Kick-Ass Motorcycles

The Perils of Excellence and the new Victory Octane

2017 Victory Octane
Performance, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder. Did the Victory Octane hit the sweet spot?©Motorcyclist

Let's note right up front that I really like the Victory Octane. Coming from an excellent platform, Victory's most performance-oriented, gas-burning model combines the kind of fit and finish I expect from Polaris, a modern engine with an enjoyable amount of power and superb manners and an overall level of refinement that says, unequivocally, "We're here to make kick-ass motorcycles."

Polaris has also been adept at creating kick-ass marketing programs, including a retro land-speeder to highlight the new Indian engine in the Spirit of Munro, which won our Best Dreambike award in 2013 (CLICK HERE to see the 2013 Best Dream Bike), and the launch of the Scout on the Wall of Death. It also underwrote a Pikes Peak program called Project 156 that involved our sister title Cycle World, Roland Sands, and octogenarian madman Don Canet. This one-off machine was built to conquer the 156 turns on the way to the Pikes Peak summit but just as importantly to stamp the Victory brand with the ink of performance. No longer would Victory be the "me too" American cruiser company, but it would embark on a path that involved style and speed, where other brands might promise both but deliver one.

Victory's Project 156
Victory's Project 156©Motorcyclist

And there’s the problem for me. Project 156 rolled out as a mean-looking stubby machine of menace, all engine and radiator and aggression. Styled like a midsize streetfighter that swallowed an engine half again too large, P156 signaled an intention and desire to do something big, loud, and important. And even though the bike did not make it to the top, its shadow is long—the bike itself a bellowing, relentlessly sharp-focus beast that any two-wheeled enthusiast would want to ride.

No one thought Victory was going to sell the Project 156 bike in dealerships. Special programs, even like this one, using factory engineers and taking advantage of Polaris’ immense resources, rarely lead directly to production. Sure, you’ll hear all about what the engineers “learned” while scaling a mountain, but the difference between what the racer needs and what you could hope to see in dealers is far longer than the 12.42-mile Pikes Peak course.

Which leads us back to the Victory Octane. When it became clear that Polaris was going to spin off another model from the Scout's platform, I openly wished for a big jump in performance and a wider conceptual gap to the existing Victory product line. I wanted not just a beautifully rendered and genuinely good-performing cruiser, but a kind of American Diavel. Or a V-twin equivalent of the V-MAX. Something big, something really impressive, something tire-smokingly fast and brash and "we can do it." I wanted a boast made in metal.

I didn’t get what I wanted. And, yet, I’ve become okay with that. With a little perspective and some time with the Octane, which I think I like a bit better than the Scout if only for the marginally greater power and the better handling from the 18-inch front wheel, I’m coming around to see Victory’s side of the story. Even if the Octane were a fire-breathing machine, with, say, 130 or 140 rear-wheel horsepower, would it sell? Would the existing dealer network know what to do with it, and, more important, is there even a market for such a thing? If you look at V-MAX and V-Rod sales you might convince yourself that there isn’t.

Maybe my senses are a little dull these days, and I don’t appreciate nuance. But every time I ride the Octane—and truly enjoy doing it—I can’t stop thinking: What if? Maybe there’s a truly hot-rod Vic in the CAD computer somewhere and I’ll be delighted in 2017 or ’18. But this was Victory’s chance to distance itself (and the platform) from Indian’s rapidly growing popularity, and it didn’t go far enough. If I had any patience, I suppose now would be the time to use it.