2004 Benelli TNT


After half a bottle of good local wine, the Japanese colleague with whom I was having dinner, was relaxed enough to proclaim in broken Engrish: "Benelli TNT is velly Italian naked, not rike Japanese naked". Oh yes, it's amazing how the interpretation for the term "Naked" can be so different at the two poles of the motorcycle production world. To put it bluntly, the TNT is everything the Hornet 919, z1000 and Fazer 1000 envision themselves to be in their wet dreams. A rolling erotic fantasy that seemingly took its inspirational cues from wild science fiction sex comics and somehow managed to skirt around censorship by the moral and ethics committee. Even compared to its naked compatriots, such as the Tuono, Brutale, Monster and Raptor, the TNT looks more like a concept bike straight from a Streetfighters show, than a production line model. Well, there are a few advantages to being a wealthy factory owner like Benelli's Andrea Merloni. It can mean for instance, that you can take the wild sketches and mock-ups created by a punky yet gifted British designer and hand them to your engineers with the firm order to: "just do it!"

There is more than wild styling in the TNT. In the evening, after I'd calmed down a bit from the day's ride, I couldn't deny that the TNT is not only visually explosive, performance wise it's also one mean dynamite stick. Just a sec, Benelli? Say what? Even if you're in your 40s, the Benelli name might not ring a bell. Some might remember a rather appalling 750-900 inline six that was a known lemon. But in reality, this firm was one of Italy's prime brands until the 1970s. They also won a few 250cc world championships, the last of them in 69' with an amazing in-line four ridden by Kel Carruthers (King Kenny's wrench in his world championship years). The dark and best-forgotten period in Benelli's history began with the acquisition of the company by a dubious Argentinean businessman named De Tomaso (De Tomaso Pantera supercar anybody?). This brave soul tried to combat the Japanese invasion into Italy by producing shameless copies of Honda's CB500-four. Later on, he simply tacked-on two extra cylinders to these mills bringing capacity to 750 & 900ccs and the company to bankruptcy.

The current comeback story began in 1995 with the entrance of wealthy motorcycle loving Andrea Merloni. This guy comes from a well-heeled Italian industrialist's family and the first step he took to re-establish Benelli, was entering the Italian market with scooters of 50-400cc. Fast forward to 99', young Andrea who has delved into racing as a rider in the past, jumps into the (then) deep waters of World Superbike racing. His team develops a rather interesting tool with a 900 tri-cylinder engine, a frame made of a mixture of steel tubes and cast alloy parts and innovative design. However, the bike was badly under-developed and a bit hopeless in racing and the Benelli hardly collected any points, though in its defense, it must be said that it never had a rider of world-class talent. Last year, the production version called the "Tornado" took to the markets in earnest. Regrettably, it was born into a world saturated with high caliber 1000cc race replicas. Not the best recipe for commercial success, even if most road tests I've read of the Tornado are rather favorable. I have to try a Tornado one of these days. With the Naked trend growing stronger by the year, at least in Europe, a fairingless option sounded like a good way to expand the range. However, take a closer look before you pass on the TNT as yet another Sportbike that's been stripped of its body panels.

Andrea Merloni did not cut any corners in transforming the technical base of the Tornado into a mean streetfighter. Save for the basic frame layout and the main engine castings, the TNT is really all new and there are some interesting details that stand out. The rear sub frame for instance, is a single aluminum casting that unlike those on some current sportbikes also serves as an aesthetic part, thus reducing perceived bulk at the rear end, it's a really beautiful showcase of design-meets-engineering.

The engine, free of the WSB's 900cc limitations, could now grow to a ground shaking 1,130cc. The result has surprised even Benelli's engineers. The racy and revvy 900 mill has been transformed into a mean torque machine. A super flat torque curve has been achieved, by using a longer stroke crank, relatively small valves and an exhaust system equipped with a backpressure control valve. Talk about torque spread, from 3,000 to 9,000rpm, no less than 65 lbs./ft are available with a peak of 80 lbs./ft at a measly 6,500rpm. Just mark these three points over a Z1000's torque curve, connect the dots with an arc and you'll grasp the brutal meaning. The TNT towers above torque luminaries such as the Triumph Speed triple like a NFL linebacker standing next to his still developing 15-year-old brother. Now then, who is the new torque daddy? All this is without sacrificing the 137 peak hp @ 9,000rpm. 12 valves crown the three pots, a gear driven balancing shaft sits in the front, an extractable cassette style box, a relic from the SBK days passes on the power and 54mm throttle bodies feed the power unit. Although stroke has increased from the 900 (with same 88mm bore), shorter rods keep overall engine height in check.

The frame is rather more exotic. Two oversized steel tubes create side spars that are screwed and aero-tech glued into massive cast aluminum side members. Unlike the welded aluminum sheet swingarm of the Tornado, the TNT has an impressive tube trellis swinger, with huge eccentric chain tensioners and is controlled by an Extreme Tech shock. Up front, a 50mm diameter USD fork completes the cycle side. In order to keep costs more reasonable, suspension parts are not adjustable, save for rear pre-load. One last tech detail is that in order to lower seat height, the trademark under tail radiator of the sporty Tornado has been split into twin units located on the front in VFR/RC51 fashion.

You'd have to be color AND shape blind not to notice the TNT's mean curves. Regardless of what you think of the style (not yet sure it's my cup of tea), one thing can't be denied, the TNT is one of the most extreme designs to ever come off a production line. Benelli managers wanted to create a real stir and they succeeded. Design duties fell on Adrian Morton, a British designer that has worked in the past with Tamburini on the Brutale and F4 and has already created the very original Tornado (creating a fresh looking race rep is no mean feat these days). With the TNT, he really let his hand loose IMHO. "I've done this one from the heart" Morton says and it's hard not to believe him. You'll find in the TNT influences from the world of insects, Transformer toys and George Lucas films but the mix works. The TNT's front end has that mean and angry expression, the radiator's side covers bring in supermoto/ off-road connotations and generally speaking, Adrian seems to have trouble designing smooth and flowing lines. Everything in the TNT seems to zigzag, lines break and bend; volumes are split up and reunited. Sharp contrasts between shapes, color and materials abound. If the MV Brutale and Ducati Monster are like a sophisticated jazz improvisation pieces, then the Benelli TNT is more like a "Stranglers" punk rock tune. Parts of the Benelli are pure elation, the sexy short-barreled under-seat silencer, the snaking exhaust system that dances sinuously under the engine or the clever color sandwich of the gas tank. Some points could be improved too, like those radiator corners sticking out bare, or the exposed and prominent cabling leading to the alternator. However, it's mainly good, very good, shocking and attention grabbing. The styling makes me want to gas it. However, the weather doesn't give a damn about torque and design.

It's raining cats & dogs, not the perfect conditions to test this grunty beast  for a few hours. Shite! While warming up the engine under the heavy drops, just before heading into the beautiful hilly roads around Gubbio, in the province of Umbria Italy, I have some time to get accustomed to the pilot's environment, errr... rather the lack of one! The headlight unit and instrument cluster sits so low, that you feel as if you were on top of a full-on motocrosser. There is not a chance in the world that the low and insignificant "wind" screen will give any protection, naked indeed. Although the meters sit low, they are easily readable and damned good looking to boot. With frame spars bending over the engine, the bike itself is narrow and the seating position is quite compact and MV Brutale like, with bars quite close, zero load on your wrists and footpegs that don't bend knees excessively. Good, in the wet a relaxed riding position is a blessing. What's not so relaxing is the way the engine responds to my throttle blips. It emits nervous barks, a rather unique and raspy sound that has nothing to do with that of a Speed Triple, it's much deeper in tone.

In my first few miles, I try to see if this torque king on paper really bites, but to my pleasant surprise, injection mapping is spot-on and even pulls nicely from as low as 1,000rpm. Just give it a 1/16 turn of throttle, let the clutch lever out and it is on its way. While leaving town and mixing in with the cars, on/off throttle response feels a bit abrupt, but as the miles roll past, it becomes much less of an issue. What brings a smile to my face in the pouring rain is the way this engine hustles you forward. It just doesn't care which gear you're in, it just pulls. Yet, unlike twins that make a similar claim to low rpm torque, the TNT delivers its drive without any shudder or unpleasant shakes. The triple supplies a much smoother drive, without giving up on that deep satisfying growl. With more trust in the wet grip from the Dunlop 207's and roads that clear-up from traffic, our speeds climb meekly into the 70's, but I still need to find a good reason to use the lower four gears. The engine feels happy to pull out of the slick turns from 2,000rpm, what a pussycat! About that pussycat thing... My mind changes at once, when I decide to give it some stick and see where those 80 lbs./ft are hiding. Pulling away from a stop sign, I crack the throttle open slightly quicker and the engine changes identity like Clark Kent in a hurry. It's wheel-spinning time and the fun continues well into third and fourth gear. It is really amazing how it's so well behaved when you are gentle with the throttle, while a faster opening rate seemingly opens that exhaust valve, bringing out a shrieking wail from the under-seat silencer, putting the power unit in instant combat mode.

While rolling-on in order to overtake cars, I constantly have to remind my right hand not to exaggerate, otherwise it'll be rear end dancing time in the oncoming traffic lane.

 

The good impressions from this new power unit go beyond the fun, dual-stage throttle response. Gear shifting is good and clutch-pulling effort is atypically light, for an Italian product. The only roughness to be encountered is while passing the 4,000-5,000rpm range. Other than that, not even a hiccup from the engine unit or any other sin that might hint at a still immature stage of development. The main problem is still the friggin weather. Sticky tires, great torque, 120+ rwhp and wide bars mean we should be ripping, but we're limited to 20-30 degrees of lean and feathering the throttle. It's a bit like bringing home a Penthouse centerfold but being limited to above the waist only activities. Judging from the shagged tire's edges, fellow journalists that rode the bike the day before in the dry had a serious rubber-burning orgy.

Our best efforts in the wet can't really challenge the frame, but one fact emerges and it's that the suspension feels too firm at the low speeds we are doing. However, lacking adjustability, it can't be softened. This is a bit disappointing, for a bike priced in the range of the Brutale and Monster S4. After our lunch break, with a suitable load of local salami in our stomachs, the normal competitive nature of the assembled journos rears its ugly head. Rain or not, got to win the "First back to the hotel" GP, no? Brakes cope well with my delayed applying points and the Dunlops are doing the best they can to contain the increasing demands, but exiting a medium-fast left-hander, I crack it a tad more and rear steps out big time. No sweat, just some counter-steering, but I overcorrect and now tail is wagging the other way round. And so it continues for some 100 yards, giving me enough time to peacefully accept that I am going to crash, and to recall the last time that I was hospitalized (1987, btw). Magically, after three such cycles, the TNT straightens itself out, just inches from the edge of the road. Did I mention that the frame is very well mannered? Another proof of the clean and surefooted handling comes in the final portion of the day's ride, on a fast highway that is fairly dry. Everybody in the house instantly climbs to 100mph+ and some fast and furious overtaking and frantic lane swapping begins. Even though bars are rather wide, thus positioning the rider like a nice sail in the wind, the front end feels utterly planted. These side-mounted radiators allow mounting the engine close to the front wheel and the statically measured 53% front weight distribution helps the TNT's high-speed tracking. Come to think of it, this front-end weight bias must have helped to keep a rather fast pace during our riding in the mountains. In the open, the 1,130cc mill will push the TNT to well above 140mph, but with the high-step behind the rider's seat and the compact dimensions, there is no way I can fold-up enough to counter the uninterrupted windblast. Until now, we didn't need to go above 5,000-6,000rpm. I shift down three gears and send the rev counter into its upper range. Well, as with all things tuned for torque there's a nice crescendo until around 7,000-8,000rpm, but beyond that, its pull tapers-off rather than ramping-up. Back in the engine's sweet spot, 50-100 mph roll-ons are mighty impressive. Those in the know (like the Czechoslovakian journo-stuntman in our group), should have no trouble hoisting the front in third gear.

My last mental notes before entering the hotel parking lot are that although I've just spent 5 hours in pouring rain and direct windblast, I'm definitely not tired. The only real annoyance has been the cool looking but slippery bare aluminum footpegs.

OK, I need to try this TNT thing in the dry, but it's already quite clear to me, that this no half baked exotic toy. I am almost tempted to claim that this might be the most exiting naked on offer right now, mainly because of that fulfilling he-man torque pump (which is one of the most disappointing aspects of some four cylinder naked models). It's like getting the 1250 cc kited 90's GSXR mill that Streetfighter builders dream about, except that it comes factory fresh and already coupled to a racy frame and classy components. Yes, Speed Triples, 919's and Z1000's are a good value for the money, but this TNT is in another league. My final verdict will have to wait for a dry try, but I find it hard to believe that my mind will change. Of course, it's still to be seen how the public at large will react to this wild Benelli. Making a splash in the pond with extreme design is one thing, convincing the typical naked bike buyer in this price range is quite another. In the mean time, this small factory's effort has left a rather indelible impression.

Specs Provided by Benelli
Engine 4 stroke, 3 cylinders in line, tilted forwards 15°, fitted with anti-vibration countershaft
Bore x stroke 88 x 62 mm
Engine Displacement 1130 cc
Compression ratio 11,5:1
Cooling system liquid, with lateral double radiator, served by two electrofans
Oil cooling system with radiator
Timing system chain driven double head cam shaft with 4 valves per cylinder
Lubrication wet sump
Claimed Max power/rpm 101 kW at 9250 rpm
Claimed Max torque/rpm 117 Nm at 6750 rpm
Carburation electronic injection with 1 injector per cylinder
Ignition single coil inductive discharge electronic ignition
Clutch wet clutch
Gearbox 6-speed extractable
Drive straight toothed primary gear, chain driven secondary
Frame Mixed solution. Front ASD steel tube trellis, fastened with drawer screws to boxed rear section, aluminium alloy castings.
Suspension front: Marzocchi 50 mm diameter upside down fork ASD steel tube trellis oscillating main fork with Extreme Technology mono shock absorber with adjustable extension and spring load
Rims in gravity moulded aluminium alloy
front 3.5", rear 6.00"
Tyres Tubeless, radial;
front 120/70 x 17", rear 190/50 x 17"
Brakes Brembo;
Front: twin floating disk, 320 mm diameter, with 4 piston calliper; rear: single disk, 240 mm diameter, with twin piston calliper
Dimensions wheelbase 1419 mm
saddle height 780 mm
Claimed Dry weight 199 kg

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