The iconic Norton Commando, updated for 2023 with over 300 has been crafted to an entirely new standard.
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The 2023 Norton Commando 961 may remind many of the one launched in 2015 but in reality, 36% of the bike is completely new and over 300 components have been changed and redesigned. This is a big step for the “new” Norton. The Solihull-based company was revitalised by the ownership of the Indian company TVS Motors.
More than 100 million have been invested to revamp the Norton brand. Needless to say, this new Commando is one of the first fruits of this enormous financial effort. While the old Commando was designed and built under Stuart Garner’s ownership with a limited budget, staff and tools, the new Norton recruited new managers, engineers, designers and pilots and built a new bespoke manufacturing facility before going into production of the new bike.
The team has completely redesigned the air-cooled engine by replacing the components. They have also analyzed and improved parts where necessary. This includes the tank to the materials for the camshaft.
The new Norton ownership could have chosen to transform the 961 Commando. Instead, the company chose correct its problems and improve its ride quality and reliability, without touching the classic twin-cylinder design. The old Commando was certainly nice but the 2023 version looks sharper. The bike is still hand-built in the UK and the tank stripes are still hand-painted. We can see the sense of craftsmanship throughout.
There are two models to choose from: the SP (Sport) and CR (Café Racer). The only significant difference is the CR has low-rise handlebars (and brake lines to match them).
In the UK the price difference between the two models is just £500. So choosing one over the other simply comes down to personal taste. Both bikes are available in Matrix Black or Manx Platinum. Black is a fan favourite and pops against the chrome. On the other hand, the Manx Platinum is reminiscent of the famous Manx Nortons of the 1950s and 1960s.
The reworked Commando not only looks good, but it also sounds great too. The heavily revised pushrod engine is not Euro 5 compliant but it is not overly loud. The air-cooled twin gives out a robust chorus that sets the mood and stimulates the senses. Internally, the bore and stroke remain unchanged. While the new Norton might have sought to increase horsepower and torque, it focuses on reliability. To achieve this it was necessary to redesign and sometimes completely change components such as cams, chains, crankcases and gearbox mechanisms.
The old-school air-cooled pushrod engine delivers a claimed 76.8bhp at 7250 rpm and 81 Nm/59.7 ft-lb of torque at 6300 rpm. The old Norton generated 79 hp and 66.4 ft-lb of torque. It seems the new Norton has sacrificed some horsepower in the name of reliability, or maybe it’s just being more realistic about its horsepower figures.
As in a cruiser, the Commando is driven at medium revs, with short gear changes and much more fluid and sliding than those of the past.
Once you let the bike flow and exploit the mid-range torque, the 961 reveals remarkable acceleration. Up to 160 km/h overtaking is effortless and, with only five gears available, there’s no higher sixth gear to downshift. Twisting the throttle, the 961 pushes satisfyingly and firmly, regardless of gear or rpm.
The 961 is certainly not bland: the note from the exhaust, with its crackling under acceleration, increases the feeling of being on the saddle of something special and not a traditional production bike. Strictly speaking, it falls short of its water-cooled competition. The Triumph Thruxton, for example, can give some pretty sporty bikes a hard time and is even able to get by reasonably well on a track day, but the Commando does not fall into this category. It’s by no means sluggish, but it doesn’t have the peak performance we’ve come to expect from 2022 twins.
As for the chassis, the Norton stayed in familiar Commando territory. There are adjustable 43mm Öhlins forks up front and twin Öhlins shock absorbers at the rear, as well as quality Brembo brakes. The team redesigned and welded the frame at Norton HQ. Rake, trail and wheelbase have remained unchanged. The weight of the Commando is now 230 kg, which by modern standards is heavy for an air-cooled bike and relatively simple.
Like the engine, the handling is quite sluggish, but in a good way. Stability is excellent and the 961 is predictable.
The Öhlins set-up is plush and can cope with almost anything that can be thrown at you on a bumpy ride through the English countryside. In the city, there is a good balance by keeping the engine mass low in the frame thanks to the dry sump oiling system. The soft ride absorbs road imperfections without jolts. While the throttle response is still a bit harsh, the Power is much improved over that of the old bike, making for a smoother ride throughout.
However, the Dunlop Sportmax Gpr300 tires lack sensitivity and, although particularly long-lived, lack touch and feedback when you start to push. Considering that they take a while to warm up and that the 961 doesn’t have traction control as standard, more grip would be desirable. But if you wanted to mount a sportier tire, you would have to modify the suspension.
Nonetheless, this is the Norton Commando it should have always been. The British-built parallel twin falls a little behind the competition in terms of performance, technology and handling, but impresses with a handcrafted feel, authentic looks and rich, rewarding character. It’s easy, simple to drive and forgiving – a jacket-and-jeans car with famous branding on the side. We hope that customers can now buy with confidence direct from the factory and that the Commando lives up to its historic name.