easy rider

2019 Indian Chieftain Limited Review: More Bike Than You Need, In the Best Way


September 27, 2019 Cars : Motorcycles By
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It’s kinda hard to remember now, but there was a time before the internet. Back then, when you didn’t know something, you couldn’t just look it up. You went with your gut, or you stalled, or you b.s.-ed your way through; in effect, you felt your way to a functional sense of reality.

Coincidentally, if my childhood memories serve, those pre-internet days were also a time when majestic cruiser motorcycles seemed to rule the road. Why “coincidentally,” you ask? Because I’m writing this review of the 2019 Indian Chieftain Limited while wedged into a cramped seat on a cross-country flight, in a plane that — despite prior assurances to the contrary — lacks WiFi.

So what you’re about to get is a pre-internet-style review of the bike I’ve spent the past month riding, featuring a heavy reliance on gut feelings — but that just might get us closer to the truth.

First Impressions: Let’s start with a few facts about the Chieftain line, courtesy of the press kit I downloaded before my trip. This year marks a full redesign of the series that launched to much acclaim in 2013. Highlights include more aggressive lines, ultra-bright full LED lighting, three ride modes (touring, standard and sport), a 100-watt premium audio system and a low-slung stance with more than four inches of rear suspension travel.

Of course, none of those notions ran through my head when I picked the bike up from a dealership in Connecticut and rode it back to Manhattan. No, when I first laid eyes on this Ruby Metallic machine, all I could think was: she’s big and she’s beautiful.

That said, the dry weight of this bike is 795 pounds — a good 300 more than my daily rider, a 2014 Triumph Bonneville T-100. So I was maybe just a bit intimidated, too. But the moment I pushed the power button and a big swirl of animated smoke unveiled the Indian logo on the 7.0-inch touchscreen, I felt stoked.

I paired the sound system with my phone, queued up a classic rock station on Pandora and hit the (keyless) ignition switch, and the Chieftain quite literally roared to life. I blasted onto the highway to the strains of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” Old-school tunes for a throwback-style ride, if you will.

The Good: From a pure performance standpoint, the Chieftain is a dream on the highway. I took it on a 500-mile weekend roundtrip to central Pennsylvania, and it devoured the distance, even negotiating an unexpected stretch of climbing up a gravel off-road path. The bike feels super-stable, even when surrounded by wind-shearing semis. And the V-twin engine paired with a six-speed transmission is smooth and responsive — to the point where you can easily hit 90 miles per hour without noticing just how fast you’re going.

I’ve ridden other big, somewhat similar bikes, including Harley-Davidson’s Heritage Softail, where the shifts can best be described as “clunky.” Meanwhile, the Chieftain’s casually flickable gear-shift peg and ample torque make for lively, borderline-effortless acceleration. The anti-lock brakes are another strength, allowing gradual deceleration without panic, along with the ability to quickly cut speed without, um, skid marks of any kind.

Even at high speeds, both the handlebar and touchscreen controls are quite user-friendly. On the handlebars, you can skip songs, adjust volume and pause music, all via one left-hand switch. Its counterpart on the right side lets you do something even cooler: raise and lower the windshield a few inches, so you can alternately savor your music or soak up the breeze.

Meanwhile, the glove-friendly touchscreen lets you do even more: switch up the music, change the riding mode, view a full-screen map of where you’re headed and monitor diagnostics; for example, it alerts you when you need gas, asking if you’d like to locate a station. It even lets you know if, say, your rear tire pressure is low. A split-screen view allows you to multi-task at a glance.

But back to the aforementioned music. Indian upgraded its stock audio system for the Chieftain series. Separating the tweeters from the mid-range speakers amps up the output and clarity, while a customizable dynamic equalizer actually adjust frequencies to compensate for road, wind and engine noise. All I noticed is that it’s pretty damn loud, especially when zipping around the city. The music only gets choppy when you go over 75 miles per hour with the windshield down.

Bonus: the infotainment is separate from the engine power, so you can pull up, cut the motor and keep on rocking while you dismount and compose yourself. And did I mention the volume goes to 11? No, really — it does.

Watch Out For: All that said, I do have a few issues with this bike. One is more substantive than the others: the built-in navigation system is a nightmare. The mapping’s not bad, but we’re all so accustomed to using our phones and their intuitive apps to get around. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are clearly where car and motorcycle nav systems should be headed.

This bike is nowhere close to that. Instead, I spent valuable minutes entering addresses that it often could not locate. It literally couldn’t find my apartment; I resorted to entering the name of a nearby flower shop to get home. At one point, after visiting friends in New Jersey, I just wanted to get some gas and cash from an ATM before hitting the road. The nav system, in turn, took me to two banks that were not banks and a crumbling gas station that had clearly been shuttered for years. I ended up playing my phone’s navigation through the speakers to get where I needed to go.

I do love the Chieftain’s storage capacity; it has two large saddlebags, plus a handy little slot above the touchscreen that’s great for connecting/charging your phone and stashing a bit of tollbooth cash. But on several occasions, I found the saddlebags difficult to lock. You have to push down on them in just the right way so they click into place, then hit the lock button on the key fob. I was always able to get them to lock, but it often took a few tries, which isn’t ideal.

One other issue: I’m maybe 5-foot-8 on a good day, and more than once, depending what angle I parked the bike at, the kickstand could be tricky to fully reach and pull back. I would have to sit way up on the seat, carefully lean the bike to the right and then strain my left leg to reach and disengage it. So if you’re sized closer to Kevin Hart than The Rock, you may have issues.

On a somewhat related note, this bike is definitely a challenge to ride around the city. While it excels on open roads, steering around obstacles at slow speeds, heck, even parking, I needed maximum focus to avoid dumping the bike in the middle of Fifth Avenue. But you know you’re getting nitpicky when you’re knocking a bike’s performance in an area it’s not really designed for; is any bike this size designed for the controlled chaos of New York City?

Alternatives: Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special ($27,699+); Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero ($16,799+); Honda Gold Wing ($23,800+)

Verdict: You’ve got all the info you need to decide if this bike’s for you, but I’m still 600 miles from Seattle. So I’ll add two more things.

First, if you can’t tell from the photos and description, the Chieftain is sexy AF, as the kids say. From the styling to the paint job to the sound system to the rumbling engine, it turns heads in and out of the city and puts huge smiles on the faces of passengers and passersby alike. (At one point, I was sitting at a traffic light on Bleecker Street, and a guy just walked over and hugged the faring.) Beauty is a little tougher to quantify than engine size, but man, does it count for a lot.

Second, one of the last times I rode the Chieftain, I was cruising the Westside Highway around 10 p.m. on a weeknight, bopping to The Revivalists’ “Wish I Knew You,” when I pulled up behind an ambulance at a red light. Standing up for a break, I could see inside, where an EMT sat next to a man on a gurney with a ghostly pallor. He had clearly seen better days. I felt bad for the dude. I was also reminded that the clock’s ticking for all of us, and we’ve gotta make the most of the time we have.

The light turned green. I took one last look at the guy and said a little prayer for him. Then I cranked up the music, and started kicking through the gears as I sped around the ambulance, reveling in the music and feeling the wind rush past me. Life is just too short to not ride something big, red and fast.

Indian Chieftain Limited: Key Specs

Powertrain: 1,901-cc V-twin; six-speed transmission
Torque: 126 pound-feet
Peak Torque RPM: 2,900
Weight: 798 pounds (empty fuel tank)
Fuel Tank: 5.5 gallons

Indian provided this product for review.

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