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Common Tread

2020 Triumph Rocket 3 R and GT first ride review

Nov 20, 2019

When Lance offered me a free trip to the Canary Islands for the launch of the 2020 Triumph Rocket 3, I suffered a quick relapse of "impostor syndrome." I hadn’t ridden a Rocket 3 since I compared the very first production model to Yamaha’s V-Max way back in 2004, for Motorcyclist. It was so long ago, the magazine doesn’t even exist anymore.

I really needn’t have worried. It turns out I’m sort of current on the model. In the 15 years since I last rode it, the Rocket 3 has changed but little, until now.

In the pre-ride press conference, Stuart Wood, Triumph’s chief engineer told us, “The original Rocket 3 had the biggest motor in any production motorcycle but we wanted more, because…” His voice trailed off for a moment as he searched for a reason, then he said, “Because you just do. You just want more.”

Triumph Rocket 3 engine
You have to start with the three-cylinder engine: 2.5 liters of displacement, hydroformed exhaust headers and the most torque in the business. Triumph photo.

Indeed, for 2020 the Rocket 3 has an even larger displacement of 2,458 cc, but the bigger stories may be that it’s also much lighter and now has a comprehensively updated electronics suite.

It’s a completely new machine. The entire rolling chassis has been redesigned from a blank sheet for improved handling. That’s important, because most of the roads in the Canary Islands have a jagged volcanic rock face on one side and a 500-foot drop to equally jagged boulders on the other. I counted on Triumph’s engineering team to help me ensure that the "launch" part of this new model launch was only a figure of speech.

riding the 2020 Triumph Rocket 3 R
It may be a Rocket, but it won't fly. It may be a press launch, but you don't want to launch it over a Canary Islands cliff. Power needs control. Triumph photo.

I admit that I was surprised Triumph launched a new Rocket 3 at all. The original seemed like a good idea at the time; when I wrote about it in 2004, I noted that the lads at Hinckley had created a halo model to “…give customers (especially Americans) what we want: swaggering, Harley-belittling size.”

But I wrote that in a pre-Great Recession world. I doubt if I saw even a handful of Rocket 3s over the past riding season in Kansas City. Meanwhile, Harley’s latest halo model is electric, and some of the buzziest bikes it showed at EICMA were actually bicycles.

2020 Triumph Rocket 3 R
The 2020 Triumph Rocket 3 R will be available in Phantom Black or this Korosi Red version. Triumph photo.

I remembered the original Rocket 3 as a cartoonish muscle cruiser that tipped the scales (yes, back then I actually weighed them) at over 800 pounds. Is there really a market for those things anymore, even if it’s much improved? Triumph seems to be hedging its bets, by simultaneously introducing a GT version with forward controls and an R version with mid controls — a feature that, to my mind at least, means the latter model is not a cruiser at all.

2020 Triumph Rocket 3 GT
The GT version of the Rocket 3 will be available in this Silver Ice and Storm Grey color combination or in Phantom Black. The GT has a flyscreen, backrest and forward controls. Triumph photo.

The GT and R models will carry MSRPs of $22,600 and $21,900, respectively — and since the new mill generates 163 foot-pounds of torque, respect is due. I’m honestly not sure what, if anything, you’d cross-shop with the new Rocket 3, though salesmen at competing dealers would offer up a few models.

Triumph Rocket 3 competitors
Model Displacement (cc)/configuration Last major update MSRP
Yamaha V-Max 1,679/V-four 2008 $17,999
Ducati Diavel 1,262/V-twin 2019 $20,245
H-D FXDR 114 1,868/V-twin 2019 $21,349
BMW K1600B 1,649/inline six 2017 $20,095
Honda Valkyrie 1,832/flat six 2014 $17,999

The wide range of displacements and engine configurations in that admittedly arbitrary chart shows this is a very diverse category, if it even is a category.

Triumph Rocket 3 tank
The brushed metal tank strap is one of the many styling details on the Rocket 3. Triumph photo.

This new Rocket is not your dad’s old Space Shuttle

Of course, Triumph’s kept the same basic engine architecture; it’s still a longitudinally mounted vertical inline triple with a 120-degree crank, feeding power to a driveshaft rotating in the opposite direction (to minimize torque reaction).

Rocket 3 rear view
With a 240-section rear tire, the word "beefy" comes to mind. Triumph photo.
Any similarity with the old mill pretty much ends there, however. As noted, it’s bigger and more powerful. The displacement increase came thanks to larger bores; stroke’s actually been reduced somewhat, yielding a claimed 163 foot-pound torque plateau and 165 horsepower at 6,000 rpm on the way to a significantly higher 7,000 rpm redline.

In spite of all those pluses, there’s a minus: minus some weight, that is. Triumph now casts the crankcases in-house, which helped the engineering team cut over 20 pounds off the engine. More weight reduction came from ditching a full-length balance shaft; the new motor has a gear-driven balancer at each end of the crankshaft. That also allowed Triumph to improve overall engine packaging, so the new motor is larger in displacement, but physically smaller.

Rocket 3 front view
2020 Triumph Rocket 3 R. Triumph photo.
Of course, it runs cleaner. Wood told me that Triumph could tweak it even further if needed; the two injectors in each throttle body, for example, can be controlled independently but Triumph didn’t have to do that to exceed Euro 5 standards. Also noteworthy is its first major service interval: 10,000 miles.

In the old days, big torque figures presaged heavy clutch pulls, but Triumph has engineered a new "torque-assist" hydraulic clutch to minimize lever effort when the time comes to engage the all-new six-speed transmission (the previous one had only five speeds). And, far more advanced rider aids make things even easier with hill hold capability and an optional shift assist system that enables clutchless shifting up or down once the bike’s in motion. The electronics suite now includes four ride modes with lean-angle-sensitive traction control.

The rolling chassis is also all-new. The old frame had two steel tubes running over the engine; the new one has an alloy backbone that, judging from the looks of it, relies on the engine castings for a significant share of total stiffness. The old bike had twin shocks, in a concession to the old American cruiser market. The new one’s got a single-sided cast alloy swingarm.

The wheelbase is nearly identical, and the new bike has the same 32-degree fork angle, but Wood pointed out something to me that I hadn’t noticed in my own walk-around: the steering head angle is only 28 degrees. This difference is accounted for by upper and lower triple clamps, which have differing offsets. Trail is also reduced by a negative offset at the front axle.

Triumph Rocket 3 GT
2020 Triumph Rocket 3 GT in Phantom Black. Triumph photo.

Suspension is by Showa; the rear monoshock has a remote reservoir and is adjustable for preload, rebound, and compression. The 47 mm fork is adjustable for rebound and compression only. Brakes are by Brembo; monoblocks controlled by a cornering ABS system developed by Continental. The bike rolls on Avon Cobra Chrome tires; 150/80-17 front and 240/50-16 rear. Triumph was quite open about the choice of a 16-inch rear wheel being driven by designers, not engineers.

In the presentation, Triumph trumpeted a lot of styling and design touches, and modern conveniences to illustrate the care and attention that has gone into what the company describes as a flagship model. The pinstriping’s paint, not vinyl. They love their hydroformed, double-layer headers, and the way the passenger footpegs fold up out of sight when not needed. When I read about the disappearing footpegs, I thought it seemed like a wasteful touch, but when I saw them demonstrated, I had to admit they were pretty cool.

Disappearing footpegs
Want your passenger footpegs to disappear when you're not using them? Triumph obliges. Triumph photo.

Of course, the ignition’s keyless, and all the lights are now LEDs. And since it’s already 2020 for OEMs, there’s an app and connectivity, but again I had to admit the underseat phone tray with USB charging port seemed… useful.

Triumph Rocket 3 dash display
The 2020 Triumph Rocket 3 gets a new TFT display. Triumph photo.

The TFT dash will link to the rider’s smartphone and provide turn-by-turn navigation, and the ability to retrieve text messages — a feature that is thankfully available only when stopped. It’s all controlled from a "joystick" button on the left handgrip that might prove more intuitive than some other manufacturers’ systems. Electronic cruise control comes standard, as do heated grips on the GT model. (Warm hands are an option on the sportier R.)

Any of the components that differ between the two models — handlebars, seats, flyscreens, and footrests, for example — can be swapped over. And Triumph’s already got 50-some factory accessories, so there’s myriad permutations. The luggage includes black 20-liter panniers, a 12-liter tank bag, and nine-liter tail pack all made for Triumph by Givi (although the consensus among American journalists was that in our market, color-matched hard bags would have far greater appeal).

Riding the Triumph Rocket 3 on the Canary Islands
Riding the Triumph Rocket 3 R. Triumph photo.

Riding the Rocket on the Canary Islands

Triumph didn’t choose the launch location for my convenience, that’s for sure. I was in planes and airports for a full 24 hours in each direction, and was trashed the whole time. But, the Canary Islands are one of the most reliable places to hold a winter product launch and very convenient for European and British journalists (and Triumph staff) who can usually get direct flights.

The archipelago is an autonomous community of Spain, but it’s located hundreds of miles south of the Spanish mainland, at the latitude of southern Morocco. The rugged, volcanic landscape of the island we were on, Tenerife, rises to 12,000 feet, making it the highest point in Spain. As you might imagine, it’s a landscape that makes for good riding.

LED lights
LED headlights and turn signals. Triumph photo.

Triumph had both the mid-control R roadster and the feet-forward GT cruiser on hand. I was happy to be assigned an R model and not eager to follow Triumph’s advice, which was that we swap back and forth between bikes all day, because I usually hate that feet-first riding position.

Our route took us on smooth but surprisingly crowded roads that ranged from flowing bends to technical climbs, taking us from the Ritz-Carlton Abama resort on Tenerife’s southwest coast and north across Teide National Park, which is dominated by Pico del Teide, an active volcano that’s nearly 10,000 feet high.

My first impression came when I saddled up and put a foot down, missing the mid-control footpeg altogether. Even on the R model, my instinct is to want it still further back. As soon as I switched on the ignition, I found the new dash to be conspicuously legible, even though I was wearing polarized prescription sunglasses under my helmet.

We started off with a short highway transit that allowed me to shift up through the gears, experiencing a steady 70 mph in the top four gears. There is a buzz, felt mainly in the rider’s undercarriage, if revs climb over about 5,000. It’s not objectionable (some people pay good money for home devices made for this very purpose).

The gearbox is brilliant. Dipping the clutch to match revs on downshifts is not an effort, and clutchless upshifts were always quiet and positive. I quickly concluded that the optional shift assist is superfluous.

Triumph Rocket 3 handlebar
The wide handlebar provides the leverage needed to turn the Rocket 3. Triumph photo.

As we climbed to well over 7,000 feet, I realized that the combination of still-lazy geometry and substantial leverage from that wide, wide handlebar was confidence-inspiring in almost any bend, whether it was a 90 mph sweeper or a 20 mph hairpin. Triumph brags up their neutral handling, and the motorcycle I rode suggests that pride is justified.

I’m not a fast starter anymore; I never dragged anything on the R model, nor did I ever feel I was approaching the limits of the Avon Cobra Chrome tires; there always seems to be more cornering clearance, and tire shoulder, available should you need it. When I did decide to adjust speed in mid-corner, the Rocket 3 R handled some additional front brake with aplomb. I never felt either the ABS or TC kick in. (I’m fine with that.)

lefthand controls
Left-side switchgear for controlling the electronic settings. Triumph photo.

The motor, of course, still defines this motorcycle. The massive torque plateau allowed me to ride even technical sections with slow turns in third or fourth gears, which pull fine from speeds as slow as 20 mph. Many really big motors communicate the need for an upshift once torque starts to fall off. The old Rocket 3 certainly did, but the new one has a much more useful overrun.

So rather than catch a short upshift at the end of a long straight, it’s just as effective to let it rev out. Every straightaway ends, usually at a corner; when you come to that point on a Rocket 3 you don’t have to downshift, either. In some ways it feels like an electric motor, albeit one that produces a satisfying cacophony of burbles and pops when you shut the throttle.

Brembo brakes
There's a lot of weight to stop, but a lot of stopping power to do the job, thanks to the Brembo four-piston calipers both front and rear. Triumph photo.

The closest I ever came to really testing the Brembos and Continental’s ABS was when a tourist, probably from the UK, looked right and then stepped out into the road as I was approaching her at about 90. Luckily I had a split second to think, “Something about this doesn’t look right,” and was already slowing down. I braked and swerved towards the expanding part of the gap; thankfully she kept going in the direction she was headed. If she’d stopped and turned back I would, for sure, be able to report on Continental’s ABS.

As we descended the far side of the mountain, we entered a cloud bank that laid a damp layer of mist on the road. While it was not full wet conditions, it was nice to know the new bike has lean-angle-sensitive TC and ABS. The Avons were, again, confidence-inspiring. Most of the roads we rode were smooth, but that misty section also had a few bumps. The bike remained composed.

Funnily enough, one of the trip’s biggest revelations came towards the end. We had to refuel about 20 minutes from the hotel, and at the last minute I did arrange to borrow a GT model. The GT comes stock with a windscreen. It’s tiny but more than the R has to offer. The seat on the cruiser is also about an inch lower. Those two factors noticeably reduce windblast.

Those forward pegs (which can be adjusted about an inch fore and aft) actually felt pretty good. Although I’m not a cruiser guy, I can honestly say the Rocket 3 GT is the most competent feet-forward motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.

Lilya test-sits the Rocket 3
Lilya was passing by and asked to test-sit the Rocket 3. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
Were there any negatives? Sure. Any time I had to move it a foot or two, I realized that Triumph may have reduced the weight by 88 pounds, but it’s still a 700-pound beast, no matter how low they’ve managed to keep the c.g.

And at very slow speeds (for example doing many U-turns for photo passes) and especially on rough surfaces, the steering had a tendency to resist input, then suddenly flop over. I think that was a function of that 32-degree fork angle, which has a tendency to make steered mass flop over the front contact point.

Conclusions

Overall, the new Triumph Rocket 3 is much less of a cartoon brute than its progenitor, especially considering its spec sheet, which is excessive to the point of hubris.

In its price range — or quite a bit below its price — there are any number of motorcycles that do any number of things better; bikes that would have been even faster and more confidence-inspiring on my ride, or more capable of eating huge highway miles, or that offer better passenger comfort. But none of them come with the Rocket 3’s bragging rights: The biggest motor, producing the most torque, of any production motorcycle.

To be honest, it’s probably not for you. I asked Stuart Wood who he thought would buy the new one and, when pressed he speculated that maybe — just maybe — some Ducati Diavel owners might cross over. But the only answer he gave confidently was, people who already own an older Rocket 3.

riding the rocket
The Rocket 3 isn't for everyone, but if you get a chance at a demo ride, try it. Everyone should ride the rocket once, right? Triumph photo.

In spite of that, if you get a chance to take a Rocket 3 for a demo ride, you should. If only so some day, you can tell your friends, it’s a better motorcycle than it has any right to be.

2020 Triumph Rocket 3
Price (MSRP) $21,900 R; $22,600 GT
Engine type Liquid-cooled, inline triple
Displacement 2,458 cc
Bore x stroke 110.2 mm x 85.9 mm
Compression ratio 10.8:1
Torque/horsepower 163 foot/pounds @ 4,000 rpm; 165 @ 6,000 rpm
Transmission Six gears, shaft final drive
Front suspension 47 mm inverted Showa fork; adjustable rebound and compression damping
Rear suspension Showa fully adjustable shock, remote preload adjuster
Front brake Twin 320 mm discs, Brembo M4.30 Stylema four-piston radially mounted monoblock calipers, ABS
Rear brake Single 300 mm disc, Brembo M4.32 four-piston caliper, ABS
Tires front/rear 150/80R17; 240/50R16 Avon Cobra Chrome
Steering head angle/trail 27.9 degrees/5.3 inches
Wheelbase 66 inches
Seat height 30.4 inches
Tank capacity 4.8 U.S. gallons
Dry weight 641.5 pounds