Leather Baggers Shootout: Cruisers for the Open Road + Video
Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic vs. Indian Chief Vintage vs. Triumph Thunderbird LT vs. Victory Cross Roads Classic
Triumph Thunderbird LT
How to stand apart in the company of similarly styled and outfitted leather baggers? Simple. Power your model with a parallel-Twin instead of the ubiquitous V-Twin. Not only is Triumph’s 1699cc, DOHC parallel-Twin unique in its architecture, but also by being the only liquid-cooled motorcycle of the bunch.
The Triumph motor was my second favorite power plant behind Indian’s. When it came to freeway passing power and roll-on tests against the others, the T-Bird was without equal. It’s jugs are more willing to rev, but it doesn’t demand revs to make good power. The Twin is also a smooth operator and makes some really cool noises via its 270° firing order.
“Triumph’s motor is nice and stout, and likes to rev more than others; it’ll also cruise nice and smooth at 100 mph. Not that you would much, but it’s nice to know you can,” says Burns.
At 747 claimed curb pounds, the T-Bird is the lightest of these heavyweight cruisers, and you can feel it when navigating a twisty back road. The LT’s exceptional handling manners can also be attributed to the bike’s new frame which Brasfield addressed in his review of the Thunderbird LT and Commander. The only handling attribute we disliked was the T-Bird’s ranking as second-worst cornering clearance behind Harley.
“Nice firm nearly sporty ride; shame you have to worry about digging in hard parts when you start picking up the pace,” says Burns. “More preload might’ve helped, but we couldn’t find the tool to adjust the shocks. (The Victory gives you an air pump and a gauge for its shock. Which needed no adjusting… how ironic…).”
And then there’s the Thunderbird’s seat; a wonderfully comfortable thing which, according to Burns, is “seemingly stuffed with the perfect amount of hummingbird feathers.”
“If other manufacturers aren’t studying this seat to see why it works so much better than theirs, then they’re not paying attention,” says Brasfield. One of the two bikes here to come equipped with standard backrest, and the only model with passenger floorboards, the T-Bird also won our choice for best passenger pillion. says Duke, “If you want to please your co-rider, put them on the LT.”
At 7.5 gallons per bag, the Triumph boasts the second-most volume behind the Victory’s 8.5 gallons per bag. And while the T-Bird’s saddlebags do not feature a quick-release system, they do come stock with removable waterproof liners – something none of the other leather baggers here provide.
|Chief||36.3 mpg||210.7 miles|
|Cross Roads||36.9 mpg||214.0 miles|
|Softail||34.6 mpg||173.0 miles|
|Thunderbird||38.7 mpg||225.0 miles|
Although the T-Bird is outfitted with the smallest windscreen of the group, it provides protection from frontal wind blasts while allowing its rider to see over the top of the screen. “The Triumph is the only stock one that works for me, Burns noted. “On all these you need to saw the thing off to fit.” We noticed some turbulence but not as bad as that coming off the Harley’s windscreen. The great thing is, the windscreen features a toolless quick-release system.
“The removable windshield is the bees knees,” says Brasfield. “I want to pull in to motorcycle gathering places and show riders how cool it is. However, I wouldn’t do that until I’d bought the accessory lock.”
The Bird’s floorboards get a little tingly around 75 mph but its rubber-mounted bars distance a rider’s hands from vibration, the tradeoff being a slight loss of front-end feel and steering accuracy. You won’t find a cruise control button on the Thunderbird, but it is equipped with ABS – as are all the bikes in this contest.
At $16,699, the Thunderbird LT is the least expensive leather bagger competing in this shootout. Surprisingly, the LT turned out to be the quickest motorcycle – besting even the Indian Chief Vintage and its 120cc displacement advantage in top-gear roll-ons. Considering its speed, rider and passenger ergonomics, handling, removable windscreen and saddlebags/liners it’s easy to make a case for purchasing the T-Bird.
Victory Cross Roads Classic
Since its inception in 1999, Victory has marched to the beat of a different drummer. Yes, the company’s chosen powerplant is a V-Twin, but Victorys have never aped another marque’s style. Rather, from the very beginning, the company’s cruisers have had a distinctive look that has been refined over the years to be like no other cruisers on the market.
The $17,999 Cross Roads Classic in this shootout is no different. While having the basic light-duty touring components required of a leather bagger cruiser, the CRC is unique. Burns sums it up thusly: “I like its understated style, not too heavy on the chrome and look-at-me furbelows. The bike didn’t jump out at me when it was new, but the more I see it, the more I like its blend of classic curves and modern angles and creases. The aircraft-style gas filler is a nice hint this ain’t your typical barge, and no dumb tank-top instruments where you can’t see them easily either.”
Duke concurs on the instrument location, “It’s not as pretty, but it can be read without dropping your chin to look at gauges on a fuel tank.” However, he, along with most of the testers, felt that Victory scrimped on some of the details, particularly the wires and cables on the handlebar. One need only to look at the Indian’s tiller to see what refinement Polaris is capable of delivering.
The bags received high marks. Measuring in at a whopping 8.7 gallons of capacity each, their construction made them the closest to those on a hard bagger, even if their openings are rather slim. While the lids flipped open on hinges, they were still held closed by clips but, like all the baggers gathered here, are neither locking nor waterproof. Chromed tubular bag guards highlight the bags’ swoopy shape and offer tip-over protection. Although the bags pop off easily via quarter-turn fasteners, you’ll only want to do it to ease maintenance since the back of the bike with its fixed bag guards looks horrible without the bags.
Handling was another area where the CRC outshone the other baggers and dominated the scoring. While it first feels stiff when coming from one of the other baggers, a quick trip through some corners reveals that the Victory feels comparatively firm because the others are a bit soft.
“The Cross Road’s suspension is probably the best-balanced system of the group, rivaling the Triumph’s setup,” says Duke. “It offers good control while having the ability to soak up large hits without much disturbance to the rider.” However, what sets the Victory apart is the ground clearance that allows it to take advantage of its suspension. The Thunderbird LT, by comparison, is well suspended but ran out of ground clearance much quicker, ending the festivities far sooner than the chassis would otherwise. The Softail was even worse off with the most limited suspension and ground clearance.
Paired with the only other overhead-cam engine, the Victory mill beat the second-place Triumph by less than a single percentage point in our scorecard. While the Freedom 106 engine may not have the bottom-end grunt of the larger-displacement Indian, the Victory’s powerplant came across as perhaps the most versatile package. Like the Triumph, the CRC’s engine needed to be revved up to generate the most thrust, but when we did, the results were rewarding. Perhaps the best way to trace the Victory’s increased refinement over the years is how the transmission has been transformed from a noisy, notchy unit to one that shifts with authority.
The CRC’s windshield is the only one in this gathering that requires tools to be removed. Consequently, it’s the only windshield that you don’t have to worry about having someone snatch while you’re having a roadside burger and shake. The shield’s height drew mixed reviews, with Duke saying, “At 5-foot–8, I could choose from looking through the shield if slumping or over it if sitting high. Buffeting is felt in either position, but disturbance is relatively mild.” I felt that the turbulence rolling off the top of the windshield could be annoying at times, but that was mostly when encountering a stiff headwind. Otherwise, the turbulence was about average for the classic-style windshield.
The Victory’s ergonomics appealed to all of the riders and their variety of heights, easily besting all of the bikes except the Triumph and its amazingly comfortable seat. At 26.3 in., the Victory’s seat is only a third of an inch taller than the class winner, but according to Burns, the saddle felt like the lowest. All the testers noted how the length and shape of the floorboards allowed for multiple foot positions over the course of a long day in the saddle.
– Evans Brasfield
Postcard from the Open Road
After putting the leather baggers through the paces, we were pretty sure how which one would be selected the winner before we hit the MO Scorecard. What we didn’t know was how the rest of the bikes would stack up against it. In the end, second and third places could have gone either way. The results are:
Fourth Place: Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic
The motorcycle in this grouping with the most history behind it has lagged in the past couple years while the competitors have upped their game, leaving the Harley feeling, well, old. Hopefully the Rushmore-derived Twin Cam 103 HO will soon make an appearance to close the gap. Also, with it’s frisky steering response, improved ground clearance could have helped the Softail challenge for third. However, in its current form, it could only muster a 68.61% on our scorecard.
Third Place: Triumph Thunderbird LT
The Thunderbird LT was the sleeper of this shootout. You might be surprised to know that, although it finished third overall, it actually won the objective rankings with the lowest price and weight. In the subjective scoring, it won the braking category and finished second in six categories. Unfortunately, the categories the Triumph struggled in were enough to keep it out of second place by less than one point at a score of 76.53%.
Second Place: Indian Chief Vintage
The Indian Chief Vintage squeaked into second place by a margin of just 1.39%. The features that helped to set it above the others are its extraordinary fit and finish. Aside from one small miscue (the aforementioned windshield bracket), the Chief towers over the others in terms of premium styling and attention to detail. Also, while one may argue that cruise control isn’t a necessity, it sure did ease long stints on the highway. The Chief Vintage claims runner-up status with a score of 77.92%.
First Place: Victory Cross Roads Classic
The key word mentioned in most of the comments about the Victory was balance. When we were riding, we believe the Cross Roads Classic makes the right compromises for this class of motorcycle. You’d expect that a balanced bike would win some categories and be close in others. However, when the dust settled on the scorecards, the CRC won an astounding eight categories. Every time it missed out on first place, the Victory landed in a solid second place.
|2014 Leather Baggers Shootout Scorecard|
|Category||Harley Heritage Softail Classic||Indian Chief Vintage||Triumph Thunderbird LT||Victory Cross Roads Classic|
|Scores are listed as a percentage of editors’ ratings in each category. The Engine category is double-weighted, so the Overall Score is not a total of the displayed percentages but, rather, a percentage of the weighted aggregate raw score.|
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