THE WHITE ARROW
Husqvarna’s avant garde return to road bikes
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.