First Ride Review
Hustling the new 2016 Triumph T120 through blustery ocean breezes somewhere east of Cabo da Roca—the westernmost point of continental Europe—I had to admit: They absolutely nailed it. As the prodigious torque easily pulled me through endless coastal bends on highway N247, the steel-tubed chassis just soaked it all up, with just enough bounce at either end to remind me this wasn’t a true sporting machine. The slick-shifting transmission was always just a toe away from matching the road’s trajectory, and at 70 mph, set in Road mode, the T120 barely scraped 3,000 rpm—not even close to breathing heavy. Most important, it looked the business; in my mind, Triumph had truly captured the classic 1959 look it was aiming for, right down to the sculpted tank, bench saddle, spoke wheels and carburetor-shaped throttle bodies. Ever since its announcement last October, expectations for this bike have been massive, and when it finally rolled out, the T120 would have to tick a good number of boxes to shut up the naysayers. Suffice it to say that at this point I was hearing nothing but crickets.
Though I did question why we were all riding the T120 Black model instead of the flagship, two-tone T120 at the global launch outside Lisbon, Portugal. Just a few hours earlier Triumph had gone to great pains to emphasize the T120’s “heritage, authenticity and prestige.” The T120 Black—which I personally think is an excellent looking machine—will remind nobody of Triumph’s historical timeline; it’s pretty obviously a cosmetic trim option and a submodel to the king of the throne, the T120. But heritage be damned, black is what sells, so I guess we just won’t mention the regular-issue T120’s glorious hand-painted coach lines and sumptuous chrome detailing.
Whatever your thoughts on the matter, one thing is certain: the redesign of the Hinckley modern classics series has been long overdue, so all eyes were on deck for this release. And the results don’t disappoint, with big changes in appearance, function and technology. But the T120 manages to keep its look undeniably classic, with Triumph taking great pains to squeeze the all-new parallel twin motor into the same dimensions as its predecessor, the signature engine bay now sporting big enough gaps to stick the end of a peashooter through. The crank arrangement is also changed to 270 degrees rather than the outgoing model’s 360 order, which means better primary balance and a throatier sound, and, yes Virginia, just ever-so-slightly less power. But we’ll get to that later.
Hiding in plain sight is the T120’s new, slim radiator, which virtually disappears behind the front wheel, barely a hose in sight. Triumph says the cylinders’ machined fins help cooling efficiency and allow for a smaller radiator—makes you wonder why other manufacturers haven’t caught on to this subtle design trick. Chrome and brushed aluminum abounds, unless you go for the T120 Black, which gets dark paint everywhere—except the saddle. So actually, it’s “Black-ish.”
Which leads me back to the coast road, where new wheel and tire sizes and the T120’s compact wheelbase are making quick work of the hilly bends. Turn-in is willing and handling is more than adequate but not exactly what you’d call sharp, since the bike did gain some 50 pounds with the new updates and emissions components. Weight is still on the high side but the bike doesn’t reflect it, thanks to a low center of gravity and those smaller tires. Out of the box, the thing feels softly suspended (I guess that’s a traditional quality) even for 160-pound me, and many of us opted to dial up the preload 2 turns, which was quickly achieved with a small Allen key tucked behind the side cover. Somehow Triumph managed to lessen the seat height a touch too, which felt lower than I’d like (especially for a 1,200cc motorcycle with some semblance of sporting intent). But the actual seat is comfortable and supportive, and Triumph says it’s got more foam than the outgoing one, so the trade-off seems fair.
As I gas it through a big sweeper, the benign burble turns into a meatier rumble, though in Road mode (one of two modes), the T120’s throttle response isn’t exactly what you’d call aggressive. It’s more of a smooth rush as you roll on, but there’s no denying that the torque is always standing ready. That’s because the T120 has the “high torque” version of the 1,200cc engine, which at 77.4 lb-ft oddly enough makes less peak torque than the Thruxton’s version. But that’s deceptive, because it hits the peak much lower in the range, down at 3,100 rpm, with more than 50 percent of it lying squarely in the midrange. With so much available down low, there isn’t really much need to bang against the redline (7,000 rpm), and I found the sweet spot to be around 5,000 rpm, where things are close to peak power but still feeling pretty mellow, yet ready to pounce at the twist of the throttle. On the T120, revs also come faster than the old bike thanks to a lighter flywheel, and with that ride-by-wire throttle, I could choose from two ride modes—Rain and Road—to better access the T120’s peak of 79 horsepower (Rain offers the same power but lessens the torque) with a simple push of the “M” button. There’s also switchable traction control, if you’re really looking to break loose.
Antilock brakes are now standard, and I thought the new dual-disc Nissins were above par, with easy actuation through the adjustable lever, a nice progressive feel and a forceful bite to slow things down quickly but not abruptly. The handsome twin clocks perched atop the nicely finished yoke are nicely appointed too, with 3D dials and a separate tach included. For good measure, Triumph has even thrown in heated grips as standard equipment. There are only two levels but trust me, that’s all you need.
As for nitpicks, well there’s this: If the T120 Black is really positioned at the “young, urban contemporary” set as Triumph claims, then it probably should have gone with upswept reverse megaphone pipes. No hipster worth his trucker hat would be caught dead with peashooters—especially black ones.
Even with that minor nit, the new T120 manages to hit a home run. The four-year top-down redesign manages to balance modern upgrades with careful homage to the retro appeal of the past models. Triumph’s engineers should be proud.
The Bonneville T120 is available in four classic color schemes, while the T120 Black is available in Matt Graphite or Jet Black. Triumph also has over 160 new accessories available for both bikes.