Triumph Bonneville T120 vs Harley-Davidson 1200 Custom: Comparison Review

22 August 2016, 09:43 AM Vikrant Singh

Introduction

There are quite a few forces at work here trying to tug a prospect in their respective directions. There’s brand, origin, genre, technology and character. One must make a choice between air-cooling versus liquid-cooling; simplicity vs electronics; cruiser vs street; American vs British; Harley-Davidson vs Triumph. With Rs 10-11 lakh to spare and an eye firmly trained at the 1200cc-twin layout, one must choose between the Harley-Davidson 1200 Custom and the Triumph Bonneville T120. It isn’t an easy choice to make, unless, like us, you decide to go for the better product. And to find out which of the two is the better motorcycle, we headed to our favourite road; only the rain gods decided to play havoc. But, we soldiered on…

Cruiser vs Street

Yes, the 1200 Custom versus the T120 is a cruiser vs street battle: With the Harley sporting low seating, forward set footpegs and a swept back handlebar against the T120’s flat seat, neutrally positioned pegs and a flat, upright bar, how can it be anything but. However, there’s more differentiation here than just the genre.

The Harley 1200 Custom is clearly the more attractive looking motorcycle. It is also more distinctive courtesy an overdose of chrome, a V-Twin that screams for attention, staggered exhaust pipes that look more like weapons (and that’s always sexy), and of course, that sloping down stance that gives it a unique character. Helping the cause further – for attracting eyeballs but not so much when it comes to dynamics – are those chunky tyres.

Ex-showroom, Mumbai

 9,97,600

The Bonneville T120 on the other hand is the flag bearer for subtlety. And it is great till the time two guys on a Splendor roll up next to you announcing it a ‘bullet’! Now, even though we’d like to dismiss them completely – given we feel all high and mighty armed with more knowledge about motorcycles than them – but there’s some truth in their proclamation.

The overall stance – the round headlamp, the flat seat, the side boxes, and even the upright engine, do look similar to the ‘bullet’, at least in a passing glance. The resemblance in the exhaust design doesn’t help here either. But, here’s the thing. The T120 is a retro. And it is British. The same as the ‘bullet’ started out. So, we aren’t exactly surprised with this association the general public makes, and will continue to make. But, look at the bike with a keener set of eyes and there’s nothing in terms of design that’s common between the two.

Air-cooled vs Liquid-cooled

The Harley might have won the style contest – and by a margin at that. But, when it comes on-road performance, the Triumph just runs away. Now the engine configuration was the only other common thread between the two bikes besides pricing. And on this front, the 1200 Custom follows the more retro route. As with all Harleys it uses a V-Twin that displaces 1202cc. The engine is part of Harley’s Evolution range, which means it is air-cooled and push-rod operated, but it does get fuel injection and an aluminum construction for reduced weight. The engine is also rubber mounted for reduced vibrations.

And though the vibrations might have reduced over older Harleys, the 1200 Custom is still quite the vibrator. It vibrates at idle, and then when you get a move on, it gets more pronounced with rising revs. The fuelling, especially at lower revs is irritatingly inconsistent as well. But, the engine certainly has character. The exhaust note is fantastic and the engine has strong mid-range torque to make cruising and overtakes a near effortless affair. It is quite tall geared though, so even when cruising at 100kmph, it is best to stick to fourth gear, even though it has five. And yes, the gearbox, in typical Harley fashion, doesn’t have the best shifts.

Jump onto the Triumph after the Harley, and chances are you wouldn’t want to go back. The Bonneville T120 is smoother, it has better throttle response, and it has lighter and crisper gearshifts as well. Plus, it has better all round performance backing it. The T120 too uses a 1200cc, twin cylinder engine. But unlike the Custom’s Vee, the T120 uses a parallel twin. And it is liquid-cooled. In terms of sheer output figures, the Triumph develops higher and flatter torque. It makes 105Nm of peak torque against the Custom’s 96Nm.

On the road, the T120 is less jerky at lower rpm; it pulls as strongly as the Custom in the mid-range; and then when it goes past 5000rpm, it just takes off. It’s almost like it sheds its street clothing for full leathers at the upper reaches of the rpm band. As you can tell, not only is the T120’s performance more accessible for a variety of riders, it’s more enjoyable too.

But, it isn’t perfect. The engine might be smoother than the Custom, but it too is plagued by vibrations post 3500rpm. Best then to short shift to sixth and ride the torque curve.

Simplicity vs electronics

As with the engine performance, the T120 convincingly beats the 1200 Custom in dynamic terms as well. The Triumph has sharper steering geometry, a more responsive chassis and better tyres. Moreover, while the 1200 Custom gets nothing under the ‘safety net’ column, the T120 gets ABS, Traction control, a slipper clutch and two riding modes – Rain and Road. It’s clearly a choice between old-school simplicity and new-age electronics.

On a day like today, where the roads are wet, slippery, and winding, we’d definitely settle for the latter. Actually, we’d settle for the latter, period. So, while the 1200 Custom feels relatively light footed for a raked out cruiser tipping into bends without the need to work the handlebar excessively, it does run out of cornering clearance quite soon. Which, we might add, is fantastic. Because on wet winding roads, Harley’s Michelin Scorcher don’t just seem up the task of enthusiastic riding. The rear in particular tends to lose traction at both turn-in and corner exits under power. It’s also not as rich – be it bite or feedback – as the Triumph under braking. And not having ABS just makes things more difficult.

The Bonneville T120 isn’t exactly a great cornering machine either. The front is a little heavy and when leaned over, it feels exactly what it is – a large, torquey commute machine. It’s not sporty in that sense. But, compared to the Harley, one can enter corners faster, lean over more, and exit with a lot more throttle opening courtesy better tyres and the safety net of traction control. It brakes with more power too. Helped of course by the twin disc set upfront compared to a single large disc used by the Harley.

The better product

The answer in the end was a lot simpler than we had initially imagined. The Harley-Davidson 1200 Custom is the better looking, more desirable motorcycle when parked. It is also more comfortable of the two. But, in every other regard – performance, handling, braking and peace of mind on a wet road – the Triumph Bonneville T120 is leagues ahead. It feels and rides like a newer motorcycle, which it is.

What’s more, it is more feature-rich too, and we aren’t just talking electronics. The T120 has more comprehensive instrumentation, it gets adjustable clutch and brake levers, LED lighting, USB charging, and the option of inspiration kits to completely customise the bike.

And then when you look at the pricing, and find that the Harley is actually more expensive than the Triumph (the 1200 Custom costs Rs 10.4 lakh while the Bonneville T120 is priced at Rs 10.1 lakh, both on the road in Mumbai), it does leave you dumbfounded. 

Photography by Kapil Angane

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