Buell Ulysses XB12X: Waiting to launch an adventure

It doesn't match the exaggerated sales pitch, but the new Buell could become a gem, says Tim Luckhurst
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Engine: 1203cc air/oil/fan cooled, four stroke, 45 degree V-Twin
Max Power: 100bhp @ 6,600rpm (74.6Kw)
Max Torque: 81 ft lbs @ 6,000rpm (110Nm)
Transmission: Five-speed constant mesh gearbox driving low-maintenance belt final drive.
Brakes: Front: 375mm stainless-steel floating rotor. Rear: 240mm rotor
Suspension: Front: Fully adjustable inverted Showa forks. Rear: Fully adjustable Showa shock absorber
Height: 49.2 inches (1,250mm)
Weight: 425lbs (193kg)
Colours: Orange or black
Price: £8,195

The gossip in Porto Cervo, Sardinia, was frantic. Rumour was that the famous American designer whose name was on the new motorcycles outside the big hotel had crashed his own creation.

Buell's parent company, Harley-Davidson, declined to confirm it. So I asked Erik Buell. He grimaced. It's hard not to with bruised ribs. He had wheelied the Ulysses, only to discover that his top-box was full of bottled water. The water shifted and the chairman of the Buell Motorcycle Company came down the hard way.

The first Buell Ulysses XB12X I rode was infuriating. The front plunged under braking and the back became intolerably light. On one bend, I was forced on to the wrong side of the road. It was like riding a Space Hopper across a rockery.

Only respect for Buell persuaded me to keep going. This former motorcycle racer is among the most innovative designers alive. Handling on his CityX and Lightning models is excellent. I was reluctant to believe he could build a turkey.

Initial hours in the saddle did not dispel that suspicion. I adore the concept of a machine that handles like a sports bike on road, copes with scrambling and can tour two-up. But I needed persuading. The Buell team's bragging about an "Adventure Sportbike" capable of odysseys on all surfaces seemed risible. They were describing a jack of all trades. I was riding a master of none.

The first help came from Buell's suspension tuner. Minutely adjusted to my precise weight, a transformation occurred. Suddenly the Ulysses became balanced. I began to ride faster on road and enjoyed a six-kilometre stretch of mountain trail. My confidence remained fragile, but I was beginning to think the Ulysses might reward more intense investigation. Buell told me it is "the most comfortable two-up tourer in the world". So I borrowed a pillion passenger.

I covered nearly 400km with Paul Stroud, the new managing director of Harley-Davidson UK. Seven hours later, after a day of fast riding on every type of road, we felt fresh. The Ulysses' long, broad seat is sumptuous. The innovative, built-in back-rest guarantees pillion safety and doubles as a luggage rack. This is the sort of journey the big twin-engine was designed to devour, and the 16.7-litre fuel capacity makes it realistic to wander off the beaten track. Over distance and carrying weight, it is a luxurious beast of burden.

So, not a turkey after all. Buell fans know their hero's designs take getting used to. His technological trinity of mass centralisation, chassis rigidity and low, unsprung weight produces intriguing quirks, most obviously the rotor-disc brakes, the location of the silencer underneath the engine and the use of the frame as the fuel tank. It also makes Buells fun to flick into bends. But every previous Buell has been a road bike. The Ulysses claims off-road capacity as well.

This is where the sales pitch exaggerates. It can handle serious trail-riding, but this is not a Moto-X bike. It lacks the weather protection to be a pure motorway tourer. The Ulysses performs competently in both roles, but the vast suspension travel that makes it versatile is also a headache. Settings that work on road are wrong off road, and changing use requires instant adjustment. That means careful attention to the workshop manual. It is not fun to do at the roadside.

That suspension also makes the Ulysses extremely tall. If you are less than six feet, it is a truculent beast.

The Ulysses is potentially a huge credit to a crusading innovator. With simplified suspension settings and a higher windscreen to maximise its motorway performance, it will be a gem. But it is not there yet. The motorcycle I rode was a pre-production model. Buell must adapt it.

Inside the Ulysses there is a charismatic motorcycle waiting to launch a million adventures. It is over-sensitive and specialist skills are required to appreciate it. That is a pity, because in terms of versatility, comfort and style, it is a potential standard-setter in the adventure touring sector.

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