Harley Pan America

On Saturday, Sept 25, I joined a few friends in Flagstaff, AZ at the Overland Expo West, an event growing exponentially over the past few years to include vendors from across the outdoor experience world. Represented were every truck and off-road-oriented vehicle, motorcycle companies, tents, yurts, lights, knives, water purification, backpacks, and hundreds of exhibitors with accessory products to make your outdoor trekking more enjoyable. Here’s the complete list.

Harley-Davidson had a booth entirely given over to their new Pan America adventure motorcycle.  This bike is an outright divergence from Harley’s dominant cruiser market. Since its introduction earlier this year, reviews are popping up everywhere, even some by former colleagues of mine. But my first chance to ride it was this past Saturday. Having ridden and written about many motorcycles for magazines like RIDER, Motorcycle Consumer News, RoadRunner, and The Overland Journal, I’m keenly aware of the fierce competition from manufacturers in this space. Before making my own choice for the best bike in this class to buy personally, I spent over two years extensively reading and testing the BMW 1250GS, KTM 1290, Ducati Multistrada, Triumph Tiger, Honda Africa Twin, Kawasaki KLR-650, and Yamaha Ténéré. These are all terrific bikes and their makers have been fine-tuning their capabilities and advantages.  I had my doubts on how well Harley would do. Their past attempts at innovation included the V-Rod which (introduced in 2000 and dropped in 2017) had a revolutionary new motor designed jointly with Porsche but the Harley faithful never took to it.  In 2019 the LiveWire electric bike was introduced with great fanfare but withdrawn the same year.  Some readers have asked my opinion but I’ve been holding off until after I had a chance to personally take one for a ride.  Well, now I’ve done that, and will give you my thoughts.

While a short, twenty-mile jaunt involving only a brief bit of gravel, it was revealing. My years of having to quickly assess and crystalize my impressions of a motorcycle for publication resurfaced and, I found that part of my brain went right into gear after throwing my leg over the orange Harley. Here are my early observations:

  • Harley fans looking for an upright seating position on a premium Adventure bike with a Harley logo, now have a solid choice. The seat is comfortable, the handlebars well-placed, the windscreen adequate, and the controls easy to reach and understand. Like most other bikes in this category, it seems more than capable for touring and moderate off-road use.
  • Sound matters to many Harley riders. My immediate impression was the sound of the Pan America owes a bigger debt to Buell than to the Harley cruisers cracking the throttle as they speed past my house on Thunderbird Road, often with aftermarket pipes.  With wind and chain noise, valve-train clatter, lifters, cam sounds, and the clutch and gears chiming in, the exhaust note is very much in the background until you aggressively get on it.
  • Performance/engine. It’s a Harley, so it couldn’t be anything other than a V-Twin and it is. It’s a big, beefy 1252 cc motor with good low-end torque — true to expectations. For its size and weight, it has more than enough grunt.
  • The suspension surprised me with the level of adjustability. As I left the Overland Expo vendor area full of strolling show-goers with wagons, bikes, kids, and dogs, I kept it on the “Rain” setting which cuts the horsepower.  Once heading south on Hwy 89A, I switched it to Sport mode and in a few seconds, it became much peppier.  A “Road” setting is also offered, along with Off-Road and Off-Road Plus shuts off anti-lock braking.  It also has three fully customizable ride modes.  Going through these at the end of the ride with the Harley rep, I considered them straightforward to tune, allowing an almost unprecedented amount of personalization for your preferred riding setup.
  • The controls were all easy to understand. I even figured out the cruise control for the first time while riding with no instructions, meaning it must be simple. That says something, as several bikes in this category manage to make these features difficult, unintuitive, and hidden behind arcane menu systems only an engineer could love. It has cruise, heated grips, and decent wind protection.

Summary: While originally prepared to dismiss this bike, given my prejudices regarding Harley’s past lack of focus on performance, I was grudgingly impressed.  Harley didn’t just copy the leading hefty adventure bike brands in this class. Instead, they studied what riders of those bikes appeared to want and provided that and a bit more. For instance, some prospective riders of big adventure bikes, particularly those with limited inseams, fear their height. How cool is it that the Pan America lowers itself as the speed decreases and by the time you come to a stop, it’s adjusted to the shortest possible reach to the ground?   At 560 lbs. wet, it is right in line with others in this category, a bar I would have thought Harley could never meet, given all its power and features. Although a definitive recommendation would require more extensive testing, if this bike appeals to you right now, I’d say go for it.

I look forward to seeing the Pan America on one of my upcoming trips, either the “Oaxaca-Day-of-the-Dead” nine day ride in Mexico with MotoDiscovery at the end of October or the ride into the Arizona high country in a couple of weeks.

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One Response to Harley Pan America

  1. Barbara says:

    Great review, Steve. As a Harley rider I was interested in your take on this new bike. Not that I’m going to run out and buy one, but it’s intriguing anyay. Good article.

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