Buell Firebolt XB9R – Motorbikes Reviews, News & Advice – bikepoint.com.au

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Buell Firebolt XB9R

Buell Firebolt XB9R (April 2002)

Can an air-cooled, pushrod, two-valve V-twin be considered a state-of-the-art sportsbike? Buell reckons its Firebolt can

It’s not often a whizbang new sportsbike is released with a claimed horsepower figure lower than the model it’s superseding.

And when the claimed torque is over 25 percent more on the old model than the new kid on the block, you’ve gotta start asking questions! Could Buell have designed its much vaunted XB9R Firebolt for pussies rather than punters.

Is there go to match the show? Can a two-valve, air-cooled, pushrod powerplant be a serious proposition in a modern-day sportsbike? Are the Buell boffins serious with a 7500rpm rev limit – a zone when ‘proper’ sportsbikes are just getting into their stride?

You betcha they are.

Second place in the recent Daytona Pro Thunder event (behind a Ducati) proves it. And a particularly protective large jungle cat at the recent national Firebolt launch on the Gold Caost confirms it.

Mess with a Firebolt on anything other than a long, straight road and you could end up getting well and truly mauled!

GOING SHOPPING

This was one new motorcycle I was particularly looking forward to sampling, ever since AMCN featured first details of the XB9R Firebolt back in Vol 51 No 1 in July last year.

After all, the last time I ‘rode’ something with a 21-degree rake and 83mm of trail it was laden with vegies in my local Safeway. Mind you, the loaded shopping trolley probably weighed more than the Firebolt’s claimed 175kg, and had a longer wheelbase to boot.

The XB9R is a tiny 1320mm from axle to axle – a wheelbase 55cm shorter than my goodself. Crikey, if you fall in love with one you could take it to bed, hide it under the doona, and no-one need know.

That minuteness also aroused my inquisitiveness – would I be able to fit on the damn thing?

THOROUGH SAMPLING

My chance for Firebolt sampling came on Queensland’s Gold Coast, and a thorough sampling it was too. There was a full ‘trackday’ at the Holden Driver Training Centre at Norwell, followed by a half-day of BattleTrax in the Seaworld carpark (see accompanying panel), then a road ride into the hills around Canungra and Mount Tamborine. More than enough to put the Firebolt through its paces.

The Norwell track is a very tight and somewhat bumpy venue, with plenty of hard braking and second-gear corners, and a long sweeping back ‘straight’ (it’s really a continuous lefthand sweeper) that requires decently-sized gonads to take flat out – especially when the bumps have the left footpeg and undercarriage digging out chunks of tarmac. Well, at least on the Buell M2 Cyclones and X1s that were also in attendance.

The XB9R however had no such concerns, as it has clearance to spare. I got nothing to hang up at all, even with my, errr, slightly porky 94kg compressing the suspension more so than some of the flyweight testers in attendance (although the Buell technicians present adjusted each bike’s suspension to suit each rider’s kg – a nice touch).

NO SLAPPERS

The day’s fang at Norwell also put to rest any concerns over the XB9R’s straightline stability – I never experienced a single ‘slapper’. And the same went for the following day’s road ride.

If someone had told me that beforehand about a bike with 21-degree rake and 83mm trail, I would have called in the men in the white coats.

Where those dimensions really came to the fore was on the BattleTrax course, and although I didn’t manage an official timed run on the XB9R (my timed runs were all on a X1), I have no doubt that the Firebolt was the nimblest bike on offer.

I did get a number of practice laps in on the Firebolt prior to the timed sessions commencing, and it’s easy to understand why the fastest laps of the morning were set by riders on XB9Rs.

And it’s not just the nimbleness that’s important in BattleTrax. Throttle response, clutch feel and brake feedback are just as important – all strong points of the XB9R.

WHOPPER ROTOR

Speaking of brakes, that whopper front rotor will sure get some looks at the local cafe. I’m not fully sold on all Buell’s theories as to why it’s supposed to be better (hey, when I see one on Valentino’s RC211V or Troy’s 998R I’ll start to believe. ), but it’s certainly no worse than a traditional set-up.

I can’t see how you can reduce unsprung weight and reduce gyroscopic effect by putting a bigger rotor on the outside of the front wheel. However, it looks horn, and performs no worse than a usual single or twin disc set-up, so who am I to argue.

In fact can’t remember anyone outbraking me at Norwell, even with my additional ballast, and I reckon Bracksy was the only one who stopped quicker in the Seaworld carpark. Err, well his bike did at least.

HANDY PUDDING

My aforementioned excess Christmas pud wasn’t a total negative though, as it came in handy for comparative purposes. You see, in most of my Norwell sessions I ended up on the track with old sparring partner Martin Hone, who at some 22kg lighter had a distinct advantage in the power-to-weight stakes.

If I rode my knackers off and used ‘baulk’ tactics I could hold A-grader Marty off for a few laps, but once he’d snuck by there was no way I could haul him back in. Well, only when he ran wide at the hairpin a couple of times, eh Marty!

He would frustratingly pull a couple of bike lengths on me on to the back ‘straight’ each lap, courtesy of that 22kg weight discrepancy.

But things surprisingly turned around when I was Buell X1 mounted. Despite the extra 25kg of the X1 over the XB9R (or 47kg if you add me to the equation as well), the greater power and torque of the ‘old’ model’s 1200cc Sportster engine helped keep Marty at bay, even if I had less cornering clearance and nimbleness to play with. I guess I was taking up more of the track as well on the X1, so it made it harder for Marty to find a gap to get by.

STRANGE BUT TRUE

So yes, using Marty as my yardstick, I lapped fractionally faster on the X1 than I did on the XB9R, something he concurs with. Strange but true. And I guess that leaves me a little perplexed, as I would’ve thought the new XB9R should’ve made mincemeat out of the ‘old’ X1 on a tight track like Norwell.

Buell Firebolt XB9R

The Firebolt has better suspension, a nimbler chassis, greater cornering clearance, grippier rubber and better brakes, the latter also helped by the XB9R’s lighter weight. It is a far better dynamic package than the X1 it is replacing.

One contributing factor to the confusing laptimes may have been the different gearing of the two models, as I have to admit to hitting the Firebolt’s hard-action 7500rpm revlimiter a couple of times when looking for good drive on to the back straight. Third was too high, but second a tad low, causing me to run out of revs too soon.

Mind you, when the next cog slotted in with over 7K on the dial, it was enough for the front end to get light and give a quick wiggle through the bars as the XB9R accelerated.

NO SURPRISES

The road ride was more of the same, with the Firebolt’s strengths observed at Norwell also coming to the fore in the Gold Coast hinterland – manoeuvrability, nimbleness and ease of use.

That latter point is an extremely important one, as the Firebolt isn’t an intimidating motorcycle to ride – either fast or slow. The chassis holds no nasty surprises at ‘go to jail’ speeds, despite the quick 250GP-like stats, yet the engine is one that allows congested city usage without copious clutch-fanning or cog swapping. And its a far smoother powerplant than the old 1200 Sporty-sourced donk.

Personally, I found the Firebolt more rewarding on the open road to play with the gearbox (a far smoother shifter than that of the X1) and keep the engine percolating, say between 4000-7000rpm. But then, I’d also like another 20 horsepower.

However, it is a 1000cc V-twin, so you can short-shift and keep things below 4000rpm for a more relaxed ride if that’s your chosen demeanour.

One thing the road ride did amplify was the amount of room offered on such a small bike for someone with a 187cm frame, and the rational riding position for such a small and sporty motorcycle. I certainly wasn’t cramped.

CLASS OF ITS OWN

Despite two days of the most varied usage possible, I’m still having trouble working out where the XB9R fits in the marketplace. Maybe that’s a good thing, as it opens up the potential market.


It’s not an outright competitor for Ducati’s desmo-quattro range of 998 sportsbikes, nor is it a challenger for the Japanese litre-class rocketships, despite being in their price category.

No, at $17,995 I reckon the Firebolt goes up against bikes like Aprilia’s $18,975 Falco, BMW’s $17,820 R1100 S, Buell’s own $18,299 X1, Ducati’s $16,495 900SS and perhaps the $18,495 S4 Monster, and Triumph’s $15,995 Speed Triple.

Then again, the XB9R may well be in a class of its own. Not many bikes can get on the podium at Daytona one day, and fang around your local Seaworld carpark the next.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen such an innovative motorcycle.

Story: Ken Wootton

Photos: Barry Marshall and KW

Published. Monday, 29 April 2002

Buell Firebolt XB9R

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