For 2018, Husqvarna enters the street bike market with the singular Vitpilen 701, a concept model now in production. There are some growing pains though.
See the story with pictures HERE.
By Bertrand Gahel
Prototypes are often awesome, but they can also be extraordinarily frustrating. They come from pure, unfiltered, limitless imagination and are literally the stuff of which dreams are made… with a small caveat: we never get to possess and ride them. Well, almost never. For 2018, Husqvarna’s new Vitpilen 701 is making a rare transition from the world of concepts to the showroom. We recently road-tested this new production model at its global press launch in Barcelona.
There are a lot of good reasons prototypes are almost never built into production models, the main one being once all the limits of the production process are factored in, the result no longer looks like the concept, which defeats the purpose. This means in the rare cases the decision is made to turn a prototype into a production model, it’s of the utmost importance to respect the original creation that got people so excited about it in the first place: a prototype is basically hype the showroom version HAS to live up to. So it was very natural the first thing I wanted to do when I arrived in Barcelona was to take a close look at the street-legal version to see how faithful to the prototype it actually is. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed.
From just far enough to take in the whole image, the Vitpilen 701 definitely looks cool. But it’s no longer the prototype. It’s now a street-legal motorcycle with cheap goofy mirrors, a huge licence plate holder and a bunch of reflectors, all of which somewhat downgrade the sexiness of the original concept. That being said, a lot is still there, like the stubby yet elegant proportions, the smart, modern, intriguing silhouette, and that very unusual diagonal line splitting front from back.
One of my biggest pet peeves about the 701 comes as it’s examined up close. Some features really impress, like the complex shapes of the tank, the very particular instrumentation and headlight, and the generally light and airy feel of the design.
But the premium theme is somewhat sabotaged by a little mess of wires, boxes and hoses surrounding the engine and visible through the trellis frame, especially on the right side. The hand controls aren’t particularly impressive either and look like they belong on a motorcycle costing half as much. I realize I’m being tough on the Vitpilen’s looks and finish, but my view is they are central elements of what the bike is about: it seduced motorcycling as a sexy and striking concept and it’s now being offered at high cost by Husqvarna as a premium machine. I’d give it a seven out of 10, but it should be a nine, particularly at $13,399. The good news is that many of the issues that hurt it visually can be fixed with accessories, which, on the other hand, will increase the price even more. I overheard some marketing types claiming the bike is so unique that cost simply won’t be an issue for the type of buyer interested in a motorcycle like this. Maybe.
The Vitpilen obviously isn’t just an object, and as far as the ride it offers, I quickly discovered I was in known territory. Husqvarna and KTM people just hate when ties between the brands are discussed. They’d rather have everyone believe each is its own entity. Well, sorry, but those ties do exist. Under the striking, concept-derived styling of the 701 is the mechanical base —rolling chassis and engine— of the KTM 690 Duke (okay, maybe 95 per cent of it), which is actually very far from a negative point.
The 690 isn’t KTM’s biggest seller, but it’s one of the brands most important models nonetheless. KTM’s history began with singles and the 690 Duke’s role is to establish without a doubt no one can touch the Austrians when it comes to this type of engine configuration.
This may be one of the most brilliant aspects of the Vitpilen: the idea of an extreme single—the 690 Duke—is a bit of an odd one in today’s market, kind of an answer to a question no one, or at least very few, asked. The Vitpilen, however, is all about sexy, simple, minimalist urban styling. It embodies the proverbial “wheels, engine and handlebar’ concept, wrapped in cutting edge looks.
Isn’t a light and narrow rolling chassis powered by a high-tech single just the most appropriate mechanical combination to support such a concept? It absolutely is, which makes the Vitpilen the perfect use for the 690 Duke’s somewhat quirky platform.
There are no modes to choose from on the Vitpilen 701, and none are needed. Just fire it up and go. The only electronic-assist option offered to the rider is the deactivation of traction control to allow for wheelies, which the 75 horsepower single will easily make happen, even in second gear. Just remember that the swingarm-mounted licence plate holder is considerably lower than a tail section-mounted one. I found out the hard way.
There are no two ways about it: this is one fast single. It’s quite an unusual engine too. Contrary to tradition, it’s not torquey at all at low revs and will actually cough and stutter if it’s held below 3,500, and ideally 4,000 rpm in anything other than first gear. But between there and the 8,500 rpm redline, it rips. Full throttle runs are accompanied by an intense high-pitch braap and are followed by clings, clacks and congs once back at idle.
The noises are enough to make someone wonder it it’s all about to disintegrate but, rather, it’s just how this envelope-pushing single sounds. It’s no doubt an impressive and exciting engine, but if there’s one aspect I believe should be improved, other than its high-rpm vibration, it’s the top end biased power delivery.
On a 690 Duke making the point that KTM produces the most powerful single on the planet, it’s appropriate, but on the cool urban ride that the Vitpilen aims to be, I’d happily trade five horses on top for generous torque available right from idle.
In terms of ride characteristics, the 701 deserves very high marks. I had the opportunity to do some hard laps on the latest 690 Duke and every bit of that narrow chassis’ wonderful precision and tightness is felt on the Husky. Thanks to good suspension elements dialed in for real road conditions, the 701 is perfectly at home on twisty back roads, even if they’re not in perfect condition. Comfort is actually not bad because of this, but overall the Vitpilen is more of a short distance bike: longer rides will make the seat less and less welcoming with each passing half-hour while those somewhat low bars will begin to bother the rider’s hands.
The Vitpilen 701 is a very interesting case. Rarely do we see motorcycles with such hypnotic styling. KISKA, the design company behind the 701 (and all KTMs and Huskys) really outdid themselves: there aren’t a lot of bikes the average motorcyclist can identify at a glance and this is certainly one. For Husqvarna, the majority of street riders will see the Vitpilen 701 as the first model of the brand under this ownership, as many may not be familiar with the Supermoto 701 or the extensive dirt lineup of the Swedish marque. As previously mentioned, it isn’t perfect, but it holds up pretty well to the huge hype built up by the prototype. For a first step into the world of street bikes, in such a crowded and competitive marketplace, I’d say it’s a pretty damn impressive one.