Rocket, Roadliner, Road King

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Yamaha/Star Roadliner S - 86.7 hp, 110.2 ft lbs torque - 705 lbs. - $14,980

Every so often, a heavily-hyped product touted as "new and improved" is actually new and improved. 2006 marks the year of the Star motorcycle brand, Yamaha's shot at creating a Lexus-like upscale product line to tempt aging Baby Boomers. They did it by providing classy, original styling, high quality materials and some impressive performance in both the motor and chassis departments. Pete came back from the Roadliner intro in Seattle raving about the bike, and I thought he had been stuffed with too many free hors d'ouvres by Yamaha's moneybags press department. When we got our test unit, he started riding it home -- a lot -- and I didn't see it until the day of our street ride.

"We affirm that the world's magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot..." -F. T. Marinetti "The Foundation and Manifesto of Futurism" 1908

I heard the bike before I could see it. A rich, booming sound, deeper and more melodious than a nicely-breathing big twin rolled over us in the parking lot. I looked around and noted the Road King was already sitting out front. That couldn't be the Star! But it was.

Pete did a final rolling burnout and parked the bike in front of us, and we could see the quality in the thing. Paint is thick and shiny, the chrome is tasteful and well-proportioned and only perennially nit-picking Sean had anything ill to say about the build quality: "they could do a better job on the lever perches and switchgear plating".

The 2006 Star Roadliner S is almost self-consciously stylish. Starting at the front, we find an 18" radial tire on a cast 12-spoke wheel, held in place by thick 46mm fork tubes. The fat 90/60-17 rear radial tire is connected to the substantial steering head by way of a light, 37-pound aluminum frame and swingarm, a rarity on a heavyweight cruiser like this. In between hangs an air-cooled (1854cc) V-twin motor with a 99.1 mm bore and a 116.8 mm stroke. Four valves per cylinder actuated by pushrods in huge aluminum tubes get fuel, air and exhaust in and out. If that sounds archaic, it's not. This is an all-new motor for 2006, purposely using pushrods and tuned counterbalancers to give it an "authentic" (read: Harley-like) feel.

The difference now is that now it makes a lot more power. Punched out to 1854cc, squished to an almost-sporty 9.5:1 compression ratio and gorged with mixture from 43mm throttle bodies, the Roadliner powerplant provides plenty of go to match the show. There's even an EXUP valve in the two-into-one exhaust system to boost midrange power and response.

As Sean says, "the Roadliner's engine isn't just about making cool noises."

The Roadliner is packed with nice details like the retro-styled speedometer, custom brake and clutch master cylinders, the sliding ignition key cover, and for an additional charge, Fonzie's reflection (please specify facial hair style).

Firing it up, after inserting the key in the ignition hidden by a slick sliding cover, you definitely hear cool noises. Pete calls it the "best exhaust note of any OEM cruiser, let alone the other two in this comparo", and Sean calls the sound "refined." I think it's one of the most remarkable jobs of tuning the sound of an OEM muffler, and I wouldn't swap it out for aftermarket if I owned one of these.

Enough listening, it's time for riding, and around town the Star is as easy to handle as a smaller bike. "Handling like many lighter standard motorcycles wish they had", gushes Pete, and Sean said it felt "lighter and more fun to ride than any long-wheelbase cruiser has a right to". I was impressed with how light the bike felt after coming off the Rocket III, but the claimed dry weights are very similar. Yamaha has pulled off an amazing illusion with their aluminum frame and low center of gravity.

Cruisers are all about launching from a light, and this bike won't disappoint, at least not unless you're trying to keep up with Sean laying dark patches with the Triumph. Even so, Sean noted the Star will wag "its tail through the intersection", even if it won't leave dark stripes behind it at 80 mph like the Rocket III does. The `Liner has motor for any cruising-related occurrences you might have, from dragging hair-plug equipped Porsche owners to rolling on the throttle to pass a semi going up a steep grade in fifth gear.

Thanks to the dual counter-balancers, vibration isn't much of an issue, although you can really feel the two big pistons gently thumping away beneath you. The motor is smooth, powerful and easy to use.

You can really see the Roadliner's Art Deco (actually Art Moderne) styling influence. It would match my Grandma's toaster very nicely.

That silky, creamy power makes freeway cruising a pleasant affair, too. The rigid chassis means you're "super stable even at triple digit speeds through big, sweeping turns", according to Pete, a good thing on those huge overpasses that criss-cross LA and other big Metro areas. The seat isn't as nice as the Harley's, but it's still plush, wide and supportive. A windscreen is probably a must-have if you're going to be spending a lot of time in fifth gear: "Anything over 80 miles per hour for an extended period and you'll start to grow Popeye forearms." Pete is touching on the basic problem with the upright, leaf-in-the-wind seating position endemic to cruising; a rider is about as aerodynamic as an RV in a tornado while he's punching a hole through the troposphere.

Luckily, the metal sliders on the bottom of the floorboards are replaceable.

All is forgiven on a two-lane road with lots of curves, as the Roadliner S really shines here. Where the Road King and the Rocket III have to take it down a notch to avoid upsetting their chassis or suspension, the Star can rail through slow and high-speed turns alike, limited only by the stiletto heels of motorcycling, the low-slung floorboard. Pete loved the bike's handling: "The frame would flex ever so slightly, allowing the bike to wiggle through one cycle and then it would instantly come back into line. It never kept you guessing if it would get out of shape. This bike is very easy to steer and maneuver at speed." Sean also raved, calling the `liner "more fun to ride than any long-wheelbase cruiser has a right to." This is high praise from a guy who can find fault in even the best-handling sportbikes.

Big, bigger, biggest. Which one is best?

I was impressed by the precise, light feel of the chassis and the nice brakes. The big cruiser just does not have that intimidating, "danger, cruiser!" feel a lot of big bikes have, and the famous Yamaha monobloc calipers slow the bike down with authority, even if those 700+ pounds require more than one finger to get any feedback. Pete thought they were the "best brakes here: powerful, linear and easily modulated."

Sweet handling, great styling, and "tire roasting" torque. The Roadliner S delivers what any good motorcycle should: balance. At $14,980, the Star is not much cheaper than its made-in-USA competition, but neither is a Lexus. If Yamaha was trying to build an upscale product to court the more demanding, well-heeled customer, we'd have to conclude that they've done it.

Conclusions

MO scraped the bottom of the barrel when they hired us, but the Rocket's footpegs scrape even more.

Comparing sportbikes is easy. Ride `em on the track, strap `em on the dyno, and the superior bike quickly makes itself known. Cruisers are not so simple. Cruiser riders are incredibly brand-loyal, and they will suffer a lot to keep riding "their" brand. Therefore, if you want a Triumph, you would probably happily suffer the harsh suspension and tippy feel so you could smoke everything else on the road (including Hayabusas) when the light turns green.

It's likewise with the Harley. If you've wanted a Road King since you were a kid, we could tell you you'll go sterile and blind from riding one and you'd still be at the Harley Dealer as soon as you had enough money in your pocket for the down payment. You would enjoy riding the bike as well, and not have a lesser experience on this fine green Earth if you never so much glanced at a Star Roadliner.

We just think you'd be missing out. Yamaha has built a cruiser that eliminates many of the issues a stock cruiser might have. It's stable without feeling too heavy, sounds good without being too loud or badly tuned, and handles as well as a standard motorcycle does. It does all this without overdoing it on styling or compromising the things cruiser riders love. Comfort and cornering clearance are compromised by the required-by-law cruiser seating position and big floorboards, but that's what you want, right?

We were all impressed by the Roadliner's style, power, handling, braking and overall package. A cruiser buyer really gets more when he pays less with the Roadliner, and we think you'd be doing yourself a disservice by not at least considering one if you are in the market for a big, bad flagship cruiser.

 Second Guessing From the Grand Poobah and the Million Mile Man Reading 'Riting and 'Rithmatic?

Gabe wasn't so cheerful after his 22nd wing.

Harley-Davidson Road King:

The Road King impressed us enough to take 2nd place in our five-bike 2003 Classic Tourers Comparo. However, compared with the Rocket III and Roadliner, the Harley feels like it has 95% too much rubber mounting. Shaking like a wet dog at idle, the Road King's engine smoothes out nicely once underway. However, it never seems to develop serious power and the  bike lags well behind the Roadliner or Rocket in any contest of acceleration. Once you're moving fast enough for the engine to feel smooth, the chassis starts to lose its composure. The overall effect is sloppy, with floorboards that feel like they are made out of wet bread and handlebars that have a visible flex and twist to them when trying to make steering inputs. The Road Kind is in desperate need of stiffer rubber mounts for its handlebar and floorboards.

The Road King's flexi problems are a real shame, because it actually has the most neutral riding position of this group. With your feet placed in a mid-mount location, an upright seating position and reasonable handlebars, you're ready to ride like a hero, but the typical Harley brakes and flexible controls rob the King of his chance to boogie. It's a damn shame.

Triumph Rocket III:

The Triumph Rocket III has an imposing presence on the street, though I suspect the looks it gets are more of the "What the hell?" variety than the "Beautiful, Cool, Check it out!" type. Of course their expressions change when you light the rear tire and leave a hundred feet of fresh rubber down the middle of their lane, then the look just says "F@^K! That was cool!"

For such a large bike, the Rocket handles itself admirably in low-speed maneuvering by demonstrating a nice neutral balance and noticeable gyroscopic stability from its spinning crank. Much like the BMW R1200RT, the Triumph can be trolled around at about 1mph with both feet on the pegs, and this is great for parking lot maneuvers or parades.

Sean mentions the Shriners frequently because he wants them to contact him so he can try out for the drill team. He has a penchant for tiny cars and tight clothing.

Unfortunately, that's where the fun ends with the biggest Triumph, because the Rocket III is in serious need of a major suspension overhaul. The stock shocks appear to be little more than sliding chrome tubes covered with a wimpy yet shiny spring. This causes the Rocket III to wallow excessively, to the point of causing the Rocket's steering to feel inconsistent. They are so bad, I'd throw them in the paddock pond at Suzuka, were I in Japan. Ok, perhaps I'm being too harsh. The shocks are really only a problem if you ride over 25mph, so I suppose they won't be an issue for Shriners. If you ever see that Shriner turning tight circles on a Rocket III, chances are he'll have the arms of an NBA baller, because the reach to the outside grip is super-long when the bars are turned to the stop.

I guess it's no surprise that I'm not picking the R3 as my favorite bike in this group. However, it isn't all bad, the riding position isn't as ridiculous as it could be and the bike generates cool inline-triple noises with turbine undertones while it catapults you forward. Though thanks to considerable shaft effect, the bike tends to catapult your ass upward at the same time. With some simple shock replacement therapy, the Rocket could be the best boulevard brawler on the block. Are you listening Triumph?

Star Roadliner:

If STAR Brand is trying so hard to separate their image from Yamaha, why does the Roadliner say "Yamaha" on its rear fender? I'd also hope they could do a better job on the lever perches and switchgear plating which has a wavy orange peel "cheap Japanese chrome" look. That's it, I can't find anything else to criticize about this fantastic cruiser. The chrome problems are only noticeable at close range and you have to be a cynical journalist to care about that Yamaha label on the fender.

The Roadliner does a masterful job of combining a deep throbbing V-Twin note with a refined (read well-tuned) sound. Unlike most cruisers, the Roadliner's engine isn't just about making cool noises. Nope, this bike will absolutely roast the rear tire if you're immature enough to whack its throttle open from a stoplight. It doesn't quite have the power to break the tire loose from cruising speeds like the Rocket III, but from a standstill it does an entertaining job of wagging its tail through the intersection. The Roadliner is no slouch at freeway speeds either. It gives good acceleration from 80mph in top-gear and never struggles to accelerate the bike at any speed. What's more, the Roadliner has a refined and controllable power delivery that makes it easy to ride smoothly and impress passengers.

That engine isn't alone in its excellence. The Roadliner's chassis has a nice stiff steering head and does a great job of transmitting the rider's inputs to the tire's contact patch. This makes the bike easy to steer and the geometry isn't so radical that the bike wants to fall into turns. Indeed, the Roadliner acts more like a "standard" and feels lighter and more fun to ride than any long-wheelbase cruiser has a right to, while keeping the solid feel and stability that cruiser riders love. Overall, it's an amazing package that combines a fresh take on cruiser styling with cool details other than the chrome quality) and vehicle dynamics that are above reproach. No matter how you slice it; the Roadliner is a winner.

That's how I see em.

-Sean Alexander

 For My Money

Pete: "This Triumph is so big." Sean: "I am so big." Gabe: "Does this Roadliner make my ass look big?"

For once in my short motor journalism career a choice between bikes in a comparison came quickly and easily. One bike is tried and true but not quite what I'd be looking for were I in the market for a cruiser. The other is so unrefined and lacking in fundamental design basics that the manufacturer should be ashamed of itself after so many years of motorcycle engineering experience. The winning bike is a testament to what good ol' common sense should lead to with all the technology available to bike makers: a cruiser that handles, accelerates, brakes and is endowed with a proper frame and swingarm and yet is as good looking as any mass produced cruiser to ever hit the market.

Star, as they like to be called these days, clearly have drawn upon all that is available to them to make a downright great motorcycle without great expense to the cruiser consumer. Anyone with an open mind to all motorcycle types can't deny that the Roadliner was engineered first and designed second. With an aluminum frame and swingarm weighing in at under 50 pounds combined, sportbike borrowed tech with the EXUP valve and a nearly 50/50 weight bias, Star has, well, reached for the stars. Consider all the technology and refinement in this beauty along with a base price of less than 15 grand you'll be sneaking out of the showroom as discreetly as possible hoping they don't realize what a steal they've given you.

Too bad the other two haven't figured it out yet. The Road King is a damn fine bike but doesn't offer much more than nicely matched hard saddlebags. With the strong accessory line Star has I could certainly doll up the Roadliner with the over $2,500.00 I'd save over the Road King. As far as the Rocket is concerned, well, I wonder just how concerned Triumph was when they put this thing together. With the exception of the giggle factor from the incredible torque, the rest of the bike has few redeeming qualities for me. In this day and age and with all their history I just can't fathom why Triumph couldn't be bothered to put some thought into the suspension. Didn't they listen to their test riders? Certainly they must've noted the harsh ride and wallow? Did the engine consume the Lion's share of cost of production? I'd be surprised if it did, there's nothing cutting edge about it. There just isn't any reason why a motorcycle from a maker like Triumph should be so unbalanced. But hey, maybe it's just me, what do I know? Allegedly it's their best selling bike right now. Nevertheless, I'd take this Triumph and put it on the next rocket out of here.

-Pete Brissette

* If you live in Phoenix and feel slighted by this I deeply apologize for hurting your feelings. You have a lovely city. I think. It's kind of hard to see when you're driving through as fast as possible.

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