Accelerating at full tilt from standstill in the naturally serene and magnificently undulating Oregon countryside outside Portland, and I swear it feels like I’m smack bang in the middle of a live set on the sequel to 2004’s I, Robot.
That’s because we’re blasting along at warp speed on board the world’s first fully electric production series motorcycle from a major manufacturer. And, in this case, its easily one of the biggest and certainly the most famous name of them all – the legendary Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company, which is precisely why CarAdvice is attending a motorcycle launch for the first time in its 13-year history.
It’s called the LiveWire and it’s the last thing on Earth anyone would ever expect from this storied American icon steeped in old-school traditions and universally celebrated for its serenity-shattering air-cooled V-twin heavyweights.
But, according to Harley, the LiveWire (and the family of battery-powered motorcycles that will follow), not only spells the future of Harley-Davidson, but the entire motorcycle industry at large. That’s got to be the definition of irony with Harley leading the charge. Pun intended.
On the surface it’s seems like a gutsy move, but dig deeper and it’s perhaps a last ditch effort to turn things around to where they once were, given the brand’s ageing demographic and falling stock prices over much of the last decade.
Regardless of the changing times for the entire mobility industry, you can hear the sledging and cries of treachery from the Harley die-hards as I type this article even over their Vance & Hines exhaust systems. But, the fact is, those folks just aren’t buying as many bikes as they used to, and some aren’t riding at all. It’s a grim outlook, but one that’s likely to be given a serious shot in the arm if LiveWire pays off.
It’s also the kind of forward-thinking rationale that might normally be attributed to the likes of big Japanese motorcycle brands or even BMW’s progressive Motorrad division rather than the age-old Harley-Davidson company founded over 116 years ago.
And, you can forget about judging the LiveWire on a first attempt basis. No need, because this is a hands-down engineering triumph in the same way electric car company Tesla was perceived when it first kicked off.
It’s also a brilliant bit of corporate chess playing which has effectively blindsided each and every one of its rivals with what is nothing short of a ground-breaking new motorcycle that’s guaranteed to change the personalised mobility game from this very moment forward.
There’s no key of course, but there will be a key fob when the bike goes on sale later this year in the United States from US$29,799 plus on-roads. Australian buyers will have to wait until 2020, with prices unlikely to be released until closer to the local launch.
Instead, there’s a Harley-style rocker switch which effectively boots up a 4.3-inch TFT crystal-clear touchscreen display from where you can access the different ride modes along with a raft of other information. It’s easy to read in the direct sunlight too, of which there was plenty this time of the year in Portland.
The price is bound to raise eyebrows, but Harley is quick to point out its top-shelf position as a genuine halo model in what promises to include a future portfolio of different electric motorbikes ranging from scooters and e-bikes to fully-fledged dirt bikes and potentially big fat Harley cruisers like the FXDR, even. But none will likely be as exciting as the LiveWire. Even kids’ bikes will be produced in an attempt to lure entire families into the Harley fold.
Punters won’t immediately pick it as an all-electric motorcycle, either. But, electric or not, this is without doubt one of the coolest-looking motorcycles on the planet right now thanks to some intelligent design and clever cues from one or two spent models, namely the XR1200, or at least its fuel tank, which now hides the dual charging ports. There’s full LED lighting all round.
That’s a big plus, because frankly, you’d buy the LiveWire based on its design alone, never mind the ‘cool’ factor that comes with the first electric mainstream motorcycle.
Up close is where all the juicy detail is revealed. There’s no clutch lever and no gear-shift lever, either, because there’s no gear shifting required. Period. Mind, there’s a gearbox, but it’s a single-speed transmission using a bevel gear and belt drive – the latter being a signature Harley-Davidson trait.
Riding it is all a bit surreal. One minute I’m carving up some of Portland’s finest back roads, exactly as I would on my own BMW R Nine T, only it feels like the LiveWire is from another galaxy entirely. It’s like science fiction for the here and now, only there’s nothing to it. You just hop on, press a button to wake it up, twist the throttle and hang on.
It’s fast, very fast, but not entirely unexpected, either, given the drivetrain. Power comes from a longitudinal electric motor rated at 78kW and 116Nm of torque, which is 100 per cent available from the very instant you start winding on the throttle. Physically, that part looks traditional, but sitting on top behind a lightweight, yet rigid frame, is a 15.5kWh lithium-ion high-voltage battery (the cells come from Samsung and the case is by Harley in-house) that makes some real juice. There’s also a 12-volt lithium-ion battery that powers the accessories for start-up and key fob recognition. Harley warranties the battery for five years – though told us they expect it to perform for the life of the bike which they set at 10 years.
Wind on the throttle from standstill and get set to be electrically catapulted from standstill to 100km/h in around 3.2 seconds, or better. Overtaking performance is even more potent, with the LiveWire able to accelerate from 97km/h to 129km/h in just 1.9 seconds flat.
If anything it feels faster – almost nausea inducing at one stage when I was feeling brave. The scary thing is there’s no let-up in torque delivery – it just keeps piling the g-forces on at 15,000rpm as you hurtle towards the horizon.
Mind, it’s not exactly intuitive for the traditional motorcycle rider, and can catch you out on occasion if you’re not giving it your full and undivided attention. Let me explain.
When you’re pulling some decent speeds coming into a tight bend, you’re guaranteed to instinctively grab the non-existent clutch lever in readiness to downshift a few gears with the customary throttle blips. It’s second nature, at least for the first few corners.
That said, it’s also remarkable how quick you seem to get used to this new form of riding, especially in Sport mode, which also adds 80 per cent engine braking thanks to the power regeneration system. In that respect, it’s dead easy to ride which is exactly what Harley is banking on with its foray into electrification and a whole new generation of motorcycle rider.
There are a several other ride modes including Road, Range and Rain as well as three customisable settings, for those riders not quite happy with the factory pre-sets, all of which offer varying degrees of regenerative braking from 30 through to 80 per cent.
Oddly enough, Sport with the most aggressive engine braking was easiest to master in almost all conditions, requiring minimal to zero actual braking. You might have thought it would have affected throttle response in low-speed conditions in downtown Portland, but mostly it offered smooth getaways from the traffic lights in stop/go conditions.
Tight, twisty bends are good fun, too, as you can lay the LiveWire down as you would any other sports bike, only you’re very aware of its 249kg heft lurking in the background. The seating position is relatively low slung, which is great for short-stops like this tester, so you always feel like you’ve got a good handle on the bike regardless of its weight.
Both front and rear suspension is by Showa and are fully adjustable. Mostly, it does good job of ironing out the bumps, though the rebound settings were a tad too fast for my liking, at least during the quicker sections on the more uneven roads.
That said, the bike felt well-balanced and more than amenable to being hustled through the more challenging corners at pace. Braking is spot-on too, thanks to 300mm dual-rotor Brembo units up front, which importantly, feel linear and sure-footed.
You can charge it at home through a standard 110-240-volt power point and that’ll take all night (11 to 12 hours) with a cord that stores under the seat, or there will be free fast charging at Harley dealers for the first two years of ownership (in the US) that will take either 40 minutes for an 80 per cent or 60 minutes for a 100 per cent charge.
Range has been properly boosted from the Project LiveWire days – now it’s a claimed 235km of city riding or 152km on stop/go highway range using MIC City and MIC combined test measures. We rode off and on for most of the day and much of those kays were at solid pace and yet by 3:30pm, battery levels were still showing 37 per cent.
Connect to the latest Harley-Davidson App powered by Panasonic and you’ll get mobile telematics as well as bike vitals like battery charge status, see its location on a map and get security alerts if it’s been tampered with.
It’s also got an electronic chassis system to provide as much safety as possible thanks to cornering enhanced ABS, traction control and drag torque slip control systems – varying torque to the rear wheel.
Even the tyres are specially developed by Michelin and are co-branded using the standard sports bike set up of 180mm down back and 120mm up front.
Okay, but what about the noise? Well, there simply isn’t any in the traditional sense – that’s gone forever with the LiveWire. Instead, there’s a jet turbine-like whine, and it’s louder than you might expect, but it’s not something you could ever get too excited by. But, at least it’s a real noise and not the result of electronic trickery.
There’s no question the LiveWire is already a success in pure marketing terms alone. Whether it will bring a raft of new customers and sales is difficult to predict outside those cashed-up tech-types and early adopters. The real test will come when the less expensive electric Harleys start dropping and the market reaction to those.
One thing is certain, the LiveWire is an exceptional motorcycle that delivers on so many fronts that it deserves the success it’s due. This is a game-changer for personal mobility in general and could spawn a whole new generation of motorcycle riders as other manufacturers are bound to follow Harley’s lead.
So what colour would you have; Orange Fuse, Yellow Fuse or Vivid Black?
I’ll take Fuse Yellow, thanks.
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