Buell Firebolt XB12R

Buell XB12R Firebolt (2003 – 2007)

The latest generation of Buells have always held a special place in my heart. I know many riders instantly dismiss them as quirky, unreliable bikes but the chances are that these doubters have never actually ridden, or indeed owned, a Buell.

I have been lucky enough to do both of the above, on a number of occasions. When the Firebolt was launched I was one of the first to ride it around a sunny Valencia track in Spain before running one as a longterm bike for a year and over 10,000 miles and also being amongst the first to ride the Lightning on a rain soaked weekend in Southern France. So when it comes to these oddballs from the sports arm of Harley I have probably done more mileage than most other testers.

So what have all these miles told me about the bike? Well, for a start both in naked and half-faired form the Buell is a great handling bike, quick and light-steering while still totally stable at speeds. But it has faults.

For a start the 984cc motor always leaves you feeling that you could do with more power, especially in the sportier Firebolt which has the riding position and attitude to really make you explore the potential of the chassis. And then there’s the old Buell problem of reliability. Reports of the belt snapping on the XB9R were not too hard to find and the gearbox is horribly agricultural.

But Buell does listen to customer complaints and it reckons that, in the new XB12R Firebolt and XB12S Lightning, it has created two bikes that should put these demons to rest. Well, on specs alone things look good. I love the styling of the XB9 bikes but the XB12s look even better. Buell has kept everything on the bike identical that matters. The frame is the same and doubles up as a fuel tank, the swingarm is identical, rim mounted front brake disc etc.

To separate the bike visually the 12s get the frame and swingarm painted black, anodized gold wheels, a funky yellow screen and very classy deep red or mean black paint schemes. And in red they both look simply stunning.

But it doesn’t stop there. The 984cc engine has been given a longer stroke to take its capacity up to 1203cc and increase the power to a claimed 103bhp and torque to 84ft.lb (the 984cc makes a claimed 75bhp and 61ft.lb) while a new exhaust valve similar to Yamaha’s EXUP valve and larger diameter exhaust pipes boost the mid-range even further.

To help cure the belt snapping problems, which Buell claim is due to people twisting the belt which weakens it when removing the rear wheel, the drive belt is of a different construction and the guards have been redesigned to make it easier to remove the rear wheel. And finally a new gear change pedal to give a more positive feel to the gear changes and two-inch longer mirror stalks so you can see something other than your elbows in ‘em.

So what do all these changes add up to? Well, in my humble opinion these are the bikes that Buell should have launched first. The styling alterations are beside the point, it’s the changes to the motor that make the world of difference.

Buell always keen on showing off the handling capabilities of the XB range chose to launch the new bikes at Road America, a racetrack just down the road from Buell and Harley-Davidson’s home of Milwaukee.

Obviously with this logic in mind the first time we rode the XB12S Lightning was on a very small, very twisty supermoto track. While this wasn’t ideal for testing the new motor it did show that the new 1203cc engine retains all the good points of the smaller motor, but with an extra kick of power. The engine pulls smoothly and cleanly from as low as 2500rpm to the 6000rpm limit with no powerbands or kicks just instant grunt on tap everywhere.

Like the XB9 the injection is a bit stuttery very low down, but this is as much a character of the V-twin motor as anything else.

Buell Firebolt XB12R

As a road bike I have always preferred the naked Lightning over the Firebolt because, with its aggressive looks and tiny size combined with flat bars and torquey motor, it makes a perfect back road hooligan tool. Well, the XB12S is even better thanks to the extra punch of the motor. On the tight track the Lightning was getting quite frankly silly angles of lean.

The wide bars mean you can really force it into corners and just squirt the power on and off down the short straights. I can’t think of any other big naked bike, apart from possibly the Aprilia Tuono, that could have gone around this course quicker than the Lightning. But like I said, we only got into third gear so after a morning on the small track we headed out onto the proper circuit.

Most of the track riding was done on the more sports-orientated XB12R Firebolt. But by sports-orientated Buell actually mean it has a half-fairing, slightly higher pegs and a different tail unit. Apart from this the two bikes are identical so what reads for the Firebolt also reads for the Lightning.

As with the Lightning there are no surprises with the handling. The XB12R feels just like its smaller XB9R brother. In corners the Buell feels totally composed and you can really throw it around and lean it over much further than you first think with total confidence.

On standard suspension settings the initial turn-in can feel a bit lazy, but jacking the back end up a few clicks on the spring pre-load and stiffening the forks makes a world of difference and is definitely recommended. Apart from this the handling is just about perfect.

And with the chance to use the new motor properly it impresses even more. Many people question why Buell has such a sophisticated chassis while still using an air-cooled push-rod V-twin motor in it, but type of motor aside, the extra capacity has made a huge difference. While I don’t reckon the top speed is much beyond the XB9’s 130mph, the new engine has power every- where, which means that riders won’t find themselves searching for extra power on the road as you do on the XB9s.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,the XB12 is the bike Buell should have built first and I can’t really see where the XB9 now fits in. Buell claim that the higher revving 984cc motor will appeal to younger riders while the XB12 is for more mature bikers, but as there is only 1000rpm difference I can’t really see this being the case. And the 1203cc motor is just so much better that buyers would be better saving up their cash for a few extra months.

The choice of naked or faired depends on your situation, the fairing is of some use on a motorway and looks a bit more racey, but the flat bars of the Lightning make it a real hooligan tool and great fun to ride in town or back roads.

Buell Firebolt XB12R
Buell Firebolt XB12R
Buell Firebolt XB12R
Buell Firebolt XB12R
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