Performance Motorcycle Comparison: Triumph Rocket III vs. Yamaha V-Max

Big guy versus bad guy. Performance cruiser motorcycles head-to-head. Triumph's new 2053cc Rocket III triple meets the 2005 Yamaha 1200cc V-Max V-4.

Photography by Rich Cox

As Triumph started leaking hints and concept photos of the outrageous new Rocket III a certain feeling of deja vu settled over the hallowed Motorcyclist offices. We recalled the launch-and we do mean launch-of the amazing Yamaha V-Max 20 years earlier.

The V-Max was the first real power cruiser, with a monstrous 145-horsepower, V-four motor crammed into a surprisingly nimble, shaft-drive chassis. Back then, it was the most outlandishly powerful production motorcycle we'd ever seen. After our first rides, we all came back mumbling to ourselves as if we'd just crawled out of a plane crash.

The V-Max created a whole new class of machine; motorcycles that were incredibly belligerent and exceedingly fast, but not aimed at any kind of sanctioned racing. It was a street racer, designed and executed not just to transport its rider physically, but emotionally as well.

Since then, the Harley Phenomenon made the V-twin the Official Engine Of The Cruiser Class-though no production V-twin of any size has threatened the modern triples or fours.

Triumphant Entry
Now, Triumph has rolled out its own power cruiser-the Rocket lll. It is the biggest-displacement mass-production motorcycle ever created. If you're looking for competitive motorcycles, there's only one. The V-Max was astounding when it was unveiled. And it has done an astounding thing in the intervening years-it has survived, even thrived, essentially unchanged. Yamaha is rolling out a 20th-anniversary model as we write.

Bad-Ass? Or Half-Ass?
Big is big these days. For better or worse, size has replaced speed as the holy grail of power-cruiser design. And size is where the V-Max and the Rocket III differ most. At 2294cc, the Rocket III's inline- triple is almost twice as big as the V-Max's comparatively revvy, 1198cc V-four. Can the V-Max get anywhere as a pint-sized underdog?

The Rocket III project began five years ago. At first, Triumph envisioned it at 1500cc, which grew to 1600cc, then 2000cc, and finally this gargantuan 2294cc lump. The idea wasn't more power: the Triumph Daytona's across-the-frame triple makes nearly as much horsepower from 955cc. It was done to give customers (especially Americans) what we want: swaggering, Harley-belittling size.

Other engine arrangements were considered-including an intriguing transverse V-six. But the triple delivered the size, presence and power that Triumph's Rocketeers were looking for. It also evoked the old Triumph's heritage, the original Trident and BSA Rocket III.

The subsequent engine is pretty conventional-a water-cooled, DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder design with the cams pushing the valves via shims and buckets. The 120-degree crank spins one way, while the balance, transmission-input and final-drive shafts all spin the other, mostly counteracting vibration and torque reaction. In neutral, you can feel the bike try to roll slightly to the right with each throttle blip, but the effect is not nearly as strong as a BMW's.

The cylinder bores are close together-so forget about boring your Rocket to Saturn V specs. The pistons' 101.6mm diameter is the same as a Dodge Viper's. To keep the prairie fires burning in those wide-as-South Dakota-sized cylinders, two spark plugs are allotted for each.

As it grew, the engine started to crowd out other components, and the Rocketeers were forced to cram more stuff into less space. It's a dry-sump design, to reduce height and improve cornering clearance. The 39-pound crankshaft is set extremely low in the chassis-eight inches above pavement. The 6.6-gallon gas tank really is the gas tank (not an airbox, as per the V-Max). The triple inhales through two separate air plenums, a primary beneath the seat and a secondary under the lurid chrome cover on the left side of the fuel tank, delivering atmosphere to the three 52mm throttle bodies. As usual these days, each throat has two butterflies: one controlled by the rider and one by the engine ECU.

The result of all that supersizing is 141 foot-pounds of torque at 2500 rpm, joined by 132.4 very real horsepower at 6250 rpm. But when you twist the throttle in first or second gear, that's not what you get-the ECU reduces that output by 7 percent until you get well into third gear. Triumph worries about novice riders being surprised by the Rocket's otherwise violent low-speed throttle response. This misses the point of having the world's biggest, torquiest motorcycle in the first place. Regardless, there's an aftermarket opportunity there that will be filled before you can get a Rocket III from zero to 60.

Although the Rocket makes more torque than, well, anything, the clutch pull is actually the lightest in the Triumph lineup. The shaft drive, a first for Triumph, is made by Graziano. Rocky Graziano the boxer, you ask? Nope, it's the Italian gearbox specialist that also manufactures transmissions for Lamborghini and Aston Martin.

For all its carefully conceived bad-boy image, the Rocket III is actually a very clean machine. It complies with the 2007 Euro 3 Emission Standard, using two catalytic converters in the muffler box just north of the rear tire. Good on 'em. You don't need to smell bad to be bad.

Framing the question
Back in the Reagan Administration, we thought the V-Max's 62.9-inch wheelbase was pretty close to that of a Top Fuel dragster's. But at 66.7 inches, the Rocket makes Mr. Max seem positively stubby.

With the engine smoothed into civility by inherently perfect primary balance and a tuned balancer shaft, Triumph's rocket scientists just bolted it into a chassis free of rubber mounts. That silver-painted brick of a powerplant looks odd out in the breeze with no visible means of support, but it's perfectly logical from an engineering standpoint. There aren't many things stiffer than a solid block of aluminum, and running frame tubes under the mill would have reduced cornering clearance and raised the center of mass for no good structural reason.

Suspension is cruiser modern: a 43mm, adjustment-free inverted Kayaba fork and preload-adjustable Kayaba dual shocks at the rear, as God and Edward Turner intended. Brakes are, thankfully, closer to superbike-spec: 320mm front discs with four-piston calipers, and a 316mm, two-piston setup at the rear.

When the V-Max hit the streets in '85, Yamaha bragged that it carried the "biggest tire available on a production motorcycle." That rear tire was a 150/90-15-almost the same size as the 150/80-R17 Metzeler front tire on the Rocket. On its rear is a new "biggest-ever," a 240/50 R16 Metzeler. In fact, the rear tire is so huge, you get the feeling that you could step off and leave the bike standing there, sans sidestand, like a square-tired dragbike.

Permission to Come Aboard
Yes, the Rocket is the biggest, but the Rocketmen, to their credit, did everything in their power to keep it from feeling that way. It has the requisite wide, pulled-back Roto-Tiller handlebar, like all the other 700-pound-plus cruisers. The single seat is big and wide as well, like many of its intended inhabitants. And the separate passenger seat clicks in without bolts, pins or pads, making it easy and seamless to go from rugged single dude to doting husband.

The Rocket III may be big, but in town it's The Big Easy. The engine, for all its mass, is mounted so low in the frame-and chassis geometry is so well sorted-that the Rocket is surprisingly manageable at low speeds. It makes all kinds of torque right from idle, and the clutch is so smooth and predictable that one feels confident and secure within seconds.

The ergonomics are swell. Many cruisers sit you up in the windblast, battling to stay upright, but the Rocket's low seat keeps you tucked partially behind the tall tank and the dual instrument cluster. The pegs are set forward, but the reach is reasonable, and the handlebar puts your mitts in an agreeable place. Some mega-cruisers fold you like a paper clip, putting more weight on your tailbone than on your actual tush, but the Brits got this one right. The wide tank spreads your legs apart, but not uncomfortably. The huge chrome bearclaw on the tank's left side rubs you, but not raw. Triumph sells accessory black rubber pads for the tank, but they only serve to spread your legs further, so we'd leave well enough alone.

All Ahead Full
But what about that engine, you ask? From about 11 rpm, it pulls like the anchor winch on the USS Forestall, and just keeps on going to its 6250-rpm redline. It's amazingly smooth at lower revs, and while it tends to thrash a bit as it approaches redline, it's never less than civil. It doesn't respond with the explosiveness of the V-Max, to be sure. The V-Max comes on its cams-and the V-Boost, two-carbs-feed-each-cylinder intake system-at a relatively stratospheric 6000 rpm, after all, and keeps winding to nearly 10,000 rpm.

But the Rocket has the relentless pulling power today's cruiser riders seem to crave above food, shelter and sex-OK, food and shelter. Let it pull out of corners from 2500 rpm, or keep it spinning for even more Viper-humiliating thrust-the choice is yours. Either way, there are few machines on the road that can match its irresistible urge, or its inimitable sound-somewhere between a Chris Craft speedboat and a big-block Chevy.

The glorious V-Max V-four, of course, also has a terrific engine note. If you've ever stood near the Christmas tree while a Top Fuel drag car does its burnout, you know exactly what the V-Max is saying at every stoplight..."C'mon, c'mon, c'mon."

At the strip, reality confronted our raised expectations. The Rocket is an 804-pound motorcycle, after all, making 132 horsepower at the rear wheel. And with its ECU (slightly) neutering power delivery in first and second gear, it was not significantly faster than a V-Max.

While prerelease hype suggested it might be the quickest and fastest straightline motorcycle ever, there are in fact other Triumphs that will give the Rocket III a run for its money. That said, a best quarter-mile run of 11.27 seconds at 119.92 mph remains a very impressive achievement for such a huge motorcycle.

Where does that put our beloved, if aging, V-Max? Way back in '85, our test bike ran a 10.67 at 128.1 mph, and we've seen similar times over the intervening 20 years. Changes have been limited to a bigger fork, a slightly quieter muffler, better brakes and a succession of paint schemes. In the interests of scientific honesty, we admit that our last V-Max strip session actually put the V-Max a gnat's eyelash slower than the Rocket, with a 11.30 at 119.84 corrected run. The two monsters were essentially equal from zero to 60-the V-Max was a couple tenths faster to 100 mph, and the Rocket fired from 60 to 80 mph about half a second quicker. We know that many standard Maxes have gone quicker and faster. And of course, there's a 20-year stockpile of go-faster parts available for V-Max addicts-which they can afford, since the basic Max sells for almost five grand less than a Rocket.

The Rocket's transmission, while not quite GSX-R crisp, works smoothly and positively. Neutral is easily located, and the shaft system is similarly refined-for all the torque it's transmitting, it's remarkably free of the shaft-induced stiffening of the rear suspension under power, due in part to its rigid, modern frame and long swingarm. There's some driveline slop detectable in on/off throttle situations, but one adapts quickly on the road. The injection mapping is excellent-you simply get what you ask for, right now, with no discernable hiccups or flat spots.

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