When we think of Harley-Davidson, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? The sound, of course. That unmistakeable “potato-potato” rumble that drives some people to distraction, but is music to the ears of hard-core enthusiasts. It is simultaneously the company’s trademark and biggest source of controversy.
Funny then, to be riding on an all-electric Harley LiveWire that makes not a peep, aside from a high-pitched whine that is actually engineered into the final drive, and goes about its business quietly and efficiently….not to mention being emission-free. Yes, it does make some noise, but of a completely different type.
But that’s not all. The LiveWire is not a laid-back, king-size cruiser with saddlebags, windscreen, and attitude up the yin-yang, but a stripped down, bare essentials sport-bike that wouldn’t look out of place at a Moto GP event. At first glance, it looks like a nicely styled corner-carver, with roughly the same proportions as a Ducati Monster or Buell Lightning. It has a longitudinally mounted AC electric motor fed by a lithium-ion battery pack, and develops an estimated 75 horsepower. There are no gears to change and no clutch. You simply get aboard, thumb the “start” button, twist the throttle, and off you go.
Two riding modes are offered on the handlebar-mounted touch screen: “Range” for touring and “Power” for around-town point and squirt traffic. Both supply an abundance of take-off power and Harley says the LiveWire will go from a standing start to freeway speed in about four seconds. That’s one of the nice things about electric power: instant torque, right now, with no “spooling up” or hammering through the gears to get somewhere. That may or may not be a good thing, depending upon your point of view.
In the saddle, it felt kind of weird not to have to shift gears or use a clutch lever. In fact, you don’t have to use the brakes much either, as the LiveWire has a regenerative engine brake function. Backing off on the throttle slows the bike down in a heartbeat and, during my limited time riding the LiveWire, I hardly used the brakes at all. But they’re there, regardless: twin-piston discs front and back.
A few other observations. First, the rearview mirrors are positioned at the tips of the handlebars, below your arms, as opposed to above. I could not get used to them, but perhaps one would, over time. Second, this is not a large bike and an all-day ride (which it cannot do at this point anyway) would get a little cramped after a few hours. Harley has not provided much information regarding the LiveWire’s riding range, but it’s estimated to be in the 80-kilometre range, with an approximate re-charge time of some three and a half hours with a 220-volt charging unit. Third, the LiveWire has a nice light sense of balance and would make a pretty competent city bike. It is effortless to ride, nicely built, and doesn’t feel cobbled together or hastily engineered. Again, I didn’t get to spend as much time with it as I would have liked, but the LiveWire felt like a fully finished motorcycle, with no rough edges. That said, it has an uncompromising sport-bike riding position, and is not the kind of bike you can lounge on.
Were it to go into production, that is. At this point, it is not for sale and Harley is calling it “Project” LiveWire, the idea being to get the bike out to “selected” riders, and sift through the feedback at the end of the day. The company has not announced things like pricing or launch date, no doubt to gauge public opinion first and see if it makes economic sense to put an electric sport bike on the market.
But it’s no secret that the company’s traditional customer base is fading fast. Harley swears it is not abandoning its classic air-cooled V-twin engine configuration, and still knows which side its bread is buttered on, but rider demographics are changing everywhere, and a new breed of consumer is emerging….especially in North America. Witness the company’s recent introduction of its small displacement “Street” models, with their liquid-cooled engines and emphasis on rideability as opposed to attitude.
Changes are definitely in the wind at Milwaukee.