Big, bad Brits: Costa rides the Triumph Commanders

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Photos by Triumph

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Ah, the American cruiser. Nope, not talking about Harley, though the Milwaukee-based company is certainly well-versed in building the laid-back antithesis to the European and Japanese sport bike. I’m talking about the long, low-slung amalgamation of chromed steel, V-twin power pulses and foot-forward riding position that evolved from late ’70s Japanese “specials.”

Yes, to cater to the then still-young baby boomer, Japanese manufacturers put buckhorn handlebars, stepped saddles and swoopy gas tanks on existing models. Those bikes eventually evolved to include V-twin engines, which until the 1980s was a Harley thing.

The Commanders follow a pattern started in the late '70s by the Japanese manufacturers.
The Commanders follow a pattern started in the late ’70s by the Japanese manufacturers.

Each of the Big Four has had at least a few cruisers in its lineup going on four decades now. Even European companies jumped on the cruiser bandwagon, including Ducati (never mind the Diavel; remember the Indiana?), Moto Guzzi (using another American state to identify its cruiser, the California) and BMW (even the suave Pierce Brosnan couldn’t make the R1200C look cool).

Triumph was a relative latecomer to the cruiser party, originally introducing the aptly named America in 2002. Breaking from cruiser tradition it shunned the status quo by using the Bonneville parallel-twin engine.

Triumph's America was pretty light for a cruiser; the Thunderbirds gave Hinkley a big-bore bike for the cruiser market. The Commander and Commander LT are based around the same motor as the Thunderbird.
Triumph’s America was pretty light for a cruiser; the Thunderbirds gave Hinkley a big-bore bike for the cruiser market. The Commander and Commander LT are based around the same motor as the Thunderbird.

But let’s face it, there’s no replacement for displacement, and by cruiser standards, at 865 cc, the America was and remains a lightweight. Enter the Thunderbird.

Introduced in 2009, the Thunderbird featured an all-new 1,597 cc liquid-cooled parallel twin, which got a larger bore and grew to 1,699 cc with the introduction of the stripped-down Thunderbird Storm in 2011. It is this larger version of the parallel twin that powers the Commander and Commander LT, two new variations of the Thunderbird. I got equal time on each bike at their launch in San Diego, California last week, riding the LT on the first day and the Commander on the second day.

Costa rode the Commander lineup in their natural environment - the cruiser-filled roads of the USA.
Costa rode the Commander lineup in their natural environment – the cruiser-filled roads of the USA.

WHAT’S NEW

The two Commanders are not just T-birds with a bunch of goodies bolted onto them; they are new motorcycles with a revised undercarriage that includes among other things a different frame, suspension and wheels, and an increased emphasis on touring comfort.

Steering geometry is less relaxed, with a steeper rake angle and less trail than the Thunderbird, meant to improve handling and steering feel. Wheelbase has been stretched by 50 mm to 1,665 mm (65.6 in), which adds some room for the passenger.

Revised steering geometry means the Commanders steer more sharply than the Thunderbird; the motors might be the same, but the Commanders have a new chassis design.
Revised steering geometry means the Commanders steer more sharply than the Thunderbird; the motors might be the same, but the Commanders have a new chassis design.

The frame has been lowered in the midsection, so the Commander uses 30 mm more seat foam to achieve the same 700 mm (27.6 in) seat height as the Thunderbird. The seat is a unique design that includes a separate bolster insert, designed so it does not pull down when a rider is seated to provide added lower-back support.

The riding position is decidedly relaxed and upright, and Triumph refreshingly installed floorboards instead of forward-mounted footpegs, offering a chair-like posture and allowing you room to move your feet around; the only limiting factor is at your left foot, where the heel portion of the shift lever limits rearward movement, though if you don’t mind scuffing the toe of your boot it can be removed.

The gas tank takes up a lot of real estate.
The gas tank takes up a lot of real estate.

When seated, there’s no mistaking either of the Commanders for anything but plus-sized cruisers, and the ultra-wide gas tank puts a lot of real estate between your knees. Although they are hefty machines, the Commander weighing in at 348 kg (766 lb) and the LT at 380 kg (836 lb) wet, their weight sits low and the bikes remain easily manoeuvrable at low speeds.

The main difference between the Commander and Commander LT is that the latter is equipped for light touring duties (hence the LT suffix). Costing $1,000 more than the Commander, the $17,999 LT includes standard-issue driving lamps, a quick-detach windshield, leather saddlebags (each with 26 litres capacity) with removable waterproof liners, and passenger floorboards and backrest.

The LT has 16-inch wheels; the standard Commander has 17-inch wheels.
The LT has 16-inch wheels; the standard Commander has 17-inch wheels.

The LT also uses different wheels and tires, rolling on16-inch whitewall radials mounted with tubes onto spoke wheels. The Commander rolls on lower-profile 17-inch radial tires mounted on cast wheels.

THE RIDE

My test LT was equipped with a taller accessory windshield, which is an option if you prefer looking though the screen. I don’t, but when combined with the accessory wind deflectors, it did provide excellent wind protection with no buffeting. Although the engine looks nothing like a V-twin, from the saddle, the cadence of its 270-degree crankpins makes it sound and feel like a big Vee, and it produces copious amounts of torque, seemingly from as soon as you release the starter button.

The bikes make gobs of torque, meaning you can lug the engine quite easily.
The bikes make gobs of torque, meaning you can lug the engine quite easily.

Claimed output is 93 hp at 5,400 rpm with torque peaking at 111 lb.-ft. at just 3,550 rpm. It chugs away smoothly, and doesn’t shudder even when being lugged at unnaturally low speeds. Clutch effort is relatively light for such a massive machine, but the shifter requires a firm nudge up or down to change gears, though there’s plenty of passing power without the need to row through the six-speed gearbox.

For reasons unknown, our half-dozen-strong crew of journos was mixed in with a bunch of other riders, making our group about 18 riders long. I’m assuming that because of this, the lead rider made no passes during our ride and never exceeded 55 mph even when the speed limit was higher. Being on a cruiser launch, I wasn’t expecting knee-dragging speeds, but it would have been nice to settle into a steady, flowing rhythm. Instead, we accordioned through the twisties, exploring the lower rev range of the engine, and how it remained shudder-free even when lugged.

A low center of gravity means steering isn't difficult, despite the bikes' weight.
A low center of gravity means steering isn’t difficult, despite the bikes’ weight.

Despite the slow pace, with its low centre of gravity it’s no surprise that the Commander LT is an easy-handling machine, and it displayed remarkably neutral steering, rolling into a lean effortlessly and maintaining a line almost telepathically. By cruiser standards, Triumph got the handling right on this mega-cruiser.

As I discovered the next day, this also applies to the Commander. A new lead rider assured us the pace would be a bit better than the day before, and this time we’d only be six riders in the group. Of course, the limiting factor when riding though twisties is determined by the floorboards, something that should have been discussed with the day’s lead rider because within two turns the engines were a-revvin’ and the floorboards were a-scrapin’.

The base Commander models get cast wheels, not spoked wheels.
The base Commander models get cast wheels, not spoked wheels.

Triumph cleverly included replaceable inserts that prevent you from damaging the floorboards, which will ultimately touch ground even at a modest pace—at this pace replacement was guaranteed.

Although I found this exaggerated pace bordering on overkill, my ego demanded I don’t fall back, so I just gassed it and did my best to keep the replaceable floorboard inserts off the pavement. Because the stripped-down Commander is lighter than the LT and rolls on 17-inch wheels, it exhibits more assured steering feedback.

Chrome, chrome, chrome - there's no blacked-out version of these bikes yet.
Chrome, chrome, chrome – there’s no blacked-out version of these bikes yet.

The taller-profile 16-inch tires introduced a slight flex into the LT chassis, mostly noticeable when transitioning through S bends where a very slight weave resonated through the frame, something that was entirely absent on the Commander.

Highway cruising proved a strong point on both machines, as the engine loped along comfortably and buzz-free in top gear, returning only a relaxing, throbbing vibration through the chassis. After a day in the saddle, I can attest that it is one of the best cruiser seats I’ve perched my backside in, nearing the comfort levels of a true touring-bike saddle.

It's mucho easy to scrape the floorboards in even moderate turns, but replaceable inserts mean you won't wear them out.
It’s mucho easy to scrape the floorboards in even moderate turns, but replaceable inserts mean you won’t wear them out.

CONCLUSION

These Commander twins have me a bit befuddled. I’m not a hardcore cruiser rider, but I do enjoy riding them; after all, not all riding is meant for scraping knee sliders. Rolling gently through the countryside on occasion has more than its share of merits, and by cruiser standards, there’s little to fault with the Thunderbird Commander and LT.

But there’s a caveat, and that is that these machines do everything they’re supposed to exceptionally well. So well, in fact, that they fit the cruiser mould to a T, wherein lies my dilemma. Triumph has always been a brand apart for me.

This ain't no three-cylindered sportbike.
This ain’t no three-cylindered sportbike.

Those guys in Hinckley do sport bikes differently, they make those wonderful Bonneville classics in various flavours from café racer to scrambler, and more recently they’ve entered the adventure-touring arena, again distinguishing themselves from the others in that genre by being the only company to use an inline triple.

The Thunderbird Commander and Commander LT, competent as they are and unique as they appear, feel like metric cruisers, seemingly lacking that unique Triumph essence that flavours the company’s other machines. Visually, the parallel twin engine gives the bike some sense of individuality, but when riding it, the Commander just blends into the typical American cruiser formula.

There's nothing wrong with Triumph cruisers, but it seems an odd market for the British bike maker to get heavily involved in.
There’s nothing wrong with Triumph cruisers, but it seems an odd market for the British bike maker to get heavily involved in.

Triumph making a cruiser for the North American market is akin to Stetson producing an Ascot cap for the U.K.; you know it’ll be a quality piece of headgear, but something will most likely be lost in the translation. The Commander is a great cruiser; it’s just not the greatest Triumph.


GALLERY

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SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  2014 Triumph Commander
MSRP  $16,999
Displacement  1699 cc
Engine type  Liquid-cooled parallel twin, DOHC
Power (crank)*  93 hp
Torque*  151 Nm
Tank Capacity  22 litres
Carburetion  EFI
Final drive  Belt
Tires, front  140/75 ZR17
Tires, rear  200/50 ZR17 75W
Brakes, front  Dual 310 mm floating discs, four-piston floating calipers, ABS
Brakes, rear  Single 310 mm floating disc, two-piston floating caliper
Seat height  700 mm
Wheelbase  1665 mm
Wet weight*  348 kg
Colours  Red, black
Warranty  24 months, unlimited warranty
* claimed

 


SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  2014 Triumph Commander LT
MSRP  $17,999
Displacement  1699 cc
Engine type  Liquid-cooled parallel twin, DOHC
Power (crank)*  93 hp
Torque*  151 Nm
Tank Capacity  22 litres
Carburetion  EFI
Final drive  Belt
Tires, front  150/80 R16
Tires, rear  180/70 R16
Brakes, front  Dual 310 mm floating discs, four-piston floating calipers, ABS
Brakes, rear  Single 310 mm floating disc, two-piston floating caliper
Seat height  700 mm
Wheelbase  1665 mm
Wet weight*  380 kg
Colours  Blue/white, red/black
Warranty  24 months, unlimited mileage
* claimed

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