2003 Benelli Tornado

November 12, 2002
By Glenn LeSanto
2002 Benelli Tornado Tre
2002 Benelli Tornado Tre

Tornado Tre-at!

Italian sportbikes rarely fail to make us drool, whether they be the regular-exotic machines from Ducati, the exotic Aprilias or the ultra-exotic MV Agustas.

Well, there’s another player on the way from the land of la dolce vita: the Benelli Tornado Tre. It’s been a long time since the Tornado first stunned the public at its debut in 1999, but the outrageous Italian bikes are finally rolling off the Benelli production line.

Just 40 of the limited edition versions of the Tre will make it to these shores at a catch-your-breath price of $36,500, scheduled to arrive at Benelli’s 25 U.S. dealers by October. The standard “biposto” version (without the Limited’s slathering of carbon fiber and magnesium) is nearly half the price at $18,950, with 600 units arriving later in the fall.

We were panting to get our hot little hands on an example, but we couldn’t wait to find out whether it’s as impressive to ride as it is to look at. Our Euro-scribe Glenn LeSanto has the inside line with the Pesaro, Italy-based factory, and the following are his impressions of the Tornado Tre Limited Edition.

One of the great things about being a motorcycle journalist is that I often see a fantastic new bike at a show and think, “I must ride that!” Unlike back in the mists of time when I was a flat-broke despatch rider visiting the annual bike shows at the NEC in England, I now actually stand a good chance of riding the latest subject of my drools! And so it was to be with the Benelli Tornado.

When I first clapped my jaded eyes on the Benelli Tornado at the Milan motorcycle show way back in 1999, I was like most of those around me amazed. The bike is drop-dead gorgeous, and it is a radical step in a new direction with its sharp styling and stacked front lights. It’s something really different from the shell-suited Jap-rockets and even the king of moto-sartorial elegance itself, the Ducati 916.

Styling is radical, and the radiator under the seat leads to a cool, wasp-waisted form. Twin yellow propellers cooling fans, actually at the rear finish off the mouth watering visuals. From that moment on, I promised myself I’d get to ride that bike.

2002 Benelli Tornado Tre
The bike absolutely drips with top designer label gear. Ohlins suspension, Marchesini wheels and Brembo brakes combine with carbon fiber, titanium and billet alloy everywhere.

Fast-forward almost three years. As I fastened the strap of my Shark helmet with the Tornado number 3 of 150 idling in front of me, I realised that the moment had finally come. But would the bike live up to my expectations, or would I find it a big letdown as I have with one or two other bikes I’d lusted after in the past? There was only way to find out, so I prodded the exquisitely fashioned gear lever and selected first.

My first impressions were mostly good. The rear-mounted radiator and air ducts that route cold air to it make the seat height on the high side, but I’m tall so it didn’t bother me on the flat ground of the Benelli car park. Later on when attempting to turn the bike on a really steep Italian village road, I was struggling to reach the ground on the downward side of the slope. Shorter riders would probably have bailed at this point.

The tight and indifferently surfaced roads didn’t give me the chance to test the bike’s maximum grip. Out on the road the thing that grabbed my attention first and foremost was the fantastic exhaust noise. Music to the ears poured from the titanium kit end-can. The Tre Limited Edition comes with a road-legal pipe, but a fruitier, ahem, “track use only” pipe is included in the little box of goodies that accompany each bike.

The noise stirred memories of my Laverda Jota I owned as a kid – noisy, raucous and slightly rough, a signature noise from a Triple. There’s a hint of Triumph’s Daytona there, including a measure of the Trumpet’s mechanical rustle. Benelli also include a paddock stand, a bespoke bike-cover, adjusters for swingarm ride height and steering head angle, and a different rear sprocket to change the gearing.

You’d have to be a soulless type to resist fitting the kit pipe, thus liberating the tunes waiting to howl free from the 898cc triple. I love the sound of a three-cylinder and the Tornado’s is all-too easy to love. I couldn’t resist cracking the throttle wide open and howling the bike up and down to the redline just for the hell of it as I rode out into the hills around Pesaro. Compared to the kit pipe, the standard sounds very sanitised.

The Tre’s fuel-injection mapping is something that garnered negative comments from testers of the pre-production model. But gradually Benelli have chased out most of the gremlins that were mainly hanging around in the low rev range. The bike still needs a careful technique to start it once it’s hot: This involves not touching the throttle when you stab the starter button and then giving it a deft and exact twist once she begins to fire. Benelli hopes to have the last imperfections ironed out soon and, with EFI, any progress is easy to retro-fit to older bikes. But I was pleasantly surprised to find the bike ran very well at low revs, and it pulled easily from just over 2,500 revs without hesitation.

2002 Benelli Tornado Tre
Take a look at the little box of goodies: This kind of quality is what you pay for – that and the kudos of owning what already is, and no doubt will remain, a very collectable motorcycle.

There’s a degree of surging if you hold a very small throttle opening, but then I’ve experienced exactly the same feeling from the likes of BMW’s 1150cc Flat-Twin range. The bike also tends to pick up too sharply when coming off idle. It’s not bad in hard use, but you’ll notice it in heavy traffic should you be foolish enough to ride the bike in such conditions.

Sagem, who developed the single injector per cylinder system, were also responsible for the injection management on the Triumph TT600 four. The problems were very similar on that bike. No surprise then to hear that Sagem recently went bust!

Being a Triple, it’s not as smooth as a Four, but then it doesn’t beat as hard as a Twin either. Instead, it occupies a delicious area in between that I’ve been enjoying ever since I owned my Jota (also an Italian triple) far too long ago to want to admit in public! At the upper rev range you can feel the motor vibrating through the handlebars, but I didn’t find it intrusive in the least, perhaps thanks to its counterbalancer. The midrange is possibly the best part of the motor, riding the big 74 ft. lb. torque wave at around 5000 to 9000 rpm is addictive, especially when done to the accompaniment of that open pipe!

The bike isn’t as brain-out fast as the R1, but it’s by no means a slug! There is a strong kick in the pants in the midrange and a pretty determined surge all the way to the 11,500 redline. Low-down power is also impressive, as there’s plenty of guts in this motorcycle once you’ve stepped over the very-low-rev hesitancy still lurking in the EFI set-up.

The bike, at 36 grand, probably isn’t going to be raced much; in fact, I doubt that many a Tornado Tre will make it out of the glass display case. That’s sad because anyone who buys one and doesn’t ride it may well be maximising his investment, but he’ll definitely be missing the fantastic experience of riding this lusty Triple.

The six-speed cassette gearbox was very sweet, and the dry clutch was progressive with a light pull. The clutch did start to complain when it was thoroughly abused in 90-degree air temperatures while messing about for pictures in a small Italian village. Turning the bike and riding slowly up and down the main street for photos put stacks of heat into the engine, the clutch and because of that under-seat radiator the rider! The water temp hit maximum, the clutch got grabby and I sweated off several pounds. Benelli put the radiator under the seat to allow for a streamlined front end for the machine and to optimise weight distribution, but it had a difficult time keeping the temperatures in check in this unique situation. Once out on the open road again, the clutch and engine cooled quickly and there seemed to be no ill effects.

2002 Benelli Tornado Tre
The tight and indifferently surfaced roads didn’t give me the chance to test the bike’s maximum grip.

The bike absolutely drips with top designer label gear. Ohlins suspension, Marchesini wheels and Brembo brakes combine with carbon fiber, titanium and billet alloy everywhere. The metallic green paint is deep and lustrous, and it seemed to come alive under the Italian sun. The instrument console is classy with soft yellow faces and a mix of analogue and digital readouts. The cycle parts, such as the wheels, footpegs, handlebars, magnesium engine casings, yokes and details are all stunning, reminding me of the sort of workmanship Bimota’s boasted in their heyday. This kind of quality is what you pay for that and the kudos of owning what already is, and no doubt will remain, a very collectable motorcycle.

Designer labels in most walks of life are just that labels. They serve little practical purpose and often don’t mean you’re getting anything extra for the heady price you’ve just paid. Not so with the likes of Ohlins and Brembo. The front brakes are powerful and progressive and the rear well balanced. The fully-adjustable suspension is firm yet compliant, and it easily soaked up some terrible road surfaces that dot the Italian back roads. The steering is precise and the handling effortless – just as you’d expect from an Italian thoroughbred that tips the scales at a lithe 408 lbs.

The frame is a mix of chromoly steel tubes and a hollow cast-alloy box-section rear. The banana-style swingarm is very pretty, as are the gorgeous Marchesini forged aluminum wheels. The rake angle is adjustable between 22.5 and 24.5 degrees, and the swingarm pivot height is also adjustable using parts supplied in the kit.

While the tight and indifferently surfaced roads didn’t give me the chance to test the bike’s maximum grip, they did show up a little nervousness from the bike. The bike was fitted with some decidedly second-hand Dunlop 208s that had been borrowed from a Supersport racer after the Misano WSB race, and a set of rubber that hadn’t been fried likely would have helped.

The riding position is just right for me, not too radical but sporty enough to justify the bike’s million-mile-an-hour looks. The sharp back-edge of the petrol tank might change the family planning schedule of a few male riders, though, especially with those brilliant Brembos up front. The reach to the bars is not too far of a reach, and the angle of the clip-ons didn’t give me any wrist ache after 100 miles of twisty Italian asphalt.

All bikes have their faults, it’s just that nowadays you have to be really critical to find them. For me, the tall seat height of the Tornado wasn’t really a problem, but shorter riders are going to struggle. Benelli say this will be fixed for the twin seat, or Biposto, volume-production Tornado due this autumn.

2002 Benelli Tornado Tre
The three-cylinder powerplant has a great combination of low-end grunt and high-revving power for the street.

The fuel injection is better than it was but still not 100%. It works well where it matters, though, like when the bike is properly underway at sporting speeds.

The amount of heat coming up from the saddle on a hot day in Italy suggests the under-seat radiator set-up isn’t ideal for the rider. The speed at which the water got up to almost boiling point also suggests it’s not ideal for the engine either. But I have seen several liquid-cooled bikes get into the temperature red-zone very quickly in similar circumstances.

The mirrors looked flash but didn’t appear to be adjustable at all. No problem in Italy where the police just wave at speeding Italian motorcycles, but it could prove harmful to the wallet when dealing with over-zealous highway patrolmen.

Faults aside, the Tornado is a bike that rapidly charms the rider. It has that essential component that all expensive motorcycle simply must possess character. Making a bike go fast and handle well is no longer a black art, and the technology and knowledge to do this is available to most manufacturers. But there are still some mighty companies that seem to be unable to pack the priceless character stuff into their machines. Benelli have crammed just about as much of it in as any motorcycle can fit. And they’ve added classy components, fabulous looks and a badge that could well prove to be one of the most sought-after in years to come.

Would I pay $36,500 for one? I think if I had that sort of money to burn, I’d buy two one to ride and one to preserve in a glass case as an investment! This is going to be a very valuable motorcycle as time goes on, and that second machine might one day pay for the delicious pleasure of riding the first!