Fighting Fire with Fire | Sport Rider

Fighting Fire with Fire

Two big, red, air-cooled V-twins mixing new and old tech end up worlds apart.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Around town, the laid-out riding position of the SS even more stretched than the 999 and now arguably the most racerlike Ducati puts a lot of pressure on your wrists and back. The extremely tall gearbox makes leaving a stop a bit difficult (though the heavy-but-predictable clutch helps), and gear selection is important to keep the engine running in its smooth zone around town. Once on the freeway, the wind takes up a bit of the ergonomic slack, making a long-distance ride not out of the question. Sixth gear is practically useless for anything less than 80 mph, with the engine lugging and a hammering vibration in the footpegs, and we took to using fifth for most freeway work.

Get to the twisties, and the SS1000 comes together as a nice package. Typically Ducati, it's a heavy-steering bike, but with some rear preload and ride height (thank you, hlins) cranked in, not excessively so. And once banked in a turn, steering is neutral and precise. The new suspension a one-pound lighter Showa fork and the hlins shock soaks up bumps easily, with only pavement seams and sharp-edged ripples unsettling the bike, but not diverting it from its path.

Buell vs. Ducati
As improved as the Buell is with its big motor, the Ducati is the better machine in almost all respects. Neither bike is any great shakes around town, as both will cook your thighs medium-well on a hot day you're straddling the rear cylinder, after all and a high-geared twin (the XB12R has taller primary gearing than the 9R) is never happy at low speeds. Having said that, the Ducati's engine is a bit more user-friendly at those lower revs and speeds, running cleaner with a nicer gearbox. Even with the exaggerated riding position and slightly heavy clutch, once you are used to the tall gearing the SS can in fact be fun around town. With the Buell's 1203cc mill shaking and coughing at light loads, a heavy clutch pull and a monster flywheel, it's difficult to be smooth and concentrate totally on your surroundings.

Turning to the higher speeds of the freeway, the Buell simply runs out of comfort before the Ducati does because it has less wind protection, a slightly harder seat and more vibration. Whereas the Buell falters and gets less comfortable with more speed, the Ducati just gets rhythmic and runs easier as the extra wind takes more weight off your wrists, and the engine and footpegs are smoother up to speeds into the triple digits.

On practically any twisty road and we tried a lot the Ducati will steadily leave the Buell behind. The SS1000, while certainly no R6, provides solid, predictable handling and a broad spread of power that makes it fun to ride quickly. The SS1000's surefootedness comes courtesy of its strong chassis, which is easily able to handle the Dual Spark engine's power, and proven componentry. Steering is heavy, but the bike turns quickly if you are willing to work at it. The 320mm Brembos provide excellent stopping power and feel, and at all lean angles the clip-ons are neutral, requiring little effort to hold a line, even over rough pavement.

The Buell is just as solid we've praised the XB9R for its stout chassis but less predictable, and has a significantly narrower powerband to work with. While both bikes have impeccable fuel-injection manners and near-similar peak power outputs, the Buell forces you to keep the engine at or near redline as it builds power right up until the rev limiter cuts in unexpectedly at 7000 rpm. The Ducati has a much more workable spread, pulling stronger from lower down in its powerband and revving out 1500 rpm more.

The Buell, pushing back at the clip-ons and bump-steering over the slightest pavement irregularities, fights you every step of the way, and this makes it difficult to ride quickly, both mentally and physically. Even if you can dial in suspension settings that give a decent compromise, you'll have a tough time developing the confidence level the Ducati gives.

What does it all mean?
Picking a winner objectively is easy the SS1000 is more functional and user-friendly than the Firebolt. However, any current 600 at $2000 less, mind you will put either of these two bikes to shame when run through the same paces, especially the curvy parts. Obviously, then, performance is not the sole reason you would buy one over the other. Both have much more character, or soul, than your garden-variety middleweight, as well as a certain amount of exclusivity, and purchasing either bike is easily justifiable on those grounds. That subjective decision is yours to make.

Buell XB12R: 11.43 sec. @ 117.5 mph
Ducati SS1000 DS: 11.40 sec. @ 120.5 mph
Roll-ons, 60-80 mph
Buell XB12R: 3.98 sec.
Ducati SS1000 DS: 4.01 sec.
Roll-ons, 80-{{{100}}} mph
Buell XB12R: 4.45 sec.
Ducati SS1000 DS: 4.71 sec.
Buell XB12R Ducati SS1000 DS
**FRONT: **
Spring preload 4 lines showing 4 lines showing
Rebound damping 1.5 turns out from full stiff 12 clicks out from full stiff
Compression damping 1.5 turns out from full stiff 15 clicks out from full stiff
Ride height 10mm fork tube showing above triple clamp
**REAR: **
Spring preload position 5 from full soft 9mm thread showing
Rebound damping 0.5 turns out from full stiff 15 clicks out from full stiff
Compression damping 1.5 turns out from full stiff 21 clicks out from full stiff
Ride height 5mm thread showing


**Andrew Trevitt, Senior Editor. **
Sounds important, but still low man on the totem pole.

There's no question in my mind which of these two bikes I would want to own: the Ducati. I love the new Dual Spark engine, and aside from the riding position, the rest of the bike works just as well as the motor. As icing on the cake, it sounds great and gets a lot of admiring looks from people on the street.

The XB12R is heaps better than the XB9R, but it's still got some rough edges and quirks that I think are inherent in the engine and chassis layout. There's no getting away from vibration and a huge crankshaft in that engine, and Buell's choice of steering geometry is simply not right. Most bikes' rake and trail numbers are clustered around more conservative settings not because their designers pulled those numbers out of the air but because those numbers work.

**Marc Cook, Freelance Motojournalist. **
What can we say, we were desperate.

With one change, albeit a big one, Ducati has moved the Supersport from the bottom of my list of favorite Ducatis to a solid third place behind the 999 and the Multistrada. And it's all engine. The new Dual Spark mill does the deed, producing superb, useable torque across a wide range and even making a decent amount of top-end urge. What's more, it's still utterly docile, and even less prone to the low-rpm chug-chug-chug of its predecessor. I wouldn't mind if it were as smooth as the 900 it replaces, but I suppose you can't have everything.

Some of my newfound appreciation for the SS stems from the company it kept for a day: the XB12R. Ducatis of any stripe are an acquired taste, but next to the Buell the SS seemed utterly normal, downright mainstream. Over a long day's ride, we made one or two small adjustments to the Duck, then left it alone while directing our efforts at the Buell, administering tweak after tweak to dial out some of the chassis' odd steering and sensitivity to bumps. We never quite got there. I feel for XB owners who aren't as curious and tenacious as Our Own Resident Geek (that'd be Trevitt, eh?) and just live with the bike as delivered.


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