4th place Yamaha V-Max
It's not the original musclebike -- the Vincent Black Shadow was probably that -- but it's been around since the beginning of time. Well, at least since 1984, and that makes the 1198cc V-four cylinder V-Max one of the longest-lived motorcycles, and also one of the most unchanged. New brakes and all-black paint were the only changes for '96. When it debuted more than a decade ago, the Max machine was astounding, offering more power than just about anything without wings and a Pratt and Whitney engine, all in a chassis that appeared to be deliberately designed for the street drag racer, who didn't have to turn corners.
It never was a handler, even back then. And every other powerful motorcycle on the market was big and heavy, so its substantial weight wasn't a disadvantage. Nowadays, with a new generation of lightweight motorcycles to compete against in the traffic light Grand Prix, its bulk is noticeable. On our brand new V-Max, even before it's stock rear tire (the V-Max is shod with low-lifetime Bridgestone Exedras) went bad, handling was, shall we say, interesting. It's quite a feeling to gingerly feel your way around a corner, throttle carefully feathered, as the forks pogo and the front wheel threatens to push every inch of the corner.
But the king of raw power since 1984 still makes it big in the cool stakes. Park on the boulevard on a Saturday night, and who cares about corners. The added grunt corralled by the V-boost system (which directs inlet charge between carburetors) and the beefy V-4 engine means that there are still few challengers who stand a chance. There's still little that will beat a V-Max, at least in a straight line. The V-boost system and low gearing guarantee that. Once you get into that first corner though, all bets are off. And highway cruising is buzzy, thanks again to the low gear ratios. Suspension was primitive, even in 1984. The narrow, conventional front fork lacks sophisticated damping control and is easily overwhelmed. The rear shock is classically oversprung and underdamped, and the motorcycle is designed with a long wheelbase, carrying a lot of weight on the rear.
Try to corner hard, and you'll regret it, as the front wheel starts to push and the back pogos all over the place. It is fairly easy to lean over enough, at least on a smooth road, to scrape the pegs. As a practical, day-to-day motorcycle the Max is a little overwhelmed. The 4.0 gallon gas tank lives under the seat (the dummy tank actually contains the airbox and the header tank for the radiator), and to refill it, which you have to do after you hit the electric reserve button at around the 100 mile mark, you must first pull two underseat mounted toggles. Then, to the delight of gas station attendants everywhere, the mid part of the seat bursts open, revealing the lockable filler cap below.
Party games aside, the V-Max is fun to ride around town because of its good looks and low down grunt, but out on the open road the fun diminishes, as narrow, upright bars head the rider up into the wind like a parachute at any speed above 65. Apart from the electric gas reserve switch on the right handlebar (now why hasn't anyone else copied that?) rider amenities are few. The tachometer is buried in the front of the faux gas tank, and only readable when you're nodding off at the wheel. But, hey, you have to live with a few compromises when what you want to do is ride the coolest looking musclebike in town. And the Yamaha is still unarguably that.
3rd place Triumph Speed Triple
By now the Triumph formula should be well known. Take the basic, modular chassis design, add whatever frills are necessary for the task at hand, apply beautifully styled graphics and a couple of Union Jack flags, and watch the enthusiasts drool. The black on black Speed Triple has been available in Europe for three years now, but is a relatively recent arrival in the U.S. It uses Triumph's 885cc three cylinder engine, in the same frame as the dualsport Tiger model, but with differing fork, shock and bodywork (or lack of: the Speed Triple is mostly about the naked look).
We had our doubts about including the Triumph in the test: After all, at only 885 cc, it gave away capacity to the multi cylinder competition and much weight to the twin cylinder rival (the Ducati). And at first the motor seemed low-powered: That was until we ran all the bikes away from the lights at once, and the Triumph took the lead. It's a great motor once you realize it has to be revved. There's not too much power down low in the rpm range, but get that three cylinder motor spinning and it pulls with alacrity. Carburetion glitches seem to hamper the Triumph in the midrange, and we're sure that a little tuning would help the gas consumption: the Triple was the thirstiest of the lot, even out-gulping the V-Max into the low thirties when both were ridden side by side.
Once you do get the motor revving, power builds until it reaches a flat spot just before the 9,500 rpm redline. Keep it spinning in the sweet spot, and the triple will keep up with the rest of them, at least until the road begins to bend. The riding position was the sportiest of the lot, in that the narrow, clip-on bars put the rider into a forward crouch. But for most riders, the footrests were a little too far forward for the bars. If the bars were replaceable, we'd say just change to a cowhorn bar, but the bars are cast, non adjustable, non replaceable. It's kind of a pity that a bike built from a modular design should be so non-customizable. We would have voted the Triumph higher marks but for one thing - the suspension and resulting handling problems.
For a sporty motorcycle, the Triumph sure has a lousy suspension setup. Both ends of the bike are underdamped and undersprung. The frame, (the same type used for all Triumph models), is a tubular steel spine type, and means the bike is high (too high for some short-legged riders: One of the reasons Triumph's Thunderbird is popular is that shorter riders can get their feet on the ground). Combine the height with the mushy, wallowy suspension and uncertain handling and you have a recipe for rider distrust. These criticisms have been leveled at Triumph for several years now, and we're beginning to wonder why they don't fix up the suspension to suit the sporty image they've adopted. True, very few Triumph owners will push their bikes to the limit, but the competition (even the big, wallowy Honda) is just so much better around the bends. Heck, even the V-max wasn't that much worse.
Given these criticisms, it probably doesn't really matter that the Triumph was shod with slightly long in the tooth Michelin Hi Sports, which aren't famous for their responsiveness. Bridgestone Exedras would have worked just as well. The Speed Triple has potential for the top of the musclebike class - but it doesn't quite know what it wants to be. The riding position is a compromise between sportbike and standard. Low footpegs and knee cutouts in the tank are the sporty bits. Narrow handle bars lack musclebike leverage. The tires fitted were lacking feel in hard sporty cornering (although nobody expects a musclebike to corner well). Compromises in the suspension let this motorcycle down: but even with its compromised design, if it had been a smoother suspended performer, it would have been hard to beat on the street. For: Character, soulful wail of three cylinder motor. Good brakes. Surprising peak power Against: Hi-strung, peaky power, odd riding position nobody liked, spongy front suspension.
PAGE 22nd place Honda CB1000
Okay, we must admit we cheated. The CB1000 may be on the most wanted list of musclebikes throughout the world, but it's not officially a new bike, at least not in the US of A. The model shown here is a 1995 item. Honda tell us that these bikes are still available from warehouse stock though, and you can still find them at dealers. If demand builds up, they may be listed again next year: Certainly the CB1000 is still available in the rest of the world as a new 1996 model.
The CB1000 is one of the few remaining examples of the Japanese fascination with the retro look (remember the Kawasaki Zephyr 400, 750 and 1100?). Touted in the late eighties as the next big trend, these bikes sold well in Japan, but nowhere else in the world. Ahh well. Could it be that retros are just too boring? They need a gimmick? The CB's gimmick is its size. Originally known as the "Big One" (we think a burger company sued 'em to stop that name being used), the CB 1000 is remarkably large. The CB looks huge, on the outside. You don't notice it from the pictures, because the CB has 18 inch wheels, front and rear, which make it seem proportionally smaller in photos. In real life, it's big. That beautifully finished aluminum alloy swing arm is about the same size as the frame of some sport motorcycles.
Unsurprisingly, the bike is the second heaviest here. Only the V-Max, which uses steel instead of aluminum for its bulky swingarm, is heavier (and that excess weight may be attributed to the V-Max's shaft drive: the Honda uses a chain). The blocky, liquid-cooled motor may be familiar if you've ever seen inside a CBR1000's plastic covers. The basic engine is the same, albeit with one less gear, but is modified with carburetion, compression and ignition changes to give more low down torque compared to the sportster, and it feels like it too. Power output is woolly, feels almost entirely peakless. It feels so soft that the dyno figures were a surprise: We didn't think the bike made as much power as the dyno showed.
Climb aboard and the impression of massive girth diminishes. Once on the move, the bike feels lighter than the V-Max and the Triumph, although the tall seat height can make control difficult for the short of leg. Build quality is impressive indeed. Just look at the details almost anywhere on the bike, like the biggest swingarm in the world or the neat cast alloy footrest plates. This is a motorcycle that will last. The brakes are impressive, and need to be to bring this rather large motorcycle to a stop. Fork dive is the limiting factor for hard braking, although one of our testers complained of brake fade after the stoppers had been used particularly hard on a mountain road. The suspension is also on the woolly, soft side, with a pogo possible when pushed hard into a corner. The standard-style riding position is comfortable, and while a screen would be an asset on a long trip, freeway speeds can be endured without the parachute problem. Comfort level is high on the Honda because of the big, flat-bottomed seat. Passengers almost have too much seat, and can get lost on the expanse of naugahyde.
On one of the days of our test, the normally blue skies of Los Angeles clouded over, and poured liquid smog onto the freeways. Yes, believe it or not it does rain in Southern California, and we were crazy enough to ride through the canyons and on the freeway in the stuff. It's at times like these that you appreciate smooth, unhurried, wallowy motorcycles that don't slide tires sideways at the first touch of the throttle, or, even worse, at the first grab of the front brake. The CB is the winner in the wet weather stakes. Live in Seattle? Don't even think of buying anything else. The quality of fasteners and other details around the bike make it seem likely that this motorcycle will be the least corroded after several seasons of riding in different weather.
Even if it isn't brand new, and it lacks enough muscle to be a true musclebike, the CB is hard to beat.
1st place Ducati M900
Il Mostro it was originally called: The Monster bike. A beautiful grotesque from the country that makes, undoubtedly, the most stylish motorcycles in the world. And it wasn't even red. It was the smallest, lightest, least powerful machine in the test, but the one that took top muscle bike honors, at least in the absence of the Buell S1 (see sidebar, below).
Ducati's strengths (and their ability to win multiple Superbike World Championships with engines not too far removed from this one) come from the details. Take a look at the Monster up close, and you can't fail to be impressed by the lightweight, spidery pieces of alloy and steel that come close to sculpture. The Monster's prime mover is a slightly modified 900 SS power unit, a two valve per cylinder 90 degree V-twin with belt driven, desmodromic camshafts. It's a design that goes back to the late seventies, yet has been continuously updated during the eighties and nineties into the four-valve, liquid cooled version that lives under the bodywork of the 916.
The torquey vee-twin pulls from the very bottom of the rev range, and thuds out in front from the lights until one of the multis comes screeching past, a little later. Wheelies are so easy as to be irresistible. The six speed gearbox has well spaced ratios, low enough for wheelie idiot demonstrations in first gear, high enough to cruise smoothly at freeway speeds with only a little thud-thud vibration through the bars, enough to tell you that you're riding a twin. The riding position is comfortable, though the footpegs are a little far back and handlebar is a little too wide for optimum control. The wide handlebar almost seems wide enough to be a flattrack bend, and it makes the already short Ducati a little bit twitchy, because rider input transfers directly to the 17" inch front wheel. Jumping off one of the other musclebikes onto the M900 is like going from a tourer to a 250. The bike feels tiny (and was the lightest by far).
Controls are crisp, immediate, in sharp contrast to the woolly feeling of the other three. The gas tank dominates the front of the bike because it's so big, but knee cutouts make for a comfortable riding position, at least for the rider. A small passenger seat hides beneath the removable plastic seat cowl, but it's uncomfortable enough to be strictly a short term proposition, especially since the high mounted passenger pegs force the pillion to contort into an unnatural position (and you wanted to save that for later). Power is immediate, and builds strongly in the midrange, but a rev counter would be a welcome addition. The lopsided instrument panel has just a white and red speedo and a few warning lights. The lack of a tachometer is a pain, although you can usually tell the gear in operation by the feeling through the seat of your pants.
The gearchange is slightly notchy: the hydraulic clutch has never been famous for its smoothness (or its longevity). But once on the move, gearchanges were sure, and the movement of the lever is short and positive. Front suspension is not optimum for handling, lacking much in the way of rebound damping, having compression damping that is a tad too harsh over expansion joints, and not being adjustable at all. Handling is not quite predictable: throw the bike hard into a corner and it feels like it wants to bounce back. But it will see off any of the other three, quite handily. As you'd expect, fuel consumption was the best of any of the bikes on test, coming in at well over the 40mpg range, and the rider's butt and shoulder muscles will be sore well before the range of the 5 gallon tank is exhausted. But muscle bikes aren't about long range touring: their about see and be seen, blasting away from the lights hooliganism. And for all this, the Ducati is number one.
Riding Impressions: 1.
We think everyone would agree the 1996 Buell S1 Lightning qualifies as a Muscle Bike. Maybe the ultimate American-made muscle bike? Well, we wanted to see just how well the S1 would stack up against the other muscle bikes in our test, but a scheduling snafu meant we couldn't get a test Buell in time for our Muscle Bike comparison.
Tenacious lads that we are at MO, we finally got our hands on an all-black Lightning, and in off-the-cuff comparisions around the office, we voted the S1 as Top Muscle Bike five to one, with Editor Saunders the lone holdout for the Ducati M900. The Buell fills all the criteria required to be considered top dog with ease. Mean looking, lightweight, and virtually bulletproof, its torquey and powerful H-D 1200 Sportster-based motor (10 more horsepower than the Duke!) flexes muscle like no other bike in this test.
For a complete report of the S1 Lightning, see our road test, Buell's Monster.
We roared through the Valley. We blasted away from the lights. We got rained on (Poor babies). And we had big fun on these huge hunks of chrome and steel, and their machinalities (nothing inanimate has a personality) soon shone through. The Honda is boringly reliable, the Triumph frustratingly incomplete, and the Ducati exudes style in a way only Italian bikes ever can (but make some good friends at the dealership, servicing requirements are rigorous). The V-Max will always be a personal favorite of mine because of its so-what (for want of a printable word) attitude. So there are better handling, better looking, even more powerful bikes these days. So what. Nothing has the style of a V-Max, and who cares if you're last for breakfast. So, while I'd rate the Ducati top for function, my personal choice is different. What else but the V-Max? Nothing else comes close to that style.
Riding Impressions 2. Brent Plummer, Editor-in-Chief
I've ridden three Ducatis in my life: Pushed the first two home, and the third one, our Monster testbike, cost me a boatload of cash after a simple parking lot tipover (thanks, Todd) dented the $1000.00 tank and we had to replace it. So I don't think I'd buy a Monster -- especially with the weak clutch and driveline a timebomb waiting to explode -- and I can't recommend that you do. Sure, the Duke was, by far, the most exciting bike in this test, but the costs are just too high for me.
What I really want is a Honda CB1000 decked out in early-80s Freddie Spencer trim. This machine really impressed me -- it emanates quality and attention to detail like no other machine I've seen. Honda nailed the Euro-limit 100 bhp ceiling on the head, which is ample power for me, and the all-day comfort sealed my vote for Honda as Number One in this test.
Now don't go skipping past the V-Max -- everyone knows that Real Men ride V-Maxes, and the Triumph's stunning beauty is second to none. The point to this diatribe? If you want a muscle bike, there's no easy answer because the bikes are too close. So go test ride all of 'em, and make your own decision.
Riding Impressions 3. Tom Fortune, Managing Editor
A muscle bike has got to have an attitude. An I-Can-Do-Anything attitude. I mean, if it doesn't look mean and flex some horsepower, it won't hang with this bunch. That'll relegate the CB1000 to last for me. A great commuter bike with real-world midrange power and comfort, it's just too tame and doesn't exude the right attitude for this crowd. The Speed Triple looks the part, but by the time it flexes its high-RPM horsepower, the others are long gone. Ponderous handling and strange ergonomics means you'll have an attitude - a bad one - after riding the Triumph. Nothing looks meaner than a V-Max, and not one of the other bikes here can flex quite like Mr. Max does. But for me it just wasn't much fun to ride. Poor suspension and too much shaft-effect made it difficult to hustle along at a pace the Monster can maintain comfortably. It's the Ducati's all-around combination of light weight, torquey motor, and excellent handling manners that places it at the top of this brawny heap. It comes with the perfect I Can Do It All attitude. Now if only we can make it look as mean as the V-Max.
Riding Impressions 4. Todd Canavan, Associate Editor
I just don't get the whole Ducati thing. The Monster is not as comfortable, makes the least power, and barely ran in stock form. A jet kit would be a necessity for this bike. There is nothing that makes me feel confident about the reliability of the Italian machine. Yamaha's V-Max was a garish disappointment. Too much hype has gone straight to this bike's head, and has made it porky to boot. It reminded me of a Mac truck on nitrous - fast, but uncomfortably so. The Speed Triple is a stunner visually, but fails to deliver the rest of the goods. Shortages in the power and comfort departments are where the Speed Triple slows down. The relationship between the seat, footpegs and clip-ons seems to be the result of the bike's design rather than a calculated riding position. The result is part sportbike, part standard, and equals sore back.
The CB1000 is the naked equivalent of the VFR750, with neat retro-superbike looks, but lacks the spectacular power. It was the most comfortable of the bunch, with good ergonomics and a smooth motor. The handling was good for a bike of this heft, easily waxing the V-max through the corners, but wallowed at faster paces. I almost chose the Monster to win, but there is just no way I would spend that kind of money on a bike that made me as worried as this one does. My other problem is that Ducati performance parts are much more expensive than the Honda's equivalents. If I was to put one of these bikes in my garage, I would only shell out the hard-earned bucks for the CB. I don't like paying premium prices for fragile Italian parts. 5. Billy Bartels, Graphics Editor A muscle bike is about having fun and excitement over short stretches of asphalt, that's the criteria. For last place I pick the V-Max. All that horsepower, and absolutely no handling. No slow handling, no fast handling, nothing. In third is the CB1000. I like the bike, good handling, good horsepower, great ergonomics, but bo-ring. Second would be the Triumph, and Il Monstro in first. The top three were in a dead heat, they are all excellent bikes, but the Duck (in addition to being a load of fun) is a wheelie machine. Your grandmother could get the front wheel off the ground, thus it wins...