Now, I have a bit of a soft spot for Indian. The new-for-2015 Scout was the first project Abhi and I did together, and we had a great time ripping around the Southern California desert on a pair of them. If you have not seen it, you can check out the video here:
More recently, Abhi and I took a Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special and an Indian Chieftain out to Vegas on a little high desert Route 66 adventure and both of us preferred the Indian. For me, the big revelation on that trip was how comfortable the mid-rise ape-style handlebars are. It wasn’t what I expected, and it’s something that I’d test again on this trip.
What I don’t like:
A Little History
Back in the 1910s, the Indian Motorcycle company was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world and they were known for their racing prowess: at the 1911 Isle of Man TT Indian took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. The man who took second on that team was Charles Franklin, an Irish road racer and Isle of Man veteran who had been racing Indians since 1910. In 1914, Franklin joined Indian and eventually moved to the design department. His first design was the legendary Indian Scout, followed up shortly by the Chief.
Sadly, Franklin passed away in 1932 after a bout with cancer. However, the Chief would remain in production for over 30 years as a strong testament to his design. The model ended when the company ceased all production in 1953, and then the Chief (like the Indian brand) wandered the wastelands of mediocrity as multiple attempts tried and failed to cash in on the Indian legacy.
Over the years, Indians were scooters, Italian sport bikes, rebranded Royal Enfields, H-D clones, minibikes, and even a go-cart. In the late 1990’s a new attempt was made at domestic production of the Chief.
This review of the 1999-2003 Chief pretty much sums the challenges faced during these years:
“…handling is too kind a word for the 736-pound Chief’s ungainly urban conduct.”
“…quality wasn’t exactly job one… loose bolts contribute to an ingenious weight-loss program by allowing various bits to fall off at random intervals”.
– Tim Carrithers, Motorcyclist
Unsurprisingly, all of these attempts ended in bankruptcy.
The North Star
After languishing for so many years, new ownership would mark the beginning of something of a renaissance for the Indian brand. When Polaris purchased the Indian marque in 2013, one could be forgiven for assuming it was but another footnote in the brands checkered past. However, Polaris had a plan, and that plan would soon result in quite a few checkered flags.
In short, the reincarnated Indian has been killing it. Polaris’ parentage means quality control and a steady pipeline of innovation now support its products. As a result, Indian’s market share has been steadily growing in every market they are in. They are dominating Flat Track racing with their 4th consecutive American Flat Track title. And this year will see them compete for their second consecutive Bagger series title.
According to the Indian, this year is off with a bang and sales are on record pace. Given the well-received updates to the new FTR and the release of the new Chief, things don’t appear to be slowing down. Speaking of the new Chief…
The 2022 Indian Chief
I set off across the California desert on a beautiful Sunday morning headed to lovely Sedona, Arizona to attend the press launch of the brand-new Chief. I have been to the Sedona area several times over the years, but never on a motorcycle. However, I do know there are some fantastic roads up there, so yeah, I am looking forward to it.
Pulling into Sedona during golden hour, it is simply shocking how beautiful this place is. Once settled and checked into the room, it is time to head downstairs and check out the bike.
This was my first real chance to get up close and take a look at the new bikes. On first blush and in the slightly abstract context of a hotel meeting room, they look good. Clean lines, bold shapes, and a big v-twin. They certainly look the part and I am excited to get it on the road and find out if it rides as good as it looks.
One platform, three bikes, 6 models, tons of customization
The Chief is a stripped down, clean and simple cruiser. A solo seat is standard, as are mid-controls, mag wheels, and drag style handlebars. The Chief Bobber (referred to as “the Bulldog” by some Indian employees) has a more aggressive stance with forward controls and ape-hanger style bars. Mag wheels are replaced with 16” wire rims and covered shocks/forks complete the look. The Super Chief rounds out the line with creature comforts meant for the long haul including a detachable windscreen, floorboards, saddlebags, and a perch for a passenger.
The Chief and Chief Bobber come in a base or a “Dark Horse” version which adds the 116-cubic-inch engine and blacked-out components. The Super Chief has a Limited option which is essentially the opposite of the Dark Horse in that everything is chrome.
Besides the style cues, Indian took the opportunity to realign the Chief to slot in between the Scout and Chieftain as a proper heavyweight cruiser, albeit one that is more accessible to a wider variety of riders than the somewhat intimidating Chieftain. It makes sense. The new Chief makes for a logical steppingstone for Scout owners looking for a little more bike or Chieftain owners who are looking for a sportier option.
It is not too hard to figure out that Indian’s real target is their orange and black friends next door, specifically taking their cruiser segment head on. The Softails, Fat Boy, Fat Bob, and Low Rider S are squarely in the new Chief’s sights. Indian has done their homework and on paper the Chief line lands with a slight edge on price and the class-defining statistic…torque.
Time to hit the road
The plan is basically this: briefing and dinner in Sedona Sunday night. Rip down Arizona’s beautiful 89A and SR89 on Monday. Do a little camping down near Wickenburg Monday night and rip back up the way we came on Tuesday.
No Monday Morning Blues
The only thing blue was the sky. My steed would be a Chief Dark Horse in Black Smoke. The TFT display and high-quality fit and finish feel decidedly upscale and I am somewhat relieved to see that my bike has standard mid-controls. All Chiefs now come with keyless ignition and cruise control as standard. LED lighting is certainly nice and also to be expected on higher-dollar modern bikes. I can’t comment on how it works since we were not out in the dark at all.
As you would expect, the engine rumbles to life on the first push of the button. It takes a sec for the Ride Command Display to boot up, and once settled, we split into two groups and hit the road. At a claimed 670lbs wet, this is not a light bike, but it is well-balanced and easy to ride.
Once on the road I discover that neutral is easy to find. Perhaps too easy as I found myself missing 2nd gear shifts a couple of times. This is slightly embarrassing in a group ride. A little mental re-calibration and a more decisive upshift solved that problem.
Testing the Display
The first part of our ride is on unremarkable roads as we make our way out of Sedona and down to where the fun begins. That means plenty of time to play with the 4” Ride Command touch display and settings. (The base models get an analog display.) There are a bunch of options here, including a few display layouts, navigation, and the ability to manage ride modes, phone calls, and music. Indian has done a good job making it intuitive – we received absolutely no instruction on how it worked (which I am sure was intentional) and you don’t really need it. It was easy to figure out, and once set, I basically stopped thinking about it. I never tested the built-in navigation, but the map display certainly looked nice when I selected it by accident.
Man, this thing is torquey and in Sport mode throttle response is immediate. Like, REALLY immediate. That on/off nature mated to an engine that produces its peak torque at something like 2,900 rpm is a little hard to manage while riding through the really tight hairpins climbing up to and through Jerome, AZ. Switching to Standard mode helps, and Touring mode makes it a non-issue, although the throttle response is so dampened in Touring mode that you notice the mechanical play in the throttle before the revs start rising. This might be good in poor traction conditions, but I found the physical disconnect a little distracting. After playing with the various modes I ended up just leaving it in Standard for the rest of the day.
Our first photo stop. Until this point I had been pretty much just getting used to the new bike and feeling out the riding cadence of our group. At the stop you have a chance to take a breath and reset while you wait for your turn to go through the photo corner. That means it is the first time you get to ride at your own pace and get a better sense of the bike. On the first pass, I basically was riding the same way I had been while with the group: pretty much upright and in what I am going to call the cruiser position. Then I remembered, wait a second, I could actually shift my weight and push this thing through the corners. And I was rewarded. I never expected to use this term to describe a cruiser, but the 19” front tire, mag wheel, and mid-controls is, dare I say, flickable in the corners. It turns in easily, has a surprising amount of lean before the pegs start scraping, and it pulls out of a corner like a freight train. In other words, it is really, really fun.
Dropping down from the passes above Jerome we enter the high plains at the foot of the Bradshaw Mountains and the hamlet of Prescott, Arizona. Prescott is located at about 5,400 ft, a fact that would become important tomorrow. Today, it is a little on the cool side, but the sun is shining. We park the bikes and head over to grab some lunch at the Raven Café.
We had ordered ahead, and my past-self decided I needed more vegetables. [Editor’s Note: I was so offended by this sentence that I almost deleted the whole paragraph.] The salad was delivered quickly and even more quickly consumed. Tasty, but the burgers I saw being delivered to my compatriots certainly looked more satisfying. However, finishing my lunch early meant I had some extra time to head back to the bike and reflect on it in its element.
According to Reid Wilson (Indian VP), Indian had a simple formula for the design of this bike. He called it SPT. Simplicity -> Performance -> Technology. And it goes in that order. For example, if some technology they wanted to introduce interfered with performance or simplicity, it was omitted.
A simple enough concept, but to their credit, they seem to have played it out all the way through to the final design. Down in weight from 730lbs to 670lbs, the design is clean and modern compared to the previous model.
A few years ago, Indian brought on Ola Stenegard to become their new Director of Product Design, and this is one of the first all-new models since he took the helm. At the press briefing Indian presented a little video they made with Ola explaining the design genesis and thinking that went into the creation of the new platform. As a bit of a design nerd, I always love seeing the concept work and the evolution that happens during the act of creation. Here are some concept design shots that Indian provided:
To the Mountains
Well-fed and warmed by sun during our al fresco COVID-safe lunch, it was time to hit some real twisties. The Bradshaw Mountains south of Prescott is where 89A becomes SR89 and the fun really begins. It is a beautiful road. I drove it the day before on my way to Sedona and let me tell you, it is infinitely more fun on the Chief than in my lifted and admittedly top-heavy 4Runner. Climbing out of the burn scar near Prescott you enter a domain of good pavement, properly cambered corners, and gorgeous alpine views.
In the cruiser segment, torque reigns supreme and all three bikes feature Indians 49-degree, air-cooled Thunder Stroke V-Twin. To say that the Thunder Stroke delivers is a bit of an understatement. 111-cubic-inch versions are standard, and a 116-cubic-inch is available on all models. The bike I am on has the 116ci and man this thing pulls. Producing something like 120 lb-ft of glee-inducing torques, you basically cannot lug this engine. It has more than enough grunt to pull from almost any gear and any RPM. Accidentally start in 2nd, 3rd, or hell even 4th gear and you barely notice it.
The engine also features rear-cylinder deactivation. A feature found on other big Indians, on paper this is designed to help with heat buildup while sitting in traffic or at stoplights. I don’t think it ever got warm enough to test this feature, but I did notice that you could easily manage this feature from the system display.
The bike has all the big v-twin “rumble and shake” at idle, but once moving it is surprisingly smooth. On our Harley vs Indian ride, I certainly remember the hand-numbing vibrations of those big cruisers. I did not experience that issue with this bike.
The Chief comes standard with a Pirelli® Night Dragon 130/60B19 61H up front. The Bobber and Super Chief both have a much wider 130/90B16 67H. All three come with a fat Pirelli® Night Dragon 180/65 B16 81H in the rear.
Up front is a single 300mm rotor with 4 piston caliper and a single 300mm rotor with two piston caliper sits at the rear. ABS is available but not standard. All of the bikes I rode had it. Braking was unremarkable as it seemed to be more than capable of what I asked of it. Several people asked about the decision to only have a single caliper up front and it comes back to that idea of simplicity. It is not there, because it is simply not needed. I found no reason to argue.
All three bikes get preload-adjustable exposed dual shocks on the rear and a traditional nonadjustable telescopic fork in front. It is a simple setup and it seemed to work well. The suspension seemed well-suited to the task of hauling me (5’11” and 200 lbs) around. The bike feels planted and never got out of sorts despite my overly enthusiastic inputs.
Ending our day, we pull into the gravel lot of the Vulture City ghost town. Once a small mining town, it has now become something of a museum and glamping destination. (although with a little more camping in the glamping) I chose a teepee with a nice view of what I would later learn was “the hanging” tree. Apparently 18 people were officially hung from this tree back in the day. Who knows what the real number is.
Enter “The Brute”
The next day things took an ominous turn. A front had blown in overnight and although it made for some pretty cool pictures, our planned route home was now inundated by rain and snow. Luckily, Indian had some rain gear for us, and we suited up. The plan was to make for our planned photo stop at the base of the Weaver Mountains where we would pick up our police escort for some rolling shots.
My ride for the day is the Chief Bobber Dark Horse in Sagebrush Smoke. If the Bobber is “the Bulldog”, then the Bobber Dark Horse is “the Brute.” Fully kitted with Stage 2 upgrades and high-rise ape-hangers, I was ready to rev bomb my way home. Truly, the bike maketh the man and basically everything about me felt way more aggressive on the Bobber.
At this point, the temperature was dropping rapidly, however the weather gods had given us a break and the road was dry for our runs up the mountain. At the top, The Ranch House Restaurant had agreed to open up for us and provided a much-needed respite from the cold as well as hot coffee and some excellent apple fritters.
Once everyone had their turn with the camera car, it was decision time. With it snowing in Prescott, we decided to try an end run around the front and avoid the worst of it. So south we went towards my old stomping grounds of North Phoenix. After a pit stop for lunch, we jumped on the 17 and slogged it home to Sedona in the rain and cold. This was actually a pretty useful experience. As much as a motorcycle road trip is about hitting the twisties, a highway slog is usually inevitable. I was again surprised by how comfortable the high bars are for pounding miles. Cruise control came in handy, although it can be a little challenging to use while riding in a group. I mostly used it to have a chance to jam my right hand down between the cylinders in a futile attempt to regain feeling in my fingers. Since I ride predominantly in Southern California, all of my gloves are perforated. This was not much fun in 40-degree rain. Heated grips are available, but only one of the test bikes had them equipped..
Still, the Bobber performed admirably in these less than ideal conditions, and soon enough we found ourselves pulling up to the hotel.
Indian has built a bike worthy of carrying the Chief name. Should you want to add some individuality to yours, Indian has you covered with a comprehensive line of accessories ready to go. I don’t think it is too far to say that this bike has the bones to become a classic, and it is going to be very interesting to see what the custom scene does when they get their hands on it. If you are in the market for a cruiser, the new Chiefs absolutely belong on your short list.
Check out the 2022 Indian Chief Lineup!