Buell Ulysses XB12X
1600 Mile Road Test Review,
Published in Friction Zone Magazine
By Tim Mayhew
To be perfectly honest, I know very little about Buell's. What little experience I do have comes from a fast jaunt some years back on a quickie test ride. The seat was too narrow, the breadbox on the side was confounding, and it sounded like a tractor. Not exactly the impression you were probably hoping for.
So fast-forward a few months, a few years, to 4 am. The stars are out, the air is cool. I'm alone, covered in black leather. The night is still except the churning of the tires beneath me. No other light than the soft yellow glow of the twin headlights against the pavement. I was on a mission, given a task, intent on flogging this black on black machine.
It could have been any other day aboard a motorcycle, but this is no ordinary bike beneath me. It's the new 2006 Buell Ulysses XB12X supplied to me by McGuire Harley Davidson Buell in Walnut Creek , CA .
I'd been asked to put it through its paces, go explore, get lost, get jiggy with it and generally find out why on earth someone would want one of these.
Like many, I started riding on Japanese standards- universal machines that could travel, run all day, and were dead-set reliable. Yet they lacked originality, personality- and handling for that matter. They even gained the title "Universal", as in 'Universal Japanese Machine" or UJM for short. And over the years, the motors got bigger, the trips got longer, the mileage racked up, and the motorcycle world changed around me. Been there, done that, seen it, ridden every road, owned every motorcycle, attended every rally, every motorcycle show, done the group ride, the solo ride, the touring ride, the distance ride, but dual sport? Now there is an idea- a logical evolution, perhaps. Eric Buell seems to think so, and he's rolling the dice you're headed his way.
So what about this whole dual-sport thing anyway? The BMW GS is said to be the best-selling bike in Europe. Surely that has caught someone's attention. A particular Mr. Buell perhaps. Yet, if you do know anything about Buells- you at least know the basics upon which Eric Buell has built his empire. Sexy looking street fighters with low center of gravity achieved by gasoline in the frame, oil in the swing arm, muffler underneath the bike, perimeter front brakes - Buell trademarks.
Oh, and don't forget torque. Mr. Buell and his team of mad scientists most certainly enjoy bringing that up. Add street fighter and dual-sport together, what do you get? I was going to find out on a 1600-mile solo ride, the majority done in just three very long days running around the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
ABOUT THE BIKE
LOOK & STYLING
Throughout my 1600-mile weekend with the Buell- the look continued to grow on me. To this day, I'm not sure how folks manage to deem a motorcycle ugly. In fact, I'm not sure if I've ever seen a motorcycle I would even assign such a definitive word. The Buell on the hand is just plain sexy, it has that mean street fighter stance, a look that'll bust ya in the chops if you look at it cross.
And those wide dual-sport semi-knobby tires are just plain cool looking. Even when I looked at the bike, the styling lusted for adventures found beyond the paved road. I showed this bike to my coworker who doesn't ride, knows nothing about bikes and asked quite candidly, "So what do you think?"
"That thing is just badass!!" he said. Now they say beauty is a subjective thing- you know the saying, eye of the beholder, blah, blah. But now, how can you not look at a Buell and appreciate the uniqueness, the niche that Erik Buell has carved himself. Nothing, not anything on the market, looks quite like a Buell. They are instantly recognizable, and that alone spells success as far as Buell is concerned for a decade worth of effort that Buell has striven to attain.
The kickstand, called a Jiffy Stand, is extra long to accommodate the tall bike, which is said to have 6.5 inches of clearance. However, the kickstand is not the spring-loaded pop-out ones many a motorcyclist might be used to, while there is a return spring there (I had to look to make sure), it seemed to have a mind of its own and I suspect such a simple thing maybe was meant to be that way. I also noticed the pivot point was near the front of the motorcycle, rather than in the middle like your average everyday bike. It deploys easily with the kick of a well-placed heel, and simply making sure the bike was planted when hopping off was the trick. The kick stand isn't hooked up into any kill switch, so you can start the bike and ride off with the kickstand down.
Each time getting off the bike, it was essential to turn the bike off, leave it in gear and make sure the bike was firmly planted before walking away. While the average motorcycle would probably just idle quietly in neutral, this is no average motorcycle. The sheer rhythmic vibration of the motor at idle had a tendency to roll the bike off the kickstand with any sort of downward slope. So the easy fix was simply to turn the bike off each time it was parked, pay special attention to the slope of the pavement, and you'll be fine. Keep in mind in a tip-over, there are no frame sliders and the first thing that touches down is the hand guards or bags.
Danger Will Robinson:
One alarming thing about the tall height is while parking the bike (as I did countless times to get my shots during my usual photo session of the roads), the bike will easily lift up on the back wheel and the kickstand. In turn, it was pulling the front wheel off the ground. Now mind you, the bike never did this on its own, or even got close, however, it was easily possible. All it could take would be a thoughtless instance on some uneven surfaces, or slanted ground while parking, and the bike could quickly get tippy.
Even on flat pavement with the bike all loaded up, it was easily possible to pull the bike up off the front wheel. Keep in mind, on the average sportbike, this is typically the complete opposite- the bikes will lift the rear wheel off the ground while pulled up on the kickstand. Despite this odd quality, the entire bike is very well-balanced, but it was something to take note of. Realizing the bike would do this took me quite by surprise at first.
LUGGAGE RACK & THE TRIPLE TAIL
They say you've got to have a gimmick. Something unique, something to pull in the crowds, and I think I may have found just the thing. We motorcyclists love functional things, gadgets, widgets and other devices to make our lives easier. So as you look over the Buell, you notice this little board thingy on the back grab rail. A 'Triple-Tail Luggage Rack' you say? Triple indeed as it has three positions while the one end rotates on the rear grab rail.
Actuate the platform by sliding it to the slide to unlock it from its position, then it freely rotates forward, and you've got a nice flat platform for a tail pack. Rotate up, and it becomes a backrest for the Significant Other, and even rotating it to the rear position over the rear wheel provides a handy platform while two up. Built in around the perimeter are small holes for that bungee net. Very handy, Mr. Buell. There is also the option of a 'Triple Tail Gel Pad' for $70 that attaches to the Triple Tail to provide some padding for a pillion passenger to lean up against.
HARD LUGGAGE by HEPCO-BECKER
So any travel bike needs travel options. And besides the standard Triple Tail Luggage Rack feature, you also have the option of mounting hard bags on the Buell. At a cost of $995 for the complete set of three- saddlebags and top trunk, they're not exactly cheap. However, if your intent is to rack up the mileage like so many of us do, they'll pay for themselves on the very first ride and are a must-have. After spending all that time on the bike covering all those miles, I couldn't imagine traveling without them.
Saddlebags run $700 for the set and are cavernous affairs of usable space. You'll need the separate key to open and shut them each time. Plus, on the interior, they have some handy elastic straps on each side of the saddlebags allowing you to hold things in place. The bags open a full 90 degrees for easy access and easily pop off. I struggled slightly trying to keep the sides aligned when closing and latching the bags, but I can't be sure if it was a design flaw with these particular bags, or they just needed to be worn in.
The top case operates much the same, keyed entry only and still plenty of space for quick items. I was hesitant to put anything of weighty origins in the top case due to the height, but this proved unfounded. Even with the saddlebags fully loaded, I never noticed they were back there. The luggage set matches the bike well, and by and large seem designed in conjunction with the bike rather than a forgetful afterthought.
Other options are available for luggage carrying solutions, and the matching hard bags are not your only option. A common solution is a tail-pack designed for the bike, which allows the bike to retain its narrow stance and centers any additional weight at center-mass on the rear seat (or just behind the rear seat), similar to if you were carrying a pillion passenger.
FLASH TO PASS BUTTON
Now here's something I've only read about, mainly as a feature on some European motorcycles. I've even read on forums, for example, that this is a popular mod to do. Riders seek to find the bar cluster that would include a flash-to-pass button and install it. No need for that, comes standard on the Buell. As long as the headlight is on the low beam, you thumb the flash-to-pass button with your left index finger. The button itself is on the front of the cluster, rather than on the rear, where the turn signals and horn button are. Get some slowpoke in front of you, and you can flash 'em to your heart's content.
WIRE HEADLIGHT COVER
A rather minor wire guard covers the twin headlights, but I suspect this was more a styling cue (it looks very cool actually), as the last time I busted a motorcycle headlight (and windshield on my vehicle mind you) while riding, it was a very small rock rather than a boulder being thrown at me. An aftermarket mesh screen or plexiglass cover may solve that problem. Aftermarket goodies like those are available through specialty suppliers like Touratech.com or one of the links listed below.
(Also note the front turn signals in the pic below which are mounted on flexible rubble stalks giving some modicum of forgiveness in a tip-over.)
TURN SIGNALS & FRAME PUCKS
The dirt bike styling cues do run past just the aesthetic. I noticed that the turn signals are actually mounted on flexible rubber stalks, offering up some degree of forgiveness in a tip-over or should you find yourself in the dirt.
Large rubber bumpers or pucks have also been glued onto the frame by your knees to protect the frame from a similar fate. There are also small, narrow pucks placed beside the foot pegs so your boots aren't rubbing against the frame, but rather the puck. As for whether there are any aftermarket case guards to protect the bike motor remains to be seen. As most of the competing motorcycles in this class all have them, it would seem odd for Buell not to offer them.
DUAL SPORT TIRES
Tire choice for Buell seems to have worked out very well, coming standard with Pirelli Scorpion Sync dual sport tires. The Buell front tire felt wider and planted, although it could have simply been my imagination. They performed flawlessly on smooth road, bumpy pavement, rippled gravel and only in sand did I feel like I was pushing things a bit. Gas it for safety when going off-road- isn't that the saying?
I made the mistake of doing just that- gassing it in some gravel, thinking the rear tire would spin. The opposite happened, much to my surprise, and audible consternation, with the front tire coming off the ground instead. Not what I was expecting. Have to be a little more careful about those things. These tires have bite!
FOOTPEGS & HELMET LOCKS
It may sound somewhat trivial, but the XB12X comes with wide foot pegs. The first time I experienced something like this was on a BMW Rockster, a bike with some similarities to the Ulysses. The simple act of widening the footpegs gives the sensation of your boot being on more of a platform, than those miniature foot pegs we've come to know and love on your average sportbike. The wider foot peg as seen at left gives you more of a solid platform while in the dirt, plus I'd even go as far as to say helped on longer days in the saddle with more support. Could be my imagination, though.
And by Jove, it has a helmet lock, I thought after wondering aloud where to put my helmet. While the hard bags will accommodate a full face helmet, while traveling, the bags were full. On the left side of the bike was indeed a helmet lock- right where it was supposed to be. It's the little things that count, you know.
COOLING DUCT - left side
If you've been around long enough, you remember the signature Buell feature of the breadbox air cleaner on the right-hand side of the bike. Well my friends, those days have come and gone as it's now located under the plastic faux tank cover directly in front of the seat. A single air scoop takes up residence on the left side of the bike and gobbles up air, which is sent to cool the cylinders. Right below that is a smaller air scoop feeding air into the oil cooler, then the charcoal canister blended in behind that.
It's all rather seamless, and barely even noticeable. Now this is not an air cooled motor despite the lack of bodywork, rather the radiator resides under the seat with a cooling fan that seemed to have a life of its own. Get to that in a second.
Keep in mind, you can also buy as an aftermarket item a matching right side air scoop to direct additional airflow towards the rear cylinder. Not cheap though, at about $220 for just that little plastic piece. For around $270, you can get it in carbon fiber. So far, I've seen two versions of the right side air scoop via aftermarket companies that specialize in Buell goodies.
I hadn't actually paid much attention to the hand guards, other than to note they look just plain cool. Another added element to the styling of the bike. It wasn't until I was tooling down the road at around mile 800 when the one on the left popped off. Is it supposed to do that? About then, I realized that it just clicks onto where a bar end normally resides (no bar end weights on the Ulysses). A short post where the bar end bolt would be sticks out, and the hand guard simply clicks onto that. The hand guard itself rotated forward on its front bolts, and it was about then I realized these aren't exactly industrial rated. Any spill and they'd probably just break right off.
My rocket scientist brain began to envision a modded hand guard with a metal bar along the inside perimeter of the hand guard. Maybe that'd do the trick to actually strengthen up the guard. Overall, it's just a piece of plastic, and good moreso for deflecting wind on the freeway and any minor contact you'd have while on some deserted fire trail. Just don't expect them to protect the clutch and brake lever, which can just as easily snap off in a tip over. Possibly in later years Buell might find the time to create something other than an aesthetically pleasing looking hand guard as the design of the bike improves with time.
FRONT FENDERS & HEADLIGHT
So the more I stared at the front of the bike, the more I thought the comment my co-worker had said was spot-on. He was right. The bike is just freakin' bad ass. Buell made little attempt to hide his efforts to convert one of his existing street fighter motorcycles and morph the look like it was headed off-road over yonder. The double fender common to dual-sporting motorcycles entails a mud guard fender mounted over the rear of the wheel and attached to the fork. Another eye-catching feature was the plastic fork guards that take up residence in front of the fork- rather stout looking guards the protected the lower downtubes from dirt, debris, and rock chips. The whole thing was all one piece. Another fender higher up sits below the headlight with remarkable similarity to the BMW GS.
The year 2005 Buell Ulysses came with a seat height at a towering 35 inches. In the year 2006, common sense prevailed and the lower seat at 31.8 inches became available, and then I was told is now a standard feature. Playing with the pre-load knob on the rear shock dampening allows the bike to settle in with your weight on the bike, per the owner's manual in setting up the suspension. (The lower seat is listed as a $220 option.) The owner's manual goes as far as to provide a chart to find yourself, and in turn tells which setting to place the pre-load on.
The seat shape is said to have been designed with the help of detailed study of pressure points while riding, and like-it-or-hate-it reactions to seats likely vary quite widely. The aftermarket seat industry is a multi-million dollar business, so the Buell Ulysses won't be immune to such modifications. I have ridden on aftermarket seats for the last 80,000 miles, so it might give you an idea of which direction I'd be headed with my hard-earned dollars, regardless of what the marketing materials might tell you.
However, suffice to say, for the average every-day rider, the majority will find the seat functional. It's roomy and long enough to allow for scooting rearward in the seat to move around on a long day in the saddle. Your height & shape will have a lot to do with whether you'd find that comfortable or not.
LOWER SEAT OPTION
The lower seat option was a welcome addition, and not sure what I would have done with the 35 inch (unsprung stock height) seat height. The lower 31.8 inch seat delved out a good riding position, although the rear of the seat is tilted forward (hard to see in the photo above) which was a bit confounding since the design encourages a bolt upright straight back. Scoot back in the seat, and you felt leaned forward, which might feel a bit unnatural- it did for me.
Seats are highly subjective and so the height, weight & girth of the rider will have a lot to do with whether not you find the stock seat comfortable (not to mention the type of riding you do). However, any rider that is covering 300 plus mile days with any degree of regularity would probably feel inclined to invest in a custom fit seat. In my case, after spending 20 straight hours on the bike covering 600 miles of twisties, I began to loathe the seat and fantasized the miles away with a trip to Hollister, California to Corbin to get a seat custom fit to me, myself and I.
The Ulysses does have some thoughtful features to it. What struck me as especially useful were the two power outlets. One is the cigarette lighter style- nowadays known by the more politically correct term of 'Power Accessory Outlet', which interestingly enough is placed in the instrument panel beside the speedometer.
You know those riders that have every wiz-bang gizmo under the sun bolted onto their bikes- this definitely simplifies things. I could plug my Cycle Pump air compressor in there, a radar detector, the charging cord for my digital camera (yes, my digital camera is hardwired into my bike). I even have a battery charger installed on my bike for recharging AAA batteries, so realizing the potential of that simple outlet really grabbed me.
A day later I finally noticed poking out from under the seat was another power accessory outlet. Lo and behold, it was a match for my Widder electric vest. A splitter plugged in to this could also supply the passenger with power also.
QUEST GPS NAVIGATION SYSTEM
Okay, so I'm a bit old school with my paper maps and a highlighter. But since you asked, yes, the bike does come with an optional 'Buell Quest Navigation System' for $700. The Garmin GPS unit comes with mounting hardware and brackets specific to the Buell and mounts just to the side of the right switch controls. It's even accented with the Buell Pegasus logo. The unit hard wires into the bike, so power isn't an issue and the usual earpiece can be wired into your helmet.
Bear in mind that with a plastic tank cover, your magnetic tank bag is about to be retired. So if you're used to having that map in the tank bag in front of you like I am, another option such as a tankbag with straps could be a solution if GPS isn't your cup of tea.
Speaking of electrics, while this bike is a standard, and protection from the wind is essentially non-existent, the bike does have a very small windscreen on it. Don't be fooled, this is no Goldwing, but it does raise the air flow over the faux tank by just a wee bit so the wind isn't hitting you directly in the chest.
There is a tall windscreen option for 2006 models at a cost of $100. It's 4" taller than the stock one you see here in the pics, made of 4.5 mm thick clear poly-carbonate. And just for good measure, the literature on the bike says the windscreen as been 'hard coated', presumably a method of strengthening the plastic.
And instead of bolts, zip-ties and bubble gum to hold the windscreen on, it's removable for easy cleaning. Also note there's a small gap in-between the windscreen and the painted bikini fairing. Buell designed the removable windscreen by mounting it on small 1/4 inch thick rubber grommets to lift the windscreen off the painted bikini fairing. This small space (think Laminar Lip) in turn is what's supposed to help cure that buffeting or chance thereof. Again, I have no idea how it works, only that indeed there was no buffeting to my 5'9" frame, and the airflow was very smooth, easily able to run 60mph sustained speeds with little or no fatigue sitting bolt upright in the wind.
And to make things a bit more interesting- Buell offers a 'Camo Paint Windscreen' option for $155 which replaces the color-matched bikini fairing beneath the clear windscreen. Okay, so ya got me. I'll take it. I think they knew an ex-Marine would be writing this article, so I'm off to get out my Krylon spray paint and extend that camouflage paint scheme to the entire bike. Maybe not.
Should also mention a photograph posted on AdvRider.com showing the windscreen modified to move it several inches upwards. This might dramatically change the airflow over the screen from stock. This was a custom mod by the owner with hand-fabricated brackets.
And it's worth mentioning, another cheap mod several owners have done is taken a regular can of black spray paint and painted the backside of the windscreen. The result is more black on black, and it just looks plain cool.
Remember that the Ulysses shares quite a few pieces and parts with other Buell models. If you look at the lineup- each bike seems to be a slight variation of the next. To accomplish Dual-Sport intentions- Buell extended the wheelbase on his signature stubby bikes, lengthening it by 2 inches to 54 inches. Carrying on the same theme of appealing to exploration minded riders, he also expanded the size of the gasoline carrying frame up to 4.4 gallons. Oil of course resides in the swingarm and is easily accessed by the oil plug on the left-hand side of the bike behind your boot heel. The bike did go through a quart of oil, but I was assured that's normal when breaking in a new bike for the first 1000 miles.
KEY IN HEADLIGHT?
While you may have to read that twice, it's sort of like that. Actually, you insert the key into the left side of the instrument panel just above the headlights. As in, on the side of the motorcycle in front of the fork. I had to actually bend down and look where the key was supposed to go for the first 1000 miles. Insert the key and turn one click, headlight on, ready to start the bike. Or while sitting on the bike, a simple lean forward to flip the key on.
The front fork can be locked in the usual way with the key. Like most modern bikes, an extra turn of the key while in the locked position would also turn the taillights on, making them into warning lamps. No blinking, just on.
Mounting the bike, it's quite clear this bike is a wee bit higher than most- even with the lower seat option. Reach forward past the handlebars to the left side of the headlight and turn the key. Thumb the starter and the bike immediately comes to life with a familiar Harley-esque chuf-chuf. One thing Buell didn't get rid of was the sensation of the Harley motor beneath you. Starts just like one. The motor started up every time as a new bike should, no choke or fast idle lever. It's all electronic these days and there didn't even seem to be a need to warm the motor up. Just get on it and go.
Upon leaving with the bike, the position of the rider immediately came to mind. As mentioned, it's a bolt upright straight-back position. Arms extended comfortably to bull-by-the-horns handlebars with that crossbar that reminds of my BMX bike when I was a kid. There is a natural aura of a cockpit that was immediately apparent to me, and even somewhat satisfying. Ever have that sensation when you hop on a new bike that the handlebars are too wide, too high or the gauges are over there somewhere in front of you, ala BMW GS or Aprilia Tuono. Not the Buell- the gauge panel wasn't too far away or in your face- from an ergonomics standpoint of fit, the bike had some thought put into it. I was instantly comfortably and at ease on the new bike. Although do bear in mind that the bars will rotate on the triple clamps with the loosening of the four alan head bolts to find that just-right-position.
The gauges are clear and easy to read analog dial type with the idiot lights on the right-hand side. To the left is the speedometer and at center is the tachometer, which came to be essential with such a narrow powerband, I actually found myself watching the tach at times when railing through the gears to know when to shift. Hit that rev limiter and the bike suddenly begins to protest (as in lose power) as I quickly found out at some rather inopportune moments mid-corner. If you aren't familiar with Harley motors, or narrow power bands for that matter, imagine that it's simply the opposite of your 'power-all-the-time-no-matter-what-the-tach-says' type motorcycle. Your typical sportbike for example.
The digital odometer also includes two trip meters, a clock, and the readout that starts counting up when you hit reserve. This was something new, and I thought immediately of a friend with a brand new BMW GS- his counts down. He actually ran out of gas at the exact moment the bike counted his miles remaining to zero. (We actually coasted into the gas station).
So the counting up was rather befuddling, and I was never quite sure when the bike would run out of gas or if. Assuming you had a gallon left when the low-fuel light came on- you'd have to guess at what your gas mileage was, which can vary (as I found out!) depending on how you were riding or terrain being traversed. Not sure if that odd attribute to the bike will someday be relegated to the 'what-were-we-thinking' category, or it's simply I'm the one that has to adjust.
One unusual thing I was hesitant about was covering great distances, in excess of 600 miles per day (or 16 plus hours in the saddle), without a throttle lock. I knew I'd be putting in some long dawn-till-dusk days on the bike, and even thought of attempting to rig up a throttle lock before I left. Now first off, throttle locks don't actually lock anything, we just call them that. Some years ago, I can remember riding a 16-hour day across two states on my ZX-11D and then spending 3 days thereafter trying to get the feeling back in my right hand. Since then, I have never owned a motorcycle that didn't have some sort of throttle lock device, be it an inexpensive Vista Cruise ($17 thumb actuated throttle lock), or the tried and true Throttlemeister (which replaces the bar end for $117).
So a pleasant surprise awaited me in that the bike offered up a throttle pull that was an easy one. It quickly became apparent as my day wore on and miles went by in increments of 100 per, any sort of hand fatigue was nil, if any. I quickly forgot about my earlier trepidation. It was one of those moments where you were thankful that an engineer or bike designer actually thought of something like this- the amount of force required to actuate something as simple a 10 cent throttle spring.
Clutch pull is also resoundingly easy and smooth. So smooth, in fact, it's as if this is how all bikes should be. Could Buell have possibly had anything other than this? If he did, they're trying to forget it! It works beautifully. As it turns out, sure enough, clutch pull is 22% lighter than the previous model year. Relegated to the 'What-were-we-thinking' closet, possibly?
However, despite the lighter clutch springs, gently fingering the clutch and shift lever failed to give any aid when attempting to find neutral. Quite simply, it couldn't be done. Finally, I gave up and flipped the kill switch to turn the bike off. Ah, there it is. I chalked that up to the bike being brand new, and just lived with it. I can only assume, as the transmission begins to wear in, neutral will be found somewhere out there. The kill switched was used for the remainder of the ride to accomplish said feat, and I only noticed a very slight improvement during my time on the bike. Possibly, this could be another area of improvement for Buell engineers to accomplish, especially when competing motorcycles have had things called 'positive neutral finders' for years listed on the brochure.
Unlike the large majority of motorcycles, the clutch lever isn't adjustable, but I never felt the need to have that feature. The positioning fell naturally into my hand and worked great. This also could be highly subjective due to the rider- others might loathe this oversight. On the other hand (figuratively and literally), the brake lever on the right side was adjustable, giving a raised eyebrow as to why one, and not the other.
THUNDERBOLT MOTOR & EXHAUST
The 1203cc Thunderbolt motor with Digital Fuel Injection is a stressed member of the frame for increase rigidity and essentially unchanged from previous Buell models. However, Buell threw on his thinking cap in order to reinvent another bike for the lineup by modifying the design of the muffler instead. Called the new 'InterActive' exhaust, an electric valve inside the system changes the exhaust flow, resulting in a change to the torque and power of the motor. While you're actually on the bike and running around, it's little more than an afterthought, it all runs smooth as ice. Or glass. Anyway, you get the idea.
Aside from the bike's one-wheel tendencies, it also creates a torque curve within a narrow power band that takes some getting use to, but is all too familiar to cruiser and Harley riders. Want horsepower? You'll be using the last 2000 rpm of power band before bumping into the rev limiter. However, there's never a shortage of horsepower or torque on tap. Never once did I feel the bike was under powered, although with the caveat that the tachometer needle was in the right place when the throttle was cracked open.
One might question the logic of placing the exhaust underneath the bike if it had off-road intentions, but Erik Buell gives a reassuring nod they've thought of this and thoroughly tested the exhaust for durability, even stating the muffler is designed as a stress point. Meaning that on paper, at least, you could place a hydraulic jack under the bike and use the muffler to lift the bike up. Another example given was during testing, the bike was parked in a streambed, water up to the axles and the muffler allowed to fill with said water. The bike was simply re-started, and ridden off.
Another added bonus was the tractor sound of recent memory is now long gone, possibly one more quality someone took notice of and sought to correct. The bike emitted a sweet, sweet sound, one even your mother could be proud of. The result of this tinkering with the exhaust is nothing short of unbridled hooliganism any time you crack open the throttle. And that's putting it lightly. Quite simply, this bike is the unruly mean kid from 5th grade that kept beating you up.
Vibration of the bike caused by the motor took some getting used to, as in is it supposed to do that? Coming up to a stop sign and setting the bike into an idle, the entire bike shook and vibrated in a rhythmic pulsation. Now remember, let's split the room in half, those that are familiar with Buells/Harleys and then there's the rest of motorcycledom. But with this bike, Buell is clearly going after that 2nd half of said market segment- those that may have little familiarization with Buell's as an off-road bike for that matter.
Indeed, these things are designed to do that. Between 1000-2000 rpm, the whole bike just plain shakes, but then again, there's not much you're able to do at that engine speed except bake in the sun in rush hour traffic. During one particular segment of my ride, choosing the scenic route along Lake Tahoe was not the smartest thing I've ever done, I'll admit. A mere 20 miles took nearly an hour. All the while shaking and shuttering about. Buell/Harley aficionados will gleefully point out that's what makes a Harley motor a Harley motor. Mr. Buell also might be quick to point out its part of the character. Regardless, just hope you don't get stuck in stop-n-go traffic.
Once you're up and running though, it all smooths out, and power delivery is right there at a twist of the throttle.
What's it like? Riding the Buell Ulysses.
TRANSMISSION - 3, 4, and SOMETIMES 5
And on today's menu, our new and improved transmission, gone are the days of crushing rocks. The transmission shifted smoothly with nary an embarrassing word uttered from these lips. The gearbox is only 5 gears, with 5th gear being moreso an overdrive gear reserved only for higher speeds. I found myself tooling along in 65 mph freeway traffic and still hadn't up-shifted into top gear. Other times, I simply forgot and 30 miles later realized I should probably click it into top gear, at least for the fuel economy.
And surprisingly, yes Virginia , it's been said with all the improvement to the transmission, you can short-shift. As in bapping through the gears sans clutch. While the owner's manual probably doesn't recommend it, I wouldn't advise it either. After short shifting once or twice, the tranny gave out an audible clunking protest, not exactly sportbike smooth. Possible, but not advisable, despite all the improvements. Again, as the bike wears in, maybe such things work a bit better.
They say that every motorcycle has a sweet spot, and I found this ones at 80 mph while tooling along in typical California freeway traffic. The bike settled in, vibration was minimal, and the bike just hummed along in 5th gear.
Acceleration off the line is ample. While this is not a Hayabusa motor mind you, the 1203cc Thunderbolt motor gets the job done with its 80 horsepower. And that's putting it nicely. Power is always available as long as you learn where the power is located (which is worth pointing out... again). All in all, the bike finally gets breathing about 3500 rpm. Anything below that and you'll find yourself downshifting to find it.
On the other hand, hard accelerations (also easy to do) in 1st gear will pull the front wheel off the ground effortlessly. Click into 2nd gear and again the front end goes light and comes off the ground. I won't lie, it was intense fun, given a deserted stretch of straight road.
It's also worth mentioning the pride and joy of Buell owners: 'torque'- as in that low down grunt. This too is heavily emphasized by the Buell media machine. Literature refers to the bike as a "red-blooded stump-puller" which does have a nice ring to it.
One important thing to note about the use of a Harley motor in an Adventure Sport Bike (or whatever the latest term might be) is the heavier counter-balancer. While in-line four cylinder motors you may be familiar with have instant response when you crack upon the throttle- not so here. There's a split second where you need to wind the motor up to hit that sweet spot of power delivery, and of course the motor was designed that way. Buell comes from another school of thought.
This was another unusual thing I had to get used to during rather spirited corner carving with a Harley motor between my legs. Revs too low and there was no power, roll on the revs, and you had to wait (play Jeopardy theme song) that split second for the motor to get up to speed- or downshift to instantly bring the revs up, then shift again.
Passing also requires of bit of pre-planning, depending on which gear you're in. Slam down the throttle in the wrong gear, and you'll instantly bump into the rev limiter at around 6000 rpm which I soon realized was an easy thing to do, so that gives you a mere 3000 rpm to work with. All the power is within that narrow band.
Now mind you, it only takes a split second to bring the motor up to speed, so you might be thinking, what's the big deal? Only that it was remarkably noticeable, and I had to constantly remind myself to add in that extra split second. It's also worth noting that any owner who has this bike will quickly adjust to this unique attribute, much like I did.
PREMIUM GASOLINE OR BUST
I soon found it was necessary to be careful about gasoline. Make sure you put in premium, I had been warned earlier. Out of habit of using the cheap stuff, midday, I threw in a tank of 87 octane and moseyed on down the road. However, at low idle, I got a fistful of pinging instead if the revs weren't held up. Maybe it was because I'd been running the bike for 14 hours straight and the motor was getting rather ripe, or indeed it was the gasoline. Power delivery came on a little slower, and I had to make sure I didn't gas it at low revs as I burned off the tank of low octane fuel. That was my first and last tank of the cheap stuff.
While literature states the bike will hit over 50 mpg in city, and up to 64 highway, mine was more in the ballpark of about 45 mpg. The fuel warning light came on around 145 miles without fail, although a few times as high as 155 miles with normal relaxed riding. The digital odometer automatically switched modes to a 0 mileage clock and started counting up. I had over a gallon of fuel left when the warning light came on. The furthest I pushed the bike was 175 miles and still only put 4 gallons of premium with a scant .4 gallons of fuel left.
On the other hand, the fastest I managed to get the fuel warning light to come on was at a mere 110 miles, which was a bit of a surprise as it was the moment when I'd ridden myself the furthest out into the Northern California's High Sierra Wilderness. Not to worry though, I was carrying extra gasoline in my MSR Fuel Canisters and a siphon hose to boot, tricks of the trade of the Adventure Tourer (or your friendly neighborhood
As you've probably noticed, that front brake disc is rather, shall we say, unique. A few years ago, you'd probably only find it on the latest concept bike at the yearly motorcycle show.
Nowadays, it's become one of Erik Buell's calling cards. Just one is needed, and the ZTL Perimeter Rotor at 375 mm is massive. Bolted to the right side of the rim, the six-piston caliper behind the upside-down Showa fork had some thought put into it as to its off-road capable intentions. And wonder of wonders, this bike comes standard with steel braided brake lines further aiding outstanding braking power. Another bonus is a claimed weight savings of 6 pounds due to the lack of the usual dual discs and calipers.
Anything with a 375 mm brake rotor has to stop well, and indeed it does. Running a steady 60 mph and slamming on the front brakes brings the bike to a sudden front-tire-chirping halt. I experimented with using solely the front brake, or a combination of both with spirited sport riding. Flicking through the accordion shaped hyperactivity of Hwy 245 simply illustrated the bike didn't really care what I was doing; the brakes worked beautifully either way.
I've had riders tell me that their rear brakes were useless and don't even bother using them. I myself would have to concur with this, as I also rarely use the rear brake for fear of locking up the rear in a panic-stricken pucker moment. The rear brake though reacted just as it should on the fully loaded bike, and it was easy to use a proportioned approach, heavy on the front, light on the rear. Riding styles may vary, but never once was I able to get into a pucker moment with the powerful brakes. Although granted, I'll leave the knee and elbow dragging to others of more spirited persuasion.
It's well-known that Buells have a limited amount of steering lock, as in at idle with the wheel turned- they have a much larger turning radius than comparable competing motorcycles. This I simply got used to. I had to, since I shot nearly 600 some photos in a few days aboard the bike, and had to make countless u-turns in the road to get set up for the next shot. Imagine burning around a corner, realizing, ah, that was the shot, slamming on the brakes then making a u-turn in the road, and a second u-turn again to come up on that same spot. Do that, say, 100 times- that's 200 u-turns in a couple of days.
Turning counter-clockwise took some concentration as I tip-toed the tall bike around at times. I soon figured out for some odd reason it was easier to make the u-turn in a clock-wise rotation, smoothly easing the bike around in the middle of the road. Possibly, it was a combination of balancing out the throttle and steering while dragging the rear brake to pull the bike around in a tight radius was the trick. So turns out, that steer lock thing wasn't as big of a deal, just takes a bit getting used to. Turning around in dirt though and even some deep sand took even more concentration to not fall over. There again, practice would allow that to be accomplished with ease.
Relegated to the 'What-were-you-thinking-category', the cooling fan was the one thing on this bike that just about drove me nutty. The fan is designed to stay on after you shut off the bike and even pull the key. In addition, it had a tendency to come on quite often while riding the bike down a straight section of road. Now this shouldn't sound all that unusual and most cooling fans on bikes are thermostatically controlled. However, the cooling fan Buell chose to go with must have been an afterthought of engineering as it emitted so much noise; I began to wonder if that was normal. The cooling fan is a two speed, the hotter the motor, the noisier the fan was. After shutting the bike off and walking away, the fan continued blaring a high-pitched whine. At some point, it cooled the motor enough to change to the low setting, then after several minutes it finally shut off.
Approaching the 1000-mile mark of my ride, I was beginning to get used to the noisy bike. However, at one particular pullout while in Sequoia National Park, I parked the Buell off the roadway to enjoy the scenic vista where I could see for miles across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In rolled up to some Harley riders, also on brand-new motorcycles. "It always do that?" the Harley rider asked incredulously, looking somewhat befuddled. This wasn't just any noise, it was the screeching of a dying animal suffering an agonizing death. He looked at me with an air of downtrodden sympathy, and that alone captured the moment.
Hopefully, Mr. Buell and his team actually ride their own motorcycles and will come to their senses to put that fan out of its misery. Also bear in mind that at no point in my ride would I have considered it 'hot out'. Temps ranged from the low 40s to the 70s for the duration of my ride, yet the fan seemed oblivious to that. During our hot California summers of 100 degree temps for days on end, you might have to endure quite a bit of that dying animal beneath you
Imagining that I actually did own this bike and this wasn't just a test ride, one of the very first things I'd do was figure out a way to toss the 'What-were-you-thinking-cooling-fan' and source an aftermarket one that was whisper quiet. If I were Erik Buell's mother, I'd kick him in the shins for even allowing this bike to be released to the public with that fan. It was the one thing on this bike that made no sense at all. If you're going to plop down over $12,000 for a motorcycle, that last thing you should find annoying is something as simplistic as the designer's intelligent choice of a cooling fan, or lack thereof. Hopefully, Mr. Buell won't relegate this attribute to his 'Character' category.
Possible fixes may exist. The addition of a right-hand side air scoop (the bike has only the one on the left side), it may be possible to channel more air to the rear cylinder decreasing the temperature, and thus the fan. Also, switching to fully-synthetic oil may help keep the motor cool. AmericanSportbike.com sells a right side match for $240, Carbon Fiber is available for $270. Other owners report after the break-in period and the first oil change with fully-synthetic oil, the fan comes on less.
As for heat, bear in mind the exhaust practically resides on the right side of the motorcycle, however I never noticed any heat coming off this naked standard bike. (Bear in mind, I have owned several fully-faired bikes that simply baked me alive in 100 degree heat during stop-n-go traffic.) As for overheating, it's never been mentioned on any owner's site regarding this bike. Plus, it should be noted that even if this were to happen, the engine electronics automatically modify the firing of the cylinders (called 'skip fire'), skipping every other spark, so the engine will cool itself down and bleed off excess heat.
One more option worth mentioning for heat is a heat barrier available from Specialops-Online.com. Basically, it's a small woven heat shield cut to the shape of the motorcycle and placed under the seat of the Buell.
I felt it my solemn duty to attempt to put this much vaunted suspension through its paces. And try as I might, I could not reach a level of commitment that had any success in upsetting the suspension. Shod with fully adjustable Showa upside down forks and on the left side, behold a remote rear preload adjuster connected to the coil over single shock placed under the seat for easy adjustments on the go.
Maybe it illustrates that you don't have to know how it works, only that it works very well. The Showa forks actually had me aiming at potholes to try and upset the suspension, even bottom out the fork possibly. Each time, the Buell simply floated over everything. It was another bright spot for this motorcycle, and so essential to the success of a new model. While I could live with the embarrassing cooling fan, the suspension just has to work in a world-class manner, especially one with off-road capabilities. The pic at right also may give you a glimpse of that ground clearance- 6.5 inches.
Besides the world-class suspension, another shining bright spot was the newly designed belt drive. Maybe the validation is you don't even know it's there. Only later do you realize, hey no chain lash, no worn cush drives, no stretchy chains or worn sprockets to replace, this belt drive works amazingly well. As you roll on the power or roll off, there's never a bobble or gap in the power delivery. It's almost as if the motor and rear wheel are one, rather than two separate pieces fighting each other.
To test my theory, I found myself a straight section of road and started jerkily blipping the throttle, abruptly rolling the gas on and off. Sure enough, not a bit of play. Now understand on your usual chain driven motorcycle you can't do that sort of thing. Your bike turns itself into a wild bronco bucking, protesting such uncouth treatment of said drive system.
To get such a result, the Ulysses is shod with a brand-new belt designed by none other than the good folks over at Goodyear. Deemed the Hibrex Belt and made of rubber/aramid composite, it's basically Kevlar, as in that stuff they make bulletproof vests with.
Belt drives have come a long way since the days of your great-grandfather. This one is said to be so strong and so durable, it never needs replacing, or even adjustment for that matter. No flex fatigue, no stretch, ample resistance to shock, hell I think if they probably made the Six-Million Dollar Man out of this stuff.
Now combine an off-road capable bike with belt drive, and what do you have? Well a couple question marks for starters since every off-road bike I know of uses a chain or shaft drive. Yet, Erik Buell believes in his product, so much so during testing they routinely threw in steel balls, rocks, and a couple tree branches into the belt drive just to see what would happen. Okay, so I made that last one up, but you get the point. Also revised is a new chain guard to protect all this fancy-schmancy belt stuff. About the only glimpse of the belt you get is on the rear sprocket and the adjustment tensioner pulley, which resides beside your right foot.
THE DAILY DRIVER - A BUELL ULYSSES
Bikes aren't meant to be parked in a corner of the garage- they're designed to be ridden. And maybe the true test of a bike is commuting in rush hour traffic, after all, regardless of how fun a bike may be in the twisties, you also may want to use it as a daily driver. I got to spend considerable time in rush hour traffic and did my hour-long freeway commute to work several times with the bike. Lane splitting was a breeze, even with the Hepco-Becker hard bags. That tall upright seating position and wide bars made easy work of navigating between the lanes of traffic at will. (Yes, we can legally split lanes here in California- one of the perks.)
However, actually getting stuck in stopped traffic was another matter. The verdict was quite simple. As long as the revs stayed above 2000 rpm, it was all good. However, as previously mentioned about the vibration of the bike, while in stop-and-go traffic between 1000 (which is what the idle is set at) to 2000 rpm, the bike shook enough to unseat me.
One particular time, after a 12-hour day in the saddle, the Ulysses and I were not friends. While indeed the clutch pull is light and easy, plus I'd even gotten used to the taller seat, the bike shook and vibrated so much, I finally had to stop, and stand beside the bike left boot flat on the pavement to raise my backside off that seat.
Meanwhile, traffic inched along and the bike shook and shimmied below me. Rolling along at a couple miles an hour for 20 some miles at 1500 rpm just didn't work (did I mention it was raining?) and I was quite relieved to get through all the traffic promising myself never to take that route along Lake Tahoe again during weekend traffic.
SPEAKING OF RAIN
As for that rain, it was the cloudburst sort. You know the kind- sunny over there, cloudy over yonder and above, raining. Quite heavy at times, I might add. There really was nothing to do but ride through it sans rain suit. There's not much to hide behind on the Ulysses, although with minor rain, my hands did quite well behind the hand guards, but as soon as the rain increased in intensity, didn't work as well. The other thing I was quite pleased about was the bike always felt planted and well-balanced on the wet pavement.
The bike I own is of the high-horsepower sort, and so rain requires a very gentle throttle hand as to not spin the rear tire. However, on the Buell with that smooth belt drive- that thought never entered my mind. I wasn't comfortable enough to lean the bike too much, but that would come with time for any owner as the miles rack up and familiarity with the bike in wet conditions became more familiar.
NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY HOOLIGAN
"My mother doesn't approve." I have this friend and that's his favorite saying. While it's quickly evident the Buells of yesteryear are long relegated to being museum pieces, the latest models are the product of 10 plus years of testing, refinement and Erik Buell's imagination. The one attribute that's gone untouched is the wee bit of badness left in the ole Buell. This thing can be just plain naughty.
Any 425 lb (dry) machine with 84 ft lbs of torque may have a slight built-in problem. The Buell Ulysses suffers from this much vaunted affliction. It can happen in parking lots, deserted backstretches of highway, and freeway on ramps. Despite Erik Buell's best efforts to cure the problem by extending the wheelbase of the Buell by 2 inches, this ailment still afflicts the Ulysses. It has something to do with keeping the front wheel on the ground. Try as I may, I couldn't seem to cure this machine of its affliction. So in turn, I simply caved, gave into my need for squid giggles and popped the front wheel up at will, wherever it seemed fitting. It was great fun, and a crowning moment to experiencing the Ulysses in all its glory.
IN THE TWISTIES
Now let's talk corners, try as I may, as mentioned I could not unsettle the bike. The handling was just fantastic. The cliche of 'cornered like it was on rails' came to mind. It became somewhat of a quest, a child-like tantrum, as the days progressed. Finally, I made my way up one of the twistiest roads in the entire state. I braked late, I hammered through the 5 speed gearbox, I ran the revs right at red-line.
To no avail, I still could not upset the Showa suspension in mid-corner. The Buell with its ample travel of 6.5 inches just floated over the bumps. I was thoroughly impressed with the ability of the suspension to handle twisties. It's true what they say about Buell motorcycles- the adage that Erik Buell has built his empire upon a singular premise of low-slung, well-balanced weight distribution. All intended to create a corner carving machine.
The proof came with the more corners I carved up. The Ulysses was one of the most fun bikes I've ever ridden in the tight stuff. Keep the revs at the sweet spot, pick the right gear, and being mindful with that narrow torquey powerband equals grins and giggles the entire time.
GOAT TRAIL EXPLORING'
I also made it my mission to find the bumpiest road within reach. Sure enough, the Ulysses never missed a beat. It got to be so fun, I started steering for potholes. Foiled again, the Buell just floated over them. Blast. Hmm, let's check out this super bumpy goat trail of a road, the Buell blasted over it. I came up on a car in front of me which bumped & shuttered along, afraid of its own shadow. Ha! Puny humans, the Buell Ulysses knows no boundary. At the first chance, I dropped it down a gear, grabbed a fist full of 1203cc Sportster motor, and floated on past. The front wheel was also floating a wee bit as in off the ground.
Still not quite satisfied, I made another beeline to the bumpiest, ruttiest goat trail I know of. A road that technically is paved, yet easily claims the title 'Pariah of Highway Funds', a road so bumpy and long forgotten, I make a point to avoid it. Sure enough, the Ulysses never came unsettled. On my normal sport bike with its stiff suspension, that would have been so bumpy, I would have rattled a few teeth loose.
HEADED OFF ROAD
Speaking of off-pavement or lack thereof, you were wondering about that also? The Ulysses media machine is quick to point out this is not a dirt bike. Rather, this is an adventure touring machine that's been set up for the occasional fire trail or gravel road. Although I can attest that you'd best keep the bike out of deep sand unless you know what you're doing. When a nearby pine-tree studded hilltop looked particularly enticing, I found myself with both boots on the ground gingerly easing this 500 pound machine back to the main road. Ah, maybe next time.
One hundred miles later, the pavement ended. I pressed on through gravel ranch roads, not exactly sure how long before I'd hit pavement. On my normal bike, it'd be 10 mph counting dollar signs leaving my wallet if I were to drop my fully-faired bike. The Ulysses on the other hand eats gravel for breakfast and dirt of lunch. There I was sailing merrily along, barely feeling the heavily rippled surface. It was all beginning to come together.
The one thing I did wonder about was crash bars. Sure, you've got that frame puck, but do they exist as an aftermarket option? They simply aren't mentioned on the Buell website yet any motorcyclists worth their salt and having off-road intentions- fire roads for example, is probably wondering the same thing. Haven't found anything yet, but will add it here if I come across something (or one of you lets me know).
DISTANCE ADVENTURE TRAVEL
The day was long, the miles stretched on, and I rode past 13, then 14 hours on the bike. My thoughts began to drift, and I found myself looking back a few years to a ride I did on up to Alaska. It was a 10,000-mile journey over the course of a month on my Yamaha Venture that brought me within spitting distance of the Arctic Circle, but also traversed hundreds of miles of gravel roads. Back then, I didn't know any better. It was a simple time, I just left and headed northward, armed only with a road atlas of North America.
If I had to do it all over again, this would be the bike. I could picture myself riding along on the Buell through the miles of stunted scrub forests, through the days of rain I experienced, and even exploring further into the Alaskan Wilderness, which I was unable to do at the time. If I had to do it all over again- this would be the bike!
The Buell sounds different, it looks different, it is different- completely unique in this class of motorcycle. Sure, it's a relative newcomer and Buell will continue to refine the bike over the next few years, but it still has something to offer all the other comparable bikes in this class can't. It catches the eye, it makes you do a double take - what is that? A Buell? I didn't know Buell made an off-road capable motorcycle was a comment I received several times. Well they do now, and Buell is quick to recognize this growing market segment as riders continue to seek new thrills and new ways to explore the world around them.
The odometer read 00005 miles. Five days later, the bike was returned with 1600 miles on the clock to the surprised look of the technician at McGuires Harley Davidson. I did mention I wasn't just going to ride it around the block, I said with a grin. Highway, twisties, goat trails, bumps, gravel, a 21-hour day in the saddle- it was all making sense now.
So maybe the reason why you are going to buy this bike is because you want something different, because the word 'universal' is a forgotten archaic term. While there are several motorcycles in this particular class of adventure sport-touring, some more expensive like the BMW GS, and some less like the Suzuki V-Strom, the Ulysses stands alone among all those motorcycles. It doesn't necessarily jump higher, go faster, or pull better wheelies, instead it has character, soul. Something different to offer you. It's not cookie cutter. In fact, it's a world apart. It's a Buell.
Special thanks to McGuires Harley Davidson which supplied the Buell Ulysses XB12X used in this Road Test.