TENERIFE, Canary Islands–I remember the original Triumph Rocket III as a fairly capable bike for what it was: a big, fat, unique cruiser. It had huge torque, it broke boundaries with its 2,300 cc inline triple, which was the biggest engine you could get in a production motorcycle, and it handled fine — for what it was.
Aside from introducing several variations over the years, this is the first real makeover the big triple has received since its inception in 2004, and everything is new. There are two versions of the big bike: the stripped down Rocket 3 R ($25,900), and slightly kitted Rocket 3 GT ($26,700), and I’ve ridden both bikes here at their launch in Tenerife.
The first thing you should know about the completely redesigned Rocket 3 (Triumph dropped the Roman numeral), is that it is no cruiser. Not by a long shot. This island is rife with twisty roads, nearly endless switchbacks, sweepers and a few speed-coaxing straights, and the Rocket 3 behaved in the most un-cruiserish manner.
Big changes for the big triple
The Rocket 3’s most prominent feature is its engine. Look at the bike from either side and most of what you see is a big lump of sculpted aluminum. On the left you’ll find the intake runners, and on the right are the Rocket’s signature triple headers, which are now artfully hydroformed and hand welded. They look like they belong on a vintage fighter plane.
The new styling is much more contemporary, blending naked bike and power cruiser in a way that makes the Rocket 3 appear more like a well-executed action-flick prop than a production bike. If you’re an introvert, you won’t appreciate the stares, because the Rocket 3, especially the R, attracts attention wherever it’s parked, and from all types of gawkers, from young sport bike riders to vacationing retirees.
The Rocket 3 R is my favourite, with its low handlebar, mid-mounted footpegs and streamlined rear end. The GT is designed for more comfort and has a taller handlebar, a flyscreen, slightly lower seat (750 mm vs. 773 mm), forward pegs and a height-adjustable passenger backrest. Footpegs are adjustable in two positions on the R and three positions on the GT. Both bikes feature cleverly hidden passenger pegs that disappear into the bodywork when folded up. The bike is long, and the wheelbase is 1,677 mm.
That massive engine now displaces 2,458 cc (still the biggest), up from the previous bike’s 2,294 cc. The new engine has a larger bore and shorter stroke (110.2 x 85.9 mm vs. 101.6 x 94.3). Claimed output is 165 horsepower (up 11 per cent), and torque is a massive 163 lb.-ft., which is the highest you’ll find on two wheels.
While peak torque is the same as before, it now extends over a much wider rev range. The previous bike’s torque began falling as soon as it peaked at about 3,500 rpm, whereas the new bike peaks at about the same engine speed but maintains maximum torque all the way to 5,000 rpm before dropping off. The engine redlines at 7,000 rpm and it pulls hard until it bumps off the limiter. The gearbox has gained a cog, now numbering six.
The Rocket 3 now has lean-sensing ABS and traction control, and four ride modes (Rain, Road, Sport and Rider-configurable), selectable via a dedicated switch on the left-hand switch pod.
A new TFT instrument panel is configurable, and features a central round display flanked by two curved columns that show various bits of info. It’s compact and the side displays are small, which might be a pain to see for the over-40 crowd, but it’s intuitively laid out and angle-adjustable to reduce glare.
The display is also the focal point of the Rocket’s new smartphone connectivity. You can connect your Android or Apple device via Bluetooth, and use the bike’s switchgear to operate various phone functions. A headset can also connect via Bluetooth, and you can get Google-enabled turn-by-turn navigational prompts on the screen, using your phone’s GPS. This smartphone connectivity requires the My Triumph app, but tightwads need not fret: it’s a free download.
Also new is an integrated GoPro control system, which uses Bluetooth to enable control of your GoPro camera through the bike’s display using the handlebar switches. A GoPro was mounted to my test bike, but the bikes I rode were pre-production models and the system wasn’t enabled.
LED lighting, keyless ignition, hill-hold function and cruise control are standard, and heated grips are standard on the GT. A USB port is mounted inside a watertight compartment located under the seat.
On a diet
The aluminum frame is entirely new, smaller, and more rigid. The frame, engine and other major components have been lightened considerably, and the Rocket 3 has lost more than 40 kg (at least 88 lb.). A 47 mm inverted fork is adjustable for compression and rebound damping, and the single shock is fully adjustable; components are provided by Showa. Supersport-spec brakes are by Brembo, with twin 320-mm discs up front and a 300 mm disc in the rear; uniquely on the Rocket 3, all calipers are mounted radially, even the rear.
A long, cast tube contains the drive shaft and forms the single-sided swingarm. Wheels are 17- and 16-inches front and rear respectively, and Avon developed the fat 150/80 and 240/50 Cobra Chrome tires specifically for the Rocket 3.
Average claimed fuel consumption is 7.3L/100 km, though I highly doubt I came anywhere near that number during the test ride.
This Rocket rocks!
I came to this launch with some expectations. The Rocker 3’s power was a given, since the huge torque was already a commanding feature on the previous model. What I anticipated was an improved Rocket 3 that would exhibit better handling than its predecessor, while still falling into the category of respectable — for what it was. Man, did I ever underestimate what the people at the Hinckley factory were capable of achieving. Well, you can drop the qualifier, because this thing rocks!
Forty kilos makes a big difference in the way the Rocket 3 feels just lifting it off the side stand, which requires little effort. Claimed dry weight for the R is 291 kg (an extra 3kg for the GT), putting my estimate for a bike that’s full of fuel and ready to ride at about 310 kg, but the weight is well managed and low.
When the key fob is within range, flipping the kill switch turns the ignition on, and the same switch then works the starter. When the Rocket 3 fires up it sounds imposing, but not threatening. It has a Triumph triple’s distinctive drone, only much, much deeper. Things somehow change once you get rolling, and the Rocket 3 exudes an almost industrial presence. It sounds and feels mechanical, and while relatively smooth, it transfers enough engine vibes through the chassis to make you feel all of the 2.5 litres of air the engine gulps down with every two revolutions.
Charging through the corners
Heading northeast out of our hotel on the western side of the island, I tailed Triumph’s lead rider, who is a bona fide track instructor in the UK. I’ve ridden with him before, so he wicked it up to a pace that would make a sport bike rider question our sanity. And this is where the Rocket 3 blew my mind. I thought this bike would need to be babied into corners, and would respond better to a gentle, reserved approach to twisties.
Instead, I found myself charging into corners hard, jamming on the Brembos and trail-braking deep towards the apex. The bike responds with remarkable stability, exhibiting not even a touch of chassis flex. Steering is surprisingly neutral, especially considering the bike’s length and the width of its tires. Steering is more neutral than on the Ducati Diavel, which also handles exceptionally well but has a slight tendency to resist leaning.
Cornering clearance is generous, with the footpeg feelers touching pavement only at ambitious lean angles. Clearance seems about the same on both the GT and the R, though the latter bike’s more aggressive riding position is more conducive to riding the Rocket 3 like a sport bike. The Rocket 3 also obediently performs mid-turn corrections, easily allowing a tighter line if needed. It is surprisingly forgiving, and even mid-turn application of the brakes doesn’t upset the chassis. This is not how I was expecting a big power cruiser to behave.
Hammering up the straight
Powering out of corners is a big part of the Rocket’s appeal, especially since the huge torque combines with the grip from the fat rear tire to blast you to the next bend. Crank the throttle wide open in second gear while in Sport mode and bike yanks on your arms as if it’s trying to escape from beneath you. Twist the throttle to its stop in fifth gear and it does the same, albeit at a higher speed. And if you get a little overzealous with the throttle, the traction control kicks in seamlessly to keep you in check.
Even in Sport mode there’s no abruptness in throttle response, though I did prefer the softer Road mode when riding sedately through town. Shifting is short and light, and the Rocket 3 doesn’t really care which gear you choose.
Since the engine doesn’t scream to stratospheric revs, speed is deceptively masked, and you’re only reminded of your velocity when it’s time to slow for a turn. The brakes are very effective at slowing the beast, with only mild fade detected on long downhill sections — and I’m talking after abusively hard braking as I tried to emulate Rossi in riding chaps.
The bike’s only notable handling peculiarity is something I haven’t felt on a motorcycle in a long time: Drive shaft jacking. Without assistance, like added pivot points and stabilizing links, shaft-driven motorcycles have a tendency to jack up in the rear when on the gas, and squat when shutting it. Triumph manages this through chassis geometry by using a long drive shaft inside a long swingarm, which reduces the drive shaft’s leverage on the suspension. However, the engine’s huge torque still tries to twist the shaft’s pinion gear up the ring gear; on the Rocket 3, this doesn’t really jack up the rear end when getting hard on the gas, but rather reduces the suspension’s ability to absorb bumps. This harshens the ride, but again, only when hard on the throttle, and more so in the lower gears.
Aside from that, the suspension is comfortably compliant, yet provides wallow-free control at an elevated pace on winding roads.
The 2020 Triumph Rocket 3 is an anomaly among motorcycles; it feels like you’re riding an engine that handles. It does that exceptionally well (no qualifier here), with an excellent chassis, a torque monster of an engine, distinctive sound, and it looks quite dashing, too. Its biggest-engine-in-a-bike status might lead you to believe the Rocket 3 is more of a novelty than a proper motorcycle, but believe me, it’s the real deal.
Key Specs: 2020 Triumph Rocket 3 R/GT
Engine: 2,458 cc inline-triple, liquid cooled
Curb weight: NA (dry 291 kg/294 kg)
Power: 165 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 163 lb.-ft. @ 4,000 rpm
Rake/Trail: 27.9°/134.9 mm
Wheelbase: 1,677 mm
Seat height: 773/750 mm
Brakes: Front: two 320 mm discs, four-piston radial-mount calipers Rear: 300 mm disc, four-piston radial-mount caliper
Front suspension: 47 mm inverted fork adjustable for compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Single shock adjustable for compression and rebound damping, and preload
Tires: 150/80ZR17 front; 240/50ZR16 rear
Fuel capacity: 18 litres