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Perfect Storm

The Italians have a way of creating a stir in the bike world. The Benelli Tornado Tre certainly lives up to its name...

Story: Adam Morrissey
Photos: Phil Smith

Sometimes you can be a bit too close to the bike industry. I mean, I was all excited about riding the new Benelli Tornado in 'affordable' twin-seater guise. It's a snip at $29,950 ... when you compare it to its $65,000 limited edition sibling.

But I had to try to take a step back and ask how relevant it really is. I mean, the world's awash with top quality sports tackle, not only from the Japanese manufacturers, but from Britain and Italy too, while America turns out the decidedly different Buell. Would anyone even notice the Benelli?

Arriving home with the bike answered that. A neighbour - admittedly a biker with Italian tastes since he rides a Moto Guzzi - ditched his own mother at the end of the drive to come and look at the Benelli before I locked it away. It was the start of a pattern.

Everywhere we went, the Benelli turned bikers' heads and that is frankly a hard task these days, with plenty of good-looking bikes out there. Even non-bikers stared from the cosy comfort of their cars. Maybe they all look at bikes this way - jealous as I somehow found myself at the head of the queue yet again - but that's not my experience.

There is, however, one real giveaway factor with the Benelli. Those fans in the tail. They had to do them in yellow, of course. I mean, black wouldn't have stood out in quite the same way, would it. There's something very Thunderbirds-ish about them, and I can't pretend for a moment that it isn't part of the attraction. Kids love 'em, so do grown-ups. "Blimey, is it jet-powered?" was the common not-too-serious question.

In fact it's 900cc in-line triple powered, and right now, if I was an engine designer at Benelli, I'd be bloody spewing about it. Why? Well, they changed the World Superbike rules, didn't they? This was built to comply with the old rules: 750cc four cylinder bikes, 900cc three cylinder and 1000cc twins. But now it's 1000cc for all, and that means something of a redesign if it's going to race again. And race it should.

Because the gearbox is suited to it. The undercut engagement dogs and the slipper clutch make it smoother to change down gears without actually touching the clutch lever. Blip the throttle and snick it in, nice and simple. Except when you need neutral. John, at Australian Motorcycle Importers (AMI) says he wants to pull the clutch apart and see if there's a problem. As it is, you have two chances to find neutral - get it before you stop, or kill the engine and get it, then fire it up again.

It's a shame, as it ruins a surprisingly good town bike. This is far less 'wristy' than some sports machinery, and the thin seat is pretty good too, since it spreads the load well. But it doesn't belong here. SPUR IT ON It needs to be out of town, on fast corners - tight or flowing, it doesn't mind. Getting down to Victoria's biking favourites, Reefton Spur and Black Spur, involves a bit of freeway work from the city. No problem - the Tornado is spinning at a leisurely 4000rpm at 100kmh in top gear and still felt comfortable when I needed a little squirt of acceleration, even two-up.

Off the freeway and onto the more interesting roads, there's little need to change gear - with 11,500rpm to play with and no noticeable point where it suddenly takes off, you can ride the flexibility of the engine.

There's no way the motor churns out the 133ps Benelli claims in the brochure. This feels about a match for a GSX-R750 overall, though smoother and more linear. Back at AMI, John says their own dyno runs showed a peak of 120ps and a power curve similar to a Honda SP-2. It also showed that the bike was running very rich, which will cost power and goes some way to explaining the rather too regular need to fill up.

But you can ride it from 7000rpm onwards and just enjoy the way the motor howls. It doesn't have the distinctive howl of a Triumph triple - at tick-over you'd swear it was a four - but higher up the revs it gets more of the note you'd expect from the standard Arrow exhaust pipe.

Once I'd got the feel for the engine and the best way to use the gears, it was time to explore the handling. A couple of short trips to work and back hadn't raised any concerns - it dealt with the scabby city roads no problem - but that made me wonder how well it'd be set up at more speed.

And that's when you start to realise where your thirty grand has gone. The suspension is a top quality package that seems to get better the faster you go. Unlike some race reps, however, it also works at low speed. Even two up, the rear shock had plenty left in it to deal with the bumps on the Spur, and that meant the front end of the bike stayed planted. Rather than running wide and getting vague, it was possible to just chuck the Benelli in and feel the grip from both ends. The Italian factory has managed a difficult balancing act - to combine easy, fast steering with a good stable feel.

It's easy for a sports bike to offer you one or the other - for my money a Ducati 998 offers great feedback but makes you work hard to turn it, whereas a Yamaha R1 turns as easily as you like but lacks the stable feeling of the Duke. The Benelli combines the best of both worlds, tipping in easily and progressively, yet feeling stable all the time.

With Dunlop D207RR tyres under you, you're not likely to be struggling for grip, either. The rubber heats up well and around the tight corners on the Spurs there was never a heart-in-the-mouth, despite a few places where the surface is less than ideal.

Across the back of the top yoke there's a steering damper, but it gets an easy life - in fact you'd have to wonder if it's there as a fashion accessory more than a necessity. Hard on the gas, two-up, across bumps and ripples, there wasn't the faintest hint of headshaking. Not so much as a wobble, let alone a slapper. Solo, with a more front-end weight bias, the story is the same: never a moment when the damper went to work.

And despite the easy way the engine and suspension coped with the added weight of a pillion, solo use is what this bike is about. The pillion seat is angled forward, so every bump bounces them into your back. Worse than that, there aren't any grab rails, so my other half ended the ride with forearm pump like a motocrosser where she'd been hanging on to the bodywork above the fans in the tail.

Ride it alone and you get the distilled product the designer intended. This is pure, twisty roads fun. The riding position is ideal for sliding off the side and aiming your knee at the tarmac. The bars are just right for getting your weight behind, not so low that you feel like you're gripping the front wheel spindle. And when you've finished with one corner, the bike picks up on the gas effortlessly and dumps you over on the other knee as easily as looking into the next corner.

Riding the Spur roads for the first time, I wasn't keen on over-cooking it. There's plenty of run-off - the problem is, it's vertical. And I still had the words "Don't crash - we haven't got any spares yet" ringing in my ears. So it was good to find the brakes are good. We've come to expect nothing less from modern bikes, and the braided hose/Brembo caliper combo on the Benelli once again holds up the Italian manufacturer's name.

It's a miniature reflection of the whole bike's balance - the brakes offer feel and power exactly as you want them. Some might want the initial bite to be more fierce, but for my tastes they're spot on. There's enough bite to know straight away they're working, but you're not going to get into trouble in the wet. Two fingers are all you'll ever need and the forks compress progressively too, keeping it all secure.

John at AMI had upped the compression damping before I rode the bike, and it felt fine for me as he'd left it. More impressive, and again part of the chassis balance, is the way you can brake and turn on the Tornado. Overcook it and you can keep the bike turning and braking - it doesn't fight back and try to stand up on the brakes as some do.

After a couple of days riding, solo and two-up, the city gave its verdict on the bike. Parked up outside a cafŽ, it's a real magnet for attention. A couple of bikers didn't even ask about the performance. They simply offered this opinion: "If I was in the market for something like it, this is what I'd buy." It seems like a strange thing to say - no idea of what it goes like, not even a sit in the seat, but it'd be a pretty safe choice.

If that wasn't enough, turning up at a mate's house to watch the MotoGP races from Suzuka sealed the deal. Colin came to the door with the words: "Any bike that makes the whole lounge room shake has got to be good!" Nice to know people hear you arrive.

The Tornado is as comfy as most other sports bikes, it's the real-world performance equal of anything your mates ride, and it earns you more kudos outside a cafŽ than pretty much anything else. It'll suit poseurs, but real riders won't lose out either. That's got to be a result. But for me, I'd want it in race-rep green and silver.
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