Consider the Bar Raised
2019 Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE Review: A New Kind of Adventure Motorcycle
When Triumph announced the new Scrambler 1200 late in 2018, the biggest surprise wasn’t the bike itself — Triumph made sure of that with a steady stream of teasers leading up to the reveal — but the price tag: $14,000 for the base model, a price at least $2,000 more than its competitors. How could Triumph ask anybody to pay that much for a motorcycle that, by its very nature as a scrambler, is as bare-bones as possible to make it as capable off-road as it is on the pavement?
As someone who even went so far as to say “Triumph just made a massive mistake” upon hearing the price for the first time, I’ve been eager to get my hands on the top-tier Scrambler 1200 XE. The looks shout “laid-back dirt-slinger,” the sort of attitude we’ve come to expect from a scrambler — but the pricing seems better-suited to the laser-focused adventure bike crowd. So where does it really belong?
The Good: On a weekend-long ride that included a stint from Los Angeles to Pioneertown, California via Angeles Crest, a full day playing in the desert and a straight shot back to LA, the newest Triumph to wear the Scrambler badge came into its own, proving itself just as well-suited to carving up winding mountain passes as bombing through deep sand and jumping over desert crests.
Who It’s For: Riders who love the experience a scrambler can provide and have outgrown the current crop of smaller dual-purpose bikes, but don’t want to make the migration to a full-on modern adventure motorcycle.
Watch Out For: No matter how good the motorcycle is, $14,000 for the base model XC and $15,400 for the XE is asking a lot. Indeed, a sum that high for an off-road motorcycle with minimal protection around the tank and engine and a lot of vulnerable expensive parts is bordering on ludicrous. There’s a reason modern adventure bikes are clad in plastic and have burly engine guards; off-road, it’s almost inevitabile a bike will end up on its side, so it’s best to make that experience as inexpensive as possible.
Review: The scrambler came to prominence in the 1960s and ’70s, when public roads had improved to a point where the need for day-to-day motorcycles with off-road capabilities began to sharply decline. Motorcyclists looking to ride, race and play in the dirt were hit hard — but instead of giving up, they started stripping down road bikes, bolting on longer-travel suspension and fitting knobby dirt tires.
The style’s popularity has ebbed and flowed in the years since, but it’s back in full force as of 2019. To say the current motorcycle market is saturated with scramblers is an understatement: Nearly every major manufacturer now has a bike labeled with the name. Problem is, most of the “scramblers” out there are based on existing sport standard style bikes, with only a few relatively cosmetic alterations to help them cope with life in the dirt. The number of options actually designed, engineered and tested to attack the dirt? Well, they can be counted on one hand…but one of those fingers is needed for the 2019 Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE.
Triumph’s own lineup also includes the Street Scrambler, which can handle a gnarly dirt road or two — but as the name implies, it’s a street bike with a dash of off-road flavor. As with the majority of entry-level scramblers on sale today, it looks far more off-road-worthy than it actually is. Triumph knows this; the Scrambler 1200 is proof that it’s taking the scrambler market seriously, and not just phoning it in. (It’s also the brand’s rebuttal to rival Ducati’s Desert Sled, a bike packing a reinforced frame, bodywork and suspension more suitable for rough terrain.)
Using the Bonneville T120 Street Scrambler as the base, Triumph tuned the 1200-cc engine for greater horsepower and torque, but also made that power more accessible lower in the rev range — perfect for both off-roading and sprinting out of paved turns. The company gave the Scrambler a longer swingarm and taller front suspension for more travel (7.9 inches for the base XC, 9.8 inches for the XE) and ground clearance; should that run out more quickly than expected, though, there’s a thicker, more purposeful metal crash guard protecting the engine’s bottom. The 1200 also gets a larger 4.2-liter fuel tank for longer rides. The XE, along with more generous suspension than the XC, scores upgraded electronics that include an “Off-Road Pro” mode, which shuts off the traction control and ABS to allow for more aggressive dirt riding.
The ride from LA to Pioneertown and back — with a day of desert riding in between — was more than enough to show that all the upgrades, enhancements, time and energy Triumph put into this Scrambler 1200 paid off. The bike’s Bonneville origins let me treat it like a sport standard on the serpentine roads over Angeles Crest; I was hanging off the side, leaning into turns and jumping on the big Brembo brakes as though Triumph never intended this bike to see dirt at all. The dirt-friendly 21-inch front tire and soft long-travel suspension tuned for off-roading do means the bike doesn’t bite into turns as sharply as it could, which made decreasing-radius bends and tight hairpins more hair-raising than I would’ve liked — but if you know that sluggishness is there, you can adjust your riding accordingly.
In the dirt, deep sand and rocky trails cutting across Joshua Tree National Park, the 1200 XE proved itself the competent off-roader riders have been begging for since Triumph brought the Street Scrambler to market back in 2006. The chassis and riding position give the Brit amazing balance when the ground is shifting under the tires. In a patch of sand where BMW GS after BMW GS struggled to wade through, I grabbed a fistfull of throttle, used the twin-cylinder engine’s torque to lift the front end, planed the front wheel and skipped past them all.
The Scrambler’s sub-500-pound weight also made navigating rock garden minefields and craggy, treacherous trails almost as easy as it would have been in a big enduro. (How the majority of adventure motorcycle riders haven’t realized you don’t need a 600-pound motorcycle to enjoy a day on the trails is beyond me.) Parked next to the heavily-fairing-clad Beamers at the trailhead, the Scrambler 1200 looked every bit as stripped-down as its name says it should be, but out in the thick of California’s demanding trails, it was just as capable as the BMWs — if not more.
However, if the undulating tarmac and the rutted sand pits are where the Triumph pulled away from established ADVs, it showed its greatest weakness while attempting to keep up during a lane-splitting sojourn down the freeway. During my relative straight shot back from Pioneertown to LA, I was joined by two friends piloting a Triumph Tiger 800 and BMW R 1200 GS. The Scrambler 1200’s punchy powerplant held its own on a long stretch of highway, but only up to a certain speed; beyond that, the nakedness and retro-minimalist styling of the Scrambler stopped being cool and started exaggerating the bike’s vulnerability.
It was at that point the over-engineered ADVs shrouded in aerodynamic plastic and clad with windshields fit for riot control duty started making sense. It’s not that the Scrambler didn’t want to keep up — it just couldn’t. Trying to chase down the Tiger and R 1200 GS while punching through the air at California highway speeds with nothing but handlebars and a headlight to break the wind…well, it was damn near impossible.
Verdict: Superbikes are so damn good at setting scorching hot laps and dirt bikes are the perfect tools for navigating single tracks with surgical precision for the same reason: They’re built from the ground up to be laser-focused. Scrambler-style motorcycle are jacks-of-all-trades, and like any such compromised proposition, concessions must be made; in this case, compromises to the ride and design are inevitable. It’s why they’ll never be the best at carving up your favorite road or pounding dirt along wooded trails.
But in that category, there’s no doubt the Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE raises the bar to a new level. It’s not the best on the road — but going in and out of corners, it still inspires more confidence than most other road bikes. It’s not the last word in off-road performance — but it’s more sure-footed than some bikes built specifically for the dirt.
In fact, I owe Triumph an apology. There’s no “massive mistake” with the price of this bike. The only mistake here is that the company undersold this bike by calling it a “scrambler” when it’s something far greater: a naked ADV.
2019 Triumph Scrambler XE Specs
Engine: 1,200-cc parallel twin
Torque: 81 pound-feet
Weight: 452 pounds (Dry)
Suspension Travel: 9.8 inches
Triumph provided this product for review.
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