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Ural Sahara: Third wheel will get you noticed

The Russian-made Ural Sahara looks like a beautifully preserved sidecar motorcycle, a barn find pulled from some remote Siberian grain silo.

The Russian-made Ural Sahara looks like a beautifully preserved sidecar motorcycle, a barn find pulled from some remote Siberian grain silo.

But it's actually brand new, and it's made this way on purpose. Rude, rugged, and retro, it may be the fastest way on wheels to get attention and make new friends.

The Ural motorcycle company got its start copying BMW R71 motorcycles for military use in the 1940s, after Joseph Stalin decided he wanted battlefield bikes just like the Germans had.

His minions reportedly bought four, through a secret Swedish intermediary, and had them shipped to Moscow. They were dismantled and reverse engineered, and a year later, the first copies were seeing duty on the Western Front.

More than 75 years later, Ural is still building the basic machine the same way.

All the motorcycles in the Ural line are powered by an air-cooled, 750-cubic-centimeter "boxer" twin four-stroke engine that makes 41 horsepower and 42 pound feet of torque, through a six-speed transmission and shaft drive.

They look like vintage bikes, sound like vintage bikes, and ride the same way. They're clunky, clumsy, stodgy, and slow - and so much fun!

Since I rode and reviewed my first Ural Gear Up, a few years back, the company (whose machines are imported by an outfit in Redmond, Wash.) has made useful updates. The Urals now feature Brembo disc brakes on the front and sidecar wheels and fuel injection.

The Urals are burly, weighing in at 730 pounds, with no fuel in the gas tank and without a passenger in the rumble seat. And, like all sidecars, they require a certain amount of muscle, and patience, to operate.

Riding one in a straight line, on a flat road, is easy work. (Although stopping one, without available ABS, is a little challenging.) Riding one on any other surface, or with any kind of twists or turns, is a more athletic affair.

The suspension, from retro leading link front end to the old-fashioned-feeling twin Sachs hydraulic shocks, is stiff. It's ready to support a fully loaded luggage rack or a sidecar full of best friend, but when unladen, it's pretty hard on the potholes. The rear is adjustable, but the front is not.

Because of its weight and three-wheeled construction, the Ural features a hand-activated parking brake and a reverse gear, activated by a right-side pedal.

There's also a hand lever that will engage the Ural's unusual two-wheel drive. This connects straight-cut gears in the wheel hub through a drive shaft to the outside sidecar wheel.

Said to get about 35 miles to the gallon, the Ural has a range of up to 180 miles to its five-gallon tank. And 180 miles would be quite a lot of riding on this beast, which will go long and hard, but not fast. Although it has an advertised maximum cruising freeway speed of 70 mph, this rider didn't feel confident going more than 60.

The entry-level Sahara retails for $17,999, before tax, license and handling. The "Off Road Package" adds $1,999, and an upgraded exhaust goes for an additional $1,499. Heidenau K37 knobby tires are also available, at $550 a set.