The big Tiger is back, with the GS in its sights…
Ever convince yourself that a bike is perfect, even before you’ve had a chance to ride it? I’ve done it before, but not usually with money in my pocket and a genuine need to replace a freshly-sold motorcycle at short notice. Watching every video, reading every article, poring over every photo. But you should always try before you buy.
Triumph’s new Tiger 1200 really is all-new. Forget the marketing; a close look is all that it takes to confirm that there are very few, if any, parts carried over from the old Tiger. I was actually a fan of the old ‘Explorer’, even if it wasn’t really the right bike for me. Big engine, comfy seat and cosseting fairing, ample luggage and pillion capacity, and you could even get it with creature comforts like an electric screen, heated grips, and cruise control. Shaft drive was just the icing on the cake – and I know from experience with my Yamaha T-Max that not having to oil or adjust a chain is really, really nice.
The new Tiger has shed weight – a lot of it – and gained power, a neat trick in this era of multi-catalyst exhaust systems and sound-deadening engine casings. Depending on which spec sheet you read it goes toe-to-toe with BMW’s all-conquering R1250GS, and by the time the average owner has slathered either in accessories I doubt there’s really much in it. At around 250kg it’s still a big, heavy bike, and you do feel it at a standstill. But on the move, the big Tiger finally makes the case for factory-fit electronic suspension in a way no other bike has.
With damping adjustable in a dozen steps from the pretty (if slightly slow) dashboard it’s very easy to get the ride dialled in from the saddle. I daresay a specialist with a lot of tools could do better, but for once I can ride a showroom-fresh motorcycle and genuinely find a setup that works for my weight without spending thousands on a rebuild. And that’s just as well because the weight figure isn’t the only thing Triumph is apparently trying to copy from BMW. In top-trim GT Explorer form, it’s a hair over £18,000, and like its boxer-engined competitor, that doesn’t include luggage or any accessories like crash bars.
It has to be said though, up close the Tiger 1200 does a better job of justifying the price tag than the current German option. BMW’s have become increasingly plastic-y in recent years, with unpainted or matte surfaces undermining the luxurious reputation. In contrast, there’s almost nothing to fault about the Triumph’s presentation, with beautifully-finished components on display all over the bike. Look closely and you’ll even find details like stainless-steel fasteners and reusable rubber cable ties – it really seems like no expense has been spared.
I don’t love the microswitch-based buttons, especially the indicators – everything feels a little sticky and is difficult to feel while wearing heavy gloves. And the TFT dashboard, while easy to read, seems to stutter, as though the onboard computer isn’t powerful enough to animate the graphics smoothly. But at least it’s got every option under the sun and can be configured to show you pretty much any information you want, even if it takes a while to figure it all out.
The real story, of course, is the engine. Triumph has done some very interesting things here, not least of which is the deliberate unbalancing of the three-cylinder crankshaft in order to create a lumpier, more twin-cylinder-like feel to the power delivery. They’ve also moved the radiators up and to the side, allowing the entire powerplant to be moved further forward without fouling the front wheel. There’s actually more space still on the road-biased GT model I rode, thanks to the smaller 19″ wheel. Those looking for more fashionable or off-road capable spoked wheels get a 21″ version in the Rally models, though they also suffer a weight penalty and an even taller seat.
And the GT Pro version isn’t exactly small. Everything about the bike seems to be built to 120% normal scale – the distance to and width of the bars, the seat height, and of course the sheer mass of the machine itself. At 170cm and 75kg geared up I once again feel like I’m a good few sizes smaller in every dimension than the intended target market. Even the bend of the handlebars seems to expect my shoulders to be a whole size wider, with bigger hands to reach the levers. Just as well modern clutches are so light and easy to pull, and at least the wide bars make the bike easy to steer.
And boy, does it steer nicely. I still think the BMW R1250GS still wins by a hair on front-end feel, but it’s astonishing how quickly and comfortably I can throw around this heavyweight adventure-touring monster. But unlike the BMW, the rumbling, growling engine snarls as you rev it out, the full 150bhp catapulting you forwards and the speedometer upwards at a truly exhilarating rate. The seamless up/down quick shifter works at any speed, any throttle opening, encouraging you to open ‘er up one more time and hear that intoxicating roar from the airbox.
It’s just as well that the massive Brembo brakes on the front wheel are up to the task, as you often find yourself arriving at corners far sooner – and far faster – than you’d expected. But with the latest lean-sensitive rider aids and sticky rubber, the Tiger 1200 genuinely feels unflappable, even on rough, pockmarked Northamptonshire roads. I challenge anyone to ride this bike hard and keep a grin off their face.
Unfortunately for me, this is where it all started to go wrong. I’m no stranger to wrestling oversized bikes around, nor to swapping out handlebars and levers to get a better post-showroom ergonomic fit. The windshield isn’t great, but that can be changed, and the drivetrain snatch is a small price to pay for never having to oil or adjust a chain ever again. But one thing that won’t ever be fixable is engine vibration – not when it’s as severe as this, and especially not when it’s a deliberate design decision driven by the marketing department.
You see, Triumph’s incredibly-smooth 120-degree even-firing triples have been criticised in the biking press for years as being unsuitable power plants for off-road machinery. The big, lumpy pulses and heavy cranks of twin-cylinder machines are easier to manage at low speeds, more difficult to stall, and bite harder into the dirt – or so the story goes. I’m still not convinced that anyone should really be trying to ride 250-270kg motorcycles anywhere you wouldn’t take a Vespa, and the vast majority of adventure bikes never see more muck than whatever the local farmers have left on the roads. But it’s the image – the fantasy – that sells.
Three-cylinder engines are Triumph’s unique selling point, the main way their bikes are different from everyone else’s, so the chosen solution was to deliberately unbalance the engine’s crankshaft and artificially create the sort of uneven power pulses that journalists apparently crave. I wish they’d thought to ask their own customers. I wish, just for once, that the marketing department hadn’t interfered in the engineering process. Because I’m afraid to say that, for me, this redesigned engine is a disaster.
Sure, it sounds great, and the extra vibration at lower engine speeds adds a bit of character when trundling around town. But as speeds climb into the second half of the rev range the vibration gets worse and worse, becoming a harsh buzz all through the handlebars. Keep the bike on the boil while carving up a series of fast bends and anyone with an ounce of mechanical sympathy would wince – it almost feels broken. But worst of all, it’s painful. I’ve never experienced this before in all my years of riding, but after 5-10 minutes of hard riding, my hands were genuinely going numb from the vibration. I had to back off, change up a few gears, and slow down to let the pins and needles subside as blood flow returned to my extremities. I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who suffers from bad circulation.
The solution, I suppose, would not be to ride that hard, but then why purchase a motorcycle with 150bhp? Why spend what would ultimately be £20,000 on a high-power adventure tourer if you’re going to be forced to trundle around with two-thirds of the power off-limits? It’s heartbreaking, honestly, as with the smooth firing order from their own closely-related Speed Triple Triumph might honestly have had a shot at convincing me to trade in every one of my bikes to scrape together a deposit. You can even choose to order the Tiger with a 30-litre tank, and the idea of being able to comfortably cover over 300 miles without stopping sounds brilliant.
Even without this fatal flaw, the Tiger 1200 isn’t perfect, of course. The peculiar choice to equip even the road-going GT models with an 18″ rear wheel limits tyre choice, with none of the top sport-touring tyres currently available in that size. If you don’t get the higher-spec models you do end up with buttons that don’t do anything, such as for the heated seat that isn’t there. The 10,000-mile service intervals are great, but very expensive, with lots of plastic to remove before mechanics can get to the oily bits. The side stand is too far forward for my stubby legs, and there’s no getting away from the fact that a bike this big and heavy could easily get away from you.
It’s honestly a massive disappointment and one that means I’ll have to keep looking for my own next bike. Other riders may not be bothered by the vibration, and I encourage everyone who can stomach the eye-watering cost to give the Tiger 1200 a fair shake. It’s certainly a match for Bavaria’s best, and you might just find you’ve discovered the perfect high-spec do-it-all motorcycle.
First published in Slipstream February 2023
See Nick’s other reviews here: Boy Meets Bike | Independent motorcycle news, reviews, and analysis