2003 Buell Lightning XB9S

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2003 Buell Lightning XB9S

Ride Review

ByDavid Hightower

Have you ever had your expectations blown away? Been forced to look at something that you were convinced would turn out one way and then see it become exactly the opposite?

That's what riding the 2003 Buell Lightning XB9S was like for me.

When the publisher called and mentioned that he needed a daily rider's impression of Buell's latest version of the Lightning, I was a bit apprehensive. After all, I had never really paid much attention to the Buell motorcycle component of Harley's marketing scheme. Sort of put them in the same category as orange bandannas and over-priced leathers. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. This is a street bike bike that delivers a short, responsive wheelbase, dirt-bike style riding position and 92 horses of Harley muscle.

The Buell Lightning is a stout, muscular machine that defies being put into any conventional category. The frame is a rigid work of aluminum art; two rectangular spars that curve back from the gooseneck to a point in space just above the fully exposed, 17" rear wheel. The frame doubles as a gas tank. The back rim just barely contains a fat, 180 mm Dunlop tire and is attached to the rest of the machine via a wishbone swingarm that serves as the oil reservoir. The dipstick is under your butt. In other words, the Buell is a dramatically different machine.

This is a small bike, one made for a specific purpose that the rider needs to fit, not the other way around. As I sat on the bike, waiting for the test ride paperwork to be executed, I felt a bit out of place. I ride bikes with saddlebags and Ape hangers and here I was perched on top of something that should have a number painted on the plate over the headlight. Buell calls this feeling the "Naked Streetfighter Bike" approach to riding. I just felt conspicuous. My anxieties over how to dress for a "Naked Streetfighter Bike" experience were allayed by the local dealer sales manager. He happily set me up on the Lightning, proving once again that dealer enthusiasm will always overcome common sense. He said that the Buell packed more innovative technology into a smaller package than anything he had seen in his 16 years of selling motorcycles. "Smaller Package" did not increase my enthusiasm, nor did the comments of Dan, my Harley riding friend; "Dude, you look like a circus bear on a mini-bike," he quietly informed me. The things I do for the Motorcycling Press…

The engine sounds like what Harley designers wish every Motor Company engine sounded like: High compression heads, a reverse flow exhaust design and mufflers that are close to a noise ordinance ticket. Delivering 92 horses at the rear wheel, the 948cc Lightning claims 68 foot-pounds of torque. Turn the key; thumb the start button and the Lightning roars to life. Keep small children and the elderly at a safe distance or at least strapped down when you roll on the throttle of this beast. Starts from dead cold were quick and flawless; not so for starting at normal running temperatures. Whether a feature of the Direct Downdraft Injection system or an anomaly of the bike that I was riding, re-starting the Buell once warm proved to be problematic. I could almost see the sexy new exhaust pipes begin to blue as the fuel system loaded up and the starter cranked. Once running though, the Buell inspires confidence.

Part of my test ride plan for the weekend was commuting through downtown Seattle to work. The Buell was surprisingly sure-footed in the rain and felt stable throughout our psychotic Friday night rush hour. Given the bikes' 385 lb. dry weight, the power to weight ratio feels just short of a Saturn 5 Booster. Driving the big rear skin is a Kevlar belt that keeps time with the flywheel via a fixed idle tensioner, eliminating the need for chassis lengthening adjustment screws.

Front and rear suspension on the Lightning is by Showa, the Japanese manufacturer of BMX and MotoCross fames. An interesting part of my experience is that I received a little card with the relevant suspension settings for how you like to ride printed on it. Adjust the forks and springs correctly and you will have an amazingly responsive ride, even if you're 6'3" and 230 lbs. The homage to technology doesn't stop there though; Erik Buell spent enough time as a Harley design engineer that his devotion to the big twin engine can be considered genuine, if a little misguided. Successfully stuffing what is essentially a Sportster 883 engine on steroids into a race bike chassis borders on genius. Evil genius perhaps, but genius nonetheless.

New ideas abound on this bike. The front brake is almost as big as the front wheel. 375 mm of full-stop, neatly bolted in place and administered by a six piston Nissin caliper. Like something from the next generation of fighter aircraft, melded onto a stubby little race bike. You sit high in the saddle on the Lightning and steer via a set of motocrosser-wide handlebars. It's also got pale green bulbs for the "Parking Light" setting of the twin headlights and a passing lamp switch for giving notice to the BMW driver in front of you that it is time he moved over. In other words, this is not a machine that fits neatly into motorcycle society.

Perhaps that's the best about the Buell; it's like riding an anachronism. A big engine feel in a small bike frame. 21 degrees of rake over 3.3 inches of front wheel trail. The Lightning is more like a well behaved Frankenstein's Monster than an entry into the current world of Crotch Rockets. This bike makes you feel like you're getting away with something. Billed as "more Super-Motard than Super-Bike," the Lightning exerts an upright stance that worried me at first. "Motard" is Italian for "Looks like a Circus Bear on a mini-bike."

On an extended test ride through Snohomish County, I took a road less traveled and did my best to put the Lightning into some appropriate cornering angles. A little while later as I got my heartbeat back under control and as the ringing sound in my ears subsided, I began to grin. Hell I began to sing. In Italian. Like some damn café racer lunatic.

That is not to say that the Buell is without fault. Buell motorcycles are in a state of evolution, caught in between the hand-built garage assembly lines of the past and Harley Davidson's giant marketing machine. As each new model is wedged into the HD product line and then rushed into production, it is inevitable that some engineering details will just be left behind. The fancy swingarm oil reservoir is an example; the drain plug is located on the underside of the wishbone, directly over the sexy chrome exhaust tips. That fancy front brake can stop you on a dime; it can also throw you over the handlebars in less time than it takes to say "Where's the ABS?" The rear brake lever and gear selector are both too short, requiring the rider to spend valuable time twisting his foot inwards to make contact. The transmission has one of the vaguest neutral slots that I have ever ridden and the neutral light is a chronic liar. The XB9's engine is almost too big for its' home; the rear cylinder is almost covered by the modern-art frame, requiring a high volume fan that is needed to keep it from melting down at low speeds. Unfortunately the only place left on the Lightning to mount the fan is underneath the seat, a space also occupied by the electronics bay. All of these shortcomings were probably slated to be fixed by the time Buell was ready to roll a proper production model out the door, but time and marketing pressures got in the way?

Motorcycle technology is a very jealous world and the forces of competition often dictate giving up on small details in order to be first with a new design. This is a forgivable sin, but it would be nice to see some refinements on next year's Lightning. Like a phrase book with the right thing to say when the Ducati rider rolls up next to you at a stop sign and stares in disbelief at the little bike with the big-bike engine and the grinning Circus –Bear sitting on it, singing Italian Opera.

For a listing of Northwest Buell dealers and service providers, CLICK HERE .

Test ride bike provided by Downtown Harley-Davidson.

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