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Harley-Davidson’s Electric Motorcycle Is Brilliant

But is "brilliant" good enough to justify the LiveWire's $30,000 price tag?

© Chris Cantle   Cantle_LiveWire_001.JPG

By Chris Cantle, Road & Track

Twist your right wrist back and the electric whine of a science-fiction soundtrack disappears into the sound of the wind and the helmet-muffled snort of your own incredulous laughter. Harley-Davidson, ever-reliable stamper-outer of reliably beefy cruisers, has built a genuinely joyous and exciting electric motorcycle in the new LiveWire. This isn’t the experience most would expect from Harley’s nascent electric effort. Even the hardcore riding faithful—pigeonholed by the LiveWire’s hefty $30,000 price tag, fairly modest range or their own expectations—have thumbed their nose at the notion of an electrified hog. That’s a mistake.

Electric motorcycles have only been good—genuinely, competitively, entertainingly good—for a few years. It’s an exceedingly difficult thing, packaging electrified hardware inside the tiny confines of a motorcycle’s frame, and in the short space between its wheels. Enough kilowatt hours to get you where you want to go. Enough electronic control to draw down tightly-packed lithium cells, evenly, efficiently and repeatedly. Think about an electric car, how it spreads its substantial weight evenly across the floor of the vehicle, lowering the center of gravity. And think about how you just can’t do the same thing on a machine designed to lean. Think about the size of the damned charging cable. How that essential cord alone on your electric Ford or your Tesla or your Chevy can consume the volume of, say, a motorcycle fuel tank, or all of a scooter’s under-seat storage.

© Kevin Wing Photography   Harley-Davidson’s Electric Motorcycle is Brilliant

But slowly and steadily, a trickle of very compelling electric motorcycles has made its way out of boutique manufacturers and started to take on increasingly complex duties. Lightning’s wildly exotic LS-218 claims gobsmacking times on the drag strip. Energica’s sportbikes have made the move from novel street-going machines to FIM competition, underpinning the MotoE championship. The much-missed Alta (a short-lived partner of Harley-Davidson, until the brand’s untimely demise) showed the promise of electric off-roaders, while tiny British company Oset forges gloriously liberating electric trials machines of all sizes.

Until Harley-Davidson announced its entry into the electric motorcycle market, the segment seemed like the wild west. You can’t compare an Alta to a Lightning, or the Energica to a Zero. They’re all purposeful machines, aimed at slightly different demographics. The LiveWire? Its purpose might well be giving every single motorcycle manufacturer an America-sized bullseye to aim at.

© Chris Cantle

Harley has taken the market seriously. The LiveWire is equipped like a premium motorcycle ought to be. Fully-adjustable Showa suspension fore and aft, Harley’s latest suite of electronic rider aides, an excellent 4.3-inch color touchscreen, and mobile connectivity. The screen can show you the location of nearby chargers, too, and the LiveWire is equipped for level 3 DC fast charging, as well as for sipping from your household current. Boxes? Checked. Making it good, making it all work together, making it coherent, that’s the challenge.

Harley’s showing off the bike in the California foothills just after the first snow of the season. The air is biting and sweet-smelling, and Livewires are lined up along a boulevard in vivid oranges and greens, like an early citrus crop. They’re unapologetically sporty, more athletic in appearance than anything else in Harley-Davidson’s lineup. There’s not a lick of the homebuilt-electric aesthetic, and the curb appeal is undeniable. Hints of the venerable XR-750 all over.

Like electric cars, there’s a little adjustment off the bat. Once the machine is turned on, the LiveWire is, effectively, armed. The internet is well-stocked with video of unsuspecting riders casually and unintentionally whacking open the digital throttle of silently waiting electric machines to hilarious, if dangerous, effect. To combat this, Harley has given the LiveWire a heartbeat. Turn the bike on and there’s an audible click, then the dash lighting goes green, and just like that, the machine is ready to ride. A subtle thump you feel through the bars and pegs is the only other feedback that the Harley is running. That’s the machine rocking the big electric motor, making the LiveWire pulse underneath you. It’s a good reminder of easily-tapped potential if you’re new to electric machines. If you’re an old hand, the thumping feels like the bike moving slightly against the grabby friction of a lightly-held brake.

That transition, from electric noob to cagey veteran, can happen in a block on the LiveWire. In town and in traffic it’s an absolute pleasure. It’s quiet, allowing conversation with riding buddies. Throttle modulation, which could so easily be overwhelming or un-appealingly digital, is instead subtly weighted and nuanced. You can feel everything you’re asking of the machine with your right hand. With your left, there’s no clutch to work, so at lights you can casually flip through ride modes on the touch screen, or prod at your navigation tools. Pulling away, it’s more nimble than its 553-lb. claimed curb weight would indicate, easy to swoop between the trailer mirrors of smoke-belching trucks. It would make a great commuter, but that’d be such a waste when you can aim it at a tight thread of canyon road.

© Chris Cantle

There’s nothing like riding the LiveWire uphill, especially if you’re swift about it. A little group is quick to separate from the others on the ride up into the foothills—all with track time under their belts, all talented, all safe—and there’s genuine joy chasing them up the damp asphalt through sage and pine in weirdly rapid quiet. Of leaving your ears unprotected against the sound of combustion, and letting the whistle in your helmet stand in as a speedometer. Prodigious torque slings the bike out of corners; it’s always there, waiting, the tightest of switchbacks disappear behind you instantly. Honest 3-second 0-60mph times are reasonable. Reliable, too; you can’t bungle an upshift. You’re left to manage corner entry, to sense your speed, to hear your tires doing their work on the chilly morning asphalt. It’s peculiar, not to have the howl of induction and exhaust, the chatter of valves. It’s a feeling of effortlessness. It’s transcendent.

Harley-Davidson has the belt drive dialed. It’s become something of a calling card, one you'll find on big Fat Bobs and sporty Roadsters alike. They make sense for road-going machines, requiring little maintenance, creating little racket, and lasting ages. But even with years of expertise in the things, Harley had to invest time and effort into silencing their already quiet belts for Livewire duty. So the noise you hear when you’re hustling hard isn’t a sound like a quietly chirping alternator belt, but instead the thrilling high-speed gear whine of LiveWire’s bevel primary drive. What you get is dreamy, futuristic, supercharger-like as you sling up to speed.

You hear all kinds of other things. Riding in a group, you hear the sound of other bikes finding traction or skipping across gaps in the pavement. You hear wind, and, when you slow, birds. It’s very new, unsettling even, the feeling of going that fast and Hoovering up so much of your environment into your senses at the same time.

What you’re not Hoovering up, at least not in an immediate sense, is fuel. To that end, the LiveWire is equipped with a 15.5-kWh battery, driving a motor good for a claimed 105 horsepower and 146-mile range. Lift the elegantly designed seat hinge, access the Level 3 charging system, and you can have a fully depleted battery charged in 60 minutes. There are other pretty touches and few let-downs. The bar-mounted front brake lever is typical Harley; non-adjustable and chrome-plated and meaty. A peculiar interface between the seat and the hump of what would be a fuel tank is upholstered. It’s padded and cozy, but a little slippery for athletic riding.

There’s snow just above our elevation when we stop. It’s chilly, and there’s no radiant heat pouring off the cases to warm your shins and thighs. The bikes don’t ping as they cool off. It’s not missed. They just sit quietly, oranges and greens vivid against the bright white of snow and dark slabs of wet rock.

© Chris Cantle   But is "brilliant" good enough to justify the Harley-Davidson LiveWire's $30,000 price tag?

It’s hard to imagine this happening often—more than one or two hard-ridden Livewires sat together and basking in the sun, miles from a charging station. As special as hustling Harley’s halo bike alongside its mates is, as novel and thrilling as the experience it provides, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen for you. Not anytime soon, anyway. That’s because the novelty comes at a price: $30,000—a lot to ask for any motorcycle, much less a machine that can only outperform gas-burning bikes on a narrow sensory level. An adventurous few early adopters will be well-served by the LiveWire. It’s a brilliant machine. But if they want to go riding in the canyons with their friends, they’re going to have to put up with the racket of internal combustion. Though, with most contemporary high-end motorcycles featuring similar technologies, sporting twice the horsepower and more range, early adopters won’t have to ponder the racket of those exhaust notes for long.

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Autos Magazine: Harley-Davidson’s Electric Motorcycle Is Brilliant
Harley-Davidson’s Electric Motorcycle Is Brilliant
But is "brilliant" good enough to justify the LiveWire's $30,000 price tag?
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