Maybe it’s human nature, but motorcycle publications are constantly trying to determine which bike can lap the fastest, jump the highest, or travel the farthest. Competition is what feeds the beast. Motorcycle.com’s as guilty of it as anyone, and it’s easy to see why: motorcycling has become so segmented these days, with machines designed to satisfy one particular niche. They do it very well, too; sportbikes are insanely advanced, adventure bikes are capable of traversing nearly any terrain, and both cruisers and sport-tourers can pound out miles in two very different, yet also very satisfying, ways. And we haven’t even mentioned streetfighters, nakeds, and standards…
Lost in all these different categories of motorcycling is the basic, essential motorcycle. Two wheels and an engine, a seat, bars, footpegs, and the road ahead. This motorcycle doesn’t care about satisfying a specialized niche. Its purpose is to go back to a time when riding was simply about feeling free. The motorcycle, then, is an accessory to the experience, not the focal point.
Several manufacturers recognize this desire for an elemental machine, and we thought it fitting to bring a few of them together, including the Full Throttle version of Ducati’s Scrambler, Harley’s recently introduced Roadster, Moto Guzzi’s new V9 Roamer, and Yamaha’s fresh XSR900. And with the revamp of Triumph’s Modern Classic line, the lynchpin of this gathering is the new Bonneville T120.
With the exception of the FZ-09-based Yamaha, none of these five players are particularly about the spec sheets or hard numbers. If this were a pure performance-based test, the Yamaha would be the clear winner. But this test isn’t strictly about the performance – it’s about emotions. Sappy? Maybe, but if the bike you’re riding doesn’t put an unexplainable smile on your face then what’s the point?
If we were to use our trusty MO scorecard this time around (which we’re not), this would be the instance where “Cool Factor” scores would be heavily weighted. However, doing so places a winner and a loser in this field and that’s not really what this particular test is all about. In fact, we prefer to think of this as a showcase rather than a test. The idea here is to dial the pace back a notch, enjoy the ride, and get a taste of the quirky intricacies – a.k.a. character – of each bike.
Now some of you might be wondering why we didn’t include a different Yamaha – the SCR950 – in this lineup. In a perfect world we would have, but sometimes the timing of our tests and the capability of manufacturers to meet those deadlines don’t always align. The show must go on, however, and presented below, in alphabetical order, are our takes on all five.
Ducati Scrambler Full Throttle $10,495
Triumph may have had its Modern Classic models in the lineup for ages, but it could be argued the Ducati Scrambler helped ignite the spark for retro-themed basic motorcycles when it was launched in 2014 as a 2015 model. About as basic and elemental as a Ducati gets, the 803cc V-Twin is air-cooled with two valves per cylinder. The Full Throttle edition of our test unit differs slightly from the standard Icon ($8,895) model, with its black and yellow color scheme, Termignoni pipes, minimal front fender, and lower handlebars comprising the bulk of the differences. If anything, it’s the more road-oriented version of the Scrambler models, though it’s still fitted with the same Pirelli MT 60 RS knobb-ish tires all the Scramblers share.
The Scrambler has been a sales success for Ducati. It’s unassuming, with a playful character one can’t help but enjoy. “This thing is fun!” yelps guest tester Thai Long Ly. As someone who resides on the sportier side of the motorcycling spectrum, Thai continues, “It has a punchy motor that revs fast and sounds delightful. The 803cc L-twin is definitely the most artisanal brew in this urban bar, and any beard-growing biker can enjoy it’s kick.”
Yeah, that was a dig at the hipster set who, let’s be honest, all five of these bikes are aimed towards. But who cares? In the case of the Full Throttle, Ducati basically describes Thai and those like him as its ideal rider: “Those who want a bike perfect for every-day use but without compromising on racing style,” are the very words on Ducati’s website.
Part of what makes all the Scrambler brethren great at the everyday is their comfortable riding positions. At 31.1 inches off the ground, the seat is broad and well padded – perfect for cruising along Pacific Coast Highway, surfboard strapped to the side, even if the seat-to-peg distance isn’t vast. Seating position is entirely neutral, despite the lower bars compared to the other Scrambler models, with pegs placed only slightly rearward. For its part, the 803cc Twin will rumble right along, providing a delightful soundtrack courtesy of the Termi pipes. Burnsie is a fan, noting “I love the old air-cooled Monster motor… you can bimble down to like 35 mph in top gear, and she rumbles happily along.”
On the dyno, the Ducati put out 69.9 hp and 46.3 lb-ft. And while this test isn’t so much about the numbers, when you combine that power with its relatively light 418-pound curb weight, you get a fun and sprightly ride. For the off-roady types, JB will tell you the Ducati “feels small enough that you could tackle some mild off-road adventures in true Scrambler style.”
This is a Ducati after all, and should you veer inland from PCH, towards the hills, the Scrambler is up for that task, too. It’s no Panigale, especially with the knobs, so-so Kayaba suspenders, and 18-inch front wheel, but it’ll rip along a canyon road just fine and come to a stop lickity split, thanks to its 330mm disc and Brembo caliper.
“Ducati hit a homerun with its lineup of neo-retro Scramblers, and the Full Throttle is no exception,” Tom describes the jack-of-all-trades Ducati. “The Scrambler is light, fast, fun, and affordable. While certainly not as fast as the Yamaha, the Duc is a great urban-assault vehicle, a decent canyon carver, and is suitable for the occasional jaunt down a dirt road. The twin Termignoni mufflers give the Scrambler a great growl without being deafening. How does it make me feel? Like the young hipster I’m not.”
Harley-Davidson Roadster $11,749 (as tested)
Aside from the now-discontinued XR1200, the Roadster might be the sportiest Harley yet. Granted, that really isn’t saying much, but the Roadster is special for being un-Harley-like in a few key areas. Primarily, Harley is billing the Roadster as the best bike in the Sportster line to tackle a few corners thanks to a 43mm inverted cartridge fork and twin gas-charged emulsion shocks with 3.2 inches of travel. Twin 300mm discs up front also ensure the Roadster stops better than any other Sportster, too.
From there, however, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the Roadster as a whole. When you do, you see that it’s similar to the other bikes here in that it’s stripped to the bare essentials (visually, at least). There’s no extraneous fluff, just the bare minimum to have a good time. Despite it being naked to the core, the Roadster screams Americana with its distinctive 1200cc air-cooled Evolution V-Twin proudly exposed and “Harley-Davidson” prominently displayed on the tank. Some might even call it loud, and for this the Roadster gives no f*cks.
“The Roadster makes me want to drink beer, kick ass, and chase girls. Not bad qualities at all,” says Tom. And this is all before you even ride it.
On the road the Harley makes you feel cooler than you really are. The bars are set low and the mid-mount foot controls are almost racer-esque, at least as far as Harleys go. The V-Twin lopes around slowly, making that distinctive Harley rumble, and for some riders, the Harley-Davidson experience starts to make sense.
We know this because Thai, a staunch Milwaukee detractor, has started to change his tune, noting “I don’t like Harleys because they’re big and they’re heavy. I had one in my garage for six months, and it got ridden only six times, five of those times because my other bike was in the shop. So why do I like this new Roadster so much despite the genetic shortcomings? Because it’s a robust and raw machine that defyingly feels like it shouldn’t still be intact with every thunderous crankshaft rotation. And the feeling of harnessing that chaotic destruction beneath your seat is pretty intoxicating.”
John elaborates “This is the best Sportster I’ve ridden since the XR1200, mostly because it actually goes around corners. If you must have a Sportster, I wouldn’t talk you out of this one, though I would try to get you to have a spin on the Guzzi first. Other than that, the 1200 is a highly evolved fun-to-flog motor (though the gearbox is still not so great), and brakes and suspension keep right up.”
Yes they do, until the road starts to get bumpy. After that, the Roadster feels like it’s taking road imperfections and throwing them at you. The ride is harsh on bumpy pavement, though that firm suspension makes it a solid handler in the corners. But our biggest complaint with the Harley is “that the Roadster’s engine performance is so underwhelming (69 hp), while its curb weight is so overwhelming (567 pounds!),” says Tom.
“But guess what? I don’t care,” Thai retorts. “Simply stated, this is the best performing Harley I’ve yet ridden (besides a Buell). And the fact that it comes stock this way from the factory is chest-hair-sproutingly cool. It makes me wanna chug a tub of whiskey, shoot a gun and slap a hawk.”
Moto Guzzi V9 Roamer $9,990
When it comes to cool factor, all five testers agree there’s no other bike here quite like the Moto Guzzi V9 Roamer. “The Moto Guzzi is cool by default because it’s not rehashing its past or trying to be something it’s not,” says Tom. Thai scribbled, “Oddly Euro masculine. Vibey and visceral. The V9 captures the essence of emotional biking and, in true Guzzi fashion, reminds you to take your time.”
In fact, the Guzzi encourages its rider to sit back, dial it down a notch, and smell the roses. Its riding position is the definition of neutral, with pegs positioned exactly where your feet would naturally fall and upright bars that tilt the rider ever so gently forward, though John and Kevin both noted a preference to have the bars tilted forward just a touch more. The seat is flat as a board (and slightly better padded), offering both rider and passenger the chance to move around quite a bit, a nice touch considering the enjoyable pace on the Guzzi encourages you to crane your neck from side to side as you take in the views (but not too much; watch the road, after all).
That’s not to say the V9 Roamer is slow. In fact, “Grunt wise, it’s pretty damn good,” says Burns. Its transverse 803cc V-Twin is a charming little character, popping out 53.2 horses and 48.1 lb-ft on the MotoGP Werks dyno. Not neck-snapping, but definitely neck-tugging power that’s just enough to satisfy the need for acceleration when it arises. Of course, being a Guzzi, the Roamer isn’t without its quirks.
“The Guzzi delivers two characteristics unique in this group,” Kevin notes. “The way its longitudinal crankshaft makes the bike tilt to the right when revved; and the way you can feel its shaft climb on its gears when accelerating in corners. And being unique often adds to a cool factor. The Roamer is cool in ways unmatched by the others here.”
The Roamer is indeed cool, due largely to the inherent character of its engine, but also because of its shape and form – unassuming and unpretentious with excellent fit and finish. The steel tank and fenders are modestly styled, standing out only because of the rich Giallo Solare (Solar Yellow) paint applied to them. Accents like the faux suede seat add a touch of class, while polished rims, megaphone exhaust and cylinder finning all give an added pop to the appearance.
That’s not to say the Guzzi is without flaws – the dry clutch is clunky, its lever is firmer than the rest, and the suspension starts to protest once the pace picks up – but none of those are deal breakers. Riding a Moto Guzzi, any Moto Guzzi, is an experience because of its inherent quirks, not a detraction, and the V9 Roamer captures that spirit well.
“Not everyone has one, and hardly any non-bikers know what it is,” Thai comments. “And that is part of the charm. Oh, and here’s a bonus, included with purchase are some of the most knowledgeable bikers/mechanics on the planet. The community of Guzzi lovers borders on fanatical, and if you own one, you must be ‘in the know.’”
Triumph Bonneville T120 $12,000 (as tested)
Triumph had an unenviable task when it came to updating its Modern Classic lineup: staying true to history while producing something thoroughly modern. When you consider the cachet the Bonneville name carries, any misstep would be disastrous. There was only one shot to get this right. Thankfully for all of us, Triumph nailed it with the updated Modern Classics. In this case, the Bonneville T120. Just look at this one. If it weren’t for the disc brakes, you’d have to stare long and hard to discern it from the Bonnie your grandpa rode.
But make no mistake, this ain’t your grandpa’s Bonnie. For one, it’s now made in Thailand, just like the Ducati. More importantly, the parallel-Twin engine has grown substantially to 1200cc, making a mountain of torque right off the bottom, all while meeting tough Euro 4 standards. “I think Triumph’s designers deserve raises for making this new liquid-cooled motor look like it just jumped out of one of Steve McQueen’s bikes – everything from the cylinder fins to the faux carbs to the brushed aluminum air cleaner housing,” says the Dukester.
Contemporary nostalgia may border on oxymoronic, but it’s the reason why the Bonneville T120 gets praise from us. What’s old is new again, and that’s a good thing in this case. In his review of the T120 (linked above), Tom noted: “The new model Bonneville is stunning, looking more like the original than should be allowed. Gone is the small kink in the exhaust pipe… and in its place a beautifully unbroken double-walled pipe exiting spent gases through iconic pea-shooter pipes. The new EFI throttle bodies are so cleverly disguised as carburetors you’d think Triumph contracted Amal to construct them. Fork gaiters and rubber tank knee pads complete the illusion.”
Riding it is like channeling our inner Steve McQueen, without having to pull over and fix an oil leak or spark issue every other fuel stop. According to Thai, a Triumph owner himself, the Bonneville “represents the essence of motorcycling in all the right ways. And this latest version of the iconic platform is the best yet.” The reverberation of the 270-degree crank sounds muffled through the pea-shooters, but is still loud enough to let you know there’s a lively engine inside.
“Aside from its bigger engine and extra weight,” notes Duke, “the biggest difference between old Bonnie and new is the abandonment of the 360-degree crankshaft. The 270-degree crank replicates a V-Twin exhaust note, and it’s rich and burly, but it doesn’t sound like the original. Bonus points, though, for lacking the tingly vibrations of the original.”
The Bonneville glides along the road just as you’d expect a modern motorcycle would do, with compliance and comfort. It allows its rider to choose whether they want their kicks via a twist of the wrist or via looking at the scenery.
“After the Yamaha,” says Burnsie, “this is the other one that could be a true do-it-all everyday motorcycle in spite of its uncanny resemblance to the original. The engine’s smooth and powerful from idle to redline with flawless fuelling, it makes really decent power, suspension is fully capable and comfortable – and that seat is the best one here, made of Lady Gaga thigh meat.”
Once we get over our Hollywood fantasies, however, some flaws start to emerge. The transmission, at least on our tester, felt notchy, like an oil change was in order. Throws are a tad long, too. It’s a bit lethargic in the handling department, but can still outperform the Harley and Guzzi. Duke’s observation that “thickly painted lines on the freeway cause tires to wander as if they were short of air” was a condition only he whined about.
As strange as it may sound, perhaps the biggest downfall of the Bonneville T120 is its refinement. Triumph clearly engineered the hell out of this bike, taking into account NVH, or Noise, Vibration, and Harshness. The T120 doesn’t have any of them.
“It seems the engineers in Hinckley have engineered this new engine to the nth degree – all for better power, economy and reliability,” Thai observes. “But amongst all that lab-coat math, something visceral got left out. It seems as if the bike, though better mechanically, lost something intrinsically soulful.”
Not that the Triumph isn’t a cool character – it is – but Triumph blended old and new with a slant towards modernity. In the process we occasionally miss out on the odd vibrations and sounds the old bike made.
Yamaha XSR900 $9,990
The Yamaha XSR900 stands out for so many reasons. Most obvious is its 847cc Triple borrowed from the FZ-09. It’s the only non-Twin here, with more punch and performance than the others. “The way this Triple so eagerly responds to throttle is unlike anything else in this quintet – it’s like a two-stroke powerband relative to all the Twins here,” says Kevin. Combine that with the FZ’s chassis, adjustable suspension, and dual front radial brakes, and it’s clearly in a league of its own among this crowd.
So what’s it doing here? Well, the XSR meets the criteria of a retro-inspired modern motorcycle not built to a specific niche but that incites playful emotions. In that regard the Yamaha XSR900 easily belongs. When it comes to nostalgia, however, only Kevin got sentimental.
“To a guy who remembers win ads featuring Kenny Roberts, the yellow and black anniversary colorway tugs on vintage heartstrings and adds greatly to my perception of its value,” he said.
Unlike others in this group, the XSR doesn’t inspire its rider to dial back the pace a notch. In fact, it does quite the opposite. And for that, Tom’s a big fan.
“The XSR is the essence of pure motorcycling,” he says. “Yes, it’s ride-by-wire and has ABS, TC and a slip-assist clutch, but regardless these modernities, the XSR is fun, fun, fun. The snappy, quick-revving engine performance and a light front end begs you to wheelie from each and every stop.”
That’s a sentiment shared amongst the rest of us, too. In going through everyone’s notes about the other four players, sentiments revolved around nostalgia, cool factor, and enjoying the good times at a relaxed pace. When it came to the Yamaha, the pace quickened, pulses raced, and everyone’s inner hooligan came raging through. Everyone made a comment or two about wheelies, and the word “fun” was mentioned on numerous occasions.
If you wish to stay true to the relaxed pace of the other four Twins here, the Yamaha clearly isn’t for you. Sure it’ll cruise along just fine, but the Yamaha isn’t where you turn if you’re seeking relaxation. Its ergonomics are the most aggressive here (though hardly aggressive in the grand scheme of things), and should you flip to the A power mode, the slightest blip of your wrist will get the XSR howling.
For the most part we’re a performance-oriented group at MO, and the Yamaha tugged at many of our heartstrings. But as Thai pointed out, the XSR900, “was bringing a steak to a hot dog contest.”
A Hat For Every Head
You can call all five of these bikes hipster motorcycles if you want, but the truth is they all strike a chord in us, in one way or another. As such, we’re not naming a winner or a loser because these five appeal to a variety of people with a variety of wants, needs, and desires. Instead, we’ll close this out with each editor (and Thai) choosing which machine of the five they’d pick, and why.
This was a really tough one. I could live with any of these five, but after careful consideration I think I’ve finally reached the station in life where I deserve a Ducati. The old air-cooled Monster motor in this one does everything right including sound best of these. And while I don’t know if I’d want to go to San Francisco or Las Vegas on it, I do know those dirt-tracky tires would inspire me to do adventurous things in my own back yard, maybe even a little flat track action at Perris?
It’s the lightest bike here and the most compact, and that’s a precious commodity when it comes to getting off the beaten path or circling the beaten path repeatedly in a steel shoe. On the beaten path, it’s a plain, simple cool little scoot for getting around; the homespun paint job makes me think a few dents and dings would only make it more loveable… and Pete the Ducati tech tells me the Termi exhaust is easy to uncork for offroad use only. Yes, that’s it, I’ll take the Duc to park next to my old R1 naked bike, which if I didn’t own, I’d take the XSR900.
Thai Long Ly
Out of all the bikes here, the Yamaha is the one I’d pick if I could only have one bike in the garage. It looks cool, has a great motor, and responds well enough that both highly skilled riders can rip it and novices can confidently control it. I felt like I could ride it anywhere there’s pavement. On one wheel. Quickly.
Take the Yamaha out of the equation and, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but I’d take the Harley Roadster, as long as I had two or three other bikes that address the bigger needs I expect my bikes to fulfill. With this new Roadster, The Motor Co. has retained everything that’s desirable about their bikes (read: big vibey engine, major attitude and badass looks) and bolted on some parts that address everything that I think is usually wrong – namely brakes, suspension and ground clearance. I guess someone in Milwaukee decided that not every biker is content with only going slow in straight boring lines.
If it were my money and the bike I chose here were the only bike in my garage I’d buy the XSR, no questions asked. It’s fast, fun and affordable. The Yamaha outperforms the other bikes in this group by a margin of Grand Canyon. It has the same kind of heritage-cool vibe as the other bikes, but with modern performance to match its cool factor.
If I already owned a motorcycle that satisfied my go-fast tendencies, I’d park the Moto Guzzi next to it. The Guzzi isn’t trying to be retro, it is retro. The Italian Harley-Davidson doesn’t make excuses for the way it is, you either love it or hate it, and Guzzi is cool with that. The Roamer is deliciously styled with a paint job that’d make H-D owners take a second glance. It’s a functional bike that goes about the business of being a motorcycle without fanfare. And, unlike other new bikes, the Guzzi engine is a great for practicing your mechanical skills.
The teenager in me yearns for the intoxicating, howling and maniacal XSR900, which is by far the best sportbike of this bunch. The broken hip in me says the Bonneville might be a better choice from this group. I love the way the Triumph looks, and it’s backed up by versatile performance that can satisfy a wide breadth of riders who want a bike that can do it all. I might wish for a revvier engine and a single-disc front-brake setup for less weight and lighter steering responses, but the T120 has an exceptionally neutral riding position and an amazingly comfy seat that feel right no matter where it’s being ridden. It’s a do-it-all machine – well, maybe not so great at trackdays – that maxes out nostalgic style points.
My cohorts may be swooning over the Yamaha – and yes, it is indeed a fun motorcycle – but it’s not my first choice among these five. If I’m looking to go on a mellow cruise, then give me a bike with quirkiness and character. The Yamaha definitely has the latter thanks to its Triple, but it’s missing some of the former. At least to me. It’s too refined for my tastes, which is a similar issue I found with the Triumph. It’s not often I criticize a bike for being too smooth, but I wouldn’t mind it if the Bonneville displayed a little more character. Maybe a tiny bit of vibration, or an audible experience that was slightly more uncorked. Don’t get me wrong, I like the new Bonneville – a lot – but I don’t love it.
For me, the perfect melding of refinement and quirkiness goes to the Moto Guzzi V9 Roamer. I love its simple yet stylish appearance, and it makes all the right noises and vibrations. Unlike John, Thai and Tom, I’d pick the Italian over the Japanese regardless if this were my only bike or not. I picked the V9 Bobber during our Urban Cruiser shootout, and I like the Roamer version even more. Each time I ride it there’s a grin under my helmet because I appreciate that something so honest still exists.