It's that time of year. Maybe, just maybe, the boss will let you write the Bike of the Year test for a change. You've been imagining exactly how it would flow; the words rushing to your fingertips, waiting no, begging to be typed as you sip espresso by the pool. The day of the edit meeting arrives, and you anxiously await your assignments. You can feel it this time. Bike of the Year is yours; the time is ripe. The editor reads off the story rundown like his grocery list: "Kunitsugu: Bike of the Year." You're crushed. Well, at least anything else is less work. "Trevitt: Buell comparison. Pick something to put it up against." Then again, maybe it's not. Coffee, please. Black, and lots of it.
What to do? Buell claims great things for its 2004 XB12R Firebolt, and from our first ride ("Bigger, Badder Buells," Oct. '03), we know it is improved from the original. Still, to compare oranges to at least tangerines and not apples, we settled on the Ducati SS1000 DS. Lost in the gaggle of new Ducatis for '03, we briefly sampled the big SS in Spain ("Those Other Ducatis," April '03) earlier this year. Both are air-cooled V-twins. Both pump out close to 100 horsepower and weigh approximately 450 pounds with full tanks. Both cost approximately $11,000. Both are red. They're very red.
But from that point, two bikes couldn't be more different. One can trace its engine's roots back, oh, 100 years, but incorporates some wildly off-the-beaten-path chassis design. The other likewise draws on an older engine design, but the remainder is decidedly more conservative, relying on the refinement of design ideas long in the company's heritage.
Buell XB12R Firebolt
In our test of the original XB9R 'Bolt ("Occam's Razor," October '02), we described a Catch-22 the company faced: Riders who could appreciate and tune its aggressive chassis would not be satisfied with just 80 ponies from the 984cc mill. The newfound power of the 12R has gone a long way toward remedying that situation, and as a bonus the chassis supposedly unchanged from the middleweight Firebolt works noticeably better with the larger engine.
Showa forks grace the front...
Showa forks grace the front of both bikes, but that's pretty much the only similarity here. The Firebolt uses a single rim disc and caliper.
While the new Buell still requires some serious effort to turn, the desire to stand up on the brakes is diminished substantially. Whereas the old bike required constant pressure on the inside clip-on to hold a line, the new bike's steering is more neutral once you are on the gas. As a result, our chassis setup is not as extreme as what we used on the XB9R, and we were able to obtain a decent compromise with the stock D207ZR tires (whereas we resorted to some DOT race tires with a more rounded profile for our previous test). Make no mistake, the 12R still resists steering inputs, and requires serious attention to setup and a lot of effort and concentration to ride quickly. But when it all comes together railing down a twisty road, the result is much more satisfying than previously.
The SS1000 has a more conventional...
The SS1000 has a more conventional Brembo dual disc setup.
Other characteristics of the 12R remain similar to the 9R, as you would expect: The front ZTL (Zero Torsional Load) rim disc provides great stopping power, but can be a bit vague close to lock-up. The excellent Showa linkless shock and inverted fork provide a wide range of adjustment and work well over a variety of surfaces. And the standard-issue, Buell-specific Dunlop D207 tires provide good traction but have little compliance over sharp-edged bumps. Those buns certainly showed the effects of the 12's extra power, also, shredding noticeably after just a few hundred miles.
The Showa shock on the Buell...
The Showa shock on the Buell requires unbolting the seat to adjust preload (tool under the seat, and again, not much else), though other adjustments are easily accessed. Both bikes manage quite nicely without any linkage setups, relying on the geometry of the shock's placement for any rate change.
While we didn't like the Buell's tranny at the racetrack introduction in Wisconsin, the unit on our test bike performed much better on the street, missing very few shifts. Still, the high inertia of the bigger engine makes matching revs with road speed both difficult and critical (the engine seemingly takes forever to drop revs when you close the throttle), and using the clutch is a must if you want to be smooth. That extra inertia helps the DDFI injection setup when it comes to getting on the gas midturn, though, making the off/on transition seamless at speed.
Around town and on the freeway, the new Firebolt vibrates noticeably more than its smaller sibling, but only at low and high rpms. There's a nice band in the middle, as with any Buell with the isolastic engine-mounting setup, where the ride is uncannily smooth. That band is not as wide as the XB9R's, though, and buzzing footpegs (as well as windblast that the small fairing can only do so much to protect you from) limit cruising speed to approximately 75 mph.
The Ducati's hlins shock is...
The Ducati's hlins shock is adjustable for ride height; the threaded preload collar is reached by lifting the tank (no tools required), and an hlins preload tool (and not much else...) is in the tool kit.
Ducati SS1000 DS
The centerpiece of the SS1000 is its Dual Spark (two spark plugs per cylinder, hence the DS) motor, which is identical to the Multistrada engine but tuned for more top-end power. The SS1000, from a quick glance, appears almost identical to the SS900, but it's the subtle changes that help make it that much more fun to ride.
While the new mill provides a broad spread of power, it still helps to keep the desmodue spinning above 4500 rpm much lower, it lugs and the whole bike shudders. Like the Buell, the penalty of increased displacement is more vibration, and at higher revs the Ducati shakes in the footpegs and clip-ons quite a bit enough that you'll only use those max revs if you're in a hurry. The updated transmission is light-years better than the 900's, caring little whether you use the clutch or not upshifting or downshifting and slides easily into neutral at a stop. A new fuel injection system with processing power lifted from the Superbike lineup works flawlessly, picking up revs cleanly from a closed throttle and helping the engine pull strong at lower revs.
|Buell XB12R Firebolt|
|+||Great suspension with wide adjustment range|
|+||Extra power is a big improvement|
|-||Quirky handling from too-aggressive geometry|
|-||It's easy to get lost on setup|
|x||This is what the first XB should have been|
|Ducati SS1000 DS|
|+||Outstanding Dual Spark engine|
|+||Solid chassis with excellent suspension|
|-||Our aching backs and wrists|
|-||Excessive vibration at high rpm|
|x||You can teach an old dog new tricks|