Buell Ulysses XB12XT

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Zeefoto.com, Roger Parsons and Glenn Roberts
January 1 2009
Final test ride before the ending of Buell

When you think of Buell, the usual image that comes to mind are the sleek, short wheelbase V-Twin powered streetfighters like the Firebolt, Lightning or the new 1125R and CR models. In 2006, Buell took a step forward and created a different type of motorcycle, unlike its street-fighter brethren. The new XB12X, dubbed the ‘Ulysses’, was powered by the same basic driveline, but was purpose built to attack pavement or backroads with equal confidence. The new Ulysses fell into the newly created adventure sportbike category. While it still had the quick acceleration of some of its equally powered streetfighter brothers, it also had long suspension, aggressive tires, plenty of ground clearance and an upright lofty seating position.

In 2008, Buell introduced a variation of the Ulysses, the XB12XT. The most obvious change for the new XT is that it sports luggage-side cases and a top case. Less obvious changes between the X and the XT include a lower seat height and ground clearance for a lower centre of gravity. This is accomplished by shorter suspension travel due to the specially tuned front fork and rear shock. The XT weighs in 18 kg (39.6 lbs) heavier, presumably because of the bags and mounting hardware. Anyone looking for adventure on dirt or rough secondary roads can now load the bags up with gear for an extended ride. As motorcycle categories continue to get watered down, the new Ulysses fits nicely into the adventure sport-touring category.

Canyon carver to continent crosser.

I had the good fortune to borrow a 2008 Ulysses XT (there are no changes for the 2009 XT) for an extended trip to North Carolina and Tennessee, or more precisely, Deal’s Gap and the famous Dragon (read more on Deal’s Gap and the 318 turns in 11 miles of The Dragon in an upcoming issue).

The Ulysses allows a commanding view with a seat height of 780 mm (30.7 in). Sitting tall in the saddle lets you see over most vehicles. Being able to see far and ahead is a real bonus when in congested traffic or on the superslab. While that seat height could be an issue for some, it is 28 mm (1.1 in) lower than the regular Ulysses and the wide seat does taper at the front so you don’t feel that you’re straddling a horse while trying to touch the ground. I didn’t find it a problem at all with my 32-inch inseam.

Seating position is very comfortable with the foot pegs below your hips and the wide handlebar is ideal for your hands to reach without stretching. The correlation between feet, hands and seat keep the lower back straight and leaves your pelvis in a natural, stress-free position. Understandably, after eight hours or so in the saddle I did find the seat a little hard, but it also has tons of wiggle room to move around and relieve any pressure points. The windscreen is an adequate size keeping the wind off of your chest while allowing your head to get the full effect of the wind, though I didn’t experience any buffeting. The hand guards are a nice touch in cool weather and so are the dual-temperature range heated grips that come standard on the XT.

Wheelie popping power comes from the familiar Thunderstorm air/oil/fan cooled 1203 cc, electronic fuel-injected V-Twin engine that powers a few other Buell streetfighters. A delicious engine with plenty of torque down low in the rev range, noticeable even just off idle. The torque, rated at 84 foot pounds at 6500 rpm, is apparent at any rpm, and in most cases negates the need for a downshift when wanting to accelerate. Passing a car at 80 km/h in top gear is no problem for the 211 kg (465 lb claimed) motorcycle. Maximum horsepower of 103 coincidently occurs at only 300 rpm higher at 6800 rpm. When changing gears from first to second, or second to third, care is required so as not to let the clutch out too fast with too much throttle. In doing so, the Ulysses has the tendency to leap forward and without a firm grasp, it feels like the handgrips want to rip out of your hands. The engine’s power-band is broad and linear all the way up to its redline of 7000.

The engine is a little noisy, especially when cold, and emits a healthy shake at idle. A rhythm that brings to the imagination each explosion from the air/fuel mixture as you seem to feel every power stroke forcing the 88.9 mm (3.5 in) pistons down in their 96.8 mm (3.8 in) bores. If you like the vibration of a V-Twin as I do, it isn’t annoying, but instead reminds you of the visceral power of this Thunderstorm engine. Once off idle, the engine smoothes out and vibration was almost non-existent on the highway with only a little buzzing in the mirrors.

If there is anything annoying about the engine it’s the fan cooling. Because the rear cylinder is tucked up under the wide frame spars on each side that serves double duty as the fuel tank, it doesn’t get any airflow when the bike is stopped, therefore the cooling fan’s sole purpose is to cool the rear cylinder. While you don’t hear the fan when the engine is running, the second you turn the key off, the fan is all you can hear and when parking near fellow riders, turning the key off prompts all those in close proximity to turn and look.

The heat from the engine’s rear cylinder and exhaust header does a good job of heating the right frame spar, so much so that after an hour of riding your right inner thigh begins to feel the heat. You’ll know when it’s time to simply stick your right knee out away from the frame spar enough to catch some wind to cool it down. The extra heat would be a bonus during our spring and fall riding season, but it’s too hot for the summer.

I found the five-speed trans-mission a little stiff to shift and hard to get into neutral while stopped. The Ulysses has a couple of bushings involved in the shifter linkage and it felt as though a rubber bushing was too tight. Other than the stiffness, the transmission worked flawlessly.

Final drive to the rear wheel is via clean and quiet belt. There is no rear wheel adjustment as the belt uses an idler pulley to keep optimal tension, and as a result, acceleration is clean with no hesitation because of a slack belt. According to Buell literature, the belt is rated to last for the life of the bike.

We superslabbed it down to The Dragon in order to allow us more time to take in the quality riding in the Smoky Mountains. The Ulysses ate up the straight-line pavement in short order. It ran at the regular Interstate speed of 70 mph for 14-hours riding with only fuel and food stops.

What I found so interesting was how well the Ulysses XT handled the constant twists and turns of the Smoky Mountain roads. The 43 mm inverted forks on the XT have fully adjustable compression and rebound damping as well as spring preload adjustment. The coil over monoshock with remote reservoir set up on the rear is also fully adjustable with the compression and rebound damping adjustment under the seat. Spring preload adjustment is taken care of via an easily accessible knob on the bike’s left side just below the thigh. Both front and rear offer 125 mm (4.9 in) of travel. Adjustment is easy so making it softer for touring or stiffening it up for cornering is a breeze.

With the tall stature of the Ulysses, I was quite impressed at its handling capabilities on tight twisty roads. Many times we came across hairpin turns, decreasing and increasing radius’ and the Ulysses easily handled everything we could throw at it. The 151 mm (5.9 in) ground clearance helped save the hard parts from touching down. The wide bars, upright seating position and accommodating suspension were all contributing factors in this well-mannered Adventure Sport Touring motorcycle. Transferring all that inertia in the corners to the asphalt is a pair of Pirelli Diablo Stradas, a 120/70-17 on the front and taking up the rear is a 180/55-17.

Of course, having fun on these types of roads also means slowing down quickly, sometimes more quickly than initially anticipated as a bend sneaks up on you or the bend’s radius isn’t what you expected. Good brakes are a must and the Buell’s ZTL (Zero Torsional Load) brake system does an amazing job of slowing the rider and bike down very quickly. A single six-piston caliper bites onto a large 375 mm inside-out floating rotor that mounts directly to the wheel-not the hub as in traditional brake systems-making for exceptional stopping power. This also allows for lighter rims and spokes since the stopping power is being transferred directly to the rim instead of through the spokes from the hub. It also makes it unnecessary for the addition of an extra caliper and rotor, again lowering unsprung weight.

A light, two-finger squeeze on the front brake lever results in a quick stop. In fact, the front brakes are so sensitive you need to be careful the back wheel doesn’t come off the ground if you happen to get a little too zealous with the brake lever.

The rear brake on the other hand is a little on the lethargic side, needing a good heavy push to see much action from the 240 mm rotor and single-piston caliper.

I found the ignition switch awkward to get to. It’s located on the left side behind the headlight and in front of the fork tube. Granted it is not something you use all the time or while riding so it may be a moot point. The steering locks via the ignition switch and the same key unlocks the seat, exposing a fairly generous underseat storage area.

The large speedometer and tachometer are easy to read. The speedo offers an LCD odometer and dual tripmeter, kilometres travelled on reserve and a clock. Unfortunately, the clutch cable passes directly in the rider’s line of sight to see the LCD display, forcing you to move forward to look over the cable, or back to look under it. All other lights are big and bright on the right hand side of the tach and are easy to see. Also on the instrument pod, right beside the speedo, is a 12-volt power plug, easily accessible for all your gadgets to plug into, including your heated clothing or gloves. There is also an additional 12-volt power plug under the seat.

Fuel economy in the big V-Twin averaged a very respectable 4.92 L/100 km (57.42 mpg) during the course of the 4,400 km round trip, with my best mileage coming in at 4.2 L/100 km (67.25 mpg). Using the average mileage number should yield about 339 km until empty with the bikes 16.7 litre tank.

The side and top bags remove simply and quickly when you don’t need them, and have their own handles, making them easy to carry into your hotel room. All in all, the Ulysses XB12XT is a very competent and fun long-distance touring machine that’s comfortable for crossing the continent, but it’s also just at home carving a few mountain roads at the same time. MMM



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