Sunday, 13 September 2015

Ride Review: Indian Chieftain


That screen, though.

I have quite a lot of good things to say about the Indian Chieftain –– it is, after all, easily one of the best motorcycles coming out of America at the moment –– but the bike's windscreen is so awful that, for me, it would be a potential deal breaker.

OK, I'm probably lying. If I somehow had enough money to buy a Chieftain I'd probably be so eager to own one that I could be placated with a free keychain or some other trinket. But I'd like to think I'd have the principle to insist that any dealership expecting me to fork out £20,500 (or $22,000 in the United States) for this bike must replace the screen at no additional cost.

I'd like to think that if they refused, I would have the testicular fortitude to walk right... across the showroom floor to cast an eye on the Victory Cross Country, which costs several thousand pounds/dollars/euros less.

After all, both motorcycles claim Polaris as their parent company, so they're effectively the same machine, right? Uhm, well, no. The Cross Country is awesome, but the Chieftain, even with it's crappy screen, is objectively awesomer.

Start with the fit and finish of the bike, for example, and you can see the Indian earning its higher price tag. With a few disappointing exceptions, each of the bike's features seems to have been intently thought out. Every line, every curve has the look and feel of being crafted. The Chieftain is a stunning –– and gargantuan –– work of art from a distance, but step in close and you'll be rewarded even further.


The engine, of course, is the showpiece of the whole thing. The massive 1,811-cc Thunder Stroke 111 V-twin is more than just eye candy, though. Larger and more powerful than the Freedom 106 engine currently found in all of Victory's V-twin offerings, it is coupled with a slightly better gear box. Though you still get that visceral, wrench-in-a-bucket "CLUNK" when hitting first gear.

Twist the tree-trunk-sized throttle and you are pulled forward with a tidal wave of smooth torque. Smoothness is the name of the game with the Chieftain, to the extent that there is something almost car-like about the ride. This is a feeling reinforced by a number of things, including the large dashboard contained within the bike's unique and enormous fairing.

The very first time I saw the Chieftain in person I found it to be intimidating. By the time I actually got a chance to ride the bike more than a year later I had come around to accepting its elephantine proportions but I still can't imagine ever seeing it as anything but excessive.

A 12v plug is intelligently placed in the dash, providing a place to hook up your GPS or heated gear. Analogue dials give information about speed, RPM and fuel, while a central readout offers pretty much everything else: time, temperature, compass, trip meters that measure both distance and time, fuel range, fuel economy, gear, tire pressure, heated grip setting (if equipped), and, of course, radio.

As a fan of techno-wizardry like ABS, traction control, electronic suspension, etc., I probably don't have much right to criticise, but: radio? I'm not a fan of radios on motorcycles. It's a feature that triggers an emotional gag reflex for me.

Admittedly, the Chieftain's radio is responsible for one of the more entertaining moments in my motorcycling life so far. At a stop light, I found myself between two leather-cut-adorned bikers with the radio blaring Taylor Swift's "Shake It Off." Within a millisecond, the three of us fell into a synchronized dance routine, waving our hands and singing, to the bafflement of surrounding car drivers and passengers. (On a side note, the boys in the RBLRB have got some pretty good moves.)


Despite that, a radio is not a feature I want on a motorcycle. In a car, sure. But not a motorcycle. The only reason I was listening to it is that I could not figure out how to turn the damned thing off. The ugly controls on the Chieftain's left grip are anything but intuitive and have the look of something slapped on at the last minute.

The same can be said for the for the cruise control switches on the right grip. I had been eager to test the bike's standard cruise control system but couldn't figure out how to activate it. Obviously, a little time and some studying of the owner's manual would help you get to grips with the bike's features but the fact that it's not intuitive means it will be distracting (and therefore dangerous) the first few times you use them.

The presence of a radio and cruise control as standard speaks again to the Chieftain's car-like feel. Something that is reinforced by the sheer size and weight of this machine; it is more than 3 feet wide and it weighs 850 lbs. Other amenities, such as the bike's keyless start and keyless panniers carry forward the four-wheeled spirit.

These aren't criticisms necessarily, but observations. The Chieftain is a different sort of motorcycle, perhaps one you've not encountered before. But just because the experience is notably different doesn't mean you'll complain. You especially won't complain about how comfortable it is. The leather seat is large and accommodating, the suspension plush. The presence of waterski-sized floorboards means you can move your feet around and stay comfortable over long hauls.

I've read a number of internet comments claiming the Chieftain is a bit small if you're over 6 feet tall. I don't agree. I'm 6 foot 1 and I had no issues with the ergonomics.


The suspension is adjustable, but you will have to do so manually and you'll have to remove a panel to do it. You'll get no fancy electronically adjustable suspension here. No rider modes or traction control. Pretty much the only modern rider aid you'll find is ABS. To this end, some snarky part of me feels obligated to point out that the BMW K1600 GT LE costs less than a standard Chieftain and offers more technological hurly-burly than you can imagine.

But admittedly, the K1600 and the Chieftain are something of an apples-and-oranges comparison, and the nature of the Indian's power delivery is such that you really don't need traction control. And as much as I talk about its girth and car-like nature, there's no denying the Chieftain is a joy. While test riding this bike I had a very real vision of not giving it back.

It is exactly as awkward as you would expect a bison-sized motorcycle to be at slow speed, but above 5 mph the bike is surprisingly nimble and well-balanced. Its 31º lean angle and 5-and-a-half-inch ground clearance meant I didn't experience any scraping when taking sharp corners. On the go, the Chieftain rides wonderfully and it is evident that the people who put this bike together put a lot of time and thought into it.

Which makes the screen all that more frustrating. Electronically adjustable, it seems like the windscreen should be yet another feature speaking to the class and luxury of the bike. But I found I suffered pretty intense buffeting regardless of where I set the stupid thing. Perhaps this is what guys over 6 feet tall are actually complaining about. For someone my height, the screen either needs to be taller, to block out the wind, or shorter, to allow the wind to hit my helmet uninterrupted. In its standard state, however, it is awful.


The range of different heights for the screen is not that great, and I found that in all cases the lip of the screen ran right across the line of my vision and made it difficult to confidently read the road when going into corners. Additionally, the curve of the screen was catching the sun and shining it in my eyes.

As my test ride wore on, my deep love for the Chieftain was soon overshadowed by my deeper hatred of its screen. This is why I would want to insist that a dealer resolve the problem free of charge. Indian have a taller screen listed in their accessory catalog; I would want this installed before I made final payment.

There are other minor quibbles. There's the ugly switchgear I mentioned earlier, of course. And the fact that the seat has fringe. I hate fringe. I despise fringe. But obviously that's just a matter of taste, and removing it isn't that hard.

Possibly also a manner of taste, but I think more a matter of safety, is my qualm with the fact the Chieftain runs on tubed tires. Bias tires blow up. That's what happened to Motorcycle.com's John Burns when he test rode the Indian Chief Vintage, which, like the Chieftain, comes with bias tires. However, the wheels on the Chieftain are alloy, so I'd suspect it possible to equip the bike with a decent set of radials.

The dashboard is hard to read in direct sunlight, but it may be that you can boost its brightness. No doubt you'd figure out how to do that whilst wading through the owner's manual for an explanation of how to turn the radio off.


The hard panniers are too small to hold a full-face helmet. I can't find any information on the bags' capacity but it didn't look like much. If you were planning to do some serious miles on the Chieftain, you'd probably want to invest in an accessory luggage rack.

And, of course, if you own a Chieftain you'll spend a fortune in chrome polish. But, really. the only complaint I have is the bike's screen. Fix that and I'd be very, very happy to own one.

So, with that all said:

The Three Questions

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
No. As much as I love the Chieftain, the odds of my ever owning one are actually pretty low. If I were looking to buy a bike of this sort, I'd still be far more likely to spend my money on a Victory Cross Country. That decision, though, would only come after I had convinced myself I didn't want a BMW R1200RT or a Triumph Trophy. And at the moment none of those bikes are on my radar, all being both too large to fit in my garden and well out of my price range.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Yes. Even with the horrible screen, I loved the Chieftain. It is a quality bike from top to bottom and if you happen to be an American, it's a bike that will give you a sense of pride. Yes, the United States is behind the rest of the world when it comes to motorcycling, but Indian is proof that things are changing. The Chieftain is a machine I was really happy to be seen on.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
Not in any measurable way, no. It costs twice as much as a Suzuki V-Strom 1000, weighs 330 lbs. more, gets less impressive fuel economy, and, despite having an engine that's 800 cc larger, it produces less horsepower. It is not as capable for all-round use, it's suspension isn't as easy to adjust (on the V-Strom you can adjust the rear whilst riding), and it's almost certainly more of a pain in the ass to clean.
However, motorcycles aren't just the sum of their numbers. And from an emotional standpoint, the Chieftain wallops any number of bikes. Fifty years from now no one in the old folks home will be impressed by the fact I used to ride a V-Strom. But if I could tell them about the Chieftain I rode cross country they'd swoon with wide-eyed jealousy.



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