Triumph Thunderbird – A Bird in the Hand

 on Saturday, November 20, 2010  

Triumph’s engineers took care of the vibes with two separate balancer shafts_one mounted at the front of the crankshaft, one behind it. The result is a parallel twin that sounds like a V-twin, but one that can be fed big throttle openings at speeds as low as 2000 rpm without the thudding and shuddering that afflicts most big V-twins.

This lends considerable refinement to the ride, backed up by some other handy technical features. The engine management system has two maps; one pretty laid back, the other sportier. Selection of an appropriate map is made automatically based on the speed at which the throttle twist grip is rotated. Crank it on hard and you get an aggressive spark advance curve and faster throttle response. Finesse the gas and the bikes lopes off more lazily.

The Thunderbird has a six-speed transmission with helical-cut gears for quieter operation, and the final drive is by toothed belt. Other than some whine at idle (probably from the balance-shaft drives), the bike is mechanically quiet in operation, allowing the rider to enjoy the off-beat exhaust cadence without interference.

Of course, there will always be riders who want louder pipes, and Triumph caters to their needs with ready-made aftermarket pipes in an accessory range that already features over 100 items, including bags, sissy bars, screens, chrome pieces, and seats. There is also a big-bore kit which bumps the engine size to 1700cc and the engine_s output from the stock bike’s 85-horsepower to about 100. Costing $900, the kit includes cams and other modifications.

With 1600cc already available, we_d think more aggressive cams and perhaps some fuel mapping tweaks to go along with it would provide all the thrust anyone would ever need without pulling the cylinders and pistons. But perhaps a compression bump is also a necessary part of the hop-up kit, so we’ll just shut up.

In any event, the big twin spins into life after a clearly vigorous effort from the starter motor (with the intervention of a decompression gadget on the exhaust cam), and idles happily with that thumpity-thump sound cruiser riders hold so dear. Despite Triumph’s deliberate attempt to make the engine look as if it were air-cooled, with stylish fins adorning the cylinderhead and block, the new T-16 engine is a thoroughly modern liquid-cooled lump with dual overhead cams, eight valves per cylinder, and twin-sparkplug heads.

It tugs the bike away from rest with strong and steady thrust, and there_s emphatic throttle response throughout its operating range. Unlike a lot of big-bore twins, the Thunderbird revs pretty willingly to its 6500 rpm redline, although there_s not much reason to do that often. Since the torque peak (108 pound-feet) is at a fairly leisurely 2,750 rpm, the bike_s midrange is decidedly muscular at normal highway speeds.

Even though it isn’t fast in the sense that a liter-class sportbike is fast, the Thunderbird’s engine is seldom found wanting. The considerable 756 pound curb weight damps any suggestion of slingshot acceleration, but the power delivery is entirely in keeping with the Thunderbird’s cruiser role. Moreover, the brakes and suspension do a great job of containing the bike’s exertions, and lend a pleasing sense of overall integration to the machine.

Big 12.2-inch disc rotors adorn the front wheel, gripped by two fixed, four-piston Nissin calipers, and together they haul this big bike down from speed in a very reassuring fashion. The brake and clutch levers themselves are big and broad, proving more comfortable and controllable than the light and narrow devices found on lesser machines.

Rear brakes play a more important role on cruisers, since they assist greatly with low speed maneuvers, and on the Thunderbird we find a pretty stout disc in the embrace of a Brembo two-piston floating caliper. The combination provides good feel at the pedal when you’re attempting a U-turn on a mountain road something the Triumph manages with a composure that belies its large mass and high center of gravity.

The Thunderbird’s five-spoke alloy wheels are suspended by a 47mm Showa fork up front and dual chromed-spring Showa shocks at the rear, and despite limited adjustability (the rear shocks feature five-position spring preload collars), the ride is remarkably good. Of the two ends, the front is more impressive, blotting bumps and ripples without transmitting much shock into the frame or bars.

Under my 218 pounds, the rear shocks needed more preload, but then demonstrated rather slack rebound damping over bigger bumps and drains. If we were to upgrade the T-bird, that’s where we_d start. But the ride and handling are pretty good as the bike comes, endowing the rider with confidence in its ability to take just about anything you can throw at it.

As is usual with cruisers, limited ground clearance inhibits corner entry speed, but even here the Thunderbird isn’t too bad. There are feelers under the folding footpegs that touch down with insistent gnashing noises, and this soon teaches a rider to tone down cornering speeds to something quieter and less distressing. We’d happily trade the bike’s much sought-after 27.6-inch seat height for another inch of ride height and the extra cornering clearance it would bring, but then we’re not lifelong cruiser adherents.

Priced at $12,499, the Thunderbird offers a premium cruiser experience in a handsome and distinctive package. An ABS model is available for $13,299 for those who feel the need for an extra measure of safety. We believe that the real measure of this bike’s value in the market is its ability to bridge the gap between boulevard posing and real world riding.

Designed by Tim Prentice, a former design director at Honda and the man responsible for that company’s Rune, the Thunderbird is a relatively restrained expression of cruiser art. But it’s a striking image nonetheless, and Triumph fans should have little to complain about particularly since it’s a functional design with no extravagant embellishments.

The Thunderbird does a pretty good job as a standard motorcycle, handling everyday riding tasks with an ease and balance not available on every cruiser. Also not available on every cruiser are details like a tachometer (mounted below the speedo in the tank-mounted instrument pod), and a useful trip computer. With functions toggled by a switch at the right-hand cluster, the trip computer includes a range-to-empty display that is particularly handy when on a long ride.

Along with presence and style, we found the Thunderbird to be imbued with a robust charm that grows on a rider the more he or she rides the bike. Add this general charisma to the bike’s potential for extensive personalization, and you have a pretty solid argument in favor of buying one. It might just be that the 2010 Triumph Thunderbird’s offbeat exhaust note becomes the soundtrack to the story of its own success. Let’s just wait and see.

Triumph Thunderbird – A Bird in the Hand 4.5 5 case Saturday, November 20, 2010 Triumph’s engineers took care of the vibes with two separate balancer shafts_one mounted at the front of the crankshaft, one behind it. The ...

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