2008 Buell XB12XT

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith, James Bush

When Erik Buell added the Ulysses XT, re-focused for "adventure sport touring," to the range for 2008, we signed up to find out whether he had hit a Homer.

I'll admit to some misgivings when I rode my first Ulysses, a factory-fresh 2007 XB12X. Aimed at the ever-growing adventure touring market, the first Ulysses seemed ill-suited for this role. The high center of gravity, narrow steering sweep, 180-section rear tire, vulnerable under-chassis muffler and narrow powerband all pointed to poor off-road potential. That said, it was an excellent street bike with superb handling, long legs and supple suspension. I also liked the combined passenger backrest/luggage rack. With a few modifications, I thought, this could make a very fine sport-touring bike.

Someone at Buell was listening. The Ulysses XB12XT borrows the chassis and powertrain from the XB12X, but adds features better geared for long-distance street use. Buell says it has targeted the XT for "adventure sport touring" or your personal odyssey, if you will. Changes from the X include a lowered seat, to 30.7" from 31.8", achieved by suspension changes, a taller windshield, Pirelli Diablo Strada street tires, and a three-piece hard luggage system.

The XB12X, though, continues alongside the XT with modifications befitting its proposed environment - what Buell calls "sportbike-inspired handling with unpaved road capabilities" - with a new extended frame and offset 47mm Showa fork allowing extra steering sweep, and the rims of the cast-alloy wheels reinforced to resist impact damage. (The XT retains the narrow-sweep '07 X frame and 43mm Showas.)
Both '08 Ulysses models benefit from triple-rate springs front and rear with fully adjustable damping. Spring and damping rates are different, but they share some significant upgrades in the engine department too. Con rods run on a new narrower, larger-diameter crankpin (1.5" up from 1.25"), which, together with lubrication changes, allows redline to move up to 7,100rpm. Alterations to the engine computer and fuel injection system, now designated "DDFI 3," claim to improve performance, though rated output of 103hp and 84 ft-lbs remain the same.

At the press intro I attended in Temecula, California, with the arrival of the Rotax-powered 1125R, it was inevitable that Buell would be asked about the future of the "Thunderstorm" airhead engine. And in response, the team on hand stepped up to the plate to vehemently support Erik, who sees a long future for the air-cooled engine in a Buell chassis.

The Details

After riding a red XT that day in Temecula, I was able to borrow one in black from Vancouver's Deeley Harley-Davidson to use as a commuter for a few weeks and to take on a tour of Vancouver Island.

The XB12XT has plenty of the "right stuff" for touring. It's fitted with a three-piece hard luggage system (made for Buell by Hepco & Becker), and all three bags comfortably accept my Nolan full-face helmets. They're spacious and easily removable, too, though well secured when locked. And Buell's under-chassis exhaust means there's no muffler-can cutaway to compromise the load space. The top box does get in the way of the fold-down backrest. So, you can't use it as a rack unless the top box is removed. The hard luggage also stretches the overall width of the XT to a generous 39.6". Less than ideal for California lane splitting!
The seat (same as the X's) is huge and seems comfortable, initially at least. The riding position is almost ideal - for me, anyway: foot pegs below hips, bars wide and easily within reach, and requiring a slight forward lean. The engine fires instantly, hot or cold, settling to a fast self-adjusting idle. The clutch is light and smooth and seems to thrive on abuse - first gear is quite high, and the clutch needs to be slipped for quick getaways. Firm pressure is required to shift into first, however. Curiously, there's no kickstand interlock, so stand-down take-offs are a potential hazard for the forgetful.

When riding the Ulysses at slow speeds, I'm still struck by the lack of steering sweep, which makes narrow-road U-turns a test. But the bike's overall balance is superb, and I feel it would stand up on its own, a tribute, perhaps, to Erik Buell's devotion to mass-centralization and the gyroscopic effect of the big flywheels in the motor.

Two characteristics of the Buell became apparent early on: the improved rev-happy willingness of the revised motor and the stiff gearshift. Both were evident on my long-term test bike and on the two bikes ridden at the intro; so, I have to assume it's endemic to the Thunderstorm powertrain. Shifting was always positive, and the gears in the five-speed transmission well spaced, with first perhaps a little high. Neutral was also easy to find at a standstill, though, and the shift linkage is adjustable.
The large, clear analog speedo and tach are easily visible, and there's a single digital panel for odometer, trip and clock. There's no fuel gauge, but a warning light indicates approximately three liters of fuel remaining, and the tripmeter ("trip F") then counts the distance traveled from that point. Assuming fuel consumption of 45-50 mpg, you have close to 40 miles to an empty tank. A small point to note: the clutch-cable routing makes it difficult to operate the reset button on the instrument panel.

The Rides

Although the XT is perfectly well mannered around town, it's on fast, open roads that it excels. The sportbike chassis, supple suspension and easily-modulated front brake combine with sharp steering and the thrusting powertrain to provide an exhilarating and poised ride - the best of both worlds. The wide bars encourage assertive counter steering, and the mass centralization and excellent Pirelli tires respond willingly. All this leads to rapid and exciting yet confident progress.

Criticism has been leveled at Buell's time-served narrow-angle, air-cooled v-twin and its suitability as a sportbike power plant. A fair complaint, before, and there's no question that it feels antiquated with its slow throttle response, excessive flywheel effect, hesitant and clunky shifting; but the surprise is how well it works in a sport-touring role, better than in any other Buell application. Revised cams allied to the strengthened bottom end and higher rev limit combine to make this a much better engine than the '07, with a broader powerband and more thrust at the top of the rev range. So, while torque at low revs is adequate, the motor needs to see 4,000 rpm before getting "on the cam." From there, power builds smoothly to its maximum of 103hp at 6,800rpm.

First gear power wheelies are easily achieved by slipping the clutch, and the front end can be hoisted in the next two gears too. Engine management is fault-free with seamless throttle transitions. As well as spinning up more rapidly, the revised engine provides generous engine braking. And all the while, Buell's Uniplanar system takes care of the not-inconsiderable engine vibration.

Overall, the Buell is a "blast" to ride on fast, twisty tarmac. It's stable, precise and gives excellent rider feedback. And the willing power plant needs no throttle nursing. Just wind it on and enjoy the ride.

On Vancouver Island, I experienced the XT's gravel road capabilities, and while the bigger chunks of rock pushed around the wider-than-ideal tires, the bike's natural balance and easy steering inspired lots of confidence. I wouldn't hesitate to ride long gravel stretches or even wide logging roads on the Ulysses.

The next day, I had to hightail it back from Port McNeill to Nanaimo to catch my ferry. The road was almost deserted, so I opened up the Buell to see how it fared at higher speeds. The XT impressed me enormously with its ability to run down the miles at close to triple-digit speeds, with the motor thrumming happily and the supple suspension eating up surface imperfections. High-speed stability was excellent, and the lack of buffeting from the windshield made for a very comfortable ride.

Just a few small niggles. Though amply wide, the seat is firm and there's not much thigh support to spread the load. I found after a couple of hours that my buns were aching, and I was sliding forward into the "gas tank." And every time I turned off the Ulysses' ignition, the rear cylinder cooling fan cut in, even though the bike may have only been run around a parking lot. The fan is controlled somewhat enthusiastically by the on-board computer, which collects data from a cylinder head temperature (CHT) sensor on the rear cylinder. The continually whirring fan has become a Buell trademark.
Something that could easily be fixed, but happened on all three Ulysses I rode: the stock handlebar deflectors kept coming adrift from the end of the bars. And though the front brake is adequate (but not over-powerful), the rear brake is little more than an ornament. That's fine in pure street riding, but on any loose surface a useable rear brake is essential to slowing progress, and the tall-ish first gear (would a six-speed tranny be better?) means engine braking is unavailable below around 12mph. I'd stay off the steep-and-loose on the XT.

But that's not what the XT is really intended for. The occasional graded gravel road, maybe - but its forte is fast, furious mountain roads where its sportbike heritage comes to the fore. To get from A to B via the longest, twistiest possible tarmac route, the XT ranks high on my list of preferred transports.

I also had a chance to become reacquainted with the XB12X, a 2008 model. Immediately, the lower windshield made itself known in a rush of air at chest level. The wider steering sweep helped with tight, low-speed maneuvers; and the suspension upgrades, though different from the XT, worked with equal suppleness. I'd still have the same considerations (less the steering sweep) about taking the X very far off the tarmac, but on the street, it works almost as well as the XT and may suit the longer-legged (seat height remains at 31.8") even better. Both bikes have thermoplastic frame pucks fitted in the event of an unintended spill.

Like Triumph's Tiger and some other well-known adventure-sport-touring bikes, the Ulysses X started out with slightly questionable dirt credibility and exceptional street manners. And in its latest iteration as the XT, it finds its true métier. If you consider what Erik Buell has achieved in working with what is, in sportbike terms, an obsolescent power plant, the results are even more remarkable.

It's relatively easy to find 100 ponies in a liquid-cooled, four-valve multi. Correspondingly, it's more difficult to get those same nags reliably out of a pushrod, 45-degree, two-valve, air/oil-cooled engine that can trace its heritage back to the 1960s. Add the necessary rubber mounting (meaning the powertrain can't be part of the frame structure) and the task of building a rigid sweet-handling chassis becomes even more unlikely. Yet, that's exactly what Buell has achieved in the XT. And given all the innovation and technology that's gone into the XT, I'd say the MSRP of ,995 (including bags, windshield and heated grips) is a steal. Erik Buell has definitely hit this one out of the park!