Irish motorcycle racer Charles Franklin designed the first Indian Chief back in 1921. At the time, the term “power cruiser” had not yet been coined. That came into vogue around the early 1980s when powerful, high-revving V4 engines were mounted, not in sport bike frames, but in chassis with cruiser geometry and ergonomics; examples included the Honda Magna and Yamaha VMax.
However, if the term had existed, Franklin’s original 61 ci, twin-cam V-twin Chief could have worn it. Indeed, the memory of Franklin’s original Chief was invoked by Indian factory staff during the roll-out presentation of the new Indian Sport Chief in February held at Revival Cycle in Austin.
Polaris acquired Indian in 2011 from Stellican Ltd., a London-based private equity firm specializing in rehabilitating distressed brands. After the original Indian company failed in 1953, the brand suffered through a string of unsuccessful takeovers. Polaris brought stability to the Indian name, putting its massive manufacturing muscle to work. Its first Indian Chief models were introduced at the 2013 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
For a comprehensive look at Indian’s history from day one to the 120th anniversary of the brand, check out our review of Indian Motorcycle: 120 Years of America’s First Motorcycle Company by Darwin Holmstrom.
Today, Indian offers several variations on its thoroughly modern interpretation of the historical model, including the Chief, Chief Bobber, Super Chief, and now the new 2023 Indian Sport Chief. Despite being the product of state-of-the-art materials, manufacturing tech, and components, the 2023 Sport Chief retains some elements Mr. Franklin would find familiar—the athletic look of the bike, gear-drive primary, and the big, traditional 49-degree air-cooled V-twin. However, beyond that, things have changed quite a bit.
The 2023 Indian Sport Chief shares a basic platform with the other Chief variants, and that includes the Thunderstroke 116 ci (1890 cc) engine. It boasts a claimed output of 120 ft-lbs of torque at 2900 rpm, and a six-speed transmission. Fueling is handled by a closed-loop fuel injection system with a 54mm throttle body.
We went into details on most of the technical specs of the Indian Sport Chief in our First Look coverage a couple of weeks ago, so we won’t repeat that data here. Instead, we’ll have a look at how it all works out on the road.
The cockpit is remarkably clean and straightforward in layout, despite the wide range of functional options available. A few things grabbed my attention about the cockpit. The soft-rubber ribbed handlebar grips have a high-tack surface that allows firm control without clenching the grips like an Amarillo bull rider. That reduces fatigue that can set in when handling a big bike like the Sport Chief.
Next, the switchgear is easy to interpret, accessible, and intuitive. The mirrors provide excellent rear views and, thanks to minimal vibration, are usable at any engine speed. The four-inch touchscreen dash, powered by Indian’s Ride Command software, was a pleasant surprise. It proved to be user-friendly, controllable from either the switchgear or touchscreen, legible in bright sun, and amazingly diverse in functions—all of which are actually worth having. The upgraded Ride Command+ is provided as a free trial for a year; after that, a subscription fee applies.
The 2023 Indian Sport Chief includes the 5.75-inch Pathfinder Adaptive LED headlight that monitors the bike’s lean angle in real-time and optimizes illumination. The headlight has 15 individual beams that are activated as needed, based on the bike’s attitude. The headlight also provides optimized lighting in both low- and high-beam operation. Having ridden the Sport Chief only in bright daylight, I couldn’t evaluate its effect on viewing ahead in low-light riding, but the light is bright white in low beam, assuring great visibility to other drivers. Better not break this high-tech bit of engineering—the Indian accessory site shows a price of $530 for the Pathfinder headlight.
The low-rise moto-styled black handlebars don’t contribute to glint and glare on a bright, sunny day, such as the one I enjoyed for a full day of shake-down on the Sport Chief. Mounted on the standard 6.5-inch risers behind the fork-mounted quarter fairing with the mid-height screen (higher and lower screen and flared screen options are available), the moto-inspired bars reminded me of the flat-track style bars on my Harley-Davidson 883R Sportster.
The fork-mounted quarter fairing with the mid-height screen provides a moderate degree of wind blast reduction and will keep some of the bug biomass off your upper body; it is probably most effective in protecting the instrument pod. Its relatively small, aerodynamic profile made it a non-factor regarding buffeting in crosswinds and turbulence generated by meeting large vehicles.
For me, this was comfortable at first grab. However, the forward reach required because of my relatively short arms made me wonder if optional adjustable or angled risers to bring the grips back a couple of inches would be available in addition to the optional 10-inch risers currently available for the 2023 Indian Sport Chief.
I put the question to Indian Senior Product Lead Dan Peterson. He replied, “There’s nothing on the drawing board right now. The idea of adjustable handlebar risers could face some regulatory questions because there is the potential for an owner loosening them up but not fully re-tightening them. There’s also the need to consider whether re-cabling controls would be necessary.”
The Sport Chief I rode for the day was equipped with the standard gunfighter solo seat—a very comfortable perch for the all-day ride. With an unladen saddle height of about 27 inches, in conjunction with amidships-mounted footpegs, the ergos were comfortable for riding and man-handling the bike from the seat. Extended reach, reduced reach, and two-up saddle options are available, as well.
The only issue with the seat was that it popped off its mounting stanchion twice during the ride. It never came off the bike or posed a problem, but at two rest stops, I noticed more clearance between the seat pan and the rear fender than at the start of the ride. In each instance, all I had to do was push the seat back down onto the mounting stanchion until I felt and heard it click into place.
With keyless ignition and the 2023 Indian Sport Chief parked with the transmission in neutral, starting is a simple two-pushbutton process. Push the power button on the right handlebar for a second or two to power up the ignition system. Then, press the starter button right next to it for a second or two until the Thunderstroke mill jumps to life.
When the engine starts and settles into its normal idle, there is a pleasing, muscular baritone exhaust note and something else—a very mild vibration emanating from the heart of the machine, and it is supposed to be there.
There is a single engine-speed balancer, which is purposely designed to mitigate, but not eliminate, engine primary vibration. This retains the sensation of engine pulsation that riders have come to expect from an internal combustion V-twin. It virtually disappears at most riding speeds, only revealing itself when I revved the engine relatively hard, coming out of corners in second, third, or fourth gear. Everywhere else, smooth is the word.
The six-speed transmission is positive in up and downshifts. Despite a few deliberate blasts of clutchless shifts, I never missed a gear change, which is something of an accomplishment for me. The clutch is exceptionally light, considering how robust a unit it must be to handle the Thunderstroke’s stump-pulling power output.
From a dead stop, the 2023 Indian Sport Chief comes out of the hole like a rocket-sled on rails with no tendency to wander or whip—and that’s in Standard mode. With peak torque delivered before it hits 3000 rpm, there is no need to rev the Thunderstroke mill to develop velocity quickly; the grunt is right there when you want to launch. I can only think that when cranking it in Sport mode, the rider better be hanging on with both hands.
Direct measurement of overall fuel consumption was not done, though the bike’s fuel economy indicator read 43 mpg. I did note that, according to the fuel gauge, only about half of the Sport Chief’s four-gallon fuel tank was consumed in the full day of riding—an approximately 110-mile city/highway route that included numerous loops and periods spent idling for photo shoots.
As the day went on, I became more familiar with the Sport Chief’s feel in the high country around Austin, where the roads are nicely paved and a bit technical with plenty of hills and curves. I found myself diving into corners with increasing gusto and occasionally dragging footpegs. Given that the lean angle claimed for the Sport Chief is 29.5 degrees, I felt pretty racy on a bike with a curb weight of 670 pounds and a 64.6-inch wheelbase.
Indeed, at those heady times, the use of premium suspension and ABS brake components as standard gear on the Sport Chief paid off. The dual Fox piggyback shocks in near lay-down position give the rear wheel four inches of travel and offer spring-preload adjustment. The non-adjustable inverted KYB fork has 43mm legs with 5.1 inches of travel.
The most severe test for the shock absorption capability of the suspension was out in ranch country, where I encountered several steel-grate cattle guards built into the roadbed—and a couple not too smoothly. In those instances, the device was set below the road surface. The lack of transition to the steel grid deck causes sharp drops and rises. The suspension soaked it all up without disturbing the track of the bike or bottoming out, and the mid-mount pegs are good to have when standing on the pegs becomes necessary.
The dual-disc brakes up front are radially mounted Brembo four-piston calipers clamping on 320mm semi-floating rotors paired with a two-piston Brembo caliper working on a 300mm semi-floating rotor on the rear. There is no side-slip or stepping out, front or back, and stopping was quick and sure-footed, with braking force able to be modulated progressively and precisely with fine feel at the levers.
The combined effect of this ensemble of components, coupled with the recently introduced steel frame, results in a surprisingly nimble and confident feel when riding situations that usually are not the strong suit of relatively long, heavy cruisers. For example, when I found myself coming in a little too hot to a slightly off-camber left-hand hairpin corner with downhill entry and uphill exit, I was able to brake firmly, downshift, heel the machine over till the footpeg started scraping, and sling the bike through that corner like a much better rider than I am and as if it were a much lighter bike than it is. Sweet.
There is no tendency for the 2023 Indian Sport Chief to wallow or oscillate, whether in hard, lower-speed cornering or at highway speeds in longer sweepers. Getting a grip on the blacktop are Pirelli Night Dragon tires—130/60 x 19 front and 180/65 x 16 rear—mounted on cast aluminum wheels.
How does one of those V-4 power cruisers stack up on these criteria? My 2002 Yamaha V-Max has similar stability, but it has a UFO fork brace and Morley frame braces in place. Those enhancements were developed because the original V-Max was not known for solid handling in stock trim.
While the Sport Chief efficiently manages the heat from its big air-cooled engine while underway, it can get toasty when stopped and idling in a high-heat environment. The day I rode in Austin, where winter temps soared to 91 degrees, there was noticeable heat wafting up, even with the rear cylinder deactivation mode.
The most significant heat issue is when the bike is at a stop, and you let your right leg drop down behind the footpeg, coming to rest on the exhaust-pipe heatshield where the two pipes join for the crossover. It is a scorching surface, and the heatshield doesn’t seem up to the task.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saying goes, so my thoughts on the aesthetics of the Sport Chief are limited because you know what you like, and that’s all that really matters.
Indian was after the look and feel of a high-performance cruiser—low at the saddle, long, lean, stripped, essential, not over-decorated with stick-on labels, chrome bits, pinstriping, and two-tone paint—and that was achieved.
The blacked-out engine, frame, and exhaust all fit the look, though the massive stacked mufflers dominate the view of the bike’s right side. With the pipes coming to the Siamese crossover just ahead of the mufflers, it made me wonder if a sleeker, lighter two-into-one design similar to the optional system available for the Scout wouldn’t be possible. Of course, meeting emissions requirements are challenging enough without stifling performance.
Charles Franklin was a motorcycle racer with the skills to design one of the most innovative and enduring high-performance motorcycles of his time—the first Indian Chief. Were he alive today to see the 2023 Indian Sport Chief, I think he’d marvel at how it stays true to the spirit of his original Chief, while delivering that performance in a thoroughly modern package. And, I think he’d smile in approval.
- Helmet: Arai Signet-X with Pro-Shade
- Jacket: The Idol by Cortech
- Gloves: Cortech Bully Short Cuff Leather
- Jeans: The Ventura by Cortech
- Boots: Cortech Slayer
2023 Indian Sport Chief Specs
- Engine type: Thunderstroke 116 49-degree V-twin
- Bore x stroke: 4.063” x 4.449”
- Displacement: 116 ci
- Maximum torque: 120 ft-lbs @ 2900 rpm
- Fueling: Closed-loop w/ 54mm throttle body
- Exhaust: Dual exhaust w/ crossover
- Transmission: 6-speed
- Clutch: Wet multiplate
- Final drive: Belt
- Frame: Steel tube w/ cast aluminum rear subframe
- Front suspension; travel: Non-adjustable KYB inverted fork; 5.1 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Spring-preload adjustable Fox piggyback-reservoir shocks; 4.0 inches
- Wheels: Sport Cast Black
- Front wheel: 19 x 3.5
- Rear wheel: 16 x 5
- Tires: Pirelli Night Dragon
- Front tire: 130/60 x 19
- Rear tire: 180/65 x 16
- Front brakes: 320mm semi-floating discs w/ Brembo 4-piston calipers
- Rear brake: 300mm floating disc w/ Brembo 2-piston caliper
- ABS: Standard
DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES
- Wheelbase: 64.6 inches
- Rake: 28 degrees
- Trail: 4.4 inches
- Seat height: 27 inches
- Fuel capacity: 4 gallons
- Curb weight: 670 pounds
- Black Smoke
- Ruby Smoke (+$500)
- Stealth Gray (+$500)
- Spirit Blue Smoke (+$1000)
2023 Indian Sport Chief Price: $18,999 MSRP