Rocket, Roadliner, Road King


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Looks, sound and feel.

Those are the three things we judge our cruisers by here at MO. There once was a time when only a genuine Harley-Davidson product could give us what we wanted in a cruiser. The offerings from Japan and Europe would be grotesquely-styled approximations of what some committee of marketing, engineering and accounting executives thought we `Mericuns would buy. And buy them we would -- if the resulting products were cheap enough.

Much has changed in the last ten years. Triumph is once again a force to be respected in the USA, with record-breaking sales every year. Arlen Ness is designing stylish factory customs for snowmobile maker Polaris, and Yamaha is launching a whole new product line to entice upscale cruiser buyers. Harley-Davidson is no longer the only option for a big, stylish, envy-inducing cruiser.

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There's a huge variety of heavy cruisers, as the over 1600cc heavyweights make up a big part of a category that accounts for over half of the street motorcycles sold in the United States. In the Land of the Giants, 600 pounds is flickable, $14,000 is affordable, and 70 foot-pounds of torque is anemic. There are plenty of choices, too.

Without having to test a zillion different bikes, how can we evaluate some of the biggest, most swanky cruisers?

Contributor Fred Rau had a fine idea that we're not too ashamed to appropriate. He picked three "flagship" bikes from three manufacturers and decided to compare them to each other. With a little modification, we selected the 2006 Triumph Rocket III, the 2006 Star Roadliner S, and as the benchmark for this kind of bike, a 2006 Harley-Davidson Road King. With a special eye towards styling, handling, performance and daily living, we present you with the Three R's: Rocket, Road King, Roadliner.

Look at the beautiful boats. The yachts in the background are pretty, too.

What makes a good "flagship" cruiser? They are top-of-the-line machines, motorcycles that are comfortable, exquisitely detailed, handle with confidence and aplomb, and have plenty of power and torque. They remind me very much of my friend's collection of Chrysler Imperials. They are big, heavy, ostentatious and fast, if they need to be.

A big-buck cruiser needs to fulfill all cruiser roles with style, competence and unique character. It should be powerful, (with lots of torque, of course), good handling (within the cruiser genre), comfortable, and have exquisite build quality and detailing. The three bikes we picked are some of the top bikes their manufacturers offer, so let's see how they stack up against one another.

The Contenders


Triumph Rocket III - 127.46 hp, 142.18 ft-lbs torque - 704 lbs. - $15,990.00

Take an enormous engine. Put it into a cruiser-styled chassis. Build it in one of the most modern motorcycle factories in the world. Triumph put a lot of capital and hopes into their Rocket III, and we here at MO were eager about our first opportunity to really test one. Did it meet our expectations?

Pete has since worked this position into his Pilates routine.

The Rocket greets its rider with a commanding presence. With a massive 2,300 cc three-cylinder motor on display like a cornucopia on the Christmas table, there's no way to ignore the fact that this bike is a powerhouse. Pete said that "Visually it looks like someone wrapped an extra large fuel tank and seat around an old tractor engine", and although I think the motor has a striking visual appeal somewhat better than Granddad's John Deere, the automotive nature of its plumbing, radiator and slab-like cylinder block will probably keep the Rocket from becoming Miss January. Elsewhere on the bike we see the standard cruiser styling cues like chromed twin shocks, big fender supports, pullback handlebars and a classic, if immense, teardrop gas tank.

The Rocket III is all about the engine.

At 2,300 cc, it's by a wide margin the largest production motorcycle motor you're going to see, unless you consider the Boss Hoss a mass-produced motorcycle. The motor is oversquare, with a 101.6mm bore and a 94.3mm stroke. Dual overhead cams open and shut the valves, and a counterbalancer smoothes things out. Triumph didn't use a lot of tuning tricks aside from compact-car engine capacity; compression is a stately 8.7:1 and peak torque is made around 3000 rpm.

The chassis is similarly conservative, although smaller than it looks. The wheelbase is a puny (in this class) 66.7 inches, with 32mm of rake and 152mm of trail. Leading the way is a sportbike-spec 43mm nonadjustable inverted fork with 4-piston brakes from the Daytona 955. In back, very stiff twin shocks adjustable for preload try to control forces from the swingarm/driveshaft unit. Atop all this is a wide and plush seat 29.1 inches off the ground. It all weighs in at 704 claimed pounds dry, which sounds like a lot until you realize this is the lightest bike in the test. Oy gevalt.

It actually looks sorta good from this side...

Once you are used to the appearance and presence of the III, riding it is mostly a surprisingly normal experience. It feels a bit top-heavy to hoist upright, but it starts up quickly and easily, ready to ride away almost immediately. Blipping the throttle tips the bike to the side, from the precessional effect of the heavy crank and flywheel, but once you snap the five-speed gearbox into first, that monumental crankshaft gives the bike "noticeable gyroscopic stability" according to Sean. It feels a little odd at low speeds; Pete noted it was "possibly the most unbalanced motorcycle I've ridden in years", while I just thought it felt like it had low tire pressure. Nonetheless, it didn't feel any more awkward than the other 700-pound behemoths I've ridden at MO. But unlike most heavy cruisers, this one has a motor that makes more torque and power than most sportbikes do.

The light turns green. All the waiting is over. You are now free to twist the throttle on a 2,300 cc car engine crammed into a motorcycle. That's what riding this Rocket is all about, and it delivers as promised. The bike scooches upwards on the driveshaft pivot, the 240-section rear tire starts to screech and squirm, and smoke emanates behind you. Where before people in their cars were looking at the bike and saying "what's that", they are now gaping in goggle-eyed wonderment and cheering. Sean had great fun laying "a hundred feet of fresh rubber" every time he'd leave an intersection, and even Pete, who has by now made it clear he's not a Rocket III fan, grudgingly accepts that "the best thing about this motorcycle is the American V-8 style torque that is always on tap", calling the power the "most entertaining aspect of the Rocket." Like the GSXR 1000 I rode earlier in the week, the Rocket III offers all the power any sane or otherwise person could want, right now. It is probably one of the more aptly-named bikes I've ever ridden.

Who wouldn't want this much power between their legs?

One place the Rocket III won't set any speed records is on a twisty road. Although it has better cornering clearance than the other two bikes -- and indeed most cruisers -- the top heavy feel and stiff rear suspension limit the fun when the road bends. Pete likened the Rocket's understeer condition to that of "the most outrageous custom cruisers with their stretched wheelbases." Sean called the rear shocks "sliding chrome tubes covered with a wimpy yet shiny spring", and we all noted the III's tendency to wallow in turns and bounce the rider up into the air going over bumps.

Things are a little nicer on the freeway, although the lack of travel and damping in the rear shocks makes going over high-speed bumps and heaves a kidney-busting affair.

However, the huge mass in front punches a hole in the wind for you, the handlebars put your hands and arms in a rational position, and the footpegs are in a nice spot, not too far forward. Of course, cruiser riders will probably prefer the more traditionally-placed floorboards on the other two bikes; Triumph offers this option on their new Rocket III Classic, although it looks like the rider will have his or her knees very far apart.

Speaking of knees, get asbestos pants to avoid burning yours. That's a big engine down there, and it produces plenty of heat. A heat shield is there for your protection, but your skinny, pale middle-aged calf is still just inches from header pipes radiating about a zillion calories. It was kind of nice on a cool late-fall day in Los Angeles, but it might not be so welcome on a summer day in Phoenix, although if you ask me the only thing welcome on a summer day in Phoenix would be an anatomically-correct ice sculpture of Claudia Schiffer or an air-conditioned cab to the airport.

Given the less-than-kind things we've had to say about this bike, it shouldn't surprise you to find that we preferred the other two. But we all saw its value; Sean declared it would be the "best boulevard brawler on the block" with decent suspension, Pete grudgingly acknowledged the "pavement-chomping" torque, and I just enjoyed the Sturm und Drang that results from tweaking the throttle. However, this bike is nothing but an absurdly gargantuan motor attached to some running gear. If that's all you need from a bike this is the one for you, but the III's unfinished, industrial styling, bouncy back end and top-heavy feel make it a bike none of us could recommend without plenty of caveats.

Harley-Davidson Road King ® - 65.74 hp, 68.67 ft lbs torque - 723 lbs. - $17,675.00 (with CA emissions)

You actually get a twofer in this test: a Road King and a Fat Boy ®.

Is it fair to compare the original with the imitation? The Harley-Davidson Road King seems to have a lot of prestige, even compared to other Harley models. It's not hard to see why: the Road King has a presence and bearing you'd expect from a trophy motorcycle, with classic looks, feel and sound. It's also versatile, sweet-running and nice to ride.

We last studied the Road King in 2003 and rated it second (by a hair) to the Yamaha Road King Silverado. (My favorite quote from the article: "[I]t has all the correct styling cues, tastefully done. Just add Elvis.") Back then, we noted good handling, comfort and a very good convertible windscreen. We also noted that it had that unique Harley-ness that no other bike ever seems to have.

The Harley makes doing a quick and amusing Barry Manilow impression a snap.

The Road King is built from the FL series big twin, but with touring-related touches on it, like a detachable windscreen, locking (and very functional, well-made) hard luggage, and a nice, soft touring seat. Motive power is provided by the now-venerable Twin Cam 88 ® motor that releases 65 iron ponies to the ground through a skinny 16" white wall tire. Up front is an actual telescoping fork with real disc brakes -- and not just one, but two! It's the classic Harley tourer and a very popular model for the Motor Company.

We really liked the styling. The "overall appearance exudes classiness" gushes Pete, and I still feel the same way about it as I did in 2003: it looks, feels and is expensive, although it's closer in price to its competition than it was two years ago. Harley made a "great paint choice and [used] just the right amount of chrome, especially on the big, vintage looking headlight housing", according to Pete. It's a well-proportioned bike, with the engine looking just right in the frame, the lights and instruments just so, and this should be no surprise; after all, Harley-Davidson designed that classic look, long before anybody thought it would be a good idea to copy it.

The brakes get the job done, which is more than you can say about the staff at MO.-Ashley

Still, nobody would buy them if they didn't run and ride as good as they look (or maybe not...). Getting on the bike, I notice the heft and smooth, well-finished look and feel of the controls. There is no ignition key, just a big chrome locking switch. There's also a barrel lock on the steering head so you can finally put that giant padlock back on your storage unit door.

Hitting the starter button produces that cough/rattle/gurgle song that seems to only emenate from a Milwaukee product.

When that motor fires up, it shakes in the frame "like a wet dog", according to Sean. However, thanks to copious rubber mounts, the whole chassis "becomes surprisingly smooth once worked through the revs up to cruising speed", sayeth Pete. Gearbox and clutch operation is notable for being smooth and low-effort, if not exactly a "snick" factory.

Don't bother revving it too much. What seemed like adequate, if not earth-shaking power two years ago now seems quaint compared to the 110 foot-pounds of torque from the Yamaha and tar-melting 142 foot-pounds offered up by the Hooligan from Hinckley. Pete noted that "there's no acceleration to speak of so it's best to utilize all the torque and keep the gear selection high." It has just enough power to cruise safely and happily two-up on the Interstate, but don't drag race teenagers in Subaru WRX's, unless you can make up a good excuse as to why you lost. It's a charming motor, to be sure, with all the right sounds and feelings, but it's time to slot that V-Rod motor into these bikes. Life's too short to ride an antique all the time.

On the freeway, we all noted very good comfort and adequate handling. Pete liked the seat, calling it "soft and plush but not too mushy." Sean lauded the upright seating and "reasonable" handlebars, and I would have been happy for many hours enjoying the ample legroom afforded by the slightly higher-than-normal 29.9" seat if I hadn't left the windscreen leaning on Pete's desk back at MO. (I took the screen off to be fair to the screenless bikes). Windblast was pretty fierce over 75 mph, but that's to be expected when you leave the screen at home. Pete thought the bar-floorboard-seat relationship was "a little cramped" until he "had time to adjust".

MO staffers practicing for the Shriner's parade.

The rubber mounting shields the rider from being thumped to death, but it also robs too much feel. Sean thinks it feels like the Harley has "95% too much rubber mounting", and I noted the weird, squishy feel from the floorboards. They were so mushy they felt like standing on "wet bread", according to the Grand Poobah, and we both noticed the handlebar flexing in its rubber mounts.

All that rubber robs feel out on winding roads, but the Road King still handles like a champ, second only to the Star, and even "as easy to steer as most standards" Pete has ridden, with "very light and neutral" steering. Sean wasn't as kind, saying that the King would "lose it's composure" if pressed hard because of all the rubber mounting, but Sean demands a bit more from his vehicles than most folks. Even though Pete and I had no trouble dragging the floorboards, we both thought the Harley handled as well as something of its genre could. Braking was adequate, if not spectacular: Pete said there was "nothing impressive here, they just get the job done."

Where the Road King works best is trolling around town, where the wide bars and easy feel allow the rider to happily run a gear high while slowly checking himself out in plate-glass windows. The turning radius is good, the clutch and gearbox work faultlessly, and the EFI lets you chug along without fear of stalling and dumping your shiny chrome machine in front of the Karaoke bar. Even in the cruelest of rush-hour traffic jams the King shines: Pete praises the bike for "no need of extra effort to flick it around while lane splitting through 30 plus miles of rush hour traffic."

The Road King is a great bike, especially if you compare it to earlier Road Kings ®. It's solid, reliable, durable, comfortable and has adequate, if not mind-blowing, performance. It's pleasant to ride, and will of course hold its value well, so it's certainly a good purchase. However, in 2005 it's an easy benchmark to better by a manufacturer who wants to build a showpiece bike that focuses on performance, comfort and styling. Those who want a Harley will, of course, always buy Harleys, but as a motorcycle, the Road King is merely a prince.

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