Life on Three Wheels: 2014 Ural T
2014/2015 Ural T
Claimed power: 41hp @ 5,500rpm
Top speed: 80mph (observed)
Engine: 749cc air-cooled OHV opposed twin, 78mm x 78mm bore and stroke, 8.6:1 compression ratio
Fuel capacity/MPG:5gal (18.9ltr)/35mpg (observed)
The authentic vintage appeal of the Ural has always been the bike’s calling card. Nobody, not even the motorcycle ignorant, mistakes a Ural for a “new” motorcycle. Even a new Harley, nostalgia in motion with its thumping V-twin, looks modern next to a Ural.
It turns out that more than a few motorcyclists want the look of a classic bike without the hassle of actually owning one. Vintage Brit bikes are derided for leaky engines, dodgy electrics and suspect build quality, while Italian machines get dogged for being more fun to look at than actually ride and expensive to own. Enter the retro classic, a category that’s seen significant growth in the past few years thanks to bikes like the Russian-built Ural T.
Yet much like their vintage brethren, early Urals were knocked down for their shortcomings, with owners complaining of poor build quality and unreliable electrics and mechanicals. Miles of forum pages were filled with owners decrying the Ural’s failings, yet an equally large number of pages have also been filled with owners defending the Ural. In their support of the brand, Ural boosters regularly note the bike’s unique character and go-anywhere capacity, especially 2-wheel drive models. They also suggest that a successful experience with a Ural requires accepting the bike for what it is; a modernized prewar BMW R71.
That’s not entirely accurate of course, but the Ural does have its roots in the late 1930s, when the Soviets reverse-engineered an R71 to create the Ural M72. Fast forward several decades and the old M72, now with an updated overhead valve engine but otherwise much as it was originally designed, had become a mechanical anachronism, a living fossil firmly entrenched in the past, so quirky and out of date that it was suddenly quaint and somewhat hip. In this case hip is good, because hip means style, and style doesn’t really care about rational expense, a fact that seemed to allow the Ural to soldier on long past its best by date.
But something happened along the way. Rising export sales — particularly U.S. sales, today almost half of Ural production — inspired Ural to improve its product. In 2003 the original 650cc engine grew to 750cc, receiving a better crankshaft and plain bearings in the process. Bought in components started replacing poor quality Russian bits, with a Brembo front disc brake also added in 2003, a Nippon Denso alternator coming about 2007, plus electronic ignition sourced from Ducati and new, stronger and quieter transmission gears from Herzog in Germany.
Changes major and minor continued, and when we last sampled a Ural five years ago, tester Robert Smith frankly marveled at how much better the 2010 Ural was from the bikes he rode in 2003, noting that “Ural motorcycles have come a long way in a relatively short time.”
The 2014/2015 Ural T continues Ural’s path of improvement, with significant upgrades to make the latest bikes the best to yet come out of Ural’s factory in Irbit, Russia. Importantly, the upgrades are mostly mechanical. A huge part of the Ural’s appeal is its throw-back aesthetic, and Ural has wisely limited appearance changes to little things like a new instrument cluster and new tank knee pads and tank badges.
The biggest improvement inside is the new electronic fuel injection system, a move necessitated by the fact that carbureted engines simply can’t deliver the kind of clean power that EPA standards increasingly demand. The new system, developed by Michigan-based ElectroJet, replaces the previous Keihin carbs with a throttle body injection system. Importantly, each cylinder has its own closed loop system with individual ECUs so that if one fails, cutting out a cylinder, the other side can still operate independently and the bike can limp home.
Bringing in EFI meant revamping everything upstream of the throttle bodies and a few things inside, so the new Ural also gets a new, larger airbox (Ural says it’s almost twice as large as before) along with a revised cam profile to increase low to mid-rpm torque. Horsepower gets a nominal boost, up from 40hp to 41hp, but more important is the 10-plus percent increase in torque — up from 38ft/lb at 4,600rpm to 42ft/lb at 4,300rpm.
A revised front engine cover incorporates a spin-on oil filter, replacing the previous cartridge filter, which was clumsy and messy to change. Steering control gets a big boost in the form of a new 16-position adjustable hydraulic damper, replacing the old mechanical friction steering damper. Ural says the new damper significantly reduces the bike’s tendency to yaw right and left when powering on and off, respectively. Just as importantly, disc brakes replace the mechanical drums previously used on the rear wheel and the sidecar. Other changes you can’t see include new wheel hubs using readily available sealed bearings, and the rear hub now features a replaceable bolt-on drive spline. Previous Urals had the spline cast with the hub, requiring complete hub replacement if the spline wore out.
On the road
My chance to ride the new Ural came at the 2014 Vintage Motorcycle Festival held at LeMay-America’s Car Museum in Tacoma, Washington, last August. Ural’s U.S. headquarters are in nearby Redmond, making it a perfect opportunity to sample their latest offering.
Ural rep David George met me in the museum parking lot, giving me some background on the bike and some riding pointers. I’ve only ridden sidecar rigs a few times, so tips from an experienced hand were much appreciated.
The biggest trick with a sidecar rig is getting used to the torque steer created by the sidecar. The motorcycle’s rear wheel propels you forward, and naturally the front plays along. But the sidecar injects a new element, wanting to stay at whatever speed it’s at whether you’re accelerating or throttling down. The result is that when you lay down power, the entire bike pulls right as it tries to overtake the right-hand-mounted sidecar, and then pulls left when you drop throttle as the sidecar tries to keep moving forward.
This creates what feels like the previously mentioned yaw, with the bike feeling like it is oscillating left and right. It’s unsettling at first, but after a little practice you learn how to mitigate the effect. Feathering the back brakes first when decelerating helps balance the rig, and following with a smooth pull on the front disc gives predictable, even braking. The brakes on the bike I rode were excellent and more than up to the task of hauling 950-plus pounds of bike and rider to a stop, returning good feel and an even bite every time.
Turning takes practice, as well. Right turns are best done with a little bit of throttle to keep the sidecar from plowing straight on, while left turns are best with a little trailing throttle. Leaning into right turns is pretty much mandatory without a sidecar passenger to level things out — or maybe even with; I had a pair of 75-pound sandbags in the sidecar for ballast, and I found myself leaning into left turns, as well. It’s an interesting little dance, but with practice it starts to feel natural, and it’s more than a little fun.
Vintage BMW riders will feel at home shifting the Ural, as it returns a decided mechanical “plonk” when shifted into first. Upshifts were smooth and positive, and nothing like the noisy and balky shifts reviewers have noted on earlier bikes. Reverse is selected with a hand lever on the right side of the transmission; pushing it forward puts you in neutral regardless of what gear you’re in and pulling it back engages reverse. When you want to go forward again just pull in the clutch, push the lever forward then select first gear with the foot shift.
There are only four forward gears, but you never miss the lack of a fifth gear thanks to the engine’s solid torque — and the fact that 70mph is really about as fast as you’ll want to go. I hit 80mph once, and while the Ural felt comfortably up to the task, it’s much happier rolling along at 60-65mph, where it’s solidly in its torque curve.
That torque helps the Ural pull strongly from a stop, although it stumbles a bit when cold, requiring a little feathering of the throttle. Dave had warned me about the cold stumble, saying my bike was an early example and they were still working out final ECU mapping. Once warmed up it’s easy to pull away from rest, and it never coughs or spits on the boil. Handling is, as mentioned, an acquired skill, but once you find your balance you’ll discover the Ural delivers a surprisingly supple ride.
My short time on the T suggests Ural has come a long way in the past few years and is serious about making a quality, reliable machine for sidecar enthusiasts. Style still sells, but it only carries you so far, and Ural knows it needs happy customers to stay in business. Fit and finish on the bike I rode was excellent, with very nice paint work, and the Ural performed flawlessly. The new fuel injection and steering damper go a long way toward making everything work as well as it does, as do the new rear disc brakes.
Before I knew it, my little 100-plus-mile ride in the country east of Tacoma was coming to an end, and I was helping Dave load the Ural up for the trip back to Redmond. Too bad, because I was just starting to get acclimated to life on three wheels, and I was ready for another 100 miles — and more. MC
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