It was certainly not the preferred method for evaluating the 2004 Buell Firebolt’s unique rim mounted braking system, but faced with no other choice I had to take it.
Here’s the scene: Yours truly flat on the tank, throttle pegged in fifth, swooping through turn 11B at Road America. Suddenly, a vicious burst of rain slashes across my visor and the fast approaching Canada Corner, with its nice tar bands and bumps, is getting very wet. Weighting the front wheel a little first, it was time to send as much fluid as possible to the six pistons up front while asking the rear for help. Looking deep through the corner, setting up my body as early as possible the big caliper bit hard, hauling the speeding Buell down to a pace slow enough to tiptoe through the wet corner. We made it and I rode cautiously back to the pits. Thankfully, there were a couple of corners en route for me to collect myself, clear my mind from the thought of handing Eric Buell a modified Firebolt and a chance to realize what an incredible brake set up Buell uses.
The occasion was the World Press Launch at Road America, Wisconsin, in the heart of Harley-Davidson country. About an hour outside of Milwaukee, set in the gentle, rolling farm country, a more pleasant venue could not have been chosen. The purpose of the visit was to try the two latest Buells to hit the showroom in the shape of the XB12R Firebolt and the XB12S Lightning. Based on the successful XR9R and XB9S, the new “12s” are fitted with 1203cc engines, up from 984 cc, and a host of new innovations and improvements.
With two new bikes to evaluate, the North American wave of journalists was split into two groups according to our weight. Then, we were either sent to the Road America Motoplex or an abbreviated version of the main racetrack. No, we weren’t being penalized for eating too much at the previous evenings dinner reception, it was to allow the Buell staff to set the suspension up for our different weights. Unlike most motorcycle manufacturers, who offer multiple suspension settings over a narrow range, Buell offers a much wider range, making correct settings that much more critical.
We were then assigned XB12R’s that were tailored for our individual needs and were able to make any adjustments we might need in between sessions. Overall, I was extremely happy with the set up of my bike and only had a bit of trouble under really hard acceleration exiting the slowest corner on the track. A little fine-tuning would have cured the problem if the rain hadn’t brought a premature end to the days riding.
For the days first ride though, it was over to the Motoplex to see how the new XB12S Lightning would behave on the demanding Briggs and Stratton Go-kart track, which does double duty for SuperMotard events. Buell racer Tripp Nobles gave us a heads up on how to ride the tight, narrow course and led us around for a few laps. The secret is to keep the bike in second gear, except for the pit straight where you can get up to third for a brief period. This saves a lot of needless shifting and wasted effort on the short circuit.
Sitting on the bike for the first time, it feels light and well balanced. The ignition is located to the left of the small, attractive instrument pod, and a quick stab of the starter has the big air-cooled twin leaping into action. Wow! This thing sure comes to life, as the two big pistons fire up and down beneath you and the turn signals do a weird dance on the end of their flexible stalks.
The view forward is like no other, with seemingly nothing in front of you. The front wheel seems so tucked in and the instrument cluster and fairing so tidy, it is as if you are sitting over the front end. With a 52inch wheelbase, compared to 53.4inches for the new Yamaha R6, the Lightening is incredibly compact, although it doesn’t feel small in the saddle with plenty of room for my 5ft 11inch frame. Clutch action is light, and the bike snicks easily and quietly into gear, effortlessly accelerating up the short hill out of the pit area.
The new engine is extremely smooth once under way and enjoys a near flat torque curve. In fact, once past 2,500 rpm you are within 10% of the 84 ft-lbs of torque available over the entire operating range. The redline starts at 7,000rpm and the limiter kicks in at 7,500rpm.
Out on the short track, this was only an issue on the front straight changing to third, and a little care had to be taken to shift before the limiter, as the engine gets to maximum revs pretty quickly. The 1203cc air/fan and oil-cooled V-Twin is essentially the same unit found in the XB9S, with a new stroke of 3.812 inches. The bore remains the same, as does the compression ratio, and peak horsepower is 103 at 6,800rpm up from the “9’s” 94, at a slightly higher 7,500rpm.
There are some significant changes to the intake and exhaust system, with the throttle body diameter growing from 45mm-49mm. The header pipes follow suit with a new 1.75-inch diameter, up from 1.5 inches. Connected to the new header pipes is one of the many engineering marvels to be found on the new Buells: the Inter-Active Exhaust. Inside the muffler, exhaust gases have a choice of two paths, with this choice being dictated by the engine’s ECM monitor that controls an internal butterfly valve. At low rpms with the throttle wide-open, the valve opens to reduce backpressure and allow the engine to rev freely. The valve is then closed through the mid-range to boost the engines torque before opening again at full throttle for maximum horsepower.
Getting the extra horsepower to the ground, the clutch now uses stiffer springs and a new belt drive. The official name for this is, “Goodyear’s Aramid Reinforced Hibrex Belt with Flexton Plus Technology.” Basically, this means stronger, lighter and longer lasting with the expected service life being around 25,000 miles. With the fitment of a tensioning wheel, new Buell owners can enjoy clean, adjustment free riding for a long time before changing belts. The upper and lower belt guards are also new this year and make rear wheel removal easier, as well as giving a cleaner look. The primary drive ratio has been lowered a little from 1.68:1 to 1.50:1, while the five-speed gearbox remains the same.
There are some other subtle changes around the bike, such as lowered passenger pegs, two-inch wider stalks on the mirrors and a re-designed shift pedal. This features a longer shaft, which should be easier to get your boot wrapped around. The side stand design has been simplified, although I never rode the previous generation so all I can say is, “it works very nicely for me, thank you.”
Out on the short track, we followed Tripp for a few laps before being let loose to our own devices. His advice to stay in second gear was golden as the big twin has plenty of power and flexibility, and it made the job of negotiating the tight turns a lot easier. The handling is absolutely incredible and the lean angles quite amazing. I had to consciously hang farther off the bike, while holding the bike more upright or the hero blobs would drag, but this happens far beyond any level of sane street riding, so not to worry.
The short course is a little tricky and getting off the brakes to turn is not the easiest thing to do. Try as I might, I ended up trail braking into a few corners and it was a little hectic as the bike wants to immediately stand up. Later in the sessions, I just let off earlier and carried more corner speed as the amazing front end just took everything I threw at it. It didn’t matter how hard I dived into the turns, it never felt anything but totally planted. Later in the day, when Brain J Nelson was shooting some photos, the track was a little wet and the bike was definitely sliding around a little. This just added to the fun, as the chassis never got upset and the bike still felt like it was taking it all in its stride.
Braking duties on both the Buells is a single ZTL, type 6-piston caliper, grabbing a huge 375mm stainless steel floating rotor. Out back is a more conventional 240mm stainless rotor and single piston caliper. A couple of interesting point to note here are; the front wheel and brake assembly is a good six pounds lighter than a Honda RC51’s, and the rotor is not attached to the rim, so denting a rim is not going to bend it and lock up the brake. Yes, Buells’ engineers do think of everything.
After a few sessions on the Motoplex, it was time to pile into the awaiting golf carts and head over to the main track to test the new Firebolt. Looking as stunning as the Lightning with its delicious amber wheels, we were all assigned our bikes, as I mentioned earlier, according to our weight.
We didn’t run the whole four miles at Road America, as there is not too much to be gained by nailing the bike in top down the very long straights. Instead, we ran an abbreviated version on the track that gave a nice blend of high-speed and challenging turns. It also included the famous Carousel which is just too much fun.
Picking the bike up out of turn 8, I accelerated as hard as the big twin would allow up through third, before snicking it into fourth while laying the bike hard over for the turn. Twisting on the throttle, and settling my right knee puck on the tarmac, the Firebolt accelerated all the way through the long, long turn, before it was time to sit up and brake for the second gear bend in between turn 10 and 11. Leaned over at more than 100mph the Buell is rock solid and turns extremely well. I was initially trying to hold too tight of a line, and it asked for a little muscle to hold it in at the end of the turn. But, by allowing the bike to run a little wide onto the short straight it felt just perfect.
Sitting up and hammering on the brakes, before rolling through the new section of track that has been added to slow the bikes down, was just effortless. Right knee grazing the smooth tarmac, it was time to get back on the gas for the long sweeping section of the track known as, “Kettle Bottoms.” This is a beautiful tree covered section that gradually turns left as the motor spins up towards redline in top. Initially I had a bit of problem hitting the rev limiter and missing up shifts. The bike handles so well and carries so much speed, I had to remember it is a big air-cooled twin, not a 600cc supersport, and shift earlier and more deliberately. Once I plugged this into my brain, my speeds instantly increased as the shiny red Firebolt and I began to flow.
Canada Corner was the section of the track that showed my how much faster I was going by my last session. The first couple of times on the track I was coming out of the corner in second, shifting to third before laying the bike over hard to the left under the Billy Mitchell bridge. This was a fun part of the track, the nimble Buell making the transition to full left, off the gas and back over hard right for the cut back to the main track with the such fluid ease, I just couldn’t wait to get back round and do it again.
Third time on the track I had the red beast figured out and coming under the bridge had the throttle twisted in fourth with the bike running on rails. As Kevin Schwantz puts it, I was “in the zone,” and the easy manners of the Buell were certainly the key factor to getting there so soon.
The bike still picked up easily as I got slowed down and into second gear for the turn. This was the corner I had the small problem from the back end, but the Buell was so composed it was never upsetting. Unfortunately, rain stopped play, but not before I had spent enough time in the saddle of the new Buell to come away very impressed.
Of course a racetrack introduction does nothing to assess the street values of a machine and riding over to the Motoplex brought this quickly home: the bike is going to need a little thought in traffic to mate the clutch and throttle for smooth take offs.
I can’t comment on fuel consumption and long distance comfort either until we get to take one to the streets, but have a feeling that the twisting mountain roads of my North Carolina home are going to be the perfect venue for this bike. Not overpowered, and 101% capable of dealing with the speeds attainable, the massive amounts of grunt available low down are going to make these bikes a breeze to ride quickly.
Visually the bike is beyond stunning and parking either the Firebolt of the Lightning is going to induce much conversation. The bikes look so unique and both come in a choice of two colours: Midnight Black and Racing Red. The new graphite grey frame and swing arm are just so tough looking and the colour matched amber wheels; windshield, (on the Firebolt) tank and fairing decals are the height of “chic.”
For those not familiar with the current series of Buells, the frame doubles as the gas tank and the swing arm as the oil tank to help keep as weight possible as low as possible. Buell offers a two-year warranty and reduced maintenance schedule. Built by a serious group of enthusiasts for the serious motorcycle connoisseur, the new 2004 Buells not only look the absolute business, they run strong and handle well.
- Engine – 1,203cc air/oil/fan-cooled, four-stroke, 45 degree V-Twin
- Valve Train – OHV, two valves per cylinder, self adjusting
- Bore x Stroke – 3.500 x 3.812 in. (88.90 x 96.82 mm)
- Displacement – 1,203 cc (73.4 ci)
- Compression Ratio – 10.0:1
- Induction – 49 mm downdraft DDFI II fuel injection
- Claimed Torque – 84 ft-lbs @ 6000 rpm
- Claimed Horsepower – 103 HP @ 6800 rpm
- Lubrication – Dry sump
- Oil Capacity – 2.4 L
- Clutch – Wet, multi-plate, compensated
- Transmission – Five-speed, constant mesh
- Frame – Aluminium frame w/ Uniplanar® powertrain
- Front Suspension – Showa® inverted fork w/ adjustable compression damping, rebound damping and spring preload, 120mm travel
- Rear Suspension – Showa coil-over monoshock w/ remote underseat reservoir and adjustable compression damping, rebound damping and spring preload, 127mm travel
- Wheels – 6-spoke, ZTL™, cast aluminium, 3.5X17” (F) – 6-spoke, cast aluminium, 5.5X17” (R)
- Front Brakes – ZTL type brake, 6-piston, fixed caliper, 375 mm single-sided, inside out, stainless steel, floating rotor
- Rear Brake – 240 mm stainless steel, single piston, floating caliper, fixed rotor
- Overall Length – 1935 mm
- Overall Width – 715 mm (755mm for XB12S)
- Seat Height – 775 mm (765mm for XB12S)
- Ground Clearance – 110 mm
- Rake – 21 degrees
- Trail – 83 mm
- Wheelbase – 1320 mm
- Tyres – D207 120/70 ZR-17 (F) – D207 180/55 ZR-17 (R)
- Fuel Capacity – 14 L (Including 2.6 litre reserve)
- Dry Weight – 179 kg
- Colours – Midnight Black, Racing Red
- Warranty – 24 months
- Available – October, 2003
- RRP – $17,495