The Great Musclebike Brawl

Style vs. Substance

In many ways the musclebike class is just coming of age. You can tell this by both the huge variance in approach by the manufacturers, as well as the number of bikes starting to appear in the field. Back in the old days, you had big fast bikes like the Intruder 1400 and the Valkyrie, that had questionable aesthetic appeal, while Harley was content to sit back and watch with their 50 horsepower Evolution engine. Today, not only do you have Harley stepping up with some real muscle, you also have some very forward-looking machines with drop-dead styling from the other manufacturers coming with some big guns as well.

Sport cruisers have been popping up and disappearing intermittently for years, choking on their own contradictions. Musclebikes though, harken back to the old American tradition of muscle cars, which seems to strike a chord a little more with the populace. Ironically most of these bikes are on a par horsepower-wise with most of the muscle cars of the 60's and especially in the gas crunch of the 70's. So much of what defined those machines was based on attitude. Sure there were expensive special edition models with horsepower in the 300-400 range that sold in very small numbers, but most of the pony cars (and other big v8s from that era) had numbers in the 100s... just like most of these bikes.

But it seems some things stay the same. While each possessing their own brand of muscular good looks, the musclebikes have a wide spread in power, as well as a variety of configurations to achieve it. The two newest bikes (VMAX and V-Rod) have actually somewhat similar approaches. They both have Vee-shaped motors with pipes on both sides, they're both liquid-cooled, and they both make power in a similar fashion, the difference is that the VMAX does everything bigger. Twice as many cylinders, better braking, and way more power.

The other two couldn't be more different. The Triumph Rocket III is big and bold, with the biggest motor in motorcycling at 2300cc, and easily the heaviest weight in this test. With gawdawful amounts of bottom-end torque and respectable horsepower numbers as well, the big inline triple would probably make a good engine in a compact car, which is exactly what it resembles. The Victory Hammer S on the other hand hearkens back to a day, not too many years ago, when muscle was defined strictly on attitude alone. It's a beautiful head-turning machine that looks the part, but makes do with a motor that pumps out horsepower in the mere double digits.

As none of these bikes are even remotely suited to long rides in the countryside (the VMAX's range is 90 miles if you're lucky, but only counting on 70 would be a lot safer), we stuck to urban riding, as well as highway and entertaining back roads to round it out.

Get your Motor Runnin'
Blasting through city streets, they are all in their element to some extent or another. Perhaps the least at ease is the Muscle. Harley's newest V-Rod has a nice, low seat height (as does Victory's Hammer S), and pegs aren't too far forward, but it's the long, long reach to the bars that ruins it for most. One would-be tester got off it after his first ride and never wanted to mount it again. We dubbed it the "monkey position," though we hear Harley prefers "clamshell." Unfortunately, unlike the other bikes which are equipped with traditional tube-type handlebars, a little more surgery is required to straighten out the Muscle's ergos with its sculpted aluminum bars (integrated with no risers) also hiding most of the wiring. The throttle throw is a touch on the long side, for a bike that likes to be revved it takes a couple twists of the throttle to get to the stop, which irritated everyone.

The H-D has a tall first gear, which is exacerbated by a slightly soft bottom end. Luckily, the motor spins up quickly into its midrange and only gets better from there. Suspension is decent at low city speeds as is handling, both compromised slightly by the 240-section radial out back, and it's bit of work to hustle around the confines spaces of an urban setting. The optional ABS comes in handy on occasion, and is mostly not intrusive, though it's not as good as the system on the VMAX.

Depending who you are, the VMAX may or may not be an ideal mount for urban explorations. Shorter riders have a bit of a reach to the ground, though the seat height is only just over 30" it's very wide across the middle, and the mid-mounted footpegs get in the way at a stop as well. At low speeds it seems to have very heavy steering, but this clears up with a little speed. Though torquey at all rpm, it's very docile in its lower ranges, and if short shifted behaves itself very well. A sharp growl from the pipes starting at about 4000 rpm lets you know what's to come...and to back off if you're not ready for it.

For the more aggressive rider (who either knows all the cops or isn't afraid to run from them) it's a little slice of nirvana. The 'MAX will light up the rear tire at any speed, and, if you do it right, it'll even loft the front end at the same time...not that we'd condone that sort of thing. The dual six-piston brakes are spectacular, both on initial bite as well as progressive feel.

Victory's Hammer S is perhaps best at profiling in the city, playing the part of the sexy musclebike to a tee. No bike in the test got the looks this one did. For a small range of rider sizes it was easily the most comfortable as well. Our smallest rider (at 5''7) had trouble reaching the in-set shifter and brake levers, as the motor and tank spread his legs so that he had to curve them back around to reach the controls. The taller riders noticed the weird positioning, but it was less of an issue. The hard edges on the seat also dug a little on some riders when stopped at a light. Very tall riders (6'3" and up) reported feeling cramped and trapped in the Hammer's one-position seat

The Victory's 6-speed transmission was extremely clunky and imprecise; finding neutral was sometimes a dance that went on a little too long. Even Harley's legendary clunk had nothing on the Hammer one rider compared the transmission to the one on his old Moto Guzzi...ouch. The suspension is the weak point for the bumpy roads and dips of in-town riding, as the gigantic 250-section rear tire (widest in the test) has trouble changing directions rapidly. Power is adequate and satisfying, but is dwarfed by the others in a direct comparison. Lastly, the lack of any sort of keyed fork lock seems out of place for the most expensive bike in the test... even if you spring for a padlock the hasp is hard to reach on the left side of the neck

The in-town winner was the Triumph, but alas they cheated. The only bike available for this test had $1700 worth of Triumph's own accessories on it including performance mufflers, a small flyscreen fairing, a gel solo seat, and some chrome doo-dads. That said, the additions brought this most economical bike in the test up to the realm of the others and it still came out marginally less expensive than any other bike here. The mufflers made a huge difference, sounding almost exactly like the musclecars these bikes emulate with a throaty roar that was unmistakable. With reasonable pullback bars, and moderately forward-placed pegs, the big bike fit everyone pretty well. With easily the torquiest engine off the stop it was hugely entertaining as well. The Rocket III is softly sprung and that works for it well in the city, bouncing along down the worst streets. The big 'ol Rocket III is a bit of a handful at any speed due to its great weight, but seems most at ease going fast while straight, and tiptoeing through turns, like you'd do in urban settings.

The big triple's shaft drive causes it to jump upwards when you twist the throttle, so much so that you can blip your way down the street bouncing up and down like a kid's toy. Not everyone was thrilled with this characteristic, but it was big dumb fun. Solid brakes bring the huge bike down from speed quickly, and a decent transmission pitches in as well. The only drama with the Triumph is of the riders own doing.

Head Out On the Highway
As we said before, the mileage ranges on these bikes (some more than others) aren't conducive to long-distance riding, but a quick blast down the highway is another story. On all but the Hammer, merging into fast-moving traffic from a dead stop has never been easier than on these bikes, but the VMAX takes the cake. Magazines overuse the term mind-bending acceleration, but nothing can touch the VMAX. A lightweight bike like most liter-class sportbikes will wheelie under hard acceleration, but the 'MAX just scrolls through its gears and you'll hit the triple digits way before you intend to. It doesn't even matter if you short shift or rev it out, speed just sneaks up on you. The sound from the big 1679cc V-four is like an angry symphony that just keeps getting better up the rev range. Once at Interstate velocities the Star leaves its rider hanging out in the breeze with little wind protection for your splayed legs and upright body. One rider commented that the VMAX would probably get far better fuel economy if there were an overdrive gear, as all the cogs are pretty tightly spaced leaving the bike revving somewhat high on the freeway... but that might just encourage people to go way, way too fast. On longer stints or stuck in traffic, the riding position can get old as there is absolutely no place else to put your feet but the pegs.

Victory sounds the wimpiest out no the open road, with valve train noises overtaking the exhaust note as the primary soundtrack. For most it is comfortable to settle into the seat for a haul, and even poking along in traffic is doable on this more relaxed machine. Some taller riders complained of the bars being too close, but that's an easy fix on this bike. While not possessing the instant acceleration of the others, it's a capable, comfortable ride

Getting out on the open road lets the Muscle get into the meat of its powerband above 5000 rpm. It actually makes power very much like the VMAX, with a tame bottom end giving way to an eye-opening midrange and top-end, there's just way less of it to go around on the Harley. Up in the loftier rpm, the noises coming from the two-sided low-slung pipes just gets sweeter as well, sounding very much like a twin sportbike on tilt, with intake noises to match. The engine is super smooth at high rpm and encourages the rider to twist it a little harder. The relatively leaned-forward position was hotly debated for highway riding, but it did catch less wind than the more upright VMAX and Rocket III, while the tall gearing made for much-improved fuel economy on the open road.

The Rocket loses some of its luster on the open road. Not that it's slow by any means, but massive bottom-end torque has less to do with highway riding and at the top the power is only good, not overwhelming. Nevertheless, with its upgraded gel solo seat and flyscreen as well as a reasonable riding position, it was perhaps best for a long haul, aided by the best range (and biggest tank) of the group. Softly sprung, it soaked all that the California highway system could throw at us. The louder pipes of our tester only annoyed some of us after droning for an hour or so, while others still thrilled to the triple's music.

Lookin' for Adventure
Hitting some twisty backroads brought a whole new set of challenges for our MuscleHeads. While we knew the big Triumph might be a handful in the twisties, we weren't quite prepared for just how interesting it would get. Big weight and soft suspension plus massive torque and driveline lash to match makes for interesting times when the roads got tighter; and that wasn't all. Bumps will upset it's mid-corner trajectory via the wide rear tire's massive contact patch. After some scary and frustrating moments for some of us (with some serious tip-toeing around the corners), we figured out that despite its massive torque, the bike liked to be revved in the twisties. The shaft effect would keep the suspension wound-up tight, increasing ground clearance (the Rocket needs it), and keeping it from freewheeling. The only drawback with this method is that the rider needed to really be gentle on the throttle to not upset the chassis. Needless to say, it was the least fun at backroad riding.

Only slightly better was the Hammer S. It did fine tooling around the twisties at a relaxed pace, but not enough to be entertaining like the rest of these bikes. It has decent ground clearance, but marginal brakes (the rear was downright bad) cut down on the fun.

While it has the wide powerband typical of a twin, in this company you had to tapdance on the suspect shifter to keep it in the powerband. Handling and suspension worked fairly well though, it only got a little upset by mid-corner bumps, and on smoother surfaces the suspension worked well with the rest of the chassis.

Predictably, the VMAX and V-Rod were clear favorites in the mountains and canyons. The VMAX pilot, like whomever was riding the Rocket, needed to control his right wrist, only much less so. In tighter stuff, the smart rider would stick to the lower rpm ranges, using the easy-to-control bottom end to pull out of the corners, which also kept the shaft effect to a minimum. At higher rpm, not only is the shaft effect more, but the tire has a propensity to spin at the corner exits if you're too heavy on the throttle. If left at around-town (factory) spec, the suspension is only marginal in canyon riding, bouncing around a bit too much and getting easily upset by mid-corner unevenness. However, a few clicks on the easy to reach adjusters rectifies all this in a hurry and it will rail corners like the overweight sportbike that it is. The problem is that if you leave it this way, its handling everywhere else gets way too harsh, also like a sportbike. We only managed to get the ABS to kick in a couple times with some stupid late-braking maneuvers, but in both cases it kicks in and out quickly as needed, which is a sight better than the H-D's system which is a bit more intrusive, hanging on for a little longer before giving control back.

The most satisfying ride in the canyons was the Muscle. It has a good wide, flat seat for sporty riding allowing the rider to move around quite a bit and put his weigh wherever it'll do the most good. Despite mostly unadjustable suspension it's as at home leaned over as hopping around town, with a nice, low center of gravity that makes it fly around corners like on rails. Unlike the VMAX, the V-Rod encourages you to twist the throttle and get up into its midrange sweet spot, as it does nothing weird, bumpy corners or no

It's only the supertight stuff that the Muscle will struggle with as its tall gearing will have you clicking into first occasionally, or slipping into neutral inadvertently. It's said that good handling is easier to achieve with a slow bike, and while this one is not slow, compared to the VMAX just about everything is.

...Or whatever comes our way
If you're in the market for a top-end Musclebike, you couldn't be looking at a better time. Depending on who you are, the choices are very different and just as clear.

For outright performance Star's newly redesigned VMAX can't be touched. Like some of our readers of the Decemeber issue complained, it is truly just a heavyweight sportbike with an upright riding position. Ironically, it lacks in some of the superficial ways musclebikes are traditionally judged. Unlike the others, it has only a moderately-sized rear tire, a conventional (albeit titanium oxide-coated) fork, and produced nowhere remotely near Detroit. In a way, to carry the musclecar reference a step farther, it's like one of Carrol Shelby's 1970's creations; it might have started out as a musclebike, but it's so much more in its current form.

On top of all that, even from a company known for making good-looking cruisers, the VMAX has a finished look to it, with every part (with the exception of the generic horn) looking like it was designed and planned out, right down to the license plate bracket and the top motor mount.

Unfortunately, it's also sold out for 2009. A limited number of units were produced, and perhaps Star was concerned with how a gas-guzzling, expensive motorcycle would be received these days, but maybe next year it'll be a slightly easier find. For now your choices might be limited to the other three and machines like Suzuki's M109, which was unavailable at press time.

Of the rest, the V-Rod Muscle edges to the front, as the only knock against it by even its most serious detractors was ergonomics. It's got the looks, the power, and the feel. Wanna know if you're going to like Harley? Sit on it at your local dealer. It's even good for a slightly less aggressive/experienced rider, as it has that softer bottom end hit that builds as you twist (and twist) the throttle. Its predictable handling and solid chassis somehow negates the effect of the 240-section radial out back, and for someone just stepping up to this class, it's the way to go.

We, the testers, talked a lot about who these bikes were built for. Cruiser riders might like the Hammer or V-Rod for their familiarity, while sportbike riders might prefer the VMAX (or possibly the Harley), a touring bike guy would probably get off on the Rocket III. Already used to dealing with a heavy bike, they'd probably like the gigantic torque and overall overblown Texas-sized muscle of the thing. In some ways, there is no bike in this test more deserving of the title musclebike. It's like the Hemi 'Cuda of the shootout and fully worthy of its name.

The Hammer S is the oldest bike in this test and it shows. Back when it was introduced, a musclebike could get by on pure attitude. Now it feels less substantial than the others we've included here. They all have their niche and things they do well, while the Victory succeeds only as a good motorcycle. It does most things reasonably well, but it just doesn't have the "x-factor" the others do. The fact that it's more expensive doesn't help its case any either. The $17,499 base Hammer saves you a grand, but the cool wheels and paint were what we liked most about the 'S.

BASE PRICE $17,199 $17,990 $15,399 $18,499
AS TESTED $18,254 paint, ABS $17,169 accessories
COLORS Black, Denim, Red, Silver Black Red, Black blue w/white
STANDARD WARRANTY two years, unlimited miles two years limited two years limited one year
TYPE Liquid-cooled, 60-deg., V-twin liquid-cooled 65-deg. V-four liquid-cooled inline triple air-cooled 50-deg V-twin
DISPLACEMENT,BORE X STROKE 1250cc, 105x72mm 1679cc, 90x66mm 2294cc 101.6x94.3mm 1731cc, 101x108mm
VALVE TRAIN DOHC 4-valves/cyl. DOHC 4-valves/cyl. DOHC 4valves /cyl. SOHC 4 valves/cyl.
COMPRESSION 11.5:1 11.3:1 8.7:1 9.4:1
TRANSMISSION 5-speed w/wet slipper clutch 5-speed w/wet slipper clutch 5-speed w/wet clutch 6-speed w/wet clutch
FINAL DRIVE Belt shaft shaft belt
OVERALL LENGTH 92.8" 94.3" 98.4" 93.1"
WHEELBASE 67" 66.9" 66.7" 65.7
WET WEIGHT 673 lbs. 700 lbs. 748 lbs. 669 lbs.
SEAT HEIGHT 26.7" 30.5" 29.1" 26.5"
RAKE/TRAIL 34-deg./ 5.6" 31 deg./5.6" 32 deg./148mm 32.7 deg./5.5"
WHEELS Cast 5-spoke cast 5-spoke cast alloy 5-spoke 9-spoke 3d cast alloy
FRONT TIRE 120/70-19 120/70-18 150/{{{80}}}-17 130/70-18
REAR TIRE {{{240}}}/40-18 {{{200}}}/50-18 240/50-16 250/40-18
FRONT BRAKE Dual semi-floating four-piston calipers with ABS Dual 320mm wave discs with Brembo six-piston calipers, Brembo radial pump master cylinder, and ABS Dual 320mm rotors with four-piston calipers Dual 300mm floating rotor with four-piston calipers
REAR BRAKE Single four-piston caliper 298mm wave rotor with single piston caliper 316mm rotor with two-piston caliper 300mm floating rotor with two-piston caliper
FRONT SUSPENSION Non-adjustable inverted telescopic 43mm fork Fully-adjustable 52mm telescopic cartridge fork with oxidized titanium coating with 4.7" travel 43mm inverted telescopic fork 43mm inverted cartridge fork with 5.1" travel
REAR SUSPENSION Dual preload adjustable shocks Single fully-adjustable shock Dual preload adjustable coil over damper shocks Single linkage-style shock with preload adjustable spring and 3.9" travel
FUEL CAPACITY 5 gal. 4 gal. 6.3 gal. 4.5 gal
INSTRUMENTS Tachometer, clock, dual tripmeters, fuel gauge with low fuel light and countdown meter Tachometer, clock, dual tripmeters, fuel gauge, temperature gauge, gear indicator and shift light Tachometer, and dual tripmeters Tachometer, and tripmeter
FUEL MILEAGE 27 mpg 20.5 mpg 25 mpg 33 mpg
AVERAGE RANGE 135 miles 82 miles 158 miles 149 miles
QUARTER-MILE ACCELERATION 12.11 sec. @ 111.9 mph 10.45 sec. @ 136.7 mph 11.59 sec. @ 114.95 mph 12.33 sec. @ 106.63 mph
60-80 MPH ACCELERATION 4.2 sec. 2.66 sec. 3.18 sec. 4.98 sec.
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 109 @ 7750 RPM 170 @ 8750 RPM 140 @ NA 79.9 @ 4550 RPM
MEASURED TORQUE 80.2 lb-ft @ 6250 rpm 109.9 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm 147 lb-ft @ NA 94.2 lb-ft @ 2800 rpm

Riding Positions

Orlando Belotti
5'7'', 145 lbs., 29" inseam
I thought that the VMAX was the winner hands down the first day, but as the miles piled up, I had doubts. If this is just a Power comparison, there is a clear winner in the VMAX (even if the Rocket III has nothing to be jealous of, it's not quite the same). The VMAX and the Rocket III are the most qualified (V-Rod and Hammer are totally different animals).

But as a cruiser, I don't know. The VMAX has no wind protection on the freeway, and the small tank, accentuated by poor gas mileage means frequent stops at the gas station. The Rocket III has that small fairing (aftermarket, and there's one available for the VMAX as well -BB), and a huge tank. Comfort is the same with an upright position and the softer suspension on both. Dialing in the suspension for more aggressive riding on the VMAX is easy, but takes away the comfort.

The Hammer just didn't fit a short guy like me, I had to reach my legs around and in to get to the controls. The bike was okay, but all the others had more going for them.

In the end, my personal favorite was the V-Rod Muscle, for the way it carves the corners and sweet motor. But, I understand that this comparison is not about canyon rides, so the VMAX ends up back on top.

Mark Downs
6'2", 214 lbs., 34" inseam
The VMAX made huge power that was useable, fun, and electric smooth throughout the powerband. When ridden in the higher RPM range the acceleration was just incredible. After studying the bike for a day or so it became apparent that Yamaha had put a lot of effort into making this machine look finished and not just thrown together. If I were to classify this bike I would call it a hooligan cruiser. As far as handling goes, it cornered very well at speed and had to be pushed hard to drag anything. Between that handling and power of this machine the smile per mile factor on this bike is huge and I would put one in my garage in a second.

The Triumph Rocket III is a big heavy girl that I found to be attractive in many ways. The Triumph had tons of torque and quite a bit of power as well so much so that you had to be very smooth on the throttle when cornering to keep from upsetting the suspension. It does take some effort however I found it to be a really fun ride. As far as comfort goes this big athletic girl was soft in all the right places, on the road and around town a very cushy ride. I really liked the look of this machine partially because it is so different and because it just seems to somehow work.

The Harley V-Rod and Victory Hammer finished well in back of those two, as they just didn't appeal as much to me.

The Muscle has some great power in the higher RPM range but really needs to have a quicker throttle put on so you don't have to grab two handfuls to make it really fly. The bike handled really well, but for me at 6'2'' I had to reach about 3" too far forward and put me into a gorilla position. When I held on with just my fingertips it felt much better. If this were fixed this bike would have been my second choice.

The Victory Hammer was a very clean looking bike that worked just ok. The transmission is way too clunky and the engine felt very basic; nothing special, just there. The bike handled alright, but I prefer a more refined ride. I did not hate this bike nor did I really like it.

Billy Bartels
6', 193 lbs., 33" inseam
I have a secret. I hated V-Max 1.0. A weak chassis coupled with that weird powerband and really crappy shaft effect, made for a very uneven ride. Not much would happen at the bottom of the powerband, and when it finally kicked in, it was all bad with the chassis twisting itself up and uncoiling. I'm sure its part of the "visceral thrill" the V Max junkies love, but it was not for me.

VMAX 2.0, on the other hand, is one of my favorite bikes of all time. It blends form, function, detail and attitude with that outrageous motor that starts out pulling hard and just goes insane after 6000 rpm. It solves the shaft issue for the most part, and it has the chassis and brakes to deal with that otherworldly motor.

In many ways the V-Rod Muscle is like VMAXlite, and its my first choice to take down a twisty road. With a wide, flat seat that easy to move around on, and good (but not overwhelming) power, it rails corners. And maybe it's my love of weirdo custom bikes, but the clamshell seating position didn't bother me much. Funny enough, for the first bike to actually be named "Muscle," it's more of a sport cruiser.

I had trouble deciding which bike should bring up the rear. On one hand, the Hammer is a nice bike. Comfortable for someone my size, good handling, etc. But it's also the most expensive bike here... and for what? On the other hand, the Rocket III is the epitome of a musclebike: big, powerful and rambunctious. However, I've got the same problem with it as I had with the first V-Max, it's simply too much work to ride. It's fun around town, but I had more fun on just about everything else.

Missing Pugilists
There are many bikes that could be considered contenders for this category, but the Suzuki M109 stands out as the one that might have done best here. In our past tests of the bike its shown itself to be a powerful, fun steed with few bad habits, and has the pedigree to fit right in with this crowd. We tried and failed to secure one in time for the test, and we know its presence would have been felt.

Other bikes that might have had a shot at the limelight include Star's original MuscleHead, the Warrior which has comparable power to the Hammer for thousands less. The Vulcan 2000 also fits the overblown vibe, but is more the heavyweight cruiser than a true MuscleBike. Or like a '70's Impala if you will.

"Musclebikes harken back to the old American tradition of muscle cars, which seems to strike a chord a little more with the populace.
Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle
Victory Hammer S
Triumph Rocket III
Star Vmax
"...none of these bikes are even remotely suited to long rides in the countryside...
Harley-Davidson V-Rod Muscle
Victory Hammer S
Triumph Rocket III
Star Vmax
The Triumph's 4-piston binders readily slow the big girl despite her size.
Though the ABS is not as refined as the VMAX, the Muscle's brakes were solid.
Big on power and sophistication (like the rest of the bike), the VMAX's dual radial 6-pistons were awesome.
Hammer's dual 4-piston calipers did the job but didn't impress.
Fat meat for all!
There isn't a tire under 200mm wide.
Most have beautiful swingarms with the Rocket's ugly shaft the exception.
V-Rod and VMAX again come up similiar with flat seats with bump stops. Hammer has a scooped-out cruiser-style seat , while the Rocket III's is big and squishy like the rest of the bike.
Suzuki M109R2
Star Warrior
Kawasaki Vulcan 2000