My first bike was a Kawasaki, like Ron Lechien and Mike Larocco rode for Team Green, and they were badasses, therefore I thought I was the coolest kid on the block. Until my pal Errikos bought a Husqvarna. All of a sudden I was run of the mill and he was the alpha male of the fields. Even though I wasn’t old enough to buy a pack of fags and Steve McQueen had been six feet under for over a decade, something in my psyche knew that Husqvarnas were cooler than a Husky’s paws.
And this has stuck with me right through to the present day. I’m an intelligent man, if you keep the bar at reasonable height, and have worked in and around marketing and advertising most of my life so I know that it’s all a bunch of hokum, but on the odd occasion I’m suckered in. I just bought a new Yamaha WR250, it’s absolutely brilliant, I love it, but when my mate Shit Ross (long story) showed me his Husqvarna FX350 I looked at my Yam like the fat spotty chick at a school disco and promptly fired up the eBay.
Tenuous as an intro I know, but I’m not done yet. KTM’s motorcycles are also brilliant, you’re a twat if you argue otherwise. With a tiny budget and something like seven people in the factory compared to the might of the big manufacturers they’ve not only held their own on the world stage, but in many genres have completely dominated. KTM still haven’t been beaten in the Dakar rally for fuck’s sake! But they’re orange and I don’t like them. I have nothing to base that on, OK I don’t like orange, but I’m not that shallow (a little maybe). It’s just that I’d prefer to ride Pablo Quintanilla’s rally bike than I would Toby Price’s, even though underneath they’re pretty much the same thing.
The hype surrounding Husqvarna’s recent renaissance and achingly late to production Vitpilen 701 was somehow maintained all the way from it’s debut at Eicma in 2014 to the press launch Dutch enjoyed a few weeks ago. No marketing team is that good, sorry guys, the rich and successful heritage of that little ‘H’ emblem is what stoked the fire for so long. Which is fine for older folk like me, but what about the youngsters, the millennials and worse, the hash-tagging generation Zers. They won’t have heard of Steve McQueen, let alone Rolf Tibblin or Bill Nilsson, so have Husqvarna done enough to build brand appeal for their new range of urban oriented motorcycles?
I can’t answer that but I can tell you about their new Vitpilen and Svartpilen 401 models as the UK press launch took place in Bristol a couple of weeks ago, if you haven’t fallen asleep already. The Vitpilen and Svartpilen are based on the hugely successful KTM 390 Duke but wear more stylish outfits and pack more premium equipment.
The power plant is the same 377cc DOHC single pumping out a respectable 43bhp and a useful 37NM of torque through a 6-speed ‘box and slipper clutch, and there’s even a Rekluse automatic clutch upgrade option available. A lightweight Cromoly trellis frame suspends the motor as a partially stressed member and the whole thing sits on quality WP suspension. Brakes are from the Brembo family, utilising the less expensive ByBre range with 4 pots and a single 300mm disc up front and a 230mm and single pot in the rear – with ABS of course. Both the Vitpilen and Svartpilen (white and black arrow) share these underpinnings but the styles are obviously different.
Husqvarna have made considerable effort not to hop on the new wave gravy train with any nostalgic nuance, preferring to carve their own niche within a rather crowded market. Their Simple, Progressive strap-line and urbanite focussed marketing strategy shies away from using tired terms like café racer and street tracker. Apart from the obvious colour difference it comes down to whether you’d prefer a clip-on style, hunkered down position or a more upright one.
The Vitpilen’s bars are mounted directly to the sides of the specific top yoke and it runs sporty Metzeler M5 tyres on aluminium rimmed 17″ wire wheels. The matt bronze finish on the rims, black anodised stainless spokes and plain stainless nipples look great and not only exhibit Husqvarna’s attention to detail but also their efforts to set the bikes apart from their less expensive cousins. The Svartpilen has a more traditional top yoke and relatively straight, low-rise handlebars. The silencer is the same as the Vit’ but anodised black and is protected by a plastic shield. Rubber though is undeniably knobbly. Pirelli’s Scorpion Rally STR are standard fit on a Ducati Desert Sled but here on the Svart’ there’s little suggestion of more than daydream off-roading. Sure, they’ll work really well on a fire trail but we were to ride around Bristol’s graffitied streets, not across Mauritania. The wheels are the same but with a rough silver anodised finish, which I really liked. And there’s also a tank mounted luggage rack on the Svartpilen which doesn’t come on the Vitpilen.
Now, with only 370cc to play with one might expect the press launch to be full of apprentice journos in scrotum clenching skinny jeans but no, nearly all middle aged men with silver flecked hair, or none at all, and a glint in their eyes. Why? Because they all knew that displacement isn’t correlated to fun. We set off around Bristol on a typically moist March morning and I tried the Vitpilen first.
If you’ve ever endured one of my previous ramblings you’ll know I’m not a fan of leaning forward, at all. I found the Vitpilen particularly uncomfortable yet the taller, older, larger chaps in the group didn’t gripe too much so I’ll put that down to personal ergonomics. The tank though is a funny shape, it might be a gorgeous modern silhouette but for me it’s simply too wide at the seat junction making it hard to squeeze the tank with one’s knees. The saddle is also pretty firm and very high compared to the bars. I couldn’t wait to swap for the Svartpilen, which was magic. Nice and upright allowing for a commanding view of the road and the far more comfortable and meaty part of my arse to soak up bumps from Bristol’s cobbled and potholed streets.
Thought I’d get the moaning out of the way first as not only is the rest of the bike really good but the prospective buyers won’t have sat on a Goldwing or Corbin saddled RT1200 so probably won’t notice. If you’re buying a 401 you’re unlikely to be a stiff malcontent riddled with arthritic injuries, no, you’ll know what a vinyasa is and that milk can be squeezed from an oat.
The engine made up for any discomfort, especially around town. Given the small displacement there’s bags of linear torque which will mean new riders’ gear selection cock-ups will go unnoticed. And if you do fit the Rekluse clutch then the 401 will be easier to carve through traffic than a maxi scoot. It’s tiny too and will filter using a footprint no bigger than a fixie bicycle. The pipes of riders up front emitted a decent tone from a silencer which appears to be nudging the limit of EU compliancy but onboard a few more decibels would be nice. There is an Akraprovic option which should sound angry once the little motor spools up, but hopefully not like the annoying pizza bike howl that rattle the windows here at the ‘Shed. Strangely the stock pipe reminded me of a water-cooled 1200 GS, a mini one of course, deep and smooth. In fact smooth describes the whole experience. If I’d worn earplugs and a blindfold I’d have been hard pushed to notice the 401 is single cylindered. The balance shaft banishes any vibes and adds to a feeling of inertia, which along with impeccable Bosch controlled fuelling, even at low revs, makes for a hassle-free and enjoyable ride.
Out of the city limits I expected the fun and ease to peter out but thankfully I was wrong. Excitable old hacks with whiskey throttles and little bikes was the ideal melting pot for misbehaviour. The man from Husqvarna said no wheelies, so of course everyone listened to him. I’m not a wheelieist so didn’t try but the 401 will loft the front to a grinning height, through the first half of the ‘box. I’d imagine. There’s plenty of poke for doing grown up things like overtaking, on dual carriageways of course. In fact the 401 cruises so well for a small bike that on occasion I forgot there was another cog to go. Full throttle and smashing through the ratios was good fun, and on wet roads that should have induced more common sense didn’t at any point feel silly. Either version felt planted. If you don’t have or aren’t allowed to ride bigger bikes this thing will happily be your partner for long distance adventures, just don’t forget the pile ointment.
The ByBre brake set-up worked a treat, requiring minimal input to reel in relatively big numbers on the digital dash. Quick moan to the person who designed the LCD display… glancing down in a hurry it’s tricky to distinguish between half a tank of revs and 4000 rpm until empty. The rest is simple enough, have a gold star. The Bosch ABS works as it should and on some particularly greasy sections of our ride through Cheddar Gorge came in rather handy, without being unnerving like some over pulsating systems.
The chassis has been tuned for newbie reassurance and fun times. Either 401 flicks from side to side with little steering input, even on the lower barred Vitpilen, and weighing 150kgs changing line at any point is child’s play. I’d love to try both again on dry roads to see what they’re like nearer the limit. I’m a bit of a wet weather pussy and don’t feel confident pushing but the rest of the lads didn’t seem to grumble about anything in particular. Around town I did find the Vitpilen tricky to evaluate properly as I was moaning so much about my aching bones, but getting acclimatised to the riding portion would fix that I’m sure.
Aesthetically there’s barely anything on the Vitpilen or Svartpilen that makes me sad. The rear number plate mount is minging though and following a 401 in stock trim is like being in a Gilera Runner chav convoy, but that’s not really Husqvarna’s fault. Legislation stipulates a billboard plate and that’s got to go somewhere. Thankfully the accessory brochure features a lovely tail tidy that makes the most of the wonderfully snubbed bodywork and plasma effect LED taillight. I just wish Bradley Smith could take a pay cut so there’d been a bit left in the parent company’s coffers to have this part fitted as standard. Apart from that there’s not a lot you need do to one, peel the warning stickers off, find some nicer mirrors and bin the reflectors and you’re done. I’d like to see a pro bike builder try their best to rework one but I can’t imagine there’s much room for improvement.
So, it rides better than it’s cubic capacity suggests and it looks different to pretty much everything else on the road but what about closeup? Is it worth the circa five and a half grand price tag? Well it certainly feels well put together and there are some premium touches that easily add up to more than the delta between the 401’s price and it’s garish cousin’s. And worth is somewhat irrelevant hence me writing the cost in words, I’d wager that barely anyone will ever buy one of these outright. PCP deals revolve around residual values and Husqvarna’s name alone should see to those remaining rock solid.
If you’re new to biking and want fun without intimidation, or perhaps you’re bored with nostalgia defining the looks of motorcycling in this sector then you’d do a lot worse than booking a test ride on a Vitpilen or Svartpilen 401. If I was a drum & bass DJ in my early twenties and worked at the Bike Shed I’d be hounding the nice man from Husky HQ for a loan bike. Oh wait, we did that already and the keys are waiting. Josh, hurry up and take your test!! You’re missing out, big time.
Images by Phil Steinhardt
Look Josh, this could be you. Pull yer finger out!
The sharp and modern looking Huskies caught me on the hop slightly when I realised I don’t own any decent modern gear, let alone anything completely waterproof. I figured my Rev’It Lane would be the warmest and most weather repellant so grabbed that. Check the review here. The helmet choice was simple one though as the Bike Shed collab Hedon Heroine ‘Club Racer’ is an uncanny match for the Vitpilen’s paint job, and the yellow visor was brilliant at cutting through the awful weather. See the review here.