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km : First Ride

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20 June 2011

Clicking into third gear and standing full upright on the pegs, all it takes is a little twist of the right hand to claw out of a rocky ravine and up to the top of a thirty-foot-tall, gravel-covered berm. Having crested, we pause only briefly to take in the beauty of the Arizona desert outside of Tonto National Park before making a high-speed run back down the cactus-lined trail to the two-lane highway below. It’s been thirteen years since Triumph introduced its last dual-sport Tiger — an unwieldy 500-plus-pound, carbureted 885cc triple — and almost three decades since the ill-fated Triumph Tiger Trail was built to compete with BMW’s original R80G/S. A lot has changed since then, something that’s undeniably obvious as the miles fly by on Triumph’s all-new Tiger 800XC.



Looking at the spec sheet, it’s clear that the BMW F800GS — a bike that has stood alone in its class for the last three years — was the key target for the new range of Tigers. A single engine is on offer, the all-new 799-cc injected triple that produces 94 hp at 9300 rpm and 58 lb-ft at 7850 rpm. A twenty-one inch front wheel matched to a nineteen-inch rear is designed for leaving the pavement for adventure. The seat height is adjustable from 32.2 inches up to 34 inches for an upright and alert off-road riding position, and 34.1-inch-wide handlebars make easy work of the rough stuff. Finally, an ample but narrow five-gallon fuel cell promises a long day on the trails while still allowing the rider to squeeze tight to the bike when space is limited.



Essentially a worked-over version of the Street Triple’s 675-cc mill, the Tiger 800XC’s engine uses a stroker crank with new pistons to achieve the additional displacement, resulting in a relatively fat torque curve. While not immediately noticeable on pavement, the extra torque at lower revs make it much easier to lug the Tiger 800XC through the sandy, rock-filled trails on our test route. So much easier, in fact, that we can’t really recall ever leaving third gear. The six-speed gearbox features a taller sixth-gear ratio for lower-rpm cruising, perfect for the highway portion of our ride.



In any setting, the distinct howl of the three-cylinder engine is slightly muted by a new type of airbox with an intake that snakes under the seat. Hard-core adventure riders will certainly appreciate the snorkel-like air runner when fording deep water, but on the road we wish we could hear just a little more of the Triumph’s unique engine note.



A tubular steel chassis — a feature not available on a Tiger since 2000 — is unique to the 800 and allows the engine to sit higher up and further forward. Triumph says this is for better weight distribution and to help give the XC its ground clearance. Steel is also the off-roader’s frame material of choice for when the inevitable crash happens. Being stronger than aluminum makes it more durable, and also much easier to weld in case a middle-of-nowhere repair needs to be made. Cartoonishly-large footpegs and rear brake pedal may look odd on other motorcycles, but they’re fantastic at keeping our feet beneath us over the bumpy wilderness.



Forty-five-millimeter forks and an adjustable rear shock help ensure the desert’s rocky terrain doesn’t come in contact with the more fragile mechanical bits. The rear shock has a remote preload adjuster that’s easy to access and quite handy when dialing-in for luggage or a passenger. Rebound adjustability also helps keep the rear tire planted when bounding over big obstacles. Up front, the equipment isn’t quite as refined with standard non-adjustable forks. While the Tiger is comfortable off-road and at highway speed, the fork springs are too soft for on-road use, and hard braking on pavement tends to pitch the bike forward rather abruptly. A spring preload adjuster on the front forks — as on the rear shock — would definitely help solve that, and damping adjustability would keep the Tiger balanced at both ends.



All these components make for a formidable bike, but it’s the incredible list of standard features that may have riders contemplating a switch from Team Bavaria to Team Britannia. Tapered aluminum handlebars sit on adjustable perches that can be reversed to change their position and change the aggressiveness of the rider’s posture. The stock front seat is adjustable for not only height — a feature appreciated by some of our more jockey-like (in height, anyway) riders — it can even be pitched forward or back to modify the seating position itself. A 645-watt alternator is significantly more powerful than the standard equipment on the BMW and even out-powers the KTM 990 Adventure. That’s enough juice to run the optional PIAA driving lights, a GPS, a radar detector, a cell phone charger, and full heated gear for both rider and passenger. An accessory power outlet is conveniently placed right next to the ignition switch, as any rider who has ever forgotten to disconnect his gear before dismounting will certainly appreciate. Standard hand guards, skid plate, Excel wheels, LED taillights, and a rear luggage rack with grab rails are all nice touches that show how much Triumph has done its homework. Anti-lock brakes are an $800 option, and they can be switched off completely for loose surfaces.



Unfortunately all the seat adjustability in the world doesn’t change the overall height of the bike itself, and we still found ourselves struggling just to get our legs over the rear seat. Add the optional aluminum-plated side cases — a must for any serious tourer — and the problem is only compounded. On the road, where past Tigers have usually excelled, praise for the new XC dwindles a bit to merely “acceptable.” The dusty, wind-swept highways of Northern Arizona demonstrate the middleweight’s need for a real windscreen and better aerodynamics around the fuel tank and radiator if Triumph expects to market the bike to long-haul riders. The XC’s big 21-inch front wheel is great for traction in the dirt, but it also makes for a light front-end that doesn’t inspire much confidence when pushed hard into a corner.



Triumph hopes that the standard Tiger 800 will make up for the Tiger 800XC’s on-road shortcomings with a pair of cast wheels and a 19-inch front. Unfortunately, the smaller front wheel gives only slightly less twitchy steering than the XC’s 21-incher while diminishing the Tiger’s off-road prowess. As it is, we feel that the Tiger 800 — with an identical frame, engine, seat, fairing, tank, and luggage options — is just too much like the XC to be taken seriously as an on-road-only bike. The Tiger 800’s standard seat height also towers over the pavement at 32.7-inches, potentially scaring away both newer riders and many experienced shorter riders.



Where the Tiger 800s really punch the BMW is in the wallet. The trail-ready Tiger XC can be had for $10,999, or $11,799 with ABS (and really, for $800 why wouldn’t you?). The standard Tiger goes for $9,999 ($10,799 with ABS). At that price, the Tiger represents a great value for a modern dual-sport.


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