Functional, big-inch V-twin baggers are all the rage these days. In addition to lots of style, these bikes offer the comfort of some upper-body wind protection with the practicality and convenience of saddlebags. To enlarge upon the idea that these are not stripped but well-equipped models, keep in mind that, in addition to a fairing and bags, an engine that displaces more than 100 cubic inches powers each of these bikes. That is then teamed with a 6-speed transmission and belt final drive. Then consider that these bikes are also equipped with anti-lock brakes, cruise control and a standard sound system to add tunes and communications to your riding pleasure. And with their snarling style, these cruiser baggers do not convey the stodgy vibe of “old-guys-go-touring.”
To appreciate just exactly how un-stodgy these bikes could be, we gathered three of the top American-made brands including the Victory Cross Country, Harley-Davidson’s new Street Glide Special, and the renewed classic on the block, the latest and best iteration of the Indian, the top-line Chieftain model. Each of these bikes has its own distinct personality and performance characteristics, so after running around on them for a few weeks locally, we took them out for a multi-day ride to cover all aspects of what they can do.
The Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special’s cockpit feels compact, its controls are positioned closer to the rider and its handlebar is narrower than the others. The batwing fairing has that classic look that will never go out of style, and which provides great hand protection. It receives certain modern tweaks and upgrades, and one innovation from Harley’s Project Rushmore for 2014 is the Splitstream vent below the windscreen. The vent reduces buffeting and is designed to be open in most riding conditions; a One-Touch latch closes it keep the rain out. Also, its inner fairing is now gloss black, and the front fender has a new, lower profile.
For the traveler, the saddlebags retain their classic look, but their new latches include single-release levers that are easy to operate from either side of the bike and are a huge improvement in convenience. However, the Harley’s saddlebags do not hold quite as much luggage as the bags on the other bikes here.
Climb aboard the Victory Cross Country and there’s a lot of room to move around. With its long, wide handlebar and the feet spread out on long floorboards, it offers a spacious feel, much more so than the Harley. Its wide, low fairing with vestigial windscreen does not offer much wind protection. What the bike does offer, however, is that its saddlebags with their arched lids provide the most luggage capacity of those here, and the seat provides a real pocket that I found very comfortable.
Get the Victory up to speed and you’ll notice that its motor feels sprightly, but rougher under acceleration than the others, and that its brakes are powerful but lack sensitivity and feedback. Despite this, more aggressive riders will appreciate the Victory for its very impressive handling, sporty ride and power. Although it offers the most horsepower of the three, the Victory motor lacks the throaty sound of the Harley-Davidson and Indian. Still, the entire bike presents a badass vibe.
Let out the clutch on the Harley and the 103-inch engine provides plenty of torque right off the line. As with any Harley, it carries its weight low and its 27.4-inch seat height is low, yet the seats on the other two bikes are lower still.
The narrow handlebar means less steering leverage, so the bike required slightly more effort to steer. Though equipped with the new, beefier 49mm fork, the Harley still felt flexy in the turns. The rider can now adjust the preload on the rear suspension by turning a knob on the side of the bike. However, with only 2.13 inches of travel in the dual rear shocks, the rear suspension beats you up on a bumpy road regardless of the setting.
Another Project Rushmore innovation on the Street Glide Special is the Reflex Linked anti-lock brakes, which work well. This system is unique in that it functions electronically so that it is not linked at speeds below 20-25 mph, which allows the rider to drag the rear brake in certain situations, such as low-speed maneuvers or in hairpin turns to stabilize the bike. At higher speeds (or when being braked down through this speed range from a higher speed) the brakes are linked, with braking force distributed appropriately by a proportioning valve.
Approach the Indian and you’re left with no doubt as to what it is. In addition to the usual emblem on the tank, those signature fenders and the illuminated Indian head out front, the bike comes with another emblem on the motor and yet others on the air cleaner and derby cover for good measure.
Take a seat on the new Indian and its dashboard is clean. It offers a vintage look with just a speedometer and tach, but there’s a full-function LCD display in the center, and keyless starting. The rider carries an electronic fob that allows the motor to be started or the bags to be unlocked when the fob is within a few feet of it. Forget your fob, and you can enter a personal access code to go motoring. The Indian’s seat offers good cushioning, but each of us wished that it had been positioned just a little farther rearward so we could stretch our legs more. The mirror stalks are so short that the carbon-fiber knuckle protectors on our gloves came into contact with the mirrors while we were riding.
The Indian’s suspension is very compliant, including the air-adjustable rear shock, but it could use some better calibration. It’s the only bike here on which the fairing incorporates an electrically adjustable windscreen and, thanks to it, the Indian offers the best wind protection overall, though there is some distortion around the edges of the shield. With that said, however, it would be a simple matter for riders to add a taller accessory windscreen and lower wind deflectors to the other two bikes to improve their protection.
The new 111-inch Indian motor has a great sound and feel, but the power does not come on in a rush. It is said that dyno figures don’t lie, but on occasion they don’t tell the full story, either. In our riding test, the Victory felt strongest and the Harley definitely got off the line quicker than the Indian, which felt lazy by comparison. But when we checked the figures from our dyno-cologist, things didn’t seem to make sense. On paper, the Victory produced the most horsepower by a good margin, which was confirmed by our seat-of-the-pants impressions. However, the figures also showed that the Indian made considerably more torque than the Harley up until 4,500 rpm, yet in actuality the Harley launched from a stop much quicker. Granted, at 808 pounds wet, the Street Glide Special is much lighter than the 847-pound Chieftain, but otherwise we believe that the differences between dyno numbers and actual performance can be explained by the fact that dyno tests are conducted with a rolling start, and because of differences in the two bikes’ servo-operated throttles.
Overall, after the previous revivals, we were impressed that this latest Indian effort is this good, and that the price is this competitive. The bike can compete on its own merits, rather than having to rely on the coolness factor of its magic name.
These are all touring bikes, yet their bags are easily removable for cleaning or should you wish to change their look. Though we rode them aggressively, we found that each bike has acceptable cornering clearance so they did not inordinately limit our fun in the curves. Should you desire more in terms of luggage capacity and wind protection, Harley and Victory each offer more fully dressed models with a trunk and lowers, but Indian, as yet, does not.
To summarize this trio of American big-inch V-twins with their practicality and custom touches, here’s your basic guide: If you want a spacious cockpit that allows you to stretch out, a taut suspension, great frame and good power, and the bike that feels most competent on a winding road, take the Victory. Or if you’d prefer the most classic look that will become a conversation starter at every biker hangout, and want to ride the comfortable one with a more compliant suspension and cushy seat, you’ll choose the Indian. Finally, for that other classic look and an engine that delivers immediate low-end power (no matter what the dyno says), the Harley Street Glide Special will be happy to spend time on your choice of roads.
This article American Baggers was published in the February 2014 issue of Rider magazine. It included sidebars about each of the three motorcycles. To read them, follow the links below: