Comparison: 2016 Harley-Davidson Roadster vs 2016 Triumph Bonneville T100

By Shubhabrata Marmar

The premium motorcycle segment, or the luxury motorcycles, if you prefer, are fertile ground for people to exercise their opinions and preferences. And by that we mean that unlike commuters, where tastes converge and commodification is rampant, luxury motorcycles are the exact opposite. The customer, ideally, wants something as close as possible to his personal intent, dream or requirement. This comparison test, between the 2016 Harley-Davidson Roadster and the 2016 Triumph Bonneville T100, is not, therefore, just about the price - albeit they are rather similar in price. It tells us something about the state of the Indian luxury motorcycle market and we will circle around to that at the end of this story. Logically, the Ducati Scrambler was supposed to be in this story as the third counterpoint, but unfortunately, the Italian was being repaired - but we have tested the Ducati extensively and it's story is the in box. And now, let's dive right in.

Design, finish and build quality

The Harley and the Triumph – and indeed the Ducati – are all designs that look back. The Ducati looks back at the Spartan scramblers of the seventies. The Triumph draws on the iconic motorcycles that wore the same name 40 years ago. The Harley channels a combination of cafe racers, bobbers and drag racers from various decades of the 20th century.

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And all three look very, very good to my eyes. The Triumph looks the most evocative to me. Triumph has nailed how the modern lines and technology of the Bonneville connect directly with the old-school cues. And they’re everywhere. The spoked wheels, the two-tone paint, the simple shape of the tank, the knee-rubbers, the simple flat seat…

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The Harley-Davidson looks made to its name as well. It has no extraneous bits and everything seems pared back and sharpened up. The low bars, tucked-in headlight, the tank shape. And the simple seat ending in the rear fender is a purposeful shape. A lack of garnish and chrome elements makes the Roadster look serious. Harley makes a big deal of the ornate alloy wheels, but frankly you won’t even notice those until much later. But this is a good-looking Harley.

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I’m going to let you pick your favorite design of the two. But on the build and finish front, the Triumph is ahead. The Harley is just not finished as well as the Triumph. And in the recent year and a bit, the British company has been paying attention to the details and it makes their new motorcycles look and feel far better than almost anything else in the price class.

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Engines, performance and economy

Here the two motorcycles show how far apart they are in nature, feel and intent. The Harley is smooth after a fashion but geared tall. It likes to lope down the highway but getting off from a rolling start requires a bit of slipped clutch, and low-speed running will require low gears as well. Once the speeds come up, the Harley looks and sounds good.

The Triumph is dramatically different. The engine is made of the finest silk. There’s no vibration or sign of strain anywhere. The first time you bounce off the redline or feel traction control cutting in, you will be surprised because there is just no indication that you’re about to breach a limit. The gearing is well chosen too, so thrumming shortly along at a low speed can be done in as high as fourth or fifth (top) gear without any complaint from the motorcycle. It makes riding the Triumph quite a bit more peaceful out in the city.

On the flip side, the hunkered-down riding position of the Harley makes highway speeds just a bit easier. The Triumph seats you high and straight and you’re taking the brunt of the windblast. All your stints over 120 kmph rapidly come back to settle at 90-100 kmph where the speed feels nice and the wind isn’t too much of a bother. The Harley will hold 100-110 kmph, maybe even just a bit higher with ease.

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In performance terms, they’re even – just see the spec sheets. The lower weight and gearing of the Triumph matches the bigger engine and torque of the Harley, and the acceleration to 100 kmph is exactly identical. The Triumph will have a higher top speed but since neither of these is an all-out performance bike, the relevance of that is negligible.

In economy terms, the Triumph offers a bit more economy and has the bigger fuel tank and that should mean longer runs down the highway on the T100 than on the Roadster.

Handling, ride and braking

Comparing the handling of a Harley to anything else is difficult because the American brand has developed a unique feel that its customers love and crave. But the XR1200X-derived Roadster chassis is a good bit more, er, normal. It chases the goal set by its name by offering steering response that’s considerably faster than Harley’s usual. As usual, the pegs grind long before the chassis or the tyres are at their limit and so mid-corner stability is unquestionable. The torque is ever-present to drive you hard out of corners. Inasmuch, the Roadster is a satisfying motorcycle to corner as Harleys go.

The Triumph is not sportsbike either, though. The chassis set-up is soft and slow by design. So the T100 turns into corners with a considered pace and a neutral stance. Mid-corner stability is good and the cornering clearance is better than the Roadster but a cornering demon it isn’t, by design. The 900 cc parallel-twin drives firmly out of the corners using its considerable torque. Again, you’re satisfied but a chicken strip killer the T100 isn’t. As performance oriented as the Harley is, that retro-nostalgic the T100 is too.

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A bigger difference lies in the ride quality, which is night and day. The Harley is as stiff as the proverbial board. It exhibits some dive when you hit the twin disc brakes hard. But it has almost no absorption. This makes the Roadster feels connected and alert on great roads. But on every other kind of surface, the Harley is distinctly uncomfortable. Bumps jolt through the motorcycle directly to the rider and this gets tiresome on our roads very, very rapidly.

The Triumph, in comparison, is magical. It’s sprung softly and it feels oh so plush. It wafts over roads as if the wheels are barely touching tarmac. At moderate speeds, the T100 feels wonderful. It does have a chink in its armour though. When you decide to elevate speeds, it immediately feels out of its depth. The wonderful plush feeling is replaced by wallow and now and then, you will also bottom both the forks and the rear shocks out too.

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On the brakes, I will call them about even. Both stop well enough, and have ABS but neither offers as much feel as I would have liked. Both the set-ups do offer a likeable initial bite and feel friendly and predictable to use.

The Harley, obviously, suffers form a stiff ride. The footpeg position also gets in the way of slow speed, feet down work. It also has a heavier clutch compared to the Triumph. The T100’s riding position and ergonomics are different and comfortable and it has a light clutch. However, I am not a fan of the stock seat. It’s too soft for my liking and a three-hour stint causes certain muscles to protest, whereas the Harley seat, surprise, caused far fewer issues.

Verdict

A friend of mine likes the term hipster. To this person, it’s not a term of endearment. It’s a term for people and things who’ve traded in function to achieve better form. And that describes both of these motorcycles rather well, no?

What riding these two (and the Scrambler) around in our conditions suggests that there is still a yawning gap for a motorcycle that understands how to handle our conditions and riding patterns to arrive on the scene. The T100 and the Roadster are both too hipster for serious riding.

But for casual riding, they’re hard to go wrong with. If you run with the Harley crowd – or if that is the aspiration – the Roadster is a good bet. It has a smooth engine. It can actually corner and it looks good too. You will need to work out how to live with that stiff-stiff-stiff set-up but it’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

On the flip side, the Triumph Bonneville T100 is a vastly simpler motorcycle to appreciate. It feels lovely, absolutely lovely to ride within the narrow envelope it likes to call home. Moderate your speeds, channel your inner hipster and there is hardly any motorcycle that looks or feels cooler to ride in India. But outside that boundary, the T100 feels out of its depth in ways that a 900 cc motorcycle really shouldn’t, and it makes me want to recommend the T120 which might use its extra grunt to push the boundary.

It is clear the Triumph Bonneville T100 is the motorcycle that is better adjusted to our conditions. Its soft suspension makes it vastly easier to live with on a daily basis than the Harley-Davidson Roadster. In fact, the inability to absorb our roads effectively is also the reason why the Ducati Scrambler is also not as good as the T100 in daily use. The Ducati is, of course, a lot more capable, but still. In fact, if you are serious about riding, none of these three in their bone-stock setup are good enough. And if that is your personal perspective on riding - like riding a lot - then you will either have to wait for something new to come, or order a stack of parts to change these motorcycles into something more to your taste. Or, here's what we recommend. We say you should hold on to your money and look at the segment one notch below where the Triumph Bonneville T100, Ducati Scrambler and the Harley-Davidson Roadster sit - it's packed full of good options!


Published Date: Jun 02, 2017 02:36 pm | Updated Date: Jun 02, 2017 02:36 pm