– Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

MD Ride Review: 2007 Buell XB-12S Lightning

If you read my ‘First Ride’ of the 2007 Buell XB-12S, you already know that I really enjoyed the bike. However, since I felt that the Buell was a somewhat difficult bike to get accustomed to, and given that it is such a radical departure from a typical supersport machine, I felt a more in-depth review was in order.

Buell’s innovative technical philosophy and design features were covered in depth in my first ride article, so I’m not going to take the time to rehash them here. However, if you haven’t read that article, or at least not recently, you might want to click the link and give it a thorough read-through before diving into this review; understanding things like the ‘Trilogy of Tech’ and its individual innovations (perimeter brake, underbody muffler, rigid chassis that doubles as a fuel tank) is integral to understanding the experience of living with a Buell XB-12S.

Expanding upon the two days I spent on the Buell for the First Ride feature (one day on the street, and one on the track), I spent several weeks riding the XB-12S. Of course I took it out to my favorite local canyons, but I also spent time commuting around town and on the freeway.

In my initial review, I praised the Buell’s quick, precise turn-in and the confidence and feedback it provided mid-corner. Once I had a test bike in my possession, I discovered a very important fact – the Buell is quite sensitive to chassis setup.

When I initially took our test bike into the canyons, it didn’t feel quite as stable and confidence-inspiring at big lean angles as the bikes at the press introduction had – in fact, our tester had a tendency to ‘pogo’ – that is, after hitting a mid-corner bump, the bike would start bobbing back and forth, and continue to do so through the rest of the corner.

Making changes to the suspension settings based on my previous suspension tuning experience had little positive effect. Well, more accurately, I was able to eliminate the ‘pogo’, but I ended up with a setup that was overly stiff for my weight. In turn, this took away much of the confidence I had in the front end.

It was at this point that I retreated to the last resort of men everywhere, picking up the owner’s manual with the intent of returning the bike to the standard settings, and then to make small, precise changes from that baseline. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the ‘little white book’ had not just one recommended suspension configuration, but seven – organized by rider weight, in 20 lb. increments! According to Buell’s recommended setting for my weight, I had been WAY off the mark, and was running far too much preload both front and rear.

Luckily, adjusting the suspension on the Lightning is quite simple – the forks and shock adjust like most other sportbikes with easily accessed clickers controlling compression and rebound damping. The Buell’s rear shock preload collar is stepped, and it is located directly under the seat (rather than being somewhere down in the middle of the swingarm and subframe, like most sportbikes). I was able to complete all the suspension adjustments, including rear preload, in less than ten minutes, and with not a drop of sweat to be seen or a single curse word uttered.

During the first test ride with the new settings, the Lightning felt like a different bike. The greatly reduced preload at both ends made for a much smoother, more comfortable ride – one that could even be described as ‘plush’. In fact, so smooth was the ride that I was initially concerned that the new setup might be too soft for aggressive cornering. I needn’t have worried, because with the suspension set up as recommended in the manual, all the great handling characteristics of the Buell were enhanced! The bike turned in even more sharply, gave more feedback and confidence mid-corner, and shrugged off mid-corner bumps and sharp edges. I had a newfound appreciation for the quality of the Buell’s suspension components, as well as the success of the innovative chassis design Eric Buell developed for these bikes.

The settings recommended in the owner’s manual are only a starting point, and for those of us who prefer to fine-tune our suspension action and bike handling even further, the manual offers suggestions for changes to enhance ride quality, and steering quickness. There is even a suggestion on adjustments to “provide more road surface feedback on smoother road conditions.” I didn’t have time to test all Buell’s recommendations, but if they work anywhere near as well as the baseline settings, I’m sure they accomplish their stated goals.

It’s very clear that the Buell team has spent an incredible amount of time testing and fine tuning the XB-series bikes. I only wish other modern sportbikes came with detailed and accurate instructions for adjusting suspension settings for different rider weights.

Once you have the chassis set up to your liking, the Buell’s cornering manners are hard to fault. The XB-12S does have a mild tendency to stand up under trail braking, so the best strategy is to get most of your braking done in a straight line, then peel into the turn while lightly dragging the brakes to keep the front end loaded up. Once you’re into the turn, you can get on the power very early relative to other sportbikes, and the Buell will cling tenaciously to your chosen line, even at the exit.

When riding aggressively, your confidence is enhanced even further by the front brake setup. That unusual brake is Buell’s Zero Torsional Load (ZTL) perimeter design, which uses a single brake disc attached at the outer circumference of the wheel rim, clamped by a single six-piston caliper. Not only do the ZTL brakes scrub off speed with authority, they provide a delicate, progressive engagement, and loads of feedback at the lever, making them easily the equal of the very best “conventional” dual rotor and caliper setups I have tried. Want to learn how to do stoppies? Buy an XB-12S.

The rider’s position on the XB-12S is dominated by the wide, dirt-bike style top-mount handlebars, which give tons of leverage for throwing the bike side to side. The trade-off, however, is that they require a deft touch and smooth control inputs to keep the bike settled down – on a bike with steering geometry this aggressive, ham-fisted steering inputs will have you wandering all over the road, and can even produce minor headshake. The seat to peg relationship is good, but after riding the XB-12S for a while, I began to wish the bars were slightly lower, which would have put me in a more leaned-forward position. This seems strange, since at the 2007 Buell press intro, I tried the XB-12R Firebolt, which is an identical bike save for a nose fairing and lower, clip-on handlebars, and I didn’t like it as much as the Lightning. Perhaps those bars were TOO low – if I owned a Lightning, I might experiment with slightly flatter (lower) bends of top-mount bars. Around town, the commanding view afforded by the stock, upright seating position definitely helps you stay in ‘defensive riding’ mode.

The Lightning’s lack of wind protection and upright seating position is a handicap on the freeway, and like most naked bikes, anything much over 80mph is NOT appreciated by your neck, back and shoulders. The seat is plenty comfortable for all-day rides, however, and the aforementioned dirt-bike style seating position keeps your spinal alignment much more, well, aligned than the race-influenced modern sportbike.

Of course, you can’t talk about the Buell without discussing the engine. The 1203cc, air/oil-cooled V-Twin powerplant, plucked from the steel tube chassis of Harley-Davidson’s venerable Sportster 1200, demands your attention from the moment you press the starter button. Coughing to life with a muted snarl, the big twin thumps and thuds and potato-potatos its way up to operating temperature, its pronounced low-frequency vibration at idle causing the whole bike to shudder like Frankenstein being imbued with life. Swing a leg over the XB-12S and the vibration reaches inside you as soon as you make contact with the seat, seeming to re-time your body’s internal rhythm to its own cadence.

Pull away from a stop, and the vibration lessens; it is never truly gone, but the faster you ride, the more it blends into the background. There is no high-frequency vibration (the kind that numbs extremities and irritates riders), merely this constant, thumping, throbbing mechanicalness. For a bike with such a high-tech appearance, it’s surprising to find the powerplant is a throwback to the early days of powered transportation. Unlike many modern, liquid-cooled, balance-shaft equipped machines, this is a bike that never lets you forget the lump of iron and oil sitting and spinning and banging between your knees.

Around town, the 1203cc V-Twin is tractable and friendly, delivering a broad, useable swath of torque that cuts through urban traffic jams and deserted back alleys with equal aplomb. The transmission is slightly clunky, and doesn’t appreciate clutchless upshifts, but that’s ok, you won’t be using it much. It takes a while to recalibrate a brain used to the frantic, tach-spinning, gear-shifting acceleration of a Japanese supersport bike to mesh with the lazy, torque-propelled lope of the big Buell. The five gears are tall and widely spaced, so instead of tearing through each gear in a hurry to get to the next, the Buell spins the tach forward smoothly but irresistibly, speed climbing much faster in relation to RPM than any four-cylinder sportbike.

In the canyons, the Buell’s acceleration will never match that of a modern supersport bike, but somehow that doesn’t seem like an issue as the bike slices scalpel-like through a tight switchback, that ever-present surge of torque grunting the bike out of this corner and towards the next, no gearshifts required. If, like me, your enjoyment of a twisty-road is primarily focused on corner speed (rather than velocity on the straightaways), the Buell makes a willing and capable partner for this type of riding.

So, how to summarize such a unique and excellent motorcycle? If we wanted to stay well within our comfort zone, we could relate the Lightning to bikes we know well – a better handling, better suspended SV650 comes to mind (and who would ever consider that a bad thing?). But a comparison like that really doesn’t do justice to the Buell’s unique character and outside-the-box design. Just take it for what it is – a uniquely styled naked bike with precise handling, a torquey, useable powerband, and a little bit of American heritage thrown in for good measure. Shake well.

The 2007 Buell XB-12S Lightning carries a U.S. MSRP of $10,495, and is available in Buell dealers now. For more information, check out Buell’s official web site.

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