A Triumph over adversity

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Triumph’s 675R proves that what’s left of the British motorcycle industry can still produce world-beating machinery
By Mat Oxley

Twenty years ago it was inconceivable to expect that one day a Triumph like the Daytona 675R might exist. Triumph had been dead for almost a decade when a British businessman brought it back to life in 1990. The first Triumphs built by John Bloor were solid, dependable and much better than most people ever dared dream they would be. But they would never compete with Japan in the ultra-competitive supersport category – high-performance 600cc motorcycles engineered as much for the race track as for the road. That was never going to happen.

Except it has. The Daytona 675R is a better road bike than all four of its Japanese rivals. It is a revelation to ride; indeed it may be the world’s finest-handling production bike.

Triumph’s most sporty motorcycle is astonishingly well balanced, instilling the kind of confidence usually found only on race bikes. Of course, the 675R very nearly is a race bike. It’s an upgraded version of the company’s standard 675 which is aimed at road riders who’d rather be racing, as well as actual racers and track-day addicts. The already brilliant base model has been turned into something sublime by the addition of Öhlins suspension, Brembo brakes and other race-spec parts.

In motorcycling, the best track machine is a two-stroke 250 Grand Prix bike: 100bhp and 100 kilos, a perfect balance. A 250 is wondrous to ride, with beautifully light, accurate steering that allows you to attack corners harder and with more confidence than on other motorcycles. Sadly, the 250 class was recently legislated out of existence as part of the Japanese industry’s drive to rid the world of two-strokes. An act of grievous philistinism, in my humble opinion.

The 675R isn’t a 250 GP bike, but it’s as close as you’ll get on the road. Its three-cylinder 675cc engine makes a claimed 128bhp at just shy of 12,600rpm and the bike weighs 185 kilos.

Some years ago, motorcyclists keen on speed looked down on supersport 600s, preferring the extra performance of 1000cc superbikes. I tended to agree, believing that old adage: there’s no substitute for cubic capacity. But times have changed – specific power outputs have moved on, the roads are busier than ever and speed limits get progressively tighter. So what do you do with a machine that makes more than 190bhp and can do 0-60 in under three seconds? The brain-curdling rush of a BMW S1000R at full throttle is a big adrenaline hit, but in 90 per cent of situations the bike has got at least twice as much power as the rider can think about using. Where’s the fun in that, apart from the ability to achieve the most disgracefully inappropriate speeds between each Gatso speed trap?

*

The 675 is hardly slow. It will do 0-60 in 3.5sec, not much slower than a 1000 where excess of performance creates problems during the early stages of a launch – getting all the power through the back tyre to the Tarmac and keeping the front wheel near the ground isn’t easy. In sixth gear the 675 can just about surpass 160mph, 30mph less than a good 1000. My take on the speed thing is that it’s degrees of throttle opening that count, on the road at least, rather than pure miles per hour. There’s more fun to be had at full throttle than at half throttle, because it’s more fun when the rider is working hard to get the maximum from the motorcycle.

The 675 engine is certainly more manageable and less intimidating than a 1000, but these aren’t the main reasons why the 675 is more fun to ride than a 1000. Litre sports bikes are brilliant in their own outlandish way but they are also physically bigger, which makes them harder work. The 675 is 25 kilos lighter than a 1000 and has a shorter wheelbase and narrower tyres, so it steers, handles and changes direction more easily. And the faster you go, the more you feel the extra mass of the 1000, so on most roads the 675 rides faster, more accurately and with less effort and more enjoyment than a 1000.

Aboard a 1000 you are never in doubt that you’re in charge of something big and scary. These bikes demand a lot of counter-steering through the handlebars, a lot of body weight transfer and 100 per cent concentration and commitment. Switch to the 675 and it’s like a weight has been lifted from your shoulders. You feel more comfortable, confident and in charge.

The 675R has that lightness of being so you don’t need to muscle it into corners, you think it in there. The bike’s near-perfect combination of chassis geometry, suspension performance and tyre profile is tantalising – you never seem to sweep through a corner without realising you could have done so considerably faster, still without using all the road. This motorcycle makes progress on fast, sweeping A-roads or trickier B-roads effortless and flattering – it makes you feel like a better rider.

Feedback is faultless, so you know exactly what’s going on at the tyre contact patch, steering is reassuringly linear for a smooth transition from upright to knee-down and the race suspension and semi-slick Pirellis keep things firm and planted, with none of the squish and squirm that can make you nervy on lesser sports bikes. Of course the 675 runs a race setup, so it’s speed that counts here, not comfort.

The Pirelli Diablo tyres are part of the R’s upgrades that make it track-ready. Other key chassis upgrades include 43mm diameter Öhlins NIX30 forks and TTX36 shock, four-piston monobloc Brembo calipers, braided brake hoses and a quick-shifter gear change. Triumph has an ulterior motive for equipping the 675 with such high-end accoutrements – World Supersport rules require riders to use standard suspension, brakes and gear change, so the R model production run allows the company to sidestep homologation rules.

The 675R is so good in corners that it too can be frustrating on the road, because normal road and traffic conditions restrict you to using just a few per cent of its potential. This is one reason why the R exists – it is track-ready. In recent years the track-day phenomenon has become big business in motorcycling, with sports bike riders keen to go somewhere to use the full potential of their machines. The R’s credentials make it more suited to the track than most sports bikes, so there’s no need to fit better suspension or stickier tyres – just walk into your Triumph dealer and head straight for the track.

The best we could do was head for the Welsh hills, but even that didn’t provide the freedom we craved – 50mph limits and cameras prevail in areas where not long ago no one seemed to care about a few people having the odd good thrash. Motorcyclists take a disproportionate share of the blame for this sad state of affairs. The fashion for fitting loud pipes and riding in groups created a hoo-ha that was bound to attract attention. Alone and stealthily is the way to speed.

Not that it’s easy to be stealthy aboard the 675R. The engine has to be one of the best-sounding on the road and is brought alive on the R model with a louder (but not too loud) exhaust can. The three-cylinder has a rasping roar, not unlike a Ferrari road car, with a pleasing rage of induction roar as the injection system takes great gulps of the atmosphere.

The R sounds so good that it’s tempting to make the engine sing just for its song. The music is completed by the quick-shifter, which briefly kills the ignition when you toe the gear lever, so there’s no need to dab the clutch or feather the throttle on high-rpm upward shifts. The seamless shifts sound great and improve acceleration. Purists will be delighted to know that the quick-shifter is the 675R’s only electronic gizmo – there’s no traction control or suchlike, just you and your throttle hand.

The three-cylinder engine has become Triumph’s trademark. In Japan the industry has believed in the inline-four since the early ’60s when high rpm was the goal. Historically, the Italian factories have favoured V-twins, while the British industry was built on singles and parallel twins. Triumph launched its first inline-triple machine in the late ’60s. The Trident 750 didn’t enjoy huge sales, but did win the 1971 Daytona 200 (wearing a BSA badge). Incidentally, the Daytona inherits its name from a 1960s 500cc twin, which was christened thus after Triumph first won the Florida race in ’67.

Since Bloor took over, Triumph has come to realise the three-cylinder has something special going for it that other manufacturers have missed. Now nearly all Triumph motorcycles use triple power – three really is a magic number.

In every way the three-cylinder sits happily between its four- and twin-cylinder rivals. It can produce more peak power than a twin and more torque than a four. Its sound is somewhere between the boom-boom of a twin and the whining mechanical shriek of a four. It’s shorter than a v-twin and narrower than an inline-four (so the 675 is shorter than a Ducati 748 and sleeker than the four-cylinder 600 competition). And its character is midway between the other two, apparently offering the best of both worlds.

Crucially for the supersport rider, the 675 offers more torque at lower rpm than the fours made by Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha. Fours can be tiresome to ride on the road – the Yamaha red-lines at 17,000rpm, the Kawasaki produces maximum torque just shy of 12,000rpm – so you spend a lot of time dancing on the gear lever. The 675 has about five foot-pounds more torque than the fours – enough to make a real difference on the road.

Fuel economy might be somewhat irrelevant for a bike like this, but the 675 is reasonably frugal, averaging 47mpg during our test.

The dohc, four-valves-per-cylinder triple is lovely to use – smooth, silky and with a superbly linear power delivery. It likes to be revved hard but doesn’t insist. No wonder Italian marque MV Agusta recently launched its own 675cc triple.

The bastard capacity of the triple – 675cc against the 600cc fours – is according to World Supersport rules that allow 675 threes and 750 twins to compete with the 600 fours. The Triumph has enjoyed some racing success, winning supersport titles in Britain and elsewhere. In World Supersport the bike has run near the front even though Triumph refuses to run an official team in this hard-fought championship. Bloor has never been keen on blowing his money on racing.

Briton Chaz Davies scored several World Supersport podiums on a 675 last season, before switching to Yamaha and winning this year’s title. At world level, the 675 suffers somewhat against its four-cylinder rivals.

“Last year we got decent top speed from the Triumph but ended up sacrificing some mid-range, so we lost some of the engine’s natural torque,” says Davies. “But the engine pulls from nothing, which has to be good for the road. One of the best things is that the bike is quite forgiving – you can take risks, push the front hard into corners and get away with it. It doesn’t overload the tyre so much, it transfers the loads through the chassis.”

Plentiful torque and a forgiving chassis – the perfect combination for a motorcycle.

Perfect for performance perhaps, but all riders of supersport machines know there’s an unwritten contract which states you must give up all earthly comforts in the pursuit of that performance. By their very nature, supersport bikes throw you into a track-orientated praying-mantis riding position that puts a lot of weight on your wrists and doesn’t make sense until you’re clicking up through the gears out of town, where the wind-blast takes a lot of the weight off your wrists. And yet the 675 is more comfortable than most 600s.

*

To be honest – unless you live in the Highlands or near an LA canyon road – these bikes don’t really add up until you get them to a track. In the right circumstances they can be a lot of fun on the road, but you’re always wishing you were at Brands Hatch or Silverstone. This is a frequent criticism from safety groups against performance-orientated vehicles. They call them weapons, and perhaps they are, but weapons can be used in defence as well as in attack. Bikes like the 675R feature braking performance, manoeuvrability and grip that far exceed other motorcycles. In that sense, they are very safe.

The 675R is perfect for the rider who wants a brilliant-handling motorcycle that can be taken to the track without a single major modification. The price at £9999 (£1500 over the base model) is pretty good too.

Even better, the Triumph is British, though not as British as you might like. Although it still builds a lot of motorcycles at its UK plant in Hinckley, the 675 comes from Triumph’s Thailand facility. Bloor has faced criticism for moving part of his business abroad but insists it’s inevitable that a percentage of his products are produced in a lower-cost country.

Bloor’s takeover of the marque is a rare success story in modern British automotive history which deserves louder celebration.

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