The all-American sportsbike is back, and this time Erik Buell doesn't have a heritage cruiser company looking over his shoulder telling him how to build it. The 1190RX is the first mass-production sportsbike out of the new EBR factory in Wisconsin, a 185-horsepower, torque-stompin', slightly quirky racer with its eyes firmly focused on World Superbike contention. But does that equate to a good road bike? We spent a couple of weeks with the RX to find out.
What do you expect when you throw a leg over a new Erik Buell bike – especially now that he's free from the constraints of working under Harley-Davidson and dead set on competing in World Superbike?
I expect something that looks a bit quirky, but that steers so fast it feels like it's bending time and space to straighten the road out. That was certainly the experience I had on the old XB series Buells from the noughties. So now that Erik has set up his own shop, Erik Buell Racing, how's the 1190RX superbike go?
As a V-Twin with WSBK ambitions, the EBR has to be compared to the Ducati 1199 Panigale. As I'm no racer, though, it's got to be compared in real-world terms. And while the EBR is considerably more street-friendly than the Panigale, it's still a compromise.
Let's get the negatives out of the way. The 1190RX is as uncomfortable as most sportsbikes, particularly to a nakedbike fan like me. Weight is heavy on the wrists, freeway riding is tiring and punting the thing about under our ridiculously low city speed limits is made worse by the fact that the EBR sports the heaviest clutch I've ever experienced on a road bike.
Stop-start traffic at 40 km/h (25 mph) never lets you get out of first gear, as the big 1190cc twin engine coughs and rattles at low revs. Of course, that's not what it's built for, but that's the reality we ride in. It also runs hot – but it's not bake-your-spuds hot like the Aprilia RSV4, or roast-your-pillion's-calves hot like the Ducati Panigale.
The EBR feels stifled and suffocated in the city, and I could really sense a visceral feeling of escape when I finally found a curvy, open road to point it at.
Here, the engine clears its throat, smooths out its stride and shows its heritage. American muscle cars have always prized grunt, and when EBR took hold of the engine it co-designed with Rotax for the Buell 1125 and redesigned it for the EBR superbike, torque was the priority.
On the spec sheet, the 1190RX makes 10 horsepower less than the Ducati Panigale – 185 to 195. On a dyno, it's closer to a 6 hp difference. And the EBR makes 101.6 ft-lbs of torque compared to the Ducati's 98.1.
The figures might sound close, but take a look at this. The EBR is putting out between 5 and 15 more horsepower than the Panigale all the way from 4,500 rpm to 8,500 rpm. It's even stevens up to 10,500 rpm, at which point the Ducati sneaks past and offers up to an extra 6 hp for the final paltry 1,000 rpm before the rev limiter kicks in.
In the real world, the 1190RX has the superior engine for road riding, with more power available where you need it on the road. Mind you, even if it's the new superbike torque champion, the EBR engine is nowhere near as flexible as the do-it-all donk on the BMW S1000RR. If you let the RX's revs drop below 5,000 in a corner, you can find yourself bogging down on full throttle corner exits.
One unique surprise the 1190RX also packs is the wacky, turbine-like whine it makes on high-rev downshifts. That's a chain idler applying tension to the drive chain under engine braking. It's a sound you soon start enjoying on corner entries.
Erik Buell's credentials on bike handling are legendary. The XB12R is widely recognized as one of the best cornering bikes in streetbike history. He was one of the earliest advocates of mass centralization – a theory that led to his stubby, underslung exhausts, and took unsprung weight reduction to new levels with the Zero Torsional Load rim-mounted front brake.
The 1190RX doesn't have the ultra-short wheelbase of the XB12, or the underslung exhaust. But it does store fuel in its hollow, monocoque frame, and it also uses the ZTL front brake system: one huge disc, mounted on the rim instead of at the hub, gripped by a single, 8-piston caliper. There's also a wacky set of cooling ducts attached, presumably to reduce heat at 10/10ths on the racetrack.
Stopping power out of this arrangement is absolutely massive. It's not as grabby as some of the latest Brembo radial monobloc brakes you find on Ducati and Aprilia superbikes, but I found myself easily lifting the rear wheel off the deck with moderate pressure from two fingers.
Importantly, it also saves more than 3 kg (6.6 lb) off the weight of the front wheel, helping the Showa Big Piston forks to operate more efficiently, and reducing gyroscopic mass to make the RX easier to turn at speed.
The result? The EBR gobbles corners easily, takes big lean angles in its stride and inspires confidence when it's leaned over. It's a pleasure to flick from side to side, somehow feeling both feather-light and stuck to the ground. Does it out-handle the rest of the superbike class? We'd have to put it back to back with some other machines on similarly fresh tires, but I found it absolutely faultless and lots of fun.
EBR hasn't equipped the 1190RX with ABS or a quickshifter, but it does have 20-stage traction control. My right wrist is my traction control on the road, so the closest I got to testing it was a couple of goes goosing the throttle on gravel. It intervened, the engine stuttered, and I didn't fall over. I also noticed the TC light flashing on a couple of hard corner exits, but didn't notice a change in the power delivery.
Traction control, as well as engine diagnostics, track timers and trip meters are accessed through the full-color TFT dash, which is bright, clear, reflection-free and easy to read under all conditions. Sadly, you've got to contort your left arm past the low screen to get to the buttons, so you've pretty much got to stop the bike to do anything from resetting the trip meter to adjusting your traction levels. This really needs to change, there's no reason why you couldn't have a thumb switch on the bars.
The headlight is a 2,000 lumen-strong Cree LED job, touted as the brightest in the supersport class, and I don't doubt that for a second, it's fantastic.
But all in all, you don't get the feeling you're riding a techno-warship the way you do when you throw a leg over the BMW S1000RR. This is a no-nonsense superbike – feather-light frame, dirty big, powerful engine, second-to-top shelf chassis equipment and no messing about.
One thing worth noting is that EBR claims the 1190RX is the most fuel-efficient bike in its class – and in our testing we regularly saw an impressive 2.8 to 4.5 L/100km (84 to 52 mpg) on the freeway, and an average figure around 6.5 L/100km (36 mpg) on a day out in the hills.
Panigale owners tend to report around 7.5 L/100km (31.3 mpg), and without wanting to drown you in figures here, we saw an atrocious 10 L/100km (23.5 mpg) on the Aprilia RSV4. It would seem EBR is on the right track.
So how did the 1190RX meet up to my expectations? Well, it certainly handled like a Buell bike, dancing on air in the corners and steering lightly and precisely no matter what the lean angle.
The weird-looking front brake and handsome injection-molded plastics somewhat satisfied my hope for a quirky and different kind of bike, although the RX certainly feels more conformist than the old XB bikes ever did.
As a first-run bike from a new factory, it doesn't feel as refined as some of the competition, but then some of the competition have been accused of feeling too refined anyway, so that's a matter of taste.
As a fan of the easy flexibility of triples and inline fours, the engine didn't do much to sway me toward the big twins – at least, not for road riding. But it certainly hammers hard once you wind it up, and delivers more than enough power for anything I'd want to do with it.
The 1190RX is a solid and impressive new beginning for the Great American Sportsbike. It matches up favorably with the Ducati Panigale on its first iteration, and it'll only get better from here. We're glad Erik's back on the warpath.
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