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

Whoa there, Big Fella
Straights inevitably end in corners, and such bends are the, er, downfall of many cruisers. The Rocket's brakes are up to the demands of a very fast, very heavy machine, pulling the Rocket back from low orbit with a minimum of drama or lever effort. When you arrive at those bends, the stiff frame and reasonable geometry make for a generally positive experience. Even with the widest set of tires ever spooned onto a production motorcycle, the Rocket's steering is agreeable. The wide bars afford plenty of leverage to roll quickly from side to side, and the steering stays neutral even braking deep into apexes.

If the road is smooth, all's well; the Big Guy arcs around like one of those roadracing German big rigs you see at 2 a.m. on the Speed Channel. If there are significant bumps, however, things are not so rosy. We learned to pick our lines carefully, as the wrong bump at the wrong place in a corner could bounce us clean out of the seat and off line. The sheer weight of the machine overwhelms the shocks' ability to control wheel movement. Blame cost-conscious shocks, with stiff springs, compromised damping and limited rear suspension travel (designed to keep the seat height low and the shaft effect to a minimum.) Not to mention the mass of the huge rear shaft housing struggling to track undulations.

Triumph has pages of accessories ready to help you dress up your Rocket, but we'd spring first for a nice set of aftermarket shocks, with adjustable damping and more ride height.

Taller, better shocks would also improve cornering clearance. One hesitates to run the Rocket into a bumpy, decreasing-radius corner while the long peg feelers are already trailing sparks like a flak-riddled kamikaze. Those peg feelers are probably a good thing for most of the Rocket's real target customers, who are not buying it for its back-road scratchability, after all. And it should be noted that, at the press intro, few riders touched down anything but the pegs.

Still and all, the Rocket III makes even gnarly, twisty roads lots of fun; you just take your fun a little slower in the corners than you would on, say, a V-Max. The Yamaha is taller, lighter and more responsive-all in all, it feels like the Rocket's more excitable little brother. Its relatively short wheelbase and taller chassis let you go faster. Where the Rocket paws the ground, the V-Max paws the sky, and that's one of the reasons for its legendary status.

A comparison of these two bikes' handling comes down to a stiff, modern chassis limited by cornering clearance versus a dated cycle capable of leaning over a little further. The V-Max chassis is decidedly flexy compared to the more modern Rocket, and its short swingarm and underdamped rear shocks let the rear suspension extend whenever it's asked to handle a lot of torque...which means about every five seconds.

The narrow, bias-ply tires are also less than confidence-inspiring, despite providing enough grip to let you drag various hard parts on the pavement. The net result is that through the bends, the V-Max can walk away from the Rocket. But neither bike is designed for this foolishness-a fact that becomes very evident when you reach the first decreasing-radius switchback.

The Rocket crushes Mr. Max on longer, straighter rides. First off, the Yamaha only holds four gallons of fuel, giving you a nervous 90 miles before the underseat tank goes on reserve. The Rocket carries a full 6.6 gallons, giving it a real 200-mile range; the V-Max might be faster for short sprints, but on a 500-mile day it'll be left behind at the pump. The Rocket also wins in the luxury department&151its seat is wider, softer and more comfortable, and its ergonomics hold up better as the miles roll on. The Rocket has the classic wide-armed, wide-legged, big-guy cruiser riding stance. The V-Max position is much more distinctive; with your hands relatively close together and your feet right under your haunches, you feel like Toby Maguire on Seabiscuit. And the V-Max's oddly rounded saddle doesn't work for long-haul touring.

Where the V-Max does work is on the streets of just about any city you can imagine. Where the Rocket's ample mass, ultra-wide bars and splayed-leg riding position make one hesitate to attack congested streets, the V-Max's narrowness and explosive power turn short-haul commuting into a tire-smoking, license-shredding bachelor party.

Style Over Substance Abuse
We can jaw all day about the function of these two-wheeled manhood enhancers, but how they look is at least as important as how they work. The V-Max set a new mile marker for manly styling cues when it debuted, with its art-directed V-four, mantislike tank scoops and hunched-vulture profile. And to truly succeed, the Rocket III will have to be seen as equally nasty if it expects to set the new standard.

The Rocket also has to justify its inline-triple architecture. A comparison between the Rocket's initial concept drawings and the final production machine show one glaring revision: the exhaust system on the engine's right-hand side. The designers' renderings show beautiful tubular headers swooping forward before they curve back underneath and to the rear. The production version has stubby pipes dropping straight down, in a fashion that suggests more Massey-Ferguson than Harley-Davidson.

The Triumph folk say the short, straight headers are the result of practical ergonomics: They had to be that way, in other words, to keep from toasting a rider's boots against the headers. And in the heat-management arena they succeeded brilliantly; we noticed few stray BTUs sneaking around the elaborate heat-shielding system.

The surface of the engine may also be cause for some controversy; its silver finish and ribbed texture may be appropriate from an engineering standpoint, but it lends a certain Celica-missing-a-cylinder look to the engine itself. We've often criticized cruiser stylists for adding faux fins to liquid-cooled engines to impart a more "traditional" look. And we'd probably be berating Triumph if it had done the same, callow and fickle critics that we are.

We suspect that both Vance and Hines are furiously designing more curvaceous headers and pipes for the Rocket III, and that some future Rocket will be offered with black-finished engine cases to tone down its sheer aluminosity.

For all our overanalysis, the Rocket III is an unambiguous hit in the innocent eyes of the general public. Just as the V-Max did when it hit the streets in '85, the Rocket III gets about the same positive reaction as a healthy, uninhibited coed on Girls Gone Wild.

Sorting It All Out
In many ways, the Rocket III represents not a competitor to the hallowed V-Max, but rather an evolution of it. The Yamaha was a sensation for three reasons: it looked great; it was crazy fast and felt it; and it worked as an urban assault vehicle. It was beautiful, crazy and smart, all at the same time. But like most of the Motorcyclist staffers, the idea of the perfect power cruiser has become bigger, slower and more deliberate with age.

The Rocket III is no less of an engineering achievement-but for an audience that wants more than sheer blistering speed. Size, sound and show are everything to today's cruiser riders, with actual velocity relegated to fourth place at best.

Triumph has done a wonderful job of turning the Rocket III from what initially looked like a Photoshop Frankenstein into a very real and very effective all-around motorcycle. The final product combines an audacious look with some very impressive engineering. It is at once outrageous and practical, raucous and refined, balls-out and laid-back, macho and manageable. We applaud Triumph for its vision, for its determined execution-and for its sheer corporate courage. Like the V-Max before it, the Rocket III may have changed motorcycling forever.

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