REVIEW: 2021 Husqvarna Vitpilen 401 – off-road hooliganism now comes with on-road manners

All y’all can save the lame chainsaw jokes because we managed to get our hands on the 2021 Husqvarna Vitpilen 401 middleweight naked sports, which retails in Malaysia at RM29,800. The Vitpilen 401 is complemented in the Husqvarna Malaysia catalogue with the Svartpilen 250, retailing at RM24,800, and aside from engine size, the two naked Swedes are practically identical.

Those of you who care about such things will know that Austrian motorcycle maker owns Husqvarna, and indeed, both companies have a long and illustrious history making absolutely bonkers dirt bikes and supermoto machines. Expensive, but the price of excellence is not cheap, as they say.

It should be noted the Vitpilen and Svartpilen are sold locally alongside the KTM 390 and 250 Duke, which are priced at RM28,800 and RM20,500, respectively. There is also the KTM 390 Adventure, carrying the same single-cylinder engine, but as that bike caters to a different market segment, will not be addressed in this review.

When the 701 Vitpilen and Svartpilen were shown in 2017, it represented a foray into the street bike market for Husqvarna. What, exactly, was Husqvarna thinking entering a crowded middleweight and quarter-litre market, more so in Europe where these motorcycle classes are very popular with the young rider for its low cost of entry and affordable running costs?

An argument can be made for Husqvarna, and in turn parent company KTM, wanting to carve out a little more market share for themselves. But, is the Vitpilen a KTM 390 wearing different clothes, or is does it do things its way?

We have to admit, after having laid eyes on the Vitpilen 701 in the flesh in Italy at the EICMA show, we did like the looks of it. Even Jonathan Lee, our colleague who is an avowed car guy and designer by training, thought it looked stylish.

The Vitpilen 401 puts everything on display, with a slight retro influence seen in the circular LED headlight. Complemented by the round digital LCD display and engine exposed in the trellis frame, the Vitpilen hides nothing.

As basic as a motorcycle gets, the Vitpilen does come with a unique design style, with the fuel tank and side cover as one homogenous unit, stretching from headstock to tail. Two odd little extensions on either side of the tank serve to support the rider’s knees when performing stoppies while the clip on handlebars place the rider in the proper attack position for anti social behaviour on the road.

Styling throughout on the Vitpilen is minimalist, with the tail light practically disappearing into the bodywork. The more hooligan amongst you will appreciate the rear mudguard extension being made easily removable and with the turn signal already located next to the tail light, installing a tuck away bracket for the number plate is a matter of a couple of hours work.

Not that we recommend breaking the law, always follow traffic rules, respect the police, yadda, yadda, yadda. In any case, what we found riding the Vitpilen around is this bike likes, nay, enjoys being ridden hard and fast, caned to redline, hoisting the front wheel and generally behaving in a dissolute manner.

Getting on the Vitpilen, the rider is going to be aware that for a middleweight bike, it seems tall in the saddle. Unlike its 390 Duke sibling, the Vitpilen places the rider at 810 mm, compared to 830 mm for the Duke, but the way the Vitpilen is built, it feels like a long way to the ground if you are short in the inseam.

Slim and narrow, the Vitpilen disappears under you when you get on, and there is a marked lack of visual bulk, giving rise the perception of a tall saddle. Nonetheless, getting used to the feeling is a short matter of time, and the Vitpilen lacks the falling off a cliff feeling you get when seated on a naked sports bike.

Setting off on the Vitpilen, the characteristic thump of the single is obvious, and with a claimed 44 hp and 37 Nm of torque from 373 cc, the pull when the throttle is whacked open is immediate and addictive. Riding through traffic, we found leaving the Vitpilen in fourth of six gears gave the best balance between rocketing forward and keeping engine vibration at a reasonable level.

The gearbox itself we found to be smooth and slick, and icing on the cake is the up-and-down quickshifter. Gunning the engine for redline, an almost imperceptible movement of the left foot shifts the box up into the next gear, while banging down on the gearshift lever when braking hard and slowing down for corners did nothing to upset the Vitpilen.

Thus, this is where the Vitpilen, and its 250 sibling, the Svartpilen (which doesn’t come with a quickshifter), finds itself in its element. Slicing through traffic, with quick starts, stops and changes of direction done with precision and aplomb, the Vitpilen’s 152 kg weight sans fuel being an advantage.

Taking the Vitpilen further afield, we discovered the maximum speed to be adequate for highway duties. The clip on bars help this regard, allowing the rider to crouch low as the lack of wind protection of any sort means high speed work on the open road will eventually get tiring.

The thinly padded seat does not help in this regard, with the author finding the edges of the seat cutting into the thighs after an hour or so in the saddle. But the Vitpilen is not mean for mile munching.

You would take the Vitpilen as a ride of choice for a daily ride, for the commute, for the weekend casual, fun sporty ride. As both the author and a riding buddy found out, the Vitpilen corners and corners well, even when taking highway on-ramps at well towards to the hundred mile-an-hour mark.

Heeling the Vitpilen over, the WP upside-down forks and rear monoshock perform well in stock settings, enough so that we did not want any sort of adjustment. Within the performance envelope, the Vitpilen will take anything you throw at it, and while not reaching the levels of performance of, say, a KTM 790 (which costs three times more), it will do anything the rider wants when the going gets spirited.

In the braking department, things were the same with the front Bybre calliper hauling the Vitpilen down from highway speeds with no fuss. Braking and suspension on the Vitpilen were perfectly complemented by the Michelin Pilot Street radial rubber, though we reserve judgement for wet road conditions as we did not encounter rainy weather during our time with the bike.

Still and all, the Vitpilen is capable of testicles-to-the-wall cornering, the limiting factor being the rider’s skill and courage. Nothing touched down when reaching for absurd levels of lean, a testament to Husqvarna’s specification for the suspension.

Helping things along in this regard is the Vitpilen’s “Supermoto” ride mode, which can be activated on the fly. In standard “Road” mode, the two-channel Bosch ABS works on, as the spec says, both wheels.

Activating Supermoto mode switches off ABS for the rear wheel, which now means the rear brake locks up the rear wheel, at will. This made for some entertaining moments in and around city streets, accelerating hard for a corner then putting the Vitpilen into a skid and catapulting out the other side.

Those are the good bits of the Vitpilen, and as capable as Husqvarna’s mid-weight naked sports is, there were one or two little things that annoyed. One of them is the instrument cluster, a monochrome LCD unit.

We found the display hard to read in direct sunlight and the digital readout was a little on the diminutive side. The bar graphs for the temperature and fuel gauges were similarly small and we gave up trying to read the fuel gauge after a while, relying instead on the low fuel warning light.

Engine vibration is also keenly felt, especially through the bars and footpegs. Running the Vitpilen up to highway speed, around 120 km/h or so, reduced the vibration somewhat, but it was still there, and would, with enough riding time in a single session, become a reason to get off the bike and relax.

In terms of range, the Vitpilen, while not overly affected by it, does come with an 10-litre tank, compared to the 13-litre unit on the Duke 390. We managed to get about 240-ish kms from a full tank, not sparing the horses and we assume some of you will get better numbers.

Because therein lies the biggest issue with the Vitpilen, this bike does not want to go anywhere slow. The aggressive riding position, the eager revving engine, the short wheelbase and that very naughty Supermoto ride mode all conspire to give a machine which entertains and leaves the rider with a grin on his or her face.

That the Vitpilen is actually easy to ride from the get-go is an enormous plus, as the rider for this bike is likely to be a young lad or lass getting their first “real” motorcycle. We think the Vitpilen is the kind of motorcycle a young rider grows into and develops the skills to ride, rather than rapidly overcoming the bike’s capabilities, like if they were to ride a, for example, 150 cc supercub.

For the more experienced rider, there is a lot to be said for a simple, no fuss, easy to ride bike that doesn’t weigh a ton and is easy on the wallet. That the capability and performance of the Vitpilen is enough to leave the author entertained, and making it the bike reached for when the denizens of the house set out for the Sunday ride is enough of a recommendation.

So, who needs the Vitpilen 401? Competition at this level and price point is keen in Malaysia, with the Vitpilen’s main rival being the KTM 390 Duke. Adding a few thousand Ringgit more gets you into true middleweight territory, with the Kawasaki Z650 (RM35,609 in 2017) and Yamaha MT-07 (RM38,888).

But, that is neither here nor there, the Kawasaki and Yamaha are twins and do things a little differently, aside from costing just about a third more. Quick, lightweight and good handling, the Vitpilen is best suited for the young rider with some miles of riding experience, the quickshifter equipped gearbox helping in this regard, or the older rider who wants a motorcycle that is bloody good fun.

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