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Sunday, April 19, 2009

BUELL 1125 R

Buell 1125R

Buell 1125R (image © PA)

The 1125R had a rocky start when the original bikes, plagued with fuelling glitches and other faults, were withdrawn and tweaked. Now, with the problems ironed out, we have America's first real superbike in all its glory.

It's been a controversial move by Erik Buell, not least because he ditched Harley-Davidson's air-cooled, 45-degree lumps in favour of an Austrian Rotax liquid-cooled monster of an engine. If you want something a little bit different from an inline-four Japanese rocket (and for a reasonable price) then the Buell 1125R is a worthy contender.

The launch of the 1125R coincides with the 25th anniversary of Erik Buell (pictured with Jane at the top of the page) founding the Buell Motorcycle Company. Twenty-five years of air-cooled, Harley-Davidson based engines and Erik’s unusual designs have established this subsidiary of Harley-Davidson as unique and full of character. The quest for mass centralisation and low unsprung weight has lead to the quick-steering Buells having innovations such as fuel in the frame and oil in the swingarm. And although this bike shares some of those characteristics the 1125R is an all-new platform for the American manufacturer. Far from being all-American, this is a global bike - the fully adjustable Showa suspension is Japanese and the engine management system is Italian.

Buell 1125R (image © PA)

Austrian heart

So although the aluminium frame is built in the USA, the heart of the 1125R is Austrian and it’s the first liquid-cooled engine ever used to power a road-legal Buell bike. The 72 degree, V-twin Helicon engine was designed and developed in partnership with BRP-Rotax which builds the powertrains for the likes of Aprilia’s RSV 1000R. Unsurprisingly, the texture of the engine felt familiar, rather like an early Mille, torquey yet noisily agricultural. The vibrations have been kept to a minimum by using no less than three counterbalance shafts, and indeed on track, they appeared negligible. But on the road, my hands tingled over 5,000rpm and the mirrors I’d previously ignored on track shuddered as the revs rose towards the 10,500rpm redline.

Buell 1125R (image © PA)

On day one, I’d launched myself at the breathtaking Laguna Seca circuit in Monterey. The corkscrew had fried my brain way before I’d actually ridden it. That’s the famous chicane with a stomach-churning drop that makes Blackpool’s Big Dipper seems as sedate as a kid’s fairground ride. As I threw the bike from left to right, the track fell away beneath me, forcing all my internal organs to the top of my throat and my heart to bounce off the back of my teeth. But that’s not all - the start/finish straight requires nerves of steel and the cajones of a GP racer and I have neither.

Buell 1125R (image © PA)

On-track Titan

Keep it pinned in fourth as you crest the blind curve beneath the branded bridge? If you’re Jeremy McWilliams, maybe; if you’re Jane Omorogbe, your throttle hand rolls off involuntarily, lap after lap after lap. Willpower counts for nothing. This is without doubt, one of the most technically and physically demanding circuits in the world. Which is why after six sessions, led initially by ex MotoGP star Jezza, I felt convinced that this new Buell was indeed worthy of all the PR spiel: “Easy to ride, effortless, undemanding, predictable …” it seemed all that and more.

Buell 1125R (image © Buell)

Slicing through the six-speed box was smooth and clean, the 1125R uses a lightweight belt as opposed to a more traditional chain. The torquey, familiar throb of a V-twin engine and the traditionally responsive handling of a Buell motorcycle allowed me to focus on learning the track for the first few sessions and only once did the bike behave in a manner that unnerved me. Note to self - if you change down two gears, whilst braking heavily for the corkscrew, then yes, the 1125R’s slipper clutch will prevent the back end from hopping around like a jack hammer but the bike will insist on fishtailing sideways. It’s not pleasant. So don’t do it again.

Buell 1125R (image © Buell)

Road-going wrongs

All the bikes were tweaked and labelled according to body weight and after making fairly steady progress on track with the suspension set up for my frame, I decided to try a ‘heavier’ version. I thought the slight adjustment to the rear preload meant the 1125R handled even better than before, despite being theoretically too stiff. The front felt firmer and the bike held the line with more determination. The responsiveness was immediate, but not overly sharp and my confidence in the bike was such that the once hugely intimidating track was now equally huge fun. However, although I enthused alongside my fellow journalists that evening, the following day’s road ride shone a completely different light and it was less than flattering.

Buell 1125R (image © Buell)

On track, the usual lumpy characteristics of a fuel-injected V-twin at low revs weren’t overly obvious, as all the riding is done with the throttle held either open or shut with varying degrees of aggression. The road ride however meant sections of constant throttle and a stutter at around 4,000rpm soon became evident; but only on some bikes. It’s reasonable to expect some slight variations between pre-production launch models, especially with a relatively small manufacturer like Buell, but the pre-production quirks didn’t end with the fuelling.

Buell 1125R (image © Buell)

Too hot too handle

Where the 1125R had felt tight and confidence-inspiring on track, on day two’s road ride, the chassis truly felt as rigid as the press blurb boasted. I became more aware of the input required to counter steer the bike into slow speed corners and as a result of the pressure I’d put on the ’bars, the imperfections in the road’s surface were magnified and impacted on the bike’s stability. Buell later said that the suspension units on the launch bikes were not to the specifications they’d requested and that they’d be revised for the production models. But the most niggling factor, considering this is a sporty road-bike, was the heat generated by the engine.

Buell 1125R (image © Buell)

The right foot-peg is situated close to the engine casing and as a result, my toes became increasingly hot and the ball of my right foot was assaulted by a combination of vibration and heat. Being over six foot, the riding position was comfortably sporty, but as I watched a shorter rider struggling to lift the bike from the side-stand, I couldn’t help but wonder if there were any other issues for the vertically challenged. There are - the seat is not overly high, but it is fairly wide, so where my legs snuggled neatly into the recesses in the tank, shorter riders may find their knees resting on the framework, which holds the heat like a greenhouse in the height of summer.

Buell 1125R (image © Buell)

Verdict

Is the 1125R the exciting new Buell we’re expecting? Well, even with the pre-production niggles, it certainly appears to have established the basis of a new generation of Buell bikes that will eventually live up to the hype. But until the finished versions appear in our showrooms in November, complete with revised fuelling, suspension and heat evacuation, the jury’s out. And that’s as frustrating and enticing as drooling over an exquisite dessert menu on the first day of a strict diet.



World Superbikes winner MSMW2012