Slicing through a dry desert sand wash, I’m thoroughly enjoying throwing plumes of dust and rocks in my wake as the Harley-Davidson beneath me bounces off the rev limiter. Wait. Harley-Davidson?
That’s right, this is the new future-forward Harley-Davidson, and it’s a far cry from Sturgis bike rallies, tank tops, draft beer, and ZZ Top. This is the long-awaited 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250—a purpose-built, American-engineered adventure bike designed to disrupt an already crowded and mature motorcycle market segment.
We’ve seen the spy and teaser photos while scouring the web for detailed specs. But in a world rife with disinformation and deepfakes, what can you believe? I patiently waited for our opportunity to actually ride the newest offering from The Motor Company in real-world conditions, put it through its paces, and shape my own informed opinion about this much-anticipated new ADV bike.
After blistering through 300+ miles of twisty tarmac and relentless off-piste desert terrain, I was completely surprised and thoroughly impressed. Here’s what you need to know about the all-new Harley-Davidson Pan America Special, the high-end member of H-D’s two-motorcycle ADV line.
- The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America is the real deal—a highly capable, uncompromising large-displacement Adventure bike. With a design ethos of function over form, the engineering objectives for the Pan America revolved around real-world performance and service, replicating the sensation of using your favorite hand tool—in motorcycle form.
- The Pan America is not adapted from a previous platform. It is an entirely new motorcycle from the ground up—from chain drive to the all-new liquid-cooled Revolution Max 1250cc powerplant to the myriad high-tech rider assistance features. While the Pan America Special leverages its Harley-Davidson pedigree well, it is a genuinely new
- The bold aesthetics of the Pan America are unique and impressive, especially in person. With lines from the Harley-Davidson Road Glide tourer incorporated into the fairing and the rectangular form of the Daymaker headlight, the Pan America differentiates itself from the rest of the ADV pack and exudes Americana. Noticeably absent is the front ‘beak’, a tradition-based styling convention across most of the ADV segment.
- Weight is the proverbial Achilles heel of any ADV bike, but the Pan America is punching above its weight class in the big-bike ADV segment. The standard Pan America weighs in at 539 pounds, fully fueled and ready to ride—considerably less than the standard BMW R 1250 GS. The Pan America Special weighs in at 559 pounds with the 5.6-gallon tank full. Optional spoke-laced wheels add 14 pounds weight. Harley claims that the Special that I tested weighed in at 574 pounds with spoke wheels and other optional parts. More important than raw numbers is feel, and the Pan America feels slim. Thanks to the narrow design of the V-twin and the location of the fuel load, it feels light and nimble for an open-class ADV motorcycle.
- The Revolution Max 1250 motor was designed and built for broad-spectrum performance. The Pan America and the Porsche-designed V-Rod of yore share the same exact bore and stroke (105mm x 72mm) and V-angle (60 degrees), so H-D engineers have experience extracting performance from that configuration. Now, combine that with cutting-edge design and lightweight metallurgical components, a 13:1 compression ratio, and variable valve timing across all four overhead cams. The result is a Revolution Max powerplant that pumps out an impressive 150 horsepower at 9000 rpm with 92 ft-lbs of torque twisting at 6750 rpm. Redline is set at 9500 rpm.
- Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) is a game-changer, and the killer app that the ADV Segment has been waiting for. ARH is a $1000 factory-installed option, and well worth the price. It accomplishes two critical tasks, and does so nearly imperceptibly.
- ARH automatically adjusts front and rear spring preload to ensure the perfect amount of suspension sag dynamically. That means you always have the optimal 30 percent sag, front and back, regardless of fuel load, changes in luggage weight, or whether or not your passenger is still there.
- ARH also automatically lowers the bike one-to-two inches as you slow to stop—a revolutionary feature. This allows for easy balancing and maneuverability while at a stop, while retaining maximum ground- and cornering-clearance while underway. Although ARH has several modes to delay the lowering, I found that auto mode worked perfectly. Not only is this perfect for my 29-inch inseam to be flatfooted with the standard seat in the high position, but long-legged riders like the comfortable knee-bent position, too. This is a huge win for the Pan America, and we’re sure to see copycat technology pop up throughout the ADV segment in years to come.
- Advanced electronics utilize a six-axis IMU to manage the corner-aware ABS, linked braking, traction control, and front and rear wheel lift. Electronic rider aids have become table stakes for the upper end of the adventure motorcycling segment. They are nearly indispensable for managing horsepower and delivering a high-performance experience to a wide swath of riders across varying grip and weather conditions.
- The electronics on the Pan America Special support five pre-programmed ride modes in addition to three rider-defined modes. Rain, Road, and Sport modes are designed for use on the tarmac. They span the spectrum from lower engine performance and early rider assistance at less extreme angles of lean, to full direct power and less intrusive electronic rider aids. The Off-Road mode delivers smooth power delivery optimized for mid-range performance, with linked ABS brakes and traction control optimized for gravel roads. Off-Road+ keeps the same power delivery as Off-Road mode, while disabling linked braking and rear-wheel ABS to allow for sliding the rear around corners.
- My ride mode of choice varied depending on the prevailing terrain, and my mood. The standard Sport mode rips on the tarmac, and was my favorite mode hands down for anything other than dirt. Turning off traction control in Sport mode transformed it into Hooligan mode—even better! I created a custom Off-Road map that copied the power delivery from Sport mode and coupled it with Off-Road Firm suspension and front ABS only. I then switched traction control off. Later, I switched bikes that didn’t have my custom map, and I used Off-Road Plus with traction control off. That was a bit smoother and easier to handle off-road in the tight stuff.
- Showa suspension provides 7.5 inches of semi-active suspension travel front and rear for the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special. The 47mm Balance Free Fork (BFF) and Balance Free Rear Cushion (BFRC) rear shock are fully adjustable, and changes are performed electronically. Instead of twisting fork and shock clickers to adjust suspension damping, the Special offers five-preprogrammed settings incorporated into each of the ride modes. Damping rates range from soft to firm across Comfort, Balanced, Sport, Off-Road Soft, and Off-Road Firm modes.
- A linked ABS braking system and Brembo hardware make slowing the Pan America a smooth and controlled process. Radially mounted Brembo monobloc four-piston calipers squeezing 320mm rotors provide plenty of stopping power up front. The single-piston rear caliper grips a 280mm rotor, and the entire system is linked and actuated using the front brake lever—except in Off-Road+ mode, which decouples the system and turns off ABS for the rear. The ABS works so well, you barely know it’s there. Still, it is maximizing every bit of available grip on your behalf.
- With gobs of power available, a comfy seat, and an adjustable windscreen, the Pan America pulls double-duty as a high-performance Sport Touring motorcycle on the asphalt. Even if your objective is the dusty trail, you’ll most likely spend more than half of any given trip carving up the asphalt to get there. Sport mode is perfect for twisting tarmac, with maximum horsepower delivery and solid, damped feel—front and rear—from the semi-active suspension setting. Corner entry is precise, as throttle application implementation is smooth and the drivetrain lash-free. The adjustable windscreen has four different positions, and it’s left-hand operable, which means I was able to adjust it while riding.
- To the surprise of many, the Pan America is a solid off-road performer. Big ADV bikes have gotten easier to ride off-road as the segment and technology have evolved. Off-road ride modes make getting these mastodons through some pretty technical terrain more of a test of rider confidence than machine capability. I felt completely comfortable charging soft conditions, tackling rocky hillclimbs, and negotiating slow technical descents.
- Utilizing the Revolution Max engine as a stressed member of the chassis, the Pan America delivers a solid and responsive chassis feel. Attaching three small sub-frame assemblies directly to the engine, eschewing the classic steel chassis, not only saves weight, but also dramatically minimizes unwanted chassis flex. The result is solid and precise handling characteristics, even under heavy braking on corner entry and hard acceleration through the exit.
- Hydraulic valve adjusters mean that the valvetrain is maintenance-free. Imagine having perfectly gapped valve actuation all the time, and never having to go through the time and expense of adjusting the valves. With the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special, you’re just on the hook for engine oil and filter every 5000 miles. Lube the chain and clean the air filter, as required—piece of cake.
- Infotainment and navigation are served up on an adjustable 6.8-inch color touch screen. The TFT display is big and bright, as well as viewing-angle adjustable, making it easier to read when standing or seated. Moreover, the screen can switch between light or dark backgrounds, with the former being extremely easy to read, even when covered with a thick coat of dust. Data widgets can be configured so the information pertinent to you is displayed in bold, just in case you’re riding without your prescription goggle inserts. Downloading the H-D app and pairing my phone to the bike offered excellent navigation and mapping features. The external USB-C outlet is a nice touch to keep cameras and additional equipment powered up. Conspicuously missing is integration of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps.
- In addition to Automatic Ride Height adjustment, the Pan America Special has a full four inches of seat height adjustability. The motorcycle has a low and high setting that the seat can be slotted into, providing a one-inch difference between the two positions. I preferred the standard seat in the high position, which creates a 32.7-inch seat height. That optimized the seat-peg-handlebar triangle for my 5’ 9” frame. With Adjustable Ride Height dropping the bike an additional one-to-two inches when stopped, I was able to stand flatfooted, even with the standard seat in the high position. For further customization, low- and high-seats are also available.
- The Pan American stores its 5.6 gallons of fuel in its aluminum fuel tank—about enough for 200 miles of flogging, or perhaps much more under casual riding conditions. Variable valve timing means uneven fuel economy, and I wasn’t going to spend my two days testing the Pan America by riding it casually. Harley-Davidson claims a fuel economy number of 48 mpg, but I experienced closer to 36 mpg. Although it is an adventure motorcycle, it doesn’t have a fuel capacity that rivals the BMW R 1250 GS Adventure (7.9 gallons), Ducati Multistrada 1260 Enduro (7.9 gallons), or Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES (6.5 gallons).
- With 150 horsepower on tap, tire selection on the Pan America is critical. The H-D/Michelin co-developed and branded Scorcher Adventure tires worked great on the tarmac, and were decent enough in the dirt that they would be the go-to tire for up to 60/40 street/dirt adventure touring. Of course, for one-up off-road hooliganism, knobby block tires are required, and the optional Michelin Anakee Wild rubber delivered. Even with street tire pressures in the dirt, the traction was there. Just be aware that a couple hundred miles may be the rear tire’s life with a heavy right wrist across rocky desert terrain.
- The six-speed gearbox is connected to the crank via a cable-actuated slipper clutch that provides seamless power application. The eight friction plates in the clutch are disengaged with a light lever pull, compliments of a clutch assist function. The slipper functionality and electronic Drag Torque Slip Contro work together to avoid rear-wheel hop on hard downshifts. The slip control helps match revs, if necessary to keep the bike stable. Around two-thirds through the rev range—right around 6000 rpm—manual quickshifting can get the Pan America up to a ludicrous speed in a flash. There should be, but isn’t, an option for a factory-installed quickshifter—that would put a big smile on my face.
- If I had my druthers, I would change a few things on the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special. No bike is perfect, but this list is pretty nitpicky. Of course, I’m already imagining what a Rally Raid version of the Pan America would look like, but that is way beyond the design spec of an adventure touring machine. I would ditch the adjustable rear brake lever for a sturdier one. I would also like at least an inch of adjustability for stand-up vs. sit-down riding conditions. Harley-Davidson should throw in a spare set of bar risers that I can keep in my tool roll. The risers are an engineered breakpoint to avoid further damage in a crash, so keep a spare handy if you ride off-road. A firmware update that allows for finer traction control tunability would be helpful. It should allow for large drifts off-road, but still adds a little assistance to keep me from high-siding when I get lazy. In the meantime, I’ll keep TC off when off-piste. The Öhlins steering damper is a nice touch, though adjustability is needed. Having the option for more damping for off-road conditions would be ideal.
- Would I buy the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special? In a heartbeat. For a utilitarian do-all big ADV bike, the Pan America delivers the on and off-road performance that makes me giddy, and fulfills all of my requirements regarding features and comfort. The coup de grâce, the elusive killer app, is the Adaptive Ride Height function. The Pan America has it, and it’s wonderful. Combine all of that with easy serviceability and a global dealer network, and true motorcycle adventure has never been more approachable.
Helmet: Shoei Hornet X2 Sovereign (street)
Helmet: Shoei VFX-Evo (off-road)
Goggles: Fly Racing Zone Pro
Jacket + pants: Alpinestars Andes V3 Drystar
Gloves: Alpinestars SMX-Z Drystar (street)
Gloves: Alpinestars SMX-E (off-road)
Boots: Alpinestars Corozal ADV DS Oiled
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Specs
- Type: Revolution Max 1250 60-degree V-twin
- Displacement: 1252cc
- Bore x stroke: 105 x 72.3mm
- Maximum power: 150 horsepower @ 9000 rpm
- Maximum torque: 94 ft-lbs @ 6750 rpm
- Compression ratio: 13.0:1
- Valvetrain: Chain-driven, DOHC, hydraulic self-adjusting lifters, intake & exhaust VVT; 4vpc
- Cooling: Liquid
- Transmission: 6-speed
- Clutch: Wet multiplate w/ assist and slipper functions
- Primary drive: Gear
- Final drive: Chain
- Frame: Alloy steel stressed-member trellis w/ stamped, cast, and forged junctions
- Front suspension; travel: Fully adjustable Showa semi-active electronic fork; 7.5 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Fully adjustable Showa semi-active electronic shock; 7.5 inches
- Wheels: Cast aluminum (Wire-spoke tubeless optional)
- Front wheel: 19 x 3
- Rear wheel: 17 x 4.5
- Tires: Michelin Scorcher Adventure (Michelin Anakee Wild optional, both tested)
- Front tire: 120/70 19
- Rear tire: 170/60 17
- Front brakes: 320mm floating discs w/ Brembo 4-piston caliper
- Rear brake: 280mm disc w/ floating Brembo single-piston caliper
- ABS: Cornering aware
DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES
- Wheelbase: 62.2 inches
- Rake: 25 degrees
- Trail: 4.3 inches
- Seat height: 33.4 – 34.4 inches
- Fuel capacity: 5.6 gallons
- Estimated fuel consumption: 46 mpg
- Curb weight: 559 pounds (574 pounds, as tested)
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Colors/Pricing:
- Vivid Black: $19,999 MSRP
- Gauntlet Gray Metallic: $20,249
- Baja Orange/Stone Washed White Pearl: $20,349
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan American Special Review Photo Gallery