“There’s a photo I want to get.” Over the years, I’ve learned that when Nathan May utters those words, it’s worth enabling him. It’s also usually at a location nearby. “Okay, where? Want to go later today?” His response was short, but not what I expected: “Vegas!“
Alright, I guess we weren’t going today. But I wanted to see what Nathan had in mind, and I knew that riding to Las Vegas presented a good excuse for us to test some motorcycles. The question was, which ones? When it comes to highway slogs in the American Southwest, it feels appropriate to ride big American baggers, and it sure felt like a sign that Indian had just released a new version of their Chieftain to take on the Harley-Davidson Street Glide. Question answered.
Photos by Nathan May.
When the Indian Chieftain was first released in 2014, I liked it more than its closest competitor from Harley, the Street Glide. What I didn’t care for was the classic styling – I thought the Harley looked much better with its iconic Batwing fairing. It seems that I wasn’t the only one with that aesthetic preference, as Indian updated the Chieftain in September and the most obvious change was the appearance. Those of you that prefer the old look don’t have to fear, as it continues on in a model that Indian is calling the “Chieftain Classic“.
Almost every “First Look” article that accompanied the new Chieftain included a quote from the senior director of Indian, Reid Wilson: “As we continue to evolve the Indian Motorcycle brand, we want to expand our lineup with more aggressive style options, while still maintaining the availability of our more classic style options. What’s most important to us is developing motorcycles that meet a wide variety of customer style preferences, and Chieftain’s new look does just that.”
I have no problem with updating the classic style with something more modern – I believe it was a wise decision on Indian’s part. But when they first revealed photos of the new Chieftain, my first thought was “wow, Harley’s designers must be pissed”. My gut reaction was that the new fairing was a rip off of the Batwing.
It was until we put the bikes right next to each other that I saw the differences.
The Chieftain’s updates are more than just skin deep, and there’s several changes. Minor tweaks include a new seat, redesigned tweeters, and lowered rear suspension, but the two most significant changes involve the motor. The first is the inclusion of ride modes. Thanks to the drive-by-wire throttle (which is not new for the model), you can now select from Tour, Standard, and Sport. I played with each mode once and then kept the bike in Tour the whole trip. Secondly, the Chieftain now features “Rear Cylinder Deactivation”. If the ambient temperature is above 59 degrees and the engine is already at operating temp, then the ECU will shut down the rear cylinder when you’re at a standstill. Harley has had something similar for a decade – they call it the “Engine Idle Temperature Management System”, but that’s solely dependent on engine temperature. Harley’s system feels oriented to preventing the motor from overcooking, while Indian’s system feels like it’s also got rider leg comfort in mind.
The Harley gets a couple of significant updates to fight back with. While the base Street Glide comes with the Milwaukee-Eight 107 cubic inch V-twin, the Special gets a displacement bump to 114 ci – Indian’s motor is a 111, if you think that size means everything. In addition, a much improved infotainment system called the Boom! Box GTS is standard fitment. It’s a 6.5″ unit with Gorilla Glass that matches Indian’s Ride Command with the ability to play music, adjust bike settings, connect to your phone, and provide on-board GPS navigation.
Street Glide : Street Glide Special :: Chieftain : Chieftain Dark Horse.
Both of these bikes are slight variations on other models – the Street Glide Special is based on the Street Glide, while the Dark Horse is based on the Chieftain. “Dark Horse” does a good job of explaining the concept, as the primary difference is a blacked out drivetrain. Still, it’s odd to me that one can get a “Dark Horse” in white.
While Harley-Davidson provided us with a 100% stock Street Glide (MSRP of $27,089), Indian sent over a bike with a few modifications:
Thunder Stroke Stage 1 Performance Air Intake – $519, 3% claimed increase in horsepower.
Thunder Stroke Stage 1 Exhaust Kit – $699.
Mid Rise Handlebar – $409, 4″ rise over stock.
Select Package – pegs ($155) and grips ($165).
Considering that the Dark Horse’s starting price is $26,749, the extra accessories make the as-tested price $28,696. I’m not worried about the cosmetic touches, but the bolt-on intake and exhaust obviously need to be kept in mind when comparing performance between the two bikes.
With all that out of the way, Nathan and I hopped on our big American baggers and we headed to Vegas. Over the course of our trip, I wanted to compare the bikes across six categories: Highway Comfort, Drivetrain, Features, Handling, Storage, and Styling.
HIGHWAY COMFORTLeaving Culver City, we headed east and immediately got settled in on the freeway with the hopes of getting into Vegas as soon as possible. We chewed up the miles, switching bikes every time we had to stop for fuel. That worked out to approximately 200 miles, which is what the Chieftain would yield. The range display on the Street Glide suggested that the Harley could have gone another 30-40 miles each time, and it would not have been a problem to cover those miles without stopping as I found the seat on the Harley to be more comfortable. In a straight line, I also found the Harley’s handlebars to be more comfortable as they’ve got more of a backwards bend to them which tucks my elbows in towards my body.
The main disadvantage of the Harley was wind protection for my legs. Because I am a fool, I wore regular jeans instead of riding jeans. They were light enough that they got blown around by the wind, and by the end of the trip the ends of my jeans had actually rubbed off some of the skin on my ankles. After I got back home, I made sure to wear heavier jeans and/or taller boots and I never had a problem with it again.
With or without the mid-rise bars of my specific loaner, the Indian is a pleasant enough place to sit for hours at a time, plus it gets points for having an electronically-adjustable windshield that helps cut down a little bit of wind blast at highway speeds. Both bikes offer barely adequate suspension travel, but if I had to hit a bump at speed I’d rather be on the Street Glide as it seemed to transmit less shock from impact.
WINNER: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special
DRIVETRAINLast year, I preferred Indian’s 111 motor to Harley’s 107. But the main update of the Street Glide Special for 2019 is Harley’s new 114 motor, and there’s a reason why people say there’s no replacement for displacement.
Nathan and I managed some impromptu drag races during our trip. On the highway, it was basically a dead heat when we tried pulls from anywhere between 50-80 in 5th and 6th gear. Remember that Indian provided us a test bike that had a Stage 1 upgrade, which means that the Harley motor is more powerful from the dealership floor. The Harley did had a small advantage when leaving from a stop, but it was never enough for whoever was riding the Harley at the time to convincingly make fun of the Indian pilot.
H-D and Indian don’t release horsepower figures for these bikes, and I can’t afford an in-house dyno, but Motorcycle.com has seen the following results from previous tests of these motors (H-D source, Indian source, all numbers at the rear wheel):
Nathan and I chatted on our Sena headsets all throughout the trip, and at one point he mentioned that clutchless shifting was smoother on the Indian. I had never even thought to try with bikes like these. I came to the same opinion as him when I tried it myself, but I’d be stunned if riders of these baggers were shifting without the clutch regularly anyway.
One thing to note is that the Street Glide’s fueling was spot-on perfect the entire trip. There were two instances when I started the Chieftain and there was a minor bog just off-idle. Both times the issue was solved by completely powering down the bike and restarting it.
I feel confident in saying that the Harley is faster than the Indian, but neither of these bikes is truly “fast” in the motorcycling world anyway. Both bikes are quick enough to smoke most cars, and is anyone going to buy the Harley simply because it’s a little bit faster than the Indian?
WINNER: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special, but does anyone really care?
FEATURESPart of Harley’s charm for their usual customer is their balance of old-school and new-school. I’m not sure I find it all that charming. One anachronism that stuck in my mind was the heel-toe shifter, which was amusing for a few minutes and then annoying because it got in the way of resting your foot on the left floorboard. More old-school feel comes from the lack of a side stand kill switch, which is standard on the Chieftain.
As mentioned above, the Indian has an adjustable windshield (the Harley does not), and I think the storage cubby on the Indian is easier to access. In addition, the Indian’s saddlebags have power locks that can be manipulated from the remote key fob, but you’ll have to use the physical key to lock and unlock the Street Glide bags. But the focus of this comparison has to be on Ride Command vs. Boom! Box – what Indian and Harley-Davidson call their respective infotainment systems. On paper, the systems are quite equal in terms of what they offer, but if you gave me a specific task to complete, chances are I’d find it easier to do on Indian’s system, which has more intuitive controls. Out of many possible functions, the only thing I thought was easier to do on the Harley was to change playlists on my phone when I was listening to music via Bluetooth. Both companies advertise louder speaker systems than they offered last year, but in a head-to-head comparison the Indian puts out the most volume.
The one thing the Chieftain gives up to the Street Glide is a lean-sensitive automatic turn signal cancel, if that matters to you. I was also somewhat stunned that both bikes do not have standard heated grips, considering the price point.
WINNER: Indian Chieftain Dark Horse
HANDLINGApproaching Nevada, Nathan and I ditched the highway for some two lane blacktop in a hunt for the occasional curve available in the American Southwest.
Both of these bikes are big beasts of burden. The Chieftain is the “lightweight” at 827 pounds wet, though the Street Glide is only 9 pounds heavier. That initially surprised me, as the Indian looks and feels bigger in person.
To get a few more curves in, we headed to Valley of Fire State Park. It’s nearly the perfect combination of windy roads, perfect pavement, and beautiful vistas, which is why it’s often used as a filming location for car commercials.
Both bikes require firm, deliberate inputs, so going around corners is about what you’d expect. While the Harley handlebar shape makes for comfortable straight line cruising, the trade-off is a slight awkwardness to the controls around tight twisties. The Indian’s floorboards don’t cause as much commotion when scraping on the ground, and the forks have one less degree of rake (25° vs 26°) which contribute to be the feeling of nimbler handling.
WINNER: Indian Chieftain Dark Horse
STORAGEThough the plan was to end in Vegas, we had to make a stop in Pahrump first – because that’s the closest location of Phantom Fireworks! California isn’t very firework-friendly, so we figured we should take advantage of the relaxed laws in Nevada and experiment with some miniature explosions.
This challenge was simple – which bike could fit more fireworks? Nathan told a couple of sweet ladies at Phantom what he was looking for from a visual standpoint, and they suggested we stock up on Lighthouse Fountains. Indian claims slightly larger saddlebags, and that was proven out in real life as I was just able to squeeze 3 fountains in each saddlebag.
Both bikes have good top-loading bags, but Indian has a slight size advantage and the power locks don’t hurt, either.
WINNER: Indian Chieftain Dark Horse
STYLINGI think the Harley is the better looking bike, and the beautiful “Wicked Red Denim” paint scheme is just the cherry on top. But styling is subjective, so I polled as many strangers as I could to see what they thought – I ended up asking 60 people about their preference over our weekend trip.
Some random observations include how often people would mention “I’m biased” while saying they preferred the Harley-Davidson as they owned one themselves. In general, women and veterans preferred the Harley. Self-proclaimed non-riders liked the Indian more, and many of them said that the Indian looked meaner with the black paint.
This security guard said that the Harley fairing looks “ancient”, while the Indian fairing looks “modern”.
Votes for the Street Glide Special
Votes for the Chieftain Dark Horse
I think the Chieftain Dark Horse looks best in Thunder Black Smoke. The other options of Bronze Smoke and White Smoke look weird with the black eyeliner around the headlight:
WINNER: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special
OVERALLWe made it to the location Nathan scouted with ample time before sunset, and he got right to shooting.
After some time and lots of photos, Nathan felt like he had got the photo he wanted. So we discussed our steeds while waiting for the sunlight to completely disappear. One thing we couldn’t help but notice is the amount of people we encountered on the trip that would buy the Harley just because of the name. There’s something to that – whenever Nathan and I referred to both bikes, we always said “Harley and Indian”, never “Indian and Harley”. I can’t tell you why.
Though Nathan and I didn’t agree on every point, we did come to the same conclusion: while the Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special has more pep, it wasn’t enough to overcome the overall package of the Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, which is easier to live with on a day to day basis.
If it was my money, I’d get the Chieftain Dark Horse and call it a day after spending $309.99 for heated grips, $184.99 on a 13.9″ taller windshield, and $699.99 for a Stage 1 slip-on exhaust.
Check out the 2019 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special! Check out the 2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse!