Intoxicating Torquey Triple
First established in 1911, Benelli motorcycles began when widow "Mama" Teresa Benelli sank the family capital into a Pesaro garage business, hoping that it would offer work for her six sons. Through the subsequent near-century–and despite much racing success–Benelli has travelled a sometimes rocky motorcycle road, eventually being purchased by Chinese motor group Qianjiang in 2005.
Retaining the original Benelli staff and leaving all design and manufacturing still in Pesaro, the combination of Asian work ethic and Italian design flair has proven a potent combination indeed. The result has produced several new Benelli models, and the Tornado, although identical in appearance to previous iterations, has evolved into a superbike that retains the design brilliance of the original, but without its quirky nature.
Before I first sat astride the Benelli Tornado Tre 1130, I spent some time just walking around the parked machine, looking at it carefully, studying every nuance–and I admit it: I find the bike arrestingly beautiful. Yes, I understand that "beauty is in the eye" and all that, but clearly I am not alone. The Benelli’s exquisitely sculpted, angular, avant-garde lines are strikingly seductive, and the Tornado Tre draws admiring glances from everyone who sees it.
However, the Tornado is not only unconventional in the looks department; it is decidedly different in several other aspects as well. Powered by an 1130cc three-cylinder motor, under hard power it produces a sonorous droning more akin to a big-bang MotoGP race motor than the familiar sound of the street-going fours.
With a relatively lengthy 62mm stroke, the motor revs lower, and the fairly soft rev limiter kicks in at 10,200 rpm instead of the 13,000 or so you would see on a similar inline-four. The Benelli’s very considerable 161 horsepower (claimed, at the crankshaft) peaks at the rev ceiling and, although maximum torque is produced only 2000 rpm below redline, the triple’s torque curve is so flat that the engine produces strong acceleration straight from idle. Benelli’s 91.5 ft/lbs torque claim is impressive by any standard. Consider that the Suzuki GSX-R1000 puts out around 80 ft/lbs and the Ducati 1098 produces just over 90 ft/lbs, then you may begin to appreciate just how joyous the Tornado Tre is to ride in the real world.
The fuel delivery system is consistent; it is not quite as smooth as Suzuki’s brilliant Dual Throttle Valve technology and needs a sensitive touch, but even so, the Benelli’s throttle connection is excellent. Aptly named Tornado, there is a powerful, relentless, explosive updraft to this whirlwind and, although it is not particularly wheelie prone, the loping motor produces jet-like thrust irrespective of which gear it is in.
Further out-of-the-box thinking from Benelli is demonstrated by the designers’ reasoning that a slimmer frontal area decreases aerodynamic drag. The result is the placement of the radiator under the tail section, in front of the rear wheel; this also helps distribute weight at the ideal 50/50 front/rear that, according to Benelli, helps the machine turn better. Two large rear-exhausting electric fans draw air through the radiator, and add to the bike’s very individual aesthetic.
As a legacy from their superbike racing days, the Benelli’s quick-change cassette-style six-speed gearbox is mated to the engine via a dry slipper clutch. The beautiful carbon-fiber clutch cover is slotted and open to the elements, so the clutch rattles loudly when in neutral at traffic lights; presumably, Ducati aficionados pulling up next to you will give a nod and a smile in appreciative brotherly fashion. The clutch lever action is not heavy, despite being a cable design, but the engagement band is a little narrow. Once underway, clutchless gear-changes are buttery smooth and engagement is seamless, so the clutch becomes rather superfluous anyway.
Once moving, I was pleasantly surprised by the comfort the Tornado offers, even for my lanky six-foot frame; the secret is that the stretch across the tank to the grips is very reasonable. So, although the riding position is committed, my weight was not hard on my wrists and I did not crick my neck trying to strain my head upwards. The peculiar shape of the rear of the tank looks anatomically challenged, but it did not compromise my comfort in the way one would assume; in reality, the tank was easy to grip with my knees and I felt secure. In fact, all the controls felt ergonomically natural and it was this feeling of comfort that led to my immediate confidence in riding the machine.
The motor is reasonably smooth thanks to its anti-vibration countershaft, so the mirrors stay clear at speed and they also give you more to look at than your forearms. Although the tachometer and digital speedometer are clear and easy to read, the Tornado could use a digital gear indicator. Maneuvering the Tornado out of my garage, the narrow-angle steering stops became fiercely apparent; full lock to the left trapped my thumb against the tank, which was a little disconcerting.
But once underway, the bike just feels right. It behaves intuitively and everything works exactly as you would expect, which is very reassuring on a road machine where surprises lurk around every corner. At a claimed dry weight of 438 pounds (473 wet) the Benelli Tornado is not the lightest open class sport bike, but its handling is excellent. Completely revised from the 900, the chassis is crafted from large tubular-steel spars bolted and bonded onto aluminum plates.
Equipped with top-drawer suspension–oversized 50mm Marzocchi forks and an Extremetech rear shock–the Benelli is as stiffly sprung as one would expect, but the fully adjustable suspension is compliant and reacts smoothly to bumps in the road. The Tornado is suited to a wide variety of road conditions; the suspension is not jouncy or jarring, yet it is stiff enough for the bike to handle extremely well.
Much credit for the excellent, neutral handling must also go to the Dunlop Qualifier tires. Perfectly matched to the Tornado with their slightly triangular profile, the bike turns quickly and confidently into corners, and my faith in the front tire became stronger as the miles increased. Fitted with an Extremetech non-adjustable steering damper, the Benelli turns in with precision, but it is not quite as lightning quick as a Suzuki GSX-R750. Even so, the Tornado is wonderfully light, stable and predictable–three invaluable qualities on the road.
Braking is courtesy of Brembo; like everything else on the Tornado, the binders are smooth and reliable. The master cylinder is not a radial unit, so the brakes do not have that initial sharp bite that can so easily catch a novice out, especially in an emergency situation. The Brembo radial calipers that clamp down on 320mm rotors work very well, have plenty of progressive feel, and pull the Benelli effortlessly down from high speed.
With a torquey triple that provides an intoxicating soundtrack, mated to surefooted and confidence inspiring handling, the Benelli Tornado Tre 1130 is a superb sport motorcycle. Despite its racing heritage, it may not necessarily be a superbike racer’s first choice. But, for the enthusiast who rides mostly on the street and occasionally on the track, and wants something unique and charismatic, he will find the gorgeous Tornado standing on the top step of the real world podium.
April / MAY 2009 ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLING
Photography by Don Williams
Helmet: Arai Corsair RX-7
Leathers and gloves: Kushitani
Boots: Sidi Vortice Air