Once upon a time, Jack was always a boy and Gill was always a girl. A work meeting meant more than sitting on your bed wearing just a shirt with your laptop and Harley-Davidson only ever made cruisers. I’ve just spent the day riding off road in Wales in the lashing rain, on a Harley. We’re living in strange times my friends. Nothing is normal anymore.
The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America is a 150bhp adventure bike with semi-active suspension, perfect road manners and genuine off road talent. If you’re convinced that you don’t want to read anymore, it costs from £14,000 and see you later. If your mind isn’t as narrow as the palm of your hand, read on. This bike deserves your attention.
Forget all the Futurama jokes, the looks really grew on me in the flesh and they will on you too. Wait until you’ve seen the green one, on spoked wheels with a dark screen and some soft luggage on it. It looks absolutely banging, exactly the kind of bike I can see myself parking on the deck of a ferry ahead of a long ride to the sunshine and a foreign hangover. There’s genuine function incorporated into the design as well. Luggage hooks here and there, clever brush guards that detach at one end and a rear brake lever that rotates through 180 degrees to suit on or off road were great discoveries. It showed me that the team that built the Pan America are providing answers to fresh questions that nobody else is asking in adventure bike design terms. The pillbox headlight casts a better view of the road ahead than a headlight as we know it and the little unit above it that you can see in the pictures is a separate cornering light. After spending time surrounded by them, I even started to see flashes of XR in the flowing line over the top of the tank. It’s an intelligent design, especially when you consider H-D had nothing to base it on other than cruisers and T-shirts with cruisers on.
Where do we start, adaptive ride height? On the Special version (the one I think represents the best value), there’s Showa semi active suspension that allows the seat height to sink to less than 800mm. This allows mini adventurers to climb aboard with confidence. Pull away and the suspension takes you up, apply enough braking force to stop and the whole set up lowers the rider back to within touching distance of the ground. The same suspension also does a great job wherever you choose to ride. Sure if you’re a track day rider then semi active suspension might take away that finite control and adjustability you need, but this bike weighs 258kgs and can flick from peg down on the road, to pegs buried in mud without lifting a hand from the bars. That broad a range of capability is pretty special when you think about it.
The 6.8 inch TFT dash is the new benchmark for me. It’s perfectly positioned and proportioned, is very easy to navigate around and the map function in particular was ideal for me. I also downloaded the app that H-D has developed, like the others out there it’s a little bit of a faff to get used to but it got easier the more I used it.
There are five riding modes to choose from, as well as a custom setting where you can tailor the bike to suit your style. Cornering traction control, cornering ABS, power delivery and engine braking are all open to adjustment. If you’re lazy like me you’ll find that Sport mode covers everything you need.
Brakes are by Brembo and are well matched to the weight of the bike and the performance available. Some of the other riders on the day thought that the brakes could have done with a touch more initial bite, maybe I wasn’t ’t trying hard enough because I had no complaints. The big issue I usually find with big bikes is the ABS chiming in when you’re scrubbing speed for really slow corners and while I was able to make this happen, it was typically when I was forcing it to happen rather than just riding my ride.
Our day was on the Special model of the Pan America, which when you look at the amount of tech that comes as standard (in comparison to other bikes in the sector) represents proper value for money. To be honest I was a little bit surprised to find it was £15,500 before I rode it, let alone afterwards. Not because £15,500 isn’t a lot of money, but because of what you get for this much in this sector elsewhere.
If you’re not old enough to remember the V-Rod then the idea of a properly liquid cooled Harley V-twin might be a novel one for you. This 1250cc Revolution Max motor had to deliver on a brief like no other motor from Harley. Anyone that’s ridden a large capacity V-twin will know that torque is the primary feature. While this is still true, in this bike the torque needs to be spread across the lower rpm range, rather than dumped just off tickover. Off road riding requires delicate inputs and forcing a rear tyre to fight with traction control (or spin) means lost momentum. This isn’t ideal when you’re on the side of a Welsh mountain on a 258kg bike and thankfully the throttle connection and drive was very clean. Even in my ungifted hands. The motor is a stressed member meaning it’s hard wired into the chassis and plays a role in overall rigidity. Seeing a Harley V-twin bouncing around on big rubber engine mounts is what I’m used to seeing here, that Harley has done it well on their first attempt deserves a pat on the back. Away from the 94ft-lbs of torque at the bottom of the revs there’s 150bhp to discover at 9500 rpm. Chasing revs is uncharted territory on a Harley and again I feel like they should be applauded for getting it so right on their first attempt. There’s nothing new in terms of the technology used but it is a new experience hearing about these things from a man with an American accent (via Zoom). Lightweight materials, forged pistons, independent variable valve timing and dual throttle bodies all feature and deliver a motor that’s just as willing to rev out as it is deliver soft shoves of torque when you need them. If you find you own one and you want to laud it over your bloviating GS mates, make sure to mention that the 90 degree firing order delivers a power pulse that was perfected in flat track racing because it sounds cool in every sense.
The Pan America was instantly comfortable. I don’t know why I was surprised to discover that the seat felt amazing given that Harley have been perfecting the art of long distance bum comfort for so long, but I was. The adjustable screen is wide and sturdy, adjustable on the fly with a heavyweight lever on the left hand side. The slow speed manners were great for such a tall and imposing looking machine. Don’t get me wrong, it would be pretty easy to topple over if you don’t grab hold of the bike and tell it what you want, but you’ll do that no worries because you’re a rugged adventure biker and you know what’s what. Right?
The self canceling indicators were a little bit inconsistent for some reason. I had to suffer the indignity of the bike in front letting me know I’d left a indicator on (does that ever get any less embarrassing?). I spent the first fifteen minutes wondering if half of the air on the front tyre had fallen out, or if there was a steering damper wound too tight somewhere. There’s quite a lot of resistance to steering inputs, but somehow the output isn’t slowed down. After a while I just settled into it and decided that it was probably down to the knobbly tyres we were riding on. A TPMS comes as standard on the Special so there was no doubt about pressures.
There was certainly no question over the willingness in the motor, it loves to rev and provides a very broad spread of torque and then power. It doesn’t feel like a Ducati motor at low rpm, but there was a distinct lack of potato potato. In case I forget to mention later on, this motor definitely needs an exhaust. To not shout a little bit louder after all the effort H-D has gone to in building the engine would be a crying shame.
Our route was mostly soaking wet. Overhanging trees and broken roads meant placing the Pan America in the road needed constant adjustment. The immediate comfort and confidence I felt in the car park remained and I had no issues at all letting the bike wander around my half of the road when I needed to. Even mid corner when a pot hole appeared and there was a bit of lean angle on, there was no protesting from either end of the bike. Smashing the throttle on the way out of these corners never got boring, I got strong drive all the way to the next gear and a smooth shift in between every time.
Right about now I usually like to reference how some bikes have a motor that outshines a chassis, or brakes that can overload forks if you’re not careful. The measure of great balance in a bike for me is when all the important bits are talking to each other in the same language, and that’s what I found on the Pan America. There isn’t one area that stands out as being good or bad and that’s harder to engineer than you might think.
Fast A-roads was where I enjoyed my ride the most. Upright, comfortable and stable, I was able to look as far up the road as I liked and let the motor sing in the upper end of the rev range.
We also rode the bikes off road, with Mick Extance at his amazing facility in North Wales. Me and off road riding blend like oil and vinegar, it’s not something I do enough of to be any good at and because I’m no good at it I ignore it until I have to do it. This is where the Pan America shone again as I was able to pick a riding mode to suit and just concentrate on balance, throttle and enjoying the view. It was a proper off road ride as well, something other manufacturers might usually shy away from on an adventure bike launch. On the fast fire tracks I turned every thing off and enjoyed doing stupid skids but when things got tricky, I was straight back into off road mode and was happy to share the responsibility with the bike. I finished each off road lap with a smile on my face, I wasn’t panting and puffing and the bike remained upright, that’s a win for me. I did get a chance to see how capable the bike was off road in the hands of the few Dakar riders in my group. Knowing that the bike is clearly more capable than I am was reassuring and demoralising in equal measure. I also saw one get crashed and was surprised at how little damage there was, the guy that dropped it wiped away his embarrassment and cracked on with the rest of the day no dramas.
I ask myself a few questions when I get off a bike on a press launch. The first is a quick check to see if I’m aching anywhere. Tiny niggles in achy wrists? A stiff neck from a windscreen that’s too low? Aching feet from pegs that aren’t quite in the right place? Any other bodily business? Once I’ve answered these, I ask myself if I’d be happy to get straight back on the bike and ride it home. With the Pan America I found myself going one better and wondering what it’d be like to head North to the top of Scotland before heading home. For me it was a supremely comfortable bike to ride. Perfect reach for arms and legs, a screen that works, handy brush guards and a seat that I could sit in all day no worries all played their part. Granted not everyone is the same shape as me but I don’t think I’m too far from the norm.
The next thing I consider is the price. Given that the Special model we rode is the fancy one with all the trimmings, I think that Harley have done a great job putting a package together like this for the money they’re asking for it. You can opt for the base model (which I had a quick spin on and was just as happy to ride), but the standard equipment on the Special is worth the extra money. Stick £3400 down and you can ride the Special version for £159 a month on PCP. Granted you’re only allowed 3000 miles a year for that, but we all know that there are people reading this that won’t do that mileage. If you’re one of those people, this bike represents a bit of a bargain.
I then think about the bar and a post ride beer but have to remind myself that there are still a few questions to go. What about the competition, how does the bike stack up? It’s always best to group test bikes before being to vocal here but in personal terms (without comparing technical details, performance and other important stuff), I’d be tempted to go for one of the faster adventure bikes in this sector. Faster isn’t always better, but it is always faster and I’m still a fan of that. If we disregard the V4 Multistrada and the new KTM Super Adventure on the basis that they’re so fast that I’d choose them over a pot of gold and a 32 inch waist, lets think about the competition. Is it a GS, or Africa Twin beater? No, I don’t think so yet. Would I have it over the equivalent Triumph, Moto Guzzi or Yamaha? Yes I would. Like I said, a group test is what we need to find the definitive answer but to enter a brand new sector in the market and not get the wooden spoon isn’t something I can remember any other manufacturer ever pulling off.
I’ve ridden other Harleys I like more and I’ve ridden other adventure bikes I like more but never at the same time so in a fashion the Pan Am’ is still a winner. Is the Pan America a good bike? Yes, it absolutely is. Though I’m not sure that just being good is enough in a sector that is as cutthroat as the one it’s entering.
More than anything else, the Pan America proves that Harley-Davidson are capable of making very good motorcycles, they’ve just chosen to spend the last hundred years proving it with one formula rather than loads of different ones like other manufacturers. The Livewire and the Pan America shows what this company is capable of when they want to flex their muscle and I’m all for that. You can stand around and point and laugh as much as you like, Harley aren’t the ones standing still, you are.
258kg ready to ride
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