Everyone knew Indian Motorcycles was going to unveil its much-anticipated 2014 Indian Chief at this year’s 2013 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The big surprise, however—even for us journalists attending the highly produced public unveiling in downtown Sturgis Saturday night—was the introduction of an all-new bagger called the Chieftain.
Obviously intended to go head to head with the popular Harley-Davidson Street Glide, the 2014 Indian Chieftain is priced at $22,999, only $3200 more than its competitor. Indian’s math says the Street Glide would actually cost $27,904 equipped with the Chieftain’s cruise control and tire pressure monitoring, and a 110 kit to bump it up to near-comparable displacement.
The Chieftain uses the same unit-construction Thunder Stroke 111 powerplant as the other Indian Chiefs, the Classic and the Vintage. Read first impressions of big twin in action here. Most of the chassis is also the same, with just one component of the forged aluminum modular frame being different. The front end is actually set up with a steeper, 25-degree rake by using a different top rail and neck frame, and triple clamps with a different offset. The Classic and Vintage models have a more kicked-out 29-degree rake. The effect of these small chassis changes is dramatic, resulting in effortless handling for a big bagger. On a quick ride out to Mt. Rushmore, it was possible to put the bike on cruise control and whip through twisties with two fingers on a single grip.
Riding the Chieftain alongside the other models revealed no clumsiness from the 815-pound (claimed dry) bike at slow speeds, either. The Chieftain is, in fact, only 14 lbs. heavier than the Chief Vintage. In initial testin g, all three models never really felt as heavy as they might seem on the stat sheet. The Chief Classic weighs in at the lightest at a claimed 778 lbs. dry. They simply seem to hide their weight completely once underway. A confident rider of any size could easily handle any of these three bikes. The seat height is a mere 26 inches off the deck, and accessory seats are also available to bring shorter riders more forward and make it easier to get their feet down.
Right up front, and standing out as a polarizing styling element, is the fork-mounted fairing. Because Indian Motorcycles has never made a bagger before, Indian’s designers had no heritage to harken back to when designing the fairing, so they went back to same time period from which the majority of the Chief’s styling is derived, the 1950s. They also looked for something that had the same qualities a rider would want in a bagger fairing—powerful-looking, aerodynamic, classic styling. They settled on the '50s Streamliner freight trains, and once you think of the styling in this perspective, it starts to make more sense and fit the bike. It also makes sense when you feel the 119 lb.-ft. of torque the Chieftain puts out.
The Chieftain sports the first power windshield on a fork-mounted fairing on any production motorcycle. Its total travel of 4 in. is just enough to move the screen out of your line of vision if it becomes a nuisance, or adapt to conditions such as headwinds or nearby trucks. While riding around Sturgis there weren’t too many opportunities to go very fast, but at normal freeway speeds the pocket of air was excellent with no head buffeting. With the stock screen (shorter accessory screens are available) at full height, the protection was very complete even for tall riders.
What makes the Chieftain really stand out is the number of technological bells and whistles it incorporates. All three Chief models have features such as keyless-fob ignition systems, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, and a digital dash with fuel-mileage readout and range calculation. The Chieftain adds modern extras like tire-pressure monitoring and Bluetooth syncing so you can listen to your phone’s music through the speakers without plugging it in. You can even talk on the phone while you’re riding—if that’s your thing.
Heat management on baggers is always a concern. You can consider this well-tested during the press launch in Sturgis. Quite a bit of time was spent straddling the huge, 111-cube, air-cooled engine while idling through traffic and sitting in the sun during photo shoots, but Indian has gone the extra mile in engineering heat management into the bike. Ceramic-coated headers and shields pump as much exhaust heat away from the rider as possible. When sitting still or doing the “Lazelle St. Shuffle” during Sturgis, you’re going to get some noticeable heat, but as long as the bike was rolling at any speed whatsoever, no heat issues—like the dreaded calf barbecue—often typical of large air-cooled V-twins were noticed.
The Chieftain is powerful, stable, and smooth at speed, striking in design, has a surprising performance profile in terms of handling and braking, and has all of the modern features you'd want from a bagger for commuting or touring. That and classic, distinctive styling. Not a bad way to start.