2010 Triumph Thunderbird - Full Test!

Doin' it all... but is it enough?

The people who market motorcycles (and, by extension the journalists who write about them) get caught up in marketing categories and subcategories; niches to the nth degree. But for years now, Triumph has had a refreshing habit of ignoring the established categories and going their own way. Case in point: they had a relatively diminutive line of 800ish cc cruisers and standards on one hand and the biggest hot rod cruiser on the planet on the other, but nothing in-between. What is the meat-and-potatoes section for most manufacturers, anywhere from 1000 to 2000ccs, was missing for Triumph. For comparison, Star has 20 models in this range while the entire Victory lineup is at the upper end of this spectrum.

Perhaps they really wanted to get the ball rolling on their fairly unique offerings, carving out some less-contested niches before going for the heart of the market and perhaps gaining some marketing insight along the way. The Thunderbird is designed to be exactly that: a core mainstream cruiser platform. Triumph claims they're planning on the T-Bird to be their best-selling model for the US in the coming years.

On the surface the 'Bird is a fairly standard cruiser with a few key differences. Triumph's signature parallel twin (in a beefy 1600cc version) with fat, double-wall chrome pipes arcing down both sides of the bike, does a good job at taking the eye away from the sizeable (black) radiator hiding between them. In case black doesn't float your boat, there's a chrome cover available as part of an extensive line of accessories, but we're not sure who'd want to do that. Triumph claims that a V-Twin engine was never even considered. A few years back they decided to stick to strictly parallel twins and triples as part of their overall identity, but that said they did what they could to bring that same uneven bump-a-bump to this upright engine by using an offset 270-degree crank. The motor is an all-new dual overhead cam parallel twin with dual counterbalancers. It also sports a six-speed transmission (rare at this price) equipped with quieter helical-style gears. Unlike its little brothers in the 865cc range, it proudly displays its fuel injection's throttle bodies behind the heads (i.e.: not disguised as carbs), styled to match.

After the engine the design is pretty standard cruiser fare, with a wide teardrop tank that drips back to wrap around the seat and minimal wheel-hugging fenders front and rear. The rear looks vaguely VTX-like, while the front looks a bit like a Wide Glide, only with a beefier headlight and 48mm fork. A fat 200mm radial graces the rear, driven by triumph's first belt final drive since the dawn of the company. The company went to great lengths to explain that back then belts were leather and now we've got high-tech carbon/Kevlar blah blah blah... we get it: belts are good, we agree.

Taking a gander at Triumph's raft of accessories available at launch, the fairly plain-jane, neutral design totally makes sense. As it sits (and with parts available) it can be made into anything from a stripped street rod, to a chromed out bling barge, to a fairly serious tourer (complete with good-sized luggage, bigger seats, floorboards, and a big quick-release windshield). As is beginning to become standard operating procedure on premium cruisers, there are a ton of accessories available right now; Triumph claims over 100, a record for them. Judging by past Triumphs, the Thunderbird should be no different in also having ready-made variants coming in ensuing model years like the Speedmaster/America cruisers or the Rocket III family to suit individual tastes and purposes.

But enough of our blather, we were talking about riding the bike, right? And ride it we did. A normal press launch will cover between 100 and 200 miles, then off to supper. We finagled the Thunderbird for three whole days and over 500 miles of riding. You may not read about it first in our bimonthly print rag, but at least we covered some tarmac!

Settling in to a very neutral perch, the controls were right where you'd expect them. Bars are a classic bend, not "buckhorny" or "beachbarish", just what we used to like to call a basic "flattrack" bend. The seat is low, but not on the floor, while the pegs are a respectable distance forward. Ergonomics might be too big for smaller folks. I'd say it was spot-on and on the compact side, but I've been wrong about what fits the short on many, many occasions. The dash is very clean, with a single, buttonless, tank-mounted dial giving up a host of information, actuated by a button on the handlebars (like Star has done the past few years).

Firing it up, it falls into that familiar, loping V-Twin gait. Yeah, we know what you're thinking, "it's a parallel twin, you moron!" but with its uneven crank pin spacing (270-degrees, as opposed to an even 180) it sounds and feels like a Vee. While the other Trumpets are known for unique power delivery, with a high-revving 865 in the smaller models and a savage 2300 triple in the Rocket IIIs, it's almost shocking how conventional the 1600cc parallel Twin in the Thunderbird feels. Triumph claims to have spent quite a bit of time on the sound of the bike, tuning out high frequency noise, while accentuating (to extent of the law) the down-low rumble. In fact, while the Brit-spec bikes we rode sounded plenty fine, the US models have even freer-breathing (louder) exhaust, due to looser regulations here.

An advanced engine management system controls the ignition timing, selecting from a pair of distinct maps, with control fine enough to treat each cylinder individually. This control makes for not only a broad spread of power, but also astounding fuel mileage up near 50mpg. We wouldn't have believed it, but we tested it for ourselves, the bikes goes 200 miles before the fuel light even comes on. Granted, the overdrive 6th gear helps out here too.

But all this efficiency is not at the expense of performance. In the first few miles it seemed a little mid-top heavy in the powerband, but that was only because it felt so good up there; encouraging us, as it was, to rev it out. In some very tight mountain roads, we got the chance to lug it around in higher gears (with a passenger on the back) and the thing pulls the rare hat trick of also pulling like a tractor. At really low rpm, under load like that it has a really nice thump-thump sound going on too. While its Rocket cousin launches off of the bottom with violent thrust, augmented by the shaft drive and soft suspension, while its smaller 865cc kin likes to spin up top, the 'Bird manages to have it both ways with just a bit more vibration than either the price you pay. In fact, its belt drive ensures that its power delivery is even smoother than either one.

If it successfully straddles its siblings in the motor department, it only emulates the lighter cruisers in handling. Yes, it's a good-sized bike (and feels it), but it has light, neutral handling that can handle aggressive or tame riding styles equally well. With a stiff double spine frame that uses the engine as a stressed member, and easy-access exposed dual preload-adjustable shocks it's built for performance without a lot of knobs to turn (and screw up). Its not marketed as a "power-" or "sport-cruiser," (which from past performance of these terms, will only help it), but it sure does handle like one. Having just had the sweet-handling Warrior in for this issue's test, we can't wait to ride the Thunderbird back-to-back with it, as they're definitely on the same plateau. Triumph's engineers present at the event stressed that they wanted the Thunderbird to be the best handling bike in its class first, while comfort was the second consideration.

For the pilot, their efforts showed. We tackled a couple casual days without any complaints, and only a long 9-hour day in the saddle caused any grief. The tank will go forever, and so can you. That said, the petite passenger perch was less than accommodating, with our admittedly big-boned pillion crying uncle after only about 20-miles at a stretch.

Slowing isn't an issue for the T-Bird, with dual four-piston Nissin calipers equipped with braided lines squeezing 310mm discs. But if that's not enough for you (or too much, as the case may be), there's also an ABS option for another $700 (we tried it, it works). Tires are all-new Metzeler Marathon radials, developed specifically for this bike, though they've been put in the regular range now as well, which should make them easier to find. Suspension might be on the over-sprung side, as I rode around at a fairly aggressive pace on the lowest setting, and only clicked it to "three" (of five) with a passenger. It was fine at one, bumping it to two gave a little more ground clearance (which by cruiser standards is already fantastic), but also made it a bit harsh. Small riders may have trouble getting it set up to be plush, as I'm pushing 200.

At the end of the day (or three), we were over the moon, but were still left with a nagging question: What is it? Wisely Triumph didn't call it a sport cruiser, or style it like one, foregoing an inverted front end, radially-mounted brakes, or other such conceits, and instead just making it handle like they thought a Triumph should. That said, we're pretty sure it'll take on all the sporty cruisers out there and run with the best of them.

Triumph sees the bike aimed squarely at Harley-Davidson's Super Glide, but priced in the heart of the Japanese big bikes. It straddles line between Japanese high-performance cruisers, and Harley's heritage-driven finish-oriented personae, while attempting to deliver the quirky Britishness that Triumph likes to spoon up with dual-side pipes sweeping from vertical heads. It could be the best bike this year.




MSRP: $12,499 $13,299 ABS)
COLORS: Black, blue, silver
**WARRANTY: **2 years, unlimited mileage


TYPE: Liquid-ccoled parallel twin
DISPLACEMENT, BORE X STROKE: 1597cc, 103.8x94.3mm
VALVE TRAIN: Dual Overhad Cam
**FUEL DELIVERY: **multipoint sequential fuel injection


FRONT SUSPENSION: 47mm forks w/120mm travel
REAR SUSPENSION: Twin preload-adjustable shocks w/95mm travel
FRONT BRAKES: Dual four-piston calipers w/310mm
floating discs
REAR BRAKES: Two-piston caliper w/310mm disc
FRONT TIRE: Metzeler 120/70-19
REAR TIRE: Metzeler 200/50-17
WHEELS: Cast aluminum 5-spoke


SEAT HEIGHT: 27.6 in
WHEELBASE: **63.6" in
32 deg./151.3mmM
WET WEIGHT: 746 lbs. (claimed)
INSTRUMENTS: Tachometer, dual tripmeters, fuel gauge, range to empty, clock


FUEL MILEAGE: **49 mpg
**AVERAGE RANGE: **284 miles
**CLAIMED TORQUE: ** 107.7 lbs/ft@2750rpm


If somewhere in the back of your head you were thinking that Triumph has used the Thunderbird moniker more than once before, you'd be right. And it just so happened that in our travels aboard the new Thunderbird, we found one, parked in a monastery lot (don't ask, we'll explain later). Based on the universal frame that all of the Triumphs of the mid-90s were equipped with, the Thunderbird sport was the first of the modern Triumphs to attempt to recall the glory days of the brand by striking that familiar classic standard Brit-Bike pose. As it turns out, far less successfully than the new Bonneville did a few years later. While coping a pose like the bikes of yore, underneath it all was the same water-cooled inline triple that powered most of the other 90s Triumphs like the Speed Triple and Tiger.

We also had an opportunity to mount up a 1700cc version, which is available as a dealer-installed kit. For $899 (plus $1000ish labor) it should satisfy the power-hungry with a power-bump across the whole rev-range.