First Ride 2014 Indian Chief & Vintage

Indian Motorcycle Debuts Not One But Three New Models

How do you go up against a 110-year-old brand? With a 112-year-old brand, it seems. That's just what Indian Motorcycle did—in a big way—with the grand, global unveiling of the new Chief at the Black Hills Rally in Sturgis. In fact, the company revealed not just one but three new models.

In reality, there are two different models based on the same platform. The Chief Classic is the base machine most of the general population will readily recognize, with key cues from bygone Indian models. It's not just the classic war bonnet fender light, but the asymmetrical finning on the air-cooled motor and the valanced fenders that are all intended to bring a nod of recognition to bystanders (and this bike received plenty of attention from interested onlookers at Sturgis when we rode it). More surprising are the included standard features, like keyless ignition, ABS, throttle by wire, and an innovative cast-aluminum frame, all of which should help this already-unique machine stand out from the rest of the crowded heavyweight market.

The touring variant Chief Vintage uses the same foundation as the Classic but tacks on leather soft bags and a touring windshield. The second, and perhaps more impactful model, is the Chieftain, an all-new bagger with a fork-mounted fairing and hardbags.

Holding up the oh-so-classic exterior of all Chiefs is a thoroughly modern frame, with a unique modular design that incorporates aluminum castings, forgings, and steel elements. Near the steering head, that frame even uses the top rail as part of the airbox.

Tucked into the middle is the beautifully engineered Thunder Stroke 111 engine—exactly one cubic inch bigger than H-D's Screamin' Eagle 110 mill (nudge, nudge). Counterbalanced, fuel injected, and driven-by-wire, the Stroke puts out claimed max torque of 119 foot-pounds at 3,000 rpm via a six-speed transmission.

All three bikes come with cruise control and a one-and-a-quarter-inch bar with internal wiring, as well as a digital dash with fuel-mileage readout and range calculation.

The new Indians take many of their styling cues directly from the 1940s era Chiefs.

New and Improved but Still Classic

Indian Red might not have appeared on the machines until 1912, but it's the color that instantly drew me into the Classic's genuine leather seat, which sits a stealthy 26.7 inches off the deck. That saddle is firm and the cockpit roomy (for me, anyway), though we suspect 6-plus-footers might feel slightly cramped, as the dash seemed closer than on some other big bikes. Otherwise, ergo­nomics feel instantly cruiser-comfy, with hand controls on the chunky, 1.25-inch internally wired bar falling directly in front of the rider. Beefy, solid grips are coupled with appropriately hefty brake and clutch levers that are nicely curved to fit. Interestingly, there's no heel/toe shifter above the full rider floorboards, though I'd imagine one will appear in the accessory catalog shortly. Indian also says the current cruiser seats will change to the same unit as is now fitted on the Chieftain.

The key? There isn't one—just a fob with proximity sensor that allows you to start 'er up with the push of a button. I'm thinking the keyless ignition might not appeal to all purists since it looks like a computer power button, but pressing the big circle on the chrome tank console is worth it once the engine rumbles to life. The exhaust and intake notes are fantastic, with the engine deliver­ing its own substantial, but not pushy, sonic overtones. It's a key part of the cruiser expe­rience, and kudos to Polaris for a job well done.

Premium is what they were aiming for—according to Polaris engineers—and premium ride quality is indeed what we got on our 350-plus miles of cruising around the Black Hills. Easily engage the low-effort, six-plate clutch and off you go. Without a doubt, the Classic is a heavy machine (all three models weigh upwards of 800 pounds), though it carries its weight relatively low, and it came off the sidestand without much resistance. Once in motion, the Classic rolls into turns extremely well, requiring little manhandling for corner entries or exits. Steering is still on the heavy side, so first-gear low-speed parking lot gigs can be a handful on such a long machine, but get 'er up to speed, and it's all stability and predictability.

The meat of the power is found right around the low-to-mid range, and it comes on strong just above idle, peaking at 119 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm (though pulling consistently throughout the range). I heard a touch of engine noise below about 2,000 rpm, but above that, the chatter disappears and you're again reminded of just how smooth this mill is. There are gobs of good power on top as well, and the whole package accelerates nicely when at speed. At 70 mph we saw an indicated 2,750 rpm, with plenty left to give in the hopper.

The constant-mesh transmission works exceedingly well, and I always got solid shifts with the gear shift lever, though there's no escaping the big clunk big twins always seem to serve up when stirring the cogs, even on the Indian. Despite this, gear changes were generally positive, though trying to find neutral at idle was difficult a few times.

On a boat this big, suspension must surely suffer, right? Not entirely. The stout 46mm cartridge fork felt especially plush yet compliant, though I did experience some dive under heavy braking. Out back, a nicely dialed-in Fox air shock doles out a surprisingly controlled ride, its 3.7 inches of travel offering decent small bump absorption up to the stops (preload is adjusted mechanically on the Chiefs). I'd guess that the ultra-stiff frame contributed to the Classic's better-than-average ride quality, especially compared to some of the steel-framed competition. And try as I might, I couldn't get the Classic (or the Vintage) to drag hard parts, so generous is the cornering clearance on this big machine.

Indian also made a point of emphasizing how many design hours were dedicated to managing the Chief's engine heat, and I found it to be generally well controlled and certainly on par (if not better) than most other big air-cooled twins. To be sure, there was noticeable heat radiating near my leg while we paddled down Lazelle Street in Sturgis, but no more than on the other American V-twins.

I also didn't get many opportunities to test the Chief's brakes in Sturgis rally traffic, but when I did, there was plenty of power served up by the four pistons squeezing dual 300mm rotors up front (and ABS), though not a lot of initial bite.

All in all, the Indian Chief Classic is a refined, powerful, and reasonably priced package with top-shelf fit, finish, and detailing. It's a hell of a way to start the 2014 model year.

Indian Chieftain

Everyone knew Indian would go big at Sturgis, but I sure didn't expect a fairing-equipped hard bagger to hit the stage. At the top of the range is the 2014 Indian Chieftain ($22,999), a full touring model, and the brand's first with a fork-mounted fairing and integrated driving lights. The fairing features a power windshield, which has 4 inches of up and down travel. Like its Chief siblings, the Chieftain features a keyless fob ignition system, antilock brakes, and cruise control, but adds lockable, removable, hard saddlebags, tire-pressure monitoring, and a 100-watt stereo with Bluetooth connectivity. The Chieftain's fairing-mounted instrument cluster dash is also more sophis­ticated and feature-rich, with multiple menus and adjust­ability. Unlike its brothers, the Chieftain gets cast wheels and blackwall tires.

The Chieftain has unique triple clamps, fork, geometry, and backbone from the other two models, which have a lazier rake and longer wheelbase.

Clearly intended to go up against Harley's top-selling Street Glide, the Chieftain jumps into the ring with its impressive list of standard features and a bigger engine. Outfitting the Street Glide comparably, say Indian's bean counters, would boost its price to around $27,900—and you're still left without that slick powered windshield.

While it shares the same engine with its cruiser siblings, the frame is slightly different on the Chieftain. The more touring-biased machine sports a steeper rake and shorter wheelbase due to changes in the headstock and backbone casting. Aft of that front end, however, all the bike frames are the same.

So when I switched over to the Chieftain, things instantly felt different. With its 25-degree rake and 65.7-inch wheelbase, the Chieftain feels quite a bit lighter in motion than the two cruisers I'd ridden earlier, even though it is in fact chubbier (by 14 pounds). Some of that is due to clever engineering; the Chieftain uses triple clamps with a different offset to counteract the bigger loads a more touring-oriented model would experience. The result is pretty dramatic, with snappier steering and cornering behavior that's noticeably more nimble. Although it saddles the basic Chief platform with a heavy, fork-mounted fairing, the Chieftain manages to exhibit lighter steering and better agility than the Classic/Vintage; its weight pretty much disappears once underway.

With a GVWR of 1,385 pounds, the Chieftain also offers exceptionally solid load capacity, along with consistent handling, on a bike that can weigh 848 pounds fully fueled. There's no question that's hefty (the Street Glide comes in at 811 pounds), but the suspension is up to the task, with that 46mm cartridge fork with dual-rate springs controlling the front and an excellent Fox air shock riding out back. The shock preload is adjusted via air pressure on the Chieftain, with a Schrader valve located under a side panel (Indian reps emphasize that it's crucial to dial it in for good ride quality).

The Chieftain's performance is truly unexpected, but the bike's styling does bring some polarizing elements into the mix—namely, the fork-mounted fairing. Because this is Indian's first fairing'd bagger ever, designers had to imagine the time period from which the majority of the Chief's styling is derived and project from there. They took the 1950s swooping Streamliner trains as their design inspiration and styled accordingly. With its big chrome panel framing the integrated driving lights (and modernistic integrated front turn signals), the rounded fairing isn't always easy to visually reconcile with the rest of the bike. That said, it also houses the first power windshield on a fork-mounted fairing on any production motorcycle; push a button and the screen can be lowered below your line of vision or raised to adapt to windy conditions and the like. At normal freeway speeds, with the shield fully raised, I found the pocket of air nice and calm with very little head buffeting coming through. Shorter accessory screens are also available.

Perhaps because of the fairing's extra mass, or the fact that the Chieftain seemed to handle so much better than the other two, I felt the Chieftain's throttle could have had a bit more snap to better match its sportier intent and attitude.

The Chieftain ticks all the right bagger-class boxes with amenities like good audio, Bluetooth, and locking hardbags with simple push-button latches (a one-handed oper­ation). It's powerful, stable, smooth at speed, and pos­sesses exceptional handling, with modern features and totally unique styling. Not bad for a first effort.

Indian Chief Vintage

Building on the Chief Classic, the Indian Chief Vintage ($20,999) comes dressed for more, uh, Western adventures, with a removable windscreen and a distressed tan leather saddle and saddlebags that magnify the Wild West theme with copious leather fringe. Indian positions the Vintage as a more powerful and feature-laden alternative to Harley's Heritage Softail (which starts at $17,399 but jumps to $23K when similarly equipped).

2014 Indian Chief Vintage

The cruiser-oriented Vintage brings the same relaxed rake and chrome-shrouded fork, driving lights and whitewalls as the Classic, though it adds chrome tip-over bars to the list. Fit and finish is phenomenal, with rich chrome accenting all the usual high notes, but not in an overly blingy manner. On the road, the real difference between the Vintage and Classic, with their identical chassis and underpinnings, comes down to the windshield and bags—that's it. The Classic and Vintage's lazy cruiser geometry of 29 degrees and 6.1 inches of trail contribute to an appropriately stable feel for both, and both hold their lines exceptionally well.

It should be noted that while the large chrome console panel on the Vintage and Classic models looked perfectly matched to the bike, it occasionally threw up a distracting glare in midday sun, especially on the Vintage's super-tall windshield. That wasn't a big deal, especially since I found the shield gave me impressively solid protection from windblast, without much of the usual buffeting from below. Also impressive was just how easily the bags and screen could be popped off the mounts, so you could easily detach the touring bits for easy cruising around town.

Raising The Bar

To those cynics who would categorize the new Indian as just another Victory with different paint, I'd suggest you ride one. Complaints against previous Indians included a nosebleed price tag, unreli­able performance, and lackluster detailing and materials. The new Indian Chief is a massive evolutionary step forward from the Gilroy/Kings Mountain era in terms of fit, quality, and performance. It's the real deal, impeccably engi­neered with top-shelf finish, yet priced competitively.

The new Chiefs are rolling out of the Spirit Lake, Iowa, factory, and Indian says its full line will be available by September, along with an extensive array of parts and accessories. The company also says it's on track to have 120 to 140 dealers by year's end.

It's great to see a new heavyweight challenger to the current V-twin orthodoxy—even if this bike doesn't stray that far from the status quo. Indian has a long way to go before it can challenge the primacy of Harley in the cruiser market, but as far as entrances go, the company has made a grand one.

Specifications

2014 INDIAN CHIEF CLASSIC/VINTAGE 2014 INDIAN CHIEFTAIN
Base Price $18,999/$20,999 $22,999
Colors Black (Red, Blue, $400 extra) Black (Red, Blue $400 extra)
Warranty 5 years extended service, 1 year manufacturer’s (limited) 5 years extended service, 1 year manufacturer’s (limited)
ENGINE
Type Air-cooled 49° V-twin Air-cooled 49° V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1811cc, 101 x 113mm 1811cc, 101 x 113mm
Valve train SOHC, 2 valves per cylinder SOHC, 2 valves per cylinder
Compression 9.5:1 9.5:1
Fuel system EFI (54mm throttle body) EFI (54mm throttle body)
Transmission 6-speed 6-speed
Final drive Belt Belt
CHASSIS
Overall length 103.5/103.7 in. 101.2
Wheelbase 68.1 in. 65.7 in.
Wet weight 812/815 lbs 848 lbs
Seat height 26 in. 26 in.
Rake/trail 29°/6.1 in. 25°/5.9 in.
Front tire 130/90B16 radial 130/90B16
Rear tire 180/60B16 radial 180/60B16
Front brake Dual 300mm discs, 2-piston caliper w/ ABS Dual 300mm discs, 4-piston caliper w/ ABS
Rear brake 300mm disc, single-piston caliper w/ ABS 300mm disc, single-piston caliper w/ ABS
Front suspension 46mm cartridge fork; 4.2 in. travel 46mm cartridge fork; 4.7 in. travel
Rear suspension Single shock; 4.3 in. travel Single shock; 4.5 in. travel
Fuel capacity 5.5 gal. 5.5 gal.
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TECH

The air-cooled, 49-degree Thunder Stroke 111 is unquestionably the core of the Chief. The entirely new, proprietary clean sheet design shares nothing with its predecessors or sibling Victory Motorcycle brand; Polaris did right and started from scratch, using the 1940s-era Indian Chief as a model and taking just 27 months to produce the all-new Thunder Stroke 111ci V-twin engine.

Patterned to resemble the historic 1948 Indian Chief flathead, the Thunder Stroke is quite simply an arresting piece of design, and the fact that it’s powerful and aurally rich are bonuses. The solid-mounted engine’s features were carefully chosen by the design team: outward-angled cooling fins on the heads; the large-diameter heads placed and proportioned onto the smaller-finned cylinders; downward-angled exhaust pipes; and prominent, large-diameter, parallel pushrod tubes that became a large visual element.

Heat management was also a key concern of the engineering team, so the large-displacement Thunder Stroke is heavily finned, and exhaust ports are very short. Looking from the right, there are the two exhaust headers pointing straight down. Valve covers are two layers: a single lower layer seals in oil and heat, then an air gap, then an outer decorative layer. A semi-dry sump and integrated oil cooler are mounted up front, aiding reliability and lengthening oil change intervals. A large cavity behind and under the tranny serves as an oil reservoir. Premium fuel is specified for this engine, but it is protected by detonation sensors and software. If knock is detected, the system retards ignition timing to suppress it. Just as pioneered by Indian long ago, the Thunder Stroke 111 engine is of rigid unit construction, but this one has electronic sequential port fuel injection and fly-by-wire throttle control.

The six-speed gearbox employs straight-cut gears only for first; second through sixth are quiet-running helicals.