2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire Test: Premium Electric Motorcycle
I’m still shocked that Harley-Davidson took a very unpredictable leap into the world of EV—electric vehicles for you traditional V-twin types.The Motor Company unveiled its Project LiveWire back in 2014, though the EV journey began back in 2011 with a secret prototype. H-D built 33 of its Project LiveWire motorcycles and didn’t hire any fancy Elon Musk types to think through the engineering. Instead, the boys of the iconic Bar and Shield brand depended on input from the public.
The Project LiveWire motorcycles traveled the world and were tested by more than 12,000 riders. Harley-Davidson learned much from the test; the production 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire is 100 percent different from the Project LiveWire.For a lover of wrenching on engines and completing most of my days to the cadence of mechanical motors, I was never interested in the electric motorcycle movement. I live a half-mile from some of the most beautiful backroads around and have little use for riding in the city. Here, charging stations are few, and I don’t want to sit around for an hour while a bike’s battery replenishes after barely any riding.But Harley’s Project LiveWire appealed to me—more from the business and marketing perspective. Was it going to work? What would be different from the leaders in electric motorcycles like Zero and Energica? Who’s the target buyer? And, of course, how about range, recharging, and price?The anticipation to understand and finally ride the LiveWire began. This anticipation was hushed mid-July when Harley-Davidson included Ultimate Motorcycling in the first of 10 waves of motorcycle journalists to ride the production LiveWire. The location: Portland, Oregon. The town is known for its beer distilleries, marijuana shops, and hipster-forward culture (and lots of beards). It’s an attraction for hikers and features a diverse landscape of downtown trolleys, bridges, and twisty back roads just outside of the city.The event was historic for Harley-Davidson, which brought along President and CEO Matt Levatich to open the press presentation. Having a CEO at a press launch signifies something special; we don’t see many CEOs at these events. Looking like an everyday man rather than your typical CEO of a company with a market cap over $5 billion, Levatich’s message was about the LiveWire getting into the heads and hearts of a new generation of Harley-Davidson riders.For this specific electric motorcycle, Levatich says the target riders have an electric-vehicle progressive mindset and mostly live in urban areas. The target buyer prefers luxury and technology over traditional products. I imagine the Tesla client—one who wouldn’t think twice about the $30,000 purchase price for a Harley-Davidson that goes against the status quo of the company’s image in motorcycling.My first shock came when Harley-Davidson announced Project LiveWire. My second EV shock from the mighty MoCo arrives after riding the production 2020 LiveWire.I’ve ridden a few electrics before and never walked away excited. That changed after my short 65-mile sprint aboard the LiveWire. Harley-Davidson does not sugarcoat who this bike is for—the LiveWire is super-premium, arriving with the latest in EV technology, plus sporty suspension. This is hands down the sportiest handling Harley-Davidson chassis I have ridden. It is also one of the most appealing looking Harleys on the road—especially the rear license plate/brake/turn-signals holder that looks like a giant tubular horseshoe over the 180 rear tire.After Levatich and other top Harley-Davidson brass schooled us on the marketing and technology, we got to riding. We started in the city, and then hit some backroads with a few mid-corner bumps that upset this 549-pound EV’s suspension quickly.First is the beauty of riding an electric bike. The LiveWire, which is powered by a 15.5kWh lithium-ion battery called the RESS (Renewable Engine Storage System), features a very subtle whine when getting on the throttle. All 105 horsepower and 86 ft/lbs of torque are immediately available from 0 rpm to the engine’s top speed of 15,000 rpm.With zero sounds while flowing with the throttle pinned, it’s the closest you’ll get to personal flying—not flying within a mechanical machine, but rather like a bird. That’s all I could think of when I first got on it on country roads in Portland—flying like a bird. Yes, Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” did get stuck in my head, louder than ever due to the lack of any noises typical of a Harley-Davidson engine.Though the sound is gone, Harley-Davidson still wanted you to know there’s an engine beneath. This prompted the engineers to create a haptic pulse, which uses the magnets in the engine to provide a subtle pulsing like a heartbeat. The vibration can be adjusted, though a dealer must complete the programming. My test bike was set to low, and that little pulse provided yet another level of unique EV experience when riding the LiveWire.The RESS is mated to an engine aptly called “Revelation,” which is an internal permanent magnet synchronous motor with water jacket cooling. The huge, 250-pound RESS is black and the Revelation engine silver—this is intentional. The engine takes prominence over the battery, just as Harley-Davidson has always put the focus on its 45-degree V-twin.With power available immediately, it takes time to understand how to optimally modulate the throttle when pushing it—at least once you stop reaching for a clutch or gear shifter on this one-speed EV wonder. I felt lazy in town, something that the target urban buyer will enjoy. You twist and go, focusing only on getting to the next location in the safest manner. The motorcycle’s 30.7-inch seat height and upright ergonomics provided endless in-town comfort for my nearly 6-foot body and 32-inch inseam.Where most of riding a motorcycle safely arrives in the form of visuals, the EV experience allows you to adapt more to audible cues. At one light, I heard a trolley approaching from a blind corner, which caused me to take an additional few seconds to pull away from a stop sign. If I were on an ICE (internal combustion engine) motorcycle—especially a Harley-Davidson because I’d have that thing loud as can be—that trolley would have startled me when I pulled out. It’s something small, but noticeable.The latest in Harley-Davidson electronics also help the motorcycle adapt to urban environments quickly. Harley-Davidson went full premium here, enhancing the LiveWire with what it calls the Reflex Defensive Riding System (RDRS). It’s a collection of tech that optimizes traction during acceleration, deceleration, and braking—all available during cornering.The six-axis IMU driven RDRS features cornering ABS, cornering traction control, rear-wheel lift control under heavy braking, and cornering, plus another level of traction control that manages rear-wheel slip or rear wheel lock-up during the RESS’s regenerative braking function. This allows the engine to recharge while off the throttle, and helps extend the LiveWire’s range. It also is very appealing for spirited riding, which I describe in a bit.All the electronics worked with my riding style, and kept the chassis planted during a few mockup emergency stops and quick getaways. You cannot defeat the ABS, though you can turn off the TC when at a stop with the click of a single button on the left switchgear. This can get you in trouble; smoking up the rear tire with zero engine noises would be a favorite past time on the LiveWire.There are four preset riding modes—Sport, Road, Rain, Range—plus three customizable. I tried all of them, but the Road and Range modes felt best in town. The Rain mode provided too much electronic intervention, and Sport was a bit too snappy for pulling away smoothly from a stop. As for the three customizable modes, creating your parameters is super simple through the 4.3-inch TFT display. The dashboard features touch technology, and you set each of the electronics the way you want by swiping a finger.The other significant feature of riding the LiveWire in town versus every other Harley-Davidson is the lack of any heat—no more swamp ass or roasted legs. This is something that creates comfort en route to work. When I did work in a city, that was always the downfall of riding to work during peak summer days—sweating legs. It used to drive me nuts, though I rode regardless. The therapeutic outcomes of riding a motorcycle, even in the sweltering heat, far outweigh a sweaty body. EV’s solve this.The LiveWire, which is assembled in Harley-Davidson’s plant in York, Penn., impresses in urban environments, and I’d be happy to spend a day commuting on it. Though it doesn’t look the part, the motorcycle is exceptionally nimble around town, allowing for quick turnarounds in tight streets or easy maneuvering between vehicles in parking lots. Also, due to the smooth throttle and balance of battery, engine, and chassis, I was able to fully lock the bars and turnaround in extremely tight spots.The LiveWire also impressed on the backroads surrounding Portland. This is where power reigns, and you can genuinely enjoy the Harley-Davidson EV’s acceleration of 0 to 60 mph in 3 seconds, and 60-80 mph in 1.9 seconds.I was able to open it up in the back roads of Portland, the LiveWire performing like a super comfortable upright sportbike. Just as the ergonomics impressed in town, they impressed while on the, um, volts during some country road carving. Portland’s Jensen Beeler of Asphalt & Rubber and I remained glued to the lead rider aboard a Harley-Davidson Street Glide.Here, of course, Sport mode was favorable. The instantaneous full power takes some time to get a true connection between wrist and mind; once this happens, the energy is non-stop. More throttle, more speed, and more corners—that’s all I asked for.The engine in Sport mode is complemented by another premium feature—Showa suspension components. This means a 43mm inverted Separate Function Fork – Big Piston (SFF-BP) and a Balance Free Rear Cushion Lite (BFRC-lite), both pieces fully adjustable.The suspension was certainly set up for sport riding on my test bike—it was a bit harsh on the numerous mid-corner bumps I experienced. However, the stiffness was well worth the pleasure, especially mid-corner where the LiveWire held the exact line needed with minimum input required from throttle or braking. The chassis also remained stable during heavy braking and brisk acceleration. Again, very sport like and not typical of a Harley-Davidson chassis. The chassis performance is quite the feat considering you can also run this around all day in town without any comfort issues—more so if you adjust the suspension for softer settings.Speaking of braking, I am huge into trail braking to keep the suspension even. I typically hold on the brakes for most of the slowing, trail off the braking until I’m at the apex, and then get on the throttle again. This was not the case with the LiveWire, though. I used the regenerative braking of the engine to slow down.One would think this would upset the chassis and suspension when you got off the power. However, when the throttle is modulated just right, I was able to use it for loading up the front tire for more traction ahead of deep corners. Along with the brakes, the other portion that contributes to this feeling is the Michelin Scorcher Sport tires. The 120/70 up front and 180/55 out back are shod on 17-inch cast aluminum five-spoke wheels that look very Marchesini-ish.Harley-Davidson wisely chose Brembo brakes for the LiveWire—two monoblock four-piston calipers squeezing 300mm discs up front, and a two-piston caliper for the 260mm disc out back. The feel is typical of Brembo, especially up front, which has an easy pull on the brake lever and precise engagement for smooth trail braking. Of course, I was doing less trail braking because of the impressive and controllable engine braking due to the regenerative factor of the electric motor.Harley-Davidson also upped the tech factor by including H-D Connect, which allows you to connect the LiveWire to an app (iOS or Android).The app allows riders to check:
Motorcycle status (battery status and available range, riding mode, riding stats)
Enhanced security (bike location, if anyone is tampering with it, suspected stolen alert)
Charging status and notifications (battery charging percentage, Level 3 charging station locations)
Service reminders and notifications
You’re going to need the charging status constantly. Harley-Davidson claims a city range of 146 miles, 70 miles of sustained highway usage at 70 mph, and 95 miles of combined urban and highway riding. After my 65-mile day—mostly in Sport, occasionally in Road and Range—I had an estimated 19 miles remaining in the battery when I returned to home base for the day at the Jupiter Hotel.The range will not affect the target customer—the urban commuter in cities that have multiple DC Level 3 charging stations that the LiveWire uses. Owners can get a 100 percent charge at a Level 3 charging system in an hour—authorized LiveWire dealers will have one for free use at the dealership—or an 80 percent charge within 40 minutes. Harley-Davidson is also providing 500 Kw charging— about 40 full charges—at the nearly 500 Electrify America stations (must be used within two years of purchase).Owners can treat the LiveWire as they do their phone, charging it overnight from the conventional household 120 V electricity. The EV is delivered with a charging cord underneath the seat for convenience. The total time for at-home 120 V charging is about ten hours. Those with extra cash can install a 240 V DC Fast Charge station at home.As I said earlier, Harley-Davidson initially shocked me when it announced Project LiveWire. When billion-dollar companies stray from their focus and go against the status quo, I’m all for it. H-D’s debut electric motorcycle did just that, though I didn’t expect the outright performance in both city and backroad situations. That’s where the second shock surfaced. This motorcycle outperformed my expectations, and quickly.Initially, the LiveWire’s looks didn’t appeal to me, but they grew on me. From a pure sport perspective, this is one of Harley-Davidson’s sharpest-looking bikes. From the fronts and sides, it’s genuine Harley, but from the back, it appears more like a European naked sportbike—the type of bike I continuously crave.For the non-EV Harley-Davidson type who thinks $30k is better spent on Street Glide Special or Ultra Limited, they are likely correct. Harley-Davidson knows this and is not targeting its traditional V-twin customers. The Motor Company is taking a risky step forward, keeping their core market but branching off into a new segment for a different type of rider.These are the well-to-do city dwellers who likely have a Tesla in the garage, solar panels on the roof, and the latest IoT devices in every room of the house—the types who immediately embrace new technology and break with tradition.This is why Harley-Davidson went all-in with a premium version over a mid-level version—say a $15,000 electric bike. Harley-Davidson is showing that it can also be bold, though maybe not Elon Musk bold, by creating a product that heavily breaks with H-D tradition and goes against the status quo.The 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire is now a central player in an unsaturated electric motorcycle market – and for the target buyer, well worth the price tag. If Harley-Davidson can persevere through the current and future criticism, it will surely become the first big player in the “premium electric motorcycle” space. It’s going to be an interesting ride to follow. And a loud one for sure, though certainly not as quiet as the LiveWire itself.Action photography by Alessio BarbantiRIDING STYLE
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!