2009 Buell Ullysses XB12XT – Road Test Review

[This 2009 Buell Ullysses XB12XT Road Test was originally published in American Rider magazine]

When was the last time you could get two bikes for the price of one? You won’t find that offer at your local dealer but you could find its equivalent in this new bike from the Buell subsidiary of Harley-Davidson: combine a riding position that offers excellent long-distance comfort with a sporty chassis and you have the 2009 Ulysses XB12XT.

I’ve often wondered why Buell bothers with two versions of the Ulysses. My daily ride is the original-model XB12X introduced in 2006. Its off-road capability is unique within the Motor Company (and, in my opinion, its best feature) so why would the factory produce the same bike without that capability? Well, put the pointy hat on my head and sit me in the corner because I was wrong. This XB12XT has a confusingly similar name (adding a final “T” for Touring) but is quite a different bike. Compared to the original, this one drops the chassis and seat over an inch, puts the front fender down close to the tire and makes three hard cases standard—small changes that add up to a bike much better for the pavement. It turns out that those smart folks at Harley and Buell actually know what they’re doing.

After picking up the Ulysses at the posh American Rider Northern California outpost I immediately get it ready for a weekend trip. Starting a four-day trip with a bike I’ve never ridden can be a recipe for disaster, but I figure that my previous Buell experience will let me quickly adapt. I’ll head south to watch friends at the AFM roadraces, camp at the track, and check out the new ride.

The hard saddlebags easily swallow everything I need for the weekend with room to spare. I’m not a big fan of top cases, since they put weight too high and too far back, but this one becomes a handy place to toss snacks and other quick-access items. I find out that the lid will only open a few inches when the unique Triple Tail backrest is upright; I set the Tail flat and forget about it.

Buell Ullysses XB12XT
Kevin Smith and the XB12XT stop to enjoy the view.

Getting a late start, I have to take interstates for most of the ride. My first impression is one of surprise: the lower seat height allows me to put my feet nearly flat, giving me a more secure feeling at low speeds. Those of you who ride big cruisers already know the advantages of a low seat height, but the Uly adds an upright seating position that is one of the most comfortable I’ve experienced. The flat seat lets me move around when I need to, the bars are where my hands naturally want to be and the mirrors miss most of my elbows so I can actually see who’s behind me.

The second impression is not so pleasant: it’s a mild spring day but heat from the right side is already roasting my thigh. The Ulysses has a fan under the seat that pulls heat away from the rear cylinder and that fan has been a notoriously touchy subject since its introduction. I’ve always been okay with it since I know the fan helps to reduce oil temperature, but it has a loud whine when running and many owners don’t like the noise. Apparently with the newer models Buell reprogrammed the fan so it’s off when the bike is being ridden. The result is quieter riding but more heat pouring out from the edge of the seat. I certainly hope that Buell finds a better solution but in the meantime I have to periodically tilt my thigh into the wind for some natural cooling.

Droning along on the freeway (I don’t like freeway travel), the suspension soaks up bumps and pavement ridges better than any sport bike. It’s darn near as comfortable as one of those half-ton touring bikes, and yet with more travel than a bagger even the occasional pothole doesn’t pop me out of the seat or send shocks along my spine. I can’t help but be impressed when I arrive at camp feeling more relaxed than with most other bikes.
After two days of moaning about my non-existent racing budget and watching my friends have fun on the track, I’m ready to do my own riding again. Rain came in the middle of the night, forcing me to get up and drag my tent out of a mudhole-in-the-making. The rest of the day stays dry, but another front has moved in with sprinkles of rain and a cold wind. Wanting to set up my next campsite before dark, I get back on the interstate and head south. An hour later I start to climb into the mountains that shield the rest of us from the weirdos in Southern California. I’m headed for a two-lane highway that will take me deeper into the mountains before I camp, but it’s now getting really cold. The higher I climb up the Grapevine, the lower the temperature gets until I’m greeted by snow flurries at the summit. I planned for rain but not for sub-freezing temperatures and my Kevlar-topped gloves aren’t blocking the wind.

Thankfully, my hands are saved by the heated grips—a standard item on the XT. Both heat settings are effective and there’s apparently a built-in thermostat with the higher setting cycling between “scald” and “recover.” The windshield keeps the cold away from my chest, the “wind deflectors” (the rest of us would call ’em handguards) provide some additional protection, and the heat that roasted my right thigh during the day is now keeping vital parts toasty warm. A cozy bed starts to seem more attractive than a cold tent so I head for the Rock Inn. While I’ve had lunch there on previous trips, this is the first time I check out their rooms. Each one has a unique charm with antique furnishings and big beds with thick quilts. A roaring fireplace inside the old bar and a steak dinner bring a warm end to a short but frigid ride.

Buell Ullysses XB12XT
Buell Ullysses XB12XT Triple Tail backrest and hard saddlebags

The next day I return north, getting an early start as I look forward to running the bike through twisty roads. Typically, a soft freeway ride means there’s not enough damping for the curves and the suspension will pogo up and down when pushed hard. Fortunately the XT is true to its Buell heritage and handles (pun intended) serpentine pavement just as well as it does the superslab. Even though it’s a little softer than I’m used to, the bike has completely neutral steering and is a joy to ride quickly through the turns. Every XB I’ve ridden has been very sensitive to suspension adjustments and I’m sure that I could improve the Uly’s feel by tightening up the settings, but I’m having so much fun riding that I don’t bother. The lower seat also gives more confidence by putting my butt closer to the road, frankly surprising me that a couple of inches can make such a difference. (Hey, no rude jokes! This is American Rider. We got class.) It takes me twice as long to get home compared to the freeway but it is time well spent. The Buell averages about 45 mpg, with a low of 37 while fighting strong headwinds at, um, legal speeds, taking me 130-160 miles before the reserve light blinks on.

A few days later I convince my wife to come with me on a day trip. Starting with the “beautiful red color,” she finds lots of things to like about the Ulysses: the pillion is a bit higher than the rider’s portion so she can see over my helmet; there’s plenty of room behind me for her to move around; the Triple Tail keeps her from slipping back; and a power outlet hidden inside the tail section lets her cozy up to her electric vest (this is in addition to a power outlet in the dash). I like that the rear shock has a handy knob for spring preload and it takes only a few seconds to set it up for two people instead of one.

There’s a strange pleasure in finding fault with a new bike so it actually disappoints me that there’s not more about which to complain. The Sportster may have a very similar engine but suffers from being 100 pounds heavier with less power and no standard luggage. Compared to an Electra Glide or Softail Classic, the Ulysses shaves off at least 250 pounds and has 16 more horses. It also handles better, has more luggage capacity, a better passenger seat and costs—drum roll, please—$5,000 less! If the reactions from folks along the way are any indication, Buell could have a real winner among traditional V-twin enthusiasts. Those who have been waiting for a comfortable long-distance machine but want it to be sporty and American-built need wait no longer. The XB12XT absorbs bumps better than any other touring bike that I’ve ridden yet sweeps through turns like a sport bike. You’re practically getting two bikes for the price of one—that’s a deal in any economy.


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