Cycle News - January 1999
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Posted with permission of Cycle News Inc. - Copyright 1999 Cycle News Inc.
FIRST RIDE: Triumph Sprint ST
IS BRITISH BEST?
By Alan Cathcart
Ten minutes aboard Triumph's new sport-touring contender, the Sprint ST, tells you this is a very serious challenger to Honda's class benchmark VFR800 - let alone other new kids on the all-rounder block like BMW's R1100S or the Ducati ST2/ST4 duo. Ten hours later, after a 300-mile day riding through the hills and highways of southern Spain, you're left with little option but to accept that Triumph must now be taken very seriously in any market in which it chooses to compete, by competitors and customers alike.
Going head to head against Honda is something Triumph has some practice in, for the T595 Daytona (since renamed the 955i) was an unashamed CBR900RR foe when first launched two years ago, just as the Tiger is targeted at the Africa Twin/Varadero family outside the United States. But in aiming to carve themselves a slice of the flourishing sport-touring sector - an unusual one, inasmuch as it features a relatively small number of models, each selling in quite large volume and most of them European, thanks to the prevailing road conditions there as compared to Japan or the States - Triumph engineers didn't do as they might have been expected to even as recently as five years ago, and applied their mix-and-match modular motorcycle concept to concoct a challenger to the VFR and its like.
So, instead of adapting the 955i to more all-arounder mode, they started with a clean sheet of paper and did the job properly - so much so that my 10-hour quick spin left me convinced that not only is this certainly the best bike Triumph has yet built in its born-again John Bloor era, it's also very likely the most practical, best all-around sportbike I've yet to sample. What follows are the reasons why.
First off, though - the looks. Like many others, I'll admit to being less than overwhelmed with the sober styling of the Sprint ST (forget the T695 tag; Triumph has) when I first saw it in finished form at its Munich launch, but that was before viewing it in daylight. In both the red and black colors in which it will initially be offered, the Sprints parked in the forecourt of the Seville launch base displayed understated allure in the Spanish sunshine, with subtle curves to the distinctive "face" (headlamps are shared with the 955i, hence the family resemblance) which only really become apparent in bright sunlight.
Together with the clean visual sweep of the alloy twin-spar frame, specially designed for the Sprint to give extra strength for sport-touring loads and improved packaging (airbox, luggage, exhaust, etc.) compared to the 955i's tubular-alloy space frame, the result is a sense of distinctive refinement that's in keeping with the more restrained tastes of the sport-touring market, and is a credit to design chief John Mockett and his colleague Rod Scivyer, who was largely responsible for the overall styling.
Hop aboard, and the proverbial 10 minutes later you've discovered that form and function march hand in hand on the Sprint ST, because not only is the riding position perfectly tailored for a 6-foot rider, but the relatively low-cut screen and fairly wide fairing give impressive protection even at three-figure speeds on the busy-looking mph speedo (the one in kph is more readable, with fewer digits on the dial).
The Triumph feels physically bigger than the VFR, and so feels more spacious and comfy - but not at the expense of becoming unwieldy. Though retaining the 955i's single-sided swingarm (thus allowing the silencer of the three-into-one exhaust system to be tucked well in, for extra ground clearance plus space to fit hard luggage), wheelbase is just over an inch longer than the sport triple's, at 57.9 inches. This was done to add stability but also has the additional benefit of loading up the front wheel weightwise, making it stick better in turns.
This, however, doesn't affect the Sprint's steering, which is beautifully well-balanced and neutral, with extra leverage available from the quite long, ideally angled handlebars. Together with the 31.5-inch seat height and not overly rear-set footpegs, these deliver a relaxed and comfortable riding stance that makes mile-eating a pleasure, without too much weight on your arms and shoulders, yet with space to crouch lower when you want to up the pace.
The ST is quite aerodynamic, with turbulence and wind blast well controlled, even sitting relatively upright at high speeds. The Sprint is a very untiring bike to ride hard, fast and long.
Part of this is because the whole bike feels very solid and together, with a build quality even on this preproduction model that's fully the equal of a Honda or BMW, which is praise indeed. Only an uneven gap where the fairing meets the frame and ill-fitting shrouds for the arms of the otherwise excellent mirrors leave room for improvement - and these problems may well be rectified before production.
The seat is just spacious and well-padded enough to be comfy, and there's quite adequate room for a passenger, who has been supplied with very well-designed grab handle. This handle has to be removed if you opt to fit the good-looking single-seat cover, thus making the Sprint's looks live up to its name even more. The Sprint copies the ST2/ST4 idea of having an adjustable exhaust system that can be raised for increased ground clearance or lowered to give room for the hard luggage, which is available as an option.
However, Ducati might care to take its payback by copying the Triumph's sidestand, here fitted in addition to an easy-on/off center stand and which is correctly angled, must be positively retracted (so there are no suicide operations benefiting parts-store turnover), and has an ignition cutout should you forget to do so. Ducati should also take note of the fact that the Sprint's good-looking, wraparound dashboard - which is perfectly legible even in bright sunshine, when even the digital instruments show up well - is dominated by, ahem, a white-faced tacho that's perfectly legible in the dark, with a digital clock, analog speedo (incorporating a digital trip/ mileage counter), and temp and fuel gauges, the latter ideally positioned at the top of the dash, where you can monitor it properly on a long run. Not that you should need to do so too often, for in spite (or maybe because) of being fitted with the same Sagem multipoint sequential fuel-injection package as the 955i (but reprogrammed here to deliver a smoother power delivery and increased torque), the Sprint ST is pretty frugal. A fuel check midway through a hard-riding day showed 45 mpg - impressive fuel consumption for a one-liter sportbike, and good for a range of 200 miles between fill-ups from the 5.6-gallon tank - even when taking advantage of the reserves of performance of the new-generation 79 x 65mm three-cylinder 12-valve engine, same as fitted to the 955i but with different camshafts and using cast pistons and steel liners instead of the forged pistons and coated-aluminum liners employed on the Daytona to cope with its higher power output. So, whereas the 955i pushes out 128 bhp at 10,200 rpm, the Sprint ST delivers a claimed 110 bhp at 9200 rpm at the crank on the same 11.2:1 compression ratio, but with a wider spread of torque that peaks at 6200 rpm with 70 ft.-lb. on tap, against the 955i's 73.8 at 8500 revs. In fact, Triumph says the top speeds of the two bikes are quite similar, with the Sprint ST being good for 155 mph against the sport triple's 162 mph - but to be honest, this is pretty academic because, though the Sprint ST may also take longer to get there, it's so much more user-friendly in the way that it does so, and scores heavily for added convenience in real-world riding conditions.
The Sprint's stiffer frame means Triumph has dispensed with two of the eight engine mounts employed on the 955i chassis, which in turn means not only that the frame doesn't get so hot - an important factor when riding in jeans, with the more tucked-in stance of the new chassis - but also that you feel even less vibration than on the 955i, and certainly far less at freeway-cruising speeds than on BMW's R1100S sport Boxer. The Triumph has hefty weights on the end of the handlebars which help out here, but the overall feel even at higher rpm is of a smooth, svelte power unit that has just enough mechanical presence to be thrilling to ride.
There's no choke, but the Sagem EFI is programmed for cold-start compensation - although, even when hot, you must remember to keep the throttle closed when pressing the starter motor button; otherwise some embarrassing and time-wasting spluttering will occur as the engine refuses to light up. When it does, response from the light-action throttle is immediate, though not so sudden as to cause a jerky pickup at low revs or from a closed throttle in slow turns.
Instead, once under way, the engine pulls cleanly from 2500 rpm upward in top gear with no hiccups or flat spots, but with a light, positive clutch action from rest or when changing down that is a model to others (and both clutch and brake levers are, incidentally, adjustable).
Sagem's modified the EFI to improve fuelling at low revs, and together with the balance pipe added to the exhaust system delivers improved response low down. But from there to the 9700-rpm rev-limiter, there's a seamless spread of power that makes the Triumph so easy and yet so invigorating to ride, with no cheater dips in the power curve to pass noise or emissions tests, even though the Sprint ST meets the tough new European exhaust-emissions laws due to be introduced in 1999.
Only a couple of extra rushes of revs around 5000 rpm and again at 6800 rpm, when engine speed picks up even faster and the exhaust note hardens slightly, punctuate the effortless flow of torque and power.
Not that you're really aware of this in standard guise, for the Sprint is noticeably quieter than the 955i, thanks to a new exhaust header and silencer system, a revised airbox with curved intakes, a supression block at the back of the crankcase to deaden gear and sprag-drive noise, and the shrouding effect of the twin-spar frame itself.
But, sorry - if you buy a Sprint ST and don't spend the extra bucks on the muted but musical aftermarket pipe Triumph offers "for track use only," you ain't got no soul. Quite apart from the extra 6 bhp it delivers, which gives a crisper edge to engine pickup, this has to be the two-wheeled equivalent of Alfa's V6 car motor - the best-sounding mass-market motorcycle engine money can buy.
For the haunting hymn of the louder exhaust is not only untiring, even on a long ride, but you'll also catch yourself changing gear a little more often, blipping the throttle a little louder on downshifts, than is strictly necessary - just to play that glorious-sounding pipe a little harder and remind yourself that nowadays, when V-twin sportbikes are practically commonplace, only a V-4's engine note is as individual as a triple's. Hallelujah! When you do work the shift lever, you may find the change a little stiff in the bottom three gears, as on one of the bikes I rode. Still, this had barely 600 miles under its wheels, so I'll reserve judgement on that; the others were all fine.
Ratios in the six-speed gearbox are the same as on the 955i, with the top three relatively close together and none of them an overdrive, which is not only good engineering practice but also ideal for high-speed cruising with sportbike potential held in reserve.
In fact, it does pay to rev the Triumph motor out to somewhere approaching the redline if you're in a hurry, because you can feel the extra punch of power above the 7000-rev mark, and Sprinting past lines of traffic on the way back to Seville in the gathering dusk through a Sunday evening snarl-up, underlined the Sprint's outstanding midrange pickup and good acceleration, in spite of a higher 455-pound dry weight than its 955i stablemate.
You don't notice the extra poundage in real-world road riding, though, for the Sprint ST has a balanced, sorted feel to the handling which makes easy work of tackling a series of fast sweepers. It's not as nimble as the Daytona - oops, 955i - but by sport-touring standards, it's relatively agile in slower turns - it just needs you to work a little harder in sportbike mode. Best to relax and go with the flow, when the quite sporting steering geometry (25-degree head angle, just 92mm of trail) will allow you to swing the Sprint through turns with effortless aplomb.
This is a deceptively fast point-to-point bike which you may suddenly realize you've been riding harder than you thought you were or had intended, and a prime ingredient in this is the Bridgestone BT57 tires around which the Sprint was designed, the profiles of which are well-suited to the demands of the chassis and style of riding. It's especially wise to have opted for a 180-section rear, which avoids making the steering too heavy without sacrificing grip to the level required by a sport-touring bike.
Start scratching moderately hard when riding alone, though, and you'll soon ground the hero tabs at the end of the footpegs, which are longer than they need to be for when the exhausts are lowered to fit some luggage. Sorry, but they'd be a prime candidate for some attention with an angle-grinder if and when I became a Sprint owner - in which case the next thing to touch down (and only if you try really hard) is the fairing lower on the exhaust side. Treat it as an honor mark.
Because, make no mistake, the Sprint ST is endowed with all-around real-world handling that's fully in the supersport class, a big factor in which is the compliant response of the Showa suspension package. This features 43mm conventional forks fitted with twin-rate springs but adjustable only for preload, and a rear shock with a different link than the 955i (even though they share the same single-sided cast-alloy swingarm) which delivers 120mm of travel on stock settings, is adjustable for rebound damping, and also has hydraulic spring-preload adjustment (so ideal for touring mode, with variable passenger and/or luggage weight on board).
Ride quality is not only by some way the best yet on any Triumph, it also beats all its rivals in the sport-touring class for plushness - even the Honda - yet it doesn't sacrifice compliance in doing so. Hit a bump or a dip in the road surface cranked over on the Sprint, and it shrugs it off with maybe a single lazy wave of the bars if you're trying really hard. No weaves, no shakes and especially no wallowing around on too-soft settings that are the bane of some other pseudo-all-arounders with delusions of grandeur, handlingwise.
Yet an extended run over the few Andalusian roads that haven't yet benefited from either a handout from Brussels or a former Spanish prime minister's pork-barrel generosity to his Andalusian homeland will have you marveling at the Triumph's composure over rough surfaces and its rock-solid feel - even if some rebound adjustment could usefully be provided up front: It bounces back a little too strongly over the worst of the bumps, on standard settings.
Best of all, the Sprint is supremely stable at high speeds, tracking better than the VFR, even - say Triumph testers - loaded up with luggage. Stopping from terminal velocity loaded up with bags and bodies would be the supreme test of the Sprint's braking potential, but in solo guise, unloaded, the 955i package represented by the four-pot Nissin calipers mated to Thai-made 320mm Sunstar stainless discs does the same great job as on the sport triple, with lots of initial bite yet a progressive feel which allows you to stroke the lever with lots of feedback, to knock off a little speed if you go too deep into a turn. But panic stops - like when a security guard turns out of the Rio Tinto high sierra mine complex straight in front of you, just as you're making the most of the fact that it's a Sunday - are no problem. This is an effective brake setup from an unexpected source - highlighted by the fact that Brembo's one contribution to the Sprint ST's build is, er, the cast-alloy wheels!
What Triumph has concocted here is a motorcycle that comes very close to delivering the best of both worlds - even more so that the VFR Honda, which in its various forms has worn the mantle of champion all-arounder for most of this decade. So often, trying to be all motorcycles to all men merely means being adequate at everything but exceptional at nothing - whereas on the Sprint ST, it's almost the other way around.
Which leaves one possible chink in its armor: How much? Well, Triumph has pitched the Sprint ST very competitively pricewise at $10,495, with the VFR800 Honda listing for $9499, the BMW R1100S for $13,900, and the Ducati ST4 desmoquattro coming in at $14,495 - all of them heavier, and slower, than the Sprint ST claims to be. The jury's out until a long-distance comparative test pitches them against each other, but at $10,495, Triumph's contender is right in the ballpark pricewise, and dynamically, too, on the basis of my Spanish day trip. Flat-twin, V-twin, V-4 or triple: Can less be more, in terms of the number of cylinders - or is the middle ground the best bet? Is British best? Could be.