Buying Guide: Buell XB Range

There’s a bit of motorcycling where it’s all about giving the convention the middle finger, doing it your way and having fun. That’s exactly what the Buells do. They are weird, they are lazy, and despite some problems and some surprising paradoxes, they are ahead of the pack in some areas.

This Lowdown focuses on the XB Buells: the XB9S and XB12S Lightning factory street fighters, the XB9R and XB12R Firebolt sports bikes, and the XB12X Ulysses touring adventure. To many, they are the perfect examples of the breed, dynamically superior to the early tubular frame machines and more appealing than the latest water-cooled offerings with their “controversial” appearance.

The XBs perform different roles, but share many parts. The engine and frame are almost all identical and both contribute to making these bikes unique and enjoyable. The frame, like much of the chassis, is high-tech and packed with innovation. Buell pioneered mass centralization by installing hanging exhausts and using the frame as a fuel tank. The unique rim-mounted discs match the stopping power of conventional twin-rotor setups, and the resulting reduction in unsprung weight improves suspension performance. This, along with a laser-sharp geometry, means riding with exceptionally responsive handling.

Combined with this cutting-edge, innovative chassis, we’ve got vintage air-cooled Harley-Davidson V-twins that don’t quite match their rivals in sheer power, but exude more character and torque in the low and mid range.

They are kinky, sassy and great to ride. But rumors of poor workmanship and poor reliability haunt the brand and deter some buyers. Luckily, a whopping 102 XB owners filled out our online survey and told us what it’s really like to live with these bikes. They’ve put almost a million miles between them in their Buells, so believe what you read here.

Buell XB Range Specifications

2002 Buell XB12R Firebolt

Engine a/c, injected, 4v, V-twin, 1,203 cc (984 cc) Power 103 hp (92) Torque 84 ftlb (71) Weight 179 kg (175) Seat height 775 mm Fuel tank 14 liters Top speed 155 mph (150) ( XB9R digits in supports)

2003 Buell XB12S Lightning

Engine a/c, injected, 4v, v-twin, 1,203cc (984cc) Power 103bhp (92) Torque 84ftlb (71) Weight 197kg (175) Seat height 755mm Fuel tank 14 liters Top speed 140mph (xb9s numbers in brackets)

2006 Buell XB12X Ulysses

Engine a/c, injected, 4v, V-twin, 1,203 cc Power 103 hp Torque 84 ftlb Weight 193 kg Seat height 840 mm Fuel tank 17 liters Top speed 135 mph

The nuts and bolts

Forty-five percent of the cyclists indicated that they had no problems with their bicycle. 24% had one, 29% had one and an unlucky 2% had many. That’s not brilliant. The Ducati 749 and 999 we recently examined fared better, as did the Aprilia Tuonos. Even the recently reviewed Triumph T595s and 955i Daytonas had fewer problems and are much older bikes. So Buells has problems, but some more than others.

What are the problems with Buell XB Range?

Well, there are many different ones reported in our survey. The most common is wheel bearing failure with 13 people complaining about it in just 2,300 miles. More worryingly, several owners had major engine problems, including a broken connecting rod, broken piston and two cases of crankshaft bearing failure. Many owners suffered from minor electrical faults, two of which were caused by wires rubbing under the seat. Two owners reported issues with: engine mounts, broken exhaust bolts, governor rectifier failure, warped brake discs and loose sidestands.

A rear subframe from a 2005 Ulysses was completely broken, although the bike was rarely used with a passenger or luggage. Buell replaced it, even though the bike wasn’t under warranty. Another Ulysses (a 2008 bike) needed a new engine after just 1,000 miles, and the replacement also presented problems – these problems were traced to a batch of unreliable oil pumps. Some bikes don’t perform well in the rain or after a wash, but the new HT cables seem to be helping.

Some drive belts also broke but can be considered consumables – a Free Spirit belt tensioner seems to help the belt and more importantly the gearbox output bearing. A total of 52 malfunctions were reported, not counting defective wheel bearings and broken drive belts. It sounds a bit bleak, but XB9X City X owner Simon Mapp sums up the feelings of most Buell owners. He says, “Normal wear on a Buell isn’t exactly the same as other bikes.”

Many of the XB’s problems can be solved quite easily. It helps to be a member of a good owners forum such as the excellent

The finish is generally quite good with one exception: the exhaust. Mild steel and where it sticks to the front tire it can rust in 500 miles. Thirty-six percent of owners said they were disappointed with this. Some also said fasteners were corroded, paint peeling in some areas, including plastic on the back and wheels. A handful noted that the switchgear was quite dated, but otherwise there were no real problem areas. Overall that’s pretty good and many owners said their Buells had better finish than the Japanese bikes they owned.

Alastair Clegg has owned four of these crazy devices and has nothing bad to say about them.

“They are an obsession for me. I like his quirkiness. Every time I fill up, someone approaches me to talk to me about the bike. I like that they were designed by one man, not a team of accountants.

“I’ve had four: a Lightning Long, a Super TT and two Ulysses and I’ve never had a problem with them. I drove my Lightning Long all the way to the south of France and almost let it run dry. I finally filled it up with diesel car oil and it still ran like clockwork.

“I rode one of the Ulysses about 25,000 miles from Anchorage, Alaska, to the Arctic Circle, then across the Americas to Buenos Aires. At one point he was riding with an Irishman on an R1200GS, but his immobilizer failed, leaving him stranded. The Buell could handle it all: crash, hurricane, gravel banks, bad fuel and never missed a beat.

“I’ve had an Aprilia RSV Factory before and I think I’m faster on a twisty track or on tight country roads with a Buell. I have full confidence in the Buells: you can throw them around any corner and they will move. The Super TT was the best for blasting away, but the Ulysses is more versatile.”

Operating Expenses

For a big, fast bike, these Buells are good on fuel. The 1200cc bikes are pretty frugal with the XB12R Firebolts averaging 46 mpg, the XB12S Lightnings 48 mpg and the XB12XX Ulysses 50 mpg. The 984cc machines are even better with 48 mpg for the XB9R Firebolt and 52 mpg for the XB9S machines.

Service charges are not such good news. Services are alternate minor/major every 5,000. Looking at 1,200cc bikes as a whole, the average price paid for a minor service was £242 and a major service was £589. Bikes with smaller engines are slightly cheaper to run but only a few pounds. Some owners use independent mechanics and other official dealers. Many of them say the service charge is too high, citing labor costs of £70-£75 per hour at official dealers who can bring the main service around £700.

Despite these high rates, a handful of owners say they are not impressed with the way their bikes are treated at major dealers. If you can find one, a good, knowledgeable Buell independent can make property much cheaper and more enjoyable. Many owners praised The Emporium (0161 343 3077), an independent Buell specialist based in Dukinfield, near Manchester.

Tires and Brake Pads

Tire life varies widely and depends on how each bike is ridden. With a lot of torque, these machines shred rubber quickly when used hard. Average tire life, per owner, in miles: XB12R 3416(f), 2818(r); XB12S 5856(f), 4011(r); Ulysses 6,673(f), 5,079(r); smaller engine models 5,946(f), 5,035(r).

The most popular tires for Firebolts are Pirelli Diablos. On Lightning’s, Pirelli Scorpion Sync: these have a certain off-road preference and are fitted as standard on some City models with small engines and the XB12S Super TT. The Pirelli Scorpion Sync is also the best option on the Ulysses. The Dunlop D616s are not very popular.

The most popular brake pads are the original Buell. Owners are quite lukewarm about them and some say they are expensive and can leave deposits on drives. The second most popular are from EBC and are considered an improvement by most. Nearly as many use brake pads and say CM55 brakes are the best option.

What to Assess?

Buy used? Here’s the best advice on what to look out for. Frame Damage – It’s fragile and minor damage can quickly be enough to write off the bike. Drive Belt Tensioner – Some owners say that without an aftermarket tensioner (Free Spirit) the gearbox output bearing can fail, which is a huge job and therefore expensive to replace.

It is essential to assess the condition of the wheel bearings and headset. Jammed wheel spindles or draw adjusters are an essential overhaul. Service history is crucial as these bikes need proper care; Some owners say it pays to change the oil every 2,500 miles and regular oil checks never hurt, especially on older models.

There are 14 Buells in our review section, including XBs, we’re looking for your thoughts on the eccentric American manufacturer range.

Steve Loxton is a dealer manager at Black Bear Harley Davidson and Buell in Newmarket.

“I like Buells. I have a S1W White Lightning and an XB12X Ulysses. They have a lot of character and the Ulysses is a very practical bike, it can do everything. It’s the most versatile bike you can buy. It skims by like a superbike after work, then charges up and heads abroad for the weekend, riding on bumpy roads to get to those somewhat remote places.

“Some owners are not interested in some official dealers. They’re all HD dealers and they like Harleys, not what they see as sports bikes. We love Buells at Black Bear and employ five of them.

“My experience with reliability is very good, but you can’t buy one and expect it to be like a Japanese bike. When you buy a Honda, you can expect 99% reliability. With a Buell it will be over 90%.

“They are never the kind of bikes that are sold in bulk because they appeal to a certain type of rider, people who want something different. They are usually the type who also like Moto Guzzi.

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