I should start this off by noting that I’m not much of a cruiser guy. But I’ve been very excited by the revival of Indian and the presence of a legitimate competitor to Harley-Davidson, so I figured it was time for me to finally get on one of Polaris’ new bikes for a little trip.
Let’s start with the essentials about the Chieftain:
+ Torque. Torque everywhere.
+ More floorboard clearance than you’d expect (and predictable behavior when it does scrape)
+ Impressive technology
+ Cockpit aerodynamics – the power-adjustable windshield is excellent at any height. Wish it went another half-inch, though.
– Heated grips aren’t an option.
– Balky 1st-2nd shift when the bike is cold
– The seat. The seat gets too hot if you’re stationary (more of an engine heat issue than a seat issue), and it’s not comfortable after a couple of hours in the saddle.
It’s what you expect – big, comfortable, and expensive. But Indian is onto something, and it’s clear they’re going to be stealing some of Harley’s market share with this bagger. Understand that this isn’t really my type of motorcycle, but I now understand why it appeals to so many.
4 out of 5 stars. If you want to know how I got to these opinions, read on for some more details about my week with the Chieftain, including a weekend trip up to San Francisco and back to Los Angeles.
We started with sunrise on a Friday morning, and as soon as we hit the road, two things became immediately obvious. First, this bike has much more technology than I expected: keyless start, central locking saddlebags, a trip computer with all the usual functionality (mpg, tire pressure, ambient air thermometer, gear position indicator and more) and an impressively loud stereo in the front fairing that seamlessly integrated with my girlfriend’s iPhone, allowing for volume/track/playlist control through the handlebar controls. Not bad.
As you may know, Indian has been reborn thanks to Polaris, which bought the troubled American brand back in 2011. It was therefore only fitting that we rode by another recent Polaris creation, the Slingshot.
In terms of competition, the Chieftain is pretty much lined up against the Harley-Davidson Street Glide. I haven’t ridden the latter so all I’ll say is that I prefer the Harley from a styling standpoint…
…but the Indian War Bonnet is one of the coolest styling features of a motorcycle in history. As you’d expect, it lights up at night.
We kept fighting through early morning coastal fog on our way north, where I found myself very pleased with the Chieftain’s front fairing (and electronically adjustable windscreen). I’m 6’2″ and was just barely covered when the screen at max height. The power adjustment was very convenient (and frequently used). Buffeting was basically non-existent, which is not something I say often.
The fog eventually burnt off as we approached San Simeon. Everytime I head north on PCH, I make a point to stop at the Elephant Seal overlook just a few miles north of Hearst Castle. It was there that I got distracted by this KTM 1190 Adventure with a Turkish license plate:
I got a chance to meet Tolga, a filmmaker who is currently riding around the world. After you get over your jealousy, I suggest you check out his site, Ride Must Go On.
It was by this point in the trip that I was really starting to enjoy the Chieftain’s gigantic engine. A 111 cubic inch hunk of metal dubbed the Thunder Stroke, the powerplant puts out an impressive 119 pound feet of torque, making it easy to enjoy PCH without needing to shift very often. It’s also not bad looking, though I will say that the font of the “111” on the left side of the engine always bothered me when I looked at it. I just don’t think it looks right.
Click on the picture to get a larger image, where you can decide for yourself how the 111 looks – just try not to get distracted by the majesty of the wave crashing in the background. It should be noted that I got about 38 miles per gallon on my trip, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m heavy on the throttle because life is just more fun that way.
Several more hours on PCH allowed me to determine two more things: The Chieftain can lean over more than I expected, and the seat stops being comfortable after about 3 hours. My girlfriend felt the same way, and she’s never complained about a seat before – though she did appreciate the backrest. We both felt that the seats were just a little thin on padding.
Eventually we got into San Francisco, where we spent the entire next day in the city. I was initially concerned about lane-splitting and low-speed maneuvers with a cruiser that weighs 848 pounds wet, but it was still feasible. The turning circle isn’t horrendous but it’s hard to be confident on a bike that weighs this much when you’re going at walking speed, playing with the friction zone of the clutch. Backing up to parallel park in the city was a pain in the ass, but the low seat height ensures you can get enough leverage to inch your way forward and back as necessary. The Chieftain handled the traffic of SF just fine, even at the absurd angles of streets like Lombard. But even after cranking the preload on the rear shock up to compensate for being 2-up and mostly full of luggage, I wasn’t as happy with how it handled the potholes of SF – just too much crashing and rattling going on. With that said, I suspect analyzing how this bike handles city duty might be missing the point slightly.
We also encountered plenty of rain, which gave me a chance to see how good the weather protection was. Short answer – good enough. The rider’s legs aren’t really protected – you’re going to have to get an Indian Roadmaster if you want lower fairings. Annoyingly, you also have to upgrade to the Roadmaster if you want heated grips, which I think is an oversight. Indian allows you to add certain accessories to the Chieftain like heated seats, a trunk, or a taller windshield, but I wasn’t able to add heated grips to the Chieftain (at least on the online configurator), and that’s a mistake.
The Chieftain was a great introduction to the world of cruisers. If you’re looking at picking up a Harley bagger any time soon, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t test ride a Chieftain first.