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2009 Triumph Bonneville SE Comparison

Wednesday, September 2, 2009
2009 Triumph Bonneville SE
The latest Triumph Bonneville continues a model series stretching back to 1959, when the British firm took its name in honor of its land speed racing success in the 1950s.
The Bonneville moniker first affixed itself to Triumph’s 650cc Parallel Twin-powered T120 in 1959, a high-performance ride through the ‘60s that earned its classy moniker as a tribute to the land speed racing exploits of the British marque during the 1950s. A second Bonneville incarnation, dubbed the T140, upped displacement to 750cc but ended production with Triumph’s decline and near obliteration in the early ‘80s. The Bloor restoration of the historic English marque saw the Bonneville’s return in 2001, where it has since anchored the company’s Modern Classics. 

Triumph expanded the Bonneville line by two additional models, with an all-new base model and SE version. The two join the long-standing Bonneville T100, which continues in the Modern Classic line, relegating its spot as the flagship to the new Bonneville. The new Bonnie varies from its T100 with smaller ergos and wheels, the hoops being two inches smaller and cast instead of wire-spoked. As for the difference between the base Bonneville and the SE, it’s cosmetic, with the SE sporting a tank badge, aluminum engine cases and a two-tone paint scheme with pinstripe, as well as the inclusion of a useful tachometer on the instrument console. All three Bonnevilles, as well as the entire 2009 Modern Classic Twins, are fuel injected for the first time to meet US emissions.

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2009 Triumph Bonneville SE vs. Ducati GT1000 Touring
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Right out of the box, the Bonneville struck an authentic chord in the looks department. The Bonneville SE we tested generated, by far, the most awestruck praise from roadside gawkers – quite a compliment considering Ducati’s undoubted skill at producing sexy bikes. And this was in spite of the SE’s lack of wire-spoked wheels, which is such a huge part of the vintage look. Were I to purchase a Bonneville, I’d have to tap the wire-spoked T100 for this very reason alone. The Trumpet scores a big win over the Duc in the very subjective styling comparison.

As for the motor, the Triumph’s 865cc Parallel Twin doesn’t measure up to the Ducati, down 127cc to it competitor. Engine performance expectations have dramatically inflated since the Bonnie’s debut 50 years ago. The modern Twin cranks 58 horsepower at the rear wheel and 44 lb-ft torque. It doesn’t take long at the controls to realize the Bonneville motor is tuned for a more leisurely riding approach - much different than the Ducati’s rip-snorting L-Twin.

Yet the Triumph Twin delivers enough pep to motor up to triple digits and is spunky in its 4000 rpm sweet spot. The old riding bromide about riding a slow bike fast rings true on the Bonneville –  a rider with moderate skills will be pushing the Twin to its limit. There’s a certain thrill in that.

2009 Triumph Bonneville SE
While the Bonneville Twin can't match the Ducati, it delivers seamless power and is very user-friendly for entry-level riders.
Seamless power delivery and user-friendly throttle feel highlight the Twin’s traits. Considering it’s the first year of fuel-injection for the Modern Classics, Triumph nailed it first time around. The two-stage choke, unlike the carbs, is real and needed on cold starts. As for those façade carbs, explaining them to curious onlookers is an amusing novelty at parking lots and gas stations – particularly to riders who claimed they could tell the Bonnie was carbureted by its sound or smell…

Smooth and easy, a rider can’t get lost in the Triumph’s 5-speed gearbox. Teamed with one of the lightest clutch lever pulls we’ve sampled, the transmission lends itself well to entry-level riders who won’t be missing shifts or fumbling with neutral at stop lights.

One disc down up front compared to the dual-disc Ducati, the Triumph brakes without drama via a single 310mm rotor up front. Head to head, the Duc’s dual Brembo calipers deliver superior feel, but Triumph’s Nissin 2-piston caliper binders make confident, controlled stops. While the lever is stiffer on the Triumph, there weren’t any helter skelter moments for us under hard braking.

2009 Triumph Bonneville SE
The Triumph Bonneville can hustle around the corners alright, but not with the precision or high-speed confidence the Ducati's suspension provides.
After the motor, handling performance is where the Triumph loses the most ground on the Ducati. Its softer 41mm Kayaba fork hinders high-speed maneuvering, and while the dual rear shocks (also Kayaba) are pre-load adjustable, railing in tight terrain overtaxes both the suspension units. That said, the Bonneville handles sharp at lower speeds with its low center of gravity, and is one of the easiest-to-ride shifting motorbikes we’ve ever sampled.

The Bonneville ergonomics fit smaller-statured riders well, Triumph lowering the seat height to 29.5 inches and repositioning the bars down and toward the rider. While it didn’t gel as well with my 6’1” frame (probably anyone approaching 5’10” will be too big) the riding position is upright, standard and comfortable, except for one big, huge, gigantic, stupendous caveat (brace yourself, a seat diatribe on its way…).

Short distance jaunts on the Bonnie are fine, but we started getting uncomfortable after about 100 miles, perturbed at 150, and delirious about the 200-mile mark in the Triumph’s excruciating saddle. The new Bonneville’s seat height is lower, in part, because they sculpted some foam out. Bad idea! I wondered how the SE’s seat would hold up on long distance rides during our brief sub-100-mile test ride at the official press launch in New Orleans. Now I know, and my tookus still whines, “remember that day you rode 250 miles on the Bonneville SE? Man, I will never forgive your ass for that!”

2009 Triumph Bonneville SE
The 2009 Bonneville is a good fit for smaller riders, with a low 29.5 inch seat height and bars repositioned down and closer to the rider.
Admitting that… The two-inch lower seat height, along with a narrower tank, makes the Bonneville feel way smaller than the Ducati, even though at 497 lbs (472 lbs tank empty) it is actually a full 31 lbs heavier. The small dimensions make mincemeat out of those tricky low-speed maneuvers that really jump out and bite beginners.

The Bonneville and GT recorded almost identical fuel efficiency – the Triumph edging out a 48.6 to 47.3 mpg advantage. The Bonneville has a slightly bigger fuel tank too, 4.2 gal to 3.9 gal, with a theoretical range near 200 miles. The strange thing is the Bonneville always seemed to want gas first during our 750-mile test ride with the low fuel light constantly coming on (the Speed Triple registered a similar complaint during our 2007 street fighter test). Not a mystery is which bike is easier to fill, with the Bonneville splashing gas out on more than one occasion and the fuel cap fully detaching from the bike (easy to misplace for scatter brained test riders…).

Solid fit and finish round out an attractive, if Spartan, instrument package. The SE’s analog right-side tach teams well with the left-side speedo (the standard Bonneville not offering a tach). A fuel gauge would be appreciated, though there’s no real room for one, just a couple idiot lights and neutral, high-beam and turn signal indicator lights.

Highs & Lows
  • One of the most user-friendly and easiest bikes to ride on the market
  • Attractive price an affordable entry into the vintage niche
  • Diminutive ergos will be well received by smaller-statured riders
  • Performance underwhelming for the adrenalized crowd
  • Lack of wire wheels mar otherwise perfect vintage style
  • Seat not a Bonny wee bunny
The Bonneville delivers a lot of bang for the buck. At $8399 for the SE and $7699 for the standard Bonneville, it’s 30-35% less expensive than the Ducati! I have to admit, however, that I’d spring the extra $400 for the $8799 T100 for the wire-spoked wheels alone. (The T100, which is unchanged for 2009 except for being fuel injected, is a much better fit ergonomically for larger riders as well.)

In short, the Bonneville SE is not a bad machine by any means. Power delivery won’t overwhelm newbies but still gets the Trumpet up to respectable cruising speeds. It’s a fun ride and an ideal bike for smaller riders. Faced against the Ducati, however, we imagine if it could talk, even the polite British Twin would acquiesce it does not compare with its sportier Italian rival. The Bonnie still keeps a stiff upper lip, however, secure in its role as an ideal starter bike or sharp-looking play bike for the casual weekend enthusiast.

Triumph Bonneville SE Photo Gallery
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Pete Devine - UK -Bonny Prince Charlie  September 17, 2009 05:47 AM
Just got my Bonnie as a first bike after passing my test in April, and have to agree with all the comments about its usability as a first bike. Looks pretty crash hot too!
Not sure about Bm's comments that lack of wire wheels mar the look. The SE is clearly meant to emulate a different era to that of the T100, and crikey - are those wheels easier to clean!

Good work Triumph!
Mike Morton -Bonneville SE  September 10, 2009 02:20 PM
I had a 2002 bonnie with alot of mods and it was pretty fast,considering it's engine size. I now have a new SE (which I tradded in a Buell Ulyssess, which was geat bike!) So far, I have really enjoyed the fuel injected SE. Yes, the shocks aren't up tp sport bike standards, but the are better than the 2002 model came with. Suspension changes are just a few clicks on the computer away, for the cost of the bike the suspension is fine. I'm 6' yall and I don't find the bike to be too small, and I have ridden over 100 miles and find no fault in the stock seat, but Triumph does sell a gel seat for a reasonable price if you rear end doesn't fit. I grew up with triumph twins, and the new bikes are vastly superior in all ways. I'm sure the Ducati is a great bike, but for me, and many others the bonneville is the machine for us.
Bren Edger -It must be a generational thing  September 2, 2009 07:27 AM
Only a punk kid (and I say that lovingly) would pick a winner with more horsepower but a messed up fuel injection map and only four usable gears. (both emission reduction driven) Live with those two shortcomings for a few months and you will be muttering to yourself at stop lights like us old farts who remember the fun and frustration of original classics of the 60s. Sorry, man, Triumph wins!
James wilson -bonniville  September 2, 2009 03:11 AM
I bought a new bonnie in 05 and have racked up 70,000 miles. Maybe it is not the large ego trip that A 1300cc or bigger bike would be but it sure has stood up to a lot of miles. If you want A nice seat and a smooth ride then take your car''