NORTON COMMANDO 961 (2023 - on) Review

Highlights

  • Capable modern take on iconic British classic
  • Hand-made parts and flashy components
  • Say cheerio to the problems with ‘old’ Norton

At a glance

Power: 77 bhp
Seat height: Medium (31.9 in / 810 mm)
Weight: Medium (507 lbs / 230 kg)

Prices

New £16,499
Used N/A

Overall rating

Next up: Ride & brakes
4 out of 5 (4/5)

The Norton Commando is the bike you think of whenever the storied British brand comes to mind. It’s the firm's most famous model and arguably the defining British twin-cylinder classic, which is why it was the mainstay of Norton when it relaunched in 2009.

However, the modern interpretation never quite hit its mark. Factor in all the other well-documented issues surrounding the British firm during the Stuart Garner era, and the Commando name lost some of its appeal.

But now it’s back. With huge investment from Indian owners TVS and a posh factory to play with, revitalised Norton have launched a re-engineered and revised Commando 961. With strict new quality processes in place, they hope the latest version makes the famous name desirable again.

Norton Commando 961 front right

And it does. The Commando experience is now what you expect of a traditional British parallel twin, but without all the niggles and worries that came with the previous version. It doesn’t just ride better but is nicer built too – even the quality of fasteners and little brackets is better than before. The previous version gave the impression it was assembled using whatever nuts and bolts were to hand.

Whether it’s worth the best bit of seventeen-grand depends on your perspective. Compared to Triumph’s similar-looking Thruxton RS, the new Commando costs £3k more yet has less power, a much lower equipment level and, I suspect, less outright handling potential.

However, where the Triumph feels like a modern mass-produced bike with period style, the Norton gives a genuine sense of a connection to its famous ancestors. With its thudding power, engaging feel, hand-made frame, classy anodised-aluminium yokes and hand-polished exhausts, the Commando is… different. And different in a good way.

Norton Commando 961 SP

Ride quality & brakes

Next up: Engine
4 out of 5 (4/5)

Norton have revised the frame. Oil for the dry-sump engine is carried in a tank in the frame, near the steering head, and they discovered that there was a chance of cracks during their thorough testing of the inherited design. So, the materials and design have been altered to improve the frame’s strength.

The steel-tube frame is otherwise unchanged, and uses the same geometry (rake, trail, wheelbase, seat height) as before. Easy and predictable handling was one of the Commando’s plus points, so there was no point making changes for the sake of it.

With its racy geometry, fully adjustable Öhlins suspension and Dunlop Sportmax tyres the Commando certainly handles. There are faster-turning machines, but the Norton’s steering is light, it’s agile on tight B-road roads, and rolls confidently into fast A-road sweeps.

Norton Commando 961 right side

Suspension is on the firm side of comfortable. However, hit larger bumps or push on a bit and the damping quality makes itself felt, and there’s plenty of feedback – especially on the head-down CR version. With chunky vibes from the motor, booming pipes and contact through the round footpegs, the 961 is an engaging place to be.

It's an all-Brembo brake set-up and works well, if not having stand-out power. There’s straightforward ABS.

Engine

Next up: Reliability
4 out of 5 (4/5)

It’s the same 961cc parallel twin as before, complete with pushrods, two valves per cylinder, air cooling and the other features expected of a traditional British motor. It looks the same, sounds the same, but makes a bit less claimed power – 77bhp at 7250rpm, against the previous 80bhp.

However, most of the 350-odd changes Norton have made to the bike happened here, with new camshafts and valve train, improved materials and, crucially, proper testing. Where the previous version could suffer with poor fuelling and flat spots, the revised one responds sweetly and pulls cleanly all the way to its soft 7000rpm-ish rev limiter.

It’s not the fastest retro, nor the smoothest, but the old-fashioned 961 makes up for it with involvement and connection. Bikes at the launch were only just run in and so the transmissions were a little stiff, but the five-speed gearbox shifts easily enough (and has a linkage that doesn’t bend, as it could before).

Norton Commando 961 from the front

Reliability & build quality

Next up: Value
4 out of 5 (4/5)

High-class chassis components? Yes. Hand-made frame and exhausts? Yes. Lovingly finished surfaces and tip-top presentation? Yup, all of that. There’s no question that the Commando is screwed together well – any worries about half-arsed production lingering from the firm’s previous incarnation can be discarded.

It's not entirely high class. The ignition key and barrel look and feel a little cheapo, and one of the launch bikes jettisoned the headlight switch. The engine also needs a bit of throttle to start when it’s warm.

However, overall the Commando supports all of Norton’s claims about investment and high standards. Safe buy? I reckon so.

Norton Commando 961 models

Value vs rivals

Next up: Equipment
4 out of 5 (4/5)

There are two version of the Commando: the SP (Sport, £16,499) with upright handlebars, and the CR (Café Racer, £16,999) with TiG-welded aluminium clip-ons and a stainless-steel headlight that’s discreetly different. The lower ’bars on the CR do more than altering the riding position, the difference in weight distribution changing how the Commando feels and responds.

Both are available in ‘Matrix Black’ or ‘Manx Platinum’, with the black CR having a black wheel rim option as well. The engine isn’t Euro5 and so bikes go through Individual Vehicle Approval (IVA, previously known as SVA).

Sixteen and a half thousand pounds is obviously a lot of money. Triumph’s excellent Thruxton RS basically does the same job as the Commando, only with more power and far more equipment, but is three-grand cheaper. Or you could buy a Triumph Speed Twin 900 or Moto Guzzi V7 and get the same sort of performance as the Norton for half the price.

Norton Commando 961 on the road

The Commando 961 isn’t doing the same thing, though. Where the Triumphs feel like modern mass-produced bikes with period styling, the Commando supplies a richer experience and more sensations, and you’re paying for all the hand-made loveliness. You’re also likely to have rock-solid residuals with the Norton.

Equipment

2 out of 5 (2/5)

The Commando is old-school. You get ABS and, well… that’s it as far as modern technology and widgets go.

Unlike rival bikes from Triumph and Moto Guzzi which feature modes, traction control, connectivity and more, the Commando keeps things old school. A small digital panel in the twin analogue dials gives the option of odometer, trip, time or battery voltage. You’ll have to recharge your smartphone somewhere else.

Norton Commando 961 CR (left) and SP

Specs

Engine size 961cc
Engine type Four-valve, pushrod, air-cooled parallel twin
Frame type steel tube spaceframe
Fuel capacity 15 litres
Seat height 810mm
Bike weight 230kg
Front suspension 43mm usd fork, fully adjustable
Rear suspension Twin shocks, fully adjustable
Front brake 2 x 320mm discs with four-piston calipers. ABS
Rear brake 240mm disc, one-piston caliper
Front tyre size 120/70 ZR17
Rear tyre size 180/55 ZR17

Mpg, costs & insurance

Average fuel consumption 40 mpg
Annual road tax £101
Annual service cost -
New price £16,499
Used price -
Insurance group -
How much to insure?
Warranty term Two years

Top speed & performance

Max power 77 bhp
Max torque 59.7 ft-lb
Top speed 120 mph
1/4 mile acceleration -
Tank range 130 miles

Model history & versions

Model history

  • 2009: Norton relaunch with a new Commando 961, developed from a design bought from American engine Kenny Dreer who’d spent $10 million on developing the bike and securing the rights to the brand name. Various versions follow before Norton is declared bankrupt in 2020.
  • 2022: Following the Norton brand being bought be TVS and investing hundreds of millions in a new factory, the revised and improved Commando is relaunched in October 2022.

Other versions

None.

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