Triumph Motorcycles is a rare success story in the British motor industry. Rescued from the abyss of bankruptcy in 1983 by property developer and self-made millionaire John Bloor, this company with roots reaching back to the 19th century is now producing some of the best bikes around.
To survive in one of the world’s most competitive businesses, Bloor’s new team visited Japan in the early ’80s to learn modern production methods from the same motorcycle manufacturers that had nearly buried the company. They gave the three-cylinder motor — not unknown but rarely seen — a starring role in Triumph’s new lineup, thereby carving out a unique niche for the company. And they took the lessons of fellow Englishman Charles Darwin to heart: evolve or go extinct.
The Triumph Tiger is a poster bike for adaptive evolution. First introduced in 1992 to compete with the mass-produced progeny of German and Japanese Paris-Dakar racers, the Tiger featured an 885cc inline triple motor and a desert-racer look with its round twin headlights, large fuel tank, spoke wheels, long-travel suspension, brush guards and bash plate.
In 1998 the Tiger’s rough and tough rally looks were toned down, and three years later a 955cc motor boasting 104hp was slotted in. The Tiger crept further away from the wild in 2005 when it shed its dirt-bias spoke wheels in favor of cast aluminum hoops — an acknowledgment that most so-called adventure bikes are never taken off road.
In 2007 Triumph took the Tiger out of Africa for good. The fork gators are gone, along with the 19-inch front wheel and body armor. But because survival in the urban jungle requires speed and agility, the Tiger’s been given considerably sharper claws and faster reflexes. And its visage is more menacing as well. While the last generation Tiger’s slightly cross-eyed round headlights made it appear perpetually surprised, the sharply angled lenses on the latest incarnation give it a predatory look befitting its new position at the top of the food chain.
Triumph makes simple yet ambitious claims for the big cat: “It commutes. It tours. It scratches.” Bold words indeed, but as Will Rogers once said, “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.” And the Tiger can.
Scratching, in case you were wondering, is Brit-speak for aggressive riding. Five factors make a motorcycle fast: a powerful engine, good suspension, generous lean angle, strong brakes and a skilled rider. The Tiger has the first four covered.
The Tiger’s new heart, a muscular three-cylinder, fuel-injected liquid-cooled 1050cc motor, beats inside an equally new lightweight aluminum-beam perimeter frame. To quicken steering response, the frame has been given a sharp rake angle and the front wheel is now a fast-turning 17-incher. Suspension travel has been shortened to boost cornering ability. The forks are now inverted 43mm Showa units that are fully adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping. The rear shock, mounted to an all-new braced aluminum alloy swing arm, is adjustable for spring preload, via a handy remote knob, as well as rebound damping. Four-pot radial-mounted Nissin brakes grip 320mm twin rotors upfront, and a two-pot caliper and 255mm disc anchor the back. Antilock brakes are now standard.
What does this mean on the road? That the Tiger will have little trouble keeping up with sportbikes, and if the going gets rough it will likely have them eating its dust.
The Tiger’s triple-cylinder 114hp mill blends the lowdown torque of a twin with the top-end rush of an inline four, allowing you to both punch hard out of corners and rip through straightaways without running out of steam.
The suspension — which still features longer travel than that found on most street bikes — is supple and well-damped, keeping the tires glued to the road even over rough surfaces that would turn a sportbike with short-stroke suspension into a bucking bronco.
The added height that the tall suspension provides also lets you get away with fairly radical lean angles before hard parts begin to interface with pavement.
And when it comes time to rein the Tiger in, the Nissin stoppers provide immense power but retain enough sensitivity to allow aggressive braking without triggering the ABS.
In town, the remaining traces of the Tiger’s trail bike DNA — the upright seating position; the wide, close-set handlebars; and the generous turning radius — give you a commanding view of crowded streets and make it easy to slip through gaps in traffic. At 201 kg dry, the Tiger’s far from a featherweight, but its superb balance makes it feel much lighter. This, together with spot-on fueling that has the motor purring predictably even at slight throttle openings, transforms the Tiger into a pussycat in urban environs.
The Tiger’s relaxed riding position, well-padded saddle, creamy smooth motor and small but effective frame-mounted fairing also allow it to quickly and comfortably devour long distances. Sure, it won’t coddle you like a dedicated tourer or go as fast as a race replica, but its power, handling and superb road manners make it a blast to ride anywhere from expressways to pothole-ridden mountain roads. Meanwhile, its comprehensive cockpit instrumentation, consisting of an analog tachometer, a multifunction speedometer and a trip computer, keeps you abreast of everything short of your body fat percentage. Those with a heavy throttle hand will especially appreciate the gauges for fuel economy, distance to empty and top speed.
There remains plenty of room for improvement though. The high-mount muffler — a throwback to the Tiger’s trailie days — will toast soft saddlebags and is an unwelcome atavism on this tarmac dweller; the absence of tie-down points also makes it a chore to bungee a bag to the back seat. Triumph must be having a tough time with the strong pound, but really, a center stand should come standard on a bike with an out-the-door price of nearly ¥1.6 million. Ditto for the missing four-way emergency flashers — a potential lifesaver when you’re pulled over on the side of the road — and the absent accessory power socket. Happily, most of these shortcomings can be remedied the usual way — by throwing money at them via Triumph’s accessory catalog. There you’ll find hard luggage, the missing center stand and a host of other touring amenities.
No bike is perfect, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better all-rounder than the Tiger. If Charles Darwin were alive today he would no doubt agree that it’s in no danger of going extinct any time soon.