2021 Triumph Tiger 850 Sport

Text: Kevin Duke • Photography: Triumph, Stephen Gregory

Excellent motorcycles abound in this era, where even the mediocre ones are pretty dang good. This general moto competence puts a greater focus on the value equation, which is where this latest Tiger—a compelling European bike—really purrs.

The Tiger 850 Sport has an odd name. Neither its engine (888cc) nor its chassis is smaller than the highly rated Tiger 900 (May ‘20), and neither is it more sporty than the 900. This 850 version is essentially a base-model 900, lacking many of the higher-end features of the 900 GT, 900 Rally, and their top-line Pro variants. The engine is electronically detuned from the 900’s claimed 94 horsepower to a purported 84 ponies, but my butt dyno says the difference is much smaller. 

So what we have here is about 95% of what we loved about the Tiger 900, including its willing and lightweight chassis, charismatic three-cylinder motor, accommodating ergonomics, and top-shelf Brembo brakes. There’s also the attractive styling that toes the line between bold and garish, but manages not to slip into the latter. 

What you don’t get, however, is a fancy inertial measurement unit (IMU) that informs systems like lean-sensitive ABS, precision traction control, and semi-active suspension. On the Tiger 850, you’ll also have to deal with a lack of cruise control, self-canceling signals, quickshifter, and a centerstand, as well as the 900’s iPad-like 7-inch TFT instrument panel in exchange for a 5-inch version and fewer riding mode choices. 

While those high-falutin features are desirable, they aren’t really necessities for having a terrific time aboard a highly versatile and engaging motorcycle like the Tiger. Let’s be clear, you won’t be slummin’ it aboard the Tiger 850. It’s equipped with a height-adjustable seat, rudimentary traction control, a hand-adjustable windscreen, an integrated luggage rack, and night-piercing LED headlights at a price less than $ 12,000. 

 

Versatility & Value

The Tiger 850 nicely bridges the gap between an adventure bike and a sport-tourer. The seat resides at 31.9 inches in its lower position before the rider’s weight compresses the suspension, allowing shorter legs to keep the bike steady. Longer appendages will appreciate the taller 32.7-inch seat position. At about 475 pounds with its tank full, the Tiger is the lightest bike in its class. 

The 19-inch front wheel is a smart compromise between a sharper 17-incher and a dirt-ideal 21-inch hoop. The Tiger’s steering responds more like a traditional motorbike instead of the lazier feedback from a taller front wheel. Michelin Anakee Adventure tires strike a similar compromise, with stable and secure grip on pavement and enough tread area to get reasonable purchase in the dirt. Rugged off-roading would require blockier tires, at least. 

The Tiger has a similar feel to Honda’s Africa Twin, although the AT is saddled with a taller seat and, with a 21-inch front wheel, duller steering response. The Honda surely makes for a better off-roader, but the Tiger is a better street bike. Even the engines respond similarly. The AT’s bigger motor provides extra grunt, of course, but the surfeit of power isn’t huge over the Tiger’s eager output. For comparison, the base-model Africa Twin (built in Japan) retails for $ 14,399, which is $ 2,400 above the Thailand-built Tiger’s MSRP. 

 

T-Plane Power

The Tiger’s three-cylinder engine is unique, using what Triumph calls a T-Plane crankshaft layout, which has a firing sequence that produces an exhaust note like a 270-degree parallel-twin (as in the Africa Twin), harmonized with the typical inline-triple howl. Electronic tuning helps it deliver lower-rpm torque more effectively than the slightly peakier 900 version, but it’s almost impossible to notice the difference in power other than a marginally less pull at the top of the rev counter. The engine provides able grunt at low revs, while being willing to wind up to its 8,500-rpm power peak. 

The T-Plane engine is almost utterly fabulous, but it does feel coarse compared to most other Triples. This throbby vibration makes its way to the rider’s hands, which may bother sensitive digits, but I didn’t suffer any vibe-induced numbness despite the bike’s unwelcome absence of cruise control. The Tiger’s short gearing provides excellent acceleration response, but if most of my miles were at highway speeds, I’d fit a taller gearset. Also, the Tiger’s bassy, twin-like exhaust note, although interesting, isn’t nearly as sonorous as that of the other Triples in Triumph’s lineup.

 

On The Road Again

The Tiger makes for an excellent touring platform. Ergonomics are accommodating, especially with the seat in its higher position, and its relatively small windscreen proves to be remarkably effective, even in the low position. The 5.3-gallon fuel tank enables a range beyond 200 miles. The 850’s instrument panel isn’t especially readable, despite its vibrant TFT display. Some letters and numerals are squint-inducingly small. There are four screen layouts to choose from, none of which give a pleasing or easy-to-read tachometer readout. 

Triumph offers a few saddlebag options, retailing for less than $ 1,000, including the necessary frame rack. Accessory heated grips and hand shields would enhance touring comfort. Fairly generous suspension travel (7.1/6.7 inches front/rear) swallows up bumps that would jolt a sport-touring rig, whether during an urban assault or pounding out highway miles. The only suspension adjustment here on the 850 is the shock’s spring preload to suit different loads, revealing its cost-conscious place in the market. As is typical of long-travel ADV bikes without active suspensions, it suffers front-end dive during braking, but the setup here is a perfectly reasonable compromise of control and comfort. 

The brake hardware hasn’t been compromised, with Brembo’s tremendous Stylema monoblock calipers leading the way and supplying superb power without being too aggressive during initial application. The only downsides of the brakes are the absence of cornering-ABS and the inability to switch off rear ABS for off-roading. 

 

The Value Equation

The upper-middleweight adventure class is perhaps the hottest segment in motorcycling, encompassing several models, all desirable in their own ways. BMW’s F 900  XR is perhaps the most direct competitor, with a starting price just below the Tiger’s, but it’s a bit heavier and has a slightly less interesting parallel-twin engine. 

KTM’s 890 Adventure, at $ 13,099, is likely the strongest competitor in this class. Suzuki’s V-Strom 1050 was formerly the value leader in the liter-sized light-ADV category, but its price and weight have now swelled to $ 13,399 and 545 pounds, respectively. 

And then there’s the calculation when considering a Tiger 900 model. The 900 GT is a more fully realized sport-tourer, but its MSRP starts up at $ 14,700. The adventure-focused 900 Rally begins at $ 15,400 and vaults all the way up to $ 17,100 for the Rally Pro. 

Other three-cylinder competition comes in the form of Yamaha’s new Tracer 9 GT that retails for $ 14,899, which sets up a beguiling comparison with Triumph’s 900 GT. We can’t wait to begin that one! 

In the meantime, the attractive Tiger 850 Sport stands solidly as a tremendous value proposition for a highly versatile and appealing motorcycle. It can do it all in style, without all your money.