Recently, I attended a Stayin’ Safe two-day training tour. Because the tour was happening 500 boring highway miles away in Ohio, I decided to drive the Crosstrek and then borrow a 2014 Indian Chieftain from a friend.
The Chieftain is not a motorcycle I would have chosen for the tour whose route included mile after mile of undulating tarmac with blind hill crests and moderately tight switchbacks. That’s because the Indian is a large motorcycle with a very long wheelbase and a dished out seat better suited to upright riding than deep cornering.
For the highway sections, the Chieftain was great. The engine thrums along lazily and the bike is dead stable. Roll on the gas and the Indian accelerates briskly when passing at highway speed. Even though the big Indian is intended primarily for straight-line riding it performed reasonably well when the road bent and turned.
The Chieftain is powered by the 1818cc Thunderstroke 111, delivering a rumbling 119 lbs/ft of power that totally suits the character of the big bike. Twist the throttle and the bike lunges forward with authority. The finned-tipped “Stage 1” exhaust is a bit loud but makes all the right sounds. Pulling power is abundant for any situation. Just twist the grip and the bike launches forward.
Sixth gear on the highway sees the tach hover just over the 3,000 rpm mark. On the back roads, I kept the bike mostly in third gear with an occasional need for second gear when accelerating out of slow uphill turns.
The ride by wire throttle controls the predictable fuel injection. I did notice some hunting at slow speeds and a weird on-off surge when keeping the throttle closed during extended-duration engine braking while descending long, steep hills. And there was a bit of abruptness when performing tight parking lot maneuvers, but mostly it was good.
I’ve ridden a lot of motorcycles whose transmissions range from butter-smooth to notchy and imprecise. But, I haven’t experienced a transmission as agricultural as the Chieftain’s since I had to learn to double-clutch a 1960s International Harvester truck as a teen.
Shifting the 6-speed Chieftain was always positive, but it literally sounds like a sledge hammer slamming into the sidewall of a pickup truck bed. Whack!
Needless to say, you shouldn’t expect rapid shifting maneuvers on this motorcycle. I tried a clutchless upshift at one point and quickly gave up any future attempts. The tranny was much smoother with a deliberate quick-shift technique (keep the revs up while upshifting and blip the throttle when shifting down).
For reference, I’m 5’9″ tall and weigh 155 pounds. While my somewhat lanky physique is in the average range, it is not large enough to match the ergonomics of the long Indian. My legs must stretch a bit too far to reach the rear brake and shifter and my arms are not long enough to allow full lock steering without moving far forward on the seat. If this was my bike, I would go for Indian’s “shorter-reach” seat option.
The leather seat is dished out nicely but is not padded enough for my boney butt. It wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable either.
The temperatures hovered in the mid-80s during our tour and I wished I could have had less wind protection from the wide handlebar mounted fairing and windshield. The protection was welcome at highway speeds though.
The windshield is electrically adjustable, but the lowest setting was still too high for me, causing me to look through the screen even though I wanted to look over it. The visual distortion below the top edge made me chose to put the screen in its highest position where there was little distortion. Indian offers a lower screen option which would solve the problem.
The air cooled engine puts out a lot of heat and was uncomfortable when in traffic. Even my Macna Silicum mesh pants couldn’t flow enough air to combat the engine heat. But, once underway, I didn’t notice it.
The large diameter handlebar caused my smallish hands to cramp a bit, but the electronic cruise control provided relief on the throttle side.
The Chieftain was dead stable and feels much lighter than its 848 pounds when at speed. The heft became more obvious during slow speed maneuvers. The bike behaves well enough, but it doesn’t take much to feel unbalanced. Once, making a tight u-turn, the 130mm front tire rolled over a rock causing the bike to drop into the turn…not enough to cause a tipover, but disconcerting nonetheless.
This tendency to bump-steer reared its head a couple more times while rounding tight hairpins when rolling over bits of gravel.
Ground clearance was pretty good for a long and low cruiser. The floorboards hit first during pretty aggressive cornering. Positioning my boots on the rearward edge of the long floorboards allowed a sporty and more balanced position where I could use my boot heels as corner feelers as they graze the pavement.
But I kept lean angles sane since the bias ply tires gave little feedback. Indian marketing man and FB friend, Robert Pandya noted that the Chieftain is sensitive to tire pressures. It had occurred to me during the ride that tire pressures could probably help the handling, so make sure you have the proper pressures.
The ABS-equipped brakes are strong and controllable. The rear brake pedal is huge with a forward surface that must contribute to a fair amount of wind drag at speed.
At almost $23,000 the Chieftain costs as much as my Subaru Crosstrek. It’s a mighty fine motorcycle, but for that kind of money, I’d want a smoother transmission, less engine heat and maybe a locking fuel cap. But, the bike is lovely (from most angles) and has a lot of nice features, including the great looking electronically locking saddlebags that provide a decent amount of waterproof capacity.
The more I rode the Indian, the more I liked it. But, I couldn’t get used to the cumbersome slow speed handling (note to self to double-check tire pressures). The engine heat is somewhat bothersome and the “big and tall” ergonomics don’t fit me.
I’m a sport and sport touring rider, but I get why people like these bagger motorcycles. If the bike were a bit smaller, with a better looking fairing and more agility, I could probably be convinced to have one of these in my garage. Maybe a Scout would be just the thing.
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