Triumph has created the next generation of a retro, high-pipe, off-road desert sled that works equally as good on the street.
Story by: Alan Cathcart
Crossover cars are becoming ever more popular, as passenger car platforms are increasingly used to create a multipurpose vehicle with the space and practicality of an SUV, but the comfort and handling of a sedan. The same thing with bikes – the most obvious example being BMW’s succession of bestselling GS models, or Honda’s NC750X and CB500X, all attempting to deliver the best of both worlds without one compromising the other.
But now Triumph has delivered a pair of crossover models that seek to answer a different question: how to combine retro cool with modern functionality in a dual-purpose motorcycle. Call it a crossover Crossover. That’s the conundrum that faced Triumph’s chief engineer, Stuart Wood, and his R&D team three and a half years ago when they began work on creating the new-for-2019 Scrambler 1200 XC and XE variants. To do so, they took the all-new 1,198 cc, liquid-cooled, parallel-twin T120 engine they’d just launched to power the new generation of larger-capacity Bonneville models, headed by the Thruxton café racer.
Rather than concocting a powered-up version of the 900 cc Street Scrambler, which, just as it says on the label, has only minimal off-road pretensions, Wood’s design brief was to develop a pair of crossover bikes with the Bonneville family’s traditional twin-shock neo-classic styling, and that were just as adept both on- and off-road as the company’s thoroughly modern 800XR/XC dual-purpose triples. So in this way, Triumph is seeking to restate the genuine nature of the Scrambler nametag that it first laid claim to years ago, long before BMW or Ducati ever used the name today on what amount to custom street models.
In doing this, Triumph has taken another long look in its corporate rearview mirror to launch these modern classics as a tribute to one of the most successful models in its 1960s classic-era lineup, the go-anywhere Trophy street enduro. Amid all the furor when Ducati launched its Scrambler sub-brand back in 2014, it was conveniently overlooked that it was actually Triumph that invented the street-legal scrambler category back in 1949 with the TR5 Trophy, so named after the three Speed Twin-based bikes that the British company built for the 1948 ISDT in Italy, winning three gold medals and the Manufacturers Team trophy in that gruelling event.
The street-legal spinoffs that followed powered Triumph’s expansion in the U.S., where dual-purpose street scramblers became a big deal in the ’60s, with Triumph twins the class kingpins that dominated desert racing and enduro events for the next two decades. Ducati only joined in with the 250 Scrambler single in 1962, a smaller-capacity ripoff of the concept conceived by its American importer Berliner. And BMW never produced a model with off-road capability until the 1980 launch of the R80G/S.
The chance to evaluate how well Wood’s team has succeeded in doing this came on a two-day press launch in southern Portugal, with Day 1 devoted to off-road riding along trails made muddy after a day-long deluge, and Day 2 in eventual bright sunshine after a morning of further rain along the fabulous traffic-light, sweeping, swooping mountain roads behind the Algarve region’s tourist-heavy coastline. The XC is the everyday, tarmac-friendly version of the two, with the XE (as in E for Extreme) being the more off-road focused. Both bikes are powered by the same liquid-cooled, parallel-twin, eight-valve, 1,198 cc Bonneville engine, which uses race-style finger cam followers rather than traditional bucket and shim valvegear.
But rather than detune the performance of these dual-purpose models to the level of the T120 Bonneville by using this engine in that model’s HT (High Torque) guise, Wood decided to employ the more powerful HP (High Power) variant fitted to the Thruxton – and then enhance it considerably for dual-purpose use. “We’ve done quite a lot of work on reducing both mass and inertia in the HP engine,” he says. “The mass reduction comes from a lightweight magnesium cam cover, plus a mass-optimized clutch cover, and we also lightened the rotating parts, including the alternator and the crankshaft. This gives a lower rotating weight and a reduced rotating mass, so the engine picks up revs quicker. It’s a comprehensive makeover, even though we kept the same cam profiles as before.”
So, the HP Bonneville 1200 engine, in dedicated Scrambler tune running the same 11:1 compression ratio as in its Thruxton format, now delivers 12.5 per cent more power than the Bonneville T120 and 38 per cent more than the 900 cc Street Scrambler, albeit seven per cent less powerful than the Thruxton.
But Wood and his team have delivered the best of both worlds by massaging the engine’s torque delivery to peak at 81 ft-lb at a low 3,950 rpm, less than halfway to the rev limiter. That’s just 1.5 ft-lb less than the Thruxton, but with a much wider spread of grunt throughout the rev range. This output comes with the aid of the beautifully crafted stainless steel headers and twin high-level, brushed stainless steel silencers, and delivers what Triumph describes as “a deep, punchy scrambler sound.” Personally, I thought it sounded great in delivering the best of both worlds, with more of what you need when you need it than any other 1200 Bonneville variant.
Just as on all the new-generation Bonnevilles, the Scrambler 1200 duo’s Keihin ECU features a ride-by-wire throttle with a choice of five riding modes (Road, Rain, Off-Road, Sport and a rider-configurable Custom setting), all of which deliver the same peak power, but with its delivery varied by adjusting throttle response. The ECU also controls ABS operation that was developed in conjunction with Continental, and the five-stage traction-control settings.
The Scrambler 1200 XE also features an Off-Road Pro mode, which switches off ABS and traction control altogether, and offers a dirt-friendly throttle map. Switching modes on the move is a simple operation – just close the throttle, press the M-button on the left switchgear, then pull in the clutch to confirm the swap. Worth noting: you must also hold in the clutch lever to start the Scramblers, even in neutral, though the clutch action is extremely light, denoting the presence of Triumph’s so-called slip-assist design. That’s its version of a slipper clutch, though with more engine braking left in than is usual with this technology, which means that on winding country roads where you can hold third gear for kilometres on end, you need only rarely do more than caress the front brake lever occasionally to slow for a tighter turn. Just concentrate on swinging from one side to another through a series of turns, and the inherent engine braking will slow you just sufficiently to keep up turn speed to the desired degree.
The same impeccable shifting six-speed gearbox fitted to the T120 and Thruxton is retained here with unchanged ratios. So light and smooth, yet precise, it’s undoubtedly Triumph’s best yet, and is literally beyond criticism, with clutchless upward changes a matter of course for all except from first to second, where you must use the clutch to help negotiate neutral.
A Forgiving Engine
The engine powering this new pair of Scrambler 1200 models is more than adequately potent, while also meaty in its delivery thanks to that wide spread of torque from very low revs. It pulls cleanly away in top gear from as low as 1,800 rpm without any trace of transmission snatch, with that early peak torque being maintained all the way to the soft 7,500 rpm rev limiter. It’s an invigorating and involving motorcycle to ride, mainly because it’s eager to build revs without being snatchy off the mark (thanks to the lighter crankshaft and other internals), yet remains a relaxing, easy ride if you choose to hold a gear and surf the torque curve.
The first touch of throttle is smooth and controllable in all riding modes – a key element of user-friendliness riding off-road in such slippery conditions as we faced in Portugal. The Sport riding mode has a crisp but controllable throttle response, and its fuel mapping is that word again: impeccable – it’s really well done. Both Scramblers are responsive without being fierce or snatchy, even from a closed throttle, and in spite of the lightened crank, I ended up using third gear much of the time, even in traffic. Top gear at 130 km/h equals 4,000 rpm, which makes a nice cruising speed for this high-barred motorcycle – go much faster than that and you’ll have to hold on so increasingly tightly that it becomes tiring. For those who insist on doing so, this is very much a ton-up trailie.
Third gear will take you from 40 km/h at 2,000 revs all the way to 130 km/h at 7,000 rpm, where it’s best to change up as you feel the engine start to get a little breathless – strange, since peak power still hasn’t been attained – so holding this for kilometres on end, even through towns and villages, makes this a semi-automatic motorcycle whose broad spread of torque is especially useful off-road.
The spinoff spec from the Thruxton is confined to the engine, because the modular format chassis used by the Scrambler 1200 duo are brand new, with a tubular steel duplex cradle frame mated to aluminum engine plates. Each version of Scrambler has a subtly different geometry, with a shorter 1,530 mm wheelbase for the tarmac-focused XC, which also sees its fully adjustable 45 mm Showa USD fork set at a 25.8-degree rake with 121 mm of trail in delivering an already off-road-friendly 200 mm of wheel travel. But the dirt-focused XE is even more extreme, with a 1,570 mm wheelbase and fatter 47 mm USD Showa fork set at a 26.9-degree rake with a hefty 129.2 mm rake in pursuit of greater stability off-road.
Both versions feature twin-shock rear suspension courtesy of Öhlins, with the XE delivering a massive 250 mm rear wheel travel thanks to the specially developed, ultra-long (520 mm) rear shocks from the Swedish suspension sultans, each with dual coil-over variable-rate springs, whose…