6 Jun 2015 | Author: | Comments Off on Auto01
Buell Blast
Buell Blast

The 2001 Buell Blast – An Excellent Entry-Level Motorcycle

by Steven Haas, MBA2

When one thinks of Harley-Davidson, the obvious picture that comes to mind is of a long, low, chrome-covered cruiser. One would be correct, mostly, for thinking this. Lesser known, however, is the Buell Motorcycle Company, a Harley-Davidson owned brand that manufactures sporty bikes.

Erik Buell started the Buell Motorcycle Company two decades ago. Mr. Buell was an engineer for the motor company who started making fast motorcycles using Harley engines. Throughout Buell’s existence, the company has used some creative engineering to build some truly unique motorcycles and has continued to use hot-rodded Harley Davidson V-Twin engines.

Harley-Davidson was an investor in Buell until approximately two years ago, when they bought the remaining half of the company, keeping Erik Buell on board for his unique leadership and engineering vision.

One concern identified by H-D leaders was that their owner base was aging nearly as quickly as their bikes. Younger buyers have been opting for sporty (and less expensive) imported motorcycles and some would-be riders seemed intimidated by motorcycles in general and by the heavy-weight Harley models in particular. This is where Erik Buell and his engineers came in really handy.

Who better than Buell, the thinking went, to design a new American-made motorcycle targeted specifically at new riders. With little brand aura to protect and a knack for thinking up new solutions to engineering issues, it seemed a match made in heaven.

The product of all of this brainpower is a new motorcycle, the Buell Blast. In short, this motorcycle was designed to attract new riders to Harley-Davidson/Buell showrooms such as the one at American Harley-Davidson/Buell here in Ann Arbor, who provided this test bike.

Buell had a difficult task. New riders have many different reasons for not taking up the sport. Some of these issues include fears that motorcycles are too dangerous, too heavy, too tall, too powerful, or too complicated.

Buell’s team of engineers attacked each of these issues in their design ­ all while keeping the retail price to a low $4,395 MSRP. Needless to say, this was a Herculean task.

One doesn’t need much muscle to manage this bike, however. At a dry weight of only 360 pounds and with a Harley-esque low center of gravity, this bike feels tiny to experienced riders and non-threatening to novices. A low seat height of only 27.5 inches helps smaller riders put both feet flat on the ground. This contributes to a feeling of control.

For those further inseam-challenged, a 2 lower seat is available at no cost.

The heart of this motorcycle is an air-cooled 492cc single cylinder push-rod engine that looks to all the world to be a Harley-Davidson Sportster with one cylinder cut off. Output is an easygoing 34 HP and 30 ft.lbs. of torque. Special attention was given to minimizing the appearance of mechanical complexity. Hydraulic adjusters for the two valves do away with internal maintenance.

The single 40 mm Keihin carburetor has an automatic fuel enricher, which does away with the need to to use a choke when starting the bike cold or remembering to turn it off once the bike is warm. Again, this presents one less worry for new riders.

The frame and suspension use similar stress and cost-reducing ideas. The steel backbone frame does double-duty as the oil reservoir and the patented Uniplanar Powertrain Isolation System uses rubber mounts to keep engine vibration away from the rider. Front and rear suspension are non-adjustable.

A unique design for the Kevlar reinforced final drive belt means that no periodic adjustments are required. I imagine that this also reduces manufacturing complexity. A belt is also cleaner and quieter than a typical drive chain.

Since a light and low-powered motorcycle does not require large tires, the Blast uses 16 inch wheels with relatively narrow Dunlop tires (current industry standards are 17 inch diameter wheels). This surely contributes to the lower seat height and the easy handling of the motorcycle.

One of Buell’s design passions over the years has been a rabid fight against un-sprung weight. Accomplishing this while also helping to keep manufacturing costs down are the wheels themselves. The 5-spoke cast aluminum wheels are unique to the Blast and have the mounting bolt holes for the brakes and final-drive pulley cast directly onto them, eliminating the need for additional hardware.

The wheels are attractive, but the bare drive pulley looks strangely unconventional.

The overall appearance of the Blast is compact and modern. Viewed in isolation, it appears to be a full-sized motorcycle. When placed next to another motorcycle, the miniaturized proportions become more apparent, but I found the overall effect attractive. Fit and finish are good. One would likely never notice that the red body panels (fenders, tank and windscreen) are not painted.

Rather, to help minimize insurance and repair costs for new riders Buell came up with a unique solution. They use flexible composite panels with the color molded in. These pieces apparently come out of the molds with the smooth shiny finish you see in the showroom.

Minor scratches should be relatively invisible since the color goes all the way through the panel and I’m told that replacement costs are minimal. Buell even advertises that you can inexpensively change the color of your bike if so desired (approximately $100 for all the color panels in your choice of red, black, or yellow). The turn signals are also mounted on flexible stalks to resist damage.

Low insurance costs should be backed up by low operating expenses, demonstrated by the Blast’s EPA ratings of 69 / 72.8 MPG city/highway ratings. This might just be one of the best commuter bikes ever designed, now that I think of it.

As a rider with more than 13 years of experience, I’m not exactly in the target audience for this bike. However, I have to admit a slight bias toward light-weight motorcycles (I own an older 500 cc Honda GB500 which is also a 4-stroke single). It was not hard to remember what it was like when I first started riding, however, and it was with this in mind that I rode the Blast.

Given the bike’s short wheelbase (55.3 inches) and small wheels, I didn’t expect the bike to be as good on the freeway as it was. The Blast was stable at speed and had a particularly smooth feel between 60-70 mph. Unlike my Honda, which uses a counter-rotating balance shaft to quell vibration, the rubber-mounts on the Blast allow one to feel and see the engine’s vibration at idle, but smooth it out nicely at speed.

The vibration was there, but not so much that it was tiresome.

Buell Blast
Buell Blast

One particular advantage of a single cylinder motor for beginners is that the motorcycle has no trouble pulling away from traffic and getting up to speed with ease. The large piston produces low rpm torque without the need to rev to the stratosphere. For a beginner, this also minimizes the chance of stalling while starting from a stop.

I also cannot fail to mention the exhaust on the Blast. The unusual under-bike muffler is designed to mimic the look of a chin fairing and is somewhat of a love it or leave it design characteristic of the Blast. One can’t argue, however, with the sound it emits.

The Blast produces a throaty thump and at speed sounds like half a Harley, which it is.

I rode a Blast with the taller seat in place and found the seating position itself to be comfortable and much roomier than I had expected. The Blast doesn’t have the sporty forward lean of other Buell models, but rather puts the rider in a neutral position, with arms and legs at comfortable angles to the body. Once again, this helps provide beginners with a feeling of control and allows for good visibility in traffic.

Off the freeway, I sought out some curves to see if Buell’s reputation for outstanding handling remains intact. Indeed, the Blast was easy to ride around curvy Huron River Drive. I found myself needing to slow down lest I find my insurance agent salivating over my driving record next time I renew.

Blast riders may not win any drag races against larger bikes, but they will certainly enjoy themselves along the way. Don’t forget that even this little bike has a power-to-weight ratio better than most cars on the road.

Another impressive area are the brakes on the motorcycle. The single large 320 mm front rotor (with a dual-piston caliper) and rear 220 mm rotor provide solid braking on such a light bike.

The only real area for improvement I found was the seat. The padding was too soft and I became uncomfortable quickly. The after-market already has solutions for this problem, which to be fair, isn’t isolated to the Buell Blast.

The low price of entry should leave riders room to personalize a Blast to their liking.

One aspect of Harley-Davidson’s marketing plan for the Blast that I was not able to experience first-hand is the new Rider’s Edge new riders course. In an attempt to further ease new riders into the family, select Harley-Davidson dealers will conduct new rider training (using, of course, Buell Blast motorcycles). I took a similar course through the Motorcycle Safety Foundation years ago and highly recommend it to anyone contemplating riding for the first time.

Kudos to Harley-Davidson for not forgetting this key part of making new riders comfortable. Statistics overwhelmingly show that riders who have completed such training have a highly reduced probability of an accident.

Competition for the Blast is fairly thin. The Japanese manufacturers do import some smaller bikes but they aren’t found in dealer’s showrooms very often and none of them provide the freeway capability of the Blast (not to mention the sophisticated brakes and low-cost design features). I would also guess that these smaller displacement bikes would be more quickly outgrown as a rider gains experience.

Rather, first bikes for most new riders have been used bikes, until now.

Larry Phelan, General Manager of American Harley-Davidson/Buell tells me that he has been selling Blasts nearly as quickly as he gets them from the factory. He adds that buyer demographics have varied from new riders, to friends and spouses of existing Harley-Davidson customers to experienced riders interested in a smaller motorcycle. I’m sure none of these customers will be disappointed with their Buell Blast.

Harley-Davidson hopes to see them again when it’s time to trade up to a larger bike.

Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast
Buell Blast

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