it up top compared to bikes you can pick up for just a few hundred bucks more.
And finally — brakes. If there’s one thing Erik B. deserves criticism for, it’s that silly engineering-for-engineering’s sake brake system. At best, the hula-hoop disk and huge caliper work almost as well as a conventional setup, but at the cost of slower steering and interference with trail-braking fun. Even worse, the system seems to need more attention than a regular one, and all three bikes I rode needed love, performing with a weak initial bite and requiring much more squeeze to slow down. Luckily, the bike is kind of slow and doesn’t need a lot of braking, except in an emergency, in which case you’re on your own.
So would I buy one? If I only had $4,000 to spend on a used bike, absolutely. The Buell lacks power, and the brakes are goofy, but what bike is perfect? Not one I’ve ever had. For the money, you’d have to get really lucky to get this kind of fun, handling, economy, style and well-engineered quality. If you’ve got a Buell XB, hang on to it to give to your kids. If you want one, consult your motorcycle-sales professional or Craigslist if you think a Buell might be right for you.
Second Take: Big Al Lapp
I’ll own up to being an import motorcycle guy. I grew up riding mostly Suzuki and Honda, I currently own three Kawasakis and in over 35 years of riding have owned just one Yamaha. My current daily driver is a KTM dual-sport bike but back in the mid-90s I actually considered buying Buell’s first ‘regular’ production motorcycle, the S2 Thunderbolt. However, I wasn’t impressed with the essentially unmodified Sportster motor.
Imagine my pleasure when Gabe invited me along on his Buell fact-finding mission. I was to shoot, ride and provide opinions of the XB series — which are quite affordable on the used market.
So, I’ll start by saying that the thing I liked most about them 15 years ago is the thing that I now like least: it’s a tiny little sport bike. Eric Buell was said to have modeled the chassis geometry for his original bike after the TZ250, a successful track-only roadracing bike. This is possibly an urban legend, but believable. When I pulled up next to another riding buddy’s Honda Super Hawk, the Buell was visibly and significantly shorter in both wheelbase and seat height. Chess, the owner of the XB9S, said I made it look like a pit bike.
So, being taller, I had to fold up my legs pretty severely to get my feet on the high pegs. I don’t expect borrowed bikes to be set up for me but aside from the usual lever problems I was surprised to find that the suspension worked quite well for my weight, having about the right amount of damping to provide a plusher ride than I’d have expected, yet provide thoroughly confidence inspiring control.
Bottom line: would I buy it? There are pros and cons to a Buell XB: adequately muffled, they sound great, and I’m even a fan of the (somewhat polarizing) styling. On the road, they’re a nice experience — the torquey motor pulls sweetly and now that I’m older and slower and ride a thumper, provides adequate thrust for real-world riding. The true stars of the show are the chassis and the brakes. They’re both user friendly and provide good feedback. Heck, the seat is even comfortable enough for long rides if you can figure out how to fit luggage. The answer: no, I’m too tall. If I were shorter than 5’10” or had creepy short legs, I’d probably say yes.
Third Take: John Joss
Why should Gabe buy a Buell?
Get right down to it, each of us has a different way to get from here to there: walk, ride a bicycle, take a bus, hitchhike, even — choke, gasp — drive a car, as a last resort, if all else fails.
But we don’t do any of the above. We ride . . . a motorcycle. Not any motorcycle. We who have been riding for a while and who have sampled a few different motorcycles come down to this: which should it be? Then: what should our next one be? Last: can we afford it?
Buell is a logical choice, a technical choice, an emotional choice and — in the case of Erik Buell’s Harley-Davidson-engined machines — a financial choice. In short, Erik Buell gets it. He has given us special gifts with his machines. And they are there, economically, for the taking.
He’s in select company. In the last 100-odd years since the motorcycle was invented, many brilliant designers have tried to capture the platonic essence of ‘motorcycle.’ They strove to create a machine that could go, stop and handle, one that could work reliably year in and year out, that could be maintained at reasonable cost, that could please our minds and emotions. Machines with character, class and style, machines that we would live for and live with and love. Machines with soul. Think a Vincent-HRD, a Moto-Guzzi, a bevel-drive Ducati, an air-head BMW, a flat-head Harley or . . . a Buell. Erik Buell lives in the pantheon of the great, original designers.
Every time I ride a Buell, I sense that soul-moving effect. It’s in the bike’s DNA: a big motor that delivers monster torque and a stirring V-Twin rumble, a short wheelbase that encourages the inner child with its incipient wheelies, a sensible front brake on the wheel periphery, where it works more efficiently and one disk is as good as others’ two, fuel in the frame, oil in the swingarm. Just look at it: there isn’t a boring line in it.
Should he buy one? He could do a lot worse.