On the surface, Triumph’s new-for-2014 Thunderbird Commander and its light-touring version, the Thunderbird LT, just look like styling variants of the original 2010 Thunderbird. Which, if it were the case, would have been a perfectly normal path for the English marque’s first big-inch cruiser. Dressing up a unique platform with different styles to form a family of models is something Harley-Davidson has been doing forever very successfully. Non-cruiser types often whine and moan about it, but it’s actually the way to go about cruisers, simply because at their core, they’re all about “look and feel,” with looks accounting for at least half the equation. Tastes are diverse, so it only makes sense to offer diverse styles.
The thing is, though, both the $16,999 Commander and $17,999 LT are really all-new bikes. Compared with the original T-Bird, the Commander has a larger 1699cc engine (vs. 1597cc), new frame and swingarm, new suspension and wheels front and rear, new exhaust system and airbox, new footboards and foot controls, a new handlebar, new seats and even an updated ABS system. Style-wise, the front and rear fenders, the side panels, the instruments, the twin headlight and the clutch and pulley covers are all new, along with a list of smaller details—definitely not your typical “handlebar and fenders” variation.
The LT pushes things even further with different wheels and tire sizes compared with the Thunderbird Commander (140/75 ZR17 and 200/50 ZR17 vs. the LT’s 150/80 R16 and 180/70 R16) and firmer rear suspension to account for the added weight of a passenger and luggage. Furthermore, the LT differentiates itself from the Commander with spoke wheels and whitewall tires, deeper fenders, a single headlight flanked with auxiliary lights, passenger footboards, a quick-detach screen, 26-litre leather saddlebags (with one 12V socket), a passenger backrest, different handlebars, different silencer shape and more chrome.
When it was launched for 2010, the original Thunderbird 1600 drew praise for its solid and precise handling. A year later, the blacked-out, twin-eyed Thunderbird Storm 1700 offered a pleasant level of added grunt from its bigger engine. One way to look at the new Commander is to describe it as bringing the two together in a freshly styled package. However, it wouldn’t entirely do it justice, as it’s also a better motorcycle than both.
Triumph went through the trouble and expense of producing a new frame for two reasons. The first is, surprisingly, a better seat (it really is): a redesigned frame was the only way to add 30mm of foam to the seat (for a total of 95mm) without raising the seat height, which remains at a low 700mm. And the second was the new tire sizes, which necessitated steering geometry to be revised in order to achieve the desired handling. And a good handler, the Commander is.
My first contact with the new members of the T-Bird family was different from the one the rest of the world press got. Triumph held the models’ global launch in San Diego. While the new T-Birds were being ridden, I was just off the coast of Morocco testing Ducati’s new Monster 1200. Thanks to the nine-hour time difference with the US West coast, I was able to make it to the launch late the evening the event ended. Triumph had graciously agreed to leave a couple of bikes for me to ride the next day, so I missed the official tech presentation, the shmoosing with the big wigs, the fancy dinners and the guided route. Basically, I was left on my own with the two bikes. Better than nothing? Nope, just better.
I left my hotel room in the morning, walked to the parking lot, got on the Thunderbird Commander and left. The weather was spectacular, I had no set route, there was no one I had the obligation to follow, no group I had to be a part of, no photo stops to constantly interrupt the ride, and I could even stop at whatever taco joint I felt like for lunch. So I aimed at the hills and just went riding.
If you’ve had the chance to sample a fair number of heavyweight cruisers, then it doesn’t take a lot of seat of time to realize how remarkable the Commander’s handling is. Cruisers often get a bad rap when it comes to handling, but most of those comments come from people who basically have no business reviewing cruisers. If you don’t like them and don’t get them, then go do a wheelie and stay away from them. I happen to enjoy cruisers, especially the bigger ones.
And the Commander is a good cruiser, to the point it’s hard to find something really wrong with it, at least regarding the “feel” part of the “look and feel” equation. We’ll get to the “look” part shortly.
The original Thunderbird and the Storm variant are both good handlers, but the Commander is crisper, tighter, better. At 339 kilos ready to ride, it’s by no means light, but that weight just disappears the moment there’s any forward motion. Even at crawling speeds, when these bikes sometimes display some awkwardness in the way they steer, the Commander lets itself be maneuvered with the ease of something half its size. Get the speed up, head for the twisties and there too, the competence of the chassis is very impressive.
Steering isn’t just very light, but also precise and allows exact placement in corners where the bike feels on rails. Even mid-turn bumps don’t upset that serenity. In this context, corner clearance is by far the limiting factor as the chassis could take much more abuse. The articulated footboards don’t touch any sooner than average on a big inch cruiser, but the Commander is so inviting and eager to lean on a winding road that they seem to touch down rapidly.
Just as pleasant as the good handling is the sound and feel coming from Triumph’s torquey signature 1699cc vertical Twin. I’ve never been a huge fan of the way that engine looks. I perfectly get the heritage thing, but stepping back and looking at the bike, I find myself somewhat frustrated that it’s not a V-Twin only because it’s so good, which I guess I should explain. Not only does this engine feel like a V-Twin, but it also feels like a very good one, with a heavy, powerful pulse and a deep, rich exhaust note.
The “frustration” comes from the fact that if they’re able to produce a parallel Twin that feels this good—parallel Twins are not usually the best feeling or sounding engines—then how good would a Triumph V-Twin be? This is just me, but I’d bet the Triumph name is plenty strong enough to achieve the “heritage thing” on its own.
Meaning I don’t think a V-Twin would hurt the T-Bird in terms of sales numbers, but rather that it would help the “looks” part of the equation so much sales would benefit.
Since we’re talking looks, then let’s address that part right now. Again, this is just me, but I’ve never found the T-Bird to be a particularly good looking cruiser and while the Thunderbird Commander could be considered an improvement, it’s still not there. There’s an art to cruiser styling that very few manufacturers other than Harley-Davidson grasp and master. And PLEASE don’t start with the Harley fanboy thing—not the case at all. Which isn’t to say the Commander doesn’t have a number of nice looking parts and isn’t beautifully finished. It does and it is. But as a whole, it only gets an average mark in the looks department. It’s a world-class athlete with ordinary looks.
By Bertrand Gahel