Test rides The Journey

2019 Triumph Bonneville T120 – Long-Term Review

Twelve months and 8,500 miles with Triumph's flagship modern classic

Do not buy a Triumph Bonneville T120 new. I suspect that a small majority of the people reading a long-term review of Triumph’s primo modern classic bike are those who have already formed an opinion and are simply looking to confirm their positive or negative suspicions. And because the Bonneville T120 is largely a good motorcycle, I suspect that the bulk of the people reading are folks falling on the positive side of the equation, seeking a kind of “push” to finally go out and buy one. So the main message that I want to get across from my year of riding the Bonneville T120 in all weather conditions and scenarios is this: it’s fun, but it is woefully overpriced. Buy one, but do not buy one new.

LOOK GOOD THIS SUMMER
Get Your Hands On A TMO T-shirt

The Bonneville T120 starts at £10,600 in the United Kingdom. Add cruise control – which, truthfully, is the only reason to choose the T120 over the more affordable Bonneville T100 – and you’re looking at a bill of £10,885. This is roughly £2,000 more than the bike is worth. If you’re going to play the Harley game of putting a value on intangibles, then it costs £700 more than it should (I’m being excessively kind here and comparing it to the Harley-Davidson XL1200 Roadster). Though, I would argue that by shipping all of its production to Thailand recently, Triumph has thrown away a lot of its intangibles cards.

Late last year I took the Bonneville T120 to the Brecon Beacons as part of a story for Adventure Bike Rider magazine. I loaded the bike with Kriega bags to give it a little more ‘adventure’ flavor.

Whatever the case, if you ride the Bonneville T120 year-round, the reality of its hyper-inflated price tag will present itself to you quickly. This is especially true if you have purchased the bike on finance, which means you’ve pledged even more money to a machine unworthy of such investment. Within a few months, the embarrassment of having made such a colossal financial blunder will become a simmering rage and you’ll find that you don’t enjoy riding the bike anymore. Because every time your eye falls on a furred bolt, rusted spoke, malfunctioning indicator light, cheap mirror, scratched tank or misted speedometer you won’t be able to hear the bike’s burbling parallel twin over the sound of the voice in your head, saying: “God, what a fucking idiot I was to buy this thing new.”

Ultimately you won’t be able to handle the shame and you’ll get rid of the bike. Then someone else will buy it for what it’s actually worth and, if they accept its true limitations and treat it with kid gloves, they’ll become one of those annoying people who tell you that the Bonnie is the best bike in the world.

RELATED:
2017 Triumph Bonneville T100 – Ride Review

The current iteration of the Bonneville T120 first hit dealerships in 2016 as part of the overhauled Bonneville line-up that included the new Bonneville T100, Thruxton and Street Twin. That line-up has since grown to include the Street Scrambler, Bonneville Bobber, Speedmaster, Scrambler 1200, Speed Twin and the now-discontinued Street Cup. All the bikes in the line-up use an eight-valve, single overhead cam, liquid-cooled parallel twin engine with a 270-degree crank. The Bonneville T100, Street Twin and Street Scrambler have 900cc capacity engines, whereas the others, including the Bonneville T120 have 1200 cubic centimeters of boom. Cleverly, Triumph is able to tweak the powerplant so that it produces a wide range of horsepower and torque combinations. In the T120, those numbers present themselves as a claimed 78 horsepower and 105 Newton meters of torque. A dyno test done by Cycle World back in 2016 puts the actual numbers at 71.8 hp and 97.6 Nm.

Back in 2016, the new Bonneville line-up was a marked improvement on the Bonneville platform that had existed since 2000 (the Bonneville name, of course, has been around since 1959). The engine was more characterful and efficient, styling was more attentive, fit and finish was superior to anything that had come before, and rider aids like ABS, traction control, riding modes and – in some cases – cruise control brought the platform very much into the modern world. The improvements were so dramatic that many of us decided to forgive Triumph for the fact these bikes had arrived so late; Ducati had been offering true modernity in an old-school package since 2014 in the form of its Scrambler line.

The previous-generation Bonneville, along with the Harley-Davidson Iron 883, was a bike that inspired me to return to riding several years ago, so I was pretty excited back in February 2019 when all the pieces of the universe fell together and I finally got my hands on a brand new Bonneville T120 Black. You know what they say, though: never meet your heroes. Slightly more than a year later, I’m making plans to give the Bonnie back. I wouldn’t be averse to owning one again someday, but I’ll admit I’m not heartbroken by the bike’s imminent departure.

I bought a Bonneville T120 Black thinking the absence of shiny bits would mean having to spend less time cleaning. I turned out to be wrong about this. Also, I now feel there is just too much black here and that such styling is out of fashion.

SOME NUMBERS

Starting Price: £10,600
Months Needed to Buy One New*: 63 (5 years, 3 months)
Engine: 1200cc liquid-cooled parallel twin
Power: 78 hp at 6550 rpm
Torque: 105 Nm at 3100 rpm
Seat Height: 790 mm
Fuel Capacity: 14.5 liters
Weight**: 248 kg
Assembled In: Thailand (No. 68 on the Democracy Index)

IN THE CITY

One theme you’ll see me hitting frequently in discussing the T120 is that its horsepower figures are largely irrelevant. This is because the T120 is the sort of bike that produces maximum fun at minimum speed. It is not a go-fast machine. It is a look-at-me machine. It can go (relatively) fast if required, but that’s not the point. The T120 is at its absolute best in sunny, warm, dry, urban situations: where you can safely ride without earplugs, listening to the soft, bassy, burbling growl of the engine and cheerfully interacting with the numerous people who will stare at the bike and ask questions. On that note, if you don’t enjoy long conversations with men over the age of 50 you should seriously consider getting a different motorcycle.

Mimicking V-twin performance with its 270-degree crank, the engine pulls with enthusiasm and ease from stop lights. It’s not a torque monster – power delivery is just a little soft for a 1200cc machine – but it will comfortably get you ahead of traffic. Comfortable is a key word to use when describing the T120. Its low seat height means most will be able to put both feet flat on the ground, but ergonomics are such that a 6-foot-1 rider doesn’t feel squished. The suspension is soft, meaning poorly maintained roads aren’t much of a concern.

ELSEWHERE:
2017 Triumph Bonneville Bobber – First Ride

Power delivery can be just a little choppy at speeds below 30 mph. You’ll struggle to decide which gear to be in and will need to ebb things a little with the clutch when moving through school zones. The good news is that this choppiness eases with age, becoming more tolerable once you’ve put about 6,000 miles on the clock.

Despite outweighing a BMW F 900 XR by a margin of roughly 48 bottles of beer (or 29 kg) the T120 feels nimble and easy to maneuver in traffic. This is thanks to a low center of gravity and that low seat height. The handlebar and ugly mirrors put the bike’s width at only a fraction wider than my shoulders, so I’m able to squeeze through some pretty tight spots when filtering. To its credit, the T120 is probably the most manageable “big” bike I’ve ever ridden.

The Bonneville T120 is easy to move around – so much so that I didn’t question the wisdom of walking the thing down a narrow fishing pier. Sure, what’s the worst that could have happened?

And while I’m giving credit where it’s due, I feel I should commend the mirrors. They may be ugly but they are excellent for viewing one’s elbows. There will never be a time when you won’t have a good, unhindered view of your arm joint. If you want to look at anything else, however, the mirrors are disappointing, requiring a fair bit of contortion to see whatever may be coming up from behind.

I’ve long wanted to replace the mirrors, along with the shitty indicators – which look like they were stolen from my wife’s old Lexmoto – and too-quiet exhausts, but never managed to find the money or time to make those changes. One of the reasons I got a T120 was the fact there is a large aftermarket scene for Bonnevilles, but it turns out that a lot of the best stuff is for previous-generation Bonnies. Most of the items available for the T120 are pointless – like bronze filler caps – or expensive, like £700 exhausts.

KEEP READING:
2018 Triumph Street Scrambler – Ride Review

Nonetheless, it’s a very good looking machine and earns plenty of stares from everyone you ride past. You’ll also frequently find yourself trying to get a glimpse of your reflection in shop windows; the bike just makes you feel cool and your egotistical side will want to make sure you look as good as you feel. To that end you’ll find yourself suffering two major side effects as a result of T120 ownership: 1) You’ll spend stupid amounts of money on stylish riding gear; and 2) You’ll start spending a lot more time cleaning your bike.

On the surface, the T120 is an incredibly easy bike to clean. No fairing means you can hit it with a hose, hit it with some Muc-Off, hit it with the hose again and boom, you’re done, right? Ah, would that it were so simple. The T120 is a beautiful machine that will speak to your OCD side. You’ll find yourself wanting, nay, needing to keep it clean and sexy. Ultimately this meant that I spent two to three hours every Saturday (or Sunday) cleaning and polishing every single bit of the bike, top to bottom. (This is why I was so upset when rust appeared on the chain after using SDoc100) And in doing this I discovered that a lot of the bike’s elements were not really up to snuff: the aforementioned cheap and ugly mirrors and indicators, of course, but also the wiring and plastic side covers. The paint on the tank and headlight is not deep enough to withstand the rigors of regular use, resulting in teeny tiny scratches. The paint on the chain guard chips away easily. The paint on the accessory bash plate wears away completely. The spokes are prone to rust even when you’re covering them with WD-40 once a week.

The bike is clearly not supposed to be ridden on anything other than a sunny, dry day. Or, at least, straight out of the box it’s not supposed to be. With the exception of the poor paintwork on the tank and headlight, everything that has shown age over the last year is the sort of thing that frequently gets replaced by aftermarket parts. Triumph is selling a bike that it expects you to customize, so it’s putting very little effort into those parts that usually get replaced. That’s annoying as hell, but I guess it would be semi-tolerable were it not for the fact the T120 costs close to £11,000.

Despite religious cleaning, rust has appeared in a number of places after just one year of use, such as the bike’s shocks

MOTORWAYS

Whereas “replaceable” bits of the T120 have struggled to make it through the year I have no qualms about the important stuff. The bike always starts and runs without complaint, and the engine has been fantastic, happy to drone along all day every day. There are internet rumblings about the transmission giving out around 8,000 miles but with 8,500 on the clock I haven’t noticed any real issues.

No naked bike is at its best on a motorway, though, and such is the case with the T120. Absence of fairing or a windscreen (I thought about getting one but couldn’t get over how ugly it would make the bike) mean you take the full brunt of the elements; if it’s cold and wet, you’re cold and wet. And traveling above 70 miles an hour becomes a literal pain in the neck after a while. Once again, horsepower figures are largely irrelevant with the T120; you’re unlikely to be exploring the bike’s limits. This is especially true because the suspension isn’t exactly built for speed. At about 80 mph the bike starts to feel unsettled. The engine can handle 100+ mph without issue but the rest of the bike will keep you from proving it.

LIKE A T120 BUT FASTER:
2019 Triumph Speed Twin – First Ride

A large part of my 16-mile commute to work involves motorway and I eventually decided that it was best to give up on speed-demon dreams and stick to hanging out in the slow lane, going a very comfortable 65 mph. (It probably helps that I wear an Aerostich R3 to work; I look like the old man my riding suggests me to be.) Windblast was not too extreme and riding at that speed locked the tachometer right at 3000 rpm – the magic number for fuel efficiency. If I wanted to get around the trucks and grandmas sharing the slow lane with me, there was more than enough power on tap to do so, but generally I was happy to plod along at 5 mph under the speed limit.

I followed the same routine on longer trips, traveling a few times down to Southern England or up to North Wales. I never did a major road trip with the T120 but that was down to timing more than anything. I loaded the thing up with Kriega bags for a feature I did in Adventure Bike Rider, which made me confident that if I had had time/money to ride to the Outer Hebrides the T120 would have been happy to do so. At a reasonable pace, of course.

The bash plate is an accessory item Triumph expects you to pay extra for. Its black paint has largely worn away over the year, especially in the middle – where the aluminum has been fully exposed

A ROADS

Sticking with the theme of keeping below 65 mph, the T120 can be a lot of fun on 60mph A roads (ie, not dual carriageways). Its suspension and brakes are too soft to handle any kind of aggressive riding, though. The rear brake is particularly notable in its mediocrity; it is the very definition of spongy.

But on relatively straight roads or those with gentle curves there were few things I enjoyed more on a sunny day than droning along, taking in the world around me. Especially in situations where I was able to activate the T120’s basic but effective cruise control. It is a simple on-off system operated from the left grip; there’s no “resume” button or ability to adjust speed by clicking up or down. You just press a button to activate cruise control, and press it again to deactivate. You can also deactivate cruise by hitting the brakes, pulling in the clutch, or rolling the throttle forward.

YET ANOTHER VARIATION ON THE THEME:
2019 Triumph Scrambler 1200 – First Ride

Cruise control is an accessory on the T120, one that I would recommend. Meanwhile heated grips and a center stand come standard. Traction control is also standard – a somewhat pointless feature to have on a bike like this. I activated the feature only once: when I managed to rut the bike in 6 inches of mud while riding off road. Fortunately in that case, it is possible to shut off traction control. Equally pointless is the fact the T120 has two riding modes: Rain and Road. Road is so smooth that I never once switched the bike into Rain, even when riding through torrential rain.

Speaking of features, the T120 has a fancy LED daytime running light, though its actual headlight is a standard halogen affair. The DRL definitely helps with visibility in traffic but rather counterintuitively a bright green light illuminates on the dash when you switch to the actual headlight. And when do you use your actual headlight? When it’s dark, right? So why has Triumph made it so the dash is more distracting in bad light conditions?

This quirk speaks to probably the most frustrating aspect of the T120: all throughout the bike you can identify elements where the designers and engineers have thought very hard and intelligently about something’s purpose, use and aesthetic. Then you’ll encounter other things where they appear to have put in zero thought at all and it drives you nuts. For example: the clutch lever and brake lever are sized differently. The two levers are clearly made by different companies and the clutch lever is too short. Both, by the way, are quite wobbly, reminding me again of my wife’s old Lexmoto.

The bike’s ABS ring has become very fuzzy. You can see a little rust on the brake disc, as well

B ROADS AND LANES

For much the same reason the Bonneville T120 is fun to ride in the city it’s equally fun to ride on the slower, hedgerowed roads that spider the British countryside. If you’re reading this in the United States, you don’t have these things so I’ll tell you that the T120 is fun and nimble on (dry) farming roads and… ah… cycling paths.

Going slow with no direction or timeframe is the best way to enjoy the T120 and the soft suspension means the bike is perfectly happy to bumble along less-than-perfect surfaces. Be careful not to get carried away, though. As alluded to above, the bike’s easy rideability once duped me into thinking it would be clever to explore a track in the Brecon Beacons that was clearly marked as not permitting off-road vehicles.

“That’s fine,” I joked to myself. “The Bonneville T120 is not an off-road vehicle.”

THE BETTER CHOICE FOR ‘CLASSIC’ ADVENTURE:
2019 Moto Guzzi V85TT – First Ride

But, see, it’s really not. My joke was on me; instead of being a thing that was funny it was a thing that was true. The Bonneville T120 is not an off-road vehicle. It’s definitely not when equipped with OEM Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp tires. So I got about a half mile into the middle of nowhere and the glorious Welsh mud decided to issue a great big “fuck you” to my law breaking and swallowed my bike up to the engine casing. Cue 30 minutes of fighting a 248kg hunk of metal whilst fearing that at any moment park rangers would show up and fine the hell out of me.

On the road, where they’re supposed to be used, the Phantom Sportscomps aren’t as bad as some folks in forums would have you believe. Riding sensibly they handle reasonably well in wet weather and last about 7,000 miles; I ultimately replaced them with Pirelli Scorpion Trail II tires simply because I felt they look better. Turns out they perform better, too – better in all around handling and notably more confidence-inspiring in the wet. You may want to reconsider putting them on yourself, though. They are incredibly stiff and I ended up scratching the whahoozit out of my rims. (As has been noted elsewhere, however, I’m not exactly a whiz when it comes to wrenching, so you might find them easier to work with)

Replacing the tires could have gone better…

PRACTICALITY

Despite being equipped with a small 14.5-liter tank the Bonneville T120 can be damned economical when ridden conservatively. I once managed 205 miles on a tank before chickening out and filling up. Such admirable fuel economy meant I only had to fill up once a week to tackle my 32-miles-a-day commute. The bike’s nimbleness also made it good for commuting and I have a theory that riding a “character” bike like the T120 results in fellow commuters having a more cheerful attitude toward you.

There is, too, the presence of traction control (that you will never use) and riding modes (that you will never use) and heated grips (that you will use most of the year if you live in Wales) all as standard features – not to mention the presence of a center stand to aid in the tedious process of working on the chain. But I don’t think it would be fair to describe the Bonneville T120 as a practical machine. It demands a lot of attention and cleaning to stay pretty, it has no weather protection and it seems to feel particularly unsteady in high winds. I mean, no bike is a rock in a storm but the T120 seems to get thrown around far more than you’d expect.

A MORE ENGAGING CHOICE:
2018 Ducati Scrambler 1100 – Ride Review

The tires are tubed, which is a colossal pain in the butt for any number of reasons – one that is exacerbated by the fact both exhausts have to be removed before you can remove the rear tire. This is because the exhausts block access to the rear axle bolt and the axle adjuster bolts. You might think to yourself: “Well, that’s not that big of a deal; I go through tires infrequently enough that I’m happy to pay a professional to do it for me. And if I get a flat while out riding, well, that’s what my RAC membership is for.” But the thing is, this quirk also means you also have to remove the exhausts to be able to adjust the chain. One of the most basic jobs of motorcycle maintenance and you can’t do it without pulling both exhausts! Maddening!

While we’re on the subject of basic maintenance, Triumph advises that you lube the chain every 200 miles, which is considerably more often than other manufacturers suggest on their bikes – 200 miles! Frustratingly this is not just Triumph being overcautious; the front sprocket sits by a particularly hot part of the engine, so chain oil burns off quickly.

The Triumph Bonneville T120 is not an off-road vehicle

THE GOOD

Even when shouting profanities into the air at the people who thought the exhaust set-up was clever, or the cheapskates who put constantly malfunctioning indicators on a £10,600 bike, you will never, ever stop loving the T120’s engine. Could it use a little more punch? Maybe. Would it be nice to feel a little more character? Sure. Could the exhaust note be more aggressive? Definitely. Nonetheless, that reliable, never-stressed powerplant remains a thing of beauty. There were times I found myself running the engine just to listen to it.

The T120 is a bike you like being seen on. It’s a bike that you like being associated with, to the extent I sometimes thought I should go around wearing a T-shirt that said: “Ask me about my motorcycle. Please!” I always felt a flush of… I don’t know… pride(?)… when walking to the motorcycle parking at my workplace and seeing my T120 sitting there among old Bandits, CBRs, SV650s and Fazers.

POSSIBLY A BETTER CHOICE:
2018 Indian Scout Bobber – First Ride

I liked the look of the bike and I loved the idea of being able to sharpen its style with aftermarket bling. I never managed to get around to buying that bling (probably for the best, all things considering) but I had a long wish list of items and a head full of daydreams about riding my bike around on summer days, feeling like the coolest dude in the world.

I liked how easy it was to move around, not just in traffic but also in my cramped garden, despite its weight. And the thing I loved most of all was that it was a bike my wife loved. I had hoped that I would be able to keep the Bonneville T120 for a long time, to tempt her back into riding someday.

At the start of this article I claimed that I’m not sad to see the Bonnie go but deep down I know this is a lie. I’m sure I will end up with a practical machine that is more affordable to run, better suited to my present needs, easier to work on and probably more powerful and better handling, but I know that some part of me will always pine for a bike that doesn’t make sense.

Hours of fun in the right conditions

THE BAD

One thing I learned through a year of Bonnie ownership, and in chatting with other Bonnie owners, is that Bonnie owners like to bitch about their bikes. Triumph, admittedly, makes it easy for us to do this but I think, too, that there is just something about the genre that inspires an unforgiving attention to detail. Harley guys are kind of the same. And generally it’s the case that in both camps you’ll find folks who can spend all day vitriolically criticizing each and every decision made in the making of their bike but will, at the end of that day, refuse to consider buying any other machine.

I think I’m rare in having failed to fall hopelessly in love with the Bonnie’s quirks. And I suppose that’s because I wasn’t totally in the right mindset when buying the T120. If you’re a regular reader of The Motorcycle Obsession you’ll know that a major impetus to my choosing the Bonneville T120 was the fact I had fallen in love with the quirks of Harley-Davidson’s Street Bob. I wanted a “stupid” bike. I got a Bonneville T120 because I knew it would fit in my shed more easily than a Street Bob.

ALSO PERHAPS A BETTER CHOICE:
2018 BMW R nineT – First Ride

But, really, if you think about it, the Bonnie was never the bike I wanted; I wanted the Street Bob. It’s like my sophomore Homecoming Dance all over again: I wanted to go to the dance with Crystal Anderson but ended up asking Emily Pearson because I knew she would say yes. But then I spent the whole dance thinking about Crystal and never realized how pretty and charming Emily really was***.

My point is, although I can provide a laundry list of complaints about the Bonnie (indicators, mirrors, exhausts, tubed tires, etc.) I think it’s only fair to suggest that they be taken with a grain of salt. 

Harley-Davidson Street Bob: the bike I should have bought

WHAT EVERYONE ELSE SAYS

Peter Egan, Cycle World: “For those hooked on big, rangy adventure-tourers or pure, high-horsepower sportbikes, this is obviously not one of those. It’s basically a standard motorcycle that brings a lot of fun back into riding by being both versatile and easy to live with – and easy to park and move around the garage… but it’s also a standard that has upped the game in performance, finish, and refinement, taking the concept to the next level of modernity.”

Jon Urry, MCN: “As well as a refined ride, it’s comfortable, beautifully styled, has as smooth motor and overall is a very practical retro for the modern world. It’s a grown up Bonneville aimed at riders who will appreciate and exploit this new found level of maturity.”

Julia LaPalme, Motorcyclist: “Steering is quick enough for the speeds most riders would take the T120, which is to say this Bonneville is better suited for casual strolls through the S-bends than fast speeds and aggressive leaning through the corners… Authentic style, check. Modern amenities, check. Perfect? Almost.”

Tom Roderick, Motorcycle.com: “The new model Bonneville is stunning, looking more like the original than should be allowed… Triumph has created a modern iteration worthy of the namesake. The new liquid-cooled 1200cc parallel-Twin is a hoot, complimented by impressive handling and braking performance that culminate into a Bonneville that’s a real blast to ride. Some may find the bump in price a little hard to swallow… but once ridden the new Bonneville is very good at convincing you it’s worth the price”

Triumph Bonneville T120 and T120 Black – the only difference is color

VERDICT

When buying new, just about everything that is done well by the Triumph Bonneville T120 is done better by the Indian Scout Bobber Sixty (£9,995) for less money. If you want a bike that looks like an old British twin, though, your better bets are the more affordable Bonneville T100 (£8,900), Kawasaki W800 (£8,499) or Royal Enfield Interceptor (£5,699). Those three bikes have lower power figures but I assure you: it really does not matter. Really.

If you’re hellbent on getting a Triumph, and can live without cruise control, I think there’s a strong argument to be made that the T100 is the better buy. It is effectively the exact same bike as the T120 but for the presence of a single disc up front and a differently configured engine – less top end horsepower and only five gears. The thing is, though, if you take a look at spec sheets and dynos you’ll see that the T100’s five gears are configured exactly the same as the first five gears of the T120 and that torque and power figures dyno roughly the same until high into the rev range, where many owners won’t explore. When I borrowed a T100 a few years ago I rode it to Devon and back without complaint, so I can confirm that it can sit on the highway just as happily as its bigger brother.

The T100 is priced at about where the T120 should be, but, as I say, if I had it to do all over again I’d buy used. The latest generation of T120 is now four years old and you can buy good, low-mileage versions from past years for as little as £6,500. At that price the T120 is a very good bike indeed. But then, again, you’ll save even more money by buying a used T100.

Either way, though, you’ll need to remain alert to the bike’s limitations. It is not a year-round machine. It is not a performance machine. On lazy sunny days it is an ideal companion, though; it’s up to you to decide how much that’s worth. 

The Triumph Bonneville T100 is easily the better buy while providing almost the same experience

* Based on setting aside £170 a month toward a bike – an amount determined by readers for the monthly What We Can Afford series of articles.

** This is an estimate. Triumph gives only dry weight, which it lists as 224 kg. I have added 24 kg based on the difference between the listed dry weight of the Triumph Street Triple RS and its actual weight – information that was given in the March 2020 issue of Bike magazine.

*** This story is a lie. I don’t know anyone named Crystal Anderson or Emily Pearson and I didn’t go to the Homecoming Dance in my sophomore year because I listened to heavy metal and thought dances were stupid.