Thunder and Lightning – the Buell XB12S and XB9S

2004 Buell XB12S and XB9S - Thunder and LightningThe fuel injection light flicks off giving me the OK to fire up the Buell XB12S Lightning.  I thumb the ignition button and it shudders to life.  Which answers the first question people ask about the Buell, “Does it really shake as much as everyone says?”  The answer is, “Yes”.  At idle the Lightning XB12S and XB9S are loud, shaking, muscular, sputtering, and compact… like a Pitbull with Tourettes Syndrome.  Get over it.  This motorbike isn’t about smooth, it’s about attitude – and that it has in spades.

Let’s think attitude for a moment, more precisely American attitude. Let’s think Pitbull Terrier.  The pitbull and the Lightning have a lot in common; both are purported to be American.  They are short; the average male pitbull being 34 inches long while the Lightning’s wheelbase is a diminutive 52 inches.  They are muscular; the Buell XB12S’ 1203cc twin develops a claimed 99.6 hp with 77.5 ft-lbs of torque at 6750RPM, while it’s sibling the XB9S’s 984cc plant develops 78.1 hp and 61.8 ft-lbs (claimed); the pitbull’s output however hovers around 2.3 hp and a bit of gas depending on what smaller dog it ate that morning.

The Buells are an “American” sportbike according to the marketing materials – it’s not.  This is a bike designed and executed by Americans with a whack of European help.  The aluminum fuel-holding frame is provided by Italy’s Verlicchi.  The oil-reservoir swingarm is Brembo.  For a number of other bits things get even more international; Enkei, of F1 fame, provide the wheels, Showa furnish the fully-adjustable inverted front and back suspenders, the brakes are by Nissin (yes, even the huge 375mm “zero torsional load” floating rotor out front), and the tires are sorted by Dunlop.  Don’t expect to vary too far from OEM when it comes to the buns, the front DT207 FY 120/70 ZR-17 and rear FU 180/55 ZR-17 were designed “lite” specifically for the Buell to reduce rotating mass.  Which brings us to an interesting point; if so much of the Buell is designed for a lower center of gravity and unsprung weight, why does it feel so heavy?

At 395lbs (claimed dry weight) for the XB12S and 385lbs for the XB9S, the light Lightning is supposed to “own the corners” – instead it’s a lot of work to get through them,  more like… put a moderate down payment on the mortgage for the apex and call it good.  At speeds over 120kph, you need a firm hand to lean the Lightning into the corners and then it’s a continuous push to hold it there.  The Lightening seems to respond better to weigh-shift and hanging off – which takes advantage of its stability even on rough surfaces.  Indeed the bike is so solid, stable, planted and grippy it makes you work all the way through from twist to twist; it’s a pitbull pulling at the leash the entire time. The experience almost completely belies the short wheelbase, the low dry weight, the underbody pipe fitted below the engine, the fuel holding frame, and the rear swingarm come oil reservoir.  The engineers were certainly working between Krispy Kremes and all the innovations leave you expecting the Lightnings to be penultimately flickable.

Which they are not.

So it’s not a traditional sportbike feel in the corners.  This may be due to the gyroscopic action of the flywheel and the front disk.  While the mass of the front disk has been reduced by 4-6lbs over a conventional setup, it has also been moved outwards towards the rim.  I’m no Mr. Science but I remember that if you swing a bucket on a short rope, it feels lighter than swinging a bucket on a long rope.  So speculatively, the rotating mass of the 375mm disk may be creating a lot more centrifugal force than conventional disks – meaning you have to work the corners more.  But hold on a second, is all this solidity and cardio really a bad thing?

Actually… No!

For one thing, on rough road the suspension and sense of weight leaves you feeling secure and planted, more than you’d ever expect from a bike this small.  At slower speeds, say 50-110kph, the Lightning is freakishly nimble, perfect for abrupt motions while hooligan-ing in traffic.  Once on the twisties at speed the story changes; it’s old school riding. The joy of effortless twisties is fine, but if you want a sense of accomplishment then put away the Gixxer 600 and run them on a Buell.  Taking the tires to the edge you’ll be hard-pressed to scrape much more than a knee.  Everything heavy is low and everything dangly, like feet and pegs, is pulled up and away from the tarmac; great for clearance, not so hot for ergonomics.

On the XB12S Lightning my 6″2′ frame was cramped.  On the XB9S low, photographer Kevin at 5″10′ was moderately cramped.  During a short session getting the taste of the XB9S Low, I may as well have dawned a fez and had circus music playing in the background; these bikes are tiny!.  I’d have more in front of me riding a girl’s strawberry shortcake bike complete with pink basket.  Actually the pink basket would provide more wind protection than the fly screen covering the instrument cluster and dual projectors on either Lightning.

At any speed over 130kph the windblast was terrific.  For the first five minutes it was invigorating, fun, and involving.  After that? It’s sort of like having a personal trainer; you’ve paid for the abuse and hopefully you’ll come out of it stronger.  In a couple opportune moments we took each Buell up to about 180-200 km/h (125mph), but quickly retreated from that velocity since neither of us are no-neck-joes sporting Popeye forearms.  At night, expect to be mastering his squint too; the lights aren’t hopeless, but they definitely aren’t transforming night into day.  However that was helped a lot by finding you could balance the switch between high and low and both of the projectors would come on.  Still oncoming traffic wasn’t complaining.  So a freeway bike the Lightning isn’t.

Well, actually… that’s not quite true, but in only the least expected way.

On a two-day outing the Lightnings surprised us with how freeway useful they are.  Not in the traditional long haul sense, but if slicing through clogged Friday afternoon traffic with hooligan antics is your thing, then this is the bike for you.  The Buells will cram into spaces other bikes wouldn’t even conceive of, and at moderate freeway and traffic speeds their maneuverability and the easy, predictable torque of the engine is highlighted in such actions.  Though in the stop-and-go stuff the clutch is a bit heavy and provides a solid workout for the left hand.  Slower again at parking lot speeds there is hesitation and sputter from the engine and a firm clutch makes this hard to alleviate.  This is contributed to by tall gearing, which makes parking lot speed antics a bit hard to pull off.  On the plus side the low center of gravity lets you balance this bike with even the most finite of forward momentum without having to dab a foot.  All of this simply makes a strong argument for lane splitting, and letting the pipe open wide – you really do need to get the cars attention after all.

We’d heard a lot about the gearbox on the Buells, most of it negative from other reviewers; frankly we failed to see the issue, perhaps they simply whine too easily.  Clutch-less up-shifts take a bit of planning, but aren’t anything out of the ordinary.  The gearbox under normal usage gives a solid feel, like the rest of the bike, but shifts were smooth and unstressed.  The only real issue was that neutral was easily missed on the XB12S.  Other than that it’s true that shifting is not affected by the merest touch of the lever, but the ratios are easy enough to run through, which is good; you’ll be running through them a lot.

The engine has an extraordinarily low redline for a sportbike, 7500 RPM for the XB9S and 7000RMP for the XB12S, which translates to a bit of lever dancing. Curiously, given the low red lines, both Buells take surprisingly long to get there.  Wrenching the loud handle will get you to the red line, but 

while the long stroke V-Twin’s don’t protest, it’s all done with a certain leisure. The strongest point of either of these V-Twins is the torque. You can have a small hammer and tap a nail a lot.  You can have a large hammer and tap it a couple times.  The XB12S’s V-Twin is a sledgehammer, it just shatters the frikin’ board. You just have to poke it with a stick a bit to get it stirred up…

Torque pulls strongly through the low maintenance belt drive all the way from a grand.  But here’s the odd bit, hitting 7000 you get the feeling that the engine has a lot more to go.  It’s like the marketing department has said “make sure there’s gob of torque all the way to red, and keep it reliable.”  So the engineers dropped the “indicated” redline a few grand to appease them,  then got back to what engineers do best -solving problems that none of us have realized existed yet and eating doughnuts.  One of the real problems they didn’t iron out of either the XB12S or 9S lump is the vibe – though the 12 seemed the lesser of the two for this issue.

At idle the XB9S was just brutal!  At one stop sign photographer Kevin asked if there was an earthquake happening… and then his lens cap fell off.  Beyond 3000RPM it all smoothes out a lot, but “a lot” less of brutal is still fairly harsh.  The odd bit here is it’s not horrible.  It’s raucous, and alive feeling, and connected.  Even odder, it’s almost therapeutic; photographer Kevin swears his aging wrists feel better after two days riding on the XB9S.

Powerplant-wise the XB9S’s engine has more character, shake, vibe and rev happiness to it, while the XB12S’s displacement gives it more of that thumping torque and a better top speed.  In the end the difference in top speed just doesn’t matter, because, really, who can reach it?  The wind resistance crushes such efforts… literally.  After 130kph things just aren’t much fun anymore.  But for the difference of price, the XB12S has our vote, simply based on the very available torque.  The benefit here is a bit more smoothness, and a lot less shifting over the revvier XB9S, which bumped against the rev limiter with periodic glee when things got spirited, which in turn required a lot more shifting of the solid feeling transmission. 

Solid does seem to be the word of the day with the Buells; the build quality can easily be described using the word.  Switches activate with a heavy solid “thunk” and lots of feedback; everything is strong and firm, nothing is light or flimsy here.  It’s all really, well… solid.  That all gives a lot to the look and feel of the bikes though.  Even at a glance they exude presence despite their size.  They also are oddly sexy, though being hit on by a woman my grandmother’s age is a bit on the disturbing side.  Thankfully the back-sloped pillion rest with “spagetti colinder” tail not only discourages but downright worries potential passengers.  But there is no doubt they attract attention and fanatics.

These bikes are a cult.  It’s the only bike where I’ve had someone in a absolutely mentally driven, duct-taped together Dodge Ram truck, replete with dog (coincidentally a pitbull) in back, chase me down on the freeway for the sole purpose of giving me the thumbs up.  This is after I’ve been aggressively twitching through traffic, so I was more expecting a somewhat less-friendly response than this display of camaraderie.  The Lightnings could almost be considered an American Exotic, they certainly have the passionate fan base for it and truly extraordinary engineering that lives up to the Buell motto of “different in every way”.  But it’s the “different in everyway” bit that leads to our biggest pet peeve about this bike.

The engine?  No, we could happily live with the torque-y powerplant given the nature of this bike.  The handling?  Nope, that’s just a matter of taste.  No, our pet peeve is the gas cap.  It’s not attached.  You go to fill up, and if comes off in your hand!  And there’s no place to put it.  We spent half of our time at the pumps trying to figure out some ingenious place to balance the thing while filling up – there is none.  This is “different in every way”, but not in a good or even vaguely rational way.  Now historically, somewhere in the 70’s an automotive designer came up with a brilliant idea.  It was very simple and very effective.  It was a string; admittedly a plastic one that connected the gas cap to the vehicle – and since then you never need lose the cap again.  I’d love to shake the Buell team’s hands and welcome them to the 70’s.

So is the cult of Buell worth joining?  It is, if you accept the XB12S and XB9S for what they are, rather than what they are not.  The Lightning not a commuter… the vibration takes care of that.  It’s not a long distance bike…  the wind protection takes care of that.  What are they then?  This is an engine that is a triumph of torque over all the brilliant engineering that’s gone into the rest of the bike.  This is a bike best for ripping from coffee shop to coffee shop, decimating a Sunday afternoon with the most decibels possible and not caring that there are people with hangovers trying to sleep in.  When you piss someone off and they tell you to go play in traffic, this is the bike for it.  When you need raucous, torque-y, thumping fun at anything between 30kph-135kph this bike is brilliant.  When you need a bike that makes you work, gives you no freebies in the corners, and makes you earn your fun at realistic speeds then the XB12S and XB9S are there for you…  And when you’re feeling just a little bit more hooligan than that?  Well, the XB12S is properly torque-y, just dump the clutch in 2nd and the front hoists into the air… wheeee…

Special Thanks to Deeley’s House of Buell for providing our tester XB12S and XB9S Lightnings.
2004 XB9S Lightning, regular suggested retail $13,599 CDN
2004 XB12S Lightning, $15,299 CDN


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