Astride the Future: Harley-Davidson LiveWire First Ride

The world is gravitating towards electrified transportation. While electric cars have had the spotlight for some years there is now buzz about the electric future of motorcycling. The electric motorcycle actually has been around for a while, only in recent years experiencing a meteoric rise in popularity. Now electric motorcycles and scooters can be found on dealerships and show floors everywhere. It was inevitable that the electric vehicle craze would reach motorcycles and big names would get involved, like Harley-Davidson.

The motor company is shaking things up and reaching more riders than before. Their upcoming lineup includes scooters for Asia, a street fighter, an adventure bike, and the subject of my newfound love, the LiveWire. Their future possibly hinges heavily in how these bikes perform around the world. They’re planting seeds and not just by releasing new bikes. Harley-Davidson now even gets involved with more diverse rider communities than before. Earlier this summer they hosted their second annual Ride With Pride. Yours truly rode in on a vintage Goldwing and a sketchy helmet that I was supposed to paint in the Transgender flag colors.

Riding to the Future

The Milwaukee company hosted a LiveWire demo ride event in a city near me last weekend and I felt there was no better time to try it out. For full disclosure, my most modern motorcycle was built in the 1990s and my normal daily is a 1980 GL1100.

Regardless of my experience with the LiveWire it was going to feel like swinging a leg over a bike from a sci-fi movie. It certainly looked straight out of one!

Rolling into the parking lot of the event revealed the kind of riders interested in seeing what Harley-Davidson had built. There were plenty of Harleys, some Japanese cruisers, a few sportbikes, and even an ADV or two. Most of the people at the event were Millennials, or the people HD hope to bring in with these new machines.

The setup was amazingly minimal and easy. You sign up for a demo ride, then as you wait for your turn you can check out the LiveWire sitting on rollers. Sit on the LiveWire and you can get comfortable with the controls, learn how the motorcycle works, and even give it a few revs. Play around with it before you take it on the road.

The motorcycle is delightfuly intuitive. It takes no time to figure out how to navigate the display’s menus, setup custom drive modes (more on this later), and figure out your hand controls. In a world where car infotainment systems can be alarmingly confusing, this is a wonderful surprise.

The Wait is Over

Eventually it was my group’s time to ride. We were advised to have fun but ride within our limits. The demo ride would take us on a twisting loop of largely empty roads around a mall. It had a little bit of everything from stop and go, to curves, to even a short highway speed portion.

This motorcycle doesn’t appear to be designed for big people in mind. So if you’re bigger it’s going to feel a little tight. The seating position for me wasn’t quite sportbike but not quite standard either. It was a somewhere in between that allowed me to take a more aggressive stance or more casual stance depending on how I felt. Right out the gate, however, I discovered that the mirrors were definitely not well thought out for larger riders. If you adjust the mirrors properly, you only see yourself.

If you kick them out to a position where you aren’t just looking at your own shoulders, it’s far outside where it would be useful. The smaller riders of the course didn’t seem to have this issue, so it’s just a thing where larger riders may need to consider aftermarket mirrors.

How is it put Together?

While we’re talking about the mirrors, how is the quality? Well, to me the mirrors and front turn indicators feel a bit like cheap aftermarket parts from eBay. On my test bike a hilariously tiny wire connected each turn indicator. Sure, these lights are LEDs and thus don’t draw much power, but there’s nothing really protecting these razor thin wires from getting broken. The bar grips were also pretty disappointing.

A few of the test units already had extremely worn (and a couple even tearing) bar grips and these bikes didn’t have a whole lot of miles on them. But these are easily solved nitpicks and the rest of the bike felt really well built to me. I would be curious to see what these displays will look like after years of use. How much scratch protection do they really have?

Surprisingly Intuitive

Starting up the LiveWire is not a whole lot different than a normal motorcycle. You have a kill switch and a “start” switch. Before you energize the drive system the display gives you a chance to tweak your motorcycle. Feel free to go through the menus to create custom drive modes, turn modes you don’t want off, set the time, and look at other metrics you wouldn’t be looking at on a ride.

The bike offers a bunch of different standard driving modes. You have a Sport mode for aggressive riding, a Road mode for a balanced experience, Range mode to get every mile out of your charge, and Rain to help you keep the shiny side up in inclement weather. These modes all adjust power, throttle, and regeneration levels depending on the end goal. The bike also includes three user defined modes. For my multiple rides, I played with every setting, including making my own “MAX POWWWWWER” mode with max power, max throttle response, and no regen.

Once you get done playing with the bike’s settings, hold the start button for a few seconds to activate the drive motor. When your screen is flanked with green LEDs you are cleared for takeoff! And you better be ready for it.

On paper, the LiveWire is only slightly better than my twenty three year old Honda CBR600F3. It scoots to 60 miles per hour in a similar low 3 second time, it produces 105 horsepower to the CBR’s 100, and with the LiveWire’s top speed of 110 miles per hour, my CBR will easily outrun it. Despite this, riding the LiveWire feels like being strapped to a rocket. Why? Two words:

Instant Torque

The LiveWire offers 86 torques on tap, nearly the instant you give it throttle. At full throttle, this bike will easily perform a burnout and if you’re not careful, that burnout will be complimented with a wheelie. My CBR feels fast, this feels like it’s shifting my brain to the back of my helmet. The Demo bikes had wheelie control and traction control locked permanently on, not even they could fully stop the bike from converting some of its rear tire into a black stripe on the pavement. And if you weren’t tucked on takeoff? Expect air from that front wheel.

I don’t know how to describe what it feels like to ride this motorcycle from 0 to its top speed. The power feels bountiful and relentless. Not long after you surpass 60 miles per hour it only takes a glance up and a glance down to see yourself already at 90. Once you get yourself back down to a reasonable speed your heart may continue racing. At least for me, the LiveWire was just that fast at full throttle.

But not all Speed

Riding this 500 pound motorcycle feels a lot like riding my old Buell Blast, and yes that is a compliment. It’s quick to make direction changes and feels planted in corners. This is a Harley that loves to turn. The weight feels low down enough that you can actually dance the bike between your legs at a red light. The best part for me was that the bike did pretty decent at hiding its weight. You can feel it there, but at least for me it didn’t detract from the experience. The suspension was also surprisingly good at soaking up Chicago bumps and holes as well.

Not Interested in all out all the Time?

Another amazing thing about this bike for me was that it didn’t have to be an always on all the time experience. If you want to have an easy city cruise, flip on Eco mode or make your own preset with low power and maximum regen. The regenerative braking is so good you may not even need to use your brakes. Unlike some electric cars, this bike will also illuminate the brake light any time regen is in use. In a tame mode, the motorcycle is no harder to ride than your average scooter.

But Wait, There’s More!

There’s something for everyone on this motorcycle. While it’s geared toward city and sporty riders, it also has some creature comforts for those that like to travel on the highway and backroads. It has cruise control, self canceling turn indicators, and even USB ports for your devices. Be warned about being on the highway though, the bike is really only good for 70 miles of straight highway cruising. And another thing, a lot of people are concerned with noise. Some think an EV motorcycle would be too quiet or maybe they would miss the sound of a rumbling engine between their legs. I had some of those concerns as well. The LiveWire emits a noise like a spaceship from a sci-fi movie and in the demo rides it didn’t seem like drivers didn’t see us. If anything, the bikes attracted attention because they sounded like spaceships and not like anything else on the road. This experience is also so different that the lack of an internal combustion soundtrack didn’t make a difference to me.

The Elephant in the Room

Check out these specs..

Base Price: $29,799 (Destination and setup fees not included)
Power: 105 hp, 86 lb-ft
Drivetrain: Liquid-cooled electric motor, single-speed transmission, belt drive, 15.5 kWh lithium-ion battery
Curb Weight: 549 pounds
Range: 146 miles city, 70 miles highway, 95 miles combined
Charging: 10-11 hours Level 1, 40 minutes to 80 percent or an hour for full charge on a DC-fast charge.

I adore this motorcycle and would buy it in a heartbeat. After seeing it in person I think it certainly looks better than a Zero. This is the first Harley I’ve ever ridden and in a perfect world I would be taking one home. My heart still races thinking about that instant on torque. However, it does – at least on paper – fall short of the competition.

Harley’s biggest competitor in this realm is a company that’s been building electric bikes for a decade: Zero Motorcycles. The LiveWire slots between their SR ZF14.4 and SR/F.

The SR/F is a much more powerful motorcycle that beats the LiveWire in absolutely every metric while also having a price tag that maxes out at $10,000 less than the LiveWire.

And what if you don’t need tire killing power? You can get an impressive amount of city range and respectable highway range with the SR. However, the SR comes with a power penalty compared to the LiveWire. That bike starts at $14k.

Final Thoughts

So comes a dilemma. Is the Harley-Davidson name and killer style worth the extra coin? I think the LiveWire is a fantastic little rocket of a motorcycle, however I couldn’t see myself dropping $30,000 on this motorcycle. This unfortunate thought was shared by many at the event.

I definitely want to learn and experience more of the electric motorcycle revolution. Expect to see me test Zero models and maybe even find more seat time with the LiveWire. One thing is for certain, this little Harley impressed me and I definitely hope it does well. If anything, this has made me want to test other Harley-Davidson models as well.

About Mercedes Streeter

Mercedes is a lifelong tinkerer and adventurer. An addict of city cars, she is a living encyclopaedia of the smart fortwo. As of 2018 she's also motorcycle junkie with more motorcycles than places to store them. Her one true love is the Gambler 500.

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