TWO YEARS after Triumph reappeared on the motorcycling scene, the Leicestershire-based firm has produced its fastest and most powerful bike yet - and plunged straight into controversy.

At the Motor Cycle Show in Birmingham last November, the launch of the four-cylinder Daytona 1200 sportster prompted roads minister Kenneth Carlisle to criticise the 'short-sighted and unnecessary' policy of building bikes with 'excessive' engine power. Rival Japanese importers were hostile too, claiming the 146bhp Daytona breached the voluntary 125bhp power limit they adopted years ago in an attempt to forestall restrictive legislation.

Triumph countered with the unconvincing riposte that it had not been party to that agreement and that the Daytona's horsepower figure, unlike those of some rivals, was measured at the crankshaft, before power-sapping transmission losses were deducted. (Perhaps unwisely, the British firm feels the need to maximise its power claims to attract enthusiasts.)

All this might soon become immaterial if the EEC's long-proposed mandatory 100bhp limit is imposed, although the likelihood of that happening this year has receded. The irony is that the Daytona's high power output, although hardly necessary, is not excessive. Recent surveys have found no correlation between motorcycles' power and accident rates. Most accidents happen at relatively slow speeds, and Triumph's flagship is as docile as the humblest commuter machine.

Although named after the Daytona speedway in Florida, a circuit where the old Triumph marque scored famous victories in the Sixties, the 1200 is not a race-replica. It has low handlebars, an aerodynamic fairing and a bold yellow colour scheme - a notable improvement on that of the 1,000cc model it replaces. But it is a big machine, fairly heavy at 502lbs, intended to combine high performance and aggressive styling with reasonable practicality.

The Daytona was created by tuning the water-cooled, 16-valve motor from the Trophy 1200 sports-tourer, then bolting it into a chassis that uses the top-specification components available within Triumph's unique modular format. Thus the newcomer wears sophisticated suspension and brakes, but shares much - including its steel spine frame, wheels and numerous engine parts - with most of the others in the expanded eight-model range.

The motor is hugely impressive, despite having lost a little of the Trophy's outstanding delivery at low engine speeds. The Daytona works best above 5,000rpm, and encourages use of the six-speed gearbox. But it is smooth and reasonably responsive at all speeds. Provided the revs are kept up, it gives scorching acceleration to a top speed of around 160mph.

All the new Triumphs are rather tall, with conservative chassis dimensions that make them less nimble than many alloy-framed Japanese race-replicas. But the Daytona's rigid frame and excellent, multi-adjustable suspension (made by Japanese firm, Kayaba) provide very good handling, combining flawless stability with reasonably light steering. The brakes, also Japanese-made, are powerful: the tyres, unfashionably narrow by superbike standards, grip well.

The Daytona is indeed reasonably practical. Its sporty, leant-forward riding position is uncomfortable in town, but works well on the open road. The fairing, complete with powerful twin headlamps, gives good wind-protection, although turbulence can be noisy. Instruments and switches are well designed; mirrors much improved. The comfortable seat and big 5.5-gallon fuel tank allow a generous range of around 170 miles.

The Daytona, which costs pounds 7,899, also benefits from improvements introduced throughout the range this year. Triumph's two-year warranty is matched only by Ducati and Honda in the bike world. There is an owners' insurance scheme, and all models now have additional wiring to aid fitment of an alarm. The quality of finish is superb, much improved since the construction of a paint facility at the Hinckley factory in which Triumph's owner, builder John Bloor, has invested an estimated pounds 70m.

(Photograph omitted)

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