Harley-Davidson Blackline vs. Triumph Thunderbird Storm vs. Victory Vegas 8-Ball

Down to the Bone

Attitude + Darkness = The New Cool

Black, apparently, is back (even if it never really left). You’d have to be living in a bubble not to notice the ubiquitous cloud sweeping over the cruiser ranks these days; nearly every major manufacturer has at least one ode to the dark side in their lineups—and we’re pretty sure Suzuki will get there eventually.

Trace the latest less-is-more styling scheme back to Harley’s Nightster, one of the first OEM attempts at setting a mainline model on a blacked-out path. Fast forward five years, and now it’s all the rage, with seemingly every standard model in catalogs getting pared-down and coated in ebony, and rolled out as the newest face of 'cool.’

Style-wise, these bikes are both a reaction against bling, and an embrace of the sparser lines of yore. Some components are darker than Marilyn Manson’s lipstick, and even engine parts get the ebony exercise. You know, kill the shine and cue the matte. So we pulled out the three machines we felt defined the niche—all black, all over 1500ccs, and all exuding bad-boy bravado—to take a closer look.

Harley is the standard-bearer here, and its latest dip into the Dark Custom formula is called (wait for it) the Blackline. New for 2011, it’s based on the evergreen Softail platform, which means a hardtail-look rear, but also a bobbed rear fender, and a 21-inch front tire. Night Train, anyone?

It’s followed closely by Victory’s Vegas 8-Ball, which has been stripped and simple for years now. The 8-Ball is as naked as it gets, with a solo seat, spindly front tire, punchy V-twin, and very little else.

Triumph’s new T-Bird variant, the Storm, wheeled into the black class just months ago, but it’s already having an impact. Bug eyes, stripped-down style and a raucous 1700cc engine have made the Storm a serious player.

What You See
Each of our test bikes runs a twin-cylinder engine, with the Victory's 1731cc SOHC Freedom Vee being the biggest. The Blackline also runs a V-twin, though the air-cooled, counterbalanced 1584cc Twin Cam is the smallest engine here. The Triumph splits the middle (literally) with a DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin, though the bottom end is set up to sound like a Vee. But it's the look that really defines these machines, and all three manufacturers understand styling and detailing, making good use of flat, satin and glossy blacks across their surfaces.

Victory’s Vegas is the oldest model design in this test, with the original having come out in 2003. The 8-Ball version doesn’t necessarily look dated, but it hasn’t evolved much either, with Victory only making mechanical improvements and visual tweaks to this solid machine. Smooth, sweeping lines flow seamlessly, and some of our crew preferred this treatment over the more elemental Harley.

Triumph’s Storm is the Bulldog of the bunch. Shorter and thicker, with a powerful build, this one is all about chunk, compared to the other two machines’ more graceful stance. The others also ride on skinny 21 inch wheels up front, while the Triumph makes do with a more businesslike 19-incher, matched with the widest rear tire here. It proudly displays a large radiator, and a wider seat and tank. Unlike its Thunderbird sibling, dual headlights grace the front, while the T-Bird’s pullback bars are ditched for a straighter drag version. Of course, to even get invited to this party, it had to be dressed in black.

Not surprisingly, the Blackline recalls a 60s custom bike, stripped to the bare essentials. It’s low, but with a reasonable rake, and its shorty bars pop right out of the trees, yielding space for a revamped instrument package in the middle. That leaves few bar replacement options, but it also tucks away the wires. Harley made a conscious choice to go with a downright petite 140-section rear tire, which allows for zippier handling as well as adherence to the old-school theme. And its multi-textured finishes offer a blend of contrasts that helps define the lines of the bike. Though the Harley embodies the least progressive design aesthetic, these little details make it look like it’s wearing a tuxedo next to the other two.

Instrumentation is kept simple, with only the Storm offering a tach. None of them are easy to read, but the 8-Ball's titled gauge is best positioned.

The lowest priced bike in this group, the Vegas 8-Ball, has probably the best wheels of the bunch, with stylish flourishes on the cast spokes and contrasting materials. Harley goes for the ultra-minimalist vibe, with stainless spokes and black rims, though everyone dug the Blackline’s rounded rim with invisible tire bead. Triumph chooses the simpler, all-black-out route for its straight cast hoops.

All three bikes keep it short and tight in the back, with small seats (the Storm lost its pillion) chopped fenders, and in the Harley's case, slim rear tire.

Of course, all three bikes have distinctive headlight treatments, with Harley sticking to their simple, solo theme, Victory going modernist, and Triumph adopting the Bug-Eyed Brit route.

The three wheels cover the gamut of styles, from the junkyard-tough simplicity of Harley's aluminum spokes and black rims, to the sleek, high-end contrast on Victory's curved cast spokes.

Settle In
They may all be dressed the same, but the ergonomic setup is decidedly different on each. You sit "in" the Harley, but somewhat higher and definitely "on" the Triumph, while the Vegas puts you somewhere in between.

The Blackline’s seat feels well-built and supportive, though overall comfort is compromised by the stretched-out stance, especially for the vertically challenged. Shorter riders liked the lowness, but had to scoot forward to stretch for both bars and pegs—though most approved of the clean look brought by the Split Drag Bars.

The 8-Ball brings a plush seat along with easy pullback bars, which fit everyone; smaller riders especially loved this setup for comfort, saying it gave them good control of the bike, too. 200+ pounders were less impressed, as the unsupportive back of the seat let them feel the baseplate.

Triumph somehow managed to get the bar/seat/peg relationship just right, garnering a thumbs-up from us all. The seat is flat and featureless, but has enough support, and is wide enough for anyone. The shorter riders could kick back and the taller riders weren’t too hemmed-in. Still, we all noticed that there was noticeably more heat from the 1700cc mill than from its 1600cc cousin.

The Fire Down Below
The Blackline had the smallest engine in the test, but it also had the right sound and power in most of the right places. The torquey, pushrod-actuated motor was surprisingly responsive to throttle response and pulled strong from idle, tapering off a bit as the revs built up. H-D still brings its infamous "clunk" when shifting, but at least it's a positive engagement.

Victory’s Freedom 106 is the biggest motor in this test, but it didn’t always feel like it. The Vegas is all about midrange, coming in softly off the bottom, then more enthusiastically in the middle. Throttle response felt more muted than either the Triumph or H-D; sure, there’s smooth, flowing power, but there’s also some mechanical noise from the valvetrain. Victory’s latest transmission also felt balky at times, and would squirm the rear tire on hard downshifts.

All that’s just to say the 1700cc Thunderbird motor flat-out embarrasses the other two. It pulls off the bottom and doesn’t quit, even at freeway speeds, so there’s hardly ever a reason to downshift. It’s got the sound to match as well, with the loudest exhaust note under load (though it’s not obnoxious). Power is plentiful from bottom to top, and since the spread is so wide, people with vastly different riding styles could all still enjoy it. Triumph’s gearbox engaged with an easy "click," and it brought the most user-friendly ratios.

At the end of the week, mileage was very close for all three, with the Harley barely edging out the Victory, which edged out the Triumph. The 1600cc Thunderbird has better mpg, but given the Storm’s significant power advantage, most felt it was a fair trade.

Getting Wiggly
When it came to taking on the turns, the Harley felt solid when leaned over and agile when cornering, thanks to a tucked-in front rake of just 30 degrees. Unfortunately it runs out of clearance early, so you have to temper your enthusiasm, plus the Blackline was merciless on heavier riders when it hit potholes. It's controlled enough on even surfaces, but the rear shock blows through its stroke on fast, rough roads, so if you're over 200 lbs., load up on the ibuprofen.

The heaviest bike here, the Storm, didn’t turn in as quickly as either the Blackline or Vegas, but it tracked straight and leaned absolutely solidly. With the most travel, it also had the most controlled suspension. Though the factory settings were too stiff, adjustments are easy (the spanner is under the seat). Just remember to tighten the rear seat bolt afterward—or you may lose your seat (we did). The Storm also offered balance and plenty of clearance to boot.

When thrust into the bends, the 8-Ball exhibited a little front-end wallow. With its generous travel, it felt comfortable for all, though handling suffered. The Victory was fine on the highway, but in turns, it was easily upset with bigger riders. While the Triumph was sharp, and the Harley lithe, the Victory just never felt like it got in a groove. It steers quickly, with similar clearance to the Harley, but in keeping with the less-controlled suspension, the Vegas never felt really settled.

The Harley’s front brakes have decent power, considering they’re acting on a 90-section tire up front, but the optional ABS makes panic stops a breeze. For power and control, however, the Triumph’s dual floating discs give the Harley a run for its money (and they’re standard), with nice bite, easy modulation and a ton of power. The Vegas felt like a distant third, with a mushy front brake, and an overaggressive rear.

So—Form or Function?
When all was said and done, everyone agreed the Harley was the bike that you just sat on and immediately felt cooler. Most thought the Harley was best suited to short trips, but that's no surprise in this group.

The Victory became the odd man out, even though we all felt it’d be more comfy than the Blackline on medium-length jaunts. It too has a somewhat classic look and quirks, with a decent powertrain and average ergos. The 8-Ball perhaps plays the part of the stripped-down rebel best, but its biggest appeal is that killer MSRP of $12,999. These days, that’s pretty good.

As for the Triumph—well, it’s almost not fair how much the Storm is good at. It doesn’t have the sleek smoothness of the 8-Ball, or the timeless lines of H-D, but its performance leaves no doubt as to its bad-boy appeal. You couldn’t help but feel potent on it—even when we rode it over 400 miles back from the launch in Phoenix.

2011 Harley-Davidson Blackline 2011 Triumph Thunderbird Storm 2011 Victory Vegas 8-Ball
Base price $15,499 (as tested $16,694) $13,899 $12,499
Colors black; two-tone Blue/Black and Orange/Black Jet Black, Matte Black Black
Standard Warranty 12 mos., unlimited miles 2 yrs., unlimited miles 2 yrs., unlimited miles
Type 45-degree air-cooled V-twin Liquid-cooled parallel twin Air/oil-cooled 50degree V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1584cc, 95.3x111.1mm 1699cc,107.1 x 94.3mm 1731cc, 101x108mm
Valve Train OHV, pushrod-actuated, 2 valves per cylinder DOHC, 4-valves per cylinder SOHC, 4-valves per cylinder
Compression 9.2:1 9.7:1 9.4:1
Fuel System port-injected EFI EFI EFI
Transmission 6-speeds 6-speeds 6-speeds
Final Drive Belt Belt Belt
Overall Length 93 in. 92.1 in. 96 in.
Wheelbase 66.5 in. 63.5 in. 66.3 in.
Wet Weight 682.5 lbs. 746 lbs. 673 lbs.
Seat Height 26.1 in. 27.5 in. 25.2 in.
Rake/Trail 30 degrees/4.84 in. 32 degrees/5.94 in. 32.9 degrees/4.9 in.
Wheels Laced aluminum 5-spoke cast 5-spoke cast
Front tire 90/90-21 120/70 x 19 90/90-21
Rear Tire 140/85B16 200/50 x 17 180/55-18
Front Brake 292mm disc,4-piston caliper Dual 310mm discs, 4-piston calipers 300mm disc,4-piston caliper
Rear Brake 292mm disc, 4-piston caliper 310mm disc, 2-piston caliper 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Front Suspension 41.3mm fork; 5.6-in. travel 47mm fork; 4.72-in. travel 43mm fork;5.1-in. travel
Rear Suspension Horizontal coil-over; 3.6-in. travel Dual preload adjustable shocks; 3.7-in. travel Single monotube gas, preload adjustable; 3-in. travel
Fuel Capacity 5 gal. 5.8 gal. 4.5 gal.
Instruments Speedometer w/LCD dual tripmeters, miles to empty, clock; gear and low fuel indicator Speedometer, tachometer, dual tripmeters, range to empty, clock, fuel gauge, gear indicator Speedometer and digital display w/gear indicator, dual tripmeters, clock, tachometer
Fuel mileage 39.8 mpg 38.5 mpg 39.2 mpg
Average range 199 miles 223 miles 176 miles
Torque (claimed) 89 ft.-lbs.@3250rpm 115 ft.-lbs.@2950rpm 113-ft.-lbs.@NArpm

Riding Positions

Guy Brydon
:: 6 ft. 2 in.; 235 lbs; 32 in. inseam
With the Harley's aggressive rider position, the Victory's sleek styling, and the Triumph's sheer power, there was something for everyone to love. For me, it was a matter of what I didn't love about the bikes that made it easy to select a favorite. Since I am a frugal bastard, I would have a hard time coughing up money to cover the Harley, with its highest MSRP, smallest engine and barest-bones features. The Victory lost major points on the transmission and the way it bit on downshifts. The Triumph was truly triumphant in this shootout and only lost minimal points in the overall styling department, as it just didn't have much that set it apart from other black production cruisers. Still, I thought the Triumph truly gave me the most bang.

Betsy Nash Gabele
:: 5 ft. 5 in., 127 lbs., 32 in. inseam
Let's start with the Harley. It's got good power, and handling-wise, it leaned well in the canyons. Unfortunately, the grips are a far reach for me, and my legs sat close to the engine. This being an air-cooled bike, it got rather hot in traffic. But I loved the ABS, and the brakes in general.

I liked the comfort of the Victory, which also has plenty of power, but of course, a rev limiter too—which you will find. The engine ran quietly, and I was impressed with the handling and suspension, which was smooth and steady. The brakes, though, didn’t always give me the results I expected.

The winner is the Triumph for me. My arms always felt nicely positioned and comfortable. It’s my favorite riding position. It also possessed a smooth running engine, with not a lot of vibration—and the engine has SUCH a great sound to it. Plus the Triumph just handles beautifully. What more could I ask for?!

Andrew Cherney
:: 5 ft. 7 in. 160 lbs., 30 in. inseam
About the only thing these three machines have in common is their color. Which left me wrestling with the focus of this test: is it really about the best-functioning bike here?

Hands-down, that would be the Triumph, with an enviable combo of sweet motor and snappy handling—and the ergos don’t suck, either. I’ve managed to put over 500 miles on it, and have yet to find major qualms with it. But if it’s about looks and attitude, then things shift pretty dramatically. I’ve always liked the 8-Ball series, and the Vegas 8-Ball doesn’t do anything badly, plus it’s plenty comfy and coolly minimal. And the Harley, I figured, would be the same old same old—and it generally is—but the Blackline just nailed the stance, the attitude and fit and finish, especially compared to the rest of the players here. It’s definitely the coolest—but I’m definitely not the dude that pays $15 large to look cool.