Test ride: 2020 Indian Chieftain Elite

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Three things to know about the Indian Chieftain Elite, before you read any more:

  • It’s very expensive. Remember how we told you that the Indian FTR 1200 S was very expensive? Well, you can buy two of them for the $42,999 price of the Chieftain Elite, and still have money left over for insurance.
  • It’s not a Harley. Just to stress that point, there are at least 20 individual “Indian” logos dotted around the bike, on the pegs and the dash and the brake fluid cylinder and the handgrips, and pretty much anywhere you could find space for a quick branding.
  • Its “Thunder Stroke” engine is magnificent and its six-speed transmission, while belligerent, rarely needs shifting.

There, now you’re caught up.

Read all the specs for the 2020 Indian Chieftain Elite here.

Mark, at an oasis somewhere in the California desert, attempts to look cool on the Indian Chieftain Elite.

First impressions

Jeff and I rode around California’s Salton Sea last month, and you’ll read all the dirty details from that road trip soon enough. Jeff chose the flat-track-hero FTR 1200 S for himself, probably because he sees himself as some kind of macho boy racer, but I, being the sage voice of wisdom, chose a more mature motorcycle for my more mature butt: the comfortable Chieftain Elite bagger.

On the first day, riding on wet roads through Los Angeles’ sprawl, I wondered if this might have been a mistake. The Chieftain Elite is heavy, at 379 kg (836 lb.) when it’s full of fuel, and its bars are wide. More to the point, the feet-operated controls are well forward and whenever I’d pull away from a stop, I had to swing my legs up and forward onto the boards into an unnatural position.

“Hang on Jeff – one more run, and this time I’ll crank the tunes to annoy the neighbours.”

At least, it seemed unnatural until I started getting used to it. In fact, there were enough SoCal riders blasting around the sprawl with 20-inch risers and German army helmets that I came to feel really quite suburban.

Jeff made me lead the way because the Chieftain Elite has a large navigation screen on its full-colour TFT display, but it wasn’t much use: it kept veering off and showing that we were somewhere out in the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, this only happened on the first day and I put it down to teething pains. We were all getting used to each other.

Now that can’t be right, surely? The Chieftain Elite’s Navigation system throws a snit and tries to dump Mark in the ocean.

What is Indian, anyway?

We don’t hear a lot about Indian in Canada, probably because it has no press fleet north of the border, it has fewer dealers than Harley-Davidson, and it’s positioned itself as a premium brand (more expensive bikes means fewer riders can afford them, so there’s less on the road). It’s also been through all kinds of upheavals over the last couple of decades or so, starting out as a revived Canadian T-shirt brand and lurching from crisis to crisis until Polaris finally bought it in 2011 and instilled some stability. When Polaris closed the Victory brand three years ago, Indian became the obvious successor and can now be considered an established manufacturer.

(Of course, Indian aficionados will start screaming at this point about how Indian was founded two years before Harley-Davidson, in 1901, blah blah blah. They’ll skim over the fact that Harley won the battle for military contracts for the Second World War, and that by 1953, traditional production was as dead as Indian’s bank account. From then until Polaris came along, Indian was little more than a contentious brand name, in turmoil for 60 years.)

Anyway, Indian now makes 21 different motorcycles based around six basic model lines: Scout, FTR, Chief, Chieftain, Springfield and Roadmaster. It also offers tuning kits for extra power to its 111 and 116 cubic-inch V-twins. Basically, anything Harley does, Indian does too. Except trikes, thank God.

Even when the big engine’s not running, it’s a work of art.

What special about this bike?

First things first – the Chieftain Elite is a very high quality motorcycle. Its fit and finish is superb. I could find no errant bolts to turn rusty, or flappy wiring, or sharp edges. The two-tone tank and fenders apparently take nearly 25 hours to hand paint and it looks like it. Those red-metal pushrod tubes on the engine make all the difference to its gorgeous looks. Indian calls this an “ultra-premium” bike and it certainly fits the bill. Just as well, given its price.

As stated right off the top, the engine is terrific. Yes, it’s a big air-cooled V-twin, as American as apple pie and guns, and at 116 cubic inches (1,900 cc) it’s slightly larger than those Milwaukee 8s that are assembled one state over. It has almost identical torque to the Harley engines too, at 126 lb.-ft. compared to 123 for the Hog, and it peaks at 2,900 rpm compared to the Harley’s 3,000 rpm.

Mark powers up the road, realizing how much better this Indian is than his own 10-year-old Harley.

On paper, it looks as if the Indian slightly bests the Harley, but in practice, you’ll never notice the difference in performance. What you will notice is that this is a smooth and rumbly engine, not lumpy like the Harley-Davidson. I’ve said the same thing about Asian V-twins, of course, which are well-designed and generally lack the Harley’s “character”, but Harley knows what it’s doing and has engineered in that potato-potato feel. It’s up to you if that’s important or not, but as a guy once told me in Milwaukee: “If my boat made that noise, I’d be taking it in to a mechanic pretty quick.”

The engine pulls and pulls, and it doesn’t seem to matter which of the six gears you’re using. It’s a clunky transmission that’s reluctant to find neutral, so it wasn’t uncommon to pull away in second or even third, but that was never an issue. A few times, I even pulled away from standstill in sixth gear but the Indian wasn’t bothered. Lots of clutch slip, but I doubt anyone else on the road noticed. More of an issue was that I needed to physically move my foot forward on the board to change gears, because my boot didn’t just tuck away neatly under the shifter.

The Chieftan Elite has a throttle-by-wire system, offering three different Ride modes of Touring, Standard, and Sport, all adjustable on the fly. They only seem to affect the smoothness of the throttle itself and I found the Sport setting to be generally a bit too snatchy. Conversely, Touring was a little too relaxed, and I left the mode on Standard for most riding. The suspension is not easily adjustable — you need to go to a garage and adjust the air pressure with a pneumatic hose — but I was content with the default setting. Even so, a bike of this cost should provide simple adjustment for the added weight of luggage or a passenger.

Much of the Chieftain Elite’s additional price is due to its sophisticated software. The 7-inch TFT screen between the traditional analogue dials is clear and fairly easy to use, either through a jog button on the left bar or as touch controls directly on the screen (which is where fingerless gloves come in handy). On the second day, the TFT screen buzzed with vibration at low speed, but this went away on the third day.

The slot at the top of the fairing for your phone, which is a tightly-kinked squeeze for a big phone with the cable plugged in.

You can plug your phone in to a USB charger and control everything through Bluetooth. There’s a dedicated phone storage pocket in the fairing, but it’s a tight squeeze with the cable in place if you have a phablet like my iPhone 7 Plus. Expect to wear out a bunch of kinked phone cables.

In fact, the Indian is so digital-friendly that it doesn’t even have a printed manual (boo!), and everything’s searchable online or downloadable with your phone. Go to https://www.indianmotorcycle.com/en-ca/owner-resources/ if you want a closer, far more detailed look for yourself.

“Okay, owner’s manual – where do I put the key again?”

How is it to ride?

Out on the road, once my feet were up on the boards, the Chieftain Elite was a pleasure to ride. I could sit on the interstate all day long with the cruise control set at 130 km/h, with its wide tires unbothered by the corrugated ridges of California’s concrete. The shallow windscreen is electrically adjusted through a dedicated button on the right grip, and I found it very effective at deflecting wind. Most of the time, I rode with the setting at about two-thirds of its possible height, and this let me ride comfortably with the visor up on my full-face helmet.

I never did bother with the audio system, which pumps 400 watts of sound through speakers in the fairing and the panniers. For one thing, I’m not that bothered about music while I’m riding, but mostly, I find it embarrassing to inflict others with the noise. Chances are that you’ll put louder slip-ons onto the exhaust, though, so you need the extra boost to hear over your loud pipes. I’ll let you find out for yourself if it works as it should. I was happy with the burble of the standard pipes as they were.

You can dress him up, but you still can’t take the slob out of the guy. The panniers are spacious, however, and the label reminds you this is not a Harley.

The solid, colour-coordinated panniers themselves were remarkably spacious and had far more capacity that I’d expected. The lack of a topbox wasn’t an issue for a long weekend away, and I even carried some of Jeff’s crap on top of my own. The bags lock with the touch of a button on the fob, or with the touch of a discreet button on the bike itself. They don’t detach easily, but you shouldn’t need them to if your luggage is packed into bags inside.

The bike has an integrated key fob that you can leave in your pocket, needing only to thumb the starter button to get everything going. There’s a tiny button on the tank that looks like an oval-shaped decoration which is actually a central locking button. Tap it, or the button on the fob in your pocket, and the entire bike is locked and secure.

That oval on the left is the button for the heated grips, which are a $500 option. The oval on the right is the central locking switch.

How is it to ride on fun roads?

The real surprise came when Jeff and I left the interstate and headed into the mountains. South of Palm Springs, the Pines-to-Palms Highway twists 4,000 feet up into a national forest, and this time Jeff led the way. I expected him to pull away handily on the tighter turns but the Chieftain Elite kept close behind, never once complaining. Of course, Jeff rides like a Big Girl’s Blouse, and neither of us wanted to get a ticket on the 90 km/h limit, but the heavier bike was solid, predictable, and unconcerned. Maybe the large 19-inch wheel on the front adds an extra stability to the machine, even if it does make it a handful on those city streets.

A few times, Jeff rode behind and said that I looked like I was thisclose to grinding out the boards or the pipes, but the bagger was unfazed, even on the unadjusted suspension. It’s rated for 31 degrees of lean, the same as the Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special, and it seemed as composed when it was tipped right over at speed as it was cruising on the interstate.

I switched the Ride mode to Sport and lowered the windscreen when I first began keeping up with Jeff in the mountains, but after a while I switched it back to Standard and raised the screen to keep my head from buffeting. It was cool up there. You can buy a heated grip option for around $500, and heated seat options for an extra thousand bucks or so, but my test bike had none of these.

The Chieftain Elite offers options for pretty much everything, which is surprising given its high price and level of standard equipment, but to each their own. It’s your money. Suffice to say that Indian has clearly seen Harley’s success at selling Screamin’ Eagle parts and provides the same possibilities: everything from red leather grips and wire wheels to a $7,000 trunk and additional $1,000 trunk audio speaker kit. Oh, and Level 1 or 2 performance parts to boost power by up to 17 per cent.

Is it worth it?

Like I said off the top, the Indian Chieftain Elite is a very expensive motorcycle, but if you want to spend the money, you won’t be disappointed with any sub-standard parts. This bike deserves its “ultra-premium” description.

So does the Honda Gold Wing, a more advanced motorcycle with far better suspension and probably better brakes, which starts at $27,599 for its six-speed bagger version. So does the BMW K1600B, which starts at $30,300. And so does the Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special, which starts at $33,799.

There are plenty of much-less-costly Indians if you can’t quite stretch to paying 10 grand over the competition. They have similar performance and looks and abilities, and they’ll still give you all those brand stamps and exclusivity.

You won’t find this on the front fender of a Harley-Davidson.

But if you want pretty much everything in a North American bagger, with no compromises in quality or looks, and you don’t really want a Harley like all your friends, then Indian has the bike for you. Don’t forget your cheque book.

Read all the specs for the 2020 Indian Chieftain Elite here.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful bike, too expensive for me. I have to believe that as we “rich” boomers age, the market for this type of bike will just keep declining. Once you add heated grips/seat etc it would be way over 50K out the door. My 2010 Beemer has everything this bike does and more and it cost me $12K used with 50K km. 20K km per year in past 4 yrs with zero issues, flawless. I ride 140-160 all day in remote areas of BC and it rocks in the twisties. I know it is not an ‘Murican V twin cruiser but I am a function over form guy, and I do so enjoy blitzing all the cruisers. Well to be honest no one has passed the Beemer in any situation on any other vehicle. That is the function that I want, plus I love the look and sound of the Boxer. The HD guys like to insult me because the boxer had origins as a tractor motor, yet not one of them will take me up on a friendly wager about who can get to the next town first. When I feel chill it works just great as a cruiser. Best all around bike imho. C

  2. There is a new Indian on the block. There was when you published this blog. Check out the new Indian Challenger, a 108 inch fire breathing monster. 122 HP and 128 Ft.Lbs. of raw Torque.
    With ride and traction assist modes it is newly engineered to keep everyone safe, while still showing every other production cruiser the taillights.

  3. The Harley Davidson CVO’s run about $7000.00 more so as far as a direct comparison that might be a better choice. This article would have been great with a genuine stats list and a few measured facts like 40-60 mph and 60-80 mph plus high /low / average fuel use.
    Although the article is good I do get the feeling of a unrelenting dislike of “baggers” from the writer. The Kawasaki 1400 Concours is a bagger, along with several BMW models and the late Honda ST1300. These machine had the advantage of excessive horsepower and shorter wheel base / steering angle, all great on the twisty stuff but almost pointless on the straight stretches in between where the Indian is in its element.
    I believe your article would have been better if your experience was over a week or two, unfortunately that wasn’t possible, however in the time and distance restraints you had a good article was achieved. More exposure would have netted a great piece.

  4. Baggers aren’t my… uhh… bag, but if I was shopping for one, the Chieftain would probably be at the top of my list. Hauling ass across the California desert at around 90 mph, the big Indian was as content as could be gobbling up miles — and the sound system was great (only the coyotes and rattlesnakes were bothered by my musical tastes). But the Chieftain Elite is insanely priced, as Mark said, so I’d pick a base model Chieftain, option in that outstanding 116 engine and swap out the bland looking parts for chrome ones over time (fun winter projects) and come in at roughly the same price as the Yamaha Star Eluder ( https://canadamotoguide.com/2018/08/28/test-ride-2018-yamaha-star-eluder/ ) that’s not as fun to ride, nor does it have the ‘Murica cachet.

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