Review: Triumph's Thruxton R is a beauty and a beast

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Triumph Thruxton R: distinguished gentleman style meets deranged gentleman performance(Credit: Ben Galli/bgalli.com.au)

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Style or substance? Form or function? Triumph doesn't believe it's an either/or proposition. The 2016 Thruxton R is a retro-cool 1200cc roadster that looks the part of a beautiful restoration, but rips up country curves with thunderous glee.

Triumph's Thruxton R is a visual feast for retro bike lovers, of which I am absolutely not one. I wasn't alive to appreciate the original Bonneville when it took first, second and third at the Thruxton 500 in Hampshire in '69. My grandad never rode one, or my dad or my uncles, I have no misty-eyed recollections of these old gals from the movies and I never lusted after them as a teenager.

That's not to say I can't appreciate a good looking machine – and this is clearly one of those. The wide-open cradle frame, that muscular 1200cc parallel twin standing defiantly erect, the shiny polished triple clamps, the bullet-hole rivets around the engine casings. I thought my dog drooled a lot watching me eat pizza, until I'd seen the reactions this bike inspires in grown men.

Then there's the overtly retro details: the metal tank strap, the classy analogue clocks, the Monza-style fuel cap, which opens with a satisfying click to reveal a practical hidden lock. Is that a points cover on the engine casing? No, it's not. But it sure looks like one. Likewise those big barrel carbs, which aren't carbs at all – they're throttle bodies designed to work with a thoroughly modern, Euro IV compliant ride by wire fueling system.

But it's not these details that catch the eye of a cynical middle-aged hoon like me. The first things to ring my bell are the flashes of gold at front and rear. Ohlins, if I'm not mistaken –but I am mistaken. The twin rear shocks are indeed Swedish gold, but the forks are Japanese.

What gives there? Well, explains Triumph's Australian Marketing Manager Nigel Harvey, quite simply, the design team put an Ohlins front end up against Showa's Big Piston forks in testing, and the Showa gear simply performed better.

You know, as much as I like Swedish suspension, I'm even more excited by the idea that Triumph would bin it in favor of superior gear with a less prestigious name on it. Between the suspension, the chunky Brembo monobloc brakes and the Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa tires, my first impression is that this thing may be as much about substance as style.

And that, Harvey tells us, is exactly the point. The Bonneville was the superbike of its day, a bona fide beast that won on Sunday, sold on Monday and earned its cred on the racetrack as the cafe racer movement got rolling. The comparatively flaccid performance of previous Thruxton models was an odd way to service that legacy, and Triumph is keen to make sure this 2016 R version packs a punch commensurate with its heritage.

To that end, the big twin motor from the T120 has been retuned and renamed from "high torque" to "high power". Let's not tell the T120 that it's got higher torque too, then – 112 Newton-meters of it, spinning up to 96 horsepower at a snarling 6750 rpm. That's enough to hoik up a lavish second gear wheelie, or third if you've got some skills.

It's also enough to roll through town with a muted thunder beneath you, as we discover rolling out of Wodonga during the bike's Australian launch event. At low revs, the engine's 270-degree crank and twin counterbalancers give a chesty audio thump and just enough controlled vibration to give the thing some life. In the confines of a city, the Thruxton delivers a very satisfying "modern classic" ride, and draws eyeballs at the rate you'd expect given its striking profile.

But that's not what we're here for. Nigel Harvey isn't thinking of the children when he's leading a bike launch, as we discovered when we took the Tiger Sport 1050 out a few months ago. However many speeds the bike is capable of, that's how many we're gonna be doing, and one of these days the lot of us are bound to end up looking sheepish on the front page of a local paper somewhere. When the roads open up and get wide and lonely, a group of right elbows suddenly begin to feel very heavy, and wrists are dropped to accommodate.

Now, it would be irresponsible to compare the Thruxton's performance and handling to a flat out sportsbike or super-naked. But this thing can definitely hold its own, carving corners with purpose and aggression. The R's seat is a touch higher than the standard Thruxton due to elevated rear ride height, which sharpens the steering head angle nicely and makes the bike a pleasure to turn. I didn't feel the need to touch the suspension adjusters at all, this bike handles beautifully out of the box.

Gear selection is a total smorgasbord; you've always got two or three options for a given corner. You can grunt it out, enjoying each explosion and riding a magic carpet of torque, or if you want to juice every possible bit of acceleration out of the motor you can wind it up and let it roar. At the pace Nigel is leading, I need every charging pony, so I stick with the latter.

Triumph has nailed the transition to ride by wire; the fueling is superb, with no surprises or off-on snatchiness. The Thruxton offers multiple riding modes (rain, road, sport), which are ... pretty much entirely redundant given how good the sport map is. Likewise the traction control; she's a torquey bike, but super manageable … so do we really need it?

A man could easily wear out his keyboard complaining about unnecessary default safety systems on today's motorcycles, but this bladder of mine needs emptying even though there's a gale blowing and I've got no shoes on. It's seven buttons to turn off traction control every time you start the bike, another eight for ABS, and the bike defaults to road mode so you have to thumb your way into sport mode every time you turn the bike on.

If this is a bike for performance focused riders (and it does more than live up to that mantle) then give us all the electronic goodies, but remember our settings when we turn it off. Simple! The way it's done here feels like my 1200cc, he-man thundercrotch human flight device has been programmed by an overprotective auntie. And that's no shot at Triumph (everyone does the same thing, with rare exceptions), it's a swing at the industry and the increasingly sterile regulatory environment we live in. 'Nuff said.

I don't tend to get along well with clip-on handlebars, but the Thruxton's riding position is surprisingly pleasant with those bars raised to a very civilized position. You could tour on this thing. Wait, that's the wrong way to put it, because it invites comments like "mate I circumnavigated the globe riding a sharpened stick" and "sharpened stick? Luxury! I rode a flaming rod bristling with spikes to the North pole with Sriracha chilli sauce in my underpants." The Thruxton R remains comfortable and uncramped for the duration of a full tank, over a variety of roads, and doesn't give my undercarriage a case of pins and needles on the highway like BMW's R NineT did.

The NineT is really the only clear competition to the Thruxton R; a handsome big bore retro machine with big, grunty performance and enough cornering capability to ride the twisties in just about any company. I'd call the Beemer a better looker with fourteen more horses in its stable, and the Thruxton the more retro-looking of the two, the more comfortable and the better handler. Both are mighty machines.

For day two of the launch, Nigel and the Triumph team turn up the heat and let me loose on a racetrack, in the company of several ex-national level racers and Isle of Man TT competitors. It's as humbling and inspiring as you'd expect. I'm surprised and excited by just how much fun the Thruxton R can be on a short but flowing track like the Murray Valley Training Centre, and even more amazed at what these champion riders can get out of the thing as they fling knees and elbows at the ground in ways I can only dream of.

Sure, ground clearance eventually becomes an issue, and perhaps those Brembo brakes could do with a bit more feel at the master cylinder, particularly when you're charging down the straight and looking the track's tightest hairpin in the eye, but everyone finds themselves having a ripping time and agreeing that the Thruxton punches well above its weight. Occasional track shenanigans would be a joy on this thing.

If you're in the market for this kind of bike, you'll have your own opinion on the looks. Personally I'd have liked to ride it around the beardier parts of town and see what the response was like. I bet it's the kind of machine that'll start conversations with grizzled old men at the petrol bowser, and I've always enjoyed those.

You'll also be aware of more than 160 official accessories Triumph is offering to tweak and personalize the Thruxtons, chief among which is the above bikini fairing that sits around the headlight and thoroughly transforms the look. Post-purchase fettling and custom building is definitely on the menu here.

If you're in it for show, the standard Thruxton sells for AU$18,700 in Australia (US$12,000 in America) and delivers all the charm of the R, but can't handle a proper flogging without getting a little soft and loungey. That's probably the closer experience to how the original Bonnies got around, so there's no shame in it.

But if you need one bike to rule them all, with style for days and a genuine mean streak on a twisty road, the Thruxton R is the Uncle Drew of motorcycles – a young athlete in a very convincing old man disguise. Yours for AU$21,100 in Australia (US$14,500 in America) and well worth the extra dollars if you're gonna ride it like your grandad stole it.

Thanks to Nigel Harvey and Triumph Australia. More information and specs: Triumph Thruxton R

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