Fifty miles south of the broad boulevards and shimmering palms of Marrakesh, Morocco, there’s snow covering the rugged peaks of the Atlas Mountains. The pavement, such as it is, is broken and strewn with gravel and smeared with red, wet clay and patches of snow. Puddles the color of gas station cappuccinos and of unknown depth appear around blind apexes. Here, it’s easy to get caught out by passing trucks, the stereotypically overzealous taxi driver, or the occasional herd of goats. What it calls for is an adventurous machine, ready for whatever the road throws its way. In this case it was the 2018 Triumph Tiger 800, a motorcycle designed for imperfect roads and the unpredictability of every journey.
A couple of months ago, I rode the 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 in Almeria, Spain, and was duly impressed with its cadre of electronic rider aids, its predictable road behavior, and its surprisingly competent off-road ability. When I was asked to leave behind a cold New York winter to test the 2018 Tiger 800 in Morocco, I was expecting a warm desert sun and a less impressive motorcycle—after all, the top-spec Tiger 800 XCA is nearly $6,000 less expensive than the 1200 XCA. Instead, the weather was cold and snowy, and the motorcycle was just as capable and refined as its big sibling.
Approaching a regiment of rain-dappled 800s, I was immediately impressed with the quality of the fit and finish and the top-shelf features. At $15,850 for the 800 XCA, it’s by no means inexpensive. In fact, it's quite a bit more than you'll pay for Honda's Africa Twin, but even though It’s not Triumph’s flagship ADV bike, it has a spec sheet impressive enough that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Seriously, the 800 XCA is as tech-laden as flagship bikes from, like, 2017.
When I talked to head engineer Stuart Wood in Spain, he stressed that Triumph’s design brief is centered around building bikes for real-world riders. Leveraging the same rider-centric approach, for 2018, Triumph made more than 200 updates to its middleweight platform, including revised bodywork and ergonomics; a new manually adjustable windscreen; LED lighting; and new electronics, controllable from the same excellent TFT display as the Tiger 1200.
In the engine department, Triumph removed the previous generation’s backlash gears to reduce rotational inertia and shortened first gear by 12 percent. While the engine is unchanged from “the bearings up,” according to Wood, low-speed responsiveness and acceleration is improved. It also has a freer-flowing exhaust. One look at the flat torque curve is all it takes to get a sense of the efficacy of Triumph’s refinements. Nearly full torque is delivered as low as 2,000 rpm.
Cornering on slick surfaces or in bends with limited sight distance, the 800’s low-down grunt and perfect fueling take the thought out of choosing the right gear and obviated my inclination to obsess over throttle position. There’s zero abruptness accelerating from closed throttle. It feels like you could fill the tank with Mountain Dew and the injector nozzles would magically atomize it into combustion for smooth, progressive power delivery. To boot, the gearbox provides positive lever feel and slick action.
The three-cylinder engine is snappier than its 94 hp and 58 pound-feet suggest. It’s unfailingly smooth, quick-revving, and tractable but still exciting because of the raspy intake noise and throaty exhaust. It makes a strong case for middleweight ADVs, though at about 5,000 rpm in top gear—good for around 70 mph—it’s a bit buzzy and high-strung. As a true mile muncher, the 1200 has the edge in that regard.
Triumph is making a concerted effort to push itself—and its riders—into the off-road segment. To that end, it endowed the top-line 800 XCA with 21-inch front/17-inch rear spoked rims and longer-travel WP suspension. With 2.6 inches more travel than the XRT, the seat height is an inch taller in its lowest setting, but it remains an unintimidating perch for average sized riders.
I like that Triumph has divided the lineup, giving riders plenty of options to fit their riding style—and their wallets. As you might expect, I found the road-focused XRT’s Showa suspension lacked the feel of the XCA’s WPs. If I’d had more time to dial in the damping rates on the fork-top adjusters, I suspect that would’ve helped.
The Moroccan pavement never afforded opportunity to test deep lean angles, but the WP suspension was unphased by the rough roads and provided ample feel in spite of the larger front wheel. To my mind, the quality of the WP units makes up for potential front-end vagueness, and the increased off-road performance adds the utility that makes the Tiger truly versatile for riders undaunted by gravel and dirt.
Both the XRT and XCA have Brembo front and Nissin rear brakes. Although strong, the front brakes felt slightly wooden, yet not so much that they decreased confidence or stopping performance.
The Tiger 800 XCA is 75 pounds lighter than the 1200. As a novice off-roader, its lighter weight and sophisticated electronics made me feel confident in intimidating (to me) terrain. After at least two nights of rain and snow (or “wintry mix” as the forecasters would have it), the sand and gravel trails had some muddy sections where traction was at a premium. Setting the bike in Off-Road mode adjusts traction control to suit, turns off ABS in the rear, and decreases sensitivity in the front. Gunning it up steep, rutted slopes, I could feel the traction control gently kick in, slowing revs but still giving me enough gas to spin the rear. Some expert-level testers felt that even in Off-Road Pro mode, the traction control was too inhibiting, but for 90 percent of riders, I don’t believe that will be the case.
The lower first gear paid dividends off road. In slow, muddy corners, I barely had to slip the clutch and power was available from the first twist of the grip.
The sun began to shine and I pulled over to adjust my jacket vents. I killed the engine by turning the key, which automatically returns the bike to road mode—this is a safety measure that protects riders from accidentally moving off with Off-Road mode’s less invasive ABS and traction control. Unfortunately, I forgot about that function and inadvertently tackled the first dirt section with Road mode selected.
At a slippery incline, the more sensitive traction control prevented the rear from spinning, essentially forcing the engine to bog, leaving me with no forward momentum and a tipping Tiger. I dropped it at a standstill. In the event of an accident, it’s common practice for the motorcyclist to save face by blaming the bike, as I did in this case, but you could argue it was my own fault. Somewhat consolingly, it was less rider error than rider ineptitude. I’m not sure that makes me look any better though. At least it gave me the opportunity to experience the range of the traction control’s intervention and the unobtrusive feel of it curtailing power. Plus, I learned Road TC is definitely just that.
At the end of the muddy day, the Tiger proved more capable than its rider. It gave me more confidence as it blasted up steep hills, sailed through pond-like puddles, and bounded over jagged rocks. It was up to the task, so it made me up to the task. A motorcycle, after all, is supposed to make its rider look good.
The Tiger 800 epitomizes what’s great about ADV bikes. It’s easy to ride, it looks rugged, and it’s versatile. Commute with it, or ride to the Atlas Mountains. Dodge urban potholes, or conquer the broken roads of Northern Africa. Life’s only constant is its inconstancy. Asphalt disintegrates. Drivers behave erratically. It snows in the desert. Why not be prepared?
|PRICE||$15,850 (as tested)|
|ENGINE||800cc liquid-cooled inline three-cylinder|
|CLAIMED HORSEPOWER||94 hp @ 9,500 rpm|
|CLAIMED TORQUE||58 lb.-ft. @ 8,050 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||WP 43mm upside-down fork adjustable for rebound and compression damping; 8.7-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||WP adjustable for preload and rebound; 8.5-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Brembo 2-piston calipers, 305mm discs with switchable ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin 1-piston calipers, 255mm disc with switchable ABS|
|SEAT HEIGHT||33.0/33.8 in.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||5 gal.|
|CLAIMED WEIGHT||459 lb. dry|