Engaging White Arrow
‘Vitpilen has done a great job of highlighting the old Swedish brand’s relaunch following its Austrian takeover in 2013.’ We had an opportunity to put it through its paces in the hills north of Barcelona
Two thoughts occur in quick succession, up in the hills north of Barcelona, as the Vitpilen 701 slices through another set of bends with thrilling ease and accuracy. the first is a question, but provides an answer in itself as i momentarily find myself wondering whether any other street bike would have dispatched that sinuous section with quite as much panache as the supremely light, taut, and flickable husqvarna single.
the second thought is simple recognition that this is the Vitpilen’s natural habitat: twisty, flowing, traffic-free tarmac — not the choked streets of the catalan capital, where we’d begun the ride, and certainly not the glittering exhibition halls and city-centre boutiques where the Vitpilen’s striking lines seem to have been endlessly displayed and discussed in recent years.
in other words, the Vitpilen is a light and sweet-handling machine that is at its best on fine motorcycling roads rather than merely a less practical ktM in an expensive designer suit. Although if you had a cynic’s desire to prick the bubble of hype that has been inflated around husqvarna’s street bike renaissance, you could argue that it’s both of those things.
what’s for sure is that the Vitpilen and its equally stylish, soon-to-be-released svartpilen sibling (“Black Arrow” in swedish, to the Vit’s white) have done a great job of highlighting the old swedish brand’s relaunch following its Austrian takeover in 2013. Both models have already managed to give husqvarna an edgy street bike image — softer than ktM’s ready-to-race ethos — despite sharing most parts with orange models.
husqvarna’s development team must be commended for creating a production-ready Vitpilen 701 that remains faithful to the concept bike unveiled in Milan in 2015. the distinctive tank shape (it’s actually a plastic cover), minimalist seat and clip-on bars give a modern take on the old café racer theme. the prototype’s retro-style paper airfilters are gone and the slash-cut silencer has grown in length, but the bold Vitpilen look has barely been diluted.
husqvarna’s marketing is equally creative, claiming that the Vitpilen 'reflects the attitude of a more modern and freethinking rider', and was designed to offer a 'purer, more thrilling and honest riding experience'. All intended to give
the impression that the husky offers something radically different, although its major components are borrowed from the two-year-old 690 Duke.
the 693-cc Dohc, four-valve single engine is mechanically unchanged from its ktM specification, although the ride-by-wire injection system is tweaked to give a slightly softer response. the air-box is reshaped and a new exhaust system with initial chamber under the engine helps give a claimed maximum of 75 Ps at 8,500 rpm, matching that of the discontinued 690 Duke r. the only mechanical change is to the six-speed gearbox, which is modified to improve selection and to accommodate the Vitpilen’s addition of a two-way quick-shifter as standard fitment.
the trellis frame of chrome-molybdenum steel tubes also comes from the Duke, modified only to fit a new fuel tank that reduces capacity from 14 to 12 litres. there’s also a new aluminium rear sub-frame to support the Vitpilen’s minimalist seat unit. suspension follows the standard 690 Duke’s by coming from in-house supplier wP and giving 135 millimetres of travel at each end. But the 43-mm usD forks are higher-spec units, more like those of the old 690 Duke r, featuring damping adjustment via hand-turnable knobs at the top of each leg.
that neatly shaped seat is thin and firm but, at 830 mm, is slightly lower than the Duke’s and helps make the Vitpilen feel manageable when you climb aboard, helped by fairly
Husqvarna’s marketing is equally creative, claiming that the Vitpilen 'reflects the attitude of a more modern and free-thinking rider'
generous steering lock and a light weight of just 157 kg without fuel. No bike with clip-ons is going to be suited to city riding but the Vitpilen’s bars are mounted level with the top yoke, rather than below it, so the riding position wasn’t too harsh on the wrists as we headed out of Barcelona.
Fuelling is crisp and the Husqvarna felt very refined provided its engine was kept above about 4,000 rpm. However, there’s still some big-single juddering at low revs, so a few times I found myself hastily treading down a gear to calm the shakes through bars and seat. Predictably, the Vitpilen was happier when speeds increased. With clear road ahead, it leapt forward with enough urgency to remind me that its engine might have only one cylinder, but KTM’s LC4 unit is simply not like ordinary singles.
It’s much more powerful and responsive, for one thing; especially above about 6,000 rpm when its response to a tweak of the throttle is to send the Vitpilen shooting forward, even in the higher gears. There’s enough top-end power for easy 130 km/h cruising — by which time there’s enough wind pressure to take the weight off your wrists — and acceleration from there towards a top speed of about 200 km/h.
Equally importantly, ever since the LC4 engine’s 2016 upgrade, which added a second balancer shaft in the cylinder-head, the single has been sufficiently smooth to make using its performance a pleasure rather than a teethrattling pain. And the Vitpilen gains over the similarly freespinning and entertaining 690 Duke with its quick-shifter, which responded flawlessly to my big left boot although a couple of riders reported an occasional missed shift.
The Husky also matched and possibly even exceeded the KTM when we reached twisty roads near the Catalunya circuit. On mostly smooth surfaces here its aggressive riding position, light weight, sporty steering geometry and sophisticated, well-damped suspension combined to give superbly taut and controllable handling, along with a respectably good ride quality.
The fairly wide bars generate plenty of leverage, which doubtless helped, as did the minimal inertia from a simple front end with just a single disc. I don’t recall even the memorably sweet-steering 690 Duke R, with its more windblown riding position and 15 mm more suspension travel at each end, feeling quite as flickable yet stable as the Vitpilen did on the winding road heading from Mataró on the coast towards Granollers.
If the Husky had a slight edge there, the KTM would have hit back under braking when its Brembo M50 Monobloc caliper would have bitten the 320-mm disc harder than the Vitpilen’s conventional four-pot Brembo caliper. The 701 was capable of generating serious stopping power but required a fairly firm squeeze of the lever to do so. And it doesn’t match the Duke R by incorporating Bosch’s brilliant cornering ABS.
Less helpfully it followed the KTM by having mirrors that blurred uselessly at high revs. I wasn’t troubled by its handlebar levers, which are adjustable, but which some riders found slightly short. I also had no complaints about the Bridgestone S21 tyres, which gripped well enough to exploit the slim single’s generous ground clearance. The only other mildly disappointing feature was the instrument panel — a round, perspex-covered dial that provides the basic information but is less attractive and comprehensive than the 690 Duke’s TFT display.
The Husqvarna’s two-litre smaller tank is also hardly an asset, although the single’s five litres/100 km economy should still give a realistic range of about 200 km — arguably ample for a bike like this. Even so, that reduced fuel capacity highlights one drawback of creating a café racer, which applies whether you’re working for Kiska or bending metal in a shed: features such as clip-on bars and small tanks, seats, and mudguards look cool but aren’t very practical.
There’s no doubt that Husqvarna’s new flagship is stylish, enjoyable and engaging, but it’s a single-minded, singlecylinder sports bike. It’s also expensive, costing roughly 10 per cent more than the 690 Duke and more than KTM’s brilliant and versatile new 790 Duke twin. The Vitpilen has succeeded in putting Husky back in the spotlight. Whether there are enough style-conscious, affluent café-racer enthusiasts to make it a sales success is another matter.
The Vitpilen is a light and sweet-handling machine that is at its best on fine motorcycling roads
Shapely fuel-tank, restyled from the one on the Duke, holds 12 litres Adjustable damping via hand-turnable knob Huge 693-cc single-pot makes 75 PS; mechanically, only the gearbox has been changed and incorporates a quick-shifter High-quality WP 43-mm...