Anglo-American: Triumph Bonneville America Motorcycle Test

The Bonneville America gives Yanks what they want but retains that British accent.

2002 Triumph Bonneville America
2002 Triumph Bonneville AmericaJim Brown

When the new Triumph motorcycle company hit the road a decade ago, it rode in on sporting-oriented bikes, which permitted the new firm to demonstrate that it could play in the same high-tech game as its Asian competitors. Although it referred to the heritage of the Triumph nameplate, it made the connection primarily just in the names it used. The Thunderbird was the first model to deliver some of the classic styling of the bikes that made the name famous in the mid 1900s, though it used the same basic three-cylinder engine as the sportbikes.

Having established its technical credentials, Triumph finally built a real heritage model in 2000. That bike, the Bonneville, not only captured the style and appeal of its 1960s counterpart, it was powered by an air-cooled vertical twin like the original, though the completely new engine was bigger and more modern. That bike was an immediate success for Triumph, even in the U.S. However, the company also realized that American motorcyclists want cruisers, so a second version of the Bonneville, the America, arrived for 2002. This bike meshes British and American traditions. The British side brings the vertical twin engine, the unmistakably Triumph gas-tank shape, and numerous details. The American cruiser influence is visible in the stretched wheelbase, the covered fork tubes, the exhaust pipe design, the low, scooped saddle, the fat rear tire, and the full metal rear fender with its chrome support rails.

engine
The oil cooler is almost as big as the radiator on some liquid-cooled bikes and is set unobtrusively between the front downtubes. The exhaust pipes' headers blued near the heads and where they plugged into the long narrow mufflers.Jim Brown

The America is more than just a restyled Bonneville. The two bikes share little except the basic 790cc engine. Though the America's frame is the same basic double-cradle, two-shock style as the Bonneville, they are very different. The cruiser's 65.2-inch wheelbase is a hefty 6.4 inches longer, and the bike is 6.8 inches longer overall. At 28.3 inches, its saddle has been dropped 2.2 inches. The steering head is kicked out an additional 4.3 degrees for a 33.3-degree rake, and the cruiser gets an additional 1.4 inches of front-wheel trail. The same 12.2-inch disc and two-piston caliper stops the front wheel, but the wheel itself is an 18-incher instead of the standard Bonneville's 19-inch hoop. The America's rear wheel is a 15-incher as compared to the Bonnie's 17-incher, and it has a larger 11.2-inch disc for the two-piston caliper to squeeze.

The America gets a shapelier fuel tank tha,t at 4.4 gallons, holds about a quart more than the basic bike. The standard Bonneville has a tachometer and a speedo, but the America has just a large (4.5-inch diameter) white-faced speedometer. The warning lights were transferred to the chromed plastic housing atop the tank (which also has a spot where the owner can install the optional tachometer or clock). To fill out the America's added frame length, Triumph reshaped the side panels, extended the right-side engine case, put some silver sheet-metal covers over the passenger-peg brackets (which helps mask the gap in the chain guard on the right as well as filling in the open area of the bike), and created perforated chrome fixtures behind the carbs that mimic the air-filter housings on Triumph twins from the 1960s. The left side reveals the battery box, the housing for the ignition switch lock and a couple of small cover panels. The rider's footpegs moved from the back of the transmission on the Bonneville to the front of the engine, radically altering the riding position.

gas tank
The America's slightly bigger tank has more distinctive knee notches than on the Bonneville and includes the chromed plastic console with the fuel cap and instruments set into it. The rather ugly handlebar wiring is a disappointment, but the rest of the cockpit is clean.Jim Brown

The engine has been moved slightly to the right in the frame so that the X-ring chain can clear the wider 170-section rear tire. The biggest internal change is a switch from the Bonneville's 360-degree crankshaft arrangement (where the pistons go up and down together, alternating power strokes) to a 270-dgeree crankshaft (where the rods are set 270 degrees apart on the crankshaft) to change to sound and feel of the engine. This required juggling of the gear-driven counterbalancers and of the camshafts. The latter were also configured to improve low-rpm power slightly, though the America retains the same claimed 61 peak horsepower (at 7400 rpm) and peak torque of 44 foot-pounds (at 3500 rpm) as the standard Bonnie. The internal gearing remains unchanged, though the final drive ratio was raised slightly to reduce rpm and create a more relaxed manner. The 35mm carbs were given slightly revised jetting, but retain the anti-icing electric heaters and throttle-position sensors used on the standard Bonneville.

Anyone familiar with the Bonneville will notice the difference in seating as soon as he settles into the saddle. You sit lower on the America, and even if that 28.3-inch saddle height sounds intimidating for those truly short in the trousers, the seat, which offers a 16-inch-wide platform for your haunches at its rear, tapers to about five inches across at its nose, making it even easier to reach the pavement. The wide (34.7 inches) handlebar sweeps back gracefully about 9.5 inches and rises less than 3.0 inches from 1.5-inch risers. This puts your hands lower than on many cruisers but you don't have to lean to reach the soft rubber grips, either. The footpegs put your feet well forward, though not so far that short-legged pilots will have to stretch to reach them.

front end
The front end was Americanized by fitting the 41mm fork tubes with fat covers sporting a brushed finish, raking the fork out, and lengthening the seven-inch-wide headlight. The front fender is plastic. The speedometer is obviously mechanical and has no LCDs.Jim Brown

Reach under your left glute to turn on the ignition, pull out the plunger-style choke, hit the starter button, and the engine catches quickly from cold. There is a sidestand cut-out, which is supposed to prevent it from starting in gear, but the neutral light switch on our bike sometimes lied, indicating that the gearbox was in neutral when it was actually in gear. It paid to be on the bike with the light-pull clutch disengaged when you punched the button. Although neutral was occasionally elusive, the gearbox was otherwise flawless, providing smooth shifts with a short throw and low effort.

Likewise, the clutch was smooth, easy to control, and predictable. Though the America doesn't have as much flywheel effect as some of the 800-class V-twins and its gearing is somewhat tall, the clutch makes smooth starts easy. You get steady power from a respectably low rpm and with no flat spots or surges as the revs increase. No matter what the engine speed or load, the dual counterbalancers thoroughly snuff any tendency to vibrate.

In terms of sheer power, the America falls right in the middle of cruising's 800cc twins. Though its taller gearing and almost 50 extra pounds slow it down in comparison to the Bonneville, it packs enough power to lunge away from a light ahead of other traffic or pass slow traffic smartly on the highway. You won't mistake it for a V-Max, but rolling on the throttle in top gear provides enough pick-up that you might not feel the need to stir the gearbox when passing traffic. At the dragstrip, it turned in a best quarter-mile run of 15.17 seconds at 85.2 mph.

The vibration-free engine and respectable highway power might make you think about traveling on an America, and the bike will prove an able touring companion. Our sole comfort complaint concerns the rear suspension, which is not as responsive as we'd like over sharp bumps. On roads with lots of small potholes, slightly uneven repairs, or uneven concrete slabs, the suspension does thump you a bit. It's not the same magnitude as the Victory V92C in our big twins comparison, but it gets old on roads that don't relent. However, on other types of bumps and dips, the ride is better than most other 800s.

triumph engine case
Visual links to classic Triumph vertical twins include engine-case shapes and the perforated chrome housing behind the carb, which mimics the old bikes' air-cleaner cases. The wires on the carbs are for heaters to prevent venturi icing.Jim Brown

The rest of the package is very comfortable, particularly the unique saddle. Its surface is pleasantly flat and wide, and the gently turned-up rear edge provides just enough back-up. At first it might feel too solid, but it turns out to offer support that holds up for a few hours without a break. It also has a bit more passenger room than other 800s. The up-front footpeg location lets you stretch your legs a bit, though you can't easily put any of your weight on them if you want to stand to cross a large bump or take some weight off your butt. The handlebar is one of our favorites. Its width provides lots of leverage, but it isn't pulled so rearward that it ends up crowding your gut in tight low-speed turns. Because it doesn't rise very far, you don't end up fighting to hold on against the wind at speed.

When the road begins to toss and turn, you hear that British accent whispering to you. British bikes have always been keen on turning corners, and just because this one has been decked out cruiser-style and named for a colony where they speak rather muddled English, that doesn't mean that it's forgotten its heritage. The America easily outclasses the other 800 cruisers when the road meanders. The steering is lighter than other 800s', and the bike turns in a bit more quickly when you ask it to. It's easier to track and hold the line you picked, but mid-turn changes of plan don't upset it. There is more room under the America to lean over than with most other cruisers in this displacement range. Though the tires are unimpressive low-cost Bridgestones, they provide sufficient traction in the dry. If you ride wet roads, higher-level tires may provide peace of mind. Nicely chosen damping rates keep the America quite steady while leaned over. The geometry also makes it very stable in all situations from strong gusty side winds to undulating pavement surfaces. Chassis performance is the best in the class.

Anglo-American
The America's style is Anglo-American.Jim Brown

Although the front brake had a somewhat mushy feel and its lever came quite close to the grip, both brakes deliver adequate power and control. A long downhill run did not provoke any fade.

Some British traditions, like oil leaks and quirky electrics have been left to the past, along with metal-rending vibration. The smoothness alone certainly makes it more reliable. The closest thing to a problem on our bike was a tendency to occasionally run slightly rough until completely warm. We don't know what triggered this.

2002 Triumph Bonneville America
Much of the America's added length was put behind the engine, and stylists used tricks like the extended countersprocket cover and passenger-peg-bracket cover to fill the resulting gaps. The peg-bracket cover also helps obscure the fact that the chain guard doesn't run all the way forward.Jim Brown

At $7999, the America's MSRP is higher than any of the 800 V-twins tested in our December issue. Those bikes range from $6000 to $7500. The Triumph offers little in the way of features or amenities, other than a two-year warranty, to justify its greater cost, not even shaft drive or a belt. Nor with features like the plastic fender and tank-top module and no running lights in the forward turn signals can it claim higher component quality. However, Anglophiles, buyers attracted to its British handling qualities, or riders who simply don't want to be part of the thundering herd will find in the America attributes that extend outside the box that encompasses more conventional 800cc twins. They may regard the price as the cost of breaking away.

Additional motorcycle road tests and comparisons are available at the Road Tests section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.