During the August 3rd launch of the new Indian Chiefs in Sturgis, Steve Menneto, Vice President of Polaris Motorcycles, declared “Tonight, America’s number one motorcycle company is going to crack the throttle…” As promised I cracked it for you, successively riding the 3 Indian Chief models on the gorgeous twisted roads of the Black Hills and along the very long stretches of the Dakota plain.
Are 325 miles of riding on very different terrains enough to evaluate 3 brand new machines using the same powerplant? I think so. And if that isn’t enough, I asked my fellow journalists who also experienced a first ride and those among you who participated in demo rides in Sturgis what they thought of the brand new Indian Classic, Vintage, and Chieftain. Except for tiny variations of opinion on different aspects of each model, they all expressed full agreement that Polaris, in record time of 27 months since acquisition of the Indian brand, produced 3 exceptional machines, inside and out.
If you love the different Chiefs of pre-1953, and depending on your riding needs and style, you will probably love at least one of the new models if not all. If the Chief is not what you expected to be released as the first new Indian models by Polaris, be patient. As mentioned last week in my interview of Polaris Director of Industrial Design Greg Brew, other Indian platforms and models are in the works…
After attentively inspecting all 3 models kept secretly in a Rapid City warehouse where only invited members of the press had access, and having a personal preference for “naked” motorcycles, the Classic was my first choice to experience the power and sound of the already highly acclaimed Thunder Stroke 111. Although the 1st part of the ride was in group in direction of the Black Hills to end up in Sturgis with no possibility to ask the engine to give it all, it was undeniable that this motor, forged from key heritage visual elements with modern technology, is not only beautiful but extremely strong and probably the smoothest mass produced v-twin engine I have experienced. A feeling that I will get all the time, at all speeds, in all types of accelerations. Vibrations are present, never overwhelming, disappearing as you gear up. Although this first test ride was done with a temperature in the 90’s F, the 49-degree air cooled, 119 ft-lbs of torque motor never produced any uncomfortable heat even when cruising at low speed or stopped in traffic.
Although I had to request a clutch adjustment before leaving Rapid City (not a big deal, I was riding a pre-production Classic), brilliant engineering doesn’t stop at the engine. Looking for tranny neutral never failed, shifting up or down was fast, precise with just enough “clunk” feel to tell you where you stand without getting annoying. Sound from the true dual exhaust is absolutely unique, making everybody know that you are riding an Indian, both grunty and as “melodious” I have ever heard from a v-twin machine. While riding down to the tiny Black Hills mountain town of Nemo I had to jump on my brakes a couple of times to avoid bikers surprised by some curves and finding themselves in the wrong lane. ABS braking performed exactly as it should, adding confidence to my ride. It’s only before entering Sturgis that I g0t to play a little bit with the handlebar switches, which were correctly placed and within easy reach. Cruising on a Lazelle street where traffic was still somewhat fluid, heads were turning from both sides reminding me that I am riding a brand new bike that very few have seen on down the street. Passing by the Harley-Davidson display, 3 executives give me the thumb up. How cool is that? Parked at the Indian display to go for lunch, I spent time reviewing all the Classic features, trying to remember them for this report. They are: keyless ignition, genuine leather saddle, cruise control, throttle by wire, all LED’s lights including the front fender bonnet, high quality chrome laced spoke wheels, brake caliper covers, cast aluminum frame with integrated air intake, lots of chrome and much more.
2014 Indian Chief Vintage (starting MSRP: $20,999)
Wanting to experience this powerful cruiser where speed would be less controlled, with my personal photographer riding a Chief vintage we escaped Sturgis via highway 34. Past the Full Throttle and the Buffalo Chip campground, the road is almost flat in direction of Pierre, capital of South Dakota. We played cruising and speeding, exchanged opinions, agreeing that the Thunder Stroke 111 remains smooth whatever you request from it. Then, impatient to live another Chief experience, we decided to switch bikes, me riding the Vintage to evaluate its windshield ability to protect me from the strong Dakota plain winds.
Giving ample time for all bikers present at our pit stop to take pictures of our two Chiefs, I played with the Vintage soft-sided leather bags’ quick release system. It takes just a few seconds to remove them when you don’t need them. Same deal for the quick release windshield, typical of what is offered by other brands for fast installation and removal, although I would have wished its bracket architecture to be a little bit fancier. If you like handcrafted seat and bags with leather fringes reminiscent of iconic old Indian styling, the Vintage is for you. Bags and seat seemed to attract all hands around us, touching them to evaluate the leather quality, which is very high. The Vintage features the same premium standard features as the Classic, and sports the same iconic design elements like valanced fenders (with chrome vintage badge on both sides), laced wheels, whitewall tires, tank-mounted instrument cluster, and extensive chrome finishes throughout.
Back on the road, we made a 90-degree turn from highway 34 to interstate 90 in Direction of Rapid City. We passed many Harley riders pointing at us surprised to see 2 new Indians flying by. Some, ladies riding in the back included, giving us thumbs up, asking how they ride and finding pleasure in grouping with us for the remaining miles to their final destination. Being 6 ft tall, in upright position at highway speed, I don’t have any issue with wind buffeting around my head and body. Except some wind resistance due to the soft bags (no whistling), the Chief Vintage behaves exactly like its brother, the Classic. After 6 hours in the saddle and while dismounting the Vintage, I felt a little bit numb in the back. The saddle, I asked to the Indian technician present at the warehouse where our bikes are kept and maintained. Yes, he sid, reminding me that the Chiefs we were riding are pre-production and that the production saddles of these 2 models have already been changed with a more forward position, closer to the bars, like on the Chieftain.
At launch, nobody was expecting the hard bag Chieftain, the Indian model featuring a motorcycle industry first, a fork-mounted 4-inch adjustable power-activated windshield fitted in a fairing with integrated driving lights. A bold and very unique fairing design inspired by art-deco lines from the past and integrating the best of today’s technology: high-output audio system (pumping100 watts of audio through two speakers), featuring integrated Bluetooth® smartphone connectivity, a tire pressure monitoring system. remote bag locks and very smart quick-release anchors. Fairing is such a unique bold design that it surprises first, letting you wonder what to think about it, but definitively convincing you as you spend more time looking at it and discovering the technological prowess that was required to make the windshield function flawlessly when adjusting both height and angle.
Fairing mounted instrument cluster features electronic speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge with odometer, dual tripmeters with distance and time, instantaneous and average fuel economy; fuel range; real-time clock; ambient air temperature; gear position display; front and rear tire pressure; engine hours of operation; engine oil life percentage; average speed; battery voltage; radio information display; vehicle trouble code readout; heated grip level (if heated grips installed); and 15 LED indicators, cruise control enabled, cruise control set, neutral, high beam, turn signal, ABS, check engine, low tire pressure, battery, low fuel, security system, low engine oil pressure and MPH or km/h unit designation. What else do you need?
Impatient to test the Chieftain, I started it the same way I did it for the Classic and the Vintage. A key fob that you keep on the bike or on you replaces the traditional key. As long as your key fob is on the bike or on you within close proximity to your bike, you turn on the ignition by depressing a central button on the dash or engage the electrical system by pushing the traditional handlebar mounted start button once, then you press it again to crank the engine. Rake of the cast aluminum frame is 2-degree less than for the 2 other Chief models, creating a shorter wheelbase allowing easier turns with better tracking and leaning angles. In high position, at highway speed, the 2 vents at the bottom of the windshield do a perfect job at limiting wind pressure. At cruising speed, windshield lowered, these 2 vents disappear, recessed inside the fairing, improving the overall fairing aesthetic.
The Chieftain offer easy riding, is very stable, feels lighter to handle than many baggers I have ridden. During tight curves, it’s almost impossible to be betrayed by frame and floorboards clearance. The pneumatic single rear shock with 4.49″ of travel coupled with a very well designed and contoured leather seat makes your ride extremely comfortable. It surprised me a little bit that the Thunder Stroke 111 motor looks visually so appropriate sitting inside a tourer hard bagger model, but it does. Although I rode it only for 75 miles, I have no doubt that the Chieftain is going to be a very strong contender for all those looking to mix beautiful styling, strong power, plush sitting, and all gizmos required for communication and entertainment during weekend evasions or multi-days of saddle time.
With the launch of the 3 all-new Indian Chiefs, the fight to take market share from Harley-Davidson, here in North America and abroad, is heating up quickly. Indian is a brand with strong international brand equity, and Polaris just proved its ability at competing in the heavy cruiser market with great design, technological innovation and got significant capital to achieve its goals. It’s now Harley-Davidson’s turn to release its 2014 year models. Fair competition is a condition of progress and always a strong positive for consumers. Today, you have one more American brand choice and 3 more very cool models, resulting in more good looking, more reliable and safer bikes on the road. All conditions to attract more people to the sport of motorcycling. (Photography copyright Barry Hathaway, Tom Riles, Onno Wieringa)