Design That Delivers
2018 Husqvarna Svartpilen 401 Review: Ducati Has Serious Competition
When Husqvarna took the wraps off the Svartpilen concept — alongside a few other bikes — at EICMA in 2016, the crowd went wild. Not only did it mark the brand’s return to the road bike scene for the first time in nearly 50 years, but the bikes looked damn good too. By the time 2016 came around, retro-styled cafe racers and scramblers had flooded the market, so the offerings from Husqvarna came as a breath of futuristic fresh air. Flash forward to 2018 and the bikes everyone drooled over at EICMA are now on the road. Best of all, they’re identical to the concepts and deliver more than just good looks.
The Good: The list of complaints I have with this bike is almost non-existent. Fresh styling helps it stand out from the pack and under the modern design lurks a genuinely outstanding machine. The Svartpilen 401 might be small in stature, but its engine has more than enough punch to get the 330-lbs of bike moving with an entertaining amount of enthusiasm. All of the 401’s strengths combine to make one hell of a contemporary city bike.
Who It’s For: If retro styling, seen on the majority of cafe racers and scramblers on the market, is getting, well, old to you and the super aggressive stylings from Japan are a bit much, the Svartpilen 401 carves out a stylish niche for you. The city-dweller of today who wants a perky around-town bike with subtle yet head-turning style will want to get on the 401. Whether it’s a first bike, fourth bike or beyond, the 401 would be a welcome addition to the garage.
Watch Out For: Modern scrambler-styling, raised dirtbike handlebars and slightly knobby tires give the impression the Svartpilen can tackle some off-roading, but it’s not truly designed for it. This is similar to the way the BMW Urban G/S is mainly a style exercise and not a real dirt-pounding machine.
Alternatives: The Svartpilen 401 is a newcomer in an ever expanding small-cc bike market, so its competition is pretty stiff. Husqvarna might be aiming at the heavier, more expensive Ducati Scrambler Sixty2, but Honda has a serious contender with the CB300R. The 401 lands right in the middle at $6,299, while Honda gets a $4,949 price tag — the Ducati tops the three at $7,995.
Review: Don’t let the humble scrambler styling throw you off — the Svartpilen 401 is an urban runabout, through and through. Making my way out of Brooklyn, where I wove around city blocks and threaded through traffic up the highway, I headed for Bear Mountain State Park. The 401 was in its element. It has all the hallmarks of what makes a great city bike: compact, lightweight and a punchy engine.
Oddly enough, none of that is apparent when looking at the 401. The only thing that’s obvious is the undeniably attractive bodywork that manages to make the bike look like it’s constructed with just three or four parts. Normally, with tinier bikes, seat real estate, leg room and power are left wanting, but I was entirely too ready to label the Svartpilen ‘all show and no go.’ At six-foot-one and 195lbs, I was sure a cramped ride on top of an anemic engine was in my future.
Not only did the upright riding position, raised handle bars and flat but short seat provide enough room, the engine was able to hustle away from lights and bob and weave through congested streets despite me weighing it down. The bike’s short wheelbase combined with a scant 330-pound weight make it ideal for flicking in and out of tight spaces and superb for taking off from the lights to escape engulfing traffic. Urban-dwelling commuters, look no further.
Verdict: Historically, Husqvarna is Swedish, but since the company was acquired by KTM, technically the new bikes from Husqvarna are Austrian. But, while the KTM 390 Duke (the bike the 401 is based on) inherits incredibly aggressive styling from the rest of the KTM brand language, Husqvarna holds onto its own paired down, crisp and classy Swedish roots.
That essentialist theme carries over into the ride experience as well. Where KTM’s and other modern bikes are festooned with countless riding modes, the Husqvarna keeps it simple — you just get on and ride. It’s a beautiful thing. The ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’ approach is also a critical factor in what makes it the ideal commuter. When you’re in a rush, have a bottomless inbox of emails waiting for you at the office or handfuls of projects in the wings, fiddling with settings and buttons first thing in the morning becomes more of a chore, even if it’s a small notion that inflates over time. But the 401’s ease of use, approachable performance and fun factor make the newcomer a serious contender.
What Others Are Saying:
“It’s an enthusiastic little revver too, and spools up so quickly. You’ll be surprised at how soon you’ll need to shift. The response from the ride-by-wire throttle is crisp, and even though the clutch action’s a touch heavy, cycling through the gearbox is a cinch.” — Wes Reyneke, Bike Exif
“It feels like a small motorcycle with no intruding accouterments to impede the rider. The ergonomics are almost dirt-bike like, especially with the wide flat-bend handlebars. The short wheelbase and moderate rake make sliding between four (and more) wheeled vehicles a fun, practical and, if you want, exhilarating experience — replacing the awkward and useless mirrors will help” — Don Williams, Ultimate Motorcycling
“When I rode it through downtown Los Angeles last week, the Svartpilen proved a worthy counterpart. The lower gears eased smoothly over the Fourth Street bridge. (You’ll run through them rather quickly, given any true length of road.) The raised handlebars and upright seating position provided the best kind of quick-on-off access for someone (me) who’s inclined to jump off at every coffee/photo opp/dog-petting opportunity I spot.” — Hanna Elliot, Bloomberg