Guest First Ride – 2018 Husqvarna Svartpilen and Vitpilen 401

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First Ride – 2018 Husqvarna Svartpilen and Vitpilen 401
Story by Nathan May

1. the state of being obsessed with someone or something.

Two-wheeled life is not a pursuit for the rational, though I might argue that living in Los Angeles and never having to worry about traffic is actually pretty darn rational. But I digress…

It is fair to say that ever since Husqvarna and their go-to design shop Kiska shocked the collective motorcycle industry with the 401 concept bike back in 2014, I have been obsessed. It is not often that a company can bring such a fresh vision to an established industry. Even more shocking was when they arrived in production form remaining pretty much true to the concept bike.

In a typically Scandinavian approach, simplicity has been the guiding principle for these bikes. By stripping away the unnecessary, they have managed to bring something unique to market. With this focus on the bare essentials, Husqvarna has delivered a surprisingly compelling package for their first pure street-oriented offerings.

So when Abhi asked me to head out up the coast on a beautiful sunny day to finally try out Husqvarna’s entries into the competitive small displacement street category, there was not a moment’s hesitation.

My destination was Malibu. As I pulled up next to the Husqvarna Sprinter van, the bikes were still tucked safely away. Introductions done, it was time for my first look at the new production bikes. Honestly, my first reaction was to just say, “Wow”, because they just look so darn cool. I threw a leg over the Vitpilen and had a completely different reaction: “oh, this feels good”. I don’t really know how else to say it – it just has a very solid sensibility and the high level of fit and finish of these bikes is immediately apparent. This was going to be a good day.

And we were off. The 401’s come in two flavors: The street-oriented Vitpilen (White Arrow) and scrambler-inspired Svartpilen (Black Arrow). Both share their foundations with the KTM Duke 390 foundation, but they end up feeling like completely different creatures. I set out on the Vitpilen and Kyle on the Svartpilen.

[Editor’s Note: Nathan was joined on this ride by Kyle Hyatt, whom you hopefully remember as he interviewed me for the Petersen Museum’s podcast and then chronicled his journey of learning how to ride here on Bike-urious: training at the Honda Rider Education Center, testing bikes like the Honda CB500F and the Aprilia Dorsoduro, and finding his first bike – a Triumph Tiger 800 that Spurgeon from RevZilla trailered out here to do LA-Barstow-Vegas with. Now Kyle is over at Roadshow by CNET as a News and Features Editor while occasionally reviewing the latest and greatest in cars and bikes.]

Photo courtesy Husqvarna

The Vitpilen has a more aggressive riding position that takes a little getting used to, but I found it somewhat familiar as it is similar to the riding position on my personal Triumph Thruxton. More aggressive than a standard bike, but not so aggressive that I was uncomfortable. Keep in mind that I was also carrying a fully loaded camera bag, so that never helps.

Kyle on the Vitpilen. Kyle is 6’4 and 250+ pounds, so he makes almost every bike look tiny.

A few minutes later we had left the sleepy confines of Malibu behind and headed up the Pacific Coast Highway towards my go-to road, Latigo Canyon. Cruising up the coast, I was able to get a sense how the bike handled a little distance at speed. I was pleasantly surprised at how easily it maintained a “brisk” pace up the sparsely trafficked PCH. These are intended to be city/commuter bikes and are not exactly designed for long distance cruising. However, they were perfectly fine on the open highway. The 373cc single, though better suited to navigating urban settings, produced more than enough top end to outpace traffic. Compared to its step-brother, the Duke 390, Husqvarna has traded a little top end HP for more low and mid-range torque, which certainly helps with the fun factor as you slip through traffic. Per these Cycle World dyno runs, the Husky makes 41.4 horsepower and 26.4 pound-feet of torque – 3 less ponies but 2 more lb-ft of torque. This engine spins up fast and I found myself unexpectedly pinging the limiter in lower gears, something that surely goes away with more seat time. As beautiful as the PCH is, I was eager to see how the little Husky would behave in the twisties. As we began our ascent up Latigo, I would soon find out.

We have some great roads in SoCal, but there is just something about Latigo. Great views, perfect corners, and fun little sequences that you can work over and over. It’s an excellent location to put the 401 through its paces, and the bike is seriously fun. It handles well, pulls when you want it to and will loft the front off the start. True to its KTM roots, both the front and rear suspension are provided by WP. Brakes are provided by ByBre (Brembo’s line for small displacement bikes) and the standard Bosch ABS system seems be well tuned to this setup.

After some photo runs, I swapped bikes with Kyle and jumped on the Svartpilen. At this point, I was already pretty comfortable with the Vitpilen and I was interested to see how I would feel about its sibling. I love the look of the Vitpilen, but I love riding the Svartpilen. The ergonomics inspire confidence. Wider, scrambler-style handlebars provide good steering authority and the upright riding position gave my wrists and forearms a break. I instantly loved this bike – I was much more confident and consequently much faster on the Svartpilen.

Kyle makes the Svartpilen look tiny, too.

The excellent Pirelli Scorpion Rally STR tires work well and make the steering predictable and less twitchy than the Vitpilen. I instantly felt comfortable on the Svartpilen. After ripping around on it for a few hours, I realized that I had the same joyous feeling that I did when I rode the Honda Grom. It’s a sensation that just puts a smile on my face, something about the pared down simplicity of the bike that is crazy fun. This is an adult-sized Grom that you can actually ride on the highway. In short, this bike is awesome.

Photo courtesy Husqvarna

Is 400 the magic number?

At first blush it is easy to underestimate the 373cc displacement. However, with the ~320 pound dry weight, things start to get interesting. The powerplant has proven itself in the ever-popular KTM 390 Duke. I have spent a little time with it in the past and it is a fun little motor. It has enough power to keep you interested, but won’t intimidate a new rider. There is a reason there is so much activity in the small displacement category right now: these new motors result in bikes that are friendly to the beginning rider, but have enough grunt that you can enjoy them for many years.

Speaking of new riders, Husqvarna sees these bikes as a way to get new riders into motorcycling and I think they are on to something. These bikes are classy, approachable, and most importantly, fun. If we want to get more people into riding, these are the kind of bikes manufacturers need to build. Motorcycling comes with a healthy dose of passion, so why not start out with a bike you can fall in love with? Yes, they are a little pricier ($6,299). But as the old adage goes, you get what you pay for. If you want one of the best looking and certainly most unique bikes in the market today, and you don’t mind spending the extra cash, you won’t be disappointed.

Check out the 2018 Husqvarna Vitpilen 401! Check out the 2018 Husqvarna Svartpilen 401!
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