Triumph Thruxton and Bonneville

I had already seen the new models in the flesh a few months ago at a static launch in London and I remember thinking the styling job was remarkable, exquisite even. The Triumph Bonneville still had that familiar silhouette, yet up close everything looked fresher, more purposeful, detailed, authentic, and desirable. Sure, the new liquid cooling meant a radiator and some plumbing but here again, the job of making the system as discrete as possible was well executed. Styling wise, Triumph really hit it out of the park with this one. 

And then there’s the new Thruxton, along with its new R variant. Good God these are cool looking bikes. In this case, the only thing the old and new models have in common is their name. The old Thruxton was a relatively basic restyle of the standard Bonneville, nothing more, but the new gen models are their own things…and what things. 

Café racer styling is one of the strongest trends these days and several big manufacturers are now offering replicas of what passed as a sportbike in the 1950s and ‘60s. Arguably, no one is accomplishing the effect with more credibility and talent than Triumph and its Thruxtons—they really do look that good. 

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To produce a current café racer, most manufacturers choose to modify an already existing base model, which isn’t inappropriate as this is how the genre first came to be. They were streetbikes tweaked to reach “the ton” and get as fast as possible from one café to the next. But Triumph went further and from the beginning designed the new Bonneville platform to be a proper base for both the classic T120 and the café-styled Thruxton. The British brand achieved its goal masterfully. 

Although they have some mechanical similarities, the Triumph Bonneville T120 ($12,900) and Thruxton ($13,200) offer two very distinct riding experiences, and both are also completely different motorcycles to ride than the models they replace. 

The first impression given by the Triumph Bonneville T120 is that of a low, narrow, relatively light and accessible machine. It’s proportionately close to the first generation Bonneville and its relaxed, natural and balanced ergonomics are also similar to the previous model’s, which is a good thing as it instantly puts the rider in a classic, inviting and completely non-intimidating environment that very much reflects the bike’s looks. 

But hit the starter button and any tie to the previous 865cc air-cooled motor is forever gone. The new 1200cc water-cooled parallel twin is nothing less than a little marvel of an engine. 

I certainly haven’t been easy on Triumph over the years with my repetitive complaints about the old twin’s shy nature. Not only are those complaints now completely gone, the new engine actually has remarkable character. It pulses frankly with each movement of the pistons and emits a wonderfully deep rumble, two characteristics that accompany the rider during every moment of the ride. And it gets better: the new twin also generates low rpm torque in copious amounts. 

To put the difference in perspective, the new 1200 (the T120 uses the High Torque version) produces about 50 per cent more torque at about half the revs compared to the outgoing 865. What that translates into is instant and effortless acceleration from the moment the clutch lever is released. The T120 isn’t record-setting fast, but it is uncommonly torquey, which in the real-world situations a bike like this finds itself on an almost constant basis, simply means a pleasant and inviting riding experience. 

Riding the Triumph Bonneville T120 Black around the tight streets and flowing back roads of Lisbon, I kept thinking the twin had all the characteristics of a good cruiser engine, and that these characteristics fit surprisingly well with the easy-going street bike nature of the Bonneville. Though Triumph never made any mention of a tie between the new 1200 and the Thunderbird’s 1700 parallel twin, I couldn’t help but think there is one, and that the excellent 1700 sound and feel had made its way to the 1200. 

Speaking of cruiser-like characteristics, the Triumph Bonneville T120’s handling, while solid, light and precise, is also quite limited in terms of cornering because of the unusually low ground clearance that has peg feelers on the asphalt long before any part of the chassis even begins to stress. Not a huge problem with a bike meant to be ridden casually, but anyone attempting to have fun on a twisty road will very rapidly drag pegs on the ground. Otherwise, the T120 generally behaves very nicely and transparently. It can both satisfy the demanding rider with its solid feel and great engine character and take the role of a first bike thanks to its inviting handling and totally stable ride.

Thruxton R

Only the Thruxton R ($15,500) was available at the Lisbon world launch. It’s a completely different motorcycle than the T120, and it’s also essentially unique on the market. It’s a proper sportbike, but in a classic British way rather than in a racer replica way. Other than the Thruxton, a product like that doesn’t currently exist. And just as Triumph did with the T120, it nailed it with the Thruxton. The feel is immediately sporty because of the high pegs and low bars, yet it’s unlike anything else because of the very narrow waist and especially because of the wonderfully rich engine character. Both Thruxtons use the High Power version of the new 1200cc parallel twin. It thumps and rumbles and feels just as alive and present as the T120’s motor, but the power distribution is wider with good torque down low, excellent midrange oomph and a fun blast toward the relatively low 7,000 rpm redline. The 96 claimed horsepower don’t seem like much on paper, but out on the road, thanks to the excellent torque and to the great sound and feel characteristics, this power satisfies plenty. 

Handling wise, without the ground clearance limits of the Triumph Bonneville T120 and with the help of the excellent Öhlins inverted fork and shock, the Thruxton R gets business done on twisty pieces of road. The handling characteristics of a modern sportbike are all there, only slowed somewhat by the weight of the model and by a design not absolutely driven by mass centralization. Not an issue at all, and actually fun as it makes the rider work a bit to get through a series of esses. 

Probably the biggest negative is comfort: with suspension setting on the firm side, significant weight placed on the hands and only an okay seat, the Thruxton R clearly isn’t a touring machine.  

One day to ride two bikes isn’t a lot, but it was enough to get a sense of what the new generation T120 and Thruxton are about. And what they are is as great as they are unique, both in their own way. These bikes aren’t just classics, they embody Triumph’s identity and establish the brand’s credibility. Up to now, they did that in a very shy way. They are now what they should have been all along.