Harley-Davidson Sportster Vs Triumph Bonneville - Mini Test

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.

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.

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.

Which bike do I prefer? I think it's pretty obvious.

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
Price Color $6975 Standard - $7,499
Black $6,695 Black - $6,999
Standard Electronic Mechanical
Equipment speedometer speedometer,
with clock, warning lights
warning lights
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 29.6_f_,,/4.60 inches 28_f_,,/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

Variations On The Theme

Triumph's Bonnevilles can't claim the Sportster's production run of 50-plus years, but you could argue they're damn close-the original T120 twin-carb 650 debuted in 1956 and ceased its run in 1983 with the original company's demise. The current generation Bonneville didn't come on line in its reconstituted form until 2001, but the Hickley factory has unrolled various tweaks on the platform since. There are five flavors of Bonneville in 2008:

The standard Bonneville bumped displacement up to 865cc last year, but the heart of it all is still the air-cooled parallel twin mill, with dual carbs, spoked wheels and a 4.4-gallon fuel tank. Other old-school bits include a 5-speed gearbox manipulating the chain drive, a 19-inch front wheel and twin shocks in the rear. The neutral riding position is the result of a tallish 30.5-inch seat height coupled with mid-mount controls and wide, slightly pulled-back handlebars. A one-piece bench saddle handles your bum.

Bonneville T100
The T100 used to be distinguished by a bigger engine, but now all Bonnies carry the same 865cc mill, so this higher-end version is a bit more posh, with bits like a tachometer, tank knee pads and other cosmetic additions. All other specs mirror those of the standard Bonneville, with the same tires, fuel tank and running gear.

The Speedmaster continues the cruiserization of the Bonneville with a satin black finish on the 270-degree 865cc parallel twin, as well as a harder-edged riding position thanks to a gunslinger seat and forward-set footpegs. Upper fork shrouds pump up the style, while high risers mount the flat, drag handlebars on the slab-style top yoke. The Speedmaster gets a pair of cast wheels, with the 18-inch front supporting a 110/80 tire and the 15-inch rear wearing a 170/80. It's the sole Bonnie-based bike with twin front disc brakes.

The America was designed specifically for the cruiser market, with tweaks like a lower seat (2 inches less than the standard), straight-slash-cut pipes, tank-mounted instruments and forward controls. It stretches the standard Bonneville wheelbase out to 65.2 inches, increases rake to 33 degrees and adds a beefier rear brake (285mm). It also gets stubbier wheels and tires: an 18-incher up front and a 15-inch rear (as opposed to the standard's 19-inch and 17-inch hoops).

In its 50 years of existence, the longest-selling (and most affordable) Harley has donned literally dozens of guises for the Motor Company. The original 53-cubic-inch overhead valve XL Sportster begat the more muscular XLCH and the racing XLR and later spawned even more variations on the theme. For 2008, the 883 comes in three flavors, so you're pretty much assured of getting what you want.

Despite the retro off-road livery and semi-knobby tires, the Scrambler's more comfortable in urbane settings. This bike uses the 270-degree version of the 865cc, parallel twin-cylinder engine (the one in the Speedmaster) and riffs on the Steve McQueen-era '60s with cues like a 32.5-inch-tall seat, small headlight and single, round-faced speedometer. A single disc front brake, 4.4-gallon fuel tank and a narrow, flat bar round out the basic setup. The pair of high-level exhaust pipes is the dead giveaway.-AC

Variations On The Theme

In its 50 years of existence, the longest-selling (and most affordable) Harley has donned literally dozens of guises for the Motor Company. The original 53-cubic-inch overhead valve XL Sportster begat the more muscular XLCH and the racing XLR and later spawned even more variations on the theme. For 2008, the 883 comes in three flavors, so you're pretty much assured of getting what you want.

XL 883 Sportster 883

The so-called "beginner" Harley-Davidson is probably the most recognizable. From the 3.3-gallon "peanut" fuel tank to the staggered dual exhaust, the XL 883 is chock-full of traditional cues. For 2008, the list includes a rubber-mounted Evolution 883cc engine (powdercoated silver and polished); 13-spoke cast wheels wearing 19-inch front and 16-inch rear tires; low-rise handlebar; solo seat; mid-mount foot controls; and, a Smart Security System option.

XL 883L Sportster 883 Low

The 883 Low is probably the least intimidating option, thanks to a reduced-reach (read: narrow) solo seat jammed just 25.3 inches off the pavement. It gets the same rubber-mounted, powdercoated Evolution engine but tweaks the suspension both front and rear to drop the travel a full 2 inches lower than the standard 883 Sportster and spreads out touring-style handlebars for an easier reach.

Running gear is much the same as its siblings, with a 19-inch front and 16-inch rear tire, mid-mount foot controls, and a 3.3-gallon fuel tank, but the Sportster Low swaps in the low-profile rear shocks and front forks and an easier-to-reach sidestand.

XL 883C Sportster 883 Custom

If you want real attitude, the Sportster 883 Custom's 21-inch laced front wheel, 4.5-gallon fuel tank, two-up seat and forward controls might be more up your alley. The rear gets slammed via a set of low-profile shocks riding over a cast rear wheel, but otherwise it's the standard XL 883 formula: rubber-mounted Evolution mill; staggered dual exhaust; and, optional Smart Security System.

"They're both great bikes to learn on; they're both light and maneuverable and have gentle power bands, surefooted handling and reassuring brakes."
The Sportster's cast wheels, tubeless tires and belt final drive give it a clear cut if slight maintenance advantage over the Triumph...
'79 Bonneville Special
'08 Triumph Scrambler