SUVs soared in popularity in the 90s. Was it because they held lots of stuff? Were easier to get in and out of than passenger cars? Sat up higher so drivers had better visibility? Projected a tough, macho image? Made you feel as if you’d be safe on any kind of road in any kind of weather? The answer is “yes,” and if the Adventure-Tourer is the two-wheeled equivalent of the SUV, that genre is gaining in popularity for many of the same reasons.
And of course the benchmark for that genre is BMW’s Gelandestrasse (GS) series, now rolling over hill and dale for 30-plus years. That bike’s success has spawned an army of imitators, although none have ever really matched its sales success. But Triumph is never a company to shy away from a challenge—its struggle to make a name in the supersport category was a decade-long epic—so behold the Explorer 1200 (already the subject of a favorable MD first ride impression).
Building a better supersport is hard—in the time it takes to develop a new model, the state-of-the-art becomes yesterday’s news. Luckily, the BMW R1200GS is a slower target—its last major update was in 2005, although the motor has been improved since then. Now it’s easy—take what people like about the GS and leave off what they don’t like. Add a little Triumph character, price it lower than the GS and you’re done.
Well, it isn’t really that easy. Triumph’s design team realized it needed a whole new engine, which meant a whole new chassis, and so on. The power-plant is a good one, though—a 1215cc, liquid-cooled, 12-valve Triple (what else?) putting out a claimed 137 horsepower (and you’ll see it again in Triumph’s newly announced 1200 Trophy). Chassis is a tube-steel trellis that puts 59.4 inches between the wheels. Atop that is piled all the features a modern adventure tourer needs—ABS and traction control (standard), adjustable seat (between 33 and 34 inches), 5.3-gallon tank, mega-complete instrumentation, mounts for hard luggage, shaft drive, fully adjustable suspension, and of course, the 19-inch front and 17-inch rear wheel combo that seems to be the choice for pavement-oriented Adventure Tourers like this and the GS.
That’s right: “The Explorer’s a road bike first and foremost,” Triumph Product Manager Simon Warburton told the U.K.’s Motorcycle Sport and Leisure. That means it’s more of a sport-tourer than adventure tourer. Sure, it’ll probably do okay on smooth fire roads and that kind of thing, but that brings me back to the SUV: the dirtbike seating position and tough styling means you can be comfortable without looking like an old dude on a boring bike. The Explorer has a very cushy seat, upright seating position that’s more 1980s UJM than motocrosser and decent wind protection—but it also has the handling, brakes and performance you’d get out of your average sport-tourer, without the weight.
Oh, yeah—weight. If there’s a disadvantage to the Explorer, it’s the bike’s lardiness. You can really feel it when you ride—the bike steers slower than I expected and if you’re a fellow little dude (I’m 5’6″ and 150 pounds) you may also experience the occasional “oh shit” moment when the heft and high seat conspire to make low-speed parking-lot maneuvers treacherous. It’s not unmanageable, but it feels every ounce of its 577-pound claimed wet weight, 60 more pounds than the BMW is packing. What is that, four bowling balls?
So here’s the good part: Not only do you get an extra 35 hp, the power feels much smoother and more refined than the BMW. It’s also instantly accessible in just about any gear, the torque curve is so flat and the vibration so minimal. It’s also pretty good on gas consumption (we saw about 40 mpg on our test, riding a lot of twisty roads at high speeds), and thanks to the new motor design, it will work with 87-octane gas: good news if you want to ride to Baja. If you’re wondering about exhaust heat, don’t: we rode in triple-digit temps and it wasn’t an issue (although we didn’t ride in a traffic jam, off road, or nude).
Also useful if you’re touring: the driveshaft doesn’t require the dreaded regular spline lubing of the BMW and should be quite durable (and major services are 20,000 miles apart). I have heard there are entire micro-economies in Baja that have grown up around BMW driveshaft repair shops. I also noted that the Triumph’s driveshaft geometry prevents squat under acceleration, something very noticeable if you swap between the Triumph and a Paralever-equipped BMW.
Riding the Explorer is a lot like driving a small SUV. It has better carrying capacity and unpaved-road ability than a large standard, has more road presence, offers better visibility for the rider and is very comfortable. Like driving an SUV, at first you want to hold a little more in reserve when it comes to riding fast, but as you get used to the bulk and heft—and the smooth, creamy waves of torque—your confidence mounts and you can corner harder, come off turns faster and ride it like a smaller, more nimble bike. And you can take a passenger (the wide, high passenger seat and humane peg placement make this bike great for pillion riders) as well as a bunch of your crap in the optional locking hard luggage.
So boom! Triumph built a very good motorcycle, one that retains that three-cylinder Tiger character (don’t forget that Hinkley Triumph has been building Tigers since the ’90s) while taking on BMW’s iconic GS. In many ways—power, braking, comfort—the Explorer bests the Beemer, and does it for $15,699, including traction control and ABS (standard). It’s a well-designed product that does the job and will have a loyal following—just like the BMW.
Second Take: Alan Lapp
Gabe and I set off from the sweet-natured, moderate climes of the East Bay into the scorching heat of the Sacramento River Delta on a 2012 Triumph Explorer 1200 for some great riding roads chosen for the minimal frequency of attendance by local constabulary. One-hundred fifty miles, two ferry rides, and countless amber waves of grain later, we had a good sense of how it behaves.
One immediate impression was how the pictures I’ve seen somehow lie to me. The actual bike seems quite a bit bigger than in photos. Perhaps it’s the wheels—19 inches in the front, 17 in the rear, or the sexy single-sided swingarm that fool the eye. Let’s just say that if you’ve been eyeballing the new Explorer on the Internet, and you buy your pants in the husky boys section down at Sears, you might want to look elsewhere for your new adventure bike fix (or you could try adjusting the seat —ed.).
Slot the key into the ignition lock, and about a dozen indicator lamps and a large LCD come to life on the dashboard. There is a lot to appreciate about the Triumph’s dash: the LCD can provide quite a bit of interesting and/or distracting information such as overall fuel economy, and instantaneous mpg. Oh, and air temperature, which will display in Fahrenheit or Celsius if you’re grumpy about the near triple-digit heat—38 degrees just sounds better.
There are enough features on the bike that require fingertip operation that both switch housings are rather crowded. I had to actually search out the kill switch and starter buttons before we could get underway. We didn’t spend much time on the freeway, so I never engaged the electronic cruise control, but I feel it’s a desirable feature for long-distance riding. Speaking of electronics, the Explorer uses throttle-by-wire, and it works in a truly transparent fashion: throttle pull is light, power delivery is smooth, and unlike my KTM 690, which uses a similar system, the motor never does anything you didn’t ask it to do, or fails to do something you did ask for.
On the road, the motor is a delight. It’s not quite as silky as Triumph’s smaller Triples, but it has a very broad spread of meaty power throughout its rev range. Triumph really got it right: it develops gratuitous lunge for passing nearly anywhere on the tach, and yet, it’s a complete pussycat to ride. If a sportbike motor is peaky, then the Explorer motor is the opposite—bear with me while I make up a new moto-journalist cliché—it’s plain-y, or plateau-y or, how about… mesa-y? Whatever you call it, it makes it easy to ride, and enjoyable to flog. The exhaust note is throaty yet subdued.
Handling is surprisingly spry for a 577-pound motorcycle. It’s a fun bike to chuck around corners. The solid, stable, slightly slow steering is confidence inspiring. The Explorer is reasonably well sprung and damped, and the suspension adjusters have a useful range of damping. The brakes are very effective, however, braking feel is somewhat surprising: they have a lot of initial bite, which I consider odd given the nominal off-pavement aspirations of this bike. They’re fine street bike brakes, but off-road, they need to be treated with kid gloves.
Triumph has assembled a comprehensive line of accessories for the Explorer which include luggage, a skid plate, crash bars, driving lights, a tall/soft seat, a tall windscreen and heated hand grips. I’d bet the ranch that the aftermarket is already gearing up to supply additional modifications and farkles to further enhance this already highly-functional bike. And don’t worry—that 950-watt alternator will power just about everything you could want to bring along.
Triumph has clearly painted a big red bullseye on the BMW GS Adventure. From the single-sided swingarm to the rugged, angular lines, they are almost twins separated at birth. One whispers “Macht schnell!” in your ear, the other shouts “Tally ho, old chap!” It’s comfortable, and long-legged. Adventure bikes are the new touring bikes, and I like the change. I could see myself crossing time zones on one of these.
Motorcycle Daily was able to do this story thanks to the generosity of Torsten Jacobsen, who has put a few thousand miles on his spanking-new Explorer. It is equipped with some Triumph factory accessories, including a taller windscreen, crashbars and foglamps.