Two Classic, Best-Selling Bikes From The Oldest And Most Storied Marques In Motorcycling Haven't Lost Their Luster.
The Harley-Davidson Sportster versus the Triumph Bonneville-which is the better bike? Back in the day, that was a question best answered with an impromptu stoplight drag race or a spur-of-the-moment TT chase (that's tavern-to-tavern for you youngsters). It was winner take all and loser takes off.
Nowadays, it's a different story. The last time either bike, at least in stock trim, was considered a serious contender in any kind of performance contest was around 1970; the rest of the world has obviously sped up in the intervening 37 years. Today, the 883 Sportster is considered an entry-level bike, and the Bonneville perhaps a modern rendition of an old tug that appeals primarily to ripe farts like me who wish all bikes still came with kickstarters.
Frankly, I think both views are a little shortsighted. Yes, they're both great bikes to learn on; they're both light and maneuverable and have gentle powerbands, surefooted handling and reassuring brakes. They're also relatively inexpensive to buy, maintain and insure-all of which makes them extremely attractive to newbies.
By the same token, neither should be considered a technological throwback or in any way unsuitable for the experienced rider. True, they're somewhat unsophisticated compared to the latest and greatest, but that doesn't make them bad bikes. In fact, if you appreciate the aforementioned traditional motor-cycle values and don't mind riding at a relaxed pace, they're very good motorcycles indeed.
"They're both great bikes...
"They're both great bikes to learn on; they're both light and maneuverable and have gentle power bands, surefooted handling and reassuring brakes."
Granted, neither the Sportster nor the Bonneville would be my first choice on a cross-country trip (or my second or third for that matter). But both are more than adequate for a short weekend tour and really shine on back-road rides and as day-to-day transportation.
I'd also point out that both enjoy a certain cachet; when it's time to drop names, remember that the former president of the Hell's Angels, Ralph "Sonny" Barger, preferred Sportsters and that Marlon "Johnny" Brando, former president of the Black Rebels MC, rode a Triumph Thunderbird twin (a precursor to the Bonneville).
In a roundabout way, this brings us back to the question of which is the better bike. That's a tough call, especially since I like them both. So rather than wade through the flooded basement of half-baked opinion, let's allow the spec sheet to do the talking, and you can make up your own minds.
In the engine category, things are about equal, with a slight performance edge going to the Bonneville. The HD's engine makes lots of torque at the bottom, but its two-valve head hurts high-rpm breathing, and the venerable V-twin design that gives it so much character really doesn't like to spin, which hurts horsepower. The Triumph's four valves per cylinder and overhead cam layout let it breathe deeper at high rpm, so it makes the bulk of its power further up the scale. And, yes, the higher compression ratio and willingness to rev means it'll make more horsepower. The Triumph engine is also smoother due to its balance shaft, but in that regard the rubber-mounted Sportster engine is by no means as horrible as it used to be. The Sportster gets a few points for EFI, while the Trumpet has to make do with an increasingly dated twin-carb setup.
The Sportster's cast wheels,...
The Sportster's cast wheels, tubeless tires and belt final drive give it a clear cut if slight maintenance advantage over the Triumph...
One of the great truths about motorcycles is that almost nothing is decided on paper. With a longer wheelbase, more generous rake and trail measurements and a 108-pound weight disadvantage, you might think the Sportster would be left in the Bonneville's dust at every bend in the lane. Far from it. Although the Bonneville does enjoy certain advantages when ridden briskly down racer roads, they're not nearly as pronounced as the spec sheet makes them appear. True, the Triumph turns easier and is more nimble than the Sportster, but many Bonneville pilots complain of poor front-end feedback when the bikes are pushed hard, and, yeah, I'm one of them. Part of the problem is the bowling-ball hard, stock front tire, and another is the willowy front end. Upgrading the suspension and tires can rectify the situation easily enough, but in stock form, I think the HD has a slightly more planted feel and provides a little better feedback. Both bikes will wallow when pushed hard, but that's what keeps aftermarket suspension manufacturers' kids fed. On that same topic, ground clearance shouldn't be much of an issue no matter which bike you're on. By the time either one is dragging the hard parts, you're moving at a pretty good clip. If that's a problem for you, I'd suggest either buying something sportier or purchasing an aftermarket peg relocation kit.
When it's time to whoa, the Sportster loses a little ground, literally, by virtue of its heavier weight and less powerful brakes. So while I wouldn't call it a poor stopper, the Bonneville works just a bit better when you're hard on the binders. Both bikes suffer from slightly wooden-feeling front brakes, though to its advantage, the Bonneville does come with an adjustable front lever.
As to the rest of the stuff in this section, while neither transmission is noteworthy in any respect, both work fine, so consider the shifting a wash. However, it's worth pointing out that when it comes to the rolling elements, the Sportster's cast wheels, tubeless tires and belt final drive give it a clear cut, if slight, maintenance advantage over the Triumph, particularly in an emergency situation. Granted, the Bonneville's spoke rims and chain need only minimal attention, but all rims need truing on occasion, and all chains-no matter how good-always require periodic lubrication and adjustment. My other gripe is that in the event of a flat rear tire, you'll need to remove the Bonneville's wheel (which entails pulling both mufflers) and break down the tire to patch or replace the tube. Should the same unfortunate circumstance occur on the Sportster, you can temporarily plug its tubeless tire, inflate it and be on your way while your buddy on his Bonnie is trying to figure out where he left the tire irons. It's certainly food for thought if you do lots of solo riding a long way from home.
Although there's no box for them in the spec sheet, I should also mention that the ergonomics and comfort levels are about the same no matter which bike you're on, although there's no mistaking what you're riding for anything else. Both have comfortably bent, medium-height handlebars and an upright seating position, and both are very comfortable until the first gas stop, which occurs at around 150 miles for the Bonnie and some time before that on the Sportster (due to a smaller tank). As an aside, a popular Bonneville modification is to replace the OEM handlebars with the slightly flatter Sportster version, which purportedly improves the riding position.
If price is your only consideration, the Sportster is the clear winner in the last category, plus it comes with a clock and electronic speedometer. But there's obviously more to buying a bike than just price. In every performance category, the Bonneville holds a slight edge. It's a little quicker, a little better handling and a little better at stopping-a little are the key words here. The differences are slight and, frankly, barely noticeable unless you hop off one bike and directly onto the other. So whether the Triumph is worth an extra $524 in color, or $304 in basic black, is something you'll have to decide for yourself.
'08 Triumph Scrambler
Which bike do I prefer? I think it's pretty obvious.
| ||H-D XL 883 SPORTSTER ||TRIUMPH BONNEVILLE |
|Engine Type ||Air-cooled V-twin parallel twin ||Air- and oil-cooled |
|Displacement ||883cc ||865cc |
|Compression Ratio ||8.9:1 ||9.2:1 |
|Torque ||55.0 lbs.-ft. @ 3,500 rpm ||52.0 lbs.-ft. @ 6,000 rpm |
|Horsepower ||N/A ||66 @ 7,200 rpm |
|Vibration Damping ||Rubber-mounted engine ||Balance shaft |
|Fuel Delivery ||Electronic fuel injection ||Dual carbs |
| ||SPORTSTER ||BONNEVILLE |
|Price ||Color $6975 ||Standard - $7,499 |
| ||Black $6,695 ||Black - $6,999 |
|Standard ||Electronic ||Mechanical |
|Equipment ||speedometer ||speedometer, |
| ||with clock, ||warning lights |
| ||warning lights || |
|FRAME & RUNNING GEAR |
| ||SPORTSTER ||BONNEVILLE |
|Wheel Base ||60.0 inches ||59.1 inches |
|Wet Weight ||583.0 lbs. ||499 lbs. |
|Seat Height ||29.3 inches ||30.5 inches |
|Rake and Trail ||29.6f,,/4.60 inches ||28f,,/4.25 inches |
|Forks ||Telescopic - ||Telescopic - |
| ||no adjustment ||no adjustment |
|Rear Shocks ||Preload adjustable ||Preload adjustable |
|Front Brake ||Single dual piston ||Single dual piston |
| ||caliper, 292mm rotor ||caliper, 310mm rotor |
|Rear ||Single piston caliper/ ||Dual piston caliper/ |
| ||292mm rotor ||255mm rotor |
|Wheels ||13-spoke mags ||Wire spokes |
|Tire Size ||Front 100/90-19 ||Front 100/90-19 |
| ||rear 150/80-16 ||Rear 130/80-17 |
|Transmission ||5-speed ||5-speed |
|Final Drive ||Belt ||X-ring chain |