Over the years Husqvarna has been bought and sold by many groups, initially Cagiva/MV Agusta, BMW and now owned by orange Austrian superpower KTM. Synonymous with producing Enduro and Motocross machinery, the list of championship victories in various competitions and classes is endless, however, road going street bikes have never been their forte. Back under the BMW ownership era, they created the 900R AKA the Nuda, which became a cult icon in certain circles however sales and production numbers were limited, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the flesh. Despite this Husqvarna are determined to become one of the big boys and battle it out with the large European bike manufacturers KTM, BMW, Ducati and Triumph.
In order to take the crown, Husqvarna teased the 701 Vitpilen concept around at EICMA 2015, borrowing parts from KTM range, but styled to suit a different audience, and with a good twist of modern design. The prototype was realistic too, most of the styling and tech on the prototype has remained on the fully-fledged road-going model, it looks stylish and futuristic while still having that cafe racer charm, that seems to be in every manufacturer’s model range.
The 693cc big single cylinder engine is derived from the KTM 690, and with some subtle tweaks to suit the redesigned tank and airbox. It is nothing short of fantastic, producing 75hp and more torque than you would expect. This engine is responsive and feels packed full of grunt, it just wants to be at wide open throttle, all the time. It isn’t a fan of being below 3000RPM, it gets juddery, but this is a good excuse to get the needle up the gauge where the bike feels like it really wants to be. The engine loves to be revved hard up to the red line where you get a nice shift light prompting you to change cog. The gearbox itself is sized perfectly, the ratios are sized perfectly to give it wicked acceleration, but then also it pulls from higher gears for overtaking. Also equipped with an ‘Easyshift’ up and down the box quick-shifter quite a rarity on bikes in this price range and styling. For me, it worked effortlessly and when coupled with the Akrapovic end can produce some nice pops, which make you feel like an immature teenager all over again. The overall noise does still have the dirtbike brappy tone, but more refined, to suit a road going bike.
The Chassis is a trellis frame similar to the 690 Duke however the rear end is shortened to give a more stout look. I found the riding position comfortable but a longer legged rider may have a different experience and while it wasn’t built as a tourer, I can’t see racking up the miles being an issue, the seat is comfy, the footpegs are in a great position that combines comfort with sportiness, whilst the bars take most of the weight off the wrists. There is ample steering lock for the tight manoeuvring and filtering. The WP suspension soaks up bumps and gives a good solid platform, which inspires confidence when throwing this bike around. Initially, it feels quite heavily sprung and awkwardly stiff for slow speed around town riding but then it makes up for it when the road opens up. Launching this bike over speed bumps gives massive satisfaction as it feels like one of Husqvarna’s motocross bikes, just in a more sensible disguise.
I took it down some real dodgy single lane roads, caked in muck and water, the kind of road normally only traversed by 4×4’s and tractors. You can tell the motocross heritage was paying off as I had a massive grin on my face and not a nervous one out of fear, but beaming out of joy. Puddle jumping and getting soaked has never been more fun, and contrary to other people’s opinion that this is just a hipster bike for posing around town, I had a great time riding it properly out in the sticks. Twisty A and B roads are where this bike was designed to play especially when a grunty engine and a stable chassis link together to make a truly wicked riding experience. The bars are wide and flat giving plenty of leverage to throw the bike into bends and the Bridgestone S21 hoops give plenty of feedback and confidence even on muddy and wet roads.
The brakes are from Brembo, complete with great looking shorty style levers and the now mandatory ABS, which does come adjustable between on and off if you want to get a bit more rebellious and throw some stoppies about. It is not cornering ABS, just the straight line variant. It kicks in quite early, I noticed it on the rear more so the front, but it’s there and all works as you would expect it to. It is only a single front disc which filled me with apprehension, but Husqvarna claims it isn’t a sporty bike so a single disc is all it needs coupled with the fact the 690 Duke has been running the same setup for years with no drama. Personally, I have never been a fan of shorty levers but these worked without any drama and they help with the styling of the bike so it gets a pass on that one.
The dashboard isn’t the most technology filled, it’s got an LCD screen, with a shift light and has lots of the standard equipment you would expect including a fuel gauge and multiple trip readouts. I just feel it’s a shame that It thought it really didn’t suit the rest of the tech-filled and futuristic looking bike, and without a slight cover over the instrument cover, the glare from the sun over the display was blinding. I was really hoping the dash from the 690, or even the 790 but sadly not. Maybe this was a little too far from the cafe racer styling but I remain hopeful for an update to give it a more modern and readable dash.
Becoming more commonplace these days is the massive catalogue of factory aftermarket parts, everything from bar end mirrors, a soft luggage upgrade, the must-have Akrapovic can and crash protection is available. The model I rode had the bar end mirrors and the Akra can, the styling is dramatically improved and the can make a massive improvement to the soundtrack
Overall I found the Vitpilen 701 a very nice place to be, the fit and comfort for me are perfect and I could quite happily have spent all day B road blasting. Motorways might be more uncomfortable due to a lack of windscreen but definitely not enough of a negative to stop me giving it a go. Fuel range was about 80 miles to a tank slightly down from the 690 Duke, I’d imagine its capacity is slightly smaller to account for the airbox changes, and also I really did wring its neck so if you are more gentle on the throttle that figure would definitely go up. Husqvarna claims the Vitpilen isn’t a sporty bike, but I completely disagree, the only real way to describe how this bike feels is a massive surprise. The fit and feel of the machine feel so sportsbike like, admittedly the engine feels different to a conventional 4 cylinder, but it still likes to rev and makes very good power and torque for its displacement combined with the lightweight and slim packaging the combo is obscene. It corners hard, you can really throw it around, and that in itself brings massive satisfaction, and it can really get stuck in with others too. The only real downside comes down to price. When compared to other bikes it feels to me like it sits slap bang in between two current markets. It feels more bike than the likes of an XSR thanks to the addition of a quickshifter and personally I like the styling more, but then I don’t honestly think the 701 was more bike than the likes of a Thruxton R or an R9T. The Vitpilen is down on power compared to that pair, but some people say power isn’t everything, and in this case, I’m quite likely to agree. For what it is the 701 Vitpilen is a great bike, one I could happily see in my garage, and one I really wouldn’t regret.
What’s next from Husqvarna and their European domination? Well, I think everybody would like to see a Vitpilen 1290…. wouldn’t they?