it's electric! boogiewoogiewoogiewoogie
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire Review: The Future of the Motorcycle?
There it is, slung beneath a monolithic 15.5-kWh battery and shrouded in a polished cast-aluminum casing. Dubbed ‘Revelation’ for obvious reasons, the electric motor powering the Harley-Davidson LiveWire represents a massive leap beyond the venerable internal combustion V-twin. The philosophical shift involved in refining the drivetrain was so significant, it required some nine years to develop and fine-tune the setup and calibration. As such, the motor is the visual and ideological centerpiece in the 549-pound LiveWire, a point of pride that aims to leave the 116-year-old brand’s woes behind and propel it fearlessly into the future.
Launched with a $29,799 pricetag that puts it in unabashed luxury-product territory, the LiveWire goes whole hog on the electrification theme. There are high-tech touch points baked in throughout: a touchscreen TFT display, a well-executed Harley-Davidson Connect app, a fresh-off-the-presses partnership with Electrify America, and two years of free charging at participating Harley-Davidson dealerships. But is the first-ever electron-powered Harley good enough to convert the old school cognoscenti, or is it a high-priced halo that will alienate eco conscious millennials?
The Good: From the precise-but-smooth throttle response to the way it intuitively turns into corners and whooshes away on straights, the LiveWire’s dynamic capabilities are remarkably good for any motorcycle, let alone one that’s powered by a battery.
Who It’s For: The million-dollar question: Who wants a $30,000 Harley-Davidson that a) is probably too radical for H-D traditionalists, and b) too expensive for the young buyers the brand is hoping to attract? Harley admits this is an aspirational bike with a premium price tag, but LiveWire also kicks off a string of less-expensive EV products, including a cute-as-a-button electric minibike and a battery-powered bicycle. Regardless, it’s hard to get around the fact that LiveWire occupies a curious niche; it’s unlikely to become a volume seller for the brand.
Watch Out For: Something had to give when it came to packaging the LiveWire’s charging options, and that something wound up being true Level 2 charging. Though LiveWire takes a speedier (and harder-to-find) DC Fast Charge, which can replenish 80 percent of the battery in 40 minutes, plugging in a Level 2 charger unfortunately yields Level 1-speed recharging; it takes an agonizing 12.5 hours to go from empty to full.
Alternatives: Competitors in this space have had the benefit of time-testing their battery-powered wares and evolving into their respective niches. First to mind is the $18,995 Zero SR/F, which offers 109 miles of combined range and up to 200 miles of city range with an add-on Powertank. Sportbike fans might gravitate towards the $22,565 Energica Ego, which is motivated by a maniacal 145-hp motor. And last but not least, design nerds will geek out over the $14,000 Cake Kalk and Kalk&, post-industrial EVs that throw out the rulebook with fashion-forward geometrical styling.
Review: There’s an easily overlooked feature of the Harley LiveWire that speaks volumes to the meticulous thought process behind this remarkably important bike: the so-called heartbeat. About halfway through the development process, engineers decided the EV needed to feel more “alive” when the bike was at rest. Enter the “heartbeat,” a haptic pulse that emanates from the motor. It’s a subtle element that can be dialed up, down or entirely off at a Harley dealership, serving as a tiny reminder that the thing you’re riding isn’t dormant when it’s in so-called propulsion mode.
And then there’s the sound, a fascinating combination of mechanical whine from the bevel-geared primary drive and a manufactured electronic thrum that more resembles a science fiction soundscape than a physical resonance. But if you’ve just lifted the LiveWire off the kickstand, you’re most likely to first notice two things: a feeling of heft, and the switchgear that combines familiar Harley bits (like a turn-signal button on each side, which flies against industry convention) with a few unfamiliar elements (such as a joystick on either side — one for Bluetooth audio controls, another for menu navigation).
The 4.3-inch TFT screen operates intuitively, with configurable displays that easily reveal which of the seven (yes, seven) ride modes you have engaged. Four of those settings — Road, Sport, Range and Rain — can be toggled via a hard button on the left grip, while three can be customized when not riding using sliders on the touchscreen to calibrate power output, regeneration level, throttle response and traction control. Settings can be dialed in by one-percent increments between 1–100, while traction control can be set to low, medium, high or off. And lest you worry that you have to be fully parked to disengage traction control, fear not, my hooligan friend: simply press the TC button while stopped, and the electronics will disengage and allow you to indulge in long, eerily quiet burnouts simply by grabbing the front brake and twisting the throttle.
(Doing so won’t destroy your range too badly, either: At the end of my 65-mile ride, which involved heavy-handed throttle application and a smoky burnout or two, the onboard computer indicated 41 miles of remaining range — a figure that lends credence to Harley’s claimed 95 miles of combined range, 146 miles in the city or 70 miles of constant highway cruising at 70 mph.)
Naughty, earth-unfriendly antics aside, the LiveWire handles its weight rather well at low speeds, threading through traffic precisely thanks to a relatively stiff chassis and upmarket Showa suspension that’s calibrated for responsiveness over float. Boost your speed, and the bike seems to egg you on for even more velocity, feeling stable and secure as it whisks past posted speed limits.
You won’t get an instant hit of G-forces off the line, primarily because the direct-drive link between the motor and the rear wheel means the 15,000-rpm powerplant takes you all the way to an electronically-limited 110 mph without shifting gears. Though you’re not maximizing the motor’s 105 horsepower at lower speeds, those 86 pound-feet of torque make minced meat of inertia rather rapidly once the power starts building; 60 mph arrives in only three seconds flat, giving it supercar-like acceleration. And things only get blurrier if you keep it pinned: the leap from 60 to 80 mph takes a mere 1.9 seconds, giving this electric-powered rocket a sensation of thrust unlike anything ever to hail from Harley’s York, Pennsylvania plant. Unlike most internal combustion motorcycles, which require a well-timed orchestration of clutch, shifter and throttle for maximum acceleration, clutch-free electric bikes simply need a committed twist of the right wrist.
Similarly, cornering is a refreshingly mindless task. Rather than focusing on gear selection and rev-matching downshifts, you can just lay off the throttle and, if the regenerative braking is set aggressively enough, use the regen to slow the bike down ahead of a curve. Maintain your desired speed through the turn by feeding or bleeding the throttle, then whack it at the corner exit.
I repeated this process over and over on the wonderfully twisty roads outside of Portland, Oregon, and quickly became addicted to the ease of riding so quickly, so smoothly. Though not as nimble as a supermoto or as responsive to mid-corner corrections as a sportbike, the sensation of flinging this EV through corners is refreshingly devoid of the sound and fury that can make a gas-powered superbike such a socially objectionable endeavor; float through corners on an electric motorcycle, and you can hear birds chirping if you listen closely enough. It’s a paradigm-shifting experience, one that completely recalibrates your concept of speed and high-performance riding.
Verdict: The Harley-Davidson LiveWire is far from the first electric motorcycle to hit the market, and there are certainly other bikes that offer quicker charges, longer range, or more power. But the first EV from the Motor Company delivers something few, if any, other manufacturers have managed: a well-rounded, battery-driven two-wheeler that comes with a distinctly formed sense of identity. Thanks to well-executed user interface details and an engaging riding experience, the LiveWire delivers more than you might expect, especially given Harley’s predictable propensity for V-twin-powered thump-a-lump. Say what you will about the hefty MSRP or the charging limitations — the LiveWire manages to surprise and delight enough to make Harley-Davidson’s future look very bright, indeed.
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire Key Specs
Powertrain: AC permanent-magnet motor and 15.5 kW lithium-ion battery, direct-drive transmission
Torque: 86 pound-feet
Lean Angle: 45 degrees
Curb Weight: 549 pounds
Harley-Davidson hosted us and provided this product for review.
Hot takes and in-depth reviews on noteworthy, relevant and interesting products. Read the Story