Test rides The Journey

12,000 Miles on a 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx

A long-term review of Triumph's slightly confused flagship adventure motorcycle tourer, which manages to simultaneously impress and frustrate

It’s not often that one can identify the exact moment he or she falls out of love with someone or something. Usually it’s a gradual process – a collection of incidents that turn the heart rather than a single defining moment. And it’s even less often that one has photographic evidence of the moment.

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In the case of myself and the 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx, the moment came roughly 12 months after I bought it – when the nice people at Triumph invited myself and about a dozen other moto-journo types out to its Adventure Experience in Ystradgynlais, Wales last March. The photographic evidence of the moment you see below. That’s me crashing a 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 – the third-generation version of my second-gen bike. The crash was my second of the day; I would end up crashing 10 more times before going home.

The exact moment I fell out of love with Triumph’s flagship adventure machine

On this particular trip to the ground, I smacked my hip on the ‘bar and tank in the process of being thrown. It hurt enough that I spent a few milliseconds pondering whether anything was broken. The pain sparked a sense of anger at the situation – a sense of betrayal, for lack of a better word – and I spent quite a few more milliseconds entertaining a fantasy of just getting up, walking back to the Adventure Experience’s headquarters building, collecting my own bike, and riding it directly to my local Triumph dealership to insist they take it back.

The sense of betrayal came from the fact I had proven, again, something I had suspected all along: that the Tiger Explorer/Tiger 1200 is not appropriate for serious off-road use. I was angry at the bike. I was angry Triumph for its refusal to accept this blatant reality, its desperate desire to compete against BMW‘s heralded GS despite so clearly lacking the right platform. I was angry for allowing myself to be in this situation. As the day wore on and I kept crashing, my anger turned to seething hatred. Incidentally, I was not the only person crashing that day; my friend, Shuffles, dropped out early because he’d injured his back, and another journo had to be rushed to the hospital with a broken wrist.

RELATED: Triumph Seeks ADV World Domination in Launching ‘Adventure Experience’

Ultimately my childish anger ebbed and I returned to, and became more sure of, my previous assessment of the Tiger 1200 and, by extension, Tiger Explorer: it is an excellent touring motorcycle for tall people.

I am a tall person and I like to tour on motorcycles, so I’ve kept the bike. But I’ll admit I’ve also never fully let go of that sense of betrayal. The memory of it has stayed with me and manifests in the form of a persistent frustration with the compromises made in an effort to hold to ‘adventure’ claims, compromises that prevent the Tiger 1200 from being an even better touring machine. Earlier this year, when my wife and I decided to move back to our old flat, I seized upon it as an opportunity to get a new bike. I have temporarily put that idea on hold, choosing to rent a nearby garage rather than force myself to find a bike that fits into our flat’s garden space, but hardly a day goes by that I’m not looking for and dreaming of a replacement to the top-heavy triple.

Despite my eagerness to be free of it, though, the Tiger Explorer/Tiger 1200 remains a bike I’d generally recommend – as long as you’re comfortable with its compromises. In the space of 22 months of ownership I have put more than 12,000 miles on the bike, riding it in all conditions and scenarios. Here’s what I’ve learned:

My 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRX traversing the wild unknown that is my back garden (note bed sheet hanging on line at the edge of the shot).

Well Equipped

The Tiger Explorer XRx sits in the middle of the three road-focused Tiger Explorers introduced at EICMA 2015, alongside three “off-road-focused” XC machines that were different from their XR brethren primarily in the choice of tires. The XRx offered most of the bells and whistles of the more expensive XRT, minus heated seat, hill start, and a tire pressure monitoring system that worked so well it is no longer available on any Triumph model.

I added the crash bars to add weight to the front end (see below), and fog lights to make me more visible when filtering through traffic. The luggage was free from my local dealer – Bevan Triumph – that particular incentive being part of the reason I chose the bike.

RELATED: Triumph Struggling to Sell Tiger 1200?

The Tiger Explorer is not the world’s most attractive moto – unlikely to assist you in efforts to win over a romantic partner, unless you’ve got a thing for blokes over 40 who wear grubby textile suits – but I personally like how ridiculous and clunky it looks. The thing has quite a bit of presence on the road, looking like it would happily go through a stone wall. Related to that, it looks better dirty than when clean.

It’s gigantic and tall, to the point that I usually step up onto the bike (sidestand down, hand on front brake, left foot on peg, then swinging leg over) rather than attempt the high roundhouse kick necessary to swing a leg over as normal. Once seated, though, I have no problem placing both feet on the floor even with the seat in the highest position (Keep in mind I’m 6-foot-1).

The second-generation Tiger Explorer (left) is almost identical to the third-generation Tiger 1200 (right) – especially when it comes to ergonomics and comfort.

Credit to Triumph here: the clever adjustability of the Tiger Explorer’s seat is something that never really gets mentioned in reviews. It can be set at two different heights, but you can also adjust pitch, ie, angle at which it leans. The latter aspect helps address the “ball-hugging” issue that some male riders have experienced on other Triumph models (the British manufacturer having a habit of choosing sportier ergonomics that push the rider toward the tank).

With the seat adjusted, the cockpit area is initially roomy and comfortable. However, long-haul rides (400+ miles in a day) soon revealed that the ‘bar was actually too far away, creating a stretch that eventually puts a wearying pain in the shoulders. Cue ‘bar risers from SW-Motech. I still find myself humping the tank when aggressively maneuvering the bike, but things are better than they were.

‘The Tiger Explorer is not the world’s most attractive moto – unlikely to assist you in efforts to win over a romantic partner, unless you’ve got a thing for blokes over 40 who wear grubby textile suits’

Passenger accommodation, meanwhile is excellent. Jennosaurus has always been quite happy to jump on the back, managing to stay comfortable for distances up to 180 miles (with longish breaks; she doesn’t like to be sat still for long).

There is quite a bit of room to store stuff under that passenger seat, by the way. The bike comes with an inadequate tool kit (not good for much more than adjusting the mirrors) but there is plenty of room to hold a proper one, as well as an emergency tire repair kit and a phone that you could theoretically charge in the underseat USB port. The underseat area isn’t waterproof, though, and the one time I tried to charge something (my increasingly useless TomTom) with that port it didn’t work. No matter. There are three 12v plugs to be found on the bike: one in the dash, one under the rider’s left leg, and one under the passenger’s left leg.

Jenn and I have found the bike to be quite enjoyable two-up.

The screen is electronically adjustable but not really high enough for tall folk. Cruise control is standard. Heated grips are standard, as well, with two inconsistent settings: “maybe warm” and “maybe hot.” Despite having its North America headquarters in Atlanta (Southerners despise winter), Triumph doesn’t appear to realize how vehemently some people hate the cold. The large button to activate the grips is to be found on the left; the button does not light up as it did on the previous generation Tiger Explorer, which means that having cold hands at night involves fumbling around the left grip, stabbing at all the switches.

Staying on this theme of less-than-great button placement, the cruise control switchgear is on the right (boo), and the switch to flash the high beams is placed where most manufacturers would place a mode selection button. The mode selection button is placed where most manufacturers would place the switch to flash high beams. This means you will never be able to flash the brights quickly, the process of finding them with your thumb taking longer than any scenario in which flashing brights might make sense (eg, giving way in UK driving etiquette).

You need three different buttons to navigate the Tiger Explorer’s byzantine options menu (viewed on a good ol’ LCD screen, rather than the glitchy TFT set-up found on the post-2018 Tiger 1200). Many tasks are made far more difficult than they need to be; it takes some 13 clicks of two different buttons to reset the trip meter, for example. Seriously, Triumph: WTF? The act of setting the clock is such a pain in the ass that you won’t bother – not a huge loss because actually finding the clock on the dash is difficult to do in a quick glance.

A BETTER TIGER: Made for Adventure: A Triumph Tiger 800 XRT in Scottish Winter

The XRx comes with three riding modes: Road, Rain, and Off Road. I’ve never been able to reliably identify whether the modes feel any different; are they actually different, or do I think they’re different because Triumph says they are? I suffer the same conundrum with the Triumph Semi-Active Suspension (TSAS). You can choose between Comfort, Normal, and Sport suspension set-up, with all kinds of midpoints between, but you will be hard pressed to actually feel the difference.

Turn the key and the Tiger Explorer’s 1215cc inline triple engine fires to life every single time. I have left the bike in sub-zero-temperature airport parking lots whilst off gallivanting in Tenerife or South Africa for up to two weeks and it has never let me down. At idle, the engine has a deep wheezing rumble. It sounds modern and trundling, like a space tractor. The richness of tone seems to have improved over time and I find it deeply pleasing. Sometimes I’ll sit there on the bike and close my eyes, just listening to its hum.

It certainly manages to look imposing.

Where it’s Best

The aforementioned engine produces a claimed 137 horsepower and 91 pound-feet of torque at peak. It is one of the most enjoyable and tractable powerplants I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and it is quite often enough on its own to make me overlook all the elements of the Tiger Explorer that annoy me. Acceleration is syrupy smooth and dramatic. The bike’s not inconsiderable weight (253 kg dry, so at least 280 kg fully fueled and wearing engine bars and [empty] panniers and such) dulls the drama of acceleration somewhat but it’s still great big oodles of laugh-in-your-helmet fun.

The transmission remains as slick and reliable as when I first brought the bike home. There is a hint of the first-gen Tiger Explorer’s agricultural clunk when you drop into first, giving it a sense of big bike character that I like. First gear, by the way, is very, very tall, meaning you have to wind up just a bit to get going from a dead stop. Not too much – certainly beating traffic off a light is never difficult – but enough that every time I got back on the Tiger Explorer after some time with this summer’s Harley-Davidson Street Bob I had a tendency to rev it like a noob.

RELATED: 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 – Ride Review

The gearing and engine performance isn’t what you want off road, but on the road it is absolutely sublime. It is here that I’m inclined to digress into a lament over the demise of the Trophy SE. I can’t say for certain, because I never actually got a chance to ride a Trophy, but it seems to me this powerplant is ideally suited to drive a sporty touring bike and removing that sporty touring bike from Triumph’s line-up was a mistake.

As a sign of the Tiger Explorer’s touring prowess, you have to go up the price range quite a bit to find bikes that perform as smoothly and effortlessly on long boring stretches of road of the sort that tend to exist between interesting things. In this aspect it is, in my opinion, on par with the BMW K 1600 B and even nearing the mighty Honda Gold Wing (both with six-cylinder engines, which have a similar feel to a Triumph triple). Cruise control is excellent and weather protection is better than you might initially suspect, thanks to handguards, a massive tank and accompanying bodywork that keeps the elements away from the upper legs.

Throw down the dough for accessory panniers and top box (or get them as a deal sweetener from your dealership, or, uh, buy the exact same luggage without Triumph branding for less from Givi), and you’ll have 116 liters of weatherproof storage. If that’s not enough, the Tiger Explorer is specifically designed to accommodate the straps of Kriega luggage. I have before described the bike as a two-wheeled pickup truck and that is most certainly true when it comes to loading it up with stuff; I’ve used the bike to haul everything from groceries to firewood.

Have Triumph Tiger Explorer will grill

Where it’s Good

Once you’ve traversed the boring bits, the Tiger Explorer’s engine is delightfully equipped to make the very most of twisting roads. The chassis, however, feels slightly less ready. A 19-inch front tire means less feel than you’d get from a 17-incher (although, the good news here is that Michelin’s excellent Road 5 tire [in the guise of the Road 5 Trail] is available in sizes that fit the Tiger Explorer), but the real problem is the bike’s top heavy nature leaves you just a little uncertain when really, really pushing. Will all that weight overload the tires and send you low-siding off a cliff? Related to aggressive riding, see the above statement about the TSAS. Allegedly, it’s constantly assessing and tweaking itself according to conditions but I’ve not really noticed that happening in practice.

Contrasting what I’ve just said, last year, when I went on a test event for the Tiger 1200 (the same bike as the Tiger Explorer but for a few more bells and whistles) we were moving through Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park at psychotic pace, achieving speeds in excess of 125 mph. At stops, our tires were steaming. So, you can ride the ever-lovin’ hell out of the Tiger Explorer. But I submit that it is unnecessarily stressful to do so. I’ve certainly never attempted such riding on my own bike, ie, the bike on which I have spent my own money.

‘It seems to me this powerplant is ideally suited to drive a sporty touring bike and removing that sporty touring bike from Triumph’s line-up was a mistake.’

In fact, I feel the bike’s nature discourages madness. The seating position, the ever-present weight, and the chassis instead quietly promote a keep-your-license pace. Not at all slow or boring – it is always enjoyable – but un-fast enough that some part of you will feel guilty for underutilizing the engine.

The brakes, too, encourage somewhat more intelligent riding. I have no complaints about the strength of the dual front disc/single rear disc set-up but I wouldn’t describe it as aggressive in its ability. Especially if you are carrying a passenger or have loaded up the luggage. I have had a few bum clenching instances of coming to a roundabout fully loaded with a little too much enthusiasm, and realizing too late that I should have started braking earlier.

When my wife first saw the Tiger Explorer she referred to it as ‘the Lego bike.’ I think that’s an apt description.

There is nothing to be found in Triumph’s literature that talks about linked brakes on the Tiger Explorer, but I can clearly feel the rear activating when applying the front. A common observation in owner’s forums is that the bike seems to burn through rear brake pads pretty quickly. I can confirm this is true and I think this issue (along with the bike’s weight) is why.

Related to running with a heavy load: the TSAS is supposed to adjust for weight, but it doesn’t seem to. Add a passenger or gear and the front becomes rather light. Wheelies are fun and all, but less so in wet conditions. As mentioned above, I added engine bars in an attempt to counter this; I am considering adding upper fairing bars, as well. Having said all this, the bike is stable at high speeds even when stuck in the disruption of a big truck, so it’s not an unlivable situation.

Where it’s OK

The closer you get to offroading conditions the further the Tiger Explorer gets from being great. As such, riding down bumpy, narrow, mud-and-cow-poo-covered country lanes isn’t as much fun as it is on, say, a Street Scrambler – especially in the rain. I get uptight as the bike shifts and pitches, never really feeling a rhythm or fluidity. It makes me so uncomfortable that I’ve recently started taking a new route to work, avoiding the lane on which I had otherwise been content to ride the Street Bob, Gold Wing, and Ducati Scrambler 1100.

Related to my daily commute, the Tiger Explorer is broadly well equipped to handle my everyday slog. The powerful engine gets me ahead of anything at stop lights and keeps me ahead of everything but the odd competitive chap in an Audi. The ‘bars are wide but not so much that I can’t wiggle through most gaps. Weather protection is good, and it’s proven to be 100-percent reliable despite spending all day in a cold parking lot (shout out to my employer for offering designated motorcycle parking). Quite recently I also learned that it is durable as hell in a collision.

This thing is a tank

A driver thought he was being clever by jerking his car out to block my path while I was filtering. He wasn’t clever; he mistimed things and I had no time to react. In the impact that followed, his mirror was destroyed and a deep long scratch was put into the side of his car. Off the top of my head, I’d guess it to be in excess of £700 of body damage. Meanwhile, the Tiger Explorer (which I managed to keep upright) suffered a scuff on the handguard.

It’s a car-destroying tank, but the bike’s top heavy nature makes it unpleasant in wet roundabouts. Add in the aforementioned tall first gear, and very slow-speed maneuvers will never be your favorite thing if you take on Tiger Explorer ownership.

The Things I Love

Sound: It may be that I wasn’t paying attention when I first bought the bike but age seems to have enriched the Tiger Explorer’s sound. It’s not threatening or particularly sinister, but does sound powerful. Chugging along a motorway or the like at a constant speed, there is a bass/turbine drone that seems to speak to the unnecessary power and thrust of which the bike is capable. I often think of installing an aftermarket exhaust, just for japes, but I don’t really want the dirt-bikey sound that comes from the Arrow cans that Triumph has put on some of the new Tiger 1200s.

Power: I very rarely tap into the immense power of which the Tiger Explorer is capable, but it’s nice to know it’s there and even nicer when I get a chance to really flex the bike’s muscle. What’s that, boy racer? You’re going to scream by me in your Volkswagen Golf on the motorway? I’ll just knock down a gear or two, get the bike’s revs into peak performance range and run right by you, waving…

That’s my bike on the left, the 2018 Triumph Tiger 1200 XCA on the right. For most riders there is very little difference in the two generations.

Carrying capacity: I have a recurring daydream – especially in these winter months – of my wife and I just giving up on 9-to-5 pursuits and setting out on a colossal, neverending road trip. We’d get her a Bonneville T100 or the like and I would captain the HMS Tiger Explorer, serving as pack mule. I’d have the 116 liters of space from the panniers and top box, of course, adding another 70 liters through a 30/20/20 combination of Kriega bags strapped to the seat. I’d get the aforementioned upper protection bars and strap US10 bags to each one. We would hardly want for anything and I am confident the bike would handle it all with ease (as long as I remembered to extend my braking distances).

Reliability: I commute some 32 miles roundtrip each day, in all weathers*. Thanks to an ingrained work ethic and the presence of an onsite gym, I tend to be at my workplace up to 11 hours a day. So, although the bike is garaged overnight the majority of its life is spent outdoors. Because that life is in Wales it is often cold, and even more often wet. It is a hard life for a motorcycle, but the Tiger Explorer has managed without fault, flawlessly coming to life at the first push of the starter, every time . Regular cleaning and aggressive application of GT-85 on everything has helped keep the ravages of road salt at bay, but there are a few fuzzy bolts here and there and, rather disappointingly, there are spots of rust to be found on the pannier rack.

The Things I Do Not Love

Top heavy: Have I mentioned that the Tiger Explorer is top heavy? Because it is. It is a top heavy motorcycle. Annoyingly so. Its weight always demands your attention and focus. It’s weight that’s completely manageable at speeds in excess of 10 mph, but that still never goes away – you’re always balancing a sledgehammer the wrong way. (If you are new to The Motorcycle Obsession, I have frequently spoken about the Tiger Explorer’s weight by using a sledgehammer as an example. If you try to balance a sledgehammer in your hand holding it by the head it’s not too hard – that’s Harley-Davidson weight. If you try to balance it by the handle, it’s tricky – that’s Tiger Explorer weight.) If you are tired from a long day at work, muscling the Tiger Explorer into the garage can be so frustrating that you will frequently entertain fantasies of letting the damned thing drop and setting it on fire.

Lack of aftermarket accessories: The aftermarket has been slow and unenthusiastic when it comes to delivering farkles for the second-gen Tiger Explorer. Almost all its bits and bobs are interchangeable with the bits and bobs of the third-gen Tiger 1200, so things are continuing to improve but it’s still frustrating. I pine for the Givi AirFlow screen I used to have on my Suzuki V-Strom 1000.

I feel there is something wrong that it’s easier to bling a V-Strom than a Tiger Explorer

Fuel economy: Triumph claims the Tiger Explorer has a 233-mile range. Good luck proving them right. I suppose if you took the bike out to, say, West Texas (or some other place where you can spend a long time riding uninterrupted on a highway), and locked in cruise control at 55 mph, then you might do OK. In my commuting, however, I’m lucky to clock 170 miles before being flashed the fuel light of doom.

Operating costs: Related to the above, the Tiger Explorer isn’t a cheap bike to run. Because Triumph is increasingly positioning itself as a premium brand, servicing is pricey. Because the bike is heavy it runs through the stuff you replace on your own – tires, brake pads, etc. – pretty quickly. My dealer has politely suggested that I may want to get free of the bike before having to face its particularly costly 20,000-mile service.

Electronic stuff that doesn’t actually work: The bike is equipped with TSAS and riding modes, but, as stated above, I really can’t feel these elements working, nor can I identify differences in their settings. My concern is that they are just things that will break as soon as my two-year warranty expires in March. Meanwhile, the heated grips are unreliable, their warmth seemingly tied to engine revs; the higher my revs, the hotter the grip.

The large dash area provides a lot of information but navigating the electronics system is sometimes frustrating.

What Everyone Else Says

  • The first thing that strikes you, and never really escapes you, is that the Tiger is a hefty old beast. The second you lift it off the stand you can feel every kilo bearing down on you and once you head off-road it really makes its presence felt. You really have to bully the thing to get it to do what you want and once it runs away, steps out of line or begins to topple over it’s bloody hard work to bring it back. Conversely, the engine was a real revelation.” – Jordan Gibbons, MCN
  • The Explorer costs a lot of money and it’s very heavy – two very good reasons to avoid anything gnarly. In all honesty I think it’s only those on the waiting list for a lobotomy that are going to buy this bike and head for the untamed hills… It’s a bit lardy and top heavy for full time city commuting, but then no more so than most big adventure bikes. [As a continental road tourer] it’s exceptionally comfortable… A very fine long-distance tourer.” – Alun Davies, Adventure Bike Rider
  • The Tiger feels big and heavy. With some bikes the size and weight fall away as soon as you are in motion, and you forget the bulk because the dynamics are so good. But you never forget with the Tiger.” – Hugo Wilson, Bike Magazine
  • Unfortunately, Triumph’s efforts to reduce cockpit heat aren’t very effective… the front of our test unit’s seat got so warm that we initially pulled over to make sure that the heated seat was not set on high. On the highway, riding with your knees sticking slightly into the airflow helps draw enough air into the space to ameliorate the problem somewhat, but it is still noticeable. Around town, the heat is even more pronounced.” – Evans Brasfield, Motorcycle.com

(Evans’ observation is one I’ve seen from a number of Tiger Explorer owners in forums. Living in a cold, wet country, I have not ever noticed excessive heat.)

Hot ‘n’ heavy

Would I Buy it Again?

If I had it all to do over again, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. I don’t necessarily regret my decision to get a Tiger Explorer, I just wouldn’t do it again. I think I would instead buy a Tiger Sport or Trophy SE. The Tiger Sport is the bike that sold me on the brilliance of Triumph’s inline triple, after all, but I was wooed to the Tiger Explorer by the presence of shaft drive, a bigger horsepower figure, fancy electronic tidbits (that I’ve never really used), and free luggage from my local dealer. There’s obviously a life lesson in all this: the more dazzling thing is not always the better thing.

Over nearly two years of riding I’ve never really managed to connect with the bike, to feel that I am a part of it rather than sitting on top of it, and occasionally even wrestling with it.

In a vacuum, the Tiger Explorer is an incredible motorcycle. Put against competitors like the BMW R 1250 GS, Ducati Multistrada 1260, or KTM 1290 Adventure, however, it looks considerably less amazing. I’d place it above all the others when it comes to road-only long-distance touring, but if you want a road-only long-distance tourer it makes sense to choose a bike more suited to that task, like the aforementioned K 1600 B. Meanwhile, if you want an adventure motorcycle, it’s my experience that the Tiger 800 is superior to its big brother in pretty much every way save raw power.

In hindsight I probably should have bought a Tiger Sport.

*In the interest of maintaining full honesty, I’ll admit I chose to work from home when snow recently hit South Wales. I have ridden in snow, but I do my best to avoid it.