Cruiser of the Year Winner: Indian Chief
By Evans Brasfield
By now you’ve read all of the praise surrounding Indian’s return to selling motorcycles in the 2014 model year. We don’t think the kudos are at all hyperbolic, either. What Polaris accomplished in rescuing the American marque out of the morass of litigation and production of me-too Harley clones bearing the Indian name is notable on its own. Seeing the motorcycles (all three of the models) that came out of a mere 27 months of development has been inspiring. Polaris knows motorsports (being the number-one powersports OEM in North America) and is clearly applying what it’s learned from developing Victory over the past 15 years to the Indian revival.
So, how’d Polaris do it? The key ingredient is the Thunderstroke 111 engine. The 49-degree air-cooled V-Twin perfectly straddled the line between the historic styling of Indian engines (downward-facing exhausts, anyone?) and the requirements of a thoroughly modern powerplant with a ride-by-wire throttle, letting prospective customers know that, while Polaris clearly respects Indian’s past, it plans on producing motorcycles that utilize current technology.
When the motorcycles were revealed to the public, the proof of concept was immediately apparent. Where most manufacturers stick cruisers with tubular steel frames, Indian chose to pursue lightness and strength with an aluminum frame that weighs in at 58 lb. Other systems on the Indian showed a similar level of focus on performance. For example, dual 300mm discs squeezed by four-piston calipers in the front and a 300mm two-piston unit out back – with standard ABS.
Polaris made it very clear that it plans on Indian being seen as a premium brand. The fit and finish of the bikes – from the paint to the quality and amount of chrome – announced that Indian is here, here big, and for the long-term. The same can be said of the Indian logos on just about every visible piece of hardware. The overall feeling is one of quality. Premium is a word that Indian’s representatives like to toss around, and it fits. For example, the entire Indian line comes with cruise control and keyless starting standard.
You may have noticed that, up until now, we’ve been referring to the Indian brand in text that’s supposed to be about the Chief. The reasoning behind this is that all three of the 2014 Indian models were produced around the same platform. Riders have a choice of two Chiefs: the Chief Classic and the Chief Vintage. The Classic is just as the name implies, the archetypical cruiser design: a saddle, floorboards, a pulled-back bar, and deeply skirted fenders. The Vintage takes the Classic and adds supple, tan leather to the seat, a classic cop-style windshield, and leather saddlebags color-matched to the seats.
About the only real complaint anyone had with the Chief (other than your typical moto-journo niggles) was that it required more effort to turn than the Chieftain touring model. How’s that? While the Chief’s rake was 29-degrees, the Chieftain’s was shortened to 25-degrees, bringing about the odd situation where the bigger, heavier bike felt more sprightly than the stripped-down version.
Still, when it comes to riding the Chief, our reviews have been glowing: “These bikes make use of their aluminum-cast frame to dive into corners with nary a bow or flex,” and “You have to give it to Polaris for creating such an authentic machine.” Authentic, that’s the right word for the Indian Chief, the proper blend of history and technology seemingly without compromise. For these reasons, we chose the 2014 Indian Chief our Best Cruiser.
Honorable Mention: Harley-Davidson Street 750
By John Burns
Usually when Harley-Davidson builds a new motorcycle, you could be wearing a blindfold and noise-cancelling headphones and Helen Keller’s underwear, and you’d still know you were riding a Harley. It was true of the Buell Blast (the last clean-sheet beginner bike), it was true of the V-Rod. The way the gears shifted, the heft of the handlebars, the feel of the clutch – you could just always tell.
The Street 750 is different. Riding it blindfolded, you could mistake it for a sprightly V-Twin from Aprilia or Honda. All six gears snick in and out of engagement cleanly and easily, passing power rearward with very little lash while the overhead-cam 60-degree V-Twin climbs with real enthusiasm toward its 8000-rpm redline. Meanwhile, effective suspension systems at both ends soak up the bumps and let you get on with steering precisely where you want to go – quick and light.
Speaking of quick and light, H-D’s website has the Street weighing in 73 pounds lighter than an Iron 883 Sportster, a tremendous amount of lightening you feel in all facets of performance. Friendly as a puppy though it appears, the Street will annihilate Big Bro Sportster in any contest of speed you could name. The same people who always called the Sportster a “chick bike,” of course, will have similar derogatory things to say about the Street. They’re entitled to their opinion, but if this is a chick bike, then we’re happy to embrace our feminine side: With its low-mass approach, willing drivetrain and near-standard upright ergoes, the new Street 750 really is a hoot for urban scooting – and the price ($7,499) is definitely right.