2014 looks like a good year to hit American roads on a motorcycle from the heartland. Choosing one is the challenge.
If you ride frequently and far enough, you get to the point where wind protection and luggage capacity are more than just nice to have. Good wind protection reduces noise, blocks bugs and debris, and makes for less rider fatigue. Locking luggage makes a motorcycle much more useful, whether you’re running out for groceries or getting away for a week with a passenger. Bikes that add something more than a windshield but less than a full touring fairing, with locking hard saddlebags, have been a standard on American highways for decades. It’s a combination that’s particularly suited to the style and sensibilities of cruisers.
For the first time in more than 60 years, there are three American brands competing in this all-American category. The revival of Indian as a real brand with its own proprietary design brings new competition and depth to the American heavyweight cruiser field—assuming that Indian’s designers and engineers have done their homework. That was the first question on everyone’s mind when we gathered together these three full-fledged American baggers.
Indian’s basic luxury bagger, the Chieftain, is also the flagship of its three-bike 2014 lineup. Being the new guy in the group paints a target on it, but that also gives it an advantage, since it was built with an eye on what the competition already had when Indian’s designers put pencil to paper. Of course, Harley-Davidson is the brand that sets the standard and one that everyone wants a profitable piece of. For 2014, Harley rolled out a new version of its popular Street Glide, the FLHXS Street Glide Special, the model Milwaukee contributed to this contest. The third brand, Victory, is part of Polaris Industries, which is also the new parent of Indian (not that you’ll find any familial resemblance). The Victory Cross Country clearly fit the mold of the fork-mounted fairing- and-hard-bags V-twin style we were looking for but does so with its own attitude and technology.
Even though all three were independently developed, their designers arrived at similar conclusions about what makes a successful premium bagger, so these machines have a tremendous amount in common. Besides the obvious things— big fuel-injected V-twin engines, modestly sized fork mount fairings topped with short windshields, and roomy hard-sided saddlebags with locking tops—there are similarities in running equipment as well. Among the common features on our three bikes are six speed transmissions, belt final drive, rider floorboards, cruise control systems, triple disc antilock brakes, full-featured audio, engine guards, cast wheels with tubeless tires, deep fenders, seat heights a touch more than 26 inches, and fuel capacities in the 5.5- to 6-gallon range.
Perhaps the most obvious difference among the three is engine displacement. The 103.1ci (about 1,690cc) of the Harley would have once sounded massive, but these days it seems almost puny against the 106ci (1,731cc) of the Victory and the 111ci (1,810cc) of the Indian. The numbers help explain why the Indian asserts itself so boldly on the road. Even though they’re geared almost identically in top gear (all running almost exactly 2,500 rpm at 65 mph), top-gear acceleration contests left no doubt about which bike has the power here. The Chieftain and its big Thunder Stroke engine just motored away from the others, even from barely off idle. However, if we downshifted and revved to the 5,000-rpm redlines in each gear, the Victory got a chance to show off its top-end power. Either way, the Street Glide was left behind. For riders who like traditional cruiser power characteristics, the Indian engine is king. The Victory feels a bit lethargic down low but makes up for it with a rush of power on top.
The Harley makes up points in other aspects of drivetrain performance. It gets slightly better fuel mileage than the others and also has a slightly bigger fuel tank (6 gallons) than the Victory (5.8) or Indian (5.5), so it has the best range. It also shifts the most confidently and quietly. We missed shifts occasionally on the other two, and both shifted a bit louder. The Harley is the only bike in the group with a standard heel shifter for upshifts, something a couple of our testers said they appreciate on bikes with floorboards. Although some testers split hairs on things like clutch engagement and throttle response, there are no real issues from any of them. The Indian has fly-by-wire throttle control, meaning that moving the throttle grip doesn’t move the fuel-injector throttles directly; instead, it communicates directions to a black box operating the throttles, and you wouldn’t know it except for a couple of foibles. If you’re applying either brake, it won’t accelerate significantly when you open the throttle. You can blip it to raise rpm for a downshift, but if you try to actually accelerate, it simply won’t until you release the brake. The intervention of the black box is also apparent when cruise control is governing speed. If you want to accelerate beyond the cruise control’s set speed, you have to roll the throttle open more than expected before the engine responds.
The Indian requires a noticeably stronger pull than the others to disengage its clutch. And that leads us to the somewhat contradictory ergonomics of the Chieftain. In some ways it is set up for a big rider. The clutch effort, large grips and long reach to some of the handlebar switches (particularly cruise-control buttons), and ultra-wide (37 inches) handlebar suggest the Chieftain was built with lanky riders in mind. However, the seat crowds you forward, forcing a somewhat close-coupled riding position for average (5-foot-10) and taller riders, who also have to fold up their right leg to cover the brake pedal. Our shortest rider said it was just about perfect, however. (Indian offers alternate seats, but they all push you even closer to the bar.) That wide handlebar is awkward for anyone making a full-lock turn, too, because the outside grip is far away, and the inside end crowds you. In its favor, the Chieftain’s fringe-trimmed seat is wide and well padded with a wide support ridge across the back. The saddle (and it is the most saddle-like of the bunch) goes a long way toward making the Indian comfortable on lengthy rides, especially when combined with the best wind protection in this trio. The Chieftain is the only bike here with an adjustable windshield. Operated by a switch on the left handlebar cluster, the shield has 3.5 inches of vertical travel. At the low end, it was below sight level for all testers and didn’t interfere with our view of the road. When fully extended, it exposes a vent at the bottom that eliminates that low pressure area behind the windshield that can push the rider forward. Whether up or down, this windshield (the largest in the group) and fairing gave the most effective wind protection. Passing air is effectively deflected away from the rider from below the knees to above the helmet, and even your shoulders are barely brushed. There is no turbulence or buffeting except in very strong crosswinds. Despite the somewhat awkward riding position, the seat and wind protection actually make the Chieftain a pretty agreeable all-day traveler. No one felt crowded on the Cross Country. In fact, shorter riders felt a bit stretched. Even though it has the same wheelbase as the Chieftain, the Cross Country is much roomier, with a longer saddle and more wiggle room than the others. Taller riders will almost certainly be significantly more-comfortable and less crowded on the Victory. Less rangy riders had to reach a bit for the controls, but average and tall testers liked the riding position and most preferred it because of the seat’s flexibility. You can move forward and backward to change your position on long rides. Unfortunately, the Cross Country has the softest saddle, and it tends to compress after a couple of hours aboard, which creates mild pressure points on long stints. No one had issues with the foot controls, though our shortest rider found the almost tiller-like pullback of the handlebar a bit awkward, especially at low speeds. The Cross Country also has the least effective wind protection, with a low windscreen that leaves even a short rider’s head largely unprotected from wind and buffeting. (Victory’s optional tall windscreen would presumably address that.) Overall, it is the most comfortable for tall riders, but at the end of an all-day ride, the Cross Country leaves most riders wishing for more wind protection and a slightly firmer saddle.
With almost 2 inches less between the axles than the others, the Street Glide Special is naturally close-coupled, unlike the Indian, which seems to have been deliberately engineered to create a more compact riding position. However, better handlebar and foot-control layouts make the Harley handier to ride than the similarly compact-feeling Indian. You don’t have any real flexibility in the riding position though, and the seat suffers from seat-foam compression like the Cross Country. Its wind protection also falls short of the Chieftain’s, but The Motor Company offers many accessory shield options. It also has a vent to bust low pressure behind the windshield.
Test passengers had no trouble ranking these motorcycles for comfort. The Cross Country was the overwhelming favorite for its roomy passenger seating and offering the most secure feeling saddle. The Chieftain was a bit crowded and kinked the legs of taller passengers, but its seat was acceptable. However, the Street Glide’s seat obviously dismisses passenger comfort in favor of style.The passenger seat section is narrow and slopes rearward, creating an uncomfortable surface that tries to slide companions off the back. Riders might feel circulation cut off as passengers embrace them in a death grip to hang on during acceleration. That was made worse by a tight seat-to-peg relationship. Of course, you have probably hundreds of alternate saddle choices from the aftermarket, and a few must improve comfort for both passenger and rider. If you ride a Street Glide regularly with a passenger, you’ll need to get one.
Bringing a passenger also means that the suspension must be adjusted to take care of the additional weight. Harley makes adjustment simple with easily accessible controls at the left shock; just pop off the left saddlebag. However, we found the FLHXS’s range of rear suspension adjustment inadequate to accommodate the allowed load. It also has the least amount of travel, so it can bottom out on large and sharp bumps and does a less than-sterling job of smoothing out even small ones. Adding weight on the rear seat or in the saddlebags only makes things worse. Steering is light and predictable on the new Street Glide Special, and the current touring frames feel steadier than earlier versions. However, high speed and fast corners with a passenger still unsettle it, if only just a bit. Both the Indian and Victory come with small hand air pumps so you can add more pressure to adapt rear suspension rates for luggage or passengers. They are less convenient to use than the Harley setup but more effective at accommodating the weight. With rear-suspension air pressure pumped up to recommended pressures, both of those bikes were little affected when heavily loaded. Overall, the Indian has the best suspension rates, offering good control and a stable ride over bumps and during cornering. The Victory has somewhat plusher settings, offering a smoother ride at the expense of slightly less composure in corners and bumps. The Glide’s shorter travel gives it limited ability to soak up bumps, though it feels steady and well controlled in corners if the road is smooth and the load light. It seems to have slightly better cornering clearance too, though none of the three are bad by the standards of the class. Although none of these have sportbike pretentions, our Chieftain required the most input to hold a line in a corner. The culprit seems to be rear tire profile, which is sort of square, making it want to (more often) sit up or (when leaned over hard) fall in slightly, depending on which side of the corner you were rolling on. We plan to try different tires in the future.
We were pleased to find that all three testbikes had antilock braking as a standard feature. ABS can really take the panic out of panic stops, especially on wet, dirty, or greasy roads. The Harley ABS brings a bit of linkage but so little as to not be intrusive when you don’t want it. During less strenuous braking, most testers gave the Indian top marks for feel and control, with the Harley second. The Victory was consistently ranked last. Saddlebags are a major part of these bikes’ appeal. Their designers apparently agree on bag basics, too: All have lids that are hinged on the outboard side, and all are lockable but don’t force you to lock them when closed. The latching mechanisms vary, but all can be opened one handed (and in the Indian’s case with no hands). All six bags happily swallow two six-packs of Sprecher Fire- Brewed Root Beer (16-ounce bottles) with room to pack more gear on top. The Victory seems to have slightly more capacity than the others, but the new Harley latching mechanism accommodates pack rats best by providing some leverage to force the lid down when the bag is slightly overfull. The sides of the Indian bags bow out slightly when you stuff them, and we learned to kind of squeeze the sides together to get the lids to latch. When they were latched, all the bags were completely waterproof, and all three can be locked for security, but the Chieftain adds electronic remote locking and unlocking, either with a button on the tank or those on the key fob. You can also lock or unlock them conventionally, with the key.
The Chieftain has no ignition key, and the fob also acts as the proximity device that allows you to turn on and start the bike. You can wake it up either by using the large button on the tank or with the conventional starter button, which you then tap again to start the engine. To shut everything off, push the tank-top button again. If you forget to turn it off, it shuts off after five minutes. The key also operates the fork lock.
With their cruise controls, complex entertainment packages, and other electronic features, you need to study the unique switch-ology of each particular bike. Except for starter buttons and kill switches, nothing is standard here. Horn buttons and headlight dimmers occupy different positions, and you might accidentally activate your four-way flashers while trying to set the cruise control at night. Harley uses two buttons to control the turn signals, but it seems to have the best formula for automatically canceling them at an appropriate time. The other two have the more conventional single left/right/ push-to-cancel single switch. On the other hand, the Harley cruise control does everything required with a very elegant single switch. The Victory uses three buttons in a somewhat awkward-to-reach pod on the right handlebar. The Indian has two switches for cruise control—a power on/off button inboard of the starter button and a set/ resume rocker above that. Unfortunately, you need a freakishly long thumb to reach it and still maintain a grip on the throttle. We’re not sure why this rocker wasn’t placed closer to the grip, especially since the space where it could be is vacant. One little foible of the Indian’s cruise control we noted was that if you pitch the bike into a corner or even make a hard swerve while the cruise is engaged, it slows down slightly for a moment before resuming the set speed. The Indian has backlighting in the left bar switch module with controls for the audio and windshield. It’s a great feature for night rides because it takes the surprise out of stabbing what you think is the appropriate button and getting a completely unintended result. We think the handlebar switches on all these bikes should be similarly configured.
Those fairings offer plenty of space for big dash displays, and all three panels offer a wealth of information. The Harley, with its big color display and GPS, has the most information but requires the most familiarity to manage all the features. The Victory, with the oldest technology, has the least information available, but for most testers, it was all we needed. The Indian has a big monochrome red display with a menu of information similar to what you’d find on current car models, with readouts for temperature, fuel range remaining, tire pressure, remaining oil life, etc. However, with the right combination of sunlight and sunglasses, it becomes difficult to read.
There is also that other audio system to consider—the internal-combustion-powered one. Indian had the nicest exhaust note, though much of what the rider hears is probably carefully orchestrated intake boom. Our common fondness for the Indian’s motor music was about the only aesthetic point on which we were all in complete agreement. In fact, getting a consensus on which bike to declare the winner became hopeless, especially when you consider factors beyond the purview of a road test. The Indian has one rider’s first-place vote and two second places and might seem to be the winner, but that ignores factors like dealer and aftermarket support. Consider the case of one tester who lives in a small town. His nearest Victory dealer is 45 minutes away. Within the same range he has four Harley-Davidson dealers to choose from. However, the nearest Indian dealer is three hours distant. The same is true for accessories. You can get anything you want at Harley’s restaurant, but those seeking to bolt goodies onto their Chieftains are pretty much limited to the offerings from Indian itself. Aftermarket support will doubtlessly grow, but it will be slow until enough units are out there to make it profitable. That seems to be the only downside to the Indian’s newness, though. It is a very impressive first offering from a new brand. Our testbike has thus far been relentlessly reliable.
In the end, the best buying advice we can offer is: Pick the one that moves you as long as you are aware of each one’s shortcomings, none of which is a deal breaker.