Harley-Davidson floats an electric bike

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      When you hear the words “Harley-Davidson”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For a lot of people, it’s the sound. The unmistakable “potato-potato” rumble that drives some to distraction is music to the ears of enthusiasts. It’s simultaneously the company’s trademark and its biggest source of controversy.

      Funny, then, to be riding an all-electric Harley LiveWire that doesn’t make a peep, aside from a high-pitched whine that’s actually engineered into the final drive, and goes about its business quietly and efficiently. It’s also emission-free.

      The LiveWire isn’t a laid-back, king-size cruiser with saddlebags, a windscreen, and attitude up the yin-yang, but a stripped-down, bare-essentials sport bike that wouldn’t look out of place at a MotoGP event. At first glance, it looks like a nicely styled corner-carver, with roughly the same proportions as a Ducati Monster or Buell Lightning. It has a longitudinally mounted AC electric motor fed by a lithium-ion battery pack and develops an estimated 75 horsepower. There are no gears to change and no clutch. You simply get aboard, thumb the start button, twist the throttle, and off you go.

      Two riding modes are offered on the handlebar-mounted touchscreen: “Range” for touring and “Power” for around-town point-and-squirt traffic. Both supply an abundance of takeoff power, and the company claims the LiveWire will go from a standing start to freeway speed in about four seconds. That’s one of the nice things about electric power: instant torque, with no “spooling up” or hammering through the gears to get somewhere. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view.

      In the saddle, it felt kind of weird not to have to shift gears or use a clutch lever. In fact, you don’t have to use the brakes much either, as the LiveWire has a regenerative engine brake function. Backing off on the throttle slows the bike down in a heartbeat and, during my limited time riding it, I hardly used the brakes at all. But they’re there, regardless: twin-piston discs front and back.

      A few other observations. First, the rear-view mirrors are positioned at the tips of the handlebars, below your arms, as opposed to above. I could not get used to them, but perhaps one would over time. Second, this is not a large bike, and an all-day ride (which it can’t do at this point, anyway) would get a little uncomfortable after a few hours. Harley-Davidson hasn’t provided much information regarding the LiveWire’s riding range, but it’s estimated to be around 80 kilometres, with an approximate recharge time of some three-and-a-half hours with a 220-volt charging unit. Lastly, the LiveWire has a nice, light sense of balance and would make a pretty competent city bike. It’s effortless to ride and nicely built, and doesn’t feel cobbled together or hastily engineered. Again, I didn’t get to spend as much time with it as I would have liked, but the LiveWire felt like a fully finished motorcycle with no rough edges. That said, it has an uncompromising sport-bike riding position and isn’t the kind of bike you can lounge on.

      If it were in production, that is. At this point, it isn’t for sale and Harley-Davidson is calling it “Project” LiveWire, the idea being to get the bike out to some riders and sift through their feedback. The company hasn’t announced things like pricing or a launch date, no doubt to gauge public opinion and see if it makes economic sense to put an electric sport bike on the market.

      But it’s no secret that the company’s traditional customer base is fading fast. It swears it’s not abandoning its classic air-cooled V-twin engine configuration and still knows which side its bread is buttered on, but rider demographics are changing everywhere, and a new breed of consumer is emerging—especially in North America. Witness the company’s recent introduction of its small-displacement “Street” models, with their liquid-cooled engines and emphasis on rideability, as opposed to attitude.

      Changes are definitely in the wind in Milwaukee.