Bonneville. The word immediately conjures up images and emotions. The steely eyes of Bert Munro, played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie “The World’s Fastest Indian,” staring down the salt-flats as he powered his ancient Indian to a new speed record. When a Triumph broke a speed-record there, designer Edward Turner decided to name his latest model after the famous salt-pan speed-track. The Bonneville 650 was a legend of its time; back when a 650 twin was a big motor, and Triumph was held in high-performance esteem. There are probably as many stories about those original Bonnies as there were bikes produced. And this year, 2009, marks the Bonnie’s 50th birthday. Well, maybe not it’s birthday exactly, because the original Bonnie died along with the rest of the Triumph company. But it was 50 years ago, in 1959, that the first Triumph Bonneville rolled off the production-line. When the mob at Hinckley decided to resurrect the name, they did so with a bike that looked very traditional; a kind of latter-day re-birth of that original iconic motorcycle. Technically though, it was a fair bit ahead of the original. The Bonnie that was introduced 50 years ago produced about 35kW. The new one had a larger engine, at 790cc; although that was pretty close to the final version that had been enlarged to 744cc. It produced around 10kW more than the original. And it didn’t leak oil. In 2007 Triumph bored the twin cylinder donk out to 865cc, giving it a little bit more go to keep the name-badge honest. In 2008 it gained fuel-injection. In 2009 there were more changes. The top-shelf T100 remained much as before, but the entry-level Bonneville, and the slightly more up-market Bonneville SE, which is the one tested here, both received 17” alloy wheels instead of the spoked originals. The exhaust was changed from the pea-shooter style to a reverse-cone type. The SE also gets two-tone paint and the twin-gauges of the T100. Another thing they did was lower the seat height. (Why?). Apparently they did this by removing some of the padding. Taking a seat that had a reputation for being a bit of a plank and removing some of the padding was never going to turn out well; and it didn’t. It’s hard! The bike feels quite small. This impression could’ve been because I’d just stepped off the Triumph Tiger when I tested this, but other testers have made the same comment. Perhaps because of this, the riding-position feels a bit cramped – at least to a lanky old bloke like me it does. The knees felt as if they were angled up high. The reach to the bars was okay. The instruments look very traditional, with two big analogue dials for tacho and speedo. Perhaps traditional, although unusual in my experience, was the double-digits used for the tacho. It’s easy to get it confused with the speedo. (Reminds me of the joke about the Jaguar driver whose wife was always complaining he drove too fast. So he swapped the speedo and tacho, and when his wife accused him of speeding he just pointed to the “speedo” (tacho) and said, “Look, dear, I’m only doing 50!”). I reckon the instruments look good anyway. The whole bike looks very traditional, of course. The two-tone paint, the chromed blinkers (and they are genuine metal-type chrome, not chrome-coloured plastic!) all add to the look. And I reckon it all looks good! Go to start it up and you (eventually!) find the ignition key located conveniently down on the left headlight bracket! Other controls, though, are easy to find and work well. The gear-lever and brake-lever are right under your feet, where they should be, and easy to use. Even the mirrors, which are big and round and look very traditional, work well; and don’t blur. Getting back to the engine, it’s a very traditional-looking air-cooled twin-cylinder, of 865cc. I mentioned that, for 2008, Triumph changed from carbies to fuel-injection. But maintaining the traditional look of the engine was important, so they housed the injection system in carburetor bodies. Take a look at the photo – they do look real, don’t they! Maybe I’m not so traditional thinking, because I’d prefer it didn’t proudly display out-dated technology that it no longer has! Just me, I guess. It’s in a fairly mild state of tune, and with 50kW it’s certainly no power-house. But it’s just as certainly not just a styling exercise, because it goes really well! Better than I expected, actually. Despite their reputation for good torque, twins are often lacking a bit in low-down grunt, but the Bonnie is good. It pulls easily and strongly from 2,000rpm. It’s also quite a free-revving unit, and will spin easily to 6,000rpm and beyond – despite the relatively low red-line of 7,000rpm. It’s very smooth too; all the way from idle to red-line. And the power is very linear; there aren’t gaps or surges in the power. There’s no snatchiness either, so Triumph have got the fuel-injection really well-sorted. All bikes have to be fairly quiet these days, but Triumph still manage to get a good sound out of that trad-looking pipe. It’s very relaxed out on the open road. Top gear (of 5 – keeping to the traditional!), runs at just under 28kph per 1,000rpm; so at 120 it’s doing just over 4,000rpm and feeling pretty relaxed. Even the wind isn’t too bad, for a naked anyway. Speaking of the gears, the whole gearbox / clutch casing on the left is quite big, and protrudes out a long way. Your boot is always against it. Not really a problem (although it might scuff after a while), but you just don’t expect it to be out so far. The actual gear-change is a bit clunky. Get the revs right and it’s smooth enough, but if you don’t it can get a bit jerky. And even when you match the revs it doesn’t like changing without the clutch. The test-route was the same used for the Street Triple, Sprint, and Tiger. A bit of suburban running, a bit of expressway, a narrow winding mountain pass, some back-roads and some busy highway. A good test of how it copes with real-world riding. Handling is great! It feels light and easy, and very accurate to steer. It responds easily and accurately to counter-steering, and always goes exactly where you point it. And it feels very stable. To me, it felt as light and easy to steer as the Street Triple, but more stable. I suppose if you really got stuck in, then the Street Triple would out-handle it, but for me, I found the Bonnie much more confidence inspiring. It was good fun! It wasn’t all good news though. The ride is fairly hard. Combined with the hard seat, pretty much any bump comes thumping through, with bigger bumps bringing bigger hits to the old bod. It was bad enough that after a while I began standing up, trail-bike style, when I saw big bumps coming. I understand that an optional gel-seat is available; and that, or some other after-market perch, would be highly recommended! Over-all, I enjoyed my ride on the Triumph Bonneville. It handles great, it’s got enough performance to have fun, it’s relaxed on the highway, and of course, it looks great in that Trad-Brit way. But the firm ride and plank-like seat would limit how far I could go on it. By the end of the test I’d had fun, but I was glad to get off. But I’m sure the seat and suspension could be fixed. And if it was, you’d have a great bike – maybe with the proviso that you aren’t too tall. That can’t be fixed! At $13,990, plus on-road costs, the value-for-money aspect is hard to quantify. As one tester, William Verity, put it, “Performance and probably value is still better with the Japanese bikes, so you need a dose of dreaming to understand Triumph, something more likely in the older rider.” So it’s a bike for old blokes with fat wallets? Maybe. But you do get a lot of style and history with the Bonnie; and for many that makes the extra dollars you’ll pay over “some bleedin’ rice-burner” well worthwhile. Bonneville; as I said at the top, the word immediately conjures up images and emotions; and I reckon the new bike lives up to those pretty well!
Engine: 2-cylinder, 865cc. Power: 50kW at 7,500rpm. Torque: 69Nm at 5,800rpm.
Fuel capacity: 16 litres.
Weight: 205kg (dry).
Seat height: 775mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 17”, Rear: 17”
Brakes: Nissin. Front: twin 310mm discs. Rear: single 255mm disc.
Price: $13,490 +orc.
For 2013 Triumph kind of went back to basics with the SE, making it look a bit less up-market than the previous model. The two-tone paint has gone, as well as a few bolt-on extras that were usually fitted. What is new though, is the frame is now painted red. This links it up with other models (like the Speed Triple R) that have red-painted frames. There is a matching red stripe on the guards and tank. Other than paint and perhaps a missing “optional extra” here or there, everything is just as it was before.
There are a couple of changes for the 2014 model. You get a new badge, new paint, and new machining on the cooling-fins of the motor. Minor stuff. Of more importance is the seat, which has been redsigned with better padding - not before time, either! So it's still pretty much the same bike I rode back in 2009.
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