2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander First Ride

Britain's new 1700cc twin is large and in charge

The 2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander

Triumph Motorcycles -- the oldest continuous production motorcycle company in the world -- boasts the largest displacement production bike on the planet (the 2300cc Rocket III), has a constant presence at the Bonneville Salt Flats speed trials, and can claim Steve McQueen, Marlon Brando and Bob Dylan as aficionados. So what's the problem?

By the Brit firm's own admission, there's not a whole lot of choice within its cruiser lineup. As the cruiser market (like every other moto segment) has gotten increasingly fragmented, the need for more options (read: models) has become greater. Hence Triumph's rollout of a new machine -- this one called the Thunderbird Commander -- to bolster the company's premium 1700cc Thunderbird cruiser series.

The new T-Birds (the touring-biased Thunderbird LT is also based on the same platform) are aimed primarily at the North American market, so the firm staged its model introduction smack in the middle of prime West Coast riding territory north of San Diego. Hopefully, that meant we'd be stopping for some world-famous, lip-smacking apple pie in the little mountain town of Julian, just east of there.

Stand and Deliver

Both new models are powered by the Thunderbird Storm’s big-bore liquid-cooled fuel-injected 1,699cc parallel-twin engine (the world’s biggest parallel twin cruiser engine, Triumph will gladly remind you), an 8-valve DOHC lump that gets enhanced by a new airbox and exhaust. Otherwise, you get the same uneven 270-degree firing interval and long-stroke design (a 94.3mm stroke), along with a claimed 93 horsepower at 5,400 rpm and 111 lb-ft of torque at 3,550rpm, with a 6-speed transmission and belt final drive.

The 1699cc parallel twin is the same one found in Triumph's Storm model, with a 270-dgree firing order

But there are substantial differences between the Commander and base model Thunderbird (which runs the smaller 1,597cc mill). The Commander carries a similar twin spine architecture, with the engine acting as a stressed member, but the actual frame and swingarm are new, as are a number of details like covered fork legs, new yokes and handlebars, new headlights (though the dual bug-eye look remains) and new badges and footboards.

Top of the list however, is the new frame, which pushes the steering neck forward and lowers the seat pan one inch, thus allowing more room for better, thicker, foam. The new frame's wheelbase is about two inches longer than the base Thunderbird, at 65.5 inches, and to address that extra distance, rake angle was tightened from 32 to 30.1 degrees, and the trail distance shortened to 5.3 inches. You can spot the added metal between the tank and the steering head -- and it's not a great looking detail, by the way. This change helps accommodate now-covered 47mm Showa fork (on both models) and the windshield (of the LT).

But the seating area also gets a new, plusher saddle with deeper foam padding (with three different densities), and an innovative lumbar support built into the rear section of the saddle. The seat is delightful for either big or small riders, with the kind of cush that makes for better all-day comfort yet maintains a low 27.5-inch height -- the same as the Storm and Thunderbird base model, even with that extra inch of pothole-absorbing foam.

Step Up

The handlebar has a nice neutral bend with plenty of pullback to fit long-limbed as well as stubby riders, but it’s lower and relaxed than the base 'Bird, yet still gives a sense of control to the rider.

Starting up is a silky smooth affair - The Commander’s engine is nearly unnoticeable at idle, until you whack the throttle, after which it growls its way to smoothness. Fueling is seamless, and the 1700cc engine is not only way-powerful, but the delivery is never in question - -- it's one of the best kept secrets in the cruiser world. In fact, Triumph said it did quite a lot of research to make sure the exhaust note coming out of the straight, so-called drainpipe mufflers was pronounced enough (though not obnoxious). We can definitely confirm that it's suitably gruffer than the touring model's slightly different muffler note.

The motor spins up beautifully with excellent fueling and pulls strongly from down low all the way through the powerband, which is the important part anyway. Because the twin cylinders can be positioned so far forward, there’s no noticeable heat emanating next to the rider, and weight distribution is optimized.

Though the chassis is tweaked, Triumph says it’s the suspension changes that play a greater role in rider comfort. Both T-Birds' rear shock absorbers have dual rate springs with a longer stroke than their T-Bird stablemates, thus allowing fitment of softer springs. On the road, however – the Commander comes across as firm rather than plush, with a very controlled (and very occasionally, harsh) ride. Coming into the particularly kinked turns near Julian (yep, we were getting pie for lunch!), the bike steers neutrally and turns in reasonably well, thanks to the radial tires with a friendly profile, though we did feel the footboards touched down a bit too easily.

Out on the road, the big twin never felt stressed, with the lever pulls coming smooth and easy. Triumph’s transmissions don’t offer the clunk of the American brands, which is fine by us; the throw is shorter, the engagement a bit cleaner, though there is a noticeable heft to gear changes. The only negative was an occasional difficulty in finding neutral at a stop and some occasional notchiness in the lower gears.

Braking is adequate to average (and ABS is standard as well) with big dual Brembos biting well up front, but even with ABS, using the stronger rear will help slow you down better, as we found out coming down from the hills after some coffee and apple pie; seems we were carrying a bit more weight, post-meal...

The town of Julian (in the hills northeast of near San Diego) is renowned for its tasty pies. We opted for peach -- with ice cream of course.

Heading For America

The Commander is a great classic cruiser addition to the Triumph fleet -- it’s a competent and now-more refined machine that nails the classic cruiser mold nicely, without cutting too many corners in the performance area.

Styling is relatively conservative, though the Brits brought nice detailing, with steel fenders and very good finish to the new model. Of course, you can't miss some of the styling gaffes, like that hideous neck area and somewhat rough taillight cluster. Still, passers-by were pretty impressed by the new machines, stopping to gawk and chat us up at lunch stops. The main points though, are that the Commander's comfort levels and riding position are thoughtfully configured, and the geometry works surprisingly well. There's nothing earthshattering about the this newest T-Bird, but it's a step in the right direction: a comfortable, solid, competent and well balanced cruiser that we'd ride it again in a heartbeat.

Specifications: 2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander

MSRP $15,699

Colors Red and Black, Grey and Black

Warranty 2 years, unlimited miles

Engine

Type Liquid-cooled, parallel twin

Displacement, bore x stroke 1699cc, 107.1 x 94.3 mm

Valve train DOHC, 4 valves/cylinder

Compression ratio 9.7:1

Fuel system EFI

Transmission 6-speed constant mesh; multiplate wet clutch

Final drive belt

Chassis

Overall length 96.1 in.

Frame tubular steel

Wheelbase 65.5 in.

Weight 766 lbs.

Seat height 27.5 in.

Rake/trail 30.1°/5.3 in.

Wheels 5-spoke cast aluminum

Front tire 140/75-ZR17 Avon radial

Rear tire 200/50-ZR 17

Front brake Dual 310 mm floating discs, 4-piston calipers (ABS)

Rear brake 310 mm disc, 2-piston caliper

Front suspension 47 mm telescopic fork; 4.7 in. travel

Rear suspension Showa twin shocks; 4.2 in. travel (adjustable for preload)

Fuel capacity 5.8 gal.

Instruments Analog speedometer and fuel gauge; LCD trip computer w/ odometer, dual tripmeters, fuel range, clock, indicator lights for ABS, high beam, turn signal,

oil level, low fuel, coolant temp, neutral

Performance

Horsepower (claimed, peak) 93

Torque (claimed, peak) 111.5. ft.lbs@3500 rpm

Dual-rate spring offer longer travel than the Commander's other T-Bird siblings.

Big Brembo discs up front do a fairly good job of slowing this (flag)ship

The Commander does have some stylistic gaffes, like this exposed neck area up front.

Footboards make for all-day comfort, but they did touch down earlier than expected in turns.n