The Tory and the Temptress

Euro shootout: Moto Guzzi California vs. Triumph Thunderbird Commander

Cruisers are an odd bird for most engineers to wrap their heads around. They need to be finished but mechanical; torquey but smooth; smooth but not electric; fresh but classic. For a pair of century-old European companies, the answer lies in their national identities.

It's a story of staid British conservatism and lusty Italian passion. Stereotypes? Yes. But the cultural attitudes of the two source countries in this test made an obvious impact on the bikes here.

Triumph's Thunderbird takes the field as the firm's new flagship cruiser, available as a classic model (Commander) or in light touring trim (LT). It takes the British marque's now-familiar parallel twin (the 1,700cc version) and throws it into a long and low configuration. Fat tires, full fenders, and a wide bar all play the classic tune while retaining Triumph's signature ride quality and funky double headlight.

Moto Guzzi's California Custom was Cruiser's 2013 Bike of the Year (Jan. '14). Look no further than its potent, funky 90-degree V-twin poking proudly from the sides of the tank for what makes it so special. We've raved over its performance in the past, and it was just as welcome this time. But, unlike Ducati's Diavel, this Italian seductress brings more heritage to the table with its classic lines and Eurocentric styling.

By Eurocentric, we mean: A) you won't be mistaking it for a Harley-Davidson, and B) there are a few things that might make you go, "Hmm?" Italians are known for their style and flair, and the California doesn't disappoint in that regard. The Guzzi has great touches like integrated rear lights that hug the fender and look fantastic lit up, beautiful 24-spoke wheels and a classic yet a high-tech dash that displays tons of information. On the other hand, plastic fenders and tank covers are a letdown (though they might save weight/money), as are muscular mufflers with dinky exits that should have been painted black.

Triumph once again went fairly conservative on the styling of the Commander. While the base Thunderbird is a pretty standard "sport" cruiser, the Commander is a very standard "fat" cruiser. That said, detailing is excellent, and Triumph very much painted inside the lines of what an American cruiser is by concentrating on the details. Rich paint coats the broad surfaces, and the seat boasts three kinds of foam density. You get the feeling that all the little parts were looked at and thought through.

Guzzi tosses high-tech into the cruiser equation with features like three riding modes and traction control, all displayed on this bar-mounted gauge.
The Triumph opts for a classy, clean, tank-mounted console with basic info displayed in an LCD window, controlled via toggle switch on the handlebar.

Interestingly, both are the basis for a light-touring rig. Triumph goes the extra mile in differentiating the two 'Birds, and it also gets the nod on comfort. A very supportive seat starts things off right, as it follows through with a very natural seating position for a variety of riders and a low seat height. The California is taller and wider across the saddle. Most of our testers ran into the transverse-Vee heads with their knees at some point. In fact, avoiding them meant scooting back to a part of the seat too far away for even our tall testers. The seat itself is hard and unsupportive, at least compared to the plush perch on the Commander.

Both have very high-performance engines for the class but run in very different ways. Triumph's Commander takes the storied parallel twin to a very V-twin place: low revving, smooth power delivery, monster torque. We don't want to make this motor sound slow; it's like a typical cruiser engine—but on steroids—with a claimed 111 foot-pounds of torque. Guzzi opted for its traditional layout as well, with the 90-degree Vee. While it doesn't have the outright grunt of the Commander, it makes up for it in free-spinning fun, with a redline 2,000 rpm higher and cruising speeds about 1,000 higher. While the Triumph rumbles in a reserved fashion, the Guzzi practically explodes with motion, shimmying and shaking at idle. The transverse motor has a slight torque effect, pulling to the right at start, on downshifts, and when revving up. If it's character you're looking for, the California has it.

It also has a ride-by-wire throttle that allows for three riding modes: For our test, we left the Guzzi almost exclusively in Veloce (Sport) mode. The snappy throttle response was just too much fun and not at all unmanageable. There are also Turismo (Touring) and Pioggia (Rain) modes, which smooth out the throttle response. A separate traction control allows for sporty riding on smooth roads or in poor conditions like rain or snow, which the Triumph lacks. However, both are equipped with Brembo brakes and ABS.

In the city, the Guzzi reigns supreme; with quicker steering, a quicker engine, lighter weight, and a tighter steering radius, it's completely in its element. Zipping through traffic, it feels like a much smaller bike. The Triumph is no slouch, but the big, stately bike needs a little more effort to muscle around and little more time to rev up, preferring to rumble around at low rpm.

Out on the highway, the situation is reversed. The bottomless torque of the Commander means you can lug it like a diesel and still not have to downshift to pass, while a well-designed seat and rider triangle make it a great place to while away a few hours. And you're pretty sure to make it more than 200 miles between gas stops. The California isn't bad either, but what makes for a zippy motor in town makes for crap fuel consumption on the road. Plus, an over­enthusiastic fuel light will have you looking for a station with 2 gallons left to give.

You won’t find a Vee here, but the Triumph parallel twin still dishes out tons of torque down low, and delivers it more smoothly than the Guzzi.

On winding back roads they each have their charms. The Commander is solid and feels equally well suited to going fast or slow. It turns in predictably but isn't heavy steering, brakes smoothly, and, when pushed, accelerates briskly out of corners in just about any gear. On high-speed corners, the back end might float around, but a quick click of the preload takes care of that. Thing is, the California is sharper in just about every way. Braking has more bite and better feedback, turning is quick but not twitchy, and acceleration is amazing. Less experienced riders will find the Guzzi more likely to change lines from errant rider inputs, but that comes with a light-steering bike. Floorboards seem an odd choice for this aggressive machine, but without them it would fit our testers even worse. Part of the Guzzi's sharpness comes from more aggressive rubber (both in compound and profile), and although we have no evidence, we might question its longevity versus the more sedate tires on the Commander.

That’s an “L” twin, son. Its high-revving and free spinning character means the Guzzi’s smaller 1,380cc engine can more than keep up with the bigger Triumph.

With all of our raves you might assume it was a landslide in favor of the Moto Guzzi. You'd be wrong. All those little quirks added up to too many annoyances in the face of the very complete and well-done Triumph Commander. The electronics of the California are a typical indicator of our issue with it and fits the bill of the persnickety temptress. You wait long seconds for any of the buttons to do anything, and when they do, it's not always clear what just happened. The menus are not the same if you push the lever left or right, the non-integrated traction control and power mapping is an unnecessary complication, the cruise control is unpredictable and unadjustable on the fly. You've got to love it! Because if you don't, you'll tire of it fast.

But does that mean you'll be bored on the Commander? With a calm demeanor and solid handling but sporting a deep well of torque, the Commander will appeal to a wide range of riders. It comes down to the age-old question of confidence versus passion. These are both fine bikes, and you can choose based on your own preferences. However, we had a dilemma.

If there's a knock on the Commander, it's that Triumph went from an '80s-style cruiser (the Thunderbird) to a style that boomed in the '90s. Conservative doesn't begin to cover how safe the Commander's styling choices are. Part of the trouble with Triumph's Cruisers (as opposed to its Modern Classics series) is likely that they're in unknown territory for the brand. There is no heritage to draw from, so they design by committee.

The potential is there for the Guzzi, though we honestly don't know what you could do about ramming your knees into the engine—maybe a pullback bar? But there are just a few too many loose ends to make it a winner or a complete motorcycle. Maybe that's a virtue to the right rider, who might just chalk it up to character. With a few tweaks, though, it could be the best there is.

Will people respond to Triumph's attempt at one-upping "American-Style" bikes? Or will they glom to the authenticity that is the California? Millennials will undoubtedly pick the Guzzi with its authentic, out-of-the-ordinary look and character. But a slight majority of the crusty Gen-Xers who made up our test rider pool picked the refined Brit over the lusty Italian.

Billy Bartels

6’0”, 195 lb., 33-in. inseam

The British set out to make the best cruiser they could, while the Italians did what they do and threw some floorboards on it. The California works and has great potential: It could have been my winner, but it’s just not there. Too many things on the Guzzi make me crazy and make me punch buttons instead of just riding.

“Conservative” is such a dirty word for what the Commander really is. It’s got a wicked motor, but it’s extremely refined. It sails through all but the tightest twisties, and then it touches the boards—but only at real serious angle. It never failed to put a smile on my face. It also never pissed me off. Plus, I like the way it’s put together better than the plastic-laden Guzzi. I like going over the Commander’s details and finding touches that the Hinckley boys crafted onto this fine machine, like the shock mounts, the smooth welds, or the one-piece turn signal bar. I pick refinement over passion. I must be getting old.

Brad Olshen

5’10”, 170 lb., 32-in. inseam

The Triumph and the Moto Guzzi have two types of riding styles. The Moto Guzzi is a more aggressive motorcycle that’s better able to power through and handle the corners. The Triumph feels more touring-oriented with good power for the open road and a more comfortable, upright riding position and supportive seat, while the ergos on the Guzzi are more aggressive and so very enjoyable in the twisties. Both have great braking capabilities thanks to running Brembo brakes. The Commander has a nice finish with beautiful paint and hand-painted coach lines, whereas the Moto Guzzi, while bearing some very stylish modern touches and engineering, ends up with a rougher quality finish, which reminds me of the traditional old-school-style Guzzis. Not a bad thing. Plus, the Guzzi fits my riding style better.

Andrew Cherney

5’7”, 160 lb., 30-in. inseam

I really thought the California would blow the Commander right out of the water, but this time I found plenty of nits to pick on the Guzzi. The motor is indisputably kickass, and I can’t think of any cruiser I’d rather be riding through the turns. But after that, things go south. The seat’s not comfortable, the suspension is super stiff, and I have problems with the electrics every time. I just don’t think it’d be my first choice for a cross-country tour.

Whereas the Guzzi is noisy and expressive, the Commander is refined and serious. Styling is pretty safe, but the finish is more solid, and this bike is far more comfortable, with a relaxed riding position and excel­lent seat. And the motor is definitely ready for a spirited jaunt anytime you pull the loud handle (though ground clearance is less than ideal). Price points on the two bikes are similar, but the Triumph offers a raft of accessories, and even though it’s the safe choice, the Commander is the one I’d pick.

Specifications

2014 Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom 2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander
Base price $15,490 $15,699
Colors Gray, Black Red and Black; Gray on Black
Standard warranty 2 years, unlimited miles 2 years, unlimited miles
Engine
Type Air/oil-cooled 90° V-twin Liquid-cooled parallel twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1380cc, 104 x 81.2mm 1699cc, 107.1 x 94.3mm
Valve train DOHC, 4 valves/cyl. DOHC, 4 valves/cyl., 270° firing interval
Compression ratio 10.5:1 9.7:1
Fuel system EFI EFI
Transmission 6-speed 6-speed
Final drive Shaft Belt
Chassis
Overall length 96.2 in. 96.0 in.
Wheelbase 66.3 in. 65.5 in.
Wet weight 694 lb. 767 lb.
Seat height 29.1 in. 27.5 in.
Rake/trail 32°/6.1 in. 30.1°/5.3 in.
Wheels 24-spoke cast aluminum 5-spoke cast aluminum
Front tire 130/70-18 140/75ZR-17
Rear tire 200/60-16 200/50ZR-17
Front brake Dual 320mm discs, 4-piston calipers, ABS Dual 310mm discs, 4-piston calipers, ABS
Rear brake 282mm disc, 2-piston caliper, ABS 310mm disc, 2-piston caliper, ABS
Front suspension 46mm fork; 4.7 in. travel 47mm fork; 4.7 in. travel
Rear suspension Dual adjustable shocks; 4.1 in. travel Dual dampers; 4.2 in. travel
Fuel capacity 5.4 gal. 5.8 gal.
Instruments Analog tachometer w/ digital speedometer, odometer, dual tripmeters, air temperature, gear indicator, fuel gauge, range indicator, average speed, average mileage, fuel consumption, voltmeter, clock, traction control indicator, engine map indicator 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
Fuel mileage 35.6 mpg (avg.) 42 mpg
Avg. range 191 miles 241 miles
Horsepower (claimed) 96 bhp @ 6500 rpm 93 bhp @ 5400 rpm
Torque (claimed) 87 ft.-lb. @ 2750 rpm 111 ft.-lb. @ 3400 rpm