Road Test Review
Triumph’s return has succeeded because the company is producing excellent motorcycles, from eager sportbikes to first-rate dual-sports to an exquisite line of modern classics. It’s also building cruisers, and its Bonneville-based customs have been best sellers. But it wasn’t until the introduction of the liter-class Thunderbird in 2009 that the cruiser lineup really made heads turn. In the tradition of the original, the Thunderbird is a well-built, good-looking bike, and it was followed with a blacked-out, bug-eyed, hopped-up version called the Storm. Both offered well over a liter and a half of torque-laden parallel twin power, but neither has managed to draw enough attention to make Triumph happy.
So the company went back to the drafting board, and now the new 2014 Thunderbird LT and Commander seem to have the goods to stand proud in the distinguished brand’s legacy.
To create these “fat customs” (Triumph’s term), its designers obviously worked with one eye fixed on the U.S. cruiser market. They’re less two brand-new motorcycles than two versions of the same bike. The muscular Commander and the light-touring LT are nearly identical mechanically, differing mainly in styling and tire sizes, with each bike stylistically true to its fat-custom purpose. The Light Touring ’Bird features long-haul amenities like a quick-detach windshield (by National Cycle), removable leather saddlebags (with liners), and a passenger backrest and floorboards, while the Commander has a tougher, stripped-down facade, including dual headlights and low-profile tires.
The standard Thunderbird’s liquid-cooled, 1,597cc DOHC parallel twin is a fine mill, but as with the gargantuan Rocket III triple, Triumph decided that if enough was good, then more was definitely better. So the kit that bumped the Storm’s displacement up by 102cc was recruited for both of these cruisers, and improved. Dual balancer shafts and an integrated torsional damper stabilize its side-to-side locomotion, and both bikes have the same 6-speed gearbox. The transmission is smooth, and the engine delivers loads of torque in nearly every gear, though the midrange is where it shines. On the Jett Tuning dyno, our LT cranked out 82 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 101 lb-ft of torque at 3,300 rpm at the rear wheel, impressive numbers for a twin of this size.
The Commander and the LT both employ dual exhaust with different tips—the LT’s triangles are reminiscent of Triumph’s Union Jack badge, while the Commander power cruiser gets meaner Gatling guns. The latter’s growl is noticeably gruffer than the touring bike’s smooth, baritone rumble too, but still disappointingly pedestrian compared to the athletic upswept megaphones on the Thunderbird and Storm.
Triumph also reconfigured the chassis that holds these new Thunderbirds aloft. The twin-spine tubular-steel frame looks the same but pushes the steering neck forward and drops the seat pan a full inch; the extra space is filled with a plusher saddle. Better, the new seat features a separate embossed lumbar support pad that stays in place when a big American butt plops down on the saddle, rather than compressing with the rest of the seat. It’s clever and simple, and quite possibly the most comfortable motorcycle saddle this rider’s ever cruised upon.
Both bikes share the same 65.5-inch wheelbase, but due to their differing wheel and tire sizes, the LT sports slightly shorter rake and trail numbers. The classically styled LT has 16-inch spoked wheels, while the strapping Commander gets 17-inch cast wheels. But it’s their tires that truly distinguish the way these bikes negotiate the road. The Commander rolls on typical low-profile, “fat custom” rubber. Its handling is relatively quick, but there’s no denying the fact that you’re muscling around a big bike. For the LT, Avon developed a whitewall radial, the first of its kind. With higher tire profiles and more evenly matched widths—150 front, 180 rear—the touring bike turns more readily and holds a line more easily than the power cruiser. Braking is identical, and stopping power equally excellent. Suspension behavior on both bikes is nondescript—which is exactly how quality suspension should behave.
In fact, my only gripe is that the floorboards on both models are just too darn short. Due to the heel-toe shifter, my size 10½ left boot was afforded maybe one inch of wiggle room fore and aft. To stretch, I found I had to ride with my heels planted at the front of the floorboards, toes splayed in the wind. The floorboards on both bikes also scrape easily in corners; thankfully, they’re equipped with replaceable scrapers.
For 2014, Triumph has delivered two cruisers with the performance and versatility that befits the badge on their tanks. While most of the Thunderbirds’ styling is right out of the traditional cruiser mold, their parallel-twin engines set them nicely apart from the pack. Hopefully their increased power and beefed-up features will turn more heads this time around.