Almost as quickly as the technology is developed, motorcycle manufacturers are endowing many of their sport, touring and adventure motorcycles with beneficial but often complex and confusing electronic features. Whether or not this has created the groundswell of interest in less-complicated bikes with classic or neo-retro styling that plucks our heartstrings is hard to say. The leading edge of the movement has emerged from shops creating custom café racers, street trackers and bobbers. On the production side, Harley-Davidson, Moto Guzzi and Royal Enfield have long offered traditional motorcycles steeped in heritage and devoid of complex neural networks, but the Japanese have just begun dipping their toes in the water, with handsome bikes like the Honda CB1100, Yamaha SR400 and SCR950 and Suzuki TU250X.
BMW joined this “simply beautiful” movement in 2014 with the R nineT boxer, a retro roadster that shuns gadgetry in favor of a carefully sculpted blend of classic and modern components in a modular design that is easily customized. Ten variations are reportedly on the way, the first being a less-expensive Scrambler version for 2017. (Read our Ridden & Rated Review here.) And while Triumph Motorcycles first went retro in 2000 with the reborn Bonnevilles, its latest generation of larger 900 and 1,200cc Bonnies introduced for 2016 offer so much more classic style and midrange performance for the retro rider that the bikes are essentially a reset for the line (and in fact we picked the Bonneville T120 for our 2016 Motorcycle of the Year award).
So, are the R nineT and Bonneville T120 ripe for a comparison? Neo-retro roadster vs. modern classic? Looking for something equally retro to put the new T120 up against, we thought so at first. Both have rumbling twin-cylinder engines that are close in displacement, and both are compact with seemingly upright seating positions. Spoked wheels carry inner tubes, and traditional analog speedos and tachometers are backed by tasteful LCD displays with basic trip computers, tripmeters, gear indicators and clocks.
But while both may remind us of simpler times, these two retro rides really couldn’t be more different. Throw a leg over the Triumph T120—in this case the Black color variation—and it immediately welcomes the rider with relaxed, upright handlebars, low forward footpegs and a narrow but fairly cushy seat at a reasonable 30.9 inches high. Thumb the starter button and there’s little drama, just a rumbling idle from the liquid-cooled, 1,200cc SOHC “High Torque” parallel twin that some may find a bit too muted by the peashooter mufflers. Pulling away you find the engine is the epitome of smooth, with dual counterbalancers canceling out all vibes except a pleasing throb that feels more V-twin than parallel. Close your eyes and you could be riding a cruiser, in fact. Torque is the T120’s reason for existing—redline is at just 7,000 rpm, and on the Jett Tuning dyno, while it only made 74.2 horsepower at 6,200 rpm at the rear wheel, it grunted out 74.4 lb-ft of torque at just 3,300 rpm, and it serves up at least 63 lb-ft from 2,000 to 6,000 rpm.
While the T120 accelerates briskly and likes to be revved to near redline, it’s happiest thrumming along in the midrange, squirting effortlessly from corner-to-corner or stoplight-to-stoplight. Riding modes (Road and Rain) and switchable traction control seem superfluous with such smooth power delivery from the ride-by-wire throttle, but they are there if you need them. Shifting the 6-speed transmission is effortless, and the bike is geared very tall, turning a sedate 2,700 rpm at 60 mph in top gear.
In fact, the T120 is a downright gentleman compared to the rowdy R nineT. Though the BMW’s hard, narrow seat is at the same 30.9-inch height and the bike appears to have a fairly upright seating position, the nineT’s flat handlebar is low and wide and its footpegs rear-set and high by comparison, so the rider is in a crouch similar to a Ducati Monster—not quite sportbike or café racer, but not upright, either. And the nineT’s air-cooled, 1,170cc DOHC opposed flat twin literally barks, burbles and pops through a pair of throaty dual mufflers on one side, reminiscent of classic sports machines. Redline is higher at 8,500 rpm, it spins 3,400 rpm at 60 mph and the engine is eager to rev and less happy chugging along in too high a gear, yet some high-frequency vibration creeps into the grips and seat above about 5,500 rpm. On the Jett Tuning dyno it made an impressive 99.5 horsepower at 7,800 rpm, and its torque curve is broader, but with a 72.7 lb-ft peak at 6,500 rpm, it doesn’t quite match the Triumph’s output. Still, with that rev-happy engine character, throaty exhaust and aggressive riding position, the R nineT is something of a brawler compared to the Triumph.
At first those streetfighter mannerisms make the BMW everyone’s initial pick. Its power delivery is exciting, it sounds good and that wide handlebar, sticky Metzeler Roadtec Z8 radials and generous cornering clearance swoop it around corners like a sportbike. The rear shock has remotely adjustable spring preload and rebound damping, and like the stout 46mm USD fork, it’s well calibrated for sport riding and firmly compliant elsewhere, though the fork lacks adjustments and dives under braking. Perhaps in an attempt to slow brake application and lessen dive, the front brake lever has a lot of annoying initial travel, though the triple disc brakes with ABS are otherwise strong and have good feel. Overall the R nineT is mission-oriented, light, agile and fun, but can be uncomfortable on longer rides.
After a few hours on the BMW, the Triumph’s mellower ride becomes more attractive. Though its steering is slower and requires more effort, particularly at higher speeds, that same lack of nervousness makes it easier and more enjoyable to ride at a legal pace in the corners. Pushed harder the T120 will cooperate, but it taxes the vintage-styled Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp road tires and the bike runs out of cornering clearance fairly soon. Spring preload is the only adjustment on the dual rear shocks, and while both they and the 41mm fork provide a smooth ride elsewhere, they are too lightly sprung and damped for real sport riding on the heavier 538-pound (wet) machine. Its triple disc brakes with ABS do well at a faster pace, but could use more bite up front and less pedal travel in back. Overall this gentleman is mellow, smooth and comfortable for moderately long rides. It’s the bike you want to ride out to the mountains and canyons before switching to the R nineT brawler to do the dirty work.
Living with the Triumph day-to-day is a bit easier as well. Although it has chain final drive vs. the BMW’s shaft, a standard centerstand (absent on the R nineT) simplifies chain maintenance. Both come with terrific heated grips and adjustable brake and clutch levers, but passengers only get a large grabrail on the T120. While the BMW’s aluminum tank with brushed sides is pretty, it won’t hold a magnetic tank bag like the Triumph’s steel tank. Triumph also chose to give the new Bonnevilles locking seats, while the Beemer’s is held on with a single Torx bolt from underneath.
These two retro roadsters may have similar missions, but as you can see they go about them in entirely different ways. It’s ironic that the Bonneville T120 is the mellower ride of the two, since it pays homage to what was essentially the superbike of the 1960s. The BMW is equally surprising by the level of performance available from a bike adorned with so many beautiful components and customizing capability. One is a gentleman, one is a brawler, but they both do their jobs well, and beautifully.
2016 BMW R nineT
Base Price: $15,095
Warranty: 3 yrs., 36,000 miles
Type: Air/oil-cooled, longitudinal opposed flat twin
Bore x Stroke: 101.0 x 73.0mm
Compression Ratio: 12.0:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 6,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Fully sequential EFI, 50mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.2-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, hydraulically actuated dry clutch
Final Drive: Shaft, 2.9:1
Ignition: Electronic (BMS-K+)
Charging Output: 600 watts max.
Battery: 12V 14AH
Frame: Tubular-steel bridge frame w/ engine as stressed member, Paralever single-sided cast aluminum swingarm
Wheelbase: 58.1 in.
Rake/Trail: 25.5 degrees/4.0 in.
Seat Height: 30.9 in.
Suspension, Front: USD w/ 46mm stanchions, no adj.,
Rear: Single shock, adj. for rebound damping & spring preload w/ remote, 4.7-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual floating discs w/ radial-mount opposed 4-piston calipers & ABS
Rear: Single disc w/ floating 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Spoked, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Spoked, 5.50 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR17
Wet Weight: 487 lbs.
Load Capacity: 461 lbs.
GVWR: 948 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.8 gals., last 0.8 gal. warning light on
MPG: 89 PON min. (low/avg/high) 35.6/42.0/44.0
Estimated Range: 202 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 3,400
2016 Triumph Bonneville T120 Black
Base Price: $11,500
Warranty: 2 yrs., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 97.6 x 80.0mm
Compression Ratio: 10.0:1
Valve Train: SOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 12,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: Multipoint sequential EFI, 44mm throttle bodies x2
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 4.0-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated assist wet clutch
Final Drive: X-ring chain
Charging Output: 558 watts @ 3,000 rpm
Battery: 12V 10AH
Frame: Tubular-steel cradle w/ twin-sided tubular-steel swingarm
Wheelbase: 56.9 in.
Rake/Trail: 25.5 degrees/4.1 in.
Seat Height: 30.9 in.
Suspension, Front: 41mm cartridge fork, no adj.,
Rear: Dual shocks, adj. for spring preload, 4.7-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 310mm discs
w/ floating 2-piston calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 255mm disc
w/ floating 2-piston caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Spoked, 2.75 x 18 in.
Rear: Spoked, 4.25 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 100/90-H18
Wet Weight: 538 lbs.
Load Capacity: 461 lbs.
GVWR: 999 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.8 gals., last 0.9 gal. warning light on
MPG: 87 PON min. (low/avg/high) 41.0/45.7/48.4
Estimated Range: 174 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 2,700