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Road Test Review

2006
Buell Ulysses XB12X Review: First Impressions

By: Bruno Valeri


Go your own way

Prologue

Flashback to some time last year:
Here is the tail end of a conversation I had with a good riding buddy of mine.

"But you can’t go adventure touring on a Buell XB12R Firebolt!

"Why not, I asked?

"Because it’s meant to be a cutting edge sportbike" he responded.

"Well, big deal.
So is a CBR 929, and I’ve been comfortable doing some
adventure riding with that."

"But this is different. It’s a Buell."

"Hmm. "

Over the years, I had often been tempted by the Adventure touring type of motorcycle. But no matter how good they were, it always seemed that I would be giving up some essence of sportbike riding that was important to me.

Though there was no doubt that Adventure motorcycles opened up a whole new world of possible experience, the reality was that I spent less than 20% of my time riding off the beaten path. How much was I willing to give up in order to have greater enjoyment of this 20%?

When I first looked at the Buell XB12R Firebolt last year, I did not so much see an apex-strafing canyon-burner as much as I saw the raw elements that would make up a very intriguing adventure touring motorcycle. In a way, the Buell Firebolt captured my imagination. It was all about lean and mean. And I liked touring lean. Nothing superfluous added.

Buell XB12R Firebolt

Was I serious about this? Well, I remember contacting a fellow list member. He
was a Harley Davidson/Buell dealer and I was asking for his views on the reliabi-
lity of the Buell Firebolt as an adventure touring platform. I was aware of some
issues that had plagued earlier Buell models and was looking for reassurance.

The Buell Firebolt offered a good blend of what I was looking for in a motorcycle
to provide a heady mix of sport and adventure touring accompanied by a touch
of visceral stimulation. Boring, cookie cutter bikes need not apply.

The central ingredient making this possible was the V-45 Twin motor. Unlike higher-
strung multi-cylinder motors commonly found in sportbikes, the Twin combined boun-
tiful low-end torque and very predictable and tractable power output, ideal for ex-
cursions off the beaten path. The V-twin was also a low-maintenance motor requiring no valve adjustments. Ever.

In addition, it featured a long-life belt drive, requiring no lubrication nor adjustment.

As with all Buell motorcycles, the Firebolt embodied what they refer to as the Trilogy of Technology. It outlines a motorcycle design philosophy that is rigorously applied to optimize mass centralization, chassis rigidity, and minimize unsprung weight.

The perimeter disk brakes along with the frame and swing arm are unique elements that result from a relentless pursuit of designing a part to carry out two or more functions. For example, the swing arm doubles as an oil reservoir and the frame doubles as fuel tank. The perimeter disk brake contributes to significantly lowering unsprung weight. Having parts carry out multiple roles translates into higher efficiency, fewer parts, lower weight.

Lastly, whereas most motorcycles place the relatively heavy exhaust can out at the rear of the chassis, Buell keeps the weight tightly grouped by placing the exhaust under the bike.

This creative, outside the box thinking (in many ways lateral thinking) appealed to my sense of appreciation for engineering elegance.

Though definitely sport-oriented, the ergonomics on the Firebolt were livable to me for long distance forays. Bodywork was minimal, a real plus anytime you venture off-road.

Taken as a whole, the Buell Firebolt felt like a rip-snorting intriguing mix of time- tested tradition and cutting edge innovation. Guaranteed to provide visceral stimulation and a different sensory experience.

On the other hand, suspension travel was a little more limited than ideal for soaking up the expected rougher sections that I might encounter and standing on the pegs was going to be a little awkward.

And so, I shelved that idea. But from time to time, I would think back to the Buell Firebolt.

I then began looking to some of the new Supermotards as possible choices. They offered a more sporting orientation along with the required longer throw suspension. But they were often more narrowly focused, lacking in versatility.

I guess that what I was really looking for was an Adventure Sportbike.


And now, Buell introduces the new XB12X Ulysses, an Adventure Sportbike!

Does this make sense you ask?

Consider the following market factors:

  • It’s no secret that Buell sales have yet to reach critical mass in the sportbike market, despite steadily improving reliability.
  • In addition, the market demographic is getting older. Every year the average rider age moves up.

Add to this that:

  • Adventure Touring and Supermotard are hot markets that have experienced increasing momentum in recent years both in North America and in Europe.
  • Non traditional Buell competitors like BMW have brought serious product to market (K1200 R) that has added further erosion to Buell streetfighter sales. When the going gets tough and competitors erode one of yours, you look at how you can erode one of theirs. In this case, one of theirs is labeled GS.

So from a marketing standpoint, both local and International, nothing makes more sense than for Buell to throw its hat into the Adventure touring ring. In doing so, it brings to market a unique motorcycle that will appeal to a far greater number of riders.

From a product standpoint, it makes sense in that Buell uses available parts and reformulates them in order to target hot markets that are bubbling with momentum.

Take the Firebolt concept, add to the package a longer throw suspension, more fuel range, a slightly tamer steering geometry, and a longer wheelbase. It’s that simple. The basic elements were already in place. Put this together and you have the Ulysses.

Am I surprised by this, you ask? __No. I was anxiously hoping for it.


So what’s it like?

At first glance, it seems like an old familiar friend with a new twist.

  • Old and familiar in that it sports the traditional dual sport front fender and vaguely approximates the look of the BMW GS series. In fact, if you put the KTM Adventure 950, the Suzuki V-Strom, the Ducati MultiStrada, the BMW GS, the Triumph Tiger, and the Buell Ulysses in a room and asked someone which motorcycles were related, the answer would be obvious.
  • New twist in that it sports 17-inch wheels front and rear, (as opposed to 18/19 or 18/21), giving it somewhat the allure of a Supermotard. Outfitting the Ulysses with 17-inch wheels allows it to maintain its sporting focus as well as giving it access to both the Adventure touring market and the Supermotard crowd. A triple play of sorts. The use of 17-inch wheels also allows more latitude in the use of sport or sport touring rubber and is in keeping with the Ulysses Adventure Sportbike mandate.

Casting prejudice aside, anyone who has affinity for adventure touring will be intri-
gued by the Buell’s appearance. It is a striking and aesthetically pleasing design. The minimalist heritage from the Firebolt is clearly present. There is nothing excess-
ive nor superfluous, nothing contrived for the sake of design. It looks taut, fit, and
ready for action. The Ulysses conveys attitude.

To support its serious intent, it comes equipped with handguards, a grill stone guard over the headlights, and two on-board auxiliary power outlets. The frame is protec-
ted from tipovers by triangular shaped rubber frame pucks that are attached at the widest point. Fit and finish on the Ulysses are first rate.

The swingarm on the Ulysses has been lengthened 2 inches, bringing the wheelbase to 54 inches. This allows for a roomier cockpit for rider/passenger and provides a more stable platform for adventure riding. Fuel capacity has also been increased by over half a gallon to 4.4 gallons. V-twin fuel economoy has traditionally been above average and EPA mileage is rated at 64mpg highway.


So what is an Adventure Sportbike?

As opposed to previous Buells that were very much niche market bikes, the Ulysses brings Buell into motorcycling mainstream.

The Ulysses represents Buell’s rendition of an Adventure motorcycle as filtered through their unwavering core beliefs. As with the Firebolt and other Buells, these involve a committed focus to centralize mass, maximize chassis rigidity, and minimize unsprung weight in order to enhance riding performance both on and off road.

True to its Buell roots, the Ulysses came to life as an Adventure Sportbike. To be sure, it is meant to be a willing partner in seeking out new roads and adventures, but its mandate is not to be a dirt bike nor full out Adventure motorcycle. It was not initially meant to wear knobbies.

In this sense, an Adventure touring label is perhaps misleading. It alludes to a vast expanse of off-road possibilities where there is no limit to how radical the terrain and conditions can be. Seen in this harsh light, and irrespective of marketing claims, few full size adventure motorcycles perform truly well in this type of environment except possibly for the KTM Adventure 950. And of course, the Ulysses has no place in that setting.

But such conditions represent the extreme 3 or 4% of riding, if that. On the other hand, the KTM probably does not provide anywhere near the comfort in the other 90% or more of riding conditions that you might encounter.

Defining Adventure touring.

It has been proven over and over again that you can tour the world on virtually any motorcycle. Not on any surface, mind you. But you can adventure tour by selecting your roads and adapting your speed.

Given this context, the Ulysses is well suited to the task. Its long throw suspension, ride height, comfortable ergonomics, low weight, and torquey motor combine to make a willing partner when you want to follow that dirt or gravel trail to new discovery.

When is an S-U-B your best surface missile?

The Ulysses represents a category of motorcycling that is more accurately descri-
bed as the counterpart to SUV’s for the automotive sector. Like SUV’s, they offer more forgiving suspensions suited for travel over rougher or gravel-type roads.

I think of this category (coin the term?) as a Sport Utility Bike or S-U-B.

Seen as an S-U-B, the Buell Ulysses shines. It provides the comfort, the ergo-
nomics, the handling, and the ability to take rougher pavement in stride without
breaking a sweat. It does so while providing pleasurable sensory input in both
sound and feel.

Concerns

When first looking at a Ulysses, many riders with a even minimal amount of off-roading experience immediately note several areas of concern:

the low-slung muffler:

  • will it be vulnerable to denting or crushing damage
  • will it prevent crossing water streams or subject the motor to potential damage.

the fragile looking wheels and oversized front rotor:

  • will the rims dent or break
  • will the rotor be subject to rock damage, warping due to bent wheels, or otherwise fouling from mud or other debris on track

the belt drive:

  • is a belt drive up to service requirements encountered during off road riding
  • will the belt be vulnerable to failure due to road debris intrusion

Not surprisingly, Buell assures us that they have done their homework in these areas.

Muffler:

According to Buell sources, the muffler unit is very sturdy and can act as a skidplate. They note that it was initially designed to take direct load as a jacking point. They are also confident that water crossings will not be a problem. As part of extensive testing they claim that the Ulysses was parked in water that fully covered the muffler. The engine was shut off and they let it sit there a spell. The Ulysses was then re-started and the bike ridden through the water without a hitch.

Wheels:

Apparently, the wheels were benchmarked to the competition during the design phase and were then subjected to testing both in the field and in the lab. Buell claims that the wheels were strengthened for added resistance to off-road riding and that they should do fine, all the while being lighter than the competition to boot. That may be so, but they do look fragile. One thing is certain, owners tend to be quite vociferous when showing their displeasure over damaged rims that prove to be too soft.

note:
This is pure speculation on my part but it would be in keeping with Buell's design approach of making one part carry out two or more functions.
The ZTL rotor could be playing a secondary role. By being fixed to points at the end of the spokes near the rim, the ZTL rotor adds stiffness to the wheel, absorbing some of the load transmitted to the spokes. Your wheel can now be specified using thinner spokes, making it lighter, without losing wheel strength.
 

Is the rotor more than just a rotor?

It may look more fragile, but in reality has the same strength as wheels using
heavier spokes. Result? Same design paramaters and performance specifications,
but with significantly lower unsprung weight.

Front Rotor:

Buell claims that the Front rotor on the Ulysses did very well in testing against
foreign matter and damage. They explain that the leading edge of the rotor is
hidden behind the edge of the rim. This makes it less vulnerable to impact-type
damage than a conventional rotor whose leading edge is on the outside of the
rim. Fair enough. In addition, the single rotor cuts exposure to damage by half
when compared to front wheels equipped with double rotors.

On the other hand, being so low to the ground does expose it to more contaminants such as mud and other nefarious ingredients of that ilk. I haven't heard yet if this has been addressed or if it is a true concern.

Belt drive:

The Ulysses is outfitted with the new Goodyear Hibrex® belt. This is a Rubber/Aramid (Kevlar) composite belt that is designed to provide extended service life in high torque applications.

According to Goodyear, the belt is designed to sustain more than double the load per given width as compared to previous belts as well as to resist tooth deformity and increase tooth rigidity, prolonging belt life. The belt construction also provides increased resistance to shock loading, stretching and flex fatigue. It is chemically stable to resist the effects of oils, coolants, heat and ozone.





Buell states that the belt drive system on the Ulysses was extensively tested on gravel and fire roads as well as being subjected to lab stress-testing. In addition, the Ulysses is outfitted with a new belt guard system to minimize exposure to passing debris.

Buell’s confidence in this belt is such that it does not specify a replacement interval. In fact they encourage the Ulysses to be taken out and put through its paces, implying that the proof will be in the pudding.


Riding it

Fit and finish on the Ulysses is very good, looking very much like a premium offering. As you approach and swing a leg over, you realize that it is a very tall motorcycle. Unladen seat height is close to 35 inches with laden seat height a full 33 inches!

With an inseam of 31 inches, tip toe was all that I could manage. In addition, the wide and comfortable seat tends to aggravate this. Coming to a stop on uneven ground often meant sliding off the side of the seat a little. For others in a similar situation, an optional lower seat will be offered sometime in September. I haven’t tried it for comfort but it does look good and will reduce seat height by about 2 inches.

Though the Ulysses looks modern in every way, there are some vestiges of legacy, such as the ignition key placement on the left side of the bike. I can’t help but think that on a motorcycle of this type and height, it feels odd and somewhat awkward to be reaching across in order to key the ignition. Somewhat antiquated, in fact.

The Heart

The heart of any Buell is the motor and the Thunderstorm-based V-twin is ideally suited to fulfilling its role as motive force in the Ulysses. We know that it requires low maintenance, offers an abundance of tractable low-end torque, and is fuel efficient.

But it also provides this motorcycle with real personality. A big part of riding the Ulysses is all about visceral sensations and the vibration management tuning ensures that the sensations are at all the right places. At idle, the twin vibrates and throbs as its heritage dictates. Sitting at a stoplight, the sensations are that you are astride a motor – cycle as opposed to some appliance devoid of personality.

This vibration never becomes excessive. It’s just enough to remind you that the Ulysses is not drab and lacking character. Accelerate away and something remark
able occurs at 3,000 rpm. The V-twin delightfully transforms into something smooth and vibration-free. It literally feels like a different motor. This is the vibration tuning that I was referring to.

Bountiful levels of low-end torque encourage spirited riding.

For all the talk about max. hp ratings, a rider will only ever taste a glimpse of that power. High hp is produced at a high rpm. So, unless you are riding around at 11,000 rpm in 3rd gear in the city, and getting arrested, you never get to taste much of it. On the other hand, the Ulysses’ torque is available most anytime that you twist the throttle. It puts out a whopping 55ft/lbs of torque at 2,000 rpm and approx. 65ft/lbs of torque to the rear wheel (not crank) at 3,000 rpm. That is serious motivation.

It ensures that rolling on the throttle at just about any rpm provides immediate forward thrust accompanied by a very stimulating audible signature. Yes, the Ulysses sounds good, as a twin should.

The power output is also gradual and predictable. Never a spike, never a surprise. This seamless outpouring of torque is ideal not only for spirited riding over twisty terrain but also for slower or technical work over uneven ground.

However, my test unit did have an annoying glitch that seemed to be fuel injection related. Between 2,200 and 2,700 rpm or so there was something that seemed more than lean surge. Held at steady throttle, the Ulysses became somewhat of a mildly bucking bronco. This would definitely have an effect on low rpm trail riding. But as soon as 3,000 rpm rolled around everything became smoother again.

Other Essentials

For the 2006 model year, the V-twin is thankfully mated to a new transmission. This is a welcome upgrade as the new gearbox is significantly quieter and smoother than the older gravel cruncher it replaces.

For normal street riding, brakes on the Ulysses are powerful and controllable.

Zero Torsional Load System

Buell uses a unique brake setup which they refer to as the Zero Torsional Load system. The brakes consist of a single large perimeter rotor coupled to a 6-piston caliper. In contrast to traditional rotors that transmit torsional loads to the spokes of a wheel, the 375mm ZTL rotor is attached directly to the rim. This results in braking forces to be transferred directly to the rim as opposed to through the spokes. Using this system provides 2 immediate advantages.

  • It allows the use of lighter spokes, since the spokes no longer bear the stress of braking forces.
  • There is a weight savings in using one large rotor instead of two smaller ones.

Combined, this reduces unsprung weight by a claimed 6 lbs. when compared to a conventional system. Anyone who has ever shopped for expensive lighter wheels in the hopes of reducing unsprung weight knows how significant this is.

Additional Observations

The Ulysses shines when navigating rougher roads. Its fully adjustable Showa suspension, offering up to 6.5 inches of travel, effortlessly soaks up mid-corner bumps, ripples, and imperfections without a fuss. For the rougher stuff, the Ulysses provides a respectable 6.75 inches of ground clearance under the muffler.

However steering lock is rather limited. This becomes quickly noticeable when performing low speed or technical maneuvering.

Out on the open road, protection from the elements is quite good. I found very little buffeting, if any. Windstream is very clean and quiet with good upper body protection and reasonable lower body wind protection.

Snap on windscreen: another feature
that makes you wonder why no one
thought of it before.

A nifty feature that I’m surprised not to have seen before is the snap-on windscreen. The clear screen simply snaps onto the colored base. Riders who venture out over long distances know the dilemma of wanting a taller screen to protect from the elements while riding out vs. riding off road at destination with a shorter screen or none at all. The Ulysses allows you to vary screen size by simply snapping one on and then off you go. Arrive at destination, snap off the larger screen and you’re again good to go. Though there are presently no offerings from Buell, I expect the aftermarket will quickly jump at the opportunity to provide a wide ranging selection to choose from.

I found ergonomics to be very comfortable. I could easily envision setting out on a cross country trip without a worry. The seat is very comfortable and roomy. The reach to controls and footpegs is ideal. The high sit-up riding position of adventure motorcycles allows you a feeling of overseeing traffic. It’s a feeling of enhanced control.

On the other hand, standing up on the pegs is not as comfortable for extended riding. I find myself too bent over at waist. Given the lower foot pegs and relatively high bars, I found this a little surprising. But there it is.

The rear passenger handles are very usable and come integrated with what Buell call the Triple Tail. In theory, this is a clever device. It consists of a hard rubber pallet that is shaped to fit as a passenger backrest when in the upright position.

Flip it forward when riding solo and it serves as a luggage platform covering the passenger seat. This allows you to pack luggage closer to the motorcycle’s center of gravity. In theory, this is in keeping with the concept of mass centralization. Flip it backwards and it becomes a luggage platform over the tail piece.

Elegant in its simplicity and usefulness. Makes you wonder why no one has thought of it before. However, the Triple Tail is apparently only rated for carrying 11lbs! So in practice, this drastically limits its usefulness for anything other than as a backrest.

Has Belt Drive come of age?

Belt drive is a quiet, elegant, and efficient solution to use as drive mechanism.

It requires no maintenance. The belt drive system ensures constant tension to eliminate any driveline slack while riding. It also eliminates the need for periodic belt adjustment.

The belt is rated for the life of the motorcycle but can easily and affordably be replaced if need be. This alone is a huge advantage over competing systems.

Of course, in the case of the Ulysses, miles accumulated out in the field will either prove service life or highlight areas requiring further development.

No matter. This belt drive technology is a definite step in the right direction. It offers the combined advantages of shaft drive and chain drive while being saddled by none of the sometimes considerable disadvantages. If belt drive implementation needs to go on a learning/growing curve, so be it. In the end, we will all benefit.

Misc.

The Buell branded Hepco & Becker hard luggage looks very good and is of high quality.

Side cases and top box will each contain a full size helmet.

Interesting note: Unlike the factory luggage on some other motorcycles, the Hepco & Becker luggage is certified at speed. They impose no speed restriction on the Ulysses.

For electrical accessories and other essentials to distance or adventure riding, the Ulysses offers 2 on-board auxiliary power outlets rated at 10amps.

One is located on the dash, the other under the seat. These SAE automotive-type power outlets are also claimed to be weatherproof. Speaking of power outlets, there are also plans to offer a Garmin GPS unit as early as January 2006.

Weight, at 425lbs dry, is thankfully low as befits any motorcycle that claims adventure status.

The alternator is rated at 494 watts. For a sportbike like the Firebolt, this would be great output. But given the usually greater needs of touring and long distance riders to power auxiliary lighting, heated garments, GPS etc, it may be a little marginal. Especially for two-up riding.

Warranty: 2 years unlimited mileage


Things that make me go hmmm. . .

  • I can’t help but feel that the shift linkage is perilously vulnerable to being snagged, snapped, or crushed. The consequence of a broken shift linkage off road and far from home can turn into a depressing show stopper. A possible Achilles Heel.
  • I also wonder as to how vulnerable the frame might be to drops, especially on rocky trails. The frame pucks are nice to have. Are they enough?
  • Air intake grill on tank (airbox cover) facing up?
  • Low-slung muffler helps mass centralization. But a possible nuisance is having the exhaust gasses constantly pumped out onto your boot and pant leg, especially when coming to a stop.




Random musings:

The Ulysses has the all the elements to become a major sales success for Buell and open new markets, both in North America and in Europe. But in order for this to materialize it needs to address the major reasons why previous XB models (leaving out earlier generations) have not been embraced in the marketplace. And I suspect it has little to do with whether the Buells were good motorcycles.

Companies prove every day that, if you build it, they don’t necessarily come.

I’m sure that if Erik Buell was in a typical dealership he would sell a ton of XB models. His passion and belief in his product are contagious.

And therein lies a major part of the solution. To sell something effectively requires for you to have a certain passion and conviction about the product. If you sell sport bikes and adventure bikes, you need to be able to relate to that, feel something about that, and communicate this with your customers, build rapport. Potential customers need to want to come into your dealership and then connect.

Do it right and you have a success on your hands. Fail to do it right, and you have another missed opportunity.

As good as the Ulysses is, I doubt that it will overcome the need for this on its own.

The Ulysses will also be dancing with a new crowd. There is no question that the Buell comes dressed for the dance and that it knows the moves. Whether it can stay the course (ie dance the night away) or only watch from the sidelines is the question that many will want answered. Central to this will be a concern for the durability of a motor that is meant to take a rider far from home off the beaten path and ridden at more intense levels.

As much as the sportbike market is concerned with numbers on a spec sheet, the adventure touring market is concerned with reliability and durability under stress. For this group, getting out there is fun, but coming back safely is even more important.


So what does all this mean?

The Ulysses represents something new and unique in the marketplace. It combines the soul of a sportbike with the versatility of an adventure motorcycle. To my mind, a true Sport Utility Bike (S U B). You may not be able to go dune bashing with it, but that’s not its purpose in life.

The Ulysses’ long travel suspension will soak up imperfect pavement with ease, isolating the rider from most harshness, allowing you to explore the roads less traveled.

It’s comfortable ergonomics and relaxed motor along with quality hard luggage make it well suited for travelling over long distances.

And finally, the Ulysses provides a solid handling platform that will be enjoyable in the twisties. In fact, you could find yourself reeling in unsuspecting sport bike riders, particularly so if the pavement is less than perfect.

All in all, a solid showing.

About Buell Ownership


The motorcycle for this review was kindly provided by Harley Davidson Canada.

photos: courtesy Buell


Copyright
Bruno Valeri
2003-2012






 
 



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