RideApart Review: Triumph Bonneville SE

What if we were to tell you there was a bike that combined sexy retro looks with fast, responsive modern handling and performance? The kind of bike you could look good on in town, but still enjoy in the canyons. Well, that bike exists in the Triumph Bonneville, but you just need to make sure you by the right version.

What’s New:
Since 2001, the Triumph Bonneville has always just sort of been there as a good-looking, if unexciting retro bike. Reliable, shiny and affordable, but not the kind of thing you’d lay awake at night dreaming about. For 2010 and on, that’s just changed, totally. Triumph won’t tell you that the humble Bonnie is suddenly one of the most most desirable motorcycles on the market. But, don’t worry, we will. This is why you really, really want a Triumph Bonneville SE.

The first thing anyone will notice about the Bonneville is its looks. On the surface, it looks like something from the ’60s. Air cooled twin, carburetors, boring old school forks, twin shocks, banana seat. Take a closer look though. Are those really carburetors? What’s inside those 41mm forks? Are those 17″ wheels? All but the most fanatical motorcycle enthusiasts will never notice these things, but spend a little time on the bike, and you’ll eventually reach the conclusion that it’s a modern motorcycle wearing a vintage costume taken from grandpa’s closet.

After being discontinued in 1988, the Bonneville was reintroduced in 2001. Fuel injection came to American models in 2009, and minor changes to mapping and engine internals the next year resulted in a quiet motor that produces exceptionally smooth power and vibrates only enough to let you know it’s there. The 2001-present bikes are well loved, as evidenced by the steady $4500-$5500 prices on the used market, but the revised fueling from 2010 on really is a big improvement over carbs.

What’s Good:
Forks and shocks aren’t adjustable for anything but rear preload, but Triumph did their homework and got the spring rates and damping right. The chassis those components are bolted to has a few tricks of its own. Wheelbase is 57.2″ and a very low cg make it feel slightly longer than that. Rake and trail are 27º/4.2″ don’t appear very sporting on paper, but when combined with a 17×3 front wheel and 110 tire, steering effort and feel are sublime.

Motorcycle companies don’t publish numbers for swingarm length, pivot height and angle or the position of the countershaft sprocket in relation to the swingarm. They should though because those factors determine how a motorcycle will handle under acceleration. Still, you can tell just by looking that Triumph got things right.

Want to know what makes the Bonneville such a superior motorcycle to the Harley Sportster? Look at the swingarm pivot on the Triumph (above) and on the slow, unwieldy, ill-handling cruiser (below). See how the Harley's swingarm pivot is lower than the rear axle?

When you accelerate on a motorcycle, there are powerful forces at work between the motor and the ground. Power gets to the rear wheel through the drive chain and on its way, it tries to pull the rear wheel into the motor and compress the rear shocks. When the wheel is driven, it pushes on the swingarm and tried to squish everything in front of it. The people who design rear suspension for serious motorcycles take these rather significant forces into account and angle the swingarm so that chain pull helps stiffen (rather than compress) the rear end when under acceleration. They put the swingarm pivot higher than the rear axle for the same reason. Harley Davidson just bolts it all together, calls is "slammed" and hopes no one will notice that the bikes handle poorly and tend to bottom out under acceleration.

Claimed wet weight on the Bonnie is 495 pounds and it feels about that heavy. The low center of gravity makes it easy to handle though and 67bhp from an air/oil-cooled 865cc parallel twin helps it get up to speed fast. Not sportbike fast, but you’ll still leave most sportscars for dead. An Iron 883 weighs 565 pounds and produces a pathetic 49bhp.

Riding the Bonneville is special. It’s impossible not to have some idea of what it will be like based on looks alone, and when you realize how well it performs, you’ll be surprised.

Sit-up ergonomics could best be described as stately or official. The banana seat makes it feel a little dirt bikey, but only in the best ways. There’s room to move around for both rider and passenger. Ride it slow, and it feels confident and planted. Ride it as fast as it will go and not much changes.

What’s Bad:
- The bars are kind of a funny shape and have about 1″ more pull-back than we’d like.

-Mirrors don’t always stay where you put them. I took them off and used a CRG blind-sight from my bike.

-495lbs is a lot lighter than 565, but there’s no reason this bike couldn’t come in around 400 with some fancier materials and generally dropping some of the unnecessary parts.

-17×3 and 17×3.5 wheels are good but 17×3.5 and 17×4.5,5 or 5.5 wheels would allow use of true sportsbike tires (footpegs and boots would wear out faster though, hm…).

-SE model is just polished sidecovers, chrome tank badge, nicer gauges, and different paint.

Now, the SE model isn't the only bike in the Bonneville range. But, along with the base model, it is the best. Why? The T100 swaps in a 19-inch, spoked front wheel, tubes, two-tone paint, a flat seat, more conservative suspension geometry and higher, narrower, more swept back handlebars for a $1,400 premium over the standard Bonneville. Worth it? Nope. Those mods effectively ruin what’s otherwise a great bike, removing both outright handling ability and feel by increasing unsprung weight and making steering geometry more conservative. Save that cash and buy the base model or the pretty two-tone SE you see here.

The Verdict:
As fast as a modern bike and as fun as a classic.

RideApart Rating: 8/10

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