What It’s Like to Ride the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701, A Review

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Husqvarna is a sales-driven company. I know this because before our press ride, the (Austrian-owned) Swedish brand spent more time selling us on the company’s staggering sales growth rather than talking about the technical specifics on the new Husqvarna Svartpilen 701.

To that end, sales are good. Very good, in fact. For a point of reference, more Husqvarna motorcycles are being sold now than ever before in the brand’s extensive history, and some of that growth comes from the Husqvarna’s new entry into the street bike realm.

Don’t get me wrong, Husqvarna dirt bikes still out sell the brand’s street bikes by roughly 4:1 when we are talking raw numbers, but the revived company is knocking on close to 50,000 motorcycles sold a year now. That is impressive, no matter how you slice it.

The bike that they hope will push the brand over the 50k mark is the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701, which is the only new model from Husqvarna for the 2019 model year. The Svartpilen 701 is the counterpoint to the Vitpilen 701 that debuted last year, and it continues Husqvarna’s trend of releasing the mirror image machines in various sizes.

As such, the 701 series borrows its platform from the KTM 690 Duke, and its new single-cylinder engine that features dual balancing shafts (one at the crank, the other on the cam).

It is a motor we are quite fond of here at Asphalt & Rubber, so we were intrigued when Husqvarna invited us to Lisbon, Portugal to ride the new Svartpilen 701 – as we wanted to see if this motorcycle was just more than a re-skinned KTM.

The answer to that question is certainly a yes, but with an asterisk. Let me explain.

The Dark Side of the Force

Before we get too far into the review, we should talk some history. Ever since KTM took over ownership of Husqvarna, the Swedish brand has been pushing into the street segments with a dual-pronged approach with its Vitpilen (White Arrow) and Svartpilen (Black Arrow) models.

In those dual lineups, there are common platforms. The 401 series came first, and was built on the same platform as the KTM 390 Duke. And now, Husqvarna has its 701 bikes ready for consumption, which come from the KTM 690 Duke and its progeny.

For the “black arrow” bikes, the Svartpilen aesthetic means a flat track look and feel, with dark color schemes. This contrasts with the more café racer design and light colors thing that is coming from the Vitpilen bikes.

Of course, true to the Swedish brand element of the Husqvarna name, both the Svartpilen and Vitpilen motorcycles are from a modern design vibe that has helped carve out a unique neo-retro niche for this new-again street brand.

All of this culminates in an interesting blend for the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701, as it tries to be included in the street-tracker trend, without actually being a part of it. 

The looks of the machine have certainly been polarizing, and there is very much a “love it, or hate it” reaction to this motorcycle that doesn’t go away when you see it in the flesh.

As we have seen in our comments section, you either are enamored with the aesthetic that Husqvarna has created with the Svartpilen 701, or you turned off by it…and where you come down on that dividing line is very likely where you will stand at the end of this review.

701, By the Numbers

Before we get into the abstract though, let’s talk some facts and figures. As we mentioned, the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 shares its platform with the KTM 690 Duke, but those similarities aren’t exact. The Svartpilen 701 makes an extra horsepower, for example, for a peak power figure of 74hp.

Peak torque is a stout 53 lbs•ft, and the torque curve is strong and flat through the rev range. Still, the big 693cc single-cylinder thumper behaves quite well at low speeds. In our experience, this revised version of KTM’s booming single has been quite reliable, and it certainly has better table manners than its predecessor.

The addition of an extra balancing shaft to this generation of the motor has been a huge boon to KTM – and now Husqvarna as well – though the engine will still put some vibes through the chassis (most notably in the handlebar), especially north of 5,000 rpm.

On the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 it is hard to say which is better though, the engine or the chassis? This is because thrashing around the Svartpilen 701 is pure joy.

The bike is nimble on its feet, partly due to the 370 lbs wet weight, but also because of the 160/160 ZR17 Pirelli MT60 RS tire that is on the 5-inch cast aluminum rear wheel. This combination makes for lightning quick side-to-side transitions and precise turning. The Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 is very much a sport bike, even with its 18″ front wheel.

The upright riding position, along with the short wheelbase, means that getting the front wheel off the ground is a rather simple affair…provided that the traction control has been turned off.

Notice I said the whole system had to be turned off for wheelie shenanigans. This is because there are no settings for the rider aids on the Svartpilen 701. It is either on or off…and the “on” position was clearly raised on a Victorian perspective of propriety.

Turning the traction control off isn’t easy, either. The toggle is an unmarked button on the dash that needs the force of Zeus to be pressed. After holding the button for what feels like a solid 20 count, you can release it, and in theory your traction control is now off. But…there’s a but.

Going through this procedure when you first start up the bike doesn’t seem to disable the traction control on the Svartpilen 701. Often, you need to get moving first before attempting to disable the traction control (this is a working theory though, as there really doesn’t seem to be a consistency of what works and what doesn’t). Additionally, turning off the bike resets the TC setting (though using the kill switch does not), and you have to start all over again. Oy vey.

In practicality, most of the times we thought we had the TC turned off, that turned out not to be the case. Eventually, this rider just gave up on it. I suck at wheelies anyways.

It is a similar state of affairs for the ABS package, which is on…All. The. Time. You can thank European laws for this state of affairs, in part, though one has to wonder how Husqvarna couldn’t better navigate the many loopholes found in the EU’s ABS requirements. After all, doesn’t a street tracker need to lock the rear brake in order to ride the dirt track? 

In theory, you can pull the fuse for the ABS to lock up the rear tire, but then you lose the cornering ABS feature from Bosch on the front wheel. There are more than a few riders who hate to make this compromise, this reviewer included among them. That’s a 5-point deduction, Husqvarna. Off to the penalty box for you.

Unlike the torture rack that is called the Husqvarna Vitpilen 701, the Svartpilen 701 has a comfortable and upright sitting position that was comfortable even for my 6’2″ frame.

I was also quite impressed with the Brembo brakes on the Svartpilen 701. The initial bite is very strong, and in most applications on the street, it feels great. But, the 320mm single-disc setup does show itself, and more than a couple times during our apex-crushing ride did I long for more mechanical advantage on the front wheel.

I don’t think going to a 330mm disc would make the difference, but instead see a dual-disc brake setup on the front wheel as the optimal choice for Husqvarna. It would also help distinguish the bike from the KTM 690 Duke and KTM 790 Duke models…we’ll get to that part in a minute, though.

The suspension is also a highlight on my list of “likes”, and is comprised of fully adjustable WP pieces front and back. Though Husqvarna made it easy to dial-in the Svartpilen 701 to one’s preferences, our very spirited press ride left us wanting very little in adjustment.

What is more intriguing was that the same feeling was felt by virtually everyone in our group, which had close to a 60-pound delta in rider weights. The Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 seems to be a one-size-fits-all machine, which is an impressive feat. To that thought, the seat height is a mere 32.8″ (835mm), which should make it accessible for a large range of riders.

Pioneering, Premium, & Swedish

According to Husqvarna, there are three attributes to the brand: that it is pioneering, premium, and Swedish. As such, Husqvarna sees itself as leading the motorcycle industry, with its “pioneering” approach to new model segments and designs.

The company is also the “premium” alternative to KTM’s “ready to race” messaging, and aims to bring more features to riders who want more than a bare-bones racing machine.

And while everyone knows that Husqvarna is based outside Salzburg, Austria, the brand takes its cues from its “Swedish” heritage, where modern design now rules the roost.

In reality? Husqvarna is a mixed bag of these items and still struggles to stay on message. The Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 is a great example of this notion.

When the first Svartpilen concept debuted, Husqvarna was indeed pioneering in the space. The café racer and street tracker aesthetics were still in vogue, and Husqvarna was offering a unique twist on those ideas that helped separate it from the hipster rehash the rest of the industry seemed to focus on.

Fast-forward to 2019 though, and the lengthy duration of time that it has taken Husqvarna to get the Svartpilen 701 to dealer floors, and the bike feels late to the party. For a brand that is trying to lead the trends, the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 feels like a “me too” machine in a sea of other “me too” models from OEMs.

Husqvarna needs to get its concepts to market much quicker than its current pace of one new bike per year. There is a logic to the measuring out of the 401 and 701 bikes, but the model fatigue for these bikes is already raging in consumers.

Heaven help the marketing department at Husqvarna if they intend to bring their “Aero” concept to reality at this year’s EICMA show. From a “new” perspective, it is DOA – which is a shame, considering it is a very attractive concept.

My real ire with the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 though comes from the notion that this is a premium machine, because quite frankly it is not. 

There is no TFT dash. The electronics are rudimentary in terms of adjustability – no traction control adjustment, no independent wheelie control, no “supermoto” ABS, and the switches and buttons are middle-ground, at best.

I don’t know why this is the case…even the budget-focused KTM 390 Duke has a TFT dash now. In terms of features and quality, the Svartpilen 701 offers a Yamaha MT-09 level of performance at a Ducati Monster 821’s price point. Why does the tachometer go to 13,000 rpm when the Svartpilen 701 only revs to 8,000 rpm or so?

For as fun at this bike is to ride – and it is fun to ride – it must be on the vegetarian diet, because I keep wondering “where’s the beef?” every time I got on this motorcycle.

Husqvarna’s modern look is attractive, and while the street tracker look doesn’t do it for me personally, the Dane in my really appreciates what the brand has been able to graft on top of what is basically a KTM 690 Duke in disguise.

That being said though, the visual exercise is just skin deep. Like the KTM 690 Duke, a bird’s nest of wires can be seen around the engine, thanks to the naked bodywork and steel trellis frame. The other “premium” brands in this space have figured out how to hide their wiring and hoses better than this, and it is time that Husqvarna did the same.

Scandinavian design is about simple and clean lines. Negative space is like porn to our ilk. Basic colors, not fancy graphics. Husqvarna has achieved this with the bodywork and lines of the Svartpilen 701, but ignored that principle when it came to tidying up the engine bay.

The effect is a bike that looks cheap. The effect is a motorcycle that isn’t on par with the other $12,000 middleweights in the segment, both in terms of fit and finish and in features. The effect is a bike that fails to achieve the three basic brand elements that Husqvarna itself touts.

KTM as a company has struggled to realize that the expectations are different from dirt bikes and street bikes, and the Austrians are just now starting to produce road models that are in line with their competitors. Now the mothership is struggling with the same concept, as they move from “Ready to Race” to “Simple. Progressive.”

Yeah, But Would You Buy It?

Now to the part of the review that you are most interested in…would I buy the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 with my hard-earned blogging dollars?

If you are someone that finds that the lines of the Svartpilen 701 to be calling your attention, waking you in a night’s sweat, then it would be hard not to recommend this machine. Mechanically, the Svartpilen 701 is fantastic. It is a motorcyclist’s motorcycle, an absolute grin-maker, and the front wheel should be sold as optional.

A lot of that praise is owed to the 693cc single-cylinder engine, which is superb in its power delivery, and it excels at both spirited and subdued riding tempos. The chassis is first-class as well though, it handles like it is on rails, and unlike the Vitpilen 701, this “Black Arrow” is very comfortable to ride with its upright sitting position and handlebars.

All-in-all, Husqvarna has done a good job making a motorcycle that can be distinct even in a quiver full of other two-wheeled machines, and it works just as well when it is the only bike in a garage. Plain and simple, the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 is a stupid-fun street bike. That being said, the Svartpilen 701 is not a perfect motorcycle.

Talking with my colleagues after the launch, we kept coming back to the price of the Svartpilen 701 in the United States – $12,000 MSRP. Umpf! That price point is a tough ask from Husqvarna, especially when KTM is selling the potent 790 Duke for $10,500.

For $1,500 the “premium” on the Svartpilen 701, Husqvarna isn’t bringing too much to the table when compared to its own in-house competition, let alone what others are doing with their middleweight sport bikes.

You really do have to be answering the Sirens’ song of the Svartpilen 701 to want to buy this motorcycle over what other options are out there. That being said, it isn’t too hard to drink the Kool-Aid here either.

The Svartpilen 701 is one of the few street-tracker models on the market, and its big thumping engine makes for a very authentic flat track experience on the street. Pull a fuse on the ABS, and we could see rolling up to the dirt track on this Husky being a very real thing…and the Svartpilen 701 would probably do it well.

Honestly, I don’t think there is a bike on the market that looks more like a flat track race bike with lights – sorry Ducati, sorry Indian – and that brings with it a certain appeal. But, how many people want that in their motorcycle?

This means that the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 is very much a niche machine, and that segment of motorcycle hasn’t really been proven out yet by the market. I am fine to see how this experiment plays out, for now, but on the merits, I still struggle with the price to performance ratio on the Svartpilen 701.

For all the borrowing that Husqvarna does from the KTM mothership, I wish the blue & white brand would borrow a couple more things from its orange sibling – namely a better electronics suite and dash. Maybe add another front disc, sooth some of the engine vibes, and generally polish some of the bike’s rougher elements.

Then, that $12,000 price tag might make more sense. Then Husqvarna would have an undeniable hit on its hands. Then my hard-earned blogging dollars would be in serious jeopardy.