Husq­varna’s avant garde re­turn to road bikes

Cycle World - - Contents - By ARI HEN­NING

Test: the 2018 Husq­varna Vit­pilen 701

To the ca­sual ob­server, Husq­varna is an off-road brand, and al­ways has been. The Swedish mar­que was in the van­guard of mo­tocross in the 1960s and will for­ever be as­so­ci­ated with leg­ends like Bud Ed­kins and Mal­colm Smith, but Husq­varna’s his­tory is far more ex­ten­sive and var­ied. Husq­varna is one of the old­est com­pa­nies in the world, founded as an arms man­u­fac­turer in 1689. Husky made mus­kets, sew­ing ma­chines, and bi­cy­cles be­fore it pro­duced its first mo­tor-driven cy­cle in 1903, the same year Har­ley-david­son opened shop. As a maker of road-go­ing sin­gles and V-twins, Husq­varna en­joyed Grand Prix suc­cess at hal­lowed venues—even the Isle of Man. All of this was decades be­fore the com­pany’s lightweight two-strokes be­gan em­bar­rass­ing the heavy four-stroke off-road­ers that dom­i­nated com­pe­ti­tion in post-world War II Europe.

All of this is to say that when Husq­varna brass or­dered up a street­bike that would sat­isfy the ne­o­retro aes­thetic mil­len­ni­als crave while ad­her­ing to Husq­varna’s tra­di­tion of per­for­mance and in­no­va­tion, the de­sign team had more her­itage to work with than most peo­ple re­al­ize. The re­sult is the Vit­pilen 701. It’s fu­tur­is­tic yet clas­sic, and adamantly shirks clas­si­fi­ca­tion. Is it a café racer, a street tracker, or an ec­cen­tric naked?

Does it mat­ter? What does mat­ter is that it presents an ex­cit­ing and unique way for rid­ers to take to two wheels, and for Husq­varna, the Vit­pilen rep­re­sents the brand’s bold re­turn to street­bikes, as well as­ser­tion of what motorcycles should be: sim­ple, func­tional, and fun.

I’ll ad­mit that I fig­ured the Vit was just another style-over-sub­stance fash­ion state­ment—maybe in part be­cause it does, in fact, make such a strong vis­ual state­ment. Then I rode this Husky in Barcelona, Spain, at the bike’s in­ter­na­tional press launch, and even ham­mered the lone ho­molo­ga­tion model in the U.S. at our test fa­cil­ity in Cal­i­for­nia. In do­ing so, I learned this ma­chine is rooted firmly in func­tion. Per­haps that’s be­cause the tube-steel frame and 693cc sin­gle-cylin­der en­gine are culled from the “ready to race” 690 Duke built by KTM, Husq­varna’s par­ent com­pany. Out­fit­ted with ad­justable WP sus­pen­sion, top-shelf Ital­ian brak­ing com­po­nents, and enough torque to loft the front wheel in first or sec­ond gear, the Vit­pilen’s per­for­mance is as de­ci­sive as its ap­pear­ance.

And boy, what an ap­pear­ance. Ex­cept for big Dot-man­dated turn sig­nals in place of sleek LED units, this pro­duc­tion Vit­pilen is the spit­ting image of the con­cept bike Husq­varna de­buted at EICMA in 2015. Rigid, al­most-in­dus­trial lines in­ter­sect with supre­ma­tist shapes at the tank and tail, cre­at­ing an image that is cap­ti­vat­ing and com­plex, yet in­cred­i­bly clean. It looks lean. It looks like a sculp­ture. It looks un­com­fort­able.

Thank­fully, it’s not. The seat skews to­ward hard and high, and the clip-on bars that an­gle off the triple clamp are wide and low, but the rid­ing po­si­tion isn’t too ag­gres­sive, and as a pack­age it’s sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able,

BE­LOW: That round head­light might say retro, but the LED head­light and perime­ter ring are as mod­ern as light­ing comes. Note the Day-glo di­ag­o­nal “split” that runs from the tank through the pas­sen­ger rearsets, sep­a­rat­ing the front of the ma­chine from the rear. OP­PO­SITE: The Vit­pilen is a com­pe­tent do-it-all, but it’s most at home on city streets.

even af­ter a full day of rid­ing. Well-cal­i­brated sus­pen­sion helps here—the fork and shock are sport­bike taut yet mer­ci­fully com­pli­ant, smooth­ing out the worst hits Barcelona threw at me. That’s a hard bal­ance to strike, es­pe­cially with a low-mass mo­tor­cy­cle, so credit to Husq­varna and WP for nail­ing the sus­pen­sion setup. If the set­tings aren’t to your lik­ing, there’s plenty of ad­justa­bil­ity.

“Vit­pilen” is Swedish for “white ar­row,” and the bike pays vis­ual, eponymic, and ide­o­logic homage to the 1955 Sil­ver­pilen, a do-it-all ma­chine that Husq­varna de­signed around the fresh (at the time) idea that less weight would im­prove per­for­mance and us­abil­ity. It’s a con­cept that be­came an ethos that helped make Husq­varna off-road­ers so po­tent, and it’s ev­i­dent in the Vit­pilen too.

At just 362 pounds full of all nec­es­sary flu­ids, the 701 is im­pres­sively light. Lighter than an RC390, ac­tu­ally, yet the Vit makes 75 per­cent more power thanks to a big, feisty en­gine. Sin­gles aren’t typ­i­cally ex­cit­ing, but this one has gobs of tractable power, and it’s been laced with the lat­est tech­nolo­gies. Throt­tling is ride-by-wire, the in­take charge is ig­nited by twin spark plugs, a slip­per clutch copes with ex­cess back torque, and there’s switch­able trac­tion con­trol and ABS for safety. Plus a quick­shifter and auto-blip down­shift­ing, just for the joy of it.

What’s most im­pres­sive about this en­gine is its lack of an­noy­ing vi­bra­tion. In­stead of buzzing, it throbs like a V-twin at idle and at speed, the re­sult of com­pre­hen­sive coun­ter­bal­anc­ing that in­cludes a weighted shaft in the

val­ve­train where an ex­haust cam would nor­mally re­side. Com­bine that smooth-spin­ning en­gine with a rid­ing pos­ture that bal­ances you against the wind­blast, and the Husq­varna is pretty well-suited to cruis­ing down the free­way at an in­di­cated 80 mph.

But the city is where this bike be­longs. In­cred­i­bly com­pact and de­li­ciously nim­ble, the Vit­pilen’s de­meanor has a way of mak­ing traf­fic fun. With a light-ac­tion hy­draulic clutch and in­stant grunt, you can’t help but treat stop­lights like race starts. Man­hole cov­ers be­come apexes, speed bumps are lit­tle launch ramps, and round­abouts morph into chi­canes. This is one of just a hand­ful of bikes that has per­fect line feel—once you set the bike on an arc, the only rea­son to main­tain your grip on the bars is to keep the throt­tle open. That in­tu­itive­ness makes the Vit­pilen so much fun to ride.

There’s an essence to this bike, a sen­ti­ment and an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s not avail­able any­where else in mo­tor­cy­cling. Husq­varna has com­bined the ap­proach­a­bil­ity and fun fac­tor of a be­gin­ner bike like Honda’s CBR300R with se­ri­ous per­for­mance and a style that’s like noth­ing we’ve ever seen. It’s strik­ing, ex­cit­ing, and so­phis­ti­cated. At $11,999, it’s also very ex­pen­sive for what it is.

And as ex­cel­lent as this bike is—to my sur­prise, I might add—that price point is li­able to turn more than a few peo­ple away. I hope I’m wrong, be­cause I love what this bike means. For one, it’s a dar­ing re-en­try into the street mar­ket by one of the world’s old­est mo­tor­cy­cle brands. And for the mar­ket, it’s a move to­ward sim­ple, light, po­tent ma­chines that are both easy to han­dle and end­lessly fun to ride. Sure, it uses some fa­mil­iar parts, but the com­pany has done some­thing orig­i­nal with them, like an artist us­ing com­mon colors to cre­ate a unique paint­ing. Husq­varna has pressed the re­set but­ton on what a street mo­tor­cy­cle can be, and there’s magic in the re­sult.

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