Riding Impression of the 1999 Buell S3

Even with its optional over-the-road equipment, this is not your father's touring bike

1999 Buell S3
Either in its naked form or spiffed up with the optional sport-touring gear as seen here, the S3 is a genuine hoot on a curvy backroad. In appearance, the under-engine rear shock, ’47 Buick-replica muffler and bigger-than-a-breadbox air-filter housing are clunky; but functionally, they all work very well.Brian Blades

This article was originally published in the June-July 1999 issue of Cycle World's Big Twin Magazine.

When you think of touring bikes, you likely think of two-wheeled Winnebagos gliding along the in­terstates on cruise control, their passengers lounging in plush seats while their on-board stereos blare everything from Tchaikovsky to Shania Twain. Or if you’re the more pragmatic type, maybe you conjure images of huge land yachts with enough storage space for Imelda Marcos’ entire shoe collection.

But not all touring is conducted on the flat blandlands of I-Something-or-other aboard half-ton monsterbikes. There are riders who prefer touring in a much more lean-and-mean, performance-oriented mode, eschewing the straight and wide for the twisty and narrow.

Outfitted with its factory-designed sport-touring equipment, the Buell S3 is the hot ticket for such riders.

But first, we need to get our terminology straight. Until this year, the S3 Buell (as well as the S2 before it) was also available in a separate S3T (or S2T) model, which was the very same bike equipped with the factory’s own sport-touring hardware—higher handlebars, detachable saddlebags (either wide or narrow) and fairing lowers. But starting with the ’99 model year, there no longer is a separate S3T version. Instead, Buell is offering a Build-To-Order program (see “Roll Your Own,” pg. 44) that allows buyers to have their bikes custom-tailored right at the factory. They can select from a menu of options that include bodywork color, frame color, wheel type and color, handlebar style and touring equipment. So, even though an official T-model is no longer in the lineup, the individual items still are available separately, meaning that buyers can now order their S3s equipped with any or all of the sport-touring accouterments.

We wanted to test an S3 while we were on the East Coast for Daytona Bike Week, so we ordered up one with all of the aforementioned equipment already installed. We picked up the bike in Daytona Beach, loaded our gear into the large-capacity bags and headed out on a 1300-mile loop up into and through the hills of southern Georgia.

1999 Buell S3
The S3 is able to hold its own with the best sport-touring bikes in the world—and that's a really fast crowd.Brian Blades

Though the new S3 looks much like last year's model, the '99 has undergone some serious revisions. One of the more dramatic is the switch from a carburetor to Dynamic Digital Fuel Injection. DDFI incorporates a feedback loop in the exhaust system so that—unlike the less-sophisticated injection on the Big Twins—the system can automatically adjust the mixture if the engine is modified. The motor is es­sentially a 1200 Sportster assembly with the hot-rodded "Thunderstorm" heads that Buell debuted a couple of years ago on the S1 White Lightning. The engine nestles in a redesigned frame that now has a four-point mounting system instead of three; it also routes the exhaust header pipes inside the frame to prevent the rider's right leg from getting toasted.

Other new-for-’99 features include the cast-aluminum swingarm from the X1 model, and a wider range of adjustment on the single, under-engine shock and upside-down front fork. The seat now has a new shape and foam padding, and the saddlebag latches are im­proved for better ease of operation.

Speaking of the saddlebags, we were only about 10 miles north of Daytona on our trip when the mother of all rainstorms hit. We braved the downpour for a few minutes, but we're talking about one of those tropical frog-stranglers; so, we retreated to a roadside rest-area bathroom until the storm blew over. But while we were under a shelter, the bike was not; it languished in a virtual sea of water for almost two hours. We're happy to report that the saddlebags maintained their watertight integrity perfectly, leaving our underwear and cameras clean and dry.

The bags also have new formed foam liners that are a big improvement over the previous soft nylon liners. The old bags were always getting caught in the latches and lid, making the simple act of closing the bag a profanity-laced affair. The new liners are soft enough to collapse predictably, yet rigid enough to stand upright. Says Doug Manternach, design engineer for Buell touring accessories, “The entire saddlebag isn’t intended to come off the bike when you get to the hotel. The bag stays on the bike, and you pull out the liner and take it with you. That way, you don’t track in all the rainwater and dirt that might be on the exterior of the bags.” Based on our experience, we have to say that the system works well. Should you need to remove the bags altogether, the procedure is quick and simple. We had the large-capacity bags on our S3, and while they won’t carry the kids’ swing set, you can get a full-face helmet in each bag or, with judicious packing, enough clothes and stuff for a week-long knockabout.

1999 Buell S3
With each passing model year, Buells just keep getting better and better. For that reason alone, anyone who thinks the sport machines from H-D’s wholly-owned subsidiary are nothing to be reckoned with had better think again.Brian Blades

As for how the fairing lowers protected us from the rain, well, they were designed for rain that you could actually ride in. The monsoon we encountered was too intense to ride in safely, so we can only say that the lowers do a pretty good job of routing wind around the legs and would probably keep a moderate rain away from your lower body.

After the sun reappeared, we continued north for a while on the dreaded interstate, the only road available that would get us where we had to be by nightfall. The S3 was de­signed by Erik Buell and his staff to be an agile canyon-killer, so its virtues are wasted on long, straight roads. This is most assuredly not a touring motorcycle that on occasion can be ridden sportily; it is basically a sportbike that, on the right roads, acquits itself handsomely while covering long distances, even with all the added equipment installed.

On the interstate, the S3 motors along with bored aplomb, but after a couple of hours of droning in a straight line at a constant speed, the rider starts squirming around, trying to fend off numbbutt. Buell’s unique Uniplanar rubber-mount system for the motor, however, is highly effective in keeping engine vibration away from the rider, a welcome attribute on the rectilinear chunk.

Eventually, we were able to peel off onto a backroad and venture into the green, rolling countryside of south Georgia, putting the S3 sport-tourer smack-dab in its element. We don’t know how much you like to lean in the corners, but the S3 chassis is race-bred and the Sportster motor very narrow, so aggressive riders can toss this baby over a looong way. We at Big Twin don’t allege to be knee-dragging road­racers, a task we leave to the Ninjabike war­riors at our sister magazine, Cycle World; but we can say that the fully equipped S3 is able to hold its own with the best sport-touring bikes in the world—and that’s a really fast crowd.

1999 Buell S3
Without a doubt, Buells are truly different motor­cycles. That’s not a slam; that’s simply pointing out one of this brand’s most appealing characteristics.Brian Blades

Some of that sport capability stems from the Thunderstorm motor, a torque monster that cranks out a claimed 101 ponies. Combine that with the relatively short (55-inch) wheelbase, and whacking open the throttle in first gear produces an instant, huge wheelie. The easy-to-access torque also makes for big fun on tight twisties without constant gear-shifting. At any engine speed above two grand, the Thunderstorm motor pulls like a freight train all the way to redline. And it whoas as good as it goes, too. The S3 will, as Bill Cosby once proudly said of his new sneakers, stop on a dime and give you five cents change. The huge, six-piston, single-disc front brake was designed for roadracing, thus offers all the fade-free stopping power even the most aggressive sport rider would ever need, let alone a less-rambunctious rider on a sport-tour.

Now let’s talk comfort. Sportbikes are notoriously inhospitable long-distance runners; the typical sport-riding position makes for cramped legs, tired wrists and aching shoulders. But the S3—with its narrow motor allowing lower footpegs, and the optional higher bars providing a more-upright riding position—is far more pleasant than we had expected. Our 6-foot-2, 260-pound tester has the opportunity to ride other sportbikes, but he generally declines because none of them offer enough living room. The touring-equipped S3, however, fit him nicely, so much so that he never felt cramped or squeezed during his three-day ramble.

Neither did he feel beat-up. The shock and fork were supple enough to isolate him from most of the punishment dealt by bumps and thumps in the pavement, yet taut enough to stifle any tendency to wallow in the fast sweepers. But don't be misled; the ride is by no means soft and lux­ur­ious; this is not an Electra Glide, after all. Rather, the S3's ride is firm enough to in­spire a lot of rider con­fi­dence but com­pliant enough not to be abusive.

Buell also has made steady and substantial improve­ments in the build quality of its motorcycles. This latest incarnation of Erik’s dream acts and feels of a piece, with a harmony of intent that seemed lacking in previous models. For us, that unity of purpose inspired such an affirmation in the bike’s durability that we could have continued our ride all the way to, say, Alaska—and do so with full conviction that the S3 would make it there intact. The bike never rattled, clattered or sprung a leak, and no parts were left forsaken on the red Georgia clay.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, in sport-touring situations, every component of the factory-equipped S3 is up to the task. It’s a fine companion when the roads are curvy and the pace is quick, and the torquey, fuel-injected Thunderstorm motor is a delight any­where and all the time, from startup to switch off. The S3 is even a fine choice as an all-around motorcycle, a versatile machine that can serve as a faithful daily commuter, a fun weekend playbike or practically anything in between. Nope, this definitely is not dear old Dad’s touring motorcycle.