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Triumph Rocket III Touring: Finding the Groove (Review)

Various attempts at transforming the hotrod Rocket III into a long-haul machine have been met with only lukewarm enthusiasm. But, the new-for-2008 Rocket III Touring has been designed from the ground-up to challenge the touring cruiser category.

With a tip o’ the hat to Dubya’s daddy, a ”kinder, gentler” power cruiser is not necessarily what Triumph aimed for in the awkwardly-named Rocket III Touring. The goal during its three-year development period was to extract the essential elements of the robust Rocket III—first introduced in 2004 as a 2300cc hotrod—then redraw the platform as “the ultimate touring cruiser,” pitched in the hardshell class against bikes such as Yamaha’s Royal Star Tour Deluxe.

To get there, Triumph fiddled with the power curve, constructed a wholly new chassis and drastically shrunk tire fitment, though wide, thick, heavy rear tires are now de rigeur styling points in the power cruiser category. The fat tire craze evolved from the custom scene where even 300-section rears are no longer considered outlandish nor even especially spectacular. What has happened though is that pro custom builders have influenced the designs and wheel choices of front-line manufacturers from Suzuki, in its Boulevard M109R, to Victory, and the 250mm-clad Vegas Jackpot, and even normally aloof Harley-Davidson with its 240mm-equipped Softail Rocker.

Cutting across the grain, Triumph yanked the Rocket III’s massive 240 rear and replaced it with the more nimble 180/70 R16 Bridgestone Exedra, mounted on a handsome 25-spoke wheel. This accomplished at least two things: it made room for hardshell bags and, more vitally, refocused the big power cruiser’s ride quality. Jettisoned too, was the original 100/90 R19 in favour of a 150/80 R16, also a Bridgestone.
The rubber revision was a purposeful act. With the smaller rear, handling through corners would become a sharper, more precise exercise, while the front would offer neutral steering, especially at low-speed maneuvers. This was intended to boost rider confidence as the Rocket III developed into a full-fledged tourer complete with all the requisite trappings for two-up travel.

“Less Meat, More Mobility” might be more to the point than time-worn quotes from former presidents, but perhaps you can see why reporters don’t write ad copy. And the allusion stands up for only so long. True, there’s less rubber, but the 2008 Rocket III Touring is also heavier by a fair margin. Registering 798 lbs. (362 kg) on Triumph’s spec sheet, it outweighs both the standard Rocket III and last year’s Classic version by 94 lbs. (42 kg). Neither are lightweights of course, but the spread between them and the dedicated Touring model is thought-provoking. Moreover, the 12-valve triple has gone through a retuning process, which is now accepted as manufacturer-speak when actual horsepower numbers drop as part of an upgrade package. The standard Rocket III is renown for its 142 brake horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 147 ft/lbs. torque at 2,500 rpm. The Rocket III Touring cranks out a claimed 154 ft/lbs. torque at 2,000 rpm, but “only” 107 bhp at 5,400 rpm. The obvious intent was to make a more compliant machine with the majority of its power arriving at points most commonly associated with the merry cruiser rider—down low, and in big bunches. So, even factoring in the weight gain, there’s little to criticize in terms of sheer street performance. From a user perspective, the Touring’s engine is a ready companion piece to the job description: even fully loaded the R3 Touring accelerates briskly and with liquid roll-ons in top gear. The bike was introduced by Triumph during a press event in central Texas in late-October. Part of that included a 200-mile romp through the state’s famed Hill Country—a rolling ranch-dotted region defined by limestone outcrops, creek-bound bends and a system of gently curving secondary roads. Some, not so gently curving.
In this environment, the new model was hardly noticeable. This is meant to be complimentary, though when I said as much to a representative from the Triumph factory, he looked bemused. I could almost see his thought processes at work: “What does this Canadian fellow mean?”

A proper touring cruiser, in my view, should leave both rider and passenger free to enjoy the meditations of their journey, rather than tending to the needs of the bike’s operations and its relative peculiarities. The Rocket III Touring offers that possibility with all-day comfort from the accessory suite and engine power bursts that come and go on demand—literally snapping to attention regardless of gear or throttle position. The context here is my own experience with the bike. I have a passion for historic ranch lands and the Hill Country, centered by the town of Bandera, (“The Cowboy Capital of the World”), is the ultimate in that flavour. Around every corner, seemingly, something would catch my eye, momentarily distracting me from the task at hand. If I allowed revs to taper down, a simple twist of the wrist would bring the engine back to cruising speed without lag, lurch or hesitation. A slight prod of the lever moves the very crisp transmission into one of five gear selections—none of which have been changed in ratio from the standard Rocket III.

The handling delivered as promised as well; a bit of light pressure on the bars would steer the wheel back on line if I contorted my body to catch a fleeting glimpse of some rustic ruin collapsed in a stand of mesquite. This capability translates well in narrow-road turnaround situations where timing and confidence are critical to a successful maneuver. At this point, it would be easier to list the chassis changes Triumph hasn’t made, rather than vice-versa: the rear light and mirrors. Aside from those items, everything else has been designed, styled and engineered specifically for the Rocket III Touring which, incidentally, does not replace the travel-oriented Rocket III Classic, but acts only to augment Triumph’s 2008 cruiser line.

A redesigned tube steel frame and twin-sided steel swingarm housing the drive shaft preside over a whole inventory of “all-new” components engineered to improve mobility in the touring sense of the word. The steering geometry offers the same rake (32 degrees) but there’s slightly less trail for stability’s sake.

Shrouded 43mm Kayaba forks at the front, and spring twin rear shocks with five-way preload adjustability comprise the new touring suspension system, which is intended to be “supple and controlled.” Taken as a whole, the steering offers superb leverage through 35.2-in. (893mm) end-weighted handlebars while the road soaks through the wheels and suspension as gentle buffeting even in pot-holed sections where softly-sprung bikes can wallow and strike harshly when they finally bottom.

With optional gel padding for the passenger, the height of the new seat drops a tad to 28.9 inches for the rider, who is sheltered by a quick-release “look-over” windscreen. There are two options available to the standard screen: a Roadster and Boulevard Peak version.
Also of the quick-detach variety are the coloured matched 10-gallon (39-litre) hardshell panniers that open, close and mate to the vehicle agreeably enough, but don’t actually offer as much cargo room as they might appear to do. A full-face helmet, for example, will not fit.
Rounding out the ergonomics are all-new hand and foot controls with a fully adjustable heel/toe shifter and chromed teardrop footboards featuring pivot pins, rubber bumpstops and cornering wear plates. The passenger is also the recipient of this floorboard treatment.
Visually, the Rocket III Touring seems sleeker than its stablemate. This likely stems somewhat from the new fuel tank which has greater volume (5.9 vs. 5.3 American gallons) but a more streamlined profile. Mounted on top of the seamless fuel tank is a large-faced speedometer with an integrated analogue fuel gauge. The switchgear includes an instrument scroll button to access the clock, trip and fuel range functions on the speedometer’s display window.

Listing for $19,999 MSRP in single-tone livery or $20,299 in the two-tone scheme, the Rocket III Touring is available in four different colour variations: jet black with silver piping; jet black/New England white; jet black/tornado red; and eclipse blue on azure blue.
The list of available factory accessories runs to 70 items, ranging between $19.99 (GPS connector kit) and $499.99 (quick release Roadster screen). The majority are of the chrome decorative variety, but there are performance items as well, such as accessory mufflers ($499.99).
Will the Rocket III Touring redefine the category? No, but it offers full value by doing nothing wrong.

By John CampbellCanadian Biker

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