The Journey What we can afford

A Point-By-Point Analysis of Why the Honda CBF1000 is a Better Bike Than the Triumph Bonneville T120

It's possible that, like a 1970s Chevrolet Malibu, the CBF1000 will age into being cool. Probably not, though

This isn’t the dumbest bike comparison ever written. But it’s up there. The two contenders are a 2006 Honda CBF1000 bought for £1,200 with 38,000 miles on the clock vs. the 2019 Triumph Bonneville T120 that I ‘bought’ (via financing) new. That’s apples and oranges, man.

The prize for dumbest comparo, by the way, goes to RiDE magazine for an article that pit a Honda CBF125 against a Kawasaki Versys 650 and BMW R 1200 GS Adventure based on the premise of seeing how far each would go on a single tank of fuel. 

Each of the bikes had different sized tanks – 11 liters for the CBF125, 19 liters for the Versys 650 and 30 liters for the R 1200 GS Adventure – so surely the fair way to make this comparison would be to give each just 11 liters of fuel, right? Wrong. RiDE filled each bike to capacity then set off from Peterborough en route to Edinburgh (320 miles away). Predictably, the Honda and Kawasaki did not make it the whole way. The BMW did, so RiDE concluded that it was obviously the greatest bike ever.

The greatest motorcycle anywhere ever for any situation, according to RiDE

RiDE is notorious for fellating the GS in print but that was a real low. I wonder what stories they rejected before arriving at that one: “Which is Better for Touring: All-New R 1200 GS Adventure or 1972 Norton Commando That’s Missing an Engine?”

“Which is Faster: All-New R 1200 GS Adventure or an Office Building?”

“Which Has Better Resale Value: R 1200 GS Adventure or a Dead Squirrel?”

Lost in the story, meanwhile, was the fact that the Honda CBF125 was the actual winner. It made it to the outer suburbs of Edinburgh with less than half the fuel of the BMW.

AN ANSWER TO A QUESTION NO ONE ASKED

The Honda CBF1000, produced from 2006 to 2018, not only shared a letter designation with the true winner of that comparison but much of its spirit. Both bikes were affordable, utterly reliable and wholly unsexy. You could say “CBF” stands for: Competent Boring Functional.

The first bike I owned in this country was a secondhand CBF600, which Honda produced from 2004 to 2013. Built around a detuned CBR600F powerplant, that bike was reportedly thought up by Honda’s Germany team as a response to the BMW F800ST – a bike that did not need a response other than “Nah, what else ya got?”

In the review I wrote for the CBF600 shortly before getting rid of it I said that I found it “difficult to understand why anyone ever bought a new one, but when purchased second-hand these machines are incredibly good value for money.”

My old Honda CBF600; I eventually used it as a downpayment on my Suzuki V-Strom 1000

Largely the same could be said of the CBF1000, which was introduced after the CBF600 turned out to be a minor hit in Germany and among commuting riders in other handful of other countries. It was sold in Canada for a very short while but never made it to the US market. 

Again, it was a bike using a hand-me-down powerplant. Here, the donor engine was the 998cc inline four of the 2006 CBR1000RR Fireblade – neutered from its fire-breathing 172-horsepower state to deliver just 102 hp. Like its 600cc sibling, the CBF1000 was aesthetically uninspiring, bare bones in its features and not quite as exciting as competitor offerings. 

I had never had an interest in owning, riding or even discussing a CBF1000 until early last year, when my declaring bankruptcy resulted in the need for transport that was simultaneously cheap, well-made and reliable. In the article about my financial woes, I referenced my the bike only in passing but it was enough to inspire commenter Christopher Liggett to ask for a “point-by-point analysis of why the Honda CBF 1000 is a better bike than the Bonneville T120, besides the price difference.”

It occurs to me only now that he may have been joking, but it’s too late: I’m doing it.

THE CHALLENGERS

Triumph gave the T120 a Euro 5-friendly refresh in 2021 but it is still largely the same bike introduced in 2015 as part of a flood of modern classic machines, which included the Bonneville T100, Street Cup, Street Scrambler and Bonneville Bobber. Powered by a liquid-cooled 1200cc parallel twin, the T120 is a characterful and relaxed machine that comes equipped with ABS, traction control and two rider modes.

It is inarguably better looking than a CBF1000. No person in his or her right mind could say different. And more broadly the Bonneville T120 wins on most intangibles. It’s the bike you keep pictures of on your phone; it’s the bike you want to be seen riding; it’s the bike you’ll tell your grandkids about so they’ll know you were cool once.

2006 Honda CBF1000
Engine: 998cc 16-valve DOHC inline four
Power: 102 hp @ 8,000 rpm
Torque: 97 Nm @ 6,500 rpm
Seat height: 795 mm
Fuel capacity: 19 liters
Weight: 240 kg

2019 Triumph Bonneville T120 Black
Engine: 1200cc SOHC parallel twin
Power: 78 hp @ 6550 rpm
Torque: 105 Nm @ 3100 rpm
Seat Height: 790 mm
Fuel Capacity: 14.5 liters
Weight: 248 kg

In my opinion the T120 is one of the most enjoyable £8,000 motorcycles currently available. Unfortunately, that’s not how much it costs; Triumph charges £11,000. I know we’re not discussing price here, but when the CBF1000 was first introduced it cost £6,000. Adjust that for inflation and it would cost roughly £9,100 today.

As I say, though, I bought mine for £1,200. With 38,000 miles on the clock. I do think it’s fair to keep that in mind as we compare the two bikes from the standpoints of engine, handling, build quality, maintenance and functionality; I’m comparing an abused old machine against a pampered new one. That the T120 doesn’t win, let alone knock this comparison out of the park, is pretty damning.

ENGINE

Something else to keep in mind is that, before coming to me via Superbike Factory (buying online was the only way to get a bike during the first lockdown), my CBF1000 had clocked up most of its 38,108 miles in the Scottish borough of Renfrewshire, where conditions are very often miserable. Pitted forks and a rusty exhaust are signs it was no stranger to road salt.

The bike came with a full service history but it’s clear at least some of that had been forged. Or, the guys at Bike Revs in Saltcoats – whose stamps fill the latter half of the service book – were lazy AF. Whatever the case, in working on the bike myself I discovered the oil had not been changed in many, many thousands of miles. I’m pretty sure the spark plugs hadn’t been touched since the bike was new. The chain and sprocket are newish but didn’t appear to have ever been cleaned – just coated in thick grease. Overall this was a machine that had been very much used but never loved. 

A center stand came standard with the CBF1000; it’s something you have to pay extra for on the T120

And yet, it had still been in good enough shape that it felt like a wise purchase; I was happy, feeling that I had actually gotten more for my money than I’d hoped. Thanks to the pandemic I had a lot of time on my hands, so… I flushed the cooling system, flushed the brakes, replaced the oil and filter twice (each time running through a treatment of SeaFoam to get the gunk out), replaced the spark plugs, replaced the air filter, cleaned the brakes, replaced the brake pads, ripped out badly installed heated grips that were causing the battery to drain, replaced the battery, gave the chain a deep clean, adjusted the chain, fixed a throttle cable, lightly sanded rust from the underside, replaced a few rusted fairing bolts, removed the fairing to give the bike its first proper wash in years and covered everything in ACF-50 – as well as checking and adjusting myriad other little things.

That sounds like a lot, and it was, but you will notice that it is primarily maintenance – stuff you’re supposed to do anyway. I never strayed any farther than three wrench territory in my Haynes Manual (Haynes rates the difficulty of each job by showing up to five wrenches; one for the easiest jobs, five for the jobs you really should just call a mechanic for).

Ever since I figured out that the heated grips were causing a short, the bike has generally had no problems starting. Generally. There is an occasional hesitancy in the process, though, and a friend of mine who has done a hell of a lot more wrenching than me has suggested I investigate the cam sensor – a known weak point with this particular engine.

I’ll look into that. In the meantime, the bike still always starts and does so with a wonderful bassy and robust sforzando hum that makes it sound so much cooler than you would have imagined. Not so cool that it in any way compensates for the fact you are sitting on a CBF1000, just cooler than you would have imagined. You can feel the menace of the Firebird still lurking in its heart. At idle it is somewhat louder than the T120, its thrum resonating off concrete walls. Pop the throttle and the engine barks like a short-tempered old dog (ie, it does a good job of sounding dangerous but you’re not entirely sure that it is). On the move, however, it is very quiet. At motorway speeds you will struggle to hear anything at all.

It’s pretty easy to see how the CBF1000 inspired Honda’s NT1100

Power delivery is smooth if you want it to be but can be delightfully aggressive if you’re hamfisted. The relatively flat torque curve means the bulk of the bike’s grunt can be had from just below 3,000 rpm. No, it doesn’t quite have the T120’s 105 Nm of oomph but here’s a fun fact: a Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 delivers 87 Nm of torque at 3,900 rpm, and so, too, does a CBF1000. It’s not a V-twin and has nothing on a V-twin’s character but the thing can go if given encouragement.

To that end, it is the easiest bike to ride fast that I have ever owned – not the fastest bike I’ve ridden, of course, but owned. My Triumph Tiger Explorer XRX had considerably more horsepower but its engine didn’t feel as willing to give up the goods, nor hold highish speed over distance (its chassis was also less confidence-inspiring). The CBF1000 is all-day smooth at 90+ mph, feeling completely unflustered. Which I suppose it is; the engine was designed to go twice as fast in its Fireblade guise.

The CBF1000 easily exceeds speeds the T120 can’t even reach but it is also superior at in-town speeds. Lack of ride-by-wire throttle means power delivery isn’t as choppy and it doesn’t have that weird thing of jump-stuttering at around 30 mph. 

Fuel economy is decent. The bike’s 19-liter tank will deliver at least 210 miles in my experience. I’m not willing to push it any further because I have an irrational fear of running out of gas. The bike has no fuel light and its fuel gauge is an old-school needle that somehow feels unreliable and hard to understand (I mean, how deep into the red will it go?). Maybe one day, when the weather’s nicer, I will strap a jerry can to the bike and run it to empty for the sake of seeing how far it’ll go on a tank. 

In addition to a new windscreen I’ve added pannier rails to hold some secondhand Givi luggage I bought off eBay.

If I were to do that in the style of RiDE the CBF1000 might beat a T120 because it has a larger tank, but according to Fuelly.com, the Triumph would be the actual winner – easily. A 2006 CBF1000 rates as delivering 49.2 mpg (UK); whereas a 2018 Bonneville T120 reportedly delivers a laudable 64 mpg (UK). 

PERFORMANCE/HANDLING

Despite being built to a budget and having tens of thousands of miles on the clock the CBF1000 is still a better-handling machine than the T120. To a large extent this is not surprising; the T120 was designed to deliver a more classic feel. Its forks are kinda supposed to dive. So, the CBF1000 is more sure-footed, more capable of being pushed. It doesn’t get unsettled at spirited motorway speeds or in high winds; it doesn’t bounce around when being ridden hard(ish) into a corner. 

I mean, don’t get confused: it’s not an actual sport tourer. Its brakes are markedly better than the T120’s (which I described in my review as “the definition of spongy”) but they are still a bit soft for anything truly aggressive. The bike can be ridden in a spirited manner on public roads without concern – you could exceed the legal speed limit by around 30 mph and have your only real worry be that of being caught by the po-po – but it’s not something you’d take on a track.

BUILD QUALITY AND MAINTENANCE

My biggest criticism of the Bonneville T120 is that the “British” motorcycle was not designed to be ridden in Britain year-round. I looked after that bike obsessively but it was showing a lot of wear and tear after less than a year. Meanwhile, my CBF1000 was clearly ridden hard and woefully mistreated in the 15 years before coming to me but it’s equally clear that it started out with better bits and pieces because many of those bits and pieces are still in decent condition.

Its wheels are not rusted, nor the rear suspension. The clutch levers aren’t cheap and flimsy; the indicator housing doesn’t flood and short out the bulb; paint on the frame has not worn away; you don’t have to lube the chain every 200 miles. Yes, there are some chips in the fairing’s paint but paint on the tank is thick enough that it has not scratched from jackets.

I’m not a huge fan of this color of blue but the paint has held up well

Meanwhile, replacement parts are considerably cheaper and easier to get hold of. Checking the CBF1000’s valves is inherently more of a pain in the ass (if not simply because there are more of them but also because the T120’s valves are easier to access) but day-to-day stuff is simpler. You don’t have to remove the exhausts to adjust the chain, for example. Equally, you don’t have to remove them to get the rear tire off. And getting at the chain to clean it is easier. The bike has more ground clearance, so oil changes are also easier. The CBF1000 also comes with a full tool kit – compared to the solitary Allan wrench that you get with a T120. 

FUNCTIONALITY

The Bonneville T120 is not a functional machine; it wasn’t designed to be. Whereas the CBF1000 was created very much with boring practicalities in mind. A half fairing and windscreen help to keep the bulk of the weather off. Though, I will say that the stock windscreen was so noisy that I replaced it with an MRA X-Creen Touring screen as soon as I had the money to do so.

The riding position is quite comfortable but tips you a little more forward for a better sense of control and less chaos at high speeds. The seat is adjustable to three heights but I will admit that the padding is subpar. I have managed to clock up 100 nonstop miles in the saddle on a few occasions, but I did not enjoy it. Generally it’s best to get off and stretch my legs every hour or so on long trips.

Back on the positive side of things, the mirrors actually show what’s behind you and can fold up easily to allow you to push the bike through particularly narrow spaces. The aforementioned full tool kit fits easily beneath the passenger seat, along with a tire repair kit. And tubeless tires mean I can easily use that kit on the roadside. 

The dash is pretty old-school

There are obviously no riding modes, traction control, IMU, cruise control, electronic suspension or LED anything. The bike comes with ABS (something Triumph didn’t put on its Bonneville line until nine years after the CBF1000 was released) and the rear monoshock has adjustable preload but that’s about it for bells and whistles. I would like the T120’s cruise control but otherwise I find I genuinely don’t miss the other things.

A ‘BETTER’ BIKE

As I said at the start, this whole thing is a silly exercise; these aren’t comparable bikes. They were meant for different things and the thinking behind them comes from different eras (Though, what defines a motorcycling era, eh?). If circumstance hadn’t forced my hand, I never would have chosen to own a CBF1000. But I’ll admit I’m kind of grateful that it has. Because it’s a bike that has taught me a lot of things. 

Firstly from the maintenance/servicing perspective. A 15-year-old economy motorcycle bought for £1,200 inherently eliminates much of the anxiety one might have about wrenching. I mean, worst case scenario: you end up breaking a thing you don’t really want. So I’ve been braver, more willing to take on difficult jobs, and that’s given me a confidence that extends beyond motorcycling.

Dame Marianne Griffiths tells the story of her mother often saying “Well, how hard could it be?” when Marianne would consider taking on immense challenges. In her Irish way, what her mother was really saying was: “Why not you? Why shouldn’t you be the one to achieve?”

I still haven’t taken on the job of lubing the swingarm and suspension linkages; it’s a ball-ache of a task that I’m planning for warmer weather

So, you spend a day (or two, in my case) tearing apart an engine for the sake of checking valves and when you finally reassemble the thing and it actually runs, you think to yourself: “Hang on, there was no magic involved here – just work. I took things step by step; I established a goal, pursued that goal and achieved that goal. Suddenly it occurs to me that this simple ‘Think it through and do the thing’ approach could be applied to other areas of my life. My career. My finances…”

The bike has also taught me that what I like about motorcycling does not have to cost up the wazoo. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily changed my attitude about the kind of motorcycle I want but it’s helped me remember the old adage that the best motorcycle is the one you have – rather than constantly looking at the newest, shiniest thing and getting myself locked into a bad financing deal for the sake of it. I’m able to enjoy the bike for what it is.

Indeed, the CBF1000 has found a weird sort of space in my heart, to the extent that when I daydream of whatever my next bike will be (life events have derailed my plans to buy one in the next six months but perhaps in the next year or so) I picture myself keeping this bike as well. I’m keen to learn more with it, to attempt stuff I’d never try with a more expensive machine. For example, I’m toying with the idea of repainting the thing next summer. If anyone wants to direct me to some good YouTube videos on the subject I’m all ears…

I’m picturing a Highland Green and Silver paint scheme. Thoughts?