The Vitpilen 701 has been leading Husqvarna’s relaunch as a manufacturer of cool, design-led streetbikes ever since a striking café-racer concept bike was unveiled at EICMA in autumn 2015. Now under KTM’s ownership and with production switched to Austria, the brand once known for Swedish-built off-road bikes has ambitious plans to become Europe’s third biggest bike manufacturer, ahead of Ducati and Triumph and behind only KTM and BMW.
Husqvarna’s engineers have managed to retain almost all of the Vitpilen prototype’s edgy style in the production model, which blends traditional café-racer elements with modern design, from its round headlight and clip-on bars to the diminutive tailpiece. Only the perspex-covered instrument panel disappoints, lacking the style and refinement of the TFT display fitted to KTM’s 690 Duke, which provides most of the Vitpilen’s key components.
Those include the 693cc, single-cylinder engine, which is internally unchanged from the Duke’s LC4 unit apart from minor gearbox mods and the addition of a two-way quick-shifter, or “Easy Shift” in Husky speak. A revised airbox, modified ride-by-wire injection system and new, black-finished exhaust system don’t affect the output of the twin cam, four-valve motor, which produces a maximum of 75bhp at 8500rpm.
Chassis layout is also borrowed from the 690 Duke, notably the chrome-moly steel trellis main frame, which gains a new aluminium rear subframe for the Husqvarna’s cut-down tailpiece. The specification also mirrors the Duke’s with 43mm forks and a rising-rate monoshock from in-house suspension firm WP, plus 17-inch wheels and a Brembo four-piston front brake caliper biting a single 320mm disc.
Perhaps the biggest difference from the high-barred Dukes is the Vitpilen’s racier riding position, thanks to clip-on bars that locate directly in the black-finished top yoke. Inevitably there’s a fair bit of pressure on the wrists at low speed. At least that minimalist seat is thin and slightly lower than the 690’s, which helps make the fairly roomy Husky easy to manoeuvre, especially as it tips the scales at just 165kg fully-fuelled.
The ride-by-wire fuel injection system’s throttle response is very sweet, as you’d expect of the refined LC4 powerplant, though as with the KTMs the single-pot motor judders at low revs, occasionally necessitating a quick down-change in town. Keep the revs at about 3000rpm, though, and the Vitpilen is smooth, thanks to the twin balancer shafts (including one in the cylinder head) that make it feel almost like a twin at higher speeds.
That helps give the Husky an enjoyably rev-happy character that is well suited to its leant-forward riding position, which makes much more sense once you’re moving fast enough for the wind to take the pressure off your wrists. On the open road the Vitpilen rumbles along effortlessly at 80mph, ready to press on towards its top speed of about 125mph with a tweak of the throttle (just don’t rely on the mirrors though, as they blur uselessly at speed). It’s quicker still when you make frequent use of the quick-shifter, which works superbly given positive pressure on the lever.
Chassis performance is another Vitpilen strength, as you might expect of such a lean, light bike. Its suspension spec is a blend of 690 Duke and the upmarket Duke R, with the standard 690’s shorter, 135mm of travel at each end, and the R-model’s more sophisticated front end, featuring neat plastic knobs on the fork tops for easy adjustment of compression and rebound damping.
On the press launch, held on roads near Barcelona, the Vitpilen worked superbly on standard settings. It carved along twisty roads with delightfully light yet stable handling, backed up by strong grip from its Bridgestone S21 tyres, and plenty of ground clearance. It also braked respectably hard, matching the 690 Duke’s stopping ability without approaching that of the Duke R, with its M50 caliper and cornering ABS. (Some of the other journalists disliked the short brake and clutch levers, though I have to admit that I didn’t have a problem with them.)
Comparisons with the 690 Duke R emphasises the challenge Husqvarna faces in establishing the Vitpilen 701 in a very competitive market. The KTM was, in many ways, more practical than the Vitpilen, as it has a more upright riding position, bigger fuel tank (14 litres against the Husky’s 12 litres, giving a range of about 125 miles at a typical 55mpg), thicker seat, and superior electronics, front brake and rear shock. It cost only slightly more than the Vitpilen’s £8899 before recently being dropped from KTM’s range.
Husqvarna is hoping that the Vitpilen 701 and its sister model the Svartpilen, or Black Arrow, which is due later this year, will appeal to “a more modern and free-thinking rider” who is looking for a “purer, more thrilling and honest riding experience”. They’re aiming at affluent, urban-based enthusiasts; people who buy expensive jackets and watches and are happy to pay extra for what they regard as a premium brand.
The Vitpilen 701 is a well-engineered bike that is very enjoyable on the right roads. It’s thoroughly recommended, if what you’re looking for is a light, sweet-handling and respectably rapid modern café racer with heaps of style and an interesting back-story; and if you’re not too concerned about the price. Whether there are enough customers like that to ignite Husqvarna’s streetbike rebirth remains to be seen.
Husqvarna Vitpilen 701
|Engine type||Liquid-cooled DOHC four-valve single|
|Bore x stroke||75 x 80mm|
|Maximum power||85bhp @ 8500rpm|
|Maximum torque||54lb-ft (72N.m) @ 6750rpm|
|Front suspension||43mm WP usd telescopic, 135mm travel, compression and rebound damping adjustment|
|Rear suspension||Single WP shock, 135mm wheel travel, preload and rebound damping adjustment|
|Wet weight||165kg (including fuel)|
|Fuel tank||12 litres|
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