Review: 2019 Triumph Bonneville T120 & Speed Twin

Triumph Speed Twin

1979 styling with 2019 engineering – the perfect motorcycle for those of a retro disposition?

Triumph‘s motorcycle range has crystallised into just three paths in recent years. When you walk into a dealership, you must first choose if you want practicality (‘Adventure‘), performance (‘Roadsters‘) or style (the ‘Modern Classics‘). Having funnelled their customers into ever-narrower pigeon-holes, there’s lately been little recourse for someone who would like to combine elements from any of these three distinct branches of motorcycling.

And yet, with the launch of their new water-cooled twins a few years ago there were suggestions that the new Bonneville‘s, Thruxtons and Street Twins might finally have been endowed with some substance to match their style. Could these erstwhile one-trick ponies finally live up to their 60’s ancestors and be true multi-purpose motorcycles, clean slates from which anyone could build their perfect bike?

Triumph Bonneville T120

Prefer 1969 to 1979? Triumph’s T120 has you covered, in black or chrome.

Let’s look at the numbers, starting with the current-generation T120 Bonneville, a direct replacement for the 2009 T100 my father has covered more than 80,000 miles on. There are 355cc more displacement, with the swollen 1.2-litre twin switching to a 270-degree twin for better secondary balance and more off-beat exhaust note. Power output is up by 13 horses to 79, but overall weight seems to have climbed as well. By how much is hard to say – Triumph switched to listing dry weights for their bikes to disguise the increase in mass, and refuses to say how badly the scales have been tipped.

Bonneville Engine

The T120 gets the “High Torque” engine, while the Speed Twin enjoys the “High Power” version.

Brakes are improved, simply by doubling the number of callipers and disks on the front wheel, and an unobtrusive ABS system provides welcome reassurance on wet or slippery surfaces. Triumph also felt the need to add a suite of basic electronic rider aids, in the form of switchable maps for the ride-by-wire throttle and a simple traction-control system. But most of the real work has gone in making the new water-cooled & emissions-compliant engine look just like an old air-cooled, open-piped blast from the past.

Bonneville Brakes

T120 disappoints with old tech, but it’s still double what the old bike had.

Aesthetically, regardless of whether you choose the traditional chrome or alternative ‘Black’ variants, it’s certainly a success in my eyes. I don’t have the same visual soft-spot for spoked wheels that older riders seem to, but I have to agree that both variants are damn good-looking motorcycles. The attention to detail is impressive, right down to the fuel caps and imitation carburettors. The switchgear is a little chunky, and from some angles the narrow radiator rather spoils the effect, but it’s nonetheless an impressive achievement.

Triumph Bonneville Carburettors

Fake carburettor housings disguise the modern fuel injection beneath.

Wheeling the bike out to the car park reveals the first issue; that old-school steel-tube frame is heavy, necessarily stronger than in days of old to hold the weight of the oversized engine and withstand the various forces acting on the chassis from more modern road speeds. Alloy frames with engines as stressed-members were developed with good reason, and achieving the same results with outdated designs results in a lot of unnecessary weight.

More compromises are evident immediately upon pulling out onto the road; as soon as the bike is moving, the gyroscopic effect of that heavy front wheel is incredibly obtrusive. The bike resists turning effort, and the riding position and relatively narrow bars make it difficult to counter this with leverage in the way that adventure bikes do. Above 40mph hard cornering is essentially impossible, as quick steering inputs are out of the question. I was almost caught out at my very first bend when I realised there was no way I was going to get the bike to turn as I would have expected from any other new motorcycle.

Triumph Bonneville Switchgear

Heated grips are standard on the T120, along with a centre stand and two engine modes.

This limitation accepted, I opted to take corners more smoothly and slowly, but this then requires slowing down when bends approach. Twin disks are better than one, but two-pot sliding Nissins are mid-90’s technology, and it shows. Triumph have matched the master cylinder well, but there’s little feel and a full four-fingered squeeze is required to seriously arrest forward motion. Best to keep it slow in a straight line too, then.

Of course, if you’re going for a relaxed low-speed trundle, why bring a 1.2-litre engine along for the ride? Throttle response is smooth, but soft, and a full twist is required to unleash the torque within. Do so, and you’ll find both the rev limiter and upcoming corner arriving startlingly quickly, a real danger given the aforementioned steering and braking problems.

Bonneville Instruments

Analogue dials with LCD inserts provide classic aesthetic with modern information.

But let’s assume you’re on a less twisty road – can you exploit the performance there? Not really, I’m afraid – the suspension is fine on a smooth road, where it floats along comfortably, but even small bumps quickly overwhelm the damping, hydro-locking and transmitting the shocks directly into the chassis. Once again, a sedate pace isn’t so much encouraged as required. No, the top-end power can be safely ignored, with the larger torque reserves useful primarily for smooth, effortless overtakes. It’s a shame, as even with the accessory Vance & Hines silencers there’s more gearbox whine than exhaust or intake noise to provide any real aural enjoyment.

Bonneville Vance & Hines

Homologation rules mean that official accessory silencers are barely louder than stock.

That leaves the Triumph Bonneville T120 as little more than a relaxed cruiser, intended – just as in the previous generation – as a sunny Sunday bike, and designed for short double-digit rides to lunch rather than multi-week European expeditions. Triumph claim versatility with standard-fit heated grips and optional luggage, but it’s basic small-capacity leather bags that wouldn’t survive a wet morning in the Alps. Such a narrowly-focused machine could be forgiven if the price was right, but at almost £11,000 once you’ve added the cost of paint it can only be considered a premium offering next to Royal Enfield‘s £5,500 Interceptor.

Speed Twin Brakes

Lightweight wheels and higher-spec brakes bring handling into the 21st century.

The announcement of the new Speed Twin delighted me, not least because it seemed to be a tacit admission of the problems with the existing offerings, a walking back of some of the more extreme styling-based compromises. Smaller 17″ alloy wheels are light, letting the bike flick into turns with the ease of any modern bike. 4-piston Brembo callipers are blunted by the choice of pad material, but provide a similarly modern experience in line with expectations of a brand-new motorcycle in 2019. Clever use of aluminium in the frame and magnesium in the engine mean that the dry weight of the Speed Twin is a staggering 28kg less than the T120.

Speed Twin Engine

It’s not just the power – “Sport” riding mode makes the engine far more responsive.

Engine performance is also upped, with a different cam and tune delivering almost 20bhp more over the more relaxed bike. A third “Sport” riding mode means that throttle response is sharp to the point of snatchy around town, but immediately satisfying once you escape the 30mph speed limits. The inverse is also true: “Road” and “Rain” are dull to the point of frustration out of town, but practically required within. Suspension is firmer, and definitely too stiff for someone of my weight, but a rebuild with a specialist would surely result in a machine that could seriously worry sportsbikes on real-world roads.

The riding position is more comfortable, too – a slight forward cant to the chassis puts your arms and upper body in a better position to apply leverage to the bars, further helping turn-in. But I’m sorry to say that other problems with the ‘Modern Classic’ range still haven’t been addressed, and lead me to conclude that the overall mission of the Speed Twin bike isn’t that different to its softer T120 cousin. It’s undeniably the superior motorcycle, throwing into question the reason why anyone would choose the objectively worse spoked-wheeled variant, but it’s still heavily compromised.

Speed Twin Seat

Classic bench seat design means aesthetics take precedence over comfort.

First up is the seat; period correct, but very hard and quickly uncomfortable, and official accessory alternatives vary only the style, not the padding. Pillion pegs are higher than on the T120 to clear the upswept exhausts, which will also make fitting luggage extremely difficult; Triumph offers a tank bag as the sole official option. Both bikes suffer from tiny fuel tanks, with just a theoretical 14.5 litres possible according to the spec sheets. Given that Triumph is known for over-quoting on fuel capacities, owners would be well advised to be en route to a petrol station any time the trip meter ticks past 100 miles.

With a poor tank range, hard seat, and limited touring or pillion accommodations we’re once again looking at a bike apparently designed for short, fair-weather runs. The improved running gear and lower weight mean that those runs will merely happen more quickly, but that’s the extent of the changes. The Speed Twin can’t actually do any more than the T120 can.

Speed Twin Fuel Tank

Gorgeous paint, hand-painted coach lines, but doesn’t actually hold very much fuel.

I’m frustrated with Triumph, and my parents will be too. I wanted the retro styling but without the compromised performance of heavy, spoked wheels and weak brakes. They wanted more power, ABS, and a lower seat height than the Tiger 800 that’s recently taken over touring duties while the T100 suffers age-related electrical gremlins. We both wanted comfortable seats, hard luggage and happy pillions for our alpine adventures. But Triumph‘s response to the latter request is “buy a Tiger“.

The worst part is that the design brief is so narrow as to actually prevent the after-market from expanding the bike’s remit for less focused owners. An after-market petrol tank is unlikely to appear, and while the Speed Twin solves the heavy steering and weak brakes of the T120, it introduces a deal-breaker in the shape of those badly-placed pillion pegs. Triumph has a compatible cruise-control module for that engine, as featured on the Speedmaster, yet it’s absent from the newer Speed Twin.

Speed Twin Fuel Cap

Spring-loaded racing fuel cap looks fantastic but hides a fiddly plastic plug beneath.

By focusing the design so narrowly, Triumph have made it impossible for anyone outside of its very specific target demographic to adapt the bike to do anything else. They boast 70+ accessories for the new Speed Twin, the entire catalogue geared exclusively towards aesthetic changes. I’m not saying that Triumph need to offer three-box luggage from the factory, but they seem to be determined to actively discourage you buyers from even trying to use the bike for anything other than posing at the local biker cafe.

Speed Twin Headlight

Both bikes feature LED daytime running lights, yet rely on old-fashioned bulbs when it gets dark.

And yet, I cannot focus my own ire exclusively on Triumph or their ‘Modern Classics‘ range. As sportsbike fans will note tank sizes and luggage/pillion provisions have shrunk and riding positions become more extreme as the breed moved closer and closer to trackday weapons than the fast road bikes they were two decades ago. Sensible upright bikes of the kind once typified by Suzuki Bandits and Honda Hornets have fallen by the become equally focused on a singular task, and just about the only genre apparently allowed a semblance of real-world practicality are Adventure bikes.

So what’s a rider to do if he or she wants a fast-road, real-world practical touring bike that also evokes the classic air-cooled style of the 70’s and 80’s? Perhaps Moto-Guzzi might have the answer

Triumph Speed Twin

You may not get much further than the local bike cafe, but at least you’ll look good doing it.