Triumph Thunderbird Commander: Speak loudly, carry big cylinders

Written by New York Times | New York | Updated: Apr 5 2014, 17:47pm hrs
Triumph Thunderbird CommanderA British take on American big boy bikes, Thunderbird Commander has liquid-cooled 1,699-cc 2-cylinder engine.
Triumphs press materials suggeststronglythat the company wants its entry in the class it calls fat cruisers to be seen as an intimidator. It is not a you meet the nicest people machine. From the news release: Triumphs new 2014 Thunderbird Commander gives the rider the power and the presence to dominate every road and every ride. Perhaps the British think that we Americans are easily dominateda mistake they have made, it must be said, before.

Without a doubt, the Commander has bulk. Its handlebar arcs back from the distant steering head like the horns of a Texas bull. Its front tire is bigger than the rear tire of many Harleys. Its mufflers are called drainpipes.

Triumphs obsession with dimension extends to the engine, a 1.7-litre twin that produces 93 horsepower at a relaxed 5,400 rpm. The engines uneven cylinder firings, dictated by its 270-degree crankshaft design, give the Commander a sound and feel closer to the lumpy cadence of a Harley-Davidson V-twin than the pleasing thrum of a vintage Triumph Bonneville.

In the last century, this design would have made for a vibrating, uncivilised ride, but thanks to the miracle of modern counter-balancers the engine is a sweetheartsmooth, throaty and responsive, with a smartly calibrated fuel-injection system and abundant power from idle speed to the modest red line.

The heel-and-toe shift lever of the 6-speed gearbox let me upshift using just the toe of my boot. Many less refined shifters of this type demand a stomp on the rear arm to upshift.

A big engine requires a big chassis. The Commanders steel-tube frame is all-new, its steering head pushed forward to make room for a lower, wider seat made more accommodating by its dual layers of foam. A separate lumbar pad is built in; these guys know their baby-boomers-with-back-problems demographic.

My main ergonomic gripe was the wide 5.8-gallon fuel tank, which forced me to ride with legs spread uncomfortably apart. Also, above 65 mph, I had to pull hard on the handlebar to counteract the winds blast.

The Thunderbird is well engineered, comprehensively sorted out and as capable and cooperative as a low-riding, 746-pound motorcycle is going to get. The suspension is stable and smooth, though the limited rear-wheel travel makes itself felt over big bumps. Steering is stately, but neutral and predictable, and the antilock brakes are excellent.

But as Jeremy Clarkson of TVs Top Gear would say, theres a problema serious lack of cornering clearance, even for a cruiser-class bike. With this much power, handling and braking, its easy to whistle into a bumpy corner only to discover, with a grinding gnash and a shower of sparks, that you have already run out of lean angle. I hope that the replaceable steel wear plates of the aluminium footboards are available in a handy six-pack, because I ground halfway through a set on the first tank of gas.

I found myself thinking that I could go faster on a twisty road driving my own Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid than I could riding this Triumph. Just as I finished that thought, a Prius driven by a skilledand impatientdriver pulled into traffic ahead of me and threatened to disappear through the next series of tree-shaded S-curves. If not for the T-birds ample power and impressive brakes, I would have been, well, dominated.

- Dexter Ford