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Harley-Davidson rolls out the Tesla of motorcycles

Rick Newman
·Senior Columnist

It might be the Tesla (TSLA) of motorcycles, or it might be a flop. Last week Harley-Davidson (HOG) allowed me and a few other drivers to test ride Project LiveWire, the company’s new electric motorcycle.

Project LiveWire is a prototype motorcycle that isn’t going to be road model, at least that’s what they tell us. Harley’s first ever electric powered bike definitely looks the part, although it’s range is only about 55 miles on a full charge. And the sound it makes is decidedly not very Harley-like, but more on that later.

The LiveWire will feel familiar to sport-bike enthusiasts accustomed to 600 cc engine or so, which is fairly mid-range for sport-bikes. Handling is nimble yet the bike feels heavy enough to be comfortable on the highway. I didn’t peg the throttle, but Harley says the LiveWire runs from 0 to 60 in less than 4 seconds. What I can say is there’s plenty of pickup for passing the pokies next to you and catching that light that just turned yellow. On my congested downtown ride, twisting the throttle put a grin on my face as I darted ahead of buses and put instant space between me and the traffic in the rear-view mirror. 

Related: Harley's Electric Hog

Since there’s no shifting, my left hand kept instinctively grasping at nothing each time I approached  a stop sign and reached for the clutch. But many urban riders won’t miss shifting. Modest throttling rockets the LiveWire forward with nearly zero lag time and no micropauses during shifts, delivering nearly the same acceleration you’d get revving a sport bike in first or second    gear. The constant shifting required on a traditional bike in city driving can exhaust your wrist and take some of the fun out of a ride. On the LiveWire, it’s one less distraction that lets you pay a bit more attention to buses, jaywalkers, potholes and whatever unexpected obstructions lie ahead.
The sound of a bike incites passion among riders, and the LiveWire seems sure to provoke vigorous barroom debate with the novel industrial sound it emits. Harley likens the sound to the whirring of a jet engine as it spools up, but to me it’s a higher pitched whine that sounds like the Death Eaters in the Harry Potter films. The satisfying gurgle of a gas engine ingesting fuel isn’t there. But I like the banshee wail the LiveWire produces, which is less ear-splitting on city streets than the traditional Harley salute, and more likely to turn heads as people wonder if some kind of drone is whizzing down the street at streetlight level. Traditionalists, undoubtedly, will disapprove. Let them. This is a new sound for a new type of rider.
As with electric automobiles, “range anxiety” will be an issue for LiveWire riders. The prototype’s range, around 55 miles, is obviously plenty of juice for a jaunt around town, but most motorcycle owners crave a bit of open road as an essential part of their riding diet. Having to keep a close eye on the range meter and staying close to home will limit the LiveWire’s appeal, especially since it’s likely to be the Tesla of motorcycles in price as well as design. The market for urban riders willing to pay up for a premium, range-limited bike can’t be that big, and the LiveWire is so different from other Harleys that you have to wonder if a traditional Hoghead would ever buy the newfangled LiveWire as a second (or third) bike. Harley could add range by cutting back on performance, but that would dim the bike’s allure as well. An electric cycle is an exciting idea, but it’s not obvious it will be a marketplace success.

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