First Ride: Triumph Tiger Explorer review

Brit firm's most sophisticated model yet takes adventure biking to a whole new level

TRIUMPH'S new Tiger Explorer takes adventure bikes to a whole new level - and your adventure will begin when you try to get your head around the overwhelming variations in specifications available - and the sheer complexity of those specifications - in the new family of Tigers.

Not only are there six bikes (and a further two low-seat options - more of which later), all with different specs, but the technology involved in these computers-on-wheels is so sophisticated that you could own one for a year and still not have truly explored what it's capable of.

With this new range, triumph seems to be edging closer to abandoning the idea of an off-the-peg bike and becoming far more like a Saville Row tailor who will facilitate a motorcycle that's perfectly suited to your needs.

Most press presentations on bike launches take half an hour at the very most but the Tiger presentation ran well over an hour and we had still only scratched the surface. That's understandable when the bike in question (or, at least, the full-spec option) features semi-active suspension, cornering ABS, cruise control, a torque-assist clutch, a Hill-Hold 'handbrake' function, a traction control system that boasts five standard riding modes and an infinite amount of settings in fully customisable mode, electrically-adjustable windscreen... the list goes on. And on.

To be honest, during the press conference, it sounded like complete overkill and I couldn't help thinking about '80s hooligans screaming around on their primitive Yamaha RD350LCs and wondering what they'd make of it all. Didn't they have just as much fun without all these gadgets and onboard computers?

But then it struck me that there were several former '80s LC hooligans amongst the assembled bike journalists and they seemed to be lapping up the technology and fully embracing it. Fair dos. Maybe I just have to accept that things move on and always will do. So I kept an open mind, especially since Triumph's chief engineer, Stuart Wood, repeatedly assured us that, while the Explorer sounds very complex to explain on paper, all its systems are actually very intuitive to use and don't intrude on the riding experience.

And do you know what? He was right.

The next morning we pulled out of the uphill hotel drive and I went straight for the Hill Hold function (engaged by a sharp, single pull of the brake lever while at a standstill) and couldn't help but smile. We should have had handbrakes on bikes decades ago. Not only does it make standing starts on rough slopes far easier (especially on a fully-loaded bike), it also allows you to fiddle with rucksacks, gloves etc, without the need to stand on the rear brake or hold the front lever in.

Before we go any further, I should point out that the only bike available to us was the full-spec, top-of-the-range, XCa model which retails at £15,800 and boasts many features not found on the standard bikes. The new Tiger Explorer family is split into two distinct lines - the XR bikes, which are more road-focused, and the XC machines which have more of an off-road bias. But don't get too hung up on this - both are perfectly capable of switching roles, it's just in the finer details that you'd notice a difference.

There are three XR models - the standard £11,800 XR, the mid-spec £13,400 XRx, and the top-spec £15,000 XRt. The more off-road focused XC model is available as the standard XC bike at £12,200, the mid-spec XCx at £14,200, and the top-spec £15,800 XCa, the one we tested in Portugal.

Got it? Good, let's carry on.

As we pull out of the hotel and stop at the first junction, it's immediately apparent that the Tiger has a very reasonable seat height for an adventure bike. In fact it has two – you can adjust it from 837mm to 857mm on all the bikes. If that's still too tall for you, there are low seat versions of the XRx and XCx, bringing it down to 785mm or 805mm. These bikes also have different forks and shocks which are tuned to accommodate the lower seat heights.

Pulling out onto smooth, fast A roads, I start to scroll through the suspension options. There's nine different settings between 'Sport' and 'Comfort' and while the 'Normal' option can easily cope with normal road riding, you really can feel the difference in the stiffness of the bike when you start veering towards the full 'Sport' mode and, conversely, you can feel the plushness of the softer settings when you switch to 'Comfort'. You can easily make these adjustments as you ride too, via the 'scroll' and 'select' buttons.

Triumph's semi-active suspension (TSAS) is by WP and it not only allows you to electronically control the front and rear damping, it also automatically adapts the rear shock preload settings. So if you fill your panniers or take on a pillion, the bike will sense it and the shock will adjust accordingly. The TSAS system - a first for Triumph - is only fitted to the mid and top-spec models.

The left-hand bar on the Explorer is a busy place as you'd expect. It includes the aforementioned scroll up and down buttons which allow you to navigate the menu. There's also a mode button (which we'll get to later), a 'select' button to confirm your options, a heated grips button, and a fog light button (neither of which are fitted on the standard bikes), as well as the usual indicators, headlights and horn.

With all these switches cluttering up the left-hand bar, the cruise control buttons have had to be located on the right handlebar and, for me at least, that created a bit of a problem. Unless you have very long thumbs, you'll find that you inadvertently twist the throttle open as you try to stretch your thumb to set or adjust the cruise control function. I did manage eventually, and the function works well when it's engaged, but it wasn't ideal to use.

And that's not all the controls - you also have the heated seat button down by your left inner thigh. The rider's button can control both the rider and pillion seats but there's an additional button for the pillion should they wish to warm their butts without bothering you.

But let's get away from the overwhelming technology for a moment because it can take away from the best thing about the Tiger Explorer, and that's the ride. You soon forget you're sitting on a motorcycle that has vastly superior computing power than the Apollo 11 spacecraft because the Tiger still feels like a real motorcycle and you still feel like you're in charge of it rather than the other way round.

The 1215cc triple generates 139hp (2hp up on the old model) and delivers 90lbft of torque (up from 89lbft) which makes it the most powerful shaft-driven motorcycle in the adventure segment. Triumph also claim it's 5% more efficient on fuel and, despite the 28% reduction in noise level to meet Euro 4 regulations, the firm has also managed to create a throaty, addictive note from the new exhaust.

Stripped of any luggage, the Tiger responds fantastically well to being hustled around twisty roads and you can almost ride it like a full-on sports bike – although even in its naked state the bike weighs a hefty 258kg. The linked ABS system works like a dream (don't worry off-road fans – you can isolate the rear brake in off-road mode) with the Brembo monobloc four-piston radial calipers inspiring huge confidence, even in those sphincter-tightening 'am-I-going-to-get-stopped?' moments. Triumph claims the brakes are around 10% more efficient than on the old model’s.

Gear-changes are slick and almost effortless thanks to the superb gearbox and torque-assist clutch which requires 30% less effort to operate. Whether or not that's enough to reduce 'rider fatigue' as the firm also claims, is another matter.

One thing that definitely does reduce fatigue for a tall rider like me is the first-in-class electrically-adjustable screen. It's pure bliss and cuts out all the noise, buffeting, and neck-strain I suffer from on so many other bikes. There's even a taller option available on the top-line models.

Getting back to the clever stuff, all but the standard models are equipped with cornering ABS which really could be a life-saver – although Triumph reckon only around 1% of riders will ever need it. Still, if you are in that minority who, for whatever reason, happen to grab a handful of brake at full lean, you've at least got a chance of not ending up in hospital. That can only be a good thing.

Using sensors to monitor pitch rate, yaw rate, roll rate, vertical acceleration, lateral acceleration, and longitudinal acceleration, the Tiger's Central Control Unit (CCU) and Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) constantly measure and respond to the way the bike is being ridden to optimise the performance of the ABS and traction control. I watched other riders, braver than me, whack the throttle open on wet roads and get away with it, time after time, because the sensors react so fast to a clumsy handful of throttle and stop the power being delivered before you've fully made the mistake.

Of course, no system can guarantee that you won't crash a motorcycle, but few bikes get closer to offering a get-out-of-jail-free card than the Tiger (or, at least, the higher-spec versions).

Triumph's confidence in the new Tiger was demonstrated by the route that was chosen for us to test it on. It comprised fast, smooth A-roads, tight, twisty B-roads, bumpy, gravel-strewn unclassified roads, and even a proper off-road section. It seemed that even God wanted to know how well the Explorer responded in all conditions by supplying a hefty amount of rain to wet these roads from time to time. Nowhere did the Tiger come up short.

I almost qualify as a complete off-road novice and yet, within minutes, I was standing up and daring to open the throttle in a way that I've never done in my (very) limited off-road excursions. Mud, gravel, deep ruts, protruding rocks - the Tiger soaked them up, spat them out, and laughed at their feeble efforts to unseat me. As soon as you feel traction being broken, the bike somehow finds it again and you're back on the straight and narrow. I can't overstate how confidence-inspiring that is for those of us not too used to the rough stuff. I may not be able to do it at record speed, but I certainly wouldn't be afraid to attempt any kind of terrain on an epic journey on this motorcycle. It's that good.

Aside from all the standard rider mode settings, you can personalise them to an astonishing degree if you select the rider-programmable mode. Even an IT boffin could spend weeks working his way through the possibilities and permutations and, as a rider, you could own this bike for years and still not explore every different parameter of its adjustability.

Depending on which bike you choose, there are up to five different riding modes (four pre-sets, one customisable). Each mode changes the engine map, the levels of ABS, and the levels of traction control. Most of this can be done on the move by selecting the desired mode then pulling in the clutch and closing the throttle to confirm. To switch to off-road mode you have to stop the bike. Otherwise you can change modes on the move. While this is a great benefit and will be fairly easy once you're really familiar with the system, it can take your attention off the road ahead as you try to figure it out, so best to perfect the procedure at a standstill first.

The old Tiger Explorer was launched five years ago and as part of its radical redesign, it's also been restyled with sharper, more angular and more contemporary lines, and subtle touches like wet-look paint on the engine covers and even new stitching on the (also new) seats. Triumph seems not to have overlooked one tiny detail in its desire to build the world's greatest adventure bike.

It should be obvious by now that this is one of the most technically sophisticated motorcycles ever built and if you really do want to go round the world on an epic journey that will take in every conceivable road and off-road surface, then there's arguably no finer bike to do it on. But I suspect that most people who buy the Tiger Explorer (which will be available from April) won't tackle anything more epic than a tour round the Highlands or the Welsh Valleys. Maybe a trip to France or the Alps. So do they need such a complex motorcycle when people have been making the same trips on far more basic machinery for decades?

Probably not. But then, who utilises every last one of the 193 horses available from BMW's HP4? No-one, except racers under controlled conditions on a race track. It's more about wanting all the gadgets and technology (or horsepower) than it is about using them, whether that's to give you bragging rights down the pub or because you might just, one day, have occasional use for some of them.

The Tiger Explorer is the most sophisticated motorcycle Triumph has ever built but the real beauty of it is that all those electronics and gadgets do not take away from the raw riding pleasure. They're non-intrusive and feel perfectly natural, but at the same time inspire confidence because you know there's such sophisticated technology monitoring your every move and waiting to catch you if you do slip up. Will owners properly utilise all the available electronic settings? Probably not, but that won't stop people wanting them. And why not? It's human nature. After all, I'm writing these very words on a computer that has a multitude of functions I'm not even aware of.

Model tested: Triumph Tiger Explorer XCa

Price: £15,800 on the road

Engine: 1215cc three-in-line

Power: 139hp @ 9,300rpm

Torque: 90lbft @ 6,200rpm

Dry weight: 258kg

Frame: Tubular steel

Suspension: 48mm WP USD fork, electrically adjustable in rebound and compression damping; Semi-active WP monoshock with automatic preload adjustment. Cast aluminium single sided swing-arm.

Brakes: Front dual 305mm discs with Brembo Monobloc four-piston radial calipers; rear single 282mm disc with Nissin two-piston sliding caliper. Cornering ABS.

Tyres: 120/70 R19 front; 160/70 R17 rear

Seat height: 837/857mm

Fuel capacity: 20 litres

Colours: White, blue, green

Availability: April 2016

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