2006 Triumph Tiger 955i Motorcycle Road Test: Two-Wheeled Range Rover

An exclusive first ride on Triumph Motorcycles' 2006 three-cylinder tarmac trailie, the Tiger.

Nothing succeeds like success. Even 13 years after making its showroom debut as a three-cylinder tarmac trailie which over the years has gradually evolved into a totally tarmac GT adventure tourer (see history sidebar below), Triumph's go-anywhere Tiger triple continues to rack up a strong volume of sales which evidently confounds even the expectations of the British marque's management, judging by the fact the 2005 model year's total planned production of around 3000 bikes has already sold out. So, rather than manufacture an extra batch of '05 hardware to meet ongoing demand, Triumph have instead decided to bring forward production of the enhanced 2006 version of the model, which thanks to the changeable nature of springtime in Britain, I had the chance to spend a week riding in all weather conditions (the snow didn't last long, though!) during an exclusive advance test.

Expectations that, for 2006, Triumph would fit the Tiger with the all-new 1050cc longstroke version of its trademark three-cylinder motor, which was introduced for the 2005 model year to spice up performance of the Sprint ST and Speed Triple models, have been confounded—for the time being, at least. Talking at my local biking pub to some of the owners who have turned the Tiger into Triumph's hardy annual in terms of steady sales over the past decade, revealed that more power isn't an issue for them over the existing 955i version, so whether we'll ever see that 1050cc version from Hinckley, is a moot point. Instead, the '06 version of the Tiger continues in uprated 955cc guise, with an improved version of the 79 x 65 mm 12-valve DOHC triple motor (which also meanwhile continues unchanged in the 955i Daytona sportbike) in the same retuned form in which it was first adapted for Tiger use back in 2001, delivering 105 bhp at 9500 rpm, and maximum torque of 92 Nm at 4400 rpm. However, the latest 2006 version of the 955cc motor boasts a new cylinder head and is now fitted with the same high-pressure diecast crankcases as the new 1050cc engine used in the Sprint ST and Speed Triple, with the previous rather messy-looking and very evident external plumbing and copious pipework, now tucked away behind the engine in pursuit of a cleaner appearance.

So, while the horizontally-split new crankcases still house a four-bearing nitrided 120-degree crankshaft, fitted with cast pistons giving 11.65:1 compression, and twin overhead camshafts chain-driven as before up the right side of the engine, the all-new cylinder head features revised porting and altered combustion chambers delivering a more efficient package. This is fed as before by Sagem multipoint sequential fuel-injection with a single injector per cylinder located below the butterfly in each 45mm diameter throttle body, while for the UK market at least, there's still no catalyst in the 3-1 stainless steel exhaust system. The six-speed transmission has the same choice of ratios as before, but is now fitted with revised internals promoting slicker shifting, as well as a backlash gear to significantly reduce noise and vibration—a feature introduced for 2005 on the new 650 Daytona, as well as on the new longstroke 1050cc triple.

The result is a gearchange that's recognizably quieter and smoother to use than before—not that you need to do so that much, though, thanks to the effortless performance of the Tiger version of that 955i motor, which pulls with zero transmission snatch on part throttle from as low as 1200 rpm in sixth gear, or wide open without a hiccup from just 2200 revs all the way to the ten grand limiter. Really, though, you have no earthly excuse for ever encountering this, because the '06 Tiger's even more liquid power delivery means you can just cruise the torque curve peaking at a mere 4400 rpm, which flatlines thereafter all the way to the 9500 rpm power peak. The three-cylinder engine's spread of power and torque is humungous, with a seamless delivery which means that short-shifting around 7000 rpm on that more refined gearbox will be the chosen option for most Tiger owners, who'll relish the entry ticket to those waves of midrange muscle which the smoother shift action represents. This semi-automatic flexibility makes riding the Tiger through towns or in a line of slow-moving traffic incredibly easy, with little need to change gear unduly, even though the revised gearchange is smooth and ultra-precise (no need to use the clutch at all on upshifts), and the clutch action is so light your hand wouldn't cramp up if it did have to work harder—only it doesn't. Six speeds in the Tiger transmission is truly one too many, though, even for a motorcycle which at 215 kg. dry is still slightly on the beefy side—think Range Rover, rather than Suzuki Vitara—because the forgiving nature of the triple motor frankly discourages gear-changing. With 100 mph on tap at just 6200 rpm, there's no real need for an overdrive sixth gear, either (a more legal 70 mph comes up at just over 4000 revs, well under halfway to redline), especially with the improved engine pickup and throttle response delivered by revised EFI mapping. Call it the herd factor: everyone else has a six-speeder, so Triumph must, too, or else risk being branded low-tech. Market forces rule—not always wisely.

This enhanced engine package sits in a chassis essentially unchanged from before, with the same Kayaba suspension front and rear providing a super-compliant ride over a wide variety of road surfaces. Ride quality on the Tiger is very high, but the range of external adjustment for the suspension is both limited and inaccessible—the 43mm leading-axle forks are fitted with triple-rate springs but are completely non-adjustable, while the direct-action upright shock (so, no linkage of any kind) has the usual screw-type rebound damping control at the lower end, no compression damping, and is only adjustable for spring preload by means of unclipping both sections of the two-piece seat, and taking a spanner to the adjustment mechanism. This is awkward, and inconvenient, compared to the easy-access external adjustment on most other bikes like most other bikes in its class, such as the KTM Adventure, Aprilia Caponord or BMW R1200GS, featuring a handy remote knob behind the rider's left leg, to adjust the rear preload hydraulically. This omission prevents you fine-tuning the Tiger's rear suspension on the go for different road conditions, and makes preparing to carry a passenger or to fill up the good-looking twin colour-coded panniers which come standard on the bike as part of its very competitive GBP 6,999 sticker price in the UK, something you need to plan ahead for, rather than just dial up adjustment quickly.

That sharp price makes the '06 Tiger a lot of motorcycle for the money, and is even less than the GBP 7,149 Triumph asked for the very first fuel injected Tiger in 885cc guise back in 1999, in spite of the fact that since the '05 model year, previous delete options now fitted as standard on the Tiger include not only the hard luggage (which I can confirm is watertight in downpours!), but also a centre stand and Triumph's excellent heated handgrips. On a crisp spring day these were very welcome in combining with the stuck-on enduro-style handguards to keep my hands from getting chilled, even if the guards seem a bit incongruous on a bike now so completely targeted at street use. Windguards, then. It's a pity that, unlike most of its rivals, neither the Tiger's brake nor clutch levers are adjustable for reach, though—and that ambiguous focus extends to the Tiger's architecture, which still seems awfully tall for a bike which Triumph rightly insists has zero off-road intent—although the fact that a nominal sumpguard (more a piece of styling helping keep dirt off the exhaust system) is fitted as standard seems to contradict this. Even on the lowest of the 840-860mm range of seat heights (adjustable by again lifting the seat and altering the mechanism on the underside), the Tiger seems very tall even for a six-foot rider like me, who can only tiptoe the bike out of parking spaces, can't put a foot flat down at traffic lights without leaning the bike to one side, and needs to stand on the footrest to climb aboard with any ease—after first making sure that the sidestand really is fully extended. Whoops! An added reason it's hard to plant your feet down may be the width of the plush, comfortable seat—but still, looking closely at the chassis architecture, it seems for sure there's space to lower the seat height, if needs be. Perhaps one explanation is the fact that Triumph sells more Tigers in Germany than any other single country, where riders are traditionally somewhat on the tall side! Also, heaving it onto the centrestand is a job for two people, one pulling on the substantial metal luggage-rack—and that's before stuffing anything in that hard luggage: the fulcrum point is evidently incorrect. And with a full 24-litre fuel load carried relatively high up and further forward, in order to keep the rear of the fuel tank as slim as possible for rider comfort, the Tiger feels rather unweildy in city streets or slow corners, until the level starts to drop.

The minimalist wind protection from the slim, frame-mounted nose fairing means that at anything much over 80 mph/130 kph your unprotected shoulders take a fair blast of wind that'll have you struggling to hold on tight to the 'bars. Though in spite of the windblast on your body the Tiger doesn't suffer from the Varadero waltz at high speeds, this is not as ideal a freeway fastbike for the long haul as it might be, especially compared, for example, to the Aprilia Caponord, where you sit in your own little envelope at ton-up speeds, with only some helmet noise to contend with, which is also present on the Tiger. However, what the vestigial bodywork does achieve is to make the Tiger seem slimmer than many of its twin-cylinder rivals, in spite of the wider three-cylinder motor—and this is reflected in the ease with which it can be hustled along twisty highways, irrespective of the surface. Thanks to the firmer suspension and less conservative steering geometry introduced a year ago, the Tiger's steering is more precise and less vague at all speeds than it formerly was, owing to a 25.8-degree head angle and 88mm of trail, coupled with a 1515mm wheelbase that's much less rangy than the 1550mm stride of all Tigers before then. It handles in quite a relaxing but confidence-inspiring way, thanks partly to the good leverage from the wide handlebars, and a well thought-out (just very tall!) riding stance.

But, it's hard to see the point of continuing to fit that 19-inch front wheel and those long forks to the Tiger—especially after stiffening these up and reducing wheel travel a year ago. Dropping the forks a little through the yokes to lower the bike and sharpen up the steering still further is a favourite trick of Tiger keepers, many of whom also fit at least an 18-inch smaller front wheel, plus a wider rim to get a fatter tyre offering extra side grip compared to the skinny 110/80-19 Michelin T66 used at present. Having removed all trace of offroad pretension from the Tiger some time ago, Triumph ought to do the same, as well as lowering the whole bike at least an inch/25mm to make it more accessible for shorter riders, without detracting from its Range Rover-esque role as king of the Queen's highway. The tall seat and upright riding stance (which is quite untiring at lower speeds) provide Tiger tamers with a lofty perch from which to navigate their way through traffic, as well as savour the countryside through which they're riding—plus I found you also get a great view of what people are doing the other side of suburban hedges, but rather you didn't see (don't ask!).

Even with the reduced wheel travel and stiffer springing, the actual ride quality of the Tiger's suspension package is very high, especially over rough B-roads west of Sratford-upon-Avon in the Cotswolds hunting country (whatever New Labour might think and you may have heard, it still goes on!), following a twisty river valley up into the hills, where you're swapping direction all the time, and asking the bike to sit down well over the bumps as you get back on the gas again for the next short straight. The 215 kg. dry weight helps here—but though the new Tiger's suspension damping is much firmer than the more softly sprung older bike's was, it doesn't result in a harsh ride, and there's a good sense of compliance as well as added comfort. You especially notice the front end's stiffer setup under hard braking from the Tiger's excellent Nissin brake package, whose pair of 310mm front discs gives acceptable bite in spite of having just twin-piston calipers gripping them: they also cope well with the extra demands of a passenger and luggage. And with the firmer front end, there's less fork dive than on the old Tiger, which was much less adept at being hustled hard along a winding, rough-surfaced country road, with lots of hard braking, than the new one.

The only downside to the Tiger's 955i engine is some notable vibration through the footrests only, from 5,500 rpm upwards. Since this equates to 80 mph on the white-faced speedo, and is therefore a typical freeway cruising speed for a go-anywhere Grand Tourer like this, this becomes irritating on a longer journey, especially since the vibes get slightly intense as the revs mount. There's no trace of the tingles in either seat or handlebars—only through the footrests, making it surprising that Triumph haven't eliminated these by fitting more deeply ribbed rubbers to the Tiger's quite broad footrests, which have only a thin rubber cover to them. I've only ever complained of vibration on a Triumph triple before on the first 955i Tiger I rode back in 2001, because the three-cylinder engine's single gear-driven balance shaft usually takes good care of this. Not here. The dashboard derived from the old Sprint ST, now superceded, is quite clean-looking but rather old-fashioned, and in view of the Tiger's tarmac touring focus it's a downside there's no trip computer, or at the very least a must-have twin-trip odometer. It's stuff like this which explains the $$$ difference between the well-priced Tiger and a 20% more costly BMW R1200GS. The mirrors work excellently, though, and while the bike is undeniably rather wide with the luggage fitted, the cast aluminium wheels help give it a sharp appearance that's both pleasing and individual, in any of the three colours the 2006 Tiger is available in—blue, silver or orange.

After riding the Tiger in '06 guise, it's easy to see why Triumph engineers never updated the now-discontinued Trophy tourer, cancelling the shaft-drive project which was supposed to put it on terms with BMW. Instead, they've astutely focused on refining the Tiger as a mileating go-anywhere all-rounder for Cap'n Sensible and his cohorts, contrasting with its polar opposite, the sportier Sprint ST, which attacks the touring issue from the other end of the marketplace. Triumph still has a key advantage in the touring sector with that marvellous engine, and while I suppose it's inevitable that a 1050 Tiger will appear sooner or later—if only for reasons of commonality, and the economy of scale—John Bloor's engineers have been very adept at keeping Triumph apace with their competition with the 955i Tiger, and even in some instances, ahead of them. And for sure, if/when it does eventually come, the 1050 Tiger is sure to cost quite a bit more than what, in the present motorcycle marketplace, is surely one of the best-priced bargains money can buy. A two-wheeled gentleman's express at the right money: watch that flag on my helmet waving in acclaim!

TRIUMPH TIGER: Evolution of the Species

Triumph's tarmac trailie, the Tiger, has had the longest run of any of the firm's benchmark three-cylinder model variants, with more than 20,000 examples produced in the Hinckley factory since the Tiger was first launched back in 1992, as one of the first in the modular range of bikes which allowed John Bloor's born-again British bike marque to create a full product lineup in fast-forward mode.

That first-generation T409 Tiger employed the same tubular spine frame and 885cc carburetted engine as all Triumph's other early triples, with the motor detuned to produce less power in 85 bhp guise, but a wider spread of torque. Part of the debut model's appeal was its sheer road presence, thanks to an imposing stance, meaty-looking three-cylinder motor, wide bars and chunky tyres, while the long-travel suspension which was an inherent part of the street enduro look at least offered the ability to deal with very poor road surfaces, as part of the Tiger's mission to offer the practical advantages of a dual-purpose model to the touring rider. It still had nominal off-road pretensions, too—even if the ability to manhandle a three-cylinder trailbike along anything more demanding than a gravel road, was almost certainly beyond the capability envelope of most of the Tiger's target customers.

Triumph implicitly recognized that fact with the introduction in 1998 of the totally tarmac T709 Tiger, a ground-zero replacement for its forebear with all-new open-cradle perimeter steel frame, powered by a heavily revised version of the lighter, more compact, new-generation three-cylinder motor which had debuted in the Daytona two years previously—though still in 883cc form compared to the sportbike's 955cc, while retaining the same Sagem multipoint EFI. In this guise, Triumph's first fuel-injected go-anywhere triple delivered 87 bhp at 8200 rpm, to create a Tiger adventure tourer now focused 100% on tarmac use, rather than a pseudo-trailie streetbike with superficial off-road potential.

The next milestone in the Tiger's evolution came in 2001, exactly ten years on after John Bloor had rolled out the born-again Triumph company's first-ever customer bikes from his new factory in Hinckley. The Tiger 955i retained the same steel chassis as its predecessor, but was now given added zest in the performance stakes with the fitting of the same 955cc three-cylinder engine as the top-of-the-line Daytona sportbike. This power-up package was retuned for installation in the Tiger, though, with 105 bhp delivered at 9500 rpm rather than the Daytona's 147 bhp at 10,700 rpm—but substantially more torque of 92 Nm peaking at an ultra-low 4400 rpm, compared to the 85 Nm at 6400 rpm of the previous 883cc fuel-injected version. The 79 x 65 mm three-cylinder engine featured high-pressure diecast crankcases, rather than the previous sandcast ones—in order to deliver the reduced tolerances leading to a quieter-running motor. This enhanced engine package sat in a chassis essentially unchanged from before, but with redesigned Kayaba suspension front and rear, aimed at providing a more compliant ride over a wide variety of road surfaces.

The completion of the Tiger's metamorphosis into a two-wheeled Range Rover capable of criss-crossing continents at high speed, but whose minimal off-road pretensions are unlikely to encompass ever getting its tyres muddy, came with the advent in March 2004 of an enhanced version with the same 955i once-a-sportbike motor, now fitted in a revised chassis package even more directly targeted at street use, with sharper steering geometry, a shorter wheelbase, and stiffer suspension with reduced fork travel, all focused on quickening the handling of what had always been an undoubtedly rangy bike, without sacrificing the Tiger's lazy, long-legged, unflagging character. Fitting 14-spoke cast aluminium wheels shod with tubeless tyres for the first time, underlined the new model's tarmac focus, too—even if the front was still a 19-incher derived from its by now distant dual-purpose days.

Now, barely a year later comes the 2006 model, a cleaned-up, quieter-running adaptation of its predecesssor, taking the evolution of the Tiger species another stage further. Charles Darwin, this is your motorcycle...

Photography Kyoichi Nakamura