Mondo Middleweight: 2004 Triumph Speed Four 600 Motorcycle

Cheap Thrills: Triumph's Speed Four is dirt-cheap and hellacious fun—but it's not exactly a motorcycle for newbies.

Triumph's John Bloor is known as a fiscal hard-ass. He flies economy class and expects underlings to do the same. The Hinckley factory is a fine example of efficient manufacturing, while the product line takes full advantage of economies of scale and parts commonality. And still we don't know how Triumph sells the Speed Four for a measly $6500. Honestly, we just can't see it.

Obviously someone inside Triumph knows how to rub a couple of shillings together, hence the ridiculously low price&151nearly two grand off the original TT600's price and a thou down on the 2003's sticker. In fact, this bike was originally intended to go into "The $7000 Solution" because, well, it's about the same amount of money as the others. One problem surfaced about, oh, 500 yards into the test ride: In just about every performance category, the Speed Four obliterates the three budget blasters from Japan. Inadvertently, we'd dropped a Hollywood stunt double into a classroom of science nerds swooshing mock light sabers; it took all of five minutes to get their polyester-clad butts kicked.

We should have known. The Speed Four is basically the discontinued TT600 sans fairing and a nice ski vacation sliced off the sticker price. (It's very close to the Daytona 600 spec-wise, too.) A pair of goggle-eyed headlights and a mini-prow fairing from the Speed Triple were tacked on up front. Mechanically, the Speed Four gets a mild tweaking to improve midrange at the expense of top-end compared with the TT600. On our SuperFlow dyno, however, that boosted midrange failed to appear. Compared with an '02 TT600, the '04 Speed Four's torque trace showed a very minor advantage between 3500 and 4750 rpm and a brief, 4.1-foot-pound bump at 7500 rpm, but otherwise followed the TT's curve faithfully. Except at the top, of course, where the neutered Speed Four lies down; its peak of 88.5 horsepower is well down from the TT's 96.7.

Unstrapped from the dyno, the Speed Four bounds back with more enthusiasm. The engine is fairly smooth at lower and higher revs—though it buzzes irritatingly between 5500 and about 8000, right where you ride most of the time&151and feels plenty potent in the company of the low-buck bikes, with a pleasing willingness to rev and a hot soundtrack to boot. Triumph has finally licked 90 percent of the TT's fuel-injection demons; the Four feels fine when cold yet is slightly soggy off the bottom once hot. There's still some abruptness right off idle—magnified by quite a bit of driveline lash (much like the Yamaha FZ6). All in all, the Speed Four feels like what it is: A once-frontline sportbike recast as a semi-standard, weird-Harold naked bike.

Triumph wisely left the TT's chassis unaltered in the translation to the Speed Four, so it has by far the best—and most adjustable—suspension, an aluminum-cartridge KYB fork up front and a fully adjustable shock mated to the powdercoated alloy swingarm out back. The S4 also boasts the strongest brakes and sharpest handling of the similarly priced beaters. As on the TT, the Triumph's steering is light and accurate, giving you an honest read on what the excellent Bridgestone BT010 tires are doing. Although it's not a lightweight—at 446 pounds wet, it's the equal of the 599 and 17 pounds heavier than the SV650 —the bike never feels ponderous. Perhaps in the same way that the 599 carries its weight in the right place, the Speed Four hides the heft with an ideal center of gravity and aggressive chassis geometry. And yet the Triumph never threatens to shake the narrow, angled-back clip-on bars from your grasp, even if you must traverse choppy pavement in the middle of a corner. Confidence oozes from the Speed Four.

The naked Brit thrills experienced pilots, but it isn't exactly a newbie-coddler. (We admit it; this is a difficult chore.) Compared with the others, the Triumph's suspension is firmly damped&151it responds well to small imperfections, but the chassis does the usual sportbike hobbyhorse over larger whomps, such as you'd find on a concrete-block highway. As a result, the Four takes a bit of aggression to make the chassis work best; it's not as happy pottering around at a five-tenths pace as, say, the Honda 599. Those powerful brakes are a bit too sharp for genuine beginners—and we wish the adjustable lever had more range closer to the bar, as we don't all wear size-XXL gloves. Primary ergonomics come from the previous school of sportbike standards—meaning they're amazingly comfortable compared with the smaller, lighter, tighter 600s of today—but are considerably more cramped and aggressive than the sit-up postures of the other three. In particular, the Speed Four is very tight betwixt seat and peg, challenging long-legged riders to find a comfortable perch. In truth, had the S4 more standardlike ergonomics—lower pegs, a Speed Triple-style tubular bar—we probably would have put it back into the main comparison, where we're absolutely certain it would have been the victor.

Even a hard-case like John Bloor would have smiled at that.

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