Fully Charged – the Harley-Davidson LiveWire
Electric motorcycles built by small companies have existed for about a decade now, but large manufacturers have so far completely stayed away from them. Well, at least in production form since when it comes to concepts, Honda and Yamaha in particular have actually been quite prolific.
For 2020, all that changes with the $37,250 Harley-Davidson LiveWire entering the history books as the first electric motorcycle developed and produced by a large manufacturer.
The fact that, of all brands, tradition-oriented Harley-Davidson is the first to throw its hat in the electric motorcycle ring is remarkable. This aspect of the LiveWire is actually just as important as the bike itself.
What the LiveWire means for Harley-Davidson is a huge question to which no one—not even Harley-Davidson—knows the answer. If ever there was a case where only time will tell, this is it. What becomes of a brand that is so intrinsically connected to the unique look, sound and feel of its motorcycles when two of those defining aspects are gone? This will be an interesting case to follow and the other large manufacturers will pay special attention.
What does the LiveWire mean for the brand? Opinions vary. There are those who are completely disinterested in an expensive bike with limited range. But there has been some expression of interest from motorcyclists who had not previously considered Harley-Davidson as a viable option.
There has also been positive feedback from elements of the youth market that had until now rejected the notion of traditional vehicle ownership. They are aware of Harley-Davidson and become interested in the brand with the news that H-D now sells electric motorcycles.
According to Harley-Davidson LiveWire is only the first of a large family of electric motorcycles to come and some will be sold at considerably lower price points.
While trying to analyze what the consequences of the LiveWire might be for Harley-Davidson, evaluating the bike itself is straightforward. Other than being electric, the LiveWire pretty much rides like a good large displacement naked. Compared to something like a Suzuki GSX-S1000 or a Kawasaki Z1000, the electric Harley is narrower and a bit heavier, but otherwise very similar both in terms of proportions and ergonomics.
The riding position is of the “modern sport naked” type with high-ish pegs and a short reach to a wide handlebar that’s just low enough to give the rider’s torso a slight lean forward without placing any weight on the hands.
The result is a motorcycle that physically feels totally natural to motorcyclists used to any type or brand of modern sport-oriented model (sports tourer, naked, sportbike). And in case some are wondering since it is a Harley-Davidson: the LiveWire has no tie whatsoever to cruisers.
The LiveWire is different though when it comes to its propulsion system. Comparisons with internal combustion motorcycles become very difficult. The best example is performance: Harley claims zero to 100 kilometres per hour in a mere three seconds, about on par with the litre-class nakeds. The seat of the pants experience, though, is totally different.
Instead of an engine that roars and vibrates as rpms and acceleration increases, a sequence, which begins again with every upshift, the rider feels a tranquil but strong and constant force that pushes him forward with a decidedly surprising intensity and hears a “wooosh” composed of the high-pitched whine of the motor and of the wind charge.
Acceleration also differs from gas bikes in that it’s exempt from vibration and feels relentless until the top speed of almost 180 kmh is reached, which is plenty on a naked. Oh, and there’s no clutch or gears to change; this is an automatic motorcycle.
Pinning the LiveWire throttle in Sport mode (full power) from a stop is fun in an amusement park kind of way and I did it every chance I had. It was also hilarious getting catapulted out of corners by the instant torque on the Oregon back roads where I road tested the bike. So I punched it after every bend, and grinned every time. All of which might explain why my battery got drained considerably faster than for the rest of the group I was with.
As far as range goes, Harley-Davidson claims the 15.5-kilowatt battery and 105-hp/86-foot-pound motor combo is good for 235 km of city riding, 113 km of highway at a steady 113 kmh, and a not unrealistic 152 km of combined conditions. But, as I demonstrated, real life results really depend on your throttle hand.
Level One fully charges the battery in about 12.5 hours, so basically overnight, while a Level Three charging station will pump a full charge of electrons in an hour. Level 2 isn’t offered on the LiveWire, which is strange considering the hefty MSRP.
What also quickly became clear to me is that it’s a remarkably refined machine. For instance, thanks to the very predictable way power comes on and how precise its throttle, low-speed maneuvers are surprisingly accessible for a direct drive, clutchless machine.
Choose a low power mode like Eco or Rain and it becomes a totally non-intimidating bike for less experienced riders, or at least those capable of dealing with the 249-kg weight.
If there is a negative aspect to the LiveWire’s refined riding experience, it’s that the thing is almost completely silent. Harley says the transmission necessary to switch power 90 degrees after it comes out of the low and longitudinally mounted torpedo-shaped motor creates a unique gear whine that sets the LiveWire apart. In reality though, it’s almost impossible to hear, especially past, say 50 kmh when wind noise enters the picture.
For comparison, the much less refined Victory Empulse TT generated far more noises from its six-speed transmission and chain drive, enough to make people turn around to find what was coming toward them.
Electric drivetrain aside, the LiveWire pretty much behaves normally and well. Steering has a slight heaviness when entering corners and requires a small effort to maintain a chosen arc, but other than that, it’s just a good, big naked.
The brakes are excellent, the seat is fine for short to medium length rides and stability is impeccable, but suspension was too firm during my road test. The fully adjustable Showa components are high quality, so it should be possible to soften the ride, but there was no opportunity to make setting changes during the bike’s launch event so I can’t confirm it.
The LiveWire represents a courageous new chapter in Harley-Davidson’s long and rich history. The manufacturer describes it as the halo product of a future range of electric models and there’s no question after riding it that the LiveWire is indeed a mature, sophisticated, advanced and powerful motorcycle. But it also costs a whopping $37,250, forces owners to adapt to life with a vehicle that needs to be recharged and, emotionally, really doesn’t offer anything different than the electric whine whatever the next electron-powered bike will too.
One way to make sense of the price is to consider the model’s good level of equipment (full electronic suite with IMU support allowing rear-wheel lift mitigation along with cornering sensitive ABS and TC, 4.3-inch TFT screen, seven ride modes, top shelf suspension and brakes, etc.).
But really, what the LiveWire is at this point is an early adopter product, very much like the first plasma flat screens that were priced out of the reach of most buyers before they could become affordable to the masses.
by Bertrand Gahel, Canadian Biker #344