First ride: 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire

PORTLAND, Oregon—I finally got a chance to ride the $37,250 Harley-Davidson Livewire, here at the bike’s international press launch. Harley’s been working on the Livewire since 2010, and it will finally hit market this fall.

I’ve been anticipating a ride on the company’s first electric bike since I first heard about it in 2014. It’s probably the most important motorcycle to come out of Milwaukee since the very first bike was built in a shed there in 1903 (okay, the Livewire is actually built in Harley’s plant in York, Pennsylvania).

That price is no small chunk of cash. If it puts you off, you can stop reading now. If you’re still here, know that the Livewire is The Motor Company’s halo model: it is a showcase of technology, as well as a hint of what’s in store  for the American bike maker’s future. And it doesn’t run on gasoline, which has propelled hogs since Day One.

Harley reps here repeatedly mentioned that the Livewire should not be regarded as a conventional motorcycle. If a long-time rider does so, they’re probably not the right customer for this machine. A potential buyer is no doubt affluent, probably already owns at least one premium motorcycle — not necessarily a Harley — and is looking for something exclusive. And the Livewire is exclusive.

Costa tips the Livewire over through the S-bend. That cylinder at the bottom is the motor, with the battery above it, keeping the weight low.

The techie bits

I’ve already touched on some of the Livewire’s specs in my pre-ride story, but I’ll repeat some of the important numbers again. The 78 kW (105 hp) electric motor produces 86 lbs.-ft. of torque, all the time unless it’s off.

Main power comes via a 15.5 kWh lithium-ion battery that is encased in an aluminum box that also contains the battery management electronics. Manufactured by Samsung, the unit is called a Renewable Energy Storage System (RESS), and it also serves as a structural component of the chassis.

The 250-volt RESS can be charged fully overnight using the provided Level 1 charger, which plugs into a standard wall outlet. When on the road, a Level 3 charger can replenish a completely drained battery to 80 per cent in 40 minutes, while waiting another 20 minutes brings it to a full charge. A fully charged battery is good for up to 235 km of urban riding. Combined city and highway riding can get up to 152 km from the battery.

Electric vehicles get better city mileage, which is the opposite of gasoline-powered vehicles that do better on the highway. This is because EVs can recuperate energy when slowing down, which you do often in city traffic. The Livewire has regenerative braking, which can be adjusted from practically nothing to a level high enough that you can almost ride without ever touching the brakes. Because the Livewire slows quite hard when the regen is cranked up, the brake light can come on without touching the brakes depending on the g-forces generated when slowing down.

I was sceptical about Harley’s use of only Level 1 and Level 3 charging, since most people who drive electric cars use 240-volt Level 2 chargers at home. These provide a much quicker charge rate than 110-volt Level 1 chargers, and are much more affordable and practical than Level 3 DC quick chargers.

After almost 10 years of Livewire development, though, engineers discovered that for its intended use, Level 1 and Level 3 charging made the most sense. They figured that the Livewire’s range is good enough for mostly daily rides within a certain proximity to home.

After an overnight charge it’s good to go for another day. If a top-up is needed during the day, a Level 3 charge is much quicker and more convenient than a Level 1 or 2 charge, since enough energy can be restored during a coffee or lunch break to continue on the ride. And although you can plug the Livewire into a Level 2 charger, it can only provide a charge at the same rate as the Level 1 charger, since that’s the way the bike is configured.

The Livewire has lean-sensitive ABS and traction control, as well as rear-wheel-lift mitigation, which keeps the rear tire from lifting under heavy braking. It also has drag-torque slip control, which is the equivalent of a slipper clutch, preventing the rear wheel from hopping when braking hard with the regen dialled up.

There’s a lot of information available to be displayed on the TFT screen.

There are seven ride modes: four of them are factory preset — Sport, Road, Rain and Range — and three of them are programmable. The preset modes adjust throttle response, traction control and other parameters just like on a conventional bike; Range mode is designed to extend range by softening throttle response and kicking up the regen braking.

Another bit of high-techery is H-D Connect, which connects the bike to a cellular network, and the H-D App. This connectivity allows an owner to monitor the bike’s status on a smart phone: it provides alerts if the bike is being tampered with, it gives service alerts (though those will be quite infrequent since there’s not much that needs tending), it locates charging stations and displays them on your phone’s screen, and through your smart phone, it displays turn-by-turn direction on the bike’s display screen.

Costa’s still leaning through that curve. The bike feels heavy to tip in, as if it’s on a really wide rear tire.

Riding the Livewire

There’s a small adaptation to make when riding an electric motorcycle. The Livewire turns on via the kill switch, and it actually has a start button that turns on the electric motor before you can ride away. It’s easier to ride than a conventional motorcycle, since the lack of a gearbox provides a twist-and-go riding experience, but its high torque doesn’t mean this is a beginner bike. You can, however, adjust it to ride like one in the custom modes.


Since things haven’t gone CMG
in a long time…

Now, there was one big lesson learned. Usually we turn motorcycles off during photo sessions while waiting at the turn-around point, since a group of bikes, even at idle, is noisy. The Livewire’s complete silence prompted most of us to just leave them on and ready to go.

At one point I walked over to speak to fellow journo, David Booth, who was sitting on his bike. We talked about the electronic pulse, and as we spoke, I placed my hand on the right-hand handlebar to feel for it. Without realizing, I twisted the throttle, which caused the silent machine to lunge forward, which rolled the throttle further open under my hand.

Booth launched like a torpedo into two other riders waiting on their machines. Needless to say, that one small gesture crated a monumental disaster, injuring Booth’s leg, and throwing two unsuspecting riders and their machines to the ground.

Had this happened on a conventional bike, it would have been in neutral, and a similar gesture would have just caused the engine to rev up a bit before my reflexes would have caused me to lift my hand. Even if it were a large-displacement scooter, by the time the engine spun up at part-throttle to engage the CVT, I’d have probably lifted my hand before enough momentum built up to launch the bike. The Livewire’s instant high torque forced a more dramatic conclusion.

I declared full responsibility, and from that moment on, everyone switched off their machines while waiting. Especially near me.

There’s no engine noise, though the Livewire isn’t completely silent. It produces a slight gear whine when accelerating, which is actually tuned into the reduction gear within the motor. Another slightly odd characteristic engineers have tuned into the Livewire is the “pulse” it produces through the handlebars at a stop. The electric motor produces a cyclic pulse that gives the Livewire a heartbeat-like sensation at a stop; it’s very subtle, but it’s there to let you know it’s running.

The Livewire feels heavy when lifted off the side stand, since a 100 kg chunk of its 250 kg weight is contained in the centrally located RESS. The gauges are displayed within a 4.3-inch TFT screen that has a multitude of functions, and it pivots on its mount to adjust for riders of different heights. The riding position is almost naked-bike like but with a slightly forward lean to the low handlebar — it actually feels similar to a Ducati Monster from the saddle, at least at standstill.

Twist the right grip and you get a seamless rush of acceleration that doesn’t really stop until upwards of 160 km/h. Rolling on the throttle is among the Livewire’s most redeeming features, providing a forceful forward rush that is free of gear changes. Adding to the bike’s tempting twist-me throttle is a mostly silent operation that stealthily facilitates delinquent behaviour. Claimed top speed is 177 km/h, and the Livewire seems quite capable of attaining that speed.

Steering is light, and while the Livewire turns in with relative ease, it requires some effort at the handlebar to maintain a lean or tighten up mid corner — almost as if it were rolling on an excessively wide rear tire. It’s fitted with supersport-sized 17-inch wheels, with a 120/70 tire up front and a 180/55 in the rear. The fully adjustable Showa suspension could have easily come off a supersport machine; it was set up too firm for me, and I would have set it softer if a screwdriver had been readily available.

We rode for 100 km, within Portland and its surrounding winding roads, which dropped battery level to 34 per cent, or good for about another 50 km. This is right on Harley’s claim. I did nothing to try to conserve energy, and was actually quite hard on the throttle.

Here comes Costa – turn off the motor!

For what it’s worth

There’s no doubt that all of the work and development that’s gone into the Livewire has produced a refined machine that doesn’t lack much for a first attempt. Its performance is on par with at least a middleweight four-cylinder sport bike or bigger sporty twin. Its range and charging rate are reasonable enough that you can ride with your buddies on conventional machines, as long as they don’t mind waiting while you charge back up.

One thing I can’t justify is the price; it is, after all, the most expensive non-CVO model in Harley’s line-up. I don’t have a new Jag and a boat and an RV in the garage, nor do I pull in a healthy six figures, so maybe that’s why I can’t understand it. But to early-adopter types, who crave the latest tech and a touch of exclusivity, price is probably no object.

The seating position is hunched a little forward, naked sport-bike style.

It’s too bad it is out of my price range — by a lot — because aside from its exclusive pricing, the Livewire makes sense, even among regular internal-combustion motorcycles. I wouldn’t hesitate to take it out for a weekend romp with my riding buddies, and I wouldn’t be preoccupied with range anxiety. My latest rides on my own bike covered about 200 km, which is easily achievable on the Livewire if a Level 3 charging station is halfway around. Of course, I live in Quebec, which is much better serviced for charging stations than most of Canada. For personal daily use, the way I ride, I could operate the Livewire and I wouldn’t miss gas stations one bit.

Hopefully, Harley has some future Livewire models in the pipeline that will be more affordable. As long as they maintain about the same range and similar performance, I could see one joining the other bikes in my garage.

7 thoughts on “First ride: 2020 Harley-Davidson Livewire”

  1. Hi Costa, another well written article that gives a clear picture of the motorbike. However it is not clear to me if the Harley Davidson Livewire has a neutral gear to avoid initiate accelerating movement by mistake while at stop. Always happy to read your text, and always missing you and your wife as next door neighbour.
    Thanks again for your review.

  2. It’s $10,000 more expensive than a Zero SR-F, and has less power and range. And looks stupid, IMO.
    I’m not seeing a win here. Yeah I know they’ve already pre-sold a bunch of them from the initial production run. I’ll be surprised if the demand continues.

    And going for level 3 charging rather than high-capacity level 2, given that the latter are much more common at this point (except for Tesla’s Supercharger stations, which presumably can’t be used), and the level 3 DC chargers seem to be split between a couple of standards, was a bad decision IMO.

    Zero went with level 2 charging, and for the SR-F you can have up to 12 kW of charging, which will do a full recharge in about an hour. Seems like the smarter choice for now to me. Now, someday, maybe the bikes will have actively cooled batteries and be able to use the high capacity chargers to do an 85% charge in 10 or 15 minutes. Then it would be worthwhile.

  3. So here’s a link to the chargehub map. There are very few level 3 stations in the Muskoka, Haliburton area where I often ride, and about half are Tesla, so not compatible. They appear to be further apart than 120 kms (assumed safe spirited riding range) and are often a single port not located in a nice place to take a break (like a car dealer).

    https://chargehub.com/en/charging-stations-map.html

    So, even if I could afford this, why buy something that so constricts your potential rides when you could have a comparable ICE (MT09, Z900) for 1/3 the cost? And you could plan your ride around fun roads and interesting stops, or not plan your route at all knowing that you can always find a gas station.

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