Imagine telling the average Harley-Davidson or American V-twin enthusiast a few years ago that not only would the Motor Company produce and sell a naked sportbike in 2020—certainly not an outrageous concept—but that it would be an all-electric one.
That last bit would have not only raised an eyebrow or two among the faithful, it would have likely burned a few clean off their respective foreheads simply from the heated blowback of the responses. Just about any Motor Company fan will tell you: Harley-Davidsons and electric-power EVs just weren’t meant to be talked about in the same sentence.
But as we all know, that’s exactly what’s happened. Harley-Davidson has not only built a naked sportbike that’s sleek, futuristic and sexy, with wide wheels, sticky tires, sporty suspension and a lean-forward riding position, but one that’s electrically powered, with not a molecule of internal combustion waste emanating from its non-existent exhaust system.
It’s a simple truth: Harley-Davidson can’t continue to exist solely by selling Big Twins to aging baby boomers who, in a decade or so, will be mostly out of motorcycling. Like the rest of the motorcycle industry, Harley needs new blood and new markets, and feels very strongly that a line of electric two-wheelers led by the high-end and high-price ($29,799) LiveWire is a prime way to reach them and teach them.
“It’s a bold goal, helping encourage and develop the next generation of riders,” Harley-Davidson CEO Matt Levatich told me over breakfast at the launch, “but we think we’re on the right track with the LiveWire, our future electric offerings, and our More Roads To Harley-Davidson efforts. Motorcyclists know that nothing is more spectacular than two-wheeled travel, right? Spreading that word among a more general population, and building riders in addition to building great motorcycles…well, that seems like a pretty strong concept to us.
“That said,” he continued, “we are not limiting in any way our emphasis on traditional Harleys; if anything, we’re more energized than ever about Sportsters and Softails and baggers and the like. But we do need to branch out, and see electrification as a key avenue there. We very much intend to lead the way in the electrification of the sport.”
If leading the way means introducing the world’s most advanced electrically powered motorcycle, then Milwaukee has very clearly put its money where its mouth is. I was only able to get a few hours on a LiveWire during the July launch, but thanks to a thorough tech briefing, and following that a morning and afternoon ride around town and on some of the faster roads in the hills surrounding Portland, Oregon, I got a pretty good idea of what it is and how it works.
First off, there’s a lot of tech here. Leading the list is an all-new electric motor that’s liquid-cooled, offers 105 horsepower (78 kW) and 86 lb-ft of torque. Although the motor can produce nearly all of its torque immediately, a controller doles it out in a rapid, linear manner, similar to a traditional throttle. It gets its power from a 15.5 kWh battery that offers, according to H-D, a range of 146 miles in the city and 95 miles of combined stop-and-go and highway riding. Level 1 plug-in charging (e.g., at home or work) takes 12.5 hours for a full charge via an included charger cable. Since the bike has an SAE Combo CCS connector like many American and European electric cars, it can also be charged at thousands of Level 2 stations around the country (but at Level 1 speed). Approximately 150 Harley dealers nationwide (with more to come over time) will also offer fast Level 3 one-hour charging and two full years of free charges, and the bike can also be charged at thousands of public Level 3 DC Fast Charging and Electrify America stations around the country.
The LiveWire also has ABS and traction control, a 4.3-inch color TFT touchscreen display centered just above the handlebar, seven selectable Ride Modes (Sport, Road, Range and Rain, plus three customizable modes) and HD Connect, which links owners to their motorcycles (free initially, then for a monthly fee) and offers tons of status and service information via a smartphone using the Harley-Davidson app.
Climb aboard and you’re immediately struck by the riding position, which is more Ducati Monster or Suzuki GSX-S than Sportster or Softail. Its ergos invite a slight forward lean, with semi-rearset pegs, a mildly upward-bent handlebar and scooped seat locking you into position—the reason for which will become apparent soon enough. It all feels reasonably normal…right until you push the starter. The color info-screen lets you know that things are ready to roll with a green light, but in place of a chugga-chugga/potato-potato rumble you have silence (though the battery and motor give off a little “buurp” of movement to let you know the bike is alive and running). Give the right grip a little twist and you’re off, the bike moving forward smoothly and predictably to your right wrist’s commands.
In stop-and-go traffic I found the LiveWire super easy to ride, which says a lot about the refinement that’s been baked into it during eight years of development. Throttle response at slower speeds was immediate, linear and controllable, the bike demonstrating no lurching or driveline lash whatsoever. Steering was light and precise, and the brakes crisp and predictable, both of which helped the LW feel considerably lighter than its 540-plus pound wet weight might suggest.
Other than a low whine under acceleration the LiveWire is totally quiet, eerily smooth and almost completely unobtrusive in an aural and vibrational sense. The Harley folks call this “Minimal NVH,” which means minimal noise, vibration and harshness. Accelerating away from a light or tearing down a side street you find yourself listening to wind noise and the tires slapping against the asphalt. It’s an entirely new experience, and one that proved compelling all day long.
You’ll get that same feeling when you ride the LiveWire hard and fast, too. I immediately found myself running through turns faster, looking for pavement irregularities to hit while leaned over to see how the chassis behaved, and then hammering the throttle at the exit, trying—in vain, for the most part—to find what I figured would be mid-level traction, suspension and handling limits. I didn’t find much of that at all, which tells me that all the bluster I’d heard at the tech briefing about chassis and engine refinement, optimized frame geometry, suspension quality and power delivery wasn’t bluster at all. The thing is shockingly fast, amazingly smooth, easy to get used to and ride quickly, forgiving and, most of all, big fun.
Nitpicks are few and far between, unless you’re talking seat-to-peg distance, which for my multi-surgery knees is a little tight. Suspension settings, which worked well for my XXL-sized butt, are probably too firm for average humans in terms of spring rate and compression. The bar could use a little more pullback and maybe an inch or two extra in height, and the seat seemed a little thin on padding.
The larger questions, of course, involve range and price. The first isn’t going to be quite enough for a lot of folks, and the latter is likely to be too much. That’s just the way things stand at this point in EV development. You’re either on board and willing to accept the trade-offs for the bennies, or you’re a skeptic.
But EVs are coming, like it or not, and despite one’s perspective on price and range, the LiveWire is a superbly designed, compellingly competent, seriously fun and fascinating-to-ride motorcycle…a Halo bike that should represent Harley-Davidson well as it moves into the EV space in the coming years with a wide range of electric two-wheelers, from mid-range EVs to mountain bikes to kids bikes and lots more.
So while that futuristic fortuneteller might have seemed pretty crazy a few years back, this time he was absolutely right.
Author Mitch Boehm is the Editor of Rider’s sister publication Thunder Press and a former Editor of Motorcyclist magazine.
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire Specs
Base Price: $29,799
Motor Type: Revelation internal permanent magnet synchronous motor w/ water jacket cooling
Battery: 15.5 kWh lithium-ion
Transmission: Single speed w/ spiral bevel gear primary
Final Drive: Belt
Wheelbase: 58.7 in.
Seat Height: 30.0 in.
Rake/Trail: 24.5 degrees/4.3 in.
Suspension, Front: Showa 43mm USD SFF-BP fork, fully adj. w/ 4.5-in. travel
Rear: Showa BFRC-lite shock, fully adj. w/ 4.5-in. travel
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR17
Claimed Wet Weight: 549 lbs.
Claimed Range: 146 mi. city, 95 mi. combined stop-and-go/highway