For those of us that have been riding motorcycles for a long time, it is easy to look back and see watershed moments in the industry. The Japanese movement into building serious inline fours. The rise, fall, and subsequent rise of the British motorcycle industry. The return to prominence of Italian marques. The steady German march into markets never before attempted. Each of these is easily pin pointed in time.
The American motorcycle industry, however, has been dominated by one company for over half a century. Many have tried competing head to head with H - D, and all have failed. Until now. I believe this is another watershed moment.
Indian motorcycles have managed to live on in the consciousness of American riders, despite the many underfunded attempts at reviving the brand by various holders of the name. Polaris Industries, a nearly $9 billion dollar concern, is now at the wheel, and has the financial muscle necessary to return Indian to prominence. Critics and skeptics will scoff, assuming that this effort will burn out like the ones that came before it. I believe they will be proven wrong.
The speed with which these machines went from idea to reality bears out its new parent company's resolve - the three machines on offer are clean sheet designs borrowing nothing from bikes that came before. From concept to production in two and a half years, an astonishing feat. Lots of time and effort was expended ensuring certain cues both in design and engineering would be present in the bikes that mark them indelidably with Indian "DNA", such as exhaust ports that face down, cylinder finning shapes, and fat, vertical pushrod tubes, among others. Make no mistake, though - although they may look like engines from years past, the 111 cubic inch (one cube larger than H - D's, Brandon noted) Thunder Stroke is a completely modern powertrain.
My test ride was aboard the Chieftain, Indian's flagship model. Approaching it from the front, I was struck by how the fork mounted fairing manages to look both retro, and modern, at the same time. Thankfully the Victory stylists were kept away, and both the headlamp and driving lamps are round, with a large chrome bezel around the headlamp. Integrated LED turn signals follow the shape of the bezel, which I felt offered a very pleasing look. Seeing the "War Bonnet" atop the front fender leaves no doubt about what you are walking up to.
Making my way around the right side, it became clear why Indian has featured it in all of the beauty shots. The deeply valanced front fender that covers the brake caliper follows the angle established by the engine's front cylinder. The Indian logo applied to the fuel tank looks to have been lifted straight from 1947. Side covers curve just behind the rear cylinder, with no need for exhaust pipe space, thanks to their down spout design. The saddle bags then draw your eye, with their large, chromed hinges, and nothing else to clutter up their appearance.
The left side is more of the same, with one unfortunate exception - the air box. Although finished nicely, it is exceptionally large, no doubt a nod to EPA mandated drive by noise limitations. Its large volume allows engineers to muffle the sound coming from the intake, which is no small amount to feed over 1.8 liters. The upside to this is exhaust note, of which more is allowable with reduced intake noise. I'm sure as I write this, aftermarket companies are already formulating their alternatives. One noticeable feature on the left side I noticed was the sculpted primary cover, which follows the motif of the rocker box covers. I found it to be a visual treat.
Climbing aboard the Chieftain and lifting it off the side stand, one thing was immediately apparent after doing the same on the Chief Vintage: a dramatically reduced steering head rake. The Chieftain's fork is pulled in to 25 degrees, vs. 29 degrees on the other models, and makes for a noticeably lighter feel, despite the fact it is actually heavier. The Chieftain is a fully instrumented machine, with the clocks set in easy view in the fairing. Modern gadgetry abounds in the LCD display set in the middle, providing the amenities modern touring riders demand these days.
Starting the engine is a keyless affair, utilising a transponder key fob. Push the button to power the ignition up, then press the starter button. The engine immediately settles into idle, with just enough vibration to know you are on a big displacement v - twin, but not so much as to set things like the mirrors to shaking. It should be noted the Thunder Stroke 111 is not rubber mounted, it is internally balanced. The burbling coming from the exhaust sounded just right to me.
After a solid sounding "thwack!" into first gear, I was off. Clutch pull is not super light, but manageable. Engagement is smooth and drama free. Tip in throttle response of the drive by wire system took me some time to get used to - it felt to me that it was completely linear off idle, which is not how they are normally tuned. After a couple of miles, I was acclimated to it. Because this bike was a pre-production demo unit, I suspect the programming for this could be changed for regular production models. Shifting action is as light as can be expected with gearbox components sized to handle the engine's massive torque output, 119 lb/ft at just 3000 RPM. Shifting was positive, although as Brandon mentioned, essentially optional. Just in case I lost count of the cogs, the LCD in the dash features a gear position indicator.
Fueling on my ride was flawless, with nary a hiccup regardless of engine load or speed. The engine is completely smooth, until a heavy load is applied to it. Only then can you tell that two coffee can sized pistons are pumping away beneath you. I found it to be an extremely satisfying and pleasant feel, superior to H - D's touring rigs, which is saying a lot. With so much torque on tap, the flow of power is effortless. To keep piston speed in check, redline is set relatively low, but in truth, you'll not be spending time bouncing the tachometer off it - it just isn't in this bike's mission statement.
Dynamically, I also really enjoyed this ride. Although the Chieftain is no lightweight, it carries that weight low, endowing it with a lighter feel than by rights it should have. The tightened steering geometry really pays a dividend once under way, without the ponderous feel some touring bikes exhibit at parking lot speeds. Seat height is low enough that flat footing while stopped was not an issue for me, definitely a consideration with a heavy bike. Handlebar bend, control placement, and foot board placement all fell naturally to hands and feet. I didn't put enough miles on to really evaluate the seat's comfort, other than to say it wasn't immediately uncomfortable. At low speed or highway speed, the Chieftain just feels solid.
Braking, thankfully, is well thought out. Front brake action initially is a little soft, but then bites in nicely. Rear brake feel is typical for bikes of this type, overly strong. I won't launch the tirade associated with that brake balance here, but suffice it to say the big Indian's brakes are up to the task of hauling it down from speed with confidence.
Overall, I was really impressed with the Chieftain, and hope to build on this impression with a longer, more in depth review. Thanks again to Sloan's Powersports in Murfreesboro, a long time friend to Nashville Riders, for yet another first class demo event.