In years past, I’ve had the opportunity to ride and review several Polaris Inc. products, resulting in published articles about both Victory and Indian motorcycles. Having something of a track record with Polaris, I again approached Indian Motorcycles in the spring of 2020 about a bike loan for touring and test articles. After some discussion, Polaris offered a top-of-the-line Chieftain Elite that would be available in July. I was happily surprised and immediately agreed.
Having planned a New England tour for the summer, I approached Indian with the idea of combining the tour and the motorcycle loan, and again Indian cooperated magnificently by agreeing to deliver the bike to New Hampshire.
I would also ride the motorcycle back to my home in Southwest Florida, giving me the opportunity to evaluate the bike on a long-distance route through the center of the Appalachian Mountains, with stops for riding days in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.
With all the pieces in place, I flew to New Hampshire on July 11th and picked up the 2020 Chieftain Elite at MOMS Indian Dealership in Manchester, N.H., with 2211 miles on the odometer.
Initial Impressions: Styling, Fit, and Finish
Any way you look at the Chieftain Elite, it is a rolling work of art; a muscular machine with smooth flowing lines and everything in proper proportion with nothing appearing added on or out of place. It turns a lot of heads.
The Chieftain’s overall length is 98.7 inches, with a 65.7-inch wheelbase, making it slightly more compact than others in its class. The ten-spoke cast wheels and abbreviated fenders (as opposed to Indian’s signature valanced fenders) contribute to a lighter, more nimble look that belies the Chieftain’s size.
That impression contrasts with the massive 116 C.I. engine, incorporating lots of chrome and artful detail work, with color-matching red anodized pushrod tubes on the engine right side that sets the bike off.
The Chieftain has a “visually balanced” look with a chrome exhaust pipe under each saddlebag, and the Indian front fender ornament and company logo featured everywhere on the bike. Color is limited to what Indian calls its Thunder Black and Vivid Crystal Red two-tone color scheme, a hand-painted metal-flake black and deep cranberry red, and fit and finish are generally first-rate.
At $34,999, the bike has a hefty price tag, making ownership something of an exclusive club. A premium motorcycle, the Chieftain Elite’s standard equipment includes the to-be-expected antilock brakes and cruise control, a powered windshield adjustable over four inches, and self-canceling turn signals (excellent!). The bike uses a key fob and a “dashboard” push button for main power, and engine start switch on the throttle control pod. The fob also has pushbuttons to lock and unlock the 22-pound capacity saddlebags (with an additional lock switch on the fuel tank), and the bike is disabled when the fob is more than 8 feet away.
The rider’s seat was firm, but all-day comfortable with good lower back support due to the rise to the passenger perch at the back of the seat. It never felt uncomfortable, either on interstates or backroad twisties over many long riding days in two weeks. This haul included one 11-hour interstate ride from Georgia to my home in Florida. I experienced zero discomforts while riding or muscle soreness the next day.
The large saddlebags held everything from a bike cover and rain gear to a laptop computer, a DSLR camera and lenses, a pair of sneakers, and other assorted items. The saddlebags are of sufficient size for several days of travel.
The fuel tank holds 5.5 gallons, giving the bike a long 250 mile-plus range on a tankful, and I averaged a respectable 41.18 mpg on the ride from New Hampshire to Florida. This included interstate riding and a four-day loop ride due west into the beautiful Appalachian Mountain roads of western North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. All of this contributes very favorably to long-distance touring.
The Rider’s Compartment
The dashboard features two large analog displays for mph (or kph) and tach, and LED or LCD display functions that include an electronic fuel gauge and range to empty, gear position, neutral light, and cruise control “on” and “set.” The handlebar reach is comfortable and natural, with an ideal rider’s triangle for most riders.
The shift and rear brake foot controls are positioned forward, but the 16-inch floorboards make finding a comfortable foot position, from below the knees to stretched out highway style, a foregone conclusion.
Function buttons and switches located on the hand controls are generally pro forma, with added switches that interface with premium bike features. The front brake lever has a rotating adjustment for distance from the handgrip. The throttle side controls house the engine-start switch, windshield position control, and cruise control operation.
The one-button cruise control setup is a significant improvement over other systems that contain as many as six buttons. Pressing the switch inward turns cruise on or off, a left push sets and decelerates, and a right push resumes or accelerates – very tidy.
The clutch side controls include the horn, the bright light switch, the turn signal switch, and two buttons that access the premium “Infotainment” system at the dash center. The audio control four-way button is used for volume control (up-down), mute function (press on-off) and to select songs or radio stations (right-left).
This is a needed functionality to keep rider attention away from the touch screen while riding. Immediately to the right of the audio control is an up-down button that controls screen display functions and also zooms in-out when using the GPS. Among other functions, a button on the back of each handgrip allows the rider page through touch screen options (throttle side) or back out of options (clutch side).
The Indian’s premium Infotainment system features a seven-inch touchscreen and Bluetooth connectivity. Function and information features include:
- GPS with route setup
- Two resettable trip odometers
- Ride mode selection (Tour, Standard, and Sport)
- Tire pressure monitoring
- Audio source
- Volume-tone control
The system also features every important engine, travel, and operating parameter imaginable, but using menus and sub-menu is not always intuitive. There is a lot in the system to become familiar with, which takes some “studying up” before options become second nature.
Above the touchscreen is a small compartment with a USB port. The port can be used to integrate a cell phone or to play MP3s stored on a thumb drive (I found this method to be the best quality audio source) on the bike’s 200-watt four-speaker audio system.
I spent some time becoming initially familiar with the system and pairing it to my phone and Sena headset. It requires a little patience to dovetail the Indian Chieftain and item Bluetooth pairing procedures. Still, the process was generally straight-forward, and once completed, items remained paired, requiring only a one-touch reactivation after a paired item had been turned off.
Engine and Transmission
The Chieftain Elite features Indian’s Thunder Stroke 116 air-oil cooled high output engine, which has an 11:1 compression ratio (up from 9.5:1 for the 111) that requires a minimum of 91 Octane gasoline.
The Chieftain uses “ride by wire” for throttle, and a cable-actuated clutch. In regards to the clutch, pull effort is moderate to strong but with smooth engagement. Although the 5500 rpm redline is similar for both Indian’s 111 engine and the 116 engine, the 116 is more at home in higher RPM ranges.
The power is ever-present, and linear power is instantly on tap all the way up to redline territory, but like most V-Twins, the engine feels most at home at between 2500 to 3000 rpm. Even with the added displacement and high compression, the vibration was minimal and barely noticeable at any engine speed except during hard acceleration. Passing another vehicle never required more than ample distance and a twist of the wrist.
Engaging first gear elicits Indian’s customary heavy “thunk,” and shifting was a bit stiff until the bike warmed up, probably due to the newness of the motorcycle. Once at operating temperature, the six-speed transmission shifted smoothly. Gears are excellently spaced for the power band of the engine. Sixth gear is an overdrive and kept the engine in a relaxed 2000-2500 rpm range at 70 to 75 mph, making highway traveling a low rpm, relaxed experience.
Suspension and Handling
At 830 pounds, the Chieftain Elite is a heavyweight. While it leaves no doubt as to its heft, the Chieftain handled predictably even in slow-speed maneuvers. The 26-inch seat height puts feet firmly on the ground for virtually all riders and bodyweight well down into the bike’s center of gravity.
While the Chieftain is a “bagger” and not a full-fledged touring bike, its rated Gross Vehicle Weight of 1260 pounds leaves 430 pounds (Indian specs say 410), which is certainly enough for two averaged sized riders and gear for a weekend.
Adjusting the rear shock is accomplished by using an included air pump and attaching it to an air pressure valve behind a panel forward of the left saddlebag. The hand pump incorporates both a gauge and pressure release valve to adjust the shock by total weight carried on the bike, as determined by a chart in the owner’s manual. The simple system eliminates the use of tools or wrenches and allows the operator to quickly adjust the rear suspension to accommodate the packed weight and/or a passenger.
Over four weeks, my travels took me from rural roads and mountain twisties to highways and interstates from New England to Florida. While riding through New Hampshire and the Appalachian Mountains, I intentionally sought out challenging roads.
These included the Kankamagus Highway in New Hampshire, NC 276 through the Pisgah National Forest, Deal’s Gap and the Cherahola Skyway in Tennessee, and the “Georgia Triangle” which includes GA60, 180 and 129, as well as Georgia’s lovely Hwy. 52. I had no problem keeping a spirited pace through mountain roads.
While the Chieftain requires purposeful handlebar input to initiate lean angle, finding a good line through tight mountain switchbacks and ’S’ curves was intuitive and encouraged spirited riding, eliciting several “woo hoos” from a passenger on a ride in North Georgia.
With 5.5 inches of ground clearance and “very-good-for-a-cruiser” 31-degree lean angle, the floorboards never came close to touching down, even with a passenger on board. The Chieftain handles very well for a machine of its size and was always predictable, with the chassis well-planted, balanced, and confidence-inspiring.
As Always, Some Nits to Pick
While the Chieftain Elite is a stellar motorcycle, there were several items that I would offer as considerations for improvement.
Foot Controls Position: The brake control is positioned approximately 1/2 inch further forward than the shift control from the front of their respective floorboards. With the uneven reach, my foot slipped off the brake control several times in the first few days riding the bike. The Chieftain does not feature foot controls position adjustment. Repositioning controls for even distance should be considered, and adjustability would be welcome.
Abrupt Throttle Response at Slow Speeds: Regardless of riding mode, throttle response at slow speeds was very abrupt and not linear, and achieving smooth throttle transition was difficult. Intermittent rpm fluctuation at idle was also experienced. Chieftain test videos (primarily on YouTube) also mention these issues, so attention to throttle mapping may be needed here. Like Victory and Indian models I had previously tested, the clutch pull is borderline heavy. A clutch assist of some type, as a suggestion rather than a needed improvement, would be welcome.
Kickstand Accessibility: A generally minor but annoying problem was the ability to extend and retract the kickstand. It is difficult to access from its folded position and had a pivot point that was well forward on the bike. As a shorter stature rider, I had difficulty extending it without repositioning my foot and literally “kicking” it out to its end position. Also, when retracting the kickstand, it was too far forward to reach comfortably. The problem is compounded in wet weather when surfaces are slippery. I would expect that any rider under 5’8” in height would experience a similar problem. A metal tab positioned at the center of the kickstand would allow an easier extension and retraction point for all riders.
Windshield and Wind Management: As equipped, the Chieftain windshield had a curved wind deflector at the top edge. While it was very effective directing wind over the rider, in the low position, the line of sight goes through the deflector’s curved area, distorting the view. This was especially distracting when riding curves on mountain roads. This is also a function of rider height, as a taller rider would likely not experience this problem. However, windshield options are available through Indian, and a prospective owner should select one where vision is not impeded. As a secondary issue, wind came in below the fairing, causing considerable wind noise at highway speeds. If touring is on the agenda, adding fork lowers would be a suggested option.
Passenger Seat: The stock passenger seat got some negative reviews from a riding companion after an approximate three-hour ride. Her complaints included seat padding that was too firm, and the seat angle’s slight downward slope at the back, giving a less than secure feeling while riding (especially when accelerating). This was exacerbated by a too-long passenger grab strap awkwardly placed at seat center that contributed to the leaned-back rather than forward riding position. If a passenger will be a part of the mix, a prospective owner would want to add Indian’s optional passenger backrest or explore aftermarket seat options designed for better passenger accommodations.
Infotainment Touchscreen Issues:
- Difficulty in touch screen button operation: There is ample room for touchscreen buttons to be made larger. When riding all but the smoothest road surfaces, inaccuracy due to an unsteady hand often required several attempts to activate touchscreen buttons. Obviously, while riding distractions should be avoided, touchscreen options are going to be used. Larger buttons and touchscreen activation areas would make the button press more accurate and less distracting.
- Consider simplification? An example here would be the touchscreen-only audio nine-band graphic equalizer. The question may be asked, how useful is a nine-band equalizer on a motorcycle? Here, the only option to set audio frequencies is from the touchscreen, and audio levels set while stopped are not likely to be satisfactory when riding. Again, this invites distraction, especially given the lack of touchscreen button sensitivity, as previously described. A simple bass, midrange, and treble control would be more than sufficient here, and making audio tone functions accessible from the handlebar audio control would make for less distracting functionality.
- Vibration of the bezel surrounding the touchscreen: There’s a noticeable buzz at the top center of the bezel was present at 2000 RPM, in the prime cruising range of the engine. My temporary solution was to slide a section of coffee-stirring stick between the bezel and the screen. A dampening grommet of some type needs to be added around the bezel.
No Handgrip or Seat Heater on a Premium Motorcycle: On a rainy riding day on Tennessee’s Cherahola Skyway, temperatures dropped to borderline uncomfortable, and heaters would have been welcome. These are available as options, but for a motorcycle at this price point, heated grips and/or seat should be included as standard equipment. The handgrips also lacked padding, and while engine vibration was minimal, it was felt in the handgrips. Comfortable padding would isolate hands from vibration and contribute to a more premium bike feel.
Additional Lighting: The LED headlight and bright light offer excellent illumination. The suggestion here is not one of increased lighting, but of increased visibility. The single front lamp uses the semicircular upper half of the front lamp for low beam (a “half moon,” as it were) and both halves when the high beam is used. The bike begs for LED running lights incorporated in the front fairing for better visibility in street traffic.
Having an opportunity to test a top-of-the-line motorcycle on a ride through the Appalachian mountain range was a welcomed experience. In the four weeks riding the Indian Chieftain Elite, the bike rose to all challenges. Indian has engineered an excellent motorcycle, and few approach the level of refinement and amenities found on the Chieftain Elite. A special thanks to Bianca Salter and Billy Tinnell at Indian Public Relations, and MOMS Motorcycles in Manchester, N.H., for getting the bike ready for the 4000-plus mile test ride!