Photos: Tom Riles
They say: “Smooth, strong, characterful performance.”
We say: “Probably not the character you were expecting.”
Stand back and admire the new-for-2014 Triumph Thunderbird Commander. Once you pluck your eyes from the double-eyeball headlights you can’t help but stare at the massive vertical-twin powerplant, a burly piece that you know displaces 1,699cc from a fist-like 103.8mm piston jogging back and forth along a 94.3mm stroke. You also know it has a 270-degree crankpin layout, successful in giving other parallel twins a bit of low-end muscle and some texture to the power delivery. At 104-cu. in., the Triumph twin out-cubes the mainline Harleys by a little, though it trails the Indian’s must-be-biggest 111-cu. in. powerplants.
Size is part of the deal, sure, but where Triumph’s efforts and those of the American manufacturers most differ is in temperament. Those traditional V-twins clank and clunk and shudder and shimmy while doing their work, betraying a collection of really meaty, loose-fitting components turning fuel into thrust with all the refinement of a back-alley fistfight. The Triumph is, well, very British.
Kick off the Thunderbird’s parallel twin and it settles into a Bonneville-like idle, tut-tutting out the exhaust in a determined but still reserved way. Hop aboard, select first—goes in easily, no drama, no sledgehammer—let out the light clutch and you’re away. No more trouble than falling off a bar stool. Power comes in immediately from basement revs—we use the architectural term because there’s no tach—and rises steadily through the range until the big twin runs out of breath at the top.
Triumph claims 93 hp at 5,400 rpm and 111 pound-feet of torque at just 3,550 rpm. Nothing about the way the bike moves refutes those claims; torque is omnipresent and controllable through well-tuned electronic fuel injection (no ride by wire here, though). What the Thunderbird isn’t, though, is aggressive in any way. The engine has a lot of flywheel, very soft throttle response, and tallish gearing, giving it a slightly groggy demeanor. This liquid-cooled engine revs languorously, and only offers a “traditional” big-twin thumpa-thumpa at very low revs. The T-Bird has six speeds between the engine and the belt final drive, but you could probably get by with three. It’s a very pleasant experience, but it’s not the usual American-style kind of chest pounding.
There is much new with the Commander, though the engine is not on that list; it’s exactly the same as on the Thunderbird (introduced in 2009) and the Storm (2011) in the larger-displacement format. (The T-Bird can be fitted with Triumph Accessory barrels and pistons to boost displacement from 1,597cc to 1,699cc; the Storm, Commander, and new T-Bird LT all come at the greater displacement.)
While the engine carries over, the Commander’s frame does not. Triumph listened to customers who wanted a lower seat height with a better saddle and redesigned the steel-tube chassis to allow a 1.2-inch-thicker seat cushion without raising the seat height. What’s more, the luxurious saddle on the Commander has a unique floating lumbar support that it not part of the main saddle, so that it holds its position better. After a day aboard the Commander, we call Triumph’s efforts a success.
Triumph gave the Commander and the mechanically identical Thunderbird LT excellent running gear, including long-travel shocks with dual-rate springs and triple 310mm discs with four-piston calipers up front bolstered by standard ABS. These brakes are strong and progressive, if a little numb at the hand lever. The suspension is uncommonly good, though cornering clearance is at best average for the class. We’ll just say the T-Bird handles really well until the sparks fly.
Eventually you have to ask the question of who would buy the Commander. “We have had T-Bird customers come from all makes,” said Simon Warburton, Triumph’s Product Manager. Which means, probably, they’re coming up from the big Japanese cruisers and over from Harleys. Makes sense. If you’re tired of the rigid sameness of the Harley class but appreciate a certain American style or if you’re set on something European, it’s hard to pass up the beautifully built Commander. It’s cheaper than any new Softail on the market, you know
2014 TRIUMPH THUNDERBIRD COMMANDER
Developed from the Thunderbird and Storm platforms with an all-new chassis and the big-bore version of Triumph’s biggest parallel twin.
Engine type: l-c parallel-twin
Valve train: DOHC, 8v
Bore x stroke: 103.8 x 94.3mm
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Claimed horsepower: 93.0 hp @ 5400 rpm
Claimed torque: 111.0 lb.-ft. @ 3550 rpm
Frame: Steel-tube twin-spine
Front suspension: Showa 47mm fork
Rear suspension: Showa shocks adjustable for spring preload
Front brake: Dual Nissin four-piston calipers, 310mm discs with ABS
Rear brake: Brembo two-piston caliper, 310mm disc with ABS
Front tire: 120/70R-17 Metzeler ME880
Rear tire: 200/50ZR-17 Metzeler ME880
Rake/trail: 32.0°/5.3 in.
Seat height: 27.6 in.
Wheelbase: 65.6 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal.
Claimed curb weight: 747 lb.
Colors: Crimson Sunset Red/Lava Red, Phantom Black/Storm Grey
Warranty: 12 mo., unlimited mi.
VERDICT 3.5 stars
Triumph’s updated T-Bird brings chassis sophistication, better ergonomics, and the same nonchalant big-inch power to the table.