America's motorcycle industry is in the midst of a crisis. The companies that once thrived on the sales of $30,000 cruisers are no longer able to survive by taking bites out of one another's market share. Attracting new blood to the sport is critical if the industry is going to survive and Husqvarna -- best known for producing excellent, race-winning dirtbikes -- thinks it has an idea on how to bring in new and returning riders. And it all starts with design.
Back in 2014, Husqvarna debuted a couple of concept bikes at the EICMA motorcycle show in Italy. The bikes were based on Husqvarna's parent company KTM's entry-level street machines, the RC390 and 390 Duke. The concepts were called Vitpilen and Svartpilen which, in Husqy's native Swedish, translate to "white arrow" and "black arrow," respectively. The concept bikes exuded a simplicity and minimalism that resonated with much of the motorcycle industry.
The production bikes are almost indistinguishable from those concepts. The only real exceptions are that the engine cases look more bronze than copper, and the Svartpilen has a lower exhaust position. These bikes are like nothing I've ever seen, and Husqvarna hopes this far-out design will attract a new style-focused, fashion-conscious rider to the sport.
One of the first thing you notice is just how small the bikes are. The intimidation factor is critical for new riders, so these bikes being lightweight and having low seat heights is a huge win in terms of general approachability. I'm 6 foot 4 inches tall, and while I feel a little cramped by the Vitpilen's aggressive riding position, the Svartpilen is immediately comfortable and natural.
The Vitpilen 401 and the Svartpilen 401 use the same 375cc, four-stroke, single-cylinder engine. It's a fantastic little unit that produces 44 horsepower and 27 pound-feet of torque, which admittedly doesn't sound like a lot, but is more than enough to zing you up to just-over-average California freeway speeds without trouble. This engine sounds awesome, especially at the upper end of its rev range. You'll wish you had an extra 1,500 rpm at the top end just to prolong the magic. The bikes use a six-speed transmission, and while it's nothing to write home about, it's perfectly serviceable. The clutch is light and incredibly easy to modulate, which is perfect for those new to bikes or manual transmissions in general.
KTM is known for its incredibly lightweight bikes, and Husqy knows better than to mess with that. To that end, the Vitpilen and Svartpilen weigh in at just 326 and 331 pounds, respectively. This means that they are flickable and fun, super easy to move around and not difficult pick up if they fall over. Again, perfect for a new rider.
The Vitpilen's riding position is canted far forward, and the clip-on handlebars are positioned low, relative to the height of the seat. The foot controls sit high and further back on the bike. The Vitpilen is set up to allow the rider to work it into corners, leaning over much further than you'd expect for an entry-level bike and carrying tons of speed through each bend. It's a riot at mostly legal speeds and inspires tons of confidence.
The Svartpilen, with its much more upright and relaxed riding position, is my personal favorite of the two bikes. The wider, upright handlebars allow you to really push the bike around with ease and makes corner-to-corner transitions an absolute pleasure.
For everyday riding or commuting, the Svartpilen is the one to have. And don't let its knobby Pirelli tires fool you into thinking it's a dirtbike. The Svartpilen would be super fun on a dusty fire-road or a bit of gravel track, but you'd quickly run out of suspension travel on anything more challenging.
Speaking of which, both bikes use a suspension by WP, a brand famous for both its work with KTM as well as the number of race wins it has under its belt. The bikes' front fork is a 43-millimeter, nonadjustable upside-down unit. It's a little on the soft side, but it soaks up bumps reasonably well and looks the business. The rear of the bike features a monoshock suspension with preload adjustment. The front setup gives 5.6 inches of travel, and the rear offers 5.9 inches.
Both bikes have identical Bybre (Brembo's value-oriented sub-brand) brakes with standard ABS. Up front there's a 320mm single rotor squeezed by a four-piston caliper, and the rear gets a 230mm rotor and single-piston caliper. In use, they're more than adequate, and I never find myself desiring more stopping power. Would they hold up to repeated laps on a race track? Probably not. But on the street, these stoppers are excellent. The brake feel at the lever is helped immensely by stainless steel braided lines, a premium feature for an entry-level bike.
Getting into California highway traffic, I'm able to test a feature that's super important to riders in this region: lane splitting. California allows motorcycles to pass between slow-moving or stopped cars, and it's currently the only state in the US where this is legal. It's a godsend for biking through congested cities like Los Angeles, and here, both Husqvarna bikes are champs. The small, single-cylinder engine layout and the relatively narrow handlebars means you squeeze through any gap as wide as the rider's shoulders. A great way to attract new riders to motorcycling (in California anyway) is to emphasize the degree to which riding a bike can save time on your commute, and in this regard, the Vitpilen and Svartpilen are ideal.
Typically, Husqvarna motorcycles command a bit of a premium over the KTM models on which they're based, and the Pilen twins are no exception. With a starting price of $6,299, they're almost $1,000 more than an equivalent KTM 390 Duke. And given the identical running gear between the KTM and Husqy models, you're really just paying for the extra cool factor of these rad-looking bikes.
Both the Vitpilen 401 and the Svartpilen 401 should be hitting dealers in the next four to six weeks. If you're considering making the jump to two-wheeled motoring, they're definitely worth a look.
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