EXCLUSIVE: 2016 Indian Motorcycle Chief Dark Horse | FIRST RIDE

A lean, mean machine to shake the “pretty Indian” image.

They say: An unpolished and raw approach. We say: Only the look; performance-wise, the Dark Horse shines.

I’ve attended plenty of off-season motorcycle press launches, occasionally even braving sub-freezing temperatures for a first ride on some new machine months before it appears in dealerships, but this one was something different. The ambient temperature readout on the tank-mounted gauge congealed at 19ºF and crusty ice lined the shoulder of Michigan Avenue as we rumbled through the heart of Chicago’s famously breezy business district, straight down The Windy City’s “Magnificent Mile.”

The event was Indian Motorcycle 's " Dark Horse Challenge," where I joined a few dozen extra-hardy midwestern motorcycle enthusiasts for the ice-cold introduction of Indian's coolest Chief variant yet, the blacked-out Dark Horse. Designed to shake the "pretty Indian" image and appeal to a younger, hipper motorcycle enthusiast, the Dark Horse certainly looks the business in Thunder Black Smoke. There's barely a flash of chrome—just the pipes, cylinder fins, and fender trim—the rest is covered in a black-suede finish. Even the "warbonnet" driving light on the front fender is black, and there's a matte silver throwback headdress logo on the tank too. The entire package is sleeker, leaner, and meaner than its chromed-out counterpart, giving those classic deep-skirted fenders an unexpectedly contemporary appeal.

Although the look is elemental, the Dark Horse gives up nothing in terms of performance or features. The air-cooled, 111 cubic-inch Thunder Stroke V-twin makes the same class-leading 119.2 pound-feet of torque (claimed) as the Chief Classic and, by deleting gingerbread like driving lights and passenger accommodations, it’s a whopping 27 pounds lighter than the Classic (claimed dry weight is 751 pounds). But the Dark Horse is no Spartan stripper: it comes equipped with the same premium features including cruise control, keyless ignition, and ABS. And at just $16,999, it’s $2000 cheaper than the Classic, making the Dark Horse more accessible to younger buyers. (Indian anticipates this bike will appeal to a customer at least 10 years younger than the typical Chief Classic buyer.)

Tubeless, 16-inch cast wheels at both ends that shave a significant amount of unsprung weight are the only hardware change between the Dark Horse and the Classic (which rolls on traditional spoke wheels). The remainder of the engine and chassis are unchanged. The Thunder Stroke twin remains the leader of the American cruiser pack, serving up just the right rumble with no unwanted noise or vibration, and muscular power that delivers boot-in-the-ass acceleration at any rpm. Even in frigid conditions, the EFI kept the motor running without a hiccup.

The basic Chief chassis performs as expected, with neutral, confident handling that effectively disguises its true size and adequately sprung, well-damped suspension that provides a full 4.7 inches of travel up front and an adequate 3.7 at the rear, enough to handle the worst of Chicago’s horribly pock-marked downtown streets. No doubt the lighter wheels follow pavement irregularities better, and let the bike accelerate a bit more quickly, too. And gently cycling ABS was certainly appreciated as when the Dunlop Elite rubber struggled for grip on the city’s frigid, salt-crusted asphalt.

The stock solo saddle and wide, pullback bar create a comfortable cruising position for medium sized riders, while additional ergo alternatives—including factory-engineered ape hangers and two-up saddle options—are among the 40-plus available options planned for this model. Other accessories include all-black exhaust systems and fender trim for anyone desiring the fully murdered-out look.

Heated grips are an available option too, one that I might have especially appreciated on this unique first ride opportunity. Downtown Chicago in the depths of February might not be the first place you think of to ride a bike like the Dark Horse, but the extreme conditions effectively highlight fundamental appeal of basic black bruiser Indian has created in its Dark Horse.

tech SPEC

EVOLUTION  
A slightly stripped-down, darkened version of Indian’s Chief is lighter, cheaper, and cooler.
RIVALS  
[Harley-Davidson Softail Slim and Fat Bob][], [Victory Gunner][]
TECH  
PRICE $16,999
ENGINE 1,811cc, air/oil-cooled 49° V-twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/belt
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER N/A
CLAIMED TORQUE 119.2 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm
FRAME Semi-double-cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Indian 46mm fork; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Indian shock adjustable for air preload; 3.7-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Indian four-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Indian two-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 29.0°/6.1 in.
WHEELBASE 68.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 26.0 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.5 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 751 lb. dry
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT [indianmotorcycle.com][]
VERDICT  
The same muscular performance and solid handling as the Chief Classic in a contemporary package that doesn’t look like great-granddad’s heirloom. Lighter and cheaper too.