2009 Ural T Motorcycle Sidecar Review

Ural’s New Recession-Friendly Offering Priced Under $10,000

Photo © Basem Wasef

Manufacturer's Site

Motorcycle sidecars are some of the most nostalgically evocative rides you’ll find on three wheels, and at first glance Ural's products appear unchanged despite decades of production.

But don’t let their old school exteriors fool you. Iffy reliability earned Ural a bad reputation in the '90s, so the Russian manufacturer worked hard to modernize their lineup and reclaim their standing as a rugged, dependable brand.

I piloted Ural’s latest T model ($9,999) throughout Seattle to see how this retro ride stacks up against modern machines, and to find out if this affordable sidecar is really as fun as it looks.

The Goods: Everything Old is New Again

Urals are still manufactured in Russia, and 99 percent of the bikes built at their factory in Irbit are destined for other parts of the world. Though every single part on their bikes was once built there—from nuts and bolts to major components—the Ural parts bin has since become a melting pot of global suppliers.

For instance, front and rear shocks are made in Italy by Sachs. The forks’ leading link design, though archaic, actually works better for sidecar handling than do conventional telescopic units. Also hailing from Italy are left and right controls by Domino, an ignition system by Ducati Energia, and full-floating, four-piston front brakes by Brembo. Stopping power is (mildly) augmented by Ural-made drum brakes on the rear and sidecar wheels.

The 4-speed transmission has German Herzog gears (who also supplies KTM), and the shifter features a heel lever for upshifts, while a small chrome lever above the brake pedal engages a reverse gear. The bike’s air-cooled, horizontally opposed 749 cc twin engine is essentially a BMW knockoff made in-house by Ural, but its twin Keihin carburetors originate from Japan, as does its Denso alternator.

Twin stainless steel exhaust pipes flank the bike. The boxer engine’s stated output is 40 horsepower and 38 ft-lbs of torque, and given its relatively tame state of tune and 5.0 gallon fuel tank, the Ural T’s cruising range is appropriate for reasonable touring distances—though an optional jerrycan offers added peace of mind for serious interstate hoppers.

The hack’s passenger compartment is relatively sparse, but the padded perch is reasonably comfortable, and the nose offers plenty of legroom. The passenger compartment rests on rubber bushings for shock absorption, and an optional windscreen and skirt significantly enhance the passenger riding experience. Just aft is a storage compartment that’s roomy, but isn’t lockable.

The ‘T’ model only comes in a matte black finish with maroon pinstriping which looks great at a distance, but closer inspection unfortunately reveals that the striping is taped on.

Throw a Leg (Carefully) Over: Ergonomics, Russian Style

Hopping aboard the Ural T is just like straddling a regular bike, except you have to maneuver your right leg just ahead of the metal bars that connect to the sidecar and just aft the air intake for the right cylinder. That setup is fine for shorter rides, but if you like to move your leg around might feel a little hemmed in by the hardware.

The rider seat is a tractor-style saddle, and can be adjusted to slide forward or back.

The view over the handlebars reveals an elemental, back-to-basics layout with typical left and right hand controls (thanks to Domino) with a speedo front and center and a steering damper just behind it. Twist the knob and steering gets stiffer or looser, which helps fine-tune stability when road surfaces are uneven. Left and right foot pedals control shifting and braking, and while the hand lever operates the front Brembo brakes, the foot pedal works the drums on the rear and side wheels.

On the Road: “That Looks Like Fun!”

There are decent odds you’ll bear the brunt of two opposing forces when decide to ride a motorcycle sidecar: cautious two-wheelers will forewarn you of their demonically unpredictable handling characteristics, while complete strangers will cheerily announce, “That looks like fun!” The former might attempt to doom and gloom you out of exploring the sidecar lifestyle, while the latter are probably one breath away from actually climbing into the hack for a joyride.

You’ll probably know if you’re Ural material after about ten feet of riding one of their unusual machines.

For starters, stability is more of an issue with sidecars than it is with modern three wheelers like the Can-Am Spyder or the Piaggio MP3. One-wheel drive sidecars (unlike offroad-ready two-wheel drive models) are relatively crude ways of propelling a wheeled structure alongside a vehicle originally intended to travel solo, and the first thing you’ll notice is its tendency to want to turn right when you accelerate. The uninitiated will soon develop the instinct of steering left in order to counteract the pull, but what takes more practice is shifting. Lifting off the throttle for a shift makes the bike yaw back to its original axis, which means that your pushing on the handlebar is now making the bike wiggle.

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Manufacturer's Site

Manufacturer's Site

On the Road, Continued

Practice shifting enough, and you’ll learn to feather your steering according to your throttle input and keep the bike aimed straight. But wait, there’s another complication: braking. Hitting the front brakes tends to pull the bike to the left, which requires the rider to counteract with right steering. Augmenting your stops with the foot brake pedal alleviates the pull, but the drum brakes on my test bike had a bit of a pulse, which made me favor the front Brembos.

On top of those quirks, turning is yet another issue when it comes to sidecars. Left turns are relatively easy in spite of the relatively high amounts of steering effort required, but right turns demand a bit more caution, as the hack has a tendency to lift off the road if the change in direction is sudden enough. If the hack levitates, maintaining your path without drastic overcorrection should bring it back down to earth uneventfully.

If all of these odd characteristics sound off-putting, remember this: once you learn how to properly ride one, a motorcycle with a sidecar is tremendously fun. Despite its output of only 40 horsepower, the Ural T offers enough visceral sensations to entertain the most jaded rider. The engine produces great old world clickety-clackety sounds, there’s plenty of feedback from the handlebars (even if you have to wrestle them to coax this 739 lb bike around bends), and you can actually hold side-to-side conversations with the passenger tucked tidily inside the sidecar—much easier than yelling 180 degrees over your shoulder.

The Ural T’s outright performance is far from blistering; the “recommended maximum speed” is a mere 65 mph, and its handling characteristics tend to hamper your entry speed on turns. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use those dynamics to your advantage. In fact, I quickly discovered that lift throttle oversteer can initiate a mean drift, and if you’ve ever watched sidecars attack the famous Isle of Man TT race, you can see the tremendous potential for hooliganism these three wheelers have.

Still, I generally felt uncompelled to push the limits of this rig’s WWII-era technology; the Ural T wants to ride its own ride, and respecting the signals it sends makes for the most satisfying sidecar experience.

The Bottom Line: Bargain Basement Fun on Three Wheels

The Ural T’s main selling point is its $10,000 price tag, and despite a few disappointing details (like its taped-on pinstriping and a few rough-around-the-edges metal finishes), this motorcycle sidecar offers loads of fun, and arguably one of the most entertaining ways to haul a passenger along the open road. Its relatively low performance threshold and quirky handling are certainly not for everybody, but it counteracts those qualities with loads of personality and charm.

It may lack the bells and whistles that adorn most modern bikes, but for a machine whose simple and utilitarian intentions have remained generally unaltered for several decades, the Ural T comes across as an honest, utilitarian, and thoroughly enjoyable ride.

2009 Ural T Specifications

  • 749 cc "boxer" style air-cooled, four-stroke, twin carbureted engine
  • 40 horsepower @ 5,600 rpm, 38 ft-lbs torque @ 4,000 rpm
  • Starter: electric and kick start
  • 4-speed transmission with single speed reverse gear
  • Fuel capacity: 5.0 gallons
  • Seat height: 30.9 inches
  • Road clearance: 4.9 inches
  • Front suspension: leading link forks
  • Rear suspension: hydraulic spring shock absorbers, 5-way adjustable
  • Wheels: 19" chrome steel spokes and cast aluminum hubs
  • Finish: Matte black with maroon pinstriping
  • Dry weight: 739 pounds
  • Warranty: 2 years, unlimited mileage
  • MSRP: $9,999
  • Manufacturer's Site