First Ride Review: 2017 Indian Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite

The latest in the battle for bagger supremacy.

2017 Indian Chieftain Limited and Elite review by Brian Hatano
The San Diego skyline serves as a backdrop for the $31K Chieftain Elite. A lotta dough, even for a limited-edition custom-painted bagger, but it still costs less than the $38K Street Glide CVO.Photo: Barry Hathaway

Indian says: “The new standard in bagger design and style is here.” Motorcyclist says: “Don’t scratch it!”

Three short years ago, America's First Motorcycle Company had but three bikes in its lineup, with no dealerships to sell them. Today, there are nearly 450 dealers worldwide flying the Indian Motorcycle banner and they're working with a product line that consists of no less than 12 different models. And that, said Reid Wilson, IMC's Director of Marketing, all happened while they (Polaris) had two brands to deal with. Now with the winding down of the Victory brand, Wilson says that they are now totally focused on Indian, enough so that they've even afforded the luxury of opening up a new custom paint facility. But more on that later.

Brisk sales and the recent success of the Scout flat-track program have shot-callers at parent company Polaris excited, but even they know that there's no such thing as a dramatic increase in the two-wheeled market. Indian fully expects to continue duking it out as the American V-twin underdog and matching blows with the Motor Company in the new-model arena with trends like custom-inspired special editions of existing models.

Oh yeah, we can hear that collective groan beginning to resonate. Is this leading up to another styling exercise? Technically yes, but even a cursory once-over is enough to see that the 2017 Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite both have a new look that is far removed from the elemental style of the standard Chieftain and the Chieftain Dark Horse that we rode last year (see Chieftain Dark Horse First Ride).

2017 Indian Chieftains
The 2017 Chieftain Elite (left) and Chieftain Limited both get a new 19-inch front wheel and tire combo. Gone is the fender valance so that you can see the contrast-cut wheel design, 300mm discs and front calipers with Indian Motorcycle script logo.Photo: Felix Romero Garcia
2017 Chieftain Limited and Elite front tire
The standard Chieftain's 16-inch Dunlop Elite 3 is replaced by an American Elite 130/60-19 tire on both the Limited and Elite.Photo: Barry Hathaway

The most obvious change is right there between the fork lowers: a larger diameter wheel and tire. Both the Limited and Elite get a new contrast-cut cast-aluminum wheel set measuring 19 inches up front paired with a matching 16-incher at the rear. And if that front looks larger than 19 inches, it’s an illusion created by the 10 spokes that are machine-cut from the hub all the way to the edge of the rim.

New 2017 Chieftain Limited and Elite front fender
Although the valance is gone on the Limited and Elite, Indian stylists looked back at front fender lines from earlier eras and made sure to retain that bottom flared contour. Good call!Photo: Barry Hathaway

So jumping onto the big wheel bandwagon was pretty simple, but showing off the new rolling stock put the styling team in somewhat of a quandary when it came to the front fender. The iconic valanced fender that Indian motorcycles have long been associated with had to go. This is a radical styling departure from the brand’s traditional look and, according to Product Manager Josh Katt, not one that Indian took lightly. “What we’re trying to do with this product,” explained Katt at the San Diego press launch, “is to take cues from the custom market. We’ve been looking at what guys have been doing to the Chieftains and the trend is toward bigger front wheels.”

If you’re thinking that the sawed-off fender takes too much away from the heritage of the Chieftain, remember that through the 1920s and 1930s, all of the Scout and Chief models had open fenders similar to this design.

Brian Hatano testing the new 2017 Indian Chieftain Limited
Any change in the Chieftain's handling was negligible. The Limited and Elite are both easily maneuverable and manageable at slow speeds.Photo: Barry Hathaway
Indian Ride Command system
Both Chieftains come standard with Indian's Ride Command seven-inch infotainment system that works with riding gloves on. The system includes AM/FM stereo, GPS, Bluetooth connectivity, smartphone-compatible USB hook-up, and high-output speakers in the fairing. The Elite comes with Pathfinder LED headlight and driving lights, a flare windshield, billet floorboards, and a 200-watt premium sound system.Photo: Barry Hathaway

As for any difference in handling with the 19-inch front wheel and tire, there is none that I could feel since the overall height and width of the new Dunlop American Elite 130/60-19 tire is virtually identical to that of the Elite 3 (130/90-16) on the standard Chieftain. If the 19’s shorter sidewall transmitted more road imperfections than the 16, I didn’t notice.

Sharing the same chassis with the standard Chieftain, the Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite delivered the same well-mannered handling characteristics that belies a bike of this size and weight. Even in low-speed situations, the Chieftain handles predictably and is a friendly machine. While it might not be our first choice for a daily commuter, it certainly isn't a bad one either.

2017 Chieftain Elite and Limited engine
The Thunder Stroke 111 provides ample torque that comes on at low rpm and pulls hard through the powerband. Our Elite test bike was Stage 2 cam-equipped with pipes and low-restriction air cleaner. Throttle response wasn't quite as smooth as the stock engine but the trade-off in power is well worth it, if you can spare the cost of the upgrade.Photo: Felix Romero Garcia

Also unchanged in the Limited and Elite is the Thunder Stroke 111 V-twin delivering a claimed 119 pound-feet of torque. And as they did for the 2016 Dark Horse press ride, the guys from Indian brought along a couple of Elite models souped up with the Stage 2 Performance Cams, Thunder Stroke Stage 1 Slip-ons, and High Flow air cleaner. The engine add-ons are good for claimed increases of 7 percent in torque and 10 percent in horsepower. And yes, you can hear and feel the difference.

Other custom touches like a paint-matched headlight bezel, a “streamlined” leather saddle (no change in seat height from the standard Chieftain), and logo script on the brake calipers are nice little touches that we get to say are new to the Limited and Elite.

2017 Chieftain Elite review by Brian Hatano
Both models come standard with keyless ignition, remote locking saddlebags, anti-lock brakes (ABS), chrome front highway bars, power adjustable windshield, and chrome highlights. Our test bike was also equipped with the Indian Mid-Rise handlebars from the accessory catalog. With a 4-inch rise over the stock bar height, the Mid-Rise gives the rider a different look and posture on the bike.Photo: Felix Romero Garcia

As a custom painter in a past life, the highlight of the presentation for me was the talk about the limited edition Chieftain Elite and how each bike is individually painted by hand. It’s obvious even in the photos that this is clearly no mass-produced finish. In fact, Indian has gone so far as to purchase a separate manufacturing facility located in Spearfish, South Dakota, where a talented group has been developing Indian’s in-house custom paint capability over the past year.

2017 Chieftain Elite custom candy red paint
Only 350 Chieftain Elites with the Fireglow Candy Red custom paint will be available. Expect more limited edition colors to come out of Indian's new custom paint facility in Spearhead, South Dakota.Photo: Barry Hathaway
2017 Chieftain Elite custom graphics
An extra hundred watts of audio power pumps more sound out of the saddlebag speaker system. Note the marbleized black over the candy red is created with the old-school cellophane technique, making each design unique within the templated graphics.Photo: Barry Hathaway

The first product of their work is the beautiful Fireglow Candy Red paint with marble accents on the Elite. The paint is a true candy with a metallic-gold base, several layers of the candy red toner with black marbleized graphics under a glossy coat of clear. There’s over 25 hours of paint labor that goes into each Chieftain Elite, and Indian says that no two are exactly alike.

The finish on the Chieftain Elite that I was riding in these photos was flawless. The metallic pattern was even all around as was the candy red tint coat. I I ran a finger over all of the graphics and felt no trace of a masking line anywhere. Nice job painters!

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As with any true custom finish like candy red, the build-up of paint layers is thicker than normal making the repair of a damaged panel more complicated than simply matching the color and repainting it. A light scratch that does not go beyond the clearcoat can possibly be color-sanded and buffed, but a panel that is badly damaged or scratched into the candy color will need to either be repainted by a very talented custom painter or replaced by special order from Indian. Product Manager Derek Meyer says that 350 custom-painted Chieftain Elites will be available, 320 of those in the US, for a premium MSRP of $31,499. If basic black is more suitable for your taste and budget, the Thunder Black Chieftain Limited carries a $24,499 price tag.

And just to see if you're paying attention, I'm going to drop this little tidbit here at the end. If you were hoping to see an all-new bike here, don't worry...it's coming. Sources inside Indian revealed that something big is on the horizon. They wouldn't say what or exactly when, but our fingers are crossed for something cool to be revealed real soon. Hurry up Indian!

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION  
Taking cues from the custom bagger scene, Indian loses the valanced fender and adds a limited edition candy red Chieftain that would make any custom painter proud.
TECH  
PRICE $24,499 (Limited), $31,499 (Elite)
ENGINE 1,811cc, air-cooled 49° V-twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/belt
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER n/a
CLAIMED TORQUE 119.2 lb.-ft.
FRAME Aluminum double-cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Indian 46mm fork; 4.7 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Indian shock with adjustable air preload; 4.5 in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Indian four-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS  
REAR BRAKE Indian two-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 25.0º/5.9 in.
WHEELBASE 65.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 26.0 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.5 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 817 lb. dry
AVAILABLE now
MORE INFORMATION indianmotorcycle.com
VERDICT  
Indian does a beautiful 180-degree spin with the proven Chieftain platform and delivers a true factory custom bagger for 2017.
2017 Indian First Ride, Brian Hatano's gear
BRIAN'S GEAR:
Helmet: Bell Qualifier DLX MIPS-equipped Helmet
Jacket: Rev'It Fargo Jacket
Pants: Rev'It Orlando H2O Jeans
Gloves: Rev'It Cooper Gloves
Boots: Rev'It Mohawk Boots
Photo: Barry Hathaway