Buell XB9R Firebolt (2002–10) review

Posted: 04 Jul 2013

Buells are bikes that instantly split opinions – they are a true Marmite machine with owners falling passionately in love with their quirks and non-owners merrily pointing out their numerous faults…

Founded by Erik Buell, Buell Motorcycles went mainstream in 1997 as Harley-Davidson’s ‘sportsbike arm’ however it wasn’t until the launch of the XB range that their popularity really started to increase. Having developed several Harley-powered racers, Erik’s company was bought out by Harley in the 1990s and he was given the backing to create his own brand of sportsbike. Early machines such as the Cyclone and Thunderbolt were a taste of things to come, but no one really expected what arrived in 2002…

People sniggered at the thought of a Harley sportsbike, in 2002 they stopped laughing. The XB9R was like nothing else. Part 250GP bike, part Harley, the Firebolt boasted technology that even the Japanese weren’t using. Ok the engine may have been a fairly low-tech air-cooled V-twin (despite looking like a Sportster motor it isn’t) but with the fuel stored in the frame, the oil in the swingarm and a huge rim-mounted front disc the Firebolt was a truly unique machine. And it worked.

The Buell soon developed a reputation as one of the best handling bikes around. Small, agile and extremely happy to lean over, the Firebolt was immensely entertaining to ride, but like all Buells it had its faults…

The air-cooled engine didn’t like to be rushed and the gearbox was terrible – then drive belts started to snap. Wags quickly re-named it the Firefault as more mechanical issues arose. Undeterred, Erik increased the XB’s capacity to 1203cc in the XB12 models and also introduced a naked bike into the range, the Lightning. But despite the generally positive reaction from buyers things weren’t good behind the scenes.

Harley dealers struggled to grasp the concept of a sportsbike and weren’t comfortable selling Buells alongside the traditional cruisers. When Erik launch the water-cooled 1125 range it was the last roll of the dice, sadly they didn’t succeed as the financial crisis hit and Harley closed the doors on Buell on 9th October 2009.

Nowadays the XB has a loyal following and if you are after a quirky second hand machine the Firebolt is well priced and fun. Some spares are becoming tricky to locate, reliability is suspect and service costs can be high, but as with any ‘character’ machine owners soon brush over these facts. In the cold light of day it’s hard to justify owning a Buell, however if you do you will certainly fall in love with its unique charms…

+ points – Unique look, handling, technology

- points – Service costs, reliability, lack of spares

Year: 2002/2010

Power: XB9R – 97bhp, 70lb.ft. XB12R - 103bhp, 84lb.ft

Kerb weight: 179kg (dry)

Seat height: 775mm

Colours: Blue, yellow, black, white