Special Feature: 2009 Ural T

The new, no-frills Russian sidehack comes in any color you want, as long as it's matte-black powdercoat.

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One of the toughest statistics of the 20th century for me to wrap my brain around is the number of Russians who lost their lives in World War II: 20 million—give or take a few mil. After riding this Ural, another deep, thought-provoking question emerges: How many of those millions took their own lives so as not to have to ride a Ural anymore?

I kid to keep from crying. Actually, the new Ural T is not that bad, not that bad at all. And like all kinds of vintage vehicles, the more you ride it, the more you distance yourself from the 21st century, the more you grow to like it. If you think modern motorcycles lack "soul," you'll love the Ural. On a ride through green, leafy Bainbridge Island in Washington state, which feels a lot like the Germany I occupied during the Cold War, there are many, many souls along for the ride. Good thing there's a sidecar to carry them all—along with a bag of rocks to keep us all matte-side up.

Ural itself was very nearly a late casualty of the Big One. When the Wall came down and Russia became every used-car salesman's dream, the demand for Urals flushed right down the Oder overnight. In the early '90s, Ural production went from 130,000 units per year to around 2000, and employment at the huge Ural works in Irbit went from 10,000 or so former comrades to fewer than 200. Before 1993, nearly all Urals were for Russian domestic consumption. In 2008, according to Ural U.S. VP of Marketing and Sales Madina Merzhoyeva, Russia consumed exactly 15 of the rugged old beasts. Now, North America absorbs most of what the downsized Irbit factory cranks out, though there are distributors all over the world.

The free market giveth and the free market taketh away. Previously, the Irbit works needed that many workers because it made nearly every Ural component in-house, from fasteners to grips to pistons. With the end of Communism came the ability to outsource parts. And within the last five years or so, the incorporation of better components from outside vendors has led to not just the survival of the Irbit plant but also to a greatly improved Ural. Now all Urals get Keihin carburetors, Ducati electronic ignitions, Denso alternators, Sachs suspension, Brembo brakes, Domino switchgear, precision-cut transmission gears and shafts from Herzog, hardened valve seats, etc. All Urals now use readily available standard-size seals and bearings, another huge step. Even the handlebar clamps are standard diameter now, so you can plug in your bend of choice.

Speaking of sidecars, this is the first one I've ridden. Driven? Naturally, there's a bit of a learning curve, but it's not so steep. Though the Yamaha Champions Riding School and Keith Code combined could not get me to hang off a sportbike as much as they'd prefer, going 'round right turns on the Ural outfit gets me craned off the right side of the bike instantaneously. It feels like you're going to topple leftward if you don't, but really, you probably aren't. Who knows? Anyway, experienced sidecar guys tell us "flying the chair" is no big deal; in fact, it's sort of the sidecar equivalent of a lateral wheelie. And after not much practice, turning left is kind of a hoot; you can get the whole rig scrabbling around like a big crab fleeing a Nebelwerferbarrage. Which is handy in downtown Seattle. With the right passenger, you begin to perceive, this could be big fun.

Cruising along and squinting out over the flat-black powdercoated headlight shell, I'm reminded more than anything of the first H-D Road King I rode cross-country circa 1993, back when the Evolution engine was not so evolved, with the same sort of rodent-spatulating sounds clanking from the engine cases. The Ural gearbox contains four forward speeds and two reverse, but not in any sort of organized fashion. Make a subtle inquiry with your left foot, eventually a palm is greased, something engages and away you go. The Ural's not what you'd call fast. The throttle gives more bass response but not much more speed. At about three-quarters throttle in top cog, the Ural's WWII bomber-salvage speedo needle hovers between 60 and 65 mph in a relaxed enough cruise. The speedo may be a little pessimistic, since the other cars on the freeway around Seattle don't really scream past at all. Maybe people just drive slowly in Seattle? Maybe they're all slowing down to check out the Ural?

And check it out is what people do when you're on a Ural. Everybody wants to know what it is, how old it is and what's wrong with you? Followed immediately by what's wrong with them? The driver of a small car next to me at a light yells at me to take her large friend in the passenger seat for a ride down a bumpy road to induce labor.

Stripped of all non-essential equipment and bargain-priced at "only" $9999, the new T-model is not exactly cheap, but if you want a turnkey sidecar for under $20 large, it really is the only game in town—a game in which most of the players seem amazingly happy, judging from their Internet forums. One Ural owner we bumped into in Seattle (actually, he nearly assaulted us) guides canoe trips in Alaska and claims his 2003 two-wheel-drive Ural has been completely bulletproof through thousands of miles of harsh dirt-road conditions and sub-zero starts. (We're told the 2WD models allow you to get stuck 100 yards farther along the trail than the one-wheel-drive units like our T.)

So, "rugged" is an apt descriptor. Also "primitive" and "agricultural." Not so long ago, those were insults. With the Ural T in the current climate, they seem like positive attributes that might save your bacon. One of these machines feels like it might last you through a lifetime of interesting adventures, depending, of course, upon how much life you have left. Consult your physician before riding the Ural. Hats off to the 20 million Russkies who didn't make it. Thumbs-up to the 3 million Urals that, so far, did.