If there’s a common thread that ties the Buell 1125R and Ducati 848 together, it’s that they both thumb their noses at established engine displacement classes. Ducati and Buell have each scaled its latest sportbike model with the interests of the road rider in mind, racing rules be damned. While 276cc and $1000 in price separate this pair of sporting Twins, we felt they represent a comparable matchup in terms of outright performance.
Ducati 848 and Buell 1125R.
The Ducati 848 is in essence a 1098 Lite, sharing many parts with its larger sibling, winner of just about every moto-magazine accolade last year. Powered by an 849cc version of the Testastretta Evoluzione engine with a shortened stroke and smaller bore, the super-size middleweight 848 finds its place in Ducati’s 2008 lineup as a less-demanding-to-ride and more-affordable option to the 1098.
Never a company to follow conventional practices, Buell utilized reverse engineering in determining the displacement for its 1125R’s Rotax-built Helicon engine. Achieving a robust and broad spread of torque was paramount, irrespective of final engine displacement.
Our initial experience aboard the 1125R came last August at a world press launch staged by Buell at Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, California. While we came away impressed with the bike’s overall power and handling on the circuit, the pre-production machine we rode at that time needed further refinement in a number of areas, notably its fuel-injection mapping. Buell acknowledged that the bike was not ready for prime time and vowed to have the kinks ironed out before the bike went into production. With the 1125R now in dealerships, it was time to see if Buell had made good on its promises.
Before commencing with street and track tests, the bikes were weighed, measured and run on the Cycle World dyno. With fuel drained from the Ducati’s 4.1-gallon tank and the Buell’s 5.3-gallon frame/fuel reservoir dry, our scales revealed a 27-pound weight advantage tipping in the 848’s favor. But Buell’s much-touted “Trilogy of Tech” places manic emphasis on mass centralization, chassis rigidity and low unsprung weight; combined with quick chassis geometry, this nets a bike that belies its 440 pounds. The Buell’s 54.6-inch wheelbase measures 1.7 inches less than the Ducati’s and its 21-degree rake and 3.3 inches of trail are decidedly more radical than those of any competitor.
Our planned back-to-back dyno sessions got off to a false start due to the Buell’s battery being DOA. It showed just 2.5 volts when measured with a test meter and was reluctant to hold a charge. We swapped the bike for another in the Buell press fleet, enabling us to get on with our business.
Dyno charts provide a much more detailed picture than simple peak power figures. Both engines produce decent power right off the bottom as their throttles are rolled open at 2500 rpm to initiate a fifth-gear pull. The Ducati feels happier dealing with low-rpm load, plotting a decidedly smoother graph at the very bottom. At 3500 rpm, the Buell has settled in and the two are close in torque output. The smaller-capacity Ducati loses chase as it exhibits a lull from 4000 to 6000 rpm that spots upward of 20 foot-pounds of torque to the Buell, which maintains a 15-20 horsepower edge from 5000 rpm to its 10,500-rpm redline. The 848 continues with an additional 500 rpm of over-rev before bumping into its limiter. Both engines build horsepower in a very linear fashion through the meat of their rev ranges, equating to very broad torque plateaus.
Taking to the street aboard these Twins revealed a stark difference in engine character. While strong as an ox, the Buell powertrain lacks the Ducati’s refinement. The Italian Twin’s rhythmic percussive beat rivals the aural brilliance of the Blue Man Group; by comparison, the Helicon’s mechanical clatter is more akin to a thrash-metal garage band. Wearing earplugs while aboard the 1125R offered an instant improvement in our perception of its quality.
The Ducati proved a model of fuel-injection perfection, pulling away from stops at low revs with smoothness and ease, and gliding along contently in city traffic, never exhibiting a hint of hesitation or stumble. While the 848 doesn’t possess the Buell’s brute muscle, there’s plenty of torque at the ready for most passing situations without need to toe its slick-shifting gearbox a gear lower. The Ducati engine feels always eager to rev, whereas the Buell’s does not.
Slight throttle openings also were problematic for the Buell and resulted in engine surging during light acceleration and steady cruise. Riding the 1125R in a casual manner can be an annoying, herky-jerky affair that becomes worse once revs drop below 4000 rpm. During normal street riding, we spend a great deal of time at cracked throttle, particularly in town and on the freeway, and the 1125R’s buck-and-surge hampered our ability to enjoy the bike’s stout bottom-end torque.
In terms of longer-range comfort, the 1125R’s street-friendly ergonomics have the 848 well covered. The Buell’s handlebars are 1.5 inches higher and flatter than the Duc’s sharply angled clip-ons. The Buell saddle is less sloped and more deeply padded. Each provides roughly the same distance between seat and footrests (the drop-down pegs from a Buell Lightning are an easy bolt-on modification if an additional inch of legroom is desired on the 1125R). The broader Buell fairing provides more wind protection, although its taller screen raises turbulent airflow to head-and-shoulders height on riders shorter than 5-foot-10. The Buell mirrors provide a much better rear view than the Ducati’s, although on both bikes images are often blurred by engine and road vibration.
Both companies offer models more suited to sport-touring riders, so let’s move on to what these two bikes are really about: performance sport riding. The 1125R showed promise during runs up and down twisty Mt. Palomar Road, one of our local test venues. Its midrange power advantage almost felt like cheating (hey, it does have a nearly 30 percent displacement advantage) when driving out of uphill corners; gear selection was not a concern. Its more relaxed riding position also felt best when descending the mountain. Drop and give me 20 and you’ll feel the burn of repeated hard braking into downhill bends on the 848.
There’s little comparison between the two in regard to front brake feel and performance. The Ducati’s Brembo binders are blessed by angels, delivering exceptionally linear feel and abundant stopping power when given a moderate two-finger squeeze. The 848’s use of 320mm rotors and cast two-piece calipers provide more forgiving action than big brother 1098’s ultra-powerful dual 330mm rotor and billet Monobloc caliper combo.
Buell has its own ideas regarding front brake design, and the 1125R maintains company tradition with its ZTL2 rim-mounted single-rotor setup. The claimed benefit is a reduction in unsprung weight for improved handling, but in our experience, this comes at a cost to the system’s primary function: braking. In this comparison, the Buell binder comes up short both in feel and performance. Free lever travel is excessive before anything happens, followed by a dead feeling when the pads make initial contact with the rotor. Most disturbing, however, is an eerie increase in stopping force as heat builds in the system, causing the brake to become stronger throughout a stop. Moving the master cylinder .75-inch farther inboard on the handlebar realigned the lever with our fingers for more leverage, which helped reduce the weak initial bite.
During our Mt. Palomar outing, the Buell began acting erratically. At times, it was reluctant to start unless the throttle was held open while cranking the engine for several seconds. Worse, it would cut out for a second or two when rolling on the throttle exiting a corner or run rough for a few miles then clear up. With our scheduled track test at Willow Springs Raceway’s Horse Thief Mile only a few days distant, we had no choice but to swap the bike for yet another from the press fleet. As much as we hoped our third 1125R would be the charm, it too displayed troubles with a brief fit of hard starting and hesitation when accelerating out of corners. The same cracked-throttle surging issue existed, as well. And following a two-day stay in the garage, the battery was too weak to crank the engine, though it had enough juice for a successful bump-start.
Fingers crossed, we headed for Willow Springs. The tight and technical Horse Thief road course rewards a bike’s ability to quickly transition out of one corner and into the next, while placing a great deal of emphasis on trail-braking. Executive Editor Mark Hoyer and I both agreed that the 1125R was more user-friendly, finding it easier to hop on and feel comfortable within a lap or two. It’s the best-handling Buell we’ve ridden; and while air-cooled XB models CW has tested in the past tended to stand up under braking, the 1125R allowed deep trail-braking into corners without fuss. Its steering is also lighter and more neutral in feel than that of its predecessors. The troubles we experienced on the street didn’t pose a problem when lapping the track. That’s not too surprising, since you are either accelerating hard out of corners or on the brakes; there’s no steady cruise, thus no sign of fuel-injection surge. The repetitious hard braking also retained heat in the system and provided more consistent brake performance than on the street.
Meanwhile, the 848 proved every bit the sharp-edged track tool you would expect. What it gave up in acceleration out of corners was reclaimed by its taut suspension and impeccable stability through faster sections. Comparing the results, Hoyer set his personal best lap on the Buell, a 1:02.57 to his 1:03.10 Ducati time. The opposite was true for me as I found more trust in the race-bred 848–especially with its very planted front-end feel and more predictable brakes–when putting my head down, resulting in a best lap of 1:00.69 on it compared to a 1:01.03 set on the Buell.
“While I liked the way the Ducati rode on the track and how it feels completely trustworthy and predictable, I have to say the Buell was easier for me to ride,” said Hoyer. “From my perspective, it makes sense that ex-racer Canet got more out of the machine that works more like a racebike. That probably argues that more people will go fast on the track riding the Buell, while fewer people will go faster on the Ducati.”
Buell flew a pair of factory technicians out from Milwaukee to troubleshoot the press-fleet bikes, our latest unit included. We received a fourth testbike a few weeks later fitted with a couple of replacement parts. The technicians weren’t able to consistently replicate our reported issues, but their findings pointed to an out-of-spec stator as the probable cause of battery drain and believed a faulty fuel pump was responsible for the hard starting, sudden cutouts and rough running. All six press bikes came off the production line in close succession, so it stands to reason that a bad batch of parts could have infected the lot.
So far, our current testbike has had no issues with its battery or starting, although we’ve twice experienced an instance of the mysterious acceleration-related cutout. This bike is also a little less clattery than our previous runners and shifts better, too. But it still is noisier than it should be and, disappointingly, surges like the others at cracked throttle.
As much fun as it is to ride these sporting Twins hard on the gas, sometimes you have to slow down. While the Buell has likeable qualities and is a big step forward for America’s sportbike company, for it to be considered a true “no-excuses” leading-edge machine, there’s more work to be done. We look forward to riding a fully sorted, gremlin-free 1125R.
Meanwhile, the 848 does it all with style and grace. Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, it’s the best-balanced–if not the best–sportbike in Ducati’s lineup, which is saying something.
|UPS||+ Sport-comfort ergos|
|+ 42 more hp than XB12R|
|+ Unique styling draws attention|
|DOWNS||– Vibratory despite triple engine balancers|
|– Radiator fans noisier than a Packers home crowds|
|– Engine heat can toast right thigh even on a cool day|
|DRY WEIGHT||440 lb.|
|SEAT HEIGHT||32.4 in.|
|FUEL MILEAGE||35 mpg|
|1/4 MILE||10.39 sec. @ 134.09 mph|
|0-60 MPH||2.8 sec.|
|HORSEPOWER||134.0 hp @ 9800 rpm|
|TORQUE||75.9 ft.-lb. @ 8300 rpm|
|TOP SPEED||161 mph|
|UPS||+ Unmatched stability|
|+ Oh-so-sweet power delivery|
|+ Inspiring Italian styling|
|DOWNS||– Special tool required to remove rear wheel|
|– Hot-seat undertail exhaust|
|– Lackluster headlighting|
|DRY WEIGHT||413 lb.|
|SEAT HEIGHT||32.5 in.|
|FUEL MILEAGE||40 mpg|
|1/4 MILE||10.49 sec. @ 132.76 mph|
|0-60 MPH||2.9 sec.|
|HORSEPOWER||119.0 hp @ 10,050 rpm|
|TORQUE||64.1 ft.-lb. @ 8250 rpm|
|TOP SPEED||159 mph|