2020 Husqvarna Svartpilen 701: Elemental Sports Roadster Gold

Text: Kevin Duke • Photography: Stephen Gregory

The Svartpilen 701 reminds me of a childhood friend. Jimmy was a likable boy who always pushed the limits of what was typically deemed reasonable. He had a circle of friends who admired his carefree and adventurous attitude, even if he was pretty rough around the edges. Jimmy was eminently lovable and a source of excitement but was also challenging to be with in regular doses. Like Jimmy, the Svartpilen won’t suit everyone. Riders who want something smooth, comfortable, and boring will want to stay away. It’s high-strung, rough around the edges, and inspires hooligan behavior. Caveat emptor.

But in the right hands, the Svart entertains like almost nothing else on the road. The key to its sporting potential lies in the spec chart: Its weight is just 355 pounds with the tank empty. This is a massive 100 pounds lighter than the Suzuki Katana tested in our April issue. While the 701 Black Arrow (Svartpilen translation from Swedish) doesn’t directly compete with a heavyweight like the Katana, both are sporty machines that belong on twisty roads. Imagine a Ninja 250 fitted with a Suzuki SV650 motor, and you’d be close.

More good news: The Svartpilen’s MSRP is now set at $ 9,499, a massive price drop from the $ 11,999 price tag it had when it debuted last year. The latest iteration swaps cast aluminum wheels for a set of wire-spoke hoops featuring tubeless aluminum rims, as well as being fitted with new CNC-machined billet footpegs.

Arrow Sharp

Compared with the mechanically similar Vitpilen (White Arrow) introduced in 2018 and angled at the cafe racer segment, the Svartpilen features a higher handlebar position and a greater amount of suspension travel to suit a dirt-track style. New for 2020 is a snazzy matte-bronze finish with subtle silver accents, with most components in black. The only shiny bits are the chrome 701 tank badges, and the wheel spokes have an elegant satin finish rather than blingy chrome.

It’s a clean, fresh design, with a distinctive flared fuel tank and flat-tracker styling elements. The LED headlamp is faired in with a plastic nacelle reminiscent of a racer’s number plate, and a pseudo number plate on the right side smooths the transition to the muffler that is upswept at the same angle as the visual seam. Tasteful! The flat-track theme also extends to the attractive seat boasting three colors/textures and a neoprene-like pillion area finished with a sassy little ducktail. A satellite-style rear fender enables the svelte derriere finished off with a tidy LED taillight.

Super Thumper

Unless you’ve ridden a 690 Duke (no longer in KTM’s catalog), the ’Pilen’s 693cc engine will blow away your preconceptions of a single-cylinder powerplant. This isn’t some lazy thumper; it’s an enthusiastic accomplice for wheelying out of corners or busting the ton on a deserted backroad. With a purported 75 horsepower on tap, it’s the most powerful single-cylinder motor ever placed in a production street bike.

Combining this snappy powerplant with the lightest sub-600cc chassis on the street results in a sharp scalpel to cut up twisty roads, devouring tight turns with aggressive ease. It’s a unique and highly capable backroad scratcher that won’t be left behind on a sinuous road by anything on two wheels. The single Brembo front brake is perfectly adequate and has terrific modulation, offering precise control without grabbiness. Personally, I’m glad it wasn’t needlessly fitted with dual discs, which would add weight, cost, and steering effort for the benefit of no one but racers.

Suspension action from WP Apex components is good if not great. The best end is up front, with its 43mm inverted fork featuring finger-tunable damping adjusters atop each leg, the right side in red for rebound, the left for compression. The shock is aided by a linkage system and has adjustments for preload and rebound damping, but not compression. It occasionally felt a bit harsh for a damper with nearly 6 inches of travel.

Mixed finishes

The Svart’s lightness helps compensate for its 32.9-inch seat height. Appropriate for a dirt-tracker saddle, it’s thinly padded and marginally comfortable. The high level of finish detail in the seat is carried over elsewhere. Both Magura hand levers are conveniently adjustable in fine increments, and both foot levers are detailed with 701 branding and have nubs able to be set to one of two positions to better accommodate feet of different lengths. Svartpilen branding is front and center on the tapered aluminum handlebar held by forged aluminum triple-clamps.

The finish detail of these premium components is let down by a few bargain bits, like the switchgear that looks and feels like it suits a price point rather than discriminating fingertips. The most budget-oriented piece is the LCD instrument panel, clearly a step or two behind the latest thin film transistor instruments available on bikes in a similar price range. Even KTM’s sub-$ 6,200 390 platform boasts a TFT. The gauge panel also looks ungainly from many angles and is too small (barely 2 inches) to read at a glance or by weak eyes, even if it does contain niceties like a gear-position indicator and trip computer. The gauges and switches look cheap, especially relative to the bike’s choice bits.

These missteps are forgiven when going out for a ride in an enthusiastic mood. Fun follows the Svartpilen, coercing a smile from its rider whether scooting around urban areas or scouting the twistiest roads on the map. The big one-lunged motor is almost never out of its powerband, grunting along eagerly no matter the speed. An up/down quickshifter eases gear swaps, even if it’s clunkier than most, especially so during clutchless downshifts. The APTC (Adler Power Torque Control) slipper clutch has a narrow friction zone but has a very light pull, and its hydraulic master cylinder looks impossibly tiny, therefore cool. Traction control is a rudimentary wheel-speed system (no inertial measurement unit) that can be switched off if you dare.

(Mostly) Good Vibrations

One thing endemic to big single-cylinder engines needs discussing: vibration. All big thumpers have it, but in this case, unruly vibes are mitigated by not one but two counterbalancers. Regardless, vibes are omnipresent but, thankfully, aren’t truly objectionable. Their worst effect is mirror buzz, making rearward images fuzzy (is that the California Highway Patrol?). Also, a one-cylinder engine will never sound as musical as a multi.

But the sound that is music to everyone’s ears is laughter, and when delight is elicited from the sheer joy of riding a particular motorcycle, we know we’re on a winner. The Svartpilen 701 delivers elemental exuberance that makes a rider want to go for a spin and rejoice in the freedom and thrills that drew us to motorcycles in the first place.