Sunday, December 7, 2008

Ulysses: Long-Term Progress Report

I wrote this up a couple months ago and never got around to posting it. Lately I have motorcycles on the brain (after shoveling several times this week), so chalk this one up to therapy.


A little over two years ago, I culminated a bit of hand-wringing with the purchase of this motorcycle. I have subsequently posted a few times about this bike, and about bikes in general (here and here and here). Following are my long-term impressions for those few who care.

I'll start with a quick recapitulation for anyone not eager to rummage through the 20 pages of prior motorcycle blather. This Buell is the latest in a dozen different bikes I've had over the years, and it's my first American motorcycle. I've owned mostly Japanese machinery, and my big bikes--750cc or bigger--have been either Hondas (3) or BMWs (3). And now this Buell. Before the Ulysses, my favorite of the big bikes has been a tie between my 1991 Honda VFR 750F and my 2004 BMW R1200RCK. Both were excellent all-round motorcycles with respectable big-bike performance. This Buell betters them both, and so takes my top spot. It equals or beats them both in actual performance numbers, I think, and it's more comfortable than either. And it gets a bit better mileage too. It's not quite up to the BMW's attention to detail, nor the Honda's contemporary engine design, but it's not too far afield on either count, and it simply works as well or better than either of them. Though I'm usually very quick to start looking for the Next Big Thing, my enthusiasm for the Buell remains very high as we finish our second summer together and embark on our third. This is unprecedented for me and I wonder about it a little.

Part of it has to do with expectation, I think. I didn't know what to expect from a small company based in rural Wisconsin, from a small-batch producer. Whatever else we might say, BMW and Honda are decidedly NOT rural, small-batch concerns. The Buell is not a perfect motorcycle, but when I was kind of expecting to be disappointed the little flaws and foibles are quite manageable, and the areas of real excellence are quite delightfully unexpected. If I paid $20K for the latest BMW, then ANYTHING not perfect tends to rankle. In this case, a lot of my expectations sprang from the Harley Davidson question. Motorcyclists seem either to be Harley people or NOT Harley people; I'm the latter. And Buell's affiliation with H-D (Buell is a wholly-owned subsidiary of H-D now) contributed to my strong reservations in making this purchase. As I say in the linked post just above, I have always found prompt and courteous treatment from the H-D dealership where I bought the bike and where I always take it for scheduled maintenance. They seem an excellent dealership. But I just have a tough time respecting H-D as a company. There remains the sense that their mission is primarily about nostalgia and marketing. It's a style thing. Certainly BMW and Honda care about styling and marketing as well, but as a finishing touch to an engineering exercise; both of those companies are renowned for pulling all their products into the future with ever-increasing technology and an excitement about what is new and advanced and cutting-edge. Harley is not about any of these things, or they certainly try to disguise anything that dilutes the nostalgic and traditional.

As I say, you either get their vibe or you don't. And for me to buy a product technically from the Harley Davidson Motor Company required a huge leap. But my Ulysses has been a revelation in most every way for me. It has confounded any expectations I had going in, and there's been precious little to dampen my growing enthusiasm. It's really comfortable, markedly more so than my last BMW; indeed, it outperforms that BMW in most respects (though BMW has since improved most every aspect of my old bike). Handling is light and responsive without being twitchy (which one might expect from the short wheelbase), and braking performance is at least on par with BMW's excellent Brembos. The Buell produces notably more power--and WAY more torque--than the BMW motor, though it has its own way of doing it and one would never confuse the two machines. And while it doesn't have quite BMW's premium attention to detail, it's very respectably made, Erik Buell having picked from top-shelf suppliers for wheels and brakes and suspension components and instruments and controls. It's a really nice bike, well-made and uniquely styled. And it delivers everything it promises.

Now, after almost 8,000 miles, I have a pretty good handle on the good and the bad. I've talked a good deal in these other posts about the good. So what of the bad? There isn't too much, really. The vibration inherent in the unbalanced 45° twin cylinder engine is well-controlled pretty much everywhere along the rev range except at and just above idle. But sitting at a stop light the bike shakes enough to make the turn signals shudder and it shakes your body enough to blur your vision. It not only feels disconcerting, it's like a neon sign to the world advertising its lack of refinement. It's a constant reminder that this is NOT the engine Erik Buell would have designed for this chassis. It's also a seriously undersquare motor, which results in a very low rev ceiling. So the bike has a very different personality than other modern bikes, including (or maybe especially) other big twins. Its exhaust note is more of a blat than a rising cadence, and while you get up to speed just as quickly, it has its own relaxed personality in the process. I've learned to appreciate this, which surprises me when I'm so taken with the high revving of, say, an F1 car and its 19,000 rpms. It's very analogous to how an old American V-8 makes its power: lots of torque down low in the rev range; it's not a modern way of making power, but it does the job quite well, thanks.

Because the engine is not faired in any way (much my preference: I hate a motorcycle's mechanical components hidden under plastic), the heat from the air-cooled motor is not controlled. The exhaust especially is not too far from your right leg. Sitting in stopped traffic, you're reminded quite forcefully of this. Liquid cooling would keep this heat away from one's burnable bits (among other things).

And once the oil temp is up, a disconcerting high-pitched whine from the rear cylinder cooling fan is ever-present. It's one thing to have this fan come on when you turn the bike off (which it does early on at middle temps), but once the bike is warmed up the fan runs all the time. I'm actually glad that the bike has what it needs to take care of itself thermally, but this is another reminder that Buell has needed to adapt the machinery at hand. Liquid cooling would cure this issue, just as a 90° V--or counterbalancers--would cure the vibration; and that's what we see on any modern sport twin.

But I've said numerous times that the engine--the source of so much misgiving on paper--simply wins me over on every ride, as if by brute force of character. It delivers the goods in practice beyond any serious complaint. It shakes at idle and has a very low redline (6,800 rpms, though it likes to visit often), but it pumps out a deliciously fat torque curve that enables the bike to squirt from place to place quite effortlessly. The fuel injection can seem a bit lurchy at very low revs, and the fan may make an unseemly noise, but it doesn't hamper the bike's performance in any way. These are trivial things. The engine is simply bursting at the seams with personality, and it doesn't extract any pound of flesh in return. Deal with the shudder at idle and the world is your oyster. I've had no mechanical issues in my 8,000 miles, and I read a British sport bike magazine a year ago which did a teardown of their motor at the end of their year-long abuse-fest and found no evidence of wear whatsoever. They said that everything that needed to be stout was.

Erik Buell's ZTL (for Zero Torsional Load) braking system features a single large disc mounted to the wheel not at the hub, as is the usual practice, but rather out near where the spokes reach the rim; the disc is then grabbed from the inside of the arc by a single, large caliper. This setup is unique to Buell and constitutes a genuine innovation. It gives excellent power in my normal riding, requiring only two fingers for any stop. But the reports of the system's performance in more hardcore sport riding, especially with the faster, more powerful 1125R, may have found and exceeded the system's limitations. Brake performance on my own bike has become a bit grabby, and it squeals when it's been heated up. There's also just a bit of sponginess in the lever feel, such that while the idea remains sound, I think there's room for improvement. Buell claims a six pound weight savings, which is really significant; but a second disc and a two smaller calipers would not sacrifice all of that savings. And the improved brake performance would merit the cost, I think.

Lastly, the Ulysses has a basic instrument cluster--speedo, tach and lights for oil pressure, engine, low fuel and neutral--which, again, seems to have come from an excellent supplier. The whole packaging betters that of the gauge cluster on my BMW, which featured antique mechanical spinning drums for mileage versus the Buell's liquid crystal display. But personally I'd like to see a gear indicator. There are only five ratios, and one learns pretty quickly what gear one is in by feel; but I've found myself tooling along on the highway in fourth often enough to conclude that an indicator would be nice--and should be cheap and easy to achieve.

The gearbox is a little clunky, but worlds better than my BMW 'box was. And I've never missed a shift here. My BMW tranny usually missed the 1-2 upshift if one were on the boil, and the 5-6 shift was always a bit reluctant, needing the clutch release to complete the deal. Given that shifting on a Harley has traditionally been a whole-leg affair, Erik Buell's gearbox represents a HUGE improvement--and indeed I think Harley has adopted Buell's handiwork across their line as the new "cruise drive" tranny.

In sum, this is a bike I'd recommend enthusiastically to almost anyone. For myself, I'm curious to see what Buell does with their new liquid-cooled Rotax motor vis-a-vis this chassis. I never thought I'd say this, but he'll have a tough act to follow to make his Rotax-motored bike work as well as his Harley-motored one. But that will be the next frontier. The Ulysses does not represent Erik Buell's core vision, I think. He is a racer and a racebike fan at his core, and their current 1125R is probably his ultimate effort. But the Ulysses has been Buell's biggest seller, doubtless because, like BMWs GS series, it does everything well--touring and adventure touring and sport riding and commuting and weekending alike. And I think I'm not alone in my initial hesitation about Buell because of the Harley motor. Even when I've come to love what he's done with the Sportster motor, I think he'll increase his sales with a modern powerplant in this excellent Ulysses chassis.

And at the moment I think I'll be one of them.


Dzesika said...

Isn't it cool to hit a state of symbiosis with a machine like that? I don't know the first thing about bikes, but I can sense a little bit of what this must feel like!

UlyKan said...

Great write up! Love your style and forthright honesty about the Uly. I've had a 2008XT since July and although you aren't particularly fond of HD I previously owned 2 Sportsters and loved both of them. They were lots of fun and very reliable. This is my first Buell and so far I'm impressed. Keep us updated with another long term update when you decide it's time to.

All the best,

Ulykan (Bob)

wunelle said...

Yes, a boy and his bike... ;-) (Come visit sometime and I'll take you for a ride!)

The XT! I'm really quite jazzed about this bike, enough to have looked into trading mine for one. I have no off-road aspirations whatsoever, but bought the Uly because it was roomy and comfortable for my old, fat self. But Buell have made significant, incremental improvements on the bike every year--many of which I'd like to have--and the XT is pretty much THE perfect motorcycle for how I ride.

There's just not QUITE enough difference to warrant my shelling out a few thousand to make the swap, especially since (I have to believe) a Rotax-powered Uly is maybe a year away.

We'll see; I may spring for the XT yet!

Thanks for stopping by.

UlyKan said...

As far as an invite to stop by for a ride...I live in Kansas so I'm probably not going to be in your "neighborhood" in the near future. (wherever your neighborhood might be) but if I'm ever headed in your direction I'll be sure and stop by. BTW I'm not sure if you know of this forum but if not then you need to visit.

I'm really enjoying my XT, it's really a fun bike to ride. Again, thanks for your blog and please keep it going.

wunelle said...

Here's an interesting quote from an August, 2007 interview with Erik Buell (right after the release of the 1125R) concerning how much Sportster there is in the XB motor:

"Well, ever since the 984 engine and the Blast engine, those were Buell engines; they’re not used in any Harleys and this Rotax is just a continuation of what we’ve been doing. It’s just a different engine supplier than Harley, but they’ve always been our engines, at least since the Blast. The tube framed bikes used a tweaked Harley Davidson engine but the XBs have new cases, heads, cams, even spin a different direction so there’s a lot of things in the configuration that look like a traditional Harley engine because, for that customer, we thought that was important. But it really was a unique engine when it came out; it shared almost no parts with the Sportster. Since that time they’ve brought more of those parts into the Sportster but there are still many, many differences so it is truly a unique Buell engine."