SMOOTH operator

by David Booth . Aug 12 2016
2017 Indian ChieftainCredit: Indian Motorcycles

2017 Indian ChieftainCredit: Indian Motorcycles

LAKE LURE, N.C. — Indian Motorcycle’s public-relations team wants me to focus on the new infotainment system, a wondrous combination of seven-inch capacitive LCD screen and powerful — “the fastest in the industry,” it says — microcomputer.

The team wants to talk about it, wants me to write about it and it is determined that all the photographs we take of the new-for-2017 Chieftain are taken at an angle that highlights it.

The only problems are: A) the thing is a bloody Indian (I haven’t ridden one of the latest generation V-twins before), and B) it’s powered by a huge 111 cubic inches (our Yank friends like to still discuss displacement in inches, but that converts to a Harley CVO-like 1,811 cubic centimetres) of torquey V-twin.

Seriously? You want me to concentrate on a bloody iPad when there’s 1,811 cc of rumbling V-twin history between my legs? Surely you jest.

Indeed, though the big twin visually mimics Indians of yore, it’s a thoroughly modern monster. The Thunder Stroke’s cylinder finning, for instance, may be the perfect carbon copy of a 1953 Chief’s, and the angle between the cylinder banks an identical 49 degrees, but the cylinder head itself is remarkably modern — said to be influenced by the Corvette LS7’s “wedge” combustion chamber — and the cylinders are Nikasil-plated for long life.

Indeed, the big lump is a marvel of modern civility despite A) not (yet) being liquid-cooled and B) only having two pushrod-operated valves in each cylinder. The loping idle is calm, the engine impressively smooth at speed (thanks to a single counterbalancing shaft) and powerful (thanks to its claimed 119 pound-feet of torque).

Like Harley, Indian declines to release horsepower figures, but expect 75 to 80 at the rear wheel. You wouldn’t want to call the response to throttle immediate, what with a flywheel only slightly lighter than a manhole cover, but given a good whack with the right hand, the Chieftain surges ahead with alacrity.

Throw in a slick-shifting six-speed transmission and you have a powertrain only spoiled by the heat wave emanating from the rear cylinder. Indian took us to North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains during this summer’s recent hot spell, which made our stint on the Chieftain a little like a ride on a pot-bellied stove.

The Chieftain, with its lack of fairing lowers, didn’t cook my legs as much as its fully faired Roadmaster sibling, but my right calf, in close proximity with the rear cylinder’s exhaust header, nonetheless felt spit-roasted by the end of the day.

An additional benefit in losing those lowers — along with the rear topcase and a few other doodads — is that the Chieftain loses about 38 kilograms compared with the portly 414-kg (yes, 912-pound) Roadmaster. It felt more like the “bagger” (that’s biker talk for a touring bike with two side-mounted saddlebags but no rear centre topcase), handling decidedly lighter than the full tourer that is otherwise mechanically identical. The suspension — a beefy 46-mm fork up front and a single shock in the rear — is well calibrated for comfort and moderate hooliganism (floorboards were dragged on North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway).

The only adjustment available — air pressure that elevates both the spring rate and preload in the rear shock — is accomplished with a small, included-as-standard-equipment bicycle-like air pump. It’s actually not all that inconvenient, requiring the removal of just one side panel, and the pump even has its own built-in pressure gauge. That said, something like the Triumph Explorer’s automatic self-levelling suspension would work wonders for the Chieftain. I’m not suggesting Indian install some complicated, electronically adjustable suspension system, just some mechanism that automatically revises the rear preload whenever a passenger climbs aboard.

It would be a welcome addition, because the Chieftain is an otherwise comfortable beast of burden. The wide seat provides excellent support, the feet-forward floorboards are, well, not too far forward, and the wind control is quite excellent for something that looks like it was designed without a wind tunnel. The only handlebar fairing with an electronically adjustable windshield — so says Indian — the screen is fairly turbulence-free, thanks to some venting in its lower end. That said, it’s much shorter than the Roadmaster’s and doesn’t provide nearly as much coverage, great when it’s 40 C (as it was during the test in North Carolina), not so much in late fall in Canada.

The big news for 2017, as I mentioned — and most certainly what Indian wants me to talk about — is the new audio/telematics system. Indian’s motorcycle touch-screen infotainment system is impressive and full of neat features, including easily swiped split screens, pop-down screen options, 50-watt-per-channel audio system, etc.

Making it even easier to use are some well-laid-out volume and tuning controls for the audio system and two conveniently located toggles — left for reject, right for accept — at the back of the throttle and clutch switchgear housings that make control of its myriad functions a doddle.

Especially impressive is the ability to customize the screen. The map can be full screen, displayed in a split screen with other functions, or simply dispensed with altogether, as there is plenty of other information to display. With a swipe of even a gloved hand, screen modes can be changed. One mode shows bike data (tire pressure, etc.), another ride data (including elevation, which can be reset to see how high you’ve climbed), and all are customizable. In demonstrations, it was positively phantasmagorical.

I can’t quite give it two thumbs up yet, however. I tested the Chieftain about six weeks before the rollout of the 2017 model and the system was meant to be the highlight of the press preview. Unfortunately, there were still a few bugs in it. The systems on two motorcycles — one mine, another ridden by an Indian executive — locked up completely, and a few more people complained that it frequently dropped Bluetooth access to helmet-mounted communication systems. Maintaining continuous connections with iPhones proved especially problematic. When it worked, it was absolutely wonderful.

Technical foibles and heat issues aside, Indian’s Chieftain impresses. It’s art deco attractive, the motor is strong and the build quality is every bit the equal of any Harley. Test ride it because of the new infotainment system; buy it because it’s a wonderful motorcycle.

The 2017 Indian Chieftain starts at $28,999.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016

PHOTOS BY DAVID BOOTH / POSTMEDIA NETWORK INC.The 2017 Indian Chieftain has the look of a vintage motorcycle blended with modern performance and comfort features.


The 2017 Indian Chieftain has the look of a vintage motorcycle blended with modern performance and comfort features.