(Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson brought me to Portland, Ore. to ride its new all-electric LiveWire motorcycle, as well as eat and stay free of charge.)
You never know what the weather is going to turn up in the Pacific Northwest in the middle of summer. As it happens, Portland was a bit warm and absolutely beautiful for the days I was in town. It was pretty close to perfect riding weather, a bit cool in the morning, warm by lunch time, and dry the whole trip. There were a few places where the overhanging trees and ambient humidity had conspired to leave a bit of wet streaked across the road, but nothing severe.
The route was chosen by HD to expose these motorcycles for what they are, starting in the heart of the city, heading out for the hills to the east of Portland to bomb around for a bit, and then saunter back into the city.
Riding dynamics under the microscope, I was able to observe bumper-to-bumper stoplight riding, and give it a bit of lean through some of the extra-urban environments. In all, it was about 113km of hard two-wheeled thrashin’. In other words, a good time.
I’ll admit to a slight nervousness when I first climbed aboard the good ship LiveWire. I’d heard horror stories about electric torque catching people off guard and ripping the rear wheel out from under its rider, or aggressive throttle wrist leading to an unintentional wheelie dumping rider off the back. I went the first few blocks with a bit of trepidation, but rapidly adjusted to this new sensation. “Damn,” I thought to myself, “this thing is easy street.”
You wouldn’t think of a 100+ horsepower streetfighter-style sport bike as being docile and friendly. It’s just one way that this bike shirks the norms. With a smooth and fluid delivery, the EV powertrain is a gem that proves its worth immediately. Click the ignition switch to on, retract the sidestand, and you’re ready to roll. There’s absolutely no drama.
When coming to a stop at the first traffic light a block down the road, I find myself dipping a toe at an imaginary shifter and reaching for an absent clutch lever. On the mean streets of distracted drivers and occasionally hellacious traffic, it’s refreshing to know you’re never in the wrong gear. Rear brake. Front brake. Throttle. That’s all you have to worry about. Which is great, because Harley thinks it’s likely that many LiveWire miles will be lived in cities.
It doesn’t take long to notice the sounds surrounding me. Stopped at a traffic light I can hear the conversations of pedestrians over on the footpath, and the bass hit of the music playing in the car next to me. We’re riding in a pack with four traditional Harleys—a lead rider on a big bagger and a trio of sweep riders on Sportsters at the back—and their staccato V-twin thumping is comparatively imprudent.
Once out on the back country roads, separated from the ICE bikes a bit, I notice more bird calls. And my own thoughts. I don’t like to be alone with those too long.
The LiveWire isn’t silent. It’s actually got quite a dynamic range of sounds. The most prominent sound is that of the drivetrain’s single spiral bevel gear whine. It’s still eerily quiet, however. Quiet enough that you can hear the belt drive, the tires, the brakes, even the shocks.
I asked a Harley engineer about the 90-degree bevel gear and belt-drive setup employed, and why it was preferable to a simple shaft-drive. The bevel gear was chosen to give the bike that Formula E sound, despite a slight parasitic drain. The belt drive is simply because it’s a Harley staple, having been equipped on the company’s bikes since the ‘80s. And why is the motor longitudinal instead of transverse? To make it an important visual piece of the bike’s design.
I also imagine that if the motor was turned transverse, the bottom of the bike would be much wider. With a longitudinal layout, Harley says the LiveWire’s layover angle is 45 degrees—more than any other HD product—before the foot pegs scrape. I didn’t have a float level on hand to prove that measurement correct, but it felt like plenty of angle to work with.
Point the bike in the direction you want to go and hammer down the throttle, you’re transported through time and space like you just hit a wormhole. It’s not so much the acceleration [with a 0-60 time in the 3-second range] that gets me, it’s the ease with which acceleration happens. There’s no pause to shift, no clutch, no lift, just building speed.
In road or sport modes the regenerative braking is functional, but doesn’t quite replicate the engine braking feel you’re used to on an ICE bike. In “range mode” the brake regen gets more aggro and gets a little bit closer. It’s a new sensation, but if used right, you can hop off the throttle and the bike will whoa perfectly into the corner without pedal or lever.
Ultimately, Harley could have made a recognisable riding experience with an EV drivetrain, but it decided instead to build something in a form factor that doesn’t pay much attention to heritage. It also rides in a decidedly un-Harley way.
The LiveWire is aluminium where the traditional Harleys are iron. It’s a philosophical change from the norm, and hopefully indicative that Harley is taking this bike seriously.
Harley-Davidson CEO Matthew Levatich was keen to harp on the theme that “We build riders” which appears to be a signal that the company is shifting its focus to a younger generation of riders.
As the global population trends toward urban living, Levatich says he wants to focus on meeting the needs of that demo. And electrification is apparently one of the ways to do that.
Harley bills the LiveWire as a halo electric product, and that many more EV models are coming, priced from $US1,000 ($1,426) on up to the LiveWire’s $US29,799 ($42,496). This bike, and the others on the way, are the backbone of its electric strategy. Levatich continued, “We aim to lead in the electrification of the sport.”
Editor's Note: There is currently no local pricing for the LiveWire, but it is expected to reach Australia and New Zealand in late 2020.
It’s astonishing to me that it wasn’t Honda or BMW that pushed mainstream motorcycle manufacturers into the electric sphere, but good ‘ol Americana Harley-Davidson that took that leap.
Whether it’s by necessity or by choice doesn’t really matter. If Harley clearly and consistently pushes forward with this strategy and it pays off — if it becomes more than just an expensive halo bike for early adopters — this gamble has the potential to be a product shift on the level of Iaccoca-era Chrysler. Harley has had quality products and failed to deliver before, but I genuinely hope this one succeeds.
My dad, who has had a Heritage Softail for over a decade and recently bought a Tri Glide Ultra, is the guy you see in your mind when you think Harley buyer. His response to the LiveWire? “Wow! I bet that is quick! I need to try one out.”
My barber, the tattooed punk rocker type of vintage Harley rider had a very different response. “Pass. Harley has gotten way off course with their new models. Trying to appeal to the younger generation that are not buying motorcycles at all. Stick with what you know, HD.”
The battery, or renewable energy storage system in HD parlance, has an impressive 15.5kWh worth of lithium ions onboard. That battery is good for 235km in the city, 113km on the highway, and 95-ish mixed. You might be able to stretch those numbers if you’re aggressive on the regen.
Then again, if you are hard on acceleration you could suck it dry of electrons in far less. Frequent 0-100 launches? Yeah, that’ll run things down.
LiveWire owners will have their options open when it comes to charging. Harley says most owners will probably treat their bike like a smart phone, plugging it in every night to recharge before using it as an urban/suburban commuter ride. For the ones who want to ride farther and longer, the LiveWire joins Energica in offering DC Fast Charge. You can shove one of those bad boys into the top tank and it’ll fill from zero to 80 per cent charge in 40 minutes, and up to 100 per cent in one hour, according to Harley.
Every one of the 150 “Phase One” Harley-Davidson dealerships to get the LiveWire had to install at least one DC Fast Charge station, send at least one of its master certified mechanics for LiveWire-specific maintenance training, and prep its salespeople to answer EV specific questions. As part of this package, LiveWire buyers will be entitled to free charges at all HD dealerships for the first two years.
In addition to the dealer network, Harley has tapped a partnership with Electrify America’s network of fast charge stations. Each LiveWire owner will get free charging up to 500 kilowatt-hours for the first two years of ownership. That equates to about 40 free charges from Electrify America. If you plan your trips right, you’re paying nothing to ride the thing for the first two years.
One of the things that currently plagues the world of EVs is weight. The LiveWire is hardly a lightweight motorcycle, tipping scales at 249kg ready to run. Sure, that’s not as light as a Triumph Speed Triple, or an Aprilia Tuono, but it carries its weight quite well. I never had a thought that the bike was too heavy or that the weight made it difficult to ride or transition through corners. In a vacuum, it’s a quite fun ride that speaks volumes for EV tech.
Harley-Davidson has finally released an official power rating, setting it at 105 horses and 39kg-ft from a 15,000 RPM permanent magnet synchronous motor with water jacket cooling.
Harley’s RESS battery is a pretty tricky unit. Because the battery has to be encased in a puncture-resistant case for crash safety reasons, it’s a pretty solid chunk of weight. Rather than hanging it off of a beefy trellis frame, Harley developed a cast aluminium wrapper that treats the battery unit as a kind of stressed member. It’s a stiff bike that feels super solid, allowing the suspension to do its thing.
Speaking of the suspension, you’ve got SHOWA 43 mm inverted forks up front with (mechanically) adjustable damping and rebound, and a fully adjustable SHOWA monoshock out back. In talking with the Harley engineers, my bike was set to its “comfort” setting, which seemed about right for the bumpy and chunky roads we were dealing with.
Harley offers a suspension calculator in the bike’s companion smartphone app where you can enter variables like rider weight to let you know where the suspension should be set for your needs. For the price of the LiveWire, I would have liked to see this kind of thing computer controlled and integrated into the bike’s ride mode settings.
Outside of the outstanding ride dynamics I’ve already discussed, there are a few totally awesome things to like about the LiveWire.
I truly find this to be a stylish bike. I like the air-cooling fins on the battery, drawing a visual connection between Harleys of old and the company’s EV-inclusive future. The motor slung below the bike is another cool piece of the design, being the only piece in silver makes it an eye catching style point.
The 4.3-inch colour TFT touch screen is quite nice to look at. The numbers are crisp and clear, the whole unit is legible and easy to read, and the touch activation works decently even with a gloved hand. Unlike some other bikes I’ve been on, the touch screen is only active when the bike is stationary, but the operation toggles on the right handlebar are perhaps even easier to operate than the touch screen anyway.
You can sync up your cell phone with your bike to control things like music and turn-by-turn directions. The latter of which can be displayed on the screen with a direction arrow, upcoming street name, and distance to turn. Live maps are not compatible with this screen, which is kind of a shame, but it might be too small a screen to accommodate something like that.
The different power delivery modes are fun to play with. If you want to maximise range, you can optimise the bike for maximum regeneration and light acceleration. If you get to a fun road, you can pump both up and hammer down. Figuring out which balance you like best can really help you get the most out of the bike. With built-in Sport Mode, Road Mode, Rain Mode, and Range Mode, you can let the factory figure it out for you, or you can configure three custom modes.
The advanced computers in the LiveWire are above and beyond what you’d expect from the Harley brand. Outside of the different modes, there’s a quite sophisticated traction control and anti-lock braking system with anti-wheelie as well as anti-stoppie. The ABS system has also been pumped up to include information about lean angle when taking brake forces into consideration to keep you upright. There is also a specific system to prevent the regenerative braking from locking up the wheel on wet roads. It’s all seamless, and makes for an engaging ride safer than average.
Outside of the price (more on that later), there is very little to dislike about this EV rider. I really had to grasp at straws to find this short list.
The rear view mirrors are useless for practical purposes. I’m what some would call a big guy, with my suit jackets measured at 54" at the shoulder, so it’s likely that this has a lot to do with my rearward visibility. Luckily, this can be changed pretty easily with a set of aftermarket mirrors. I’d go for a stylish set of bar-end mirrors and never worry about it again.
While common with sport bikes, it’s worth noting that there is nary a storage space to be found on this bike. You can lift up the seat to reveal a fitted space for your wall charger to slot in, so if you choose not to carry the charger, you can probably fit a few small items in there. It’s not much.
And this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the coloured cover on top of the bike, where a fuel tank would be, is made of moulded plastic. In the past when I’ve needed to go on a ride while carrying anything, I’ll throw a magnetic tank bag in that space. This is minor from a convenience standpoint, as you can always throw on a backpack, and Harley says it offers plenty of aftermarket storage options that will fit the LiveWire. From a quality standpoint, however, this is the only part of the bike that feels cheaper than it would on a comparable ICE motorcycle.
And the final point I found annoying was an ergonomic issue. While the bike is quite comfortable in riding position, there is a boss around the bolt that holds the battery unit to the frame right about where my legs want to be while stopped at a light or in traffic. It doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal, but after a couple hours of riding, I developed a light bruise on the inside of my thigh just above the knee. Again, I’m bigger than the average rider, but I’m also 6'2" with a 32" inseam and think that this would be worse for people any shorter than me.
There is a life cycle for adoption of a new technology which includes a large chasm between early adopters and the majority. The LiveWire feels like it has the potential to bridge that gap and introduce the technology to the mainstream. As electric charging becomes more ubiquitous consumers will adapt to the idea.
The near-$US30,000 ($42,782) price tag is going to turn a lot of buyers off. That’s a fact. But there are some who will value the bike as a novelty, a conversation piece, and a historically significant technological touchpoint. In the same way that driving an interesting car has value, so does this bike. Most riders buy a bike because it makes a statement about who they are, it’s an emotional purchase usually devoid of logic.
In that way, if the LiveWire says you’re interesting, environmentally conscious, and maybe a smidge more counterculture than a Tesla owner, maybe you find it valuable.
Beyond just being a thing that people would be interested in seeing at a cars and coffee or at your local bike night, it functions quite well as a motorcycle. This is a quick, fun to ride, competent two wheeler with enough tech baked in to help keep you rubber side down.
And then there are the perks. When you include the unlimited mileage warranty, connectivity package, and years of free charging, it starts to approach feasible. And when you consider most buyers are going to finance or lease something like this anyway, the monthly nut looks easier to crack.
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Are supercars overpriced? Are MacBooks overpriced? In the case of the LiveWire, I’d argue that you’re paying for a brand name with at least some prestige, a bike that is packed with quality engineering, and style that will snap necks.
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