2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 Black – FIRST RIDE REVIEW With age comes maturity, a bigger engine, and sweet-riding Bonnie.
In 1966, seven years after the Triumph Bonneville’s debut, a gleaming, purpose-built speed machine sat on the cover of Cycle World’s 4th-anniversary issue. At the time, the revised Triumph Bonneville T120/R was ready to continue its reign over British superbikes. Back then, the 120 stood for its top speed–a similar move in today’s world would send mothers into a conniption fit before they got their complaint tweets off to @TriumphAmerica. Nearly 50 years to the exact month, I’m staring at a 2016 Triumph T120 Black, but the 120 stands for something a little different. Namely, a change in displacement and demeanor.
Like in 1966, the Bonneville family is of great importance to the brand’s sales. Fifteen years after the Bonneville’s return in 2001, over 141,000 have been registered worldwide. Then as now, the United States has been a top market for Bonnies. And in 2016, looking down the barrel of new emission regulations and after getting a bit long in the tooth, the Bonneville must evolve once again. This time, it took significantly more effort than just putting the oil in the frame, like back in ’66.
Radiators–their aesthetic penalty confronts every bike that wants to continue living in “the glory days.” Like nicotine patches affixed to grumbling smokers on an airplane, in general, the evolution has not been kind to appearances or emotions. The Bonneville is only the latest to accept its water-jacketed fate with Euro 4 regulations on the way; Triumph has accepted the reality with aplomb.
Extreme care has been taken to hide and minimize the visual impact of this march of technological necessity, especially on the T120R. Why? Because, it is the most obliquely retro of the Bonneville models. To have a cowcatcher radiator hanging off the front would spoil the show. Triumph aims to deliver unique experiences with each Bonneville variant, and for the T120, this means as “classic” looking as possible. Here, like the T100 that came before it, wire wheels, peashooter exhausts, and a comfortable seat take the experience way back to the 1960s.
Same Old Song and Dance, but Different
Wobbling out onto the cobblestones on a crisp Portuguese morning, head full of jet lag and eyes full of fog, you must look twice to recognize the T120 as a new model.
The plump, round tank is right where it should be, and the headlight is just as round as it was before (but now sports LED daytime running lights). Yup, it’s a Bonneville–although looking a bit more swollen than before. A bit of botox on an older face, but the T120 looks as stately and elegant as ever.
In fact, there’s even more emphasis placed on taking cues from the 1959 T120/R to make the 2017 model look exquisitely quaint. The regular T120 features all the classic Triumph signatures such as chrome peashooters, rich and deep color hues, rubber tank pads whose shapes have been lifted from the old model. But on the T120 Black we sampled, the chrome parts are slathered in black.
There is also significantly more detailing and finishing work. Subtle things like the recessed gauges, the finishing on the engine, the more “authentic” fake carbs that house the dual injectors, make for a higher-caliber, higher-quality look and feel. It’s a more elegant machine than the T100 it replaces, thoroughly mixing old and new into a package that feels fresh instead of staid.
And it took an engineering army to get the styling this way. The catalytic converter is hidden under the bike, the evaporative emission catch can is cleverly tucked away, and the radiator is one of the tiniest we’ve ever seen. Nestled between the frame rails, it is sprayed the darkest black in Satan’s closet to keep it hidden from view. Even the hoses are minimized and placed closer to the backbone frame instead of hanging out in the open.
More Motor, More Shove
So its appearance ticks all the right boxes, but the star of the show is Triumph’s all-new engine. Displacement is now up to 1200cc (from 865). Triumph is adamant, though, that the cooling fins on the engine are actually functional. Usable torque, not top speed, is the focus, a flip flop from its 1966 predecessor. Triumph calls it the, er, “High-Torque” version, and it produces 77 pound-feet of peak twist, 54-percent more than the T100. Peak horsepower is up to 79, 18-percent more than the outgoing model, but more power is available across the entire rev range. Fuel economy has also been massively improved to a claimed 49.5 mpg average.
Additionally, Triumph engineered solutions to make the engine the same physical size of the old unit. One step was the torque assist clutch, which not only makes pull easier, but means the flywheel can be smaller, slimming the transmission significantly, even with the extra sixth gear. A lot of work was done to keep proportions and appearance in check, but the T120’s dry weight has increased by around 40 pounds to 495.
So it’s heavier and has more tech, but how does it ride?
Wafting comes to mind. This is a more subdued, more elegant riding demeanor than the old T100. The chassis is significantly stiffer, the rake is steepened by 2.5 degrees to 25.5, but it is not a motorcycle that likes to be hurried or shunted. It likes to glide, and feels more surefooted than ever before.
The front suspension–revised with cartridges in the fork–delivers a much more progressive, composed ride, but still has significant dive when you’re heavy on the brakes. The rear shocks have also been redesigned and have more travel. Both these changes work in tandem to deliver a smoother ride, keeping stroke in the sweet spot more often than not.
Braking performance is much improved, too. Gone is the single disc front setup, replaced with twin 310mm discs with Nissin two-piston calipers, and a Nissin two-piston caliper out back. Combined with the new ABS, it is a significantly more confidence inspiring experience.
On the twisting Portuguese roads, it was a morning to be enjoyed, not barreled through. The more comfortable seat and riding position, stiffer chassis, and crisper turn-in significantly aided in improving the riding experience to achieve that.
The engine’s extra torque is felt immediately. Mid-range performance makes traffic maneuvers a less worrisome experience, and the motor can be smoothly lugged without need to work the gearbox too much. Top-end power goes somewhat unnoticed–on a dragstrip, it may be a bit quicker–but from the seat-of-the-pants it’s the torque that is the real change of attitude here. And for good reason.
Once you begin to hurry, the bike isn’t as happy. The footpegs–lowered on this model to accommodate a more relaxed riding position–scrape early and often. The motor does not reward sustained heavy throttle, but prefers quick squirts between corners. You really start leaning on that extra grunt to define the riding experience. The ride-by-wire system didn’t always deliver smooth response, so I rode in rain mode much of the time where it fuels the cleanest.
Riding down cobblestone streets on our way to morning espresso, the bike is much more at ease, galloping into town, thrumming along, standard heated grips keeping you cosseted. It is an enduringly friendly companion. Gently dulling your quick inputs to make them smoother, ABS intervening gently, the clutch exceedingly easy to pull in traffic. You effortlessly burble from stop to stop, the switch to 270-degree crank timing (from 360) has worked wonders in crafting a more audible and personable voice. It’s not an adrenaline machine, but an affable companion. What a difference 50 years make.
What was once a fire breathing superbike, has grown with age to deliver a more subdued, mature riding experience. But those improvements come at a cost. Pricing for the T120 Black in, uh, Jet Black, starts at $11,500 and the Matte Graphite at $11,750. Its chromed sibling the T120 in Cinder red costs $11,750 and the other three colors $12,000.
At minimum, that’s a $3,000 price increase over its predecessor the T100, which is significant. The feature count is of course way up, but the intangibles do make the difference in making the price difference worth it. Put simply, it’s leagues better and a more refined package, and more comfortable all around for urban and light touring duties.
It’s a happy motorcycle, plain and simple, and a strong followup to the T100 and the Bonnies before that. If you want to feel like it’s the 60s all over again, only the T120 can give you that nostalgic feeling without any downsides. I’d skip the black version and go right for the chromed version for the full effect.