One of the great questions in biking throughout the 1990s was this; when will someone knock Honda’s VFR750/800 off the top of the sports-tourer chart?
The best attempts came near the end of the decade, with both the Ducati ST4 and the Triumph ST Sprint. Both relatively small companies compared to Honda and both equally exciting bikes.
With the punchy, fuel injected 955 engine lifted from the Daytona and re-jigged to produce more mid-range oomph, plus higher handlebars, wider saddle and a more protective fairing, the Sprint ST has plenty going for it. If you like sports-touring biking half faired, try the RS option.
Either way, these Triumphs are both winners.
Competing against Honda’s VFR800FI and Ducati’s ST2 and ST4, Triumph’s Sprint ST just shaded it for the title of best sports tourer on the evidence of Roland Brown’s Spanish road experiences one winter’s day in 1998.
When Triumph decided, three years ago (1996), to build a new generation sports-tourer, one of the first things the Hinckley firm did was go out and buy a VFR750F. Honda’s ultra-sophisticated V4 had been the class leader for so long that Triumph’s engineers were in no doubt about which bike’s performance they would have to beat to take the sports-touring honours.
Since then, of course, Honda has introduced the uprated VFR800FI, and Ducati has added serious competition with its ST2 and new ST4 V-twins. All of which meant that the Sprint ST, with its detuned 955cc three-cylinder engine and Triumph’s first aluminium beam frame, would have to be something special if it was to match the best in the increasingly competitive sports-tourer class.
And as I threaded my way through Seville’s evening rush-hour traffic, heading for the hotel at the end of a day’s riding that had begun with a cold early-morning motorway blast before warming up with some memorable scratching through sweeping, sun-baked bends in the hills, one thought kept returning. The Sprint ST was not simply right up there with the world’s best sports-tourers it was arguably the pick of the bunch.
That hasty first conclusion will naturally have to be reassessed after back-to-back testing with the VFR and ST4. But with a peak power output of 110bhp and a claimed dry weight of 207kg, the Sprint ST is marginally the most powerful and lightest of the trio. And on the evidence of a varied day’s riding on the launch in Spain, Triumph’s most sophisticated model yet is also fast, agile and practical enough to back-up those figures with its performance in the real world.
Such an outcome is precisely what Triumph had in mind when the Sprint’s design team was given an extensive brief before beginning work on the project in April 1996. The new bike was to be the firm’s most sophisticated model yet in terms of drive-ability and ease of use, yet should match or exceed the sports-touring sector’s benchmarks (that VFR again) in respect of power, performance, handling, braking, comfort, fuel economy and weather protection all at a very competitive price.
Triumph initially intended to power the Sprint with the 885cc engine from the Speed Triple, but soon decided to make use of the extra torque available from the T595 Daytona’s 955cc unit. The watercooled, DOHC 12-valve motor was detuned with softer cams, and a new exhaust system with a balance pipe to boost midrange output. That results in a peak of 110bhp at 9200rpm, compared to the Daytona’s 128bhp at 10,200rpm. Maximum torque is 95N.m at 6000rpm, but more importantly the Sprint makes over 80N.m all the way from 3500 to 9500rpm.
uch of the engine work involved tuning the Sagem fuel-injection system to boost driveability and efficiency. The system now cuts fuel supply completely when the throttle is closed and, like Triumph’s other 1999 models, incorporates new throttle bodies and other mods for improved low-rev performance. Triumph say that even they were surprised by the improvement in fuel consumption that resulted. They claim 50mpg at a steady 75mph, and almost 50 per cent better mileage than ’a leading competitor’ (guess which!) on one test route.
This bike is the first Triumph to use a conventional twin-beam aluminium frame, chosen in preference to the Daytona’s alloy tubes, which would have required expensive strengthening at the rear to allow luggage carrying. The new frame’s added rigidity allowed the number of engine mounting points to be reduced from eight to six, making manufacture easier, saving weight and reducing the amount of engine heat transmitted to the frame.
The aluminium single-sided swing-arm is borrowed from the Daytona, and operates a Showa shock that is tune-able for preload and rebound damping. Showa also provided the preload-adjustable conventional front forks. To give extra stability, particularly when the bike is heavily laden, steering geometry is slightly more laid-back at 25 degrees of rake and 92mm of trail, and wheelbase is 30mm longer at 1470mm.
For a sports-tourer the Sprint is quite a sharply styled bike, and manages to look distinctive thanks to its twin headlamps and the indicators incorporated into the solid red or black colour of its full fairing. From the tolerably low (800mm) rider’s seat the raised handlebars give away the bike’s intended role. You lean forward only slightly, legs given plenty of room by the footrests, looking out over a medium-height screen that allowed a fair bit of wind noise as we headed westwards out of Seville through the cold morning air.
Like most sports-tourers the Sprint would benefit from some adjustability in its screen, particularly for taller riders. But the fairing is reasonably wide, and wind-protection is on par with that of the VFR and ST4. And so too is the engine’s response, which sent the Triumph whirring forward instantly at a flick of the throttle, its front wheel rising given the slightest encouragement.
The new fuel-injection system is excellent, and the triple motor’s strong low- and midrange output makes the bike both manageable in town and very easy to ride fast. You can let the revs fall as low as 2000rpm in the lower gears. Even from 3000rpm and 50mph in top, the Sprint responds to a tweak of the throttle, picking up speed with ever-greater urgency and no hesitation until it’s storming towards the 9500rpm redline and a top speed of about 155mph.
That flexibility was a big bonus when we reached the brilliant winding hill roads north-west of Seville, where the Sprint could be thrown into a blind corner in the knowledge that the motor would fire it out on the other side, almost regardless of revs. Although one tester complained about the gear change I had no problems on either of the Sprints I rode, though one of the six-speed boxes perhaps felt slightly less smooth on down-changes than the other.
The Triumph motor has a free-revving, distinctively three-cylinder feel of its own, too, and is pleasantly smooth, with just a hint of vibration coming through the footrests at higher engine speeds. Its character is enhanced when it’s fitted with Triumph’s aftermarket ’competition’ exhaust can, which gives a tuneful yet fairly restrained note, and which the factory expects more than half of its customers to fit.
Triumph’s claims for the bike’s fuel efficiency seemed to be borne out, too. The fuel warning light insisted I topped up the 21-litre tank after 150 miles of hard riding had increased consumption to 35mpg (most superbikes would have managed below 30mpg at similar speeds). But when following the photographer’s car back to the hotel, still riding fairly rapidly, I’d covered 110 miles and the fuel gauge was still well over the half-way mark, suggesting Triumph’s 200-mile figure is not optimistic.
Those sweeping, traffic-free bends of the Sierra de Aracena showed that the Sprint’s chassis is as impressive as its powerplant, too. At 207kg dry the Triumph is not much heavier than most sports bikes, and that’s just how it feels. The relatively narrow 180-section rear Bridgestone BT57 (both wheels are 17-inch diameter) helped make the bike manoeuvrable and it was also very stable, both in bends and on high-speed straights.
When braking into fast, bumpy bends the front end allowed a few twitches that a firmer sports-bike set-up would have prevented, and some damping adjustment would be welcome. But generally the balance between suspension travel and control was just right. The Daytona-style front brake set-up of 320mm discs and four-pot Nissin calipers (backed-up by a larger 255mm rear disc) was superb. Footrest tips and very occasionally the right fairing lower grounded in corners, but only at the extreme angles encouraged by the grippy Bridgestone BT57 radials.
If the Sprint’s sporting ability was impressive, so too was the more practical side of its nature. Comfort was generally good, although with less than 300 solo miles covered in a day we barely scratched the surface of the bike’s touring potential. A couple of riders complained about light reflecting off the differently angled cockpit dials, but I wasn’t aware of it. Finish seems good, and instrumentation includes a fuel gauge and clock. Like the Sprint’s centre-stand and pillion grab-rail, they’ll earn their keep on this bike.
The Sprint can also be fitted with a range of factory accessories, most usefully the colour-matched panniers and top-box plus pannier inner bags and passenger back-rest if required that will turn it into a serious high-mileage machine. But just as it stands the Sprint is a supremely capable all-round superbike, and at £7995 it’s competitively priced as well £500 more expensive than the VFR800FI and £650 cheaper than the ST4.
Time, and comparison tests, will decide whether Triumph has succeeded in building the world’s best sports-tourer. Both the ST4 and VFR are so good that a choice between all three could simply come down to whether you prefer your sports-tourer with two, three or four cylinders. But right now, with the Spanish sun already a distant memory but thoughts of the triple’s speed and agility still making my blood flow faster, the Sprint ST just about gets my vote.
Get Triumph motorbike insurance for the triumph group test: sprint rs.
Engine Liquid-cooled transverse triple
Claimed power (bhp) 110hp @ 9200rpm
Compression ratio 11.2:1
Transmission Six speed
Front tyre 120/70 x 17in Bridgestone BT57 Battlax
Rear tyre 180/50 x 17in Bridgestone BT57 Battlax
Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Rear wheel 5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium
Front suspension 45mm telescopic Showa, adjustments for preload
Rear suspension One Showa damper, adjustments for preload and rebound damping
Front brake 2, four-piston Nissin calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake Double-action caliper, 255mm disc-
Top speed 155 mph
Fuel capacity 21 litres
Current price £7,995