Riding the Husqvarna Vitpilen 701
By Anthony van Someren - 26 Mar 18
We’ve been eyeing-up Husqvarna’s oddly-named Vitpilen 701 since the concept bike was first unveiled at EICMA in 2014. Based around an engine and chassis shared by the latest crop of 690cc KTMs and Husky’s own 701 Supermoto, a street-racer based on that much-loved powerplant and chassis could only be a good thing. The only question back then, was; would this bold retro-futuristic Kiska design stay true to the concept by the time the bike got around to production. Concept in 2014 below...
Unlike Husky's 701SM, where the tank is under the seat, fuel in the Vitpilen is held in a proper tank between the rider and the bars, but the tank shape is thoroughly non-retro, with sculpted broad shoulders and side pods that Superbike’s Hogey thought were reminiscent of Yamaha’s chunky MT-01. What struck me about this bike was it’s completeness, as a fully-designed machine. Some modern bikes look like they were designed by committee (probably because they were) but the Vitpilen really does look the single-minded project of a senior designer with the power to say No, to both engineers and marketeers. Even in the flesh, the clean white and matte black machine looks more like a well thought-out digital render, than a bike that’s been through the usual de-souling process that concept bikes endure before they reach the streets. The overall simplicity of an engine wrapped in trellis frame, topped by a tank with a small scooped seat at the rear is very old school, and evokes familiarity, but the Apple-Mac-like shapes and finishes suggest a motorcycle that could have been ridden by Ryan Gosling in the latest instalment of BladeRunner, but it’s not a prop or a show-pony. There are no bits and bobs that don’t need to be there or don’t serve a proper riding function. The design itself is as pure as a z650 from the late 70s, where “what looks right, is right”. It’s just an evolved iteration. I guess I’m saying I really like it.…Well, apart from the rear mounted plate and indy mudguard thingy. Not sure I’ll ever like those on any bike. Fortunately Husqvarna make an aftermarket plate holder that hangs off the back of the tail. Tick. So, on to the ride. I’ve always liked big singles, and that doesn’t mean I set my preferences to BBW on match.com. I learned to ride on dirt bikes and my first streetbikes were KTM Supermotos like the LC4 and 625 SMC, packed with low down grunt, and high-up vibes that could induce terrifying speed wobbles on the wrong tyres. Bikes like this are brilliant in town but barely acceptable outside any ring road. The new 701 is nothing like these. The engine is a slightly tweaked version of the beating heart found in KTMs 690s, with 75bhp at 8500 rpm, which is very revvy for a single. Twin balancer shafts on the gear box and cam make for a very smooth, almost vibe-free engine (for a single), and, it revs. It took me about an hour to realise I needed to be down one whole gear, keeping the revs above 5,000 RPM, to make the most of the available power. The comparisons to a twin are not unfounded. The sound was also pretty good on full-chat, despite cats, and pre and post exit silencers. The whole riding experience is just really good. Natural handling, predictable lines and behaviour when you change direction or brake hard. The engine is forgiving of whatever gear you might be in, and it's generally easy and flattering to pilot in town or the twisties. The bike is small and very light, at less than 150kg wet, it’s also quite compact, but it seemed to fit everyone, and no-one was complaining of being uncomfortable. Hooning around the Barcelona hills I was reminded of riding Ducati's Scrambler Cafe Racer on a spirited trip to Finchingfield last summer, but with more beans in the tin and a little more room in the saddle. I won't get into the adjustable suspension and spec, as the handling and suspension were plenty good enough for my riding skills and I'm not technical enough to comment further. Other writers or Google can sort that info out for you. What I can tell you is that the bike went where I pointed it without me thinking about it, from the first moment I set off. WP suspension has always served me well on Superdukes and big SMs, as it did on this funky Husky, and the single-disc Brembos were one-finger sharp, but with plenty of feedback. I did get to enjoy the front-end’s ABS when I almost missed a junction, and that worked. Tick. The seat looks hard, and does bite into your thigh a little when you first put both legs down, but on the move I forgot all about it for the whole ride, so I’d have to describe the bike as all-day comfy. However, with just 12 litres in the tank it’s not a bike built for riding any significant distance, and we did only cover about 100km on the day, with lots of stops. Longer rides might tell a different story but that's clearly not the point of this machine.
If I was to criticise this bike, personally I’d have liked it to have handlebars instead of clip-ons for the multiple hairpin and switchback bends that dominated our ride route, but the sense of direct access to the front wheel’s turning and grip did inspire confidence on fast bends, and this set-up would be brilliant at Brands Hatch, or on the B184 to Finchingfield. Those low set clips-ons were also good on the motorway, ducking me out of the wind for a comfy cruising speed of 90mph, but around town (and they do call this an urban street bike) they were a little ‘wristy’… but they do look fantastic, as they’re attached directly to the top yoke, and with the flat-tilted clocks you get a perfect custom-like flat line in profile, so it’s great design. It’s also a key differentiator. Sometimes being different for difference's sake is is no bad thing in a homogenised world. However, I am genuinely interested to see how the handlebar-equipped Svartpilen will compare to this Apple-white street-cafe, and how much handling would suffer, if at all. So much for the basics, but what about the whole story. Is this a new branch of biking's evolutionary tree? Basically this manufacturer is steaming into a new area of business, and taking on the new lifestyle category with a fresh neo-retro angle – having previously been known for almost exclusively off-road bikes (well, apart from that cheeky Husky Nuda when the brand was owned by BMW). This is all further complicated by the fact that they are sharing engine, chassis and suspension platforms with another streetbike brand, KTM. We know what their strategy is; described by the brand team at Kiska as "Simple.Progressive.", but will this subtle shift work for Joe Public and his wallet full of dosh that’s been allocated to buying a bike? Very probably. ...I see comparisons to smaller cheeky outfits like CCM and their multi-model Spitfires (which are Husky powered and WP suspended) and even Honda's new CB1000R looks a bit Vitpilen-y from several angles. The custom scene is also embracing 3d printing and post-millenium lines these days. Could there be a neo-retro design revolution about to blossom? Because the finished bike is so close to a very well-received concept, and the bike is actually really good, I think they could be on to a winner. If Husqvarna can get these bikes into the right affluent urban showrooms, and get bums on seats for a test ride, I think they’ll be selling the Vitpilen to discerning riders who want to be different and like the premium pitch, posh parts and genuine versatility. It's also immense Fun, which is often under-estimated word. At £8899 it’s not cheap, but when you look at the build quality, performance, finishes and quality components it seems reasonable. Rewind to 8 years when I was a SuperdukeR owner ready for something less of a hooligan, I think I’d have loved this, and might well have been the perfect target customer. Back then I'd have described this bike as a street supermoto that had been given a very stylish café treatment; good for city streets, country blasts and the occasional track day too. Not a bad concept when you look at it like that, although maybe not what Husky's bosses had in mind for a marketing pitch. The 701 SM's dna is right there tho. The only thing holding me back slightly is wanting a comparison with next year’s probable Svartpilen 701 – with handlebars. If only they could have launched both bikes at once so we could test them back to back. Whichever side of the handlebar-divide you sit, the Vitpilen a great-looking, characterful machine that will look even better with a few accessories and simple mods, and if someone will sort out the aftermarket pipes and open filters the tweaked bike will look more like a high-end 3D printed custom build by Paolo Tex than a new factory model built with Euro4 compliance in mind. I’d also swap the cast wheels for the wire-spoked rims on the Svartpilen 401 pair. Yikes, I’m spending virtual money already… Find out more about the Vitpilen 701 from the horse's mouth at Husky's online HQ, and watch out for our video review with me and Superbike Magazine's John Hogan, on our YouTube Channel, HERE. GEAR For those who wanna know about my riding gear on the day, we made an effort to complement the bike with some of our favourite new neo-retro gear which included: The new Nexx XG100R Carbon - which was frankly bloody brilliant, especailly considering I've generally gone off full-face helmets. The XG Carbon is very well finished, lightweight, all-day comfy with no rubbing, no lifting at speed (tested to 100mph) and a solid positive visor that didn't mist up in the cold. It also looks really good, and everyone on the ride asked me about it. All it needs is a smoked visor so I can ditch the Aviators when I'm riding into the sun. Riding jeans were by Pando Moto, called Karl (no idea why - perhaps they are a revolution?). Anyway, they were comfy and fully protected with Kevlar lining and Knox knee armour, and a welcome amount of stretch in all the right places. I also wore Dainese underwear to keep the chills out. The jacket is my new favourite, for riding, walking to the shops or heading out on the town; the armoured and solidly constructed Squad jacket by Roland Sands. This has to be my best-buy of the season. It even has the old MA1 style bright orange lining. I may wear little else this spring. ...And when it was really chilly I added my timeless Roland Sands Ringo over-vest. This really does turn a warm jacket into an even warmer, snug combo. Finally, the boots were a last-minute add-on from our Shoreditch store, Rev'It!s' Mohawk 2. ...Rule one of a big test ride: - Never wear brand new boots, and I broke that rule with these, but I had no regrets. They felt safe and solid, but without fouling the controls, and I forgot I had them on - which is how good boots should be. I also wore them out to dinner and on the plane, both ways.
(CLICK ON ANY/ALL IMAGES FOR BETTER RESOLUTION POP-UP)Reality in 2018 - Below. The odd Swedish moniker is a homage to the original Silverpilen – or Silver Arrow – built back in 1955. Times have changed! The new café-esque white street-racer 701 and its lil’bro 401 both wear clip-on bars, have solid wheels and street tyres, and are named Vitpilen, or White Arrow, while the ‘scramblish’ black painted 401 with bars, wire wheels and knobblies is the Black arrow, or Svartpilen. Next year we fully expect a Svartpilen 701 to complete the line-up, as the concept already debuted at EICMA last November.
Svartpilen 701 ConceptHusqvarna’s ethos for these new bikes is to re-frame the Husky brand as Premium, classy street bikes, aimed at the more design-inspired rider, where the journey and destination are the reason to ride, whereas their sister-company’s KTMs are all Ready to Race, and are designed to carve corners and dominate the road or track. I was a bit sceptical when I was told that the 701 is no rival for KTM’s range of 690s, simply because the new Husky is actually slightly more powerful, superbly equipped, and is even fitted with a quickshifter (Easy-Shift, according to Husky), so on paper it seems to be the quicker and more aggressive machine, but the styling and premium feel does suggest there is a subtly different rider in mind. It’s certainly very pretty and not all about pure function. The finished production machine in 2018 really is very close to the original 2014 concept bike in terms of the design. Euro4 has stepped in to spoil a few features, but the not-yet-homologated accessory range does include that exposed pod filter, and a more simply routed Akrapovic exhaust fitted to the blinged-up machine on-show at our press briefing, Husky are quick to point out that not all the mods fitted were likely to meet approval so they’re hoping some other accessory businesses might take the hint. Regardless, when you look at them side by side the finished bike does deliver the look and feel that got us all excited back in ’14. Especially with the extras piled-on, below.