When I first laid eyes on a photo of the Buell XB Firebolt, I thought it was weird. Like many others, I thought it was really ugly. What’s up with that weird bikini fairing. Looks like a platypus. Why is that frame so huge! It didn’t look like a ‘normal’ bike so I had a knee-jerk reaction to the looks. It is like meeting an awesome girl who makes you understand why her ‘type’ of look is so hot. Usually these women have an awesome personality or something else that makes you rethink her looks. At first, you have an almost xenophobic reaction to her fashion and lifestyle, and then as you get to know her, you realize you’re very attracted to her. The dislike turns into an obsession. That is similar to how I grew to love the Firebolt.
I got a chance to ride one when I lived in Orlando, FL. The instant torque-on-tap was really fun, and in person it looked a lot better. I tend to love motorcycle that are weird, unique, or otherwise have ‘black sheep’ pedigree, so this might have been just the bike for me. The looks grew on me. The huge frame started to look cool, and the bikini fairing looked cool in an asshole-ish way. I eventually realized just because it looks different, doesn’t mean its ugly.
I got really lucky with this bike. I had purchased a mint condition 2002 Honda Magna 75o for about $2,500. Although I got what you could call a windfall, I was happy he was keeping my Magna. The Magna was starting to deteriorate a bit, because I didn’t have a garage. I have had this bike for more than a year now, which is notable because I tend to switch out bikes like my preferences for the color of M&M’s that week.
I won’t go over about how its packed with state of the art chassis design technology and such. There are plenty of other reviews you can read about, that explain the technology involved with the XB9. This will be about my personal impressions and what I think is cool, or not cool about this bike.
This is where the XB shines. It handles brilliantly. Actually, its the best handling bike I’ve ever ridden, just above the Honda NT650 Hawk that I used to have. But in a different way. The Hawk had a razor-sharp handling and responded to every one of your inputs. It felt like what one imagines a good-handling motorcycle would feel like. On the other hand, while the Buell is nimble, it did so in a very different way. Instead of amplifying your input, it helps you to make the right inputs. I don’t know, its hard to explain because it is so different.
One of the ways to gauge how well a bike is designed and how well set up is to see how it behaves at the limit. Using factory recommended settings for my weight, I flogged it around JenningsGP earlier this year. It gives you plenty of warning before it slides, and does not chatter. Thanks to its short wheelbase, you can feel the bike rotating from under you.
Push on the handlebars and the motorcycle leans over willingly, without any fuss. Nice linear effort to bring the bike to its maximum lean angle. And it is really easy to roll-on the throttle early on this bike. However, on quick transitions, the bike did require some effort. Otherwise, oh it is such a joy to ride hard.
I know I said I won’t talk about its chassis, but you can feel that the bike’s packaging is brilliant. The weight is distributed very well. Hunks of metal are centered on the lower center area of the bike, while the other heavy component of the motorcycle, the rider, sits nice and high where he or she can make the most difference.
Tire selection is important on this bike. I recommend a good sportbike tire – if the profile is flat, the bike will not handle well. Front forks are Showa cartridge inverted forks with full adjustability. Rear shock is the same make, with the same adjustability. Looking at the suspension features, you can tell this is a full-feature, serious motorcycle.
The power plant on this bike adds to the uniqueness of the motorcycle, but unfortunately it is also the worst part of the bike. This bike uses a souped-up (destroked) Harley Sportster 1200 engine. They got it to rev higher and gave it more top-end power, but the engine is still makes a lot of torque at any RPM. However, it only makes about a claimed 92hp at the crank. That puts the bike in between an SV650 and a modern 600cc supersport. Aside from the unique feeling of the engine, it is as I like to say, ‘just whatever.’
The powerband is really fun though. Yes, its peakier than a Harley Sportster, but it isn’t compared to any other sportbike of the 21st century. The weird powerband makes this bike interesting to ride. The RPMs don’t climb that fast, but the world around you going by you faster and faster.
Two drawbacks of this engine, other than the lack of horsepower — 1. It probably won’t do sustained high RPMs that well. Although the sportster engine platform supposedly isn’t the best for sustained high RPMs, the only times I’ve heard of an XB blowing up was when it was raced. 2. It vibrates a lot. I’m not very vibration sensitive so I couldn’t care less, but I know a lot of people hate vibration on their bikes. By the way, I have the EBR race can on my bike and it sounds really cool. I don’t care what you think about Harleys, no engine has that sound.
Buell motorcycles have a lot of bad rep about their reliability from their older tube framed bikes. The XB9R is different. Actually, while my Magna 750 was eating batteries from a bad R/R and giving me tons of carburetor problems, nothing ever put down the Firebolt, except for the breakage of the overdue drive belt, and a battery post connection vibrating loose. The battery post vibrated loose because the previous owner had cross threaded it.
I’ve done some basic Buell-specific maintenance on this bike. Its easy to work on — Eric Buell did a great job thinking things through. The Harley powerplant is pretty simple and easy to work on. The primary chain adjustment is a piece of cake. The throttle calibration, which is supposed to be done at the dealer, is easy to do with downloadable software and a cheap cable (I haven’t mentioned this yet but the bike comes with a tunable ECU from the factory). The swingarm comes apart for when you have to change gearing or belt.
Do you like to detail your bikes? One notable thing about the XB9 is that the bodywork is all dyed plastic. No paint to worry about. It won’t ever achieve that super shiny look that a well polished and waxed paint can get, but it’ll never scratch off. I use personal watercraft polish and everything glazes over easily and looks shiny enough. Its very easy to keep this bike clean.
This bike has a large diameter single disc brake, with the disc mounted directly on the wheel. A six piston caliper does the work of pressing onto the disc.
A lot of people complain about the brakes on the Buell, but I’ve never felt it was inadequate. On the track, it does lack feel and feedback. But it performs. I’d say it does about 90% of what typical twin disc brakes do on supersports.
Some of the other Buells must be fairly practical. But the firebolt, with its race oriented riding position, really sucks for any extended rides. You are fairly crouched on the bike, with the knees very bent. The seat height is pretty high for how small the bike is too. Its excellent for shifting your weight and moving on top of the bike to hang off, but it makes the bike uncomfortable for simple commuting or long distance riding. The seating position is more similar to a Honda RC51, a bike notoriously uncomfortable on the street, than the CBR.
One good thing about this bike is that it is pretty narrow, so its easy to split lanes on this bike. And you get almost 50 miles a gallon, which is pretty cool.
Since a lot of the cool, unique features of this bike are technical, I won’t elaborate on the unique features of this bike, but I’ll at least mention them all here in the form of a list.
– Different riding experience – gauges and windscreen sit low, out of sight. Almost entirely clear view for the rider
– Frame doubles as a fuel tank. What?!
– Dry-sump oil system. Swingarm is an oil reservoir, part of the above oil system.
– Factory tunable ECU. What?! Just buy a deutsche to USB cable and tune your engine with ECMspy.
– Projector headlights
– Underslung exhaust
– Weight distributed low and centered, central to the engine
– Oil cooler
– Belt drive
– Launch control. Just kidding. This bike is high tech in terms of overall packaging, but no special electronics.
•Lots of torque
•Unique/hipster/rare bike appeal
•Reliable and easy to work on
•Lots of adjustability. True performance bike feel
•Full sportbike features
•Questionable sustained high rpm use
•XB9R XB12R Firebolt models not good for touring. •Other XB models reported to be comfortable
•Parts are starting to get hard to find
If I could sum up this motorcycle in one word, it would choose the word ‘Different.’ Buell ownership is definitely a unique experience. Yes, this bike is a bit polarizing; most people would rather buy a 600cc supersport; you won’t get the unique riding experience of the Buell or its handling, but you will get 100+ horsepower, decent handling, and have a bike that sets performance standards. But if you are like me and want something a bit special, the Buell XB series bikes are a great choice. I recommended it even more if you live on the twisties and love doing track days. In the corners is where this bike shines! But do be ready for your friends to make endless jokes about how ugly your bike is. They haven’t had time to warm up to it yet.