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OddBike: OddBike Road Test: Harley-Davidson LiveWire

harley bets on smaller bike

Monday, 17 August 2015 OddBike Road Test: Harley-Davidson LiveWire

It's the mantra of the Canadian test pilot, the phrase ingrained into our collective consciousness through years of steady conditioning. We can rattle off the rules as if they were our name, rank and serial number. Anyone in this country who dares to be so self-entitled as to request a test ride aboard a motorcycle they are considering for purchase will be subjected to the bane of our existence: the heavily regulated demo ride.

Canadian dealerships are notoriously strict when it comes to lending out bikes. Unless you are a good friend of a high-level employee, or frequent the sort of time-capsule mom-and-pop bike shops that are rapidly disappearing, odds are you will never be allowed to test ride a machine outside of a tightly controlled, fully supervised, predetermined demo route. Riding a bike that you haven't bought yet is a virtual impossibility when you are dealing with big-box dealerships. There are liability issues, don't you know. They could get sued. One moron wrote off a bike on an unsupervised test 10 years ago and they haven't let anyone so much as sit on a bike in the showroom without a salesperson being present and a waiver being signed since then.

So it is that I'm straddling the Harley-Davidson Livewire on a cool Calgary afternoon, feigning my full attention as a grizzled Milwaukee employee, who looks like he is about 108% percent done with this shit, rattles off the rules of the ride we all know. It still didn't stop the over eager squid behind me from jumping the gun and initializing his bike into ride mode before we were instructed to do so, which has brought forth a cringe worthy admonition from Mr. Done. I hate demo rides and generally avoid them like the plague, even if I'm genuinely interested in trying out a particular machine - there is no possible way you can glean any meaningful conclusions from the experience, which generally will be limited to a not-at-all-scenic tour of the city blocks immediately surrounding the dealership led by an orange-clad marque representative who will always be riding the slowest and dullest machine they brought along, with 20 wobbly dolts on unfamiliar machines boxing you in on all sides.

Normally I'd leave this sort of pedantic bullshit to the folks who think a controlled demo ride is a worthy use of one's time. But this time is different. I'm aboard a prototype machine that represents a sea change in one of motorcycling's most conservative marques, and the mere fact I have the opportunity to ride it is something special. I don't want to pass up the opportunity to be on the ground floor of Harley thoroughly pissing off its traditional clientele in the pursuit of their future.

I first saw the LiveWire in person at the Calgary Motorcycle Show, where it was presented in the precise manner you'd expect Harley to showcase something modern and interesting: setup in a low-rent booth stuffed into a less travelled corner of the exhibition, as far away from the HD main stage as possible (you couldn't even see one stand from the other if you tried). The focus of HD's gleaming, candy-coloured display, aside from the usual selection of chrome-addled Sportsters and Twin Cams, was the new line of execrable Street models that they were pitching to everyone with a pulse who wandered within 10 feet of the display. Chipper young career salesmen (and they were all men) circled the stage looking for unsuspecting victims to barrage with buzzwords and cringe-inducing press release hyperbole about the new Street models. There was a desperate, palpable hope lingering in the air that these pieces of shit will lure young blood into the Motor Company's clutches while they desperately try to penetrate a new segment of the market before all the Baby Boomers drop dead and stop buying Road Kings.

Meanwhile, across the hall, a pair of LiveWires were surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers. The small staff present was overwhelmed by showgoers asking questions and snapping photos as they ran one of the bikes up on a set of rollers, filling the air with the shrill whine of a high-powered electric powertrain. It was clear to anyone present that Harley could not have missed the mark more if they tried. These two prototypes stole the show and received far, far more attention than the dull beginner bikes taking centre stage over in the main display.

If Harley was looking to seduce a new market, the LiveWire was the ticket - not the made-in-India (erm, sorry, "assembled in Kansas") Streets that they were pushing on anyone who would dare humour them.

Now, several months on, the tune is gradually changing. The LiveWire now appears destined for production at some undetermined point in the future, though nobody seriously believed they weren't given the level of publicity surrounding their introduction last year. A multi-billion dollar juggernaut like Harley-Davidson doesn't make waves without a good reason. The LiveWire is fast becoming HD's key to appealing to a younger market. The high level of finish on these "prototypes" and the sheer number of them they apparently have kicking around for media tests suggested the project was a lot further along than they were originally letting on. Now Harley is pulling out all the stops and rotating a squad of LiveWires through the USA and Canada for public demos to gauge interest and canvas for feedback, with an upcoming tour through Europe seeing generating so much interest that they have been setting up lotteries to determine who will get the chance to ride them.

And you know what? After having ridden one of the damned things, I think the project just might succeed - if Harley is smart about it.

But you want to know the honest truth? I respect Harley-Davidson. Some days, when I'm suffering either from sleep deprivation or a surplus of Coors in my system, I even like them. They are the prototypical cruiser and remain the only authentic one in a sea of shamelessly cheesy knockoffs that can only aspire to steal scraps from the dominant market share owned by the boys in Milwaukee. Believe it or not I wouldn't mind owning one - preferably a FXDX Dyna Sport, or a XL1200S, or if I was feeling particularly masochistic a XLCR.

So I approached the LiveWire with an open mind. I've never had the opportunity to ride an electric bike so I was looking forward to the introduction, and the prospect of riding a prototype machine that isn't for sale is always tantalizing even if I'm one of several thousand people to do it.

That is the issue that Harley is apparently facing with the LiveWire. The cost per unit of these "prototypes" is supposedly way beyond what any sane person would pay for what is otherwise a pretty ordinary, unexceptional motorcycle with a really limited range and their design is tailored to suit the purposes of a short demo route. Unlike Polaris, HD is designing and building these things from the ground up, and their bill of materials and R&D costs are likely astronomical given they have no history of working on electric powertrains. It will take several years of development and steady sales to amortize those costs, as well as develop a driveline/battery pack that is efficient enough to offer something better than the laughable 50-ish mile range and 3.5 hour recharge time the LiveWire is currently saddled with. Press releases and public statements from HD brass reflect a cautious attitude, with conservative estimates pegging production as being at least several years away while HD works on getting the price down and improving range.

Some analysts have noted that this "done when it's done" approach might hurt Harley's chances in the long term, if they allow their competitors to get the jump on a nascent market while they refine a product that might be obsolete by the time it is released to the public. Of course these pundits don't offer a solution to this conundrum. Does Harley sell them as is and get their foot in the door with an overpriced, under-developed product? Do they take a massive loss on each unit to keep the price competitive? Either method would be quick way to kill the project in short order. Harley isn't in the business of losing money and if LiveWire sales were either A. nonexistent or B. incurring massive losses you can bet that they'd dump the whole damned mess and double back on their core products. We'd be back to square one, with Harley profusely apologizing for offending the traditionalists with an expensive diversion.

The market that the LiveWire is targeting is an ephemeral one, shifting quickly as technology progresses and startups come and go. While we've certainly progressed beyond the humble and humiliating electric scooter being the sole production option for electric moto enthusiasts, the current electric motorcycle market is all over the damned map and nobody seems sure how to sell these things. Halo products, electric bikes that threaten the hegemony of high-powered gasoline burners, are few and far between. Mission seemed poised to conquer with their wicked fast and quite appealing One and R/RS models, but they appear to have evaporated into that black hole that swallows every overly ambitious motorcycle startup (incidentally, Mission apparently contributed some design work to the LiveWire's powertrain). Lightning and Energica are trying to claw their way into the void left by Mission's vapourware but face an uphill battle against traditionalism, price points, and expectations of performance and range.

The only apparently viable contenders are Brammo and Zero, which have done reasonably well producing machines that are a reasonable approximation of a middleweight standard. They aren't exactly sexy, but they represent the first generation of legitimate motorcycles powered by electric motors with acceptable range. They don't offer superior performance to anything bigger than a 650 twin, nor are they cheaper than their conventional alternatives (in fact they command a significant premium), but they do fill a miniscule niche for younger buyers who find alternative powertrains appealing, or the odd veteran rider who wants something different, and even a few fleet buyers who want green alternatives to the limited options in authorities-package motorcycles. It's the conservative approach to entering the electric market, and so far it has been the most successful. The safe approach is slow and steady with a humble product benefitting from constant refinement to improve range and performance. At this point their offerings are legitimate alternatives to real motorcycles and not just high-tech playthings for people who commute 5 miles to work.

The LiveWire's design is biased towards the Brammo/Zero side of the electric bike continuum, but packaged in a way that is reasonably original - a sort of sport cruiser that would make a good inner city commuter (mainly because its piddling range wouldn't allow much in the way of highway use) with enough performance to satisfy most riders.

If we ignore the whole electric powertrain, one thing nobody seems to mention regarding the LiveWire is that this is the closest thing to a modern sporting bike Harley-Davidson has ever made. That's significant. I could say something about Buell, but they were always a distinct entity operating outside of HD's factory (though that didn't mean they were free from HD's meddling, of course). You've got a stout cast alloy frame and swingarm, Showa big piston forks, light alloy wheels, and the whole package weighs less than 500 lbs. This is the first bike with a cantilever monoshock rear suspension Harley has knocked out since they stopped racing the VR1000.

Of course there are still some odd little elements that seem out of place, like HD was trying to put together a sporty bike but kept grabbing bits out of the wrong pile of parts. The 18 inch front wheel is one. So is the belt final drive. The deeply dished saddle with a super low seat height is another. As are the absolutely useless mirrors that are completely invisible while riding - unless you are wearing an open face helmet. Meanwhile the twin-piston sliding caliper and master cylinder for the front brake are pulled straight out of the corporate spares bin, complete with their HD-signature Oakwood feel.

The real strength of the LiveWire, as it stands today, is that Harley has polished the design to the point of it being apparently ready for production, if not ready for sale. There is nothing to suggest it is a prototype with an experimental drivetrain. They are put together perfectly, they function flawlessly, and everything feels fully thought out. Best of all, the technology is there but it is presented in a way that isn't jarring or demanding of some great conceptual shift. It's not a hardcore machine or a dorky, dull commuter. It doesn't scream greenwashed tax subsidy cash grab targeted at tech geeks. It's just a motorcycle, and it feels totally normal to ride aside from the lack of a transmission. In this category, with Harley's traditionally rabid fanbase, that's an important hurdle to clear.

The corporate spokespeople who were present were quick to share stories about how they "converted" quite a few greybeards after giving them the chance to ride one of the things. Clearly they are trying to hype up the project and encourage good feedback, as you'd expect them to. But that attitude is a significant move away from HD's traditional corporate attitude, one that speaks of a perceptible shift away from those old farts who think liquid cooling is the tool of the devil. Harley is betting on a new generation of riders before their diehard customers start dropping off. This is the future, so embrace it or blow away in the wind.

This contrasts with the attitude they presented when the LiveWire was first unveiled, one that was along the lines of "deny it is a serious project until the critics shut up". It was a smart move on Harley's part, even if it meant that the LiveWire suffered a lack of credibility. The purists were assured that there were no plans for production. It was just a concept, a technical exercise to appease those young’uns and their fear of climate change with a toy that surely was not and would never be a "real" Harley sharing floor space with pushrod twins. It wasn't taken seriously, which meant HD could sneak it into the world without suffering a wall of vehement opposition from their core customers. Ain't brand politics fun?

Back to our dreary demo ride. A caveat: given the context of my test ride ("No slingshotting!") my impressions of the LiveWire are to be taken with a grain of salt - I'll admit to the limitations of my time aboard the LiveWire, limitations that everyone who has ridden it have been subjected to. The test route was a short inner city loop through some industrial areas, with no highway portion, so I wasn't able to ride the thing above 80-ish km/h. I barely had time to adjust to the "throttle" response of the machine, let alone begin forming a conclusive verdict about the dynamics.

The size of the LiveWire is the first thing you'll notice. It's smaller than you'd imagine, and quite a bit lighter than most electric bikes at around 460 lbs claimed "dry" weight (dry having a different meaning when there is no fuel or oil to lug around). The seat height is low and the handlebars nearly flat, allowing the Livewire to disappear beneath you - to the point where the mirrors and touchscreen dash are completely invisible, and thus useless, while you are riding. Footpegs are rear set but low enough to not feel cramped, even though the seat is so low I could flat foot with my knees bent despite my 30 inch inseam. Slow speed manoeuvrability is commendable, with the weight carried low in the chassis.

The performance is surprising, particularly given that this is a single-speed machine with a just a bevel gear to transfer power from the longitudinal motor to a belt final drive. That intermediate gear gives the LiveWire its characteristic turbine whine soundtrack, one that is pleasant enough to keep you entertained and inspire fantasies of piloting a Tie Fighter around the block. Torque off the line is stout and the power builds in a totally linear way that is hard to describe. Imagine being in the lower midrange of a 1000cc-ish bike, all the time, without shifting. You have instant power anytime you twist the grip, and it pulls pretty hard, more than you'd think a single-speed bike with a mere 74hp and 52 lb/ft has any right to. Harley claims 0-60 mph in around 4 seconds and a governed top speed of 92 mph, which seems about right. The ample torque makes it feel even more muscular than the entry-level-middleweight performance would suggest. The power characteristics of an electric machine need to be experienced to be understood, and don't translate well into the metrics we are accustomed to - ignore your base desire to revert to spec sheet bench racing because it truly isn't worth much in this case.

A scant few minutes later, we complete the loop and roll back into the safety of the semi-trailer awning as a menacing thunderstorm rolls across the horizon. I scarcely have time to form any meaningful impression of the LiveWire. There is one thing that is lacking from my notes taken after the ride - any sense of excitement. It's a motorcycle, one that goes from A to B without drama. That's a success given we are talking about a prototype with an all-new, unproven, alternative energy drivetrain produced by a manufacturer that has no track record in the field. The problem is the LiveWire goes about its business without any appreciable character. I didn't dislike it, and I enjoyed it more than I expected I would, but I didn't come away buzzing with the exhilaration I get from trying… anything else. At the end of the ride I thought it was a pleasant commuter that would be more interesting to ride to work than some dorky scooter. I noticed a few of the people present politely complimenting the experience to the staff, before adding that they prefer the sound and feel of a "real" motorcycle.

Whatever the case, Harley has a long way to go before the LiveWire becomes an accepted part of the model range. Aside from concerns about the price and range, there is the small matter of selling the LiveWire through Harley's notoriously fickle dealer network. The same network that shunted Buell into the darkest corners of their showrooms, only agreeing to have them on hand due to HD strong arming and the promise that they might serve as entry-level machines to bring bodies in the door to look at/trade up to a "real" Harley. The same dealers who make their margin selling HD branded ice cube trays and providing 150$ an hour labour to those aging core customers that Harley is just about ready to alienate. Are they going to be happy carrying a weird, new-age product that attracts punk kids who won't buy a bunch of chrome bolt-ons? Worse yet, with virtually no maintenance requirements the LiveWire will be a losing proposition for dealers in the long term, unless they get crashed or break outside of the warranty period.

It seems Harley themselves are unsure of how to sell the LiveWire. The travelling show was heavily biased towards advertising products HD can sell you right now - more floor space was dedicated to pushing the Street and HD riding apparel than to actually showcasing the goddamned technological marvels they were demoing. Are you interested in the specs? How the technology was developed? What kind of powertrain is being used? What drove Harley to develop the LiveWire in the first place? What the plans are for the project and when might it see production? Tough shit. Buy a Street. Please. They are assembled in Kansas, don't you know.

There was a distinct emphasis on us, the public, being the carriers of marketing hype - we were explicitly instructed to share photos and tweet impressions with a predetermined hashtag. Somewhere, someone decided that manufacturing a viral marketing campaign was the cheap and easy solution to drumming up interest in the project - and in the process they abandoned the very important need to, you know, actually shill the fucking product you are trying to introduce to a conservative market.

If Harley hopes to conquer the electric motorcycle market, they'd better crank up the propaganda and start taking the effort seriously rather than using the launch of the LiveWire as an excuse to sell leather jackets. They've got a solid, if a bit boring, next-gen product that is nearly ready for primetime. They'd do well to get it onto the market before the greybeards wake up to the fact that their beloved Motor Company is eyeballing young blood to sustain them in an uncertain future.

9 comments:

I think electric motorcycles should be lightweights with skinny tires and spoked wheels, rather than these heavy-looking middleweights. I prefer retro road race and board track racer styling, and I think these styles would be quite viable for a bike that will only run for an hour or less at a time. Plus they'd look good on the charger in the garage, maybe. Also electric motors look better with cast fins on them for cooling and visual interest.

Thank you THANK YOU for describing mass demo rides the way they are - youtube is filled with babbling NPD morons posting "Video test reviews" based on those - they are always pathetic.

another wonderful bonus to electric moto's is the horrific resale.

Excellent article, Jason, thanks for sharing your experience. I had the opportunity to ride the LiveWire when the circus rolled through Austin last November. My ride went much the same as yours, getting back to home base just as I was getting used to the dreadfully programmed regenerative braking - which made me embarrassingly throw a foot down to avoid a drop as I was wheeling out to the staging line in the parking lot! I was also disappointed with the fact that you could buy a Street 750 leather jacket under the LiveWire tent, but there weren't so much as LiveWire tee-shirts or key fobs anywhere. A LiveWire tee would have been my first ever HD gear purchase that morning if they were available.

I'm another Zero owner and I generally get 100 miles of spirited range per charge, and have used it as a daily ride for two years and 15k miles. I added cases and a windscreen. I've used the massive torque to haul me and a passenger very quickly up steep hills. It's just a damn useful commuter bike, and reduces garage maintenance and related expenses.

I'll second Brian's comment above, with the caveat. there's a charger on the market that will charge a Zero or any large battery (car, bike, electro-mech-suit) at a rate near 12kw an hour. On the Zero that means from dead battery to full in roughly an hour. The DIGI-NOW charger is roughly the size of a large cantaloupe, but square. Mounts on-board the motorcycle and can plug in just about anywhere, as it senses the incoming power voltage/amperage and charges for peak performance. This means J1772, NEMA 14-50, 220V dryer outlet, it doesn't care just get the juice to the contacts with the sensing wire. This is all achieved with out interaction from the user, no knobs to tweak, or switches to toggle. Do consider if you plug it into a weak power source, the charge will of course take longer to complete, just don't try to Ben Franklin the thing in a pinch the DIGI-NOW has limits (read no lightning).

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Jason, I had a different experience at the demo ride I took in Atlanta, Ga. We were able to go on about a 20 min ride through some great back roads and really test the bike out. I don't know if this was because we were more in the country but I really enjoyed the ride. I agree with you that the regen. braking was hard to get used to not to mention the continuing reaching for a ghost clutch lever that wasn't there but all in all I liked it a lot.

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