2014 Indian Chief | FIRST RIDE

PHOTOS: Barry Hathaway & Indian Motorcycle

Indian Motorcycle unveiled the long-awaited 2014 Indian lineup at Sturgis Motorcycle Rally with the marketing mantra: “Choice is here in American motorcycles.” Throughout it all, Indian has made great efforts to not actually mention “those other guys” by name, including fellow Polaris Industries'' holding, Victory. But, of course, we can all identify the elephant in the room and the point is made.

There is a new player in the game. For riders, competition is a good thing. It can only mean more choices, better value, and higher quality motorcycles for us to ride.

After riding the new Indian Chief Classic today—one of three models introduced at Sturgis, the others are the Chief Vintage (sporting a removable windshield and a set of retro saddlebags) and the Chieftain (a proper hard-case bagger with a bar-mount fairing)—it’s fairly obvious that this process is already well underway. The new Indians’ fit-and-finish and attention to detail are only the first indications to what’s in store when you (keylessly) fire up the 111 cubic-inch Thunder Stroke V-twin and unleash a claimed 119 lb.-ft. of torque through the six-speed transmission.

[ 2014 Indian Chief Classic - photo by Barry Hathaway

The exhaust note is beautiful––throaty and substantial without being obnoxious––perfectly balanced by the intake sound. That intake path uses the top rail of the frame as part of the airbox. The sound of the exhaust was, of course, a high priority for the engineering team, and they appear to have succeeded in creating both a very pleasing, yet legal, soundtrack.

There is a slight amount of lag in the ride-by-wire throttle, but this may actually be a good thing. Over-zealous whiskey throttling can threaten to pull your elbows out of their sockets with the Indian's freight train-like torque. No one has probably ever wished his motorcycle had less torque, but there won’t be Indian owners complaining for the lack of it.

(A second-ride update: The first Chief I rode had this throttle lag and later in the ride showed a check-engine light. Indian staffers determined that the knock-sensor wire, probably knocked loose during transport, was the cause of both maladies. [Loss of knock-sensor signal can make the bike go into "limp home" mode.] After riding a different bike, I can confirm that the lag was isolated to that one machine.)

Despite being a relatively heavy cruiser (778 pounds claimed curb weight), the Indian’s handling, suspension, and braking are quite good. Straight-line tracking is solid, and the bike turns in with precision normally reserved for sportbikes. Or, at least, sportier bikes than the Chief. This is likely due to the rigidity of the modular forged-aluminum frame. The geometry works well, and the resulting handling requires no man-handling to keep the bike down into a corner or to pull it up at the exit.

The ride quality is excellent, with the 46mm cartridge fork offering 4.7 inches of travel up front and a single shock providing 3.7 in. out back. The suspension soaks up the small, rough stuff perfectly, and will handle the bigger bumps up to the limitations of suspension travel. During a morning ride through a bumpy canyon at a leisurely pace, the Indian Chief Classic was plush and compliant. A more aggressive afternoon ride in the same canyons revealed that the suspension can remain firm enough to allow a brisk pace, but larger bumps can reveal limitations. All in all, certainly impressive enough to throw off some assumptions about what a heavyweight cruiser can be capable of.

The brakes have excellent feel and stopping power---as in dual four-piston floating 300mm discs up front that allow easy two-finger aggressive stops. Another 300mm disc in the back, and ABS in both circuits, adds to peace of mind whether you’re cruising along, hammering down the highway or pushing the bike a little bit harder through a canyon.

[ The 2014 Indian Chief Vintage has quick release windshield and saddlebags and even the fringe comes off with velcro, as Indian's accessory manager says "Just in case you need a break from the fringe."

After a couple of days sampling the Chief in and around Sturgis, it's clear that Indian has raised the bar for American cruisers in terms of function and performance.

Prices start at $18,999 for the Chief Classic, run to $20,999 for the Chief Vintage, and top out at $22,999 for the Chieftain. Truly competitive, in other words.

That "other" American brand is set to introduce its 2014 models later in August. No doubt there will be some interesting news there, but you also have to wonder if the quality and capability of the Indian, right at the very start, will push Milwaukee to change course even a little bit. Competition between Harley and Indian was fierce "back in the day." Here's to another round.