2009 Triumph Bonneville SE - That '70s Show

A Disco-Days Makeover Marks The Bonneville's 50th Anniversary

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Tom Riles, Brian J. Nelson

After a long night on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, the site of Triumph's 2009 new-model introduction, you don't want a motorcycle that makes too many demands on your wits or reflexes. Better to have a mellow mount, a relaxed machine that minds its own manners and lets you concentrate on the finer points of riding--such as remembering the exact order of the one-down/four-up shift pattern. Triumph's latest Bonneville, revised for the first time since its 2001 re-introduction, is just such a bike, making it the perfect mount for a bleary-eyed Big Easy bop.

This year marks the Bonneville's 50th birthday and, like many her age, Bonnie longs to look like she did at age 20. Thus the second-generation "Modern Classic" revisits the Swinging '70s with mag wheels, slimmer fenders and reverse-cone megaphones in place of '60s-style pea-shooter mufflers. The update is more than cosmetic: Improved ergos, reduced weight, better handling and electronic fuel injection make the '09 Bonneville a dramatically improved machine.

Adding a second carburetor to the T110 Tiger created the first Bonneville 50 years ago, so it's ironic that all Bonnevilles come sans carbs for '09. All Modern Classics (including the Thruxton, Scrambler and America) now utilize a Keihin closed-loop, multi-point sequential EFI system, disguised to look like carburetors. Not only does this setup improve throttle response, eliminating the old Bonnie's subtle on-throttle hesitation, it also increases fuel economy and decreases emissions by 500 percent. EFI aside, the 865cc, DOHC parallel-twin is unchanged.

Also new this year is a downsized, 17-inch front wheel. First considered to decrease seat height (now even more beginner-friendly at 29.1 in., and made even more manageable by a narrower saddle), the smaller hoop and resulting geometry changes also improve handling, especially at slower speeds. Rake has been reduced by 1 degree and fork offset by .8 of an inch, reducing trail to 4.2 in. and shortening wheelbase by 1.8 in. to create a more compact, quicker-turning chassis.

Handlebars relocated .8-inch lower and .9- inch farther back make the new Bonneville feel even smaller and more maneuverable, an impression reinforced by its 19-pound weight loss. Lighter, '70s -style cast mag wheels look great and allow fitment of tubeless Metzeler MEZ4 radials, shaving 13 pounds of rotating mass. Reduced unsprung weight also allowed the suspension to be recalibrated for improved compliance and wheel control. Rebound damping is light at both ends, but at real-world speeds the ride quality is right-on.

Hurtling along the bayous at a typical press-launch pace, the Bonneville seems busy and a bit overstressed. Peak torque (a claimed 51 lb.-ft.) arrives at 5800 rpm, but with 90 percent of that available at 2500 rpm, the power profile is definitely biased toward the bottom end. Claimed output is a decidedly modest 67 horsepower, and coming just 500 revs shy of the 8000-rpm redline, there's little point in winding out the motor. "Aggressively non-threatening" aptly describes acceleration, and the uninspiring drone emitted by the 360-degree twin doesn't help matters. As it struggles to touch 110 mph, you scarcely believe this is a near-900cc motorcycle.

Limp power is more problematic on the Thruxton cafe racer, with its aggressive riding position and sporty style. I (wisely) avoided cocktail hour on the second night and instead went AWOL in New Orleans' Garden District, pottering among the streetcars and stroller pushers in Audubon Park. There I discovered the perfect city bike. Compact and easy to manage, with super-light steering, the new Bonneville excels at dodging the bottomless, post-FEMA potholes. The clutch barely requires two fingers, the torquey motor is virtually impossible to snub or stall, and dual gear-driven counterbalancers quell even the slightest hint of vibration. Forget scooters: The latest Bonneville is as approachable as any step-through, with loads more style and class.

Lukewarm performance will alienate old-school purists, but spot-on styling and an eminently accessible character means the new Bonneville is tailor-made for retro-recessionistas and urban hipsters looking for an entre into motorcycling. It's an amazing value, too: The base Bonneville costs just $7699, while the two-tone SE model we tested, with many trim upgrades, sells for $8399. Back to Bourbon Street, then--and a toast to another 50 years of Bonneville bliss.

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