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Priced at about $30,000, it’s a high-end bike at a high-end price. But is it good enough to get Harley riders go electric?
Dec 6, 2020
Magdalena WosinskaCar and Driver
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire costs about $30,000. Let’s just get that out of the way, because it’s the key to understanding the electric Harley’s unique position in the transportation universe. That probably sounds like a lot of money to spend on a motorcycle, and it certainly is, but Harley buyers aren’t dissuaded by that kind of price—a 2020 CVO Limited touring bike starts at more than $44,000. The challenge for the LiveWire lies not in its battery-electric powertrain, but in its genre. It’s a legit naked sport bike, scary quick in a way that reminds me of the first time I rode a Ducati Streetfighter. But a Streetfighter costs $19,995. Or, maybe more to the point, a Zero SR/F—the nearest electric competitor—is priced at $21,495. So the LiveWire needs Harley customers. But do Harley customers need it?
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I hope so, because it’s a wonderful machine, both to behold and to ride. Its 105-hp electric motor is slung low, bulletlike, under the finned black battery. There’s very little bodywork—a slim fairing around the headlight and the vestige of a gas tank, both painted black, orange or yellowish green. I rode a prototype LiveWire six years ago, and compared to that early attempt, the production bike is both quicker and has more range. Obviously, they took their time to get this right.
On one of my first rides, I stopped by to visit a friend of mine who owns two Harleys plus assorted dirt bikes (Honda XR650R; Husqvarna TC250). He also used to own a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-9R. His two-wheeled frame of reference is broad, so I handed him the key fob and asked him to give me his impression of the electrified Harley. When he took off on the Livewire, we heard the shriek from a block away, the bevel gears between the motor and the drive belt screaming the new sonic signature of a company indelibly associated with the whump-whump of V-twins. He returned about 10 minutes later and proclaimed, “Well, that’s the fastest motorcycle I’ve ever ridden.” His wife replied, “Faster than the crotch rocket?” Oh yeah, he said. From the point he pinned the throttle—when we heard the gear whine go full klaxon—he hit 75 mph. And covered only about 250 feet of pavement in the process.
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I know, there are plenty of sport bikes that can do that. But they all require some kind of planning—knowing which gear you want, and which rpm, for max acceleration. The LiveWire, with 105 horsepower and 86 lb-ft of torque, just wallops you with colossal instant thrust anytime you ask for it. Harley quotes zero to 60 in 3.0 seconds and, maybe even more impressive, 60 to 80 mph in 1.9. It’s one of the few machines that hits its own top-speed limiter before it finishes a quarter-mile run, resulting in a weird time slip: 11.2 seconds at 110 mph. Last year I got an 11.2 in a Dodge Challenger Hellcat Redeye, but the trap speed was 127 mph. If the Harley didn’t run into its speed limiter, it would be deep in the 10 second range. Which is all the more disconcerting given that you can also putter along at 20 mph like it’s an electric bicycle. Speaking of which, Harley is planning to make those, too, and already offers electric balance bikes for kids. Get that rider pipeline started early. Like, age three.
The LiveWire chassis is fully capable of exploiting the powertrain’s capabilities, too. The Showa suspension is adjustable, so you can set the bike up soft and compliant or track-honed and flinty. I’m not exactly up on my lean angle frame of reference, but the LiveWire’s 45-degree lean angle capability is closer to the pavement than I care to get. At 553 pounds, you feel like you can chuck it around. And the brakes are great. When a guy in a Camry initiated an oblivious left turn across my lane, I went into a full panic stop just as the other driver realized what he was doing and jerked back into his lane. I’m glad he did, but I rode past convinced that I could have avoided him—on this bike, anyway.
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One day I used the LiveWire as an urban courier bike, picking up takeout lunch to bring to my wife at her office. On my way, I fell in with a pack of eight or nine Harleys, a club out for a ride. I paced them for a few miles, riding alongside on a four-lane street. As far as I could tell, not one of them acknowledged the LiveWire—either they knew what it was and were actively disdainful, or they saw a sport bike instead of a Harley and ignored accordingly. A guy in a pickup knew what was up, though. He rolled down his window at a red light and shouted, “Is that fun?” Yes, I yelled, before beaming away when the light turned green.
At my wife’s office, a couple of her coworkers came out to inspect the LiveWire. One of them has two newer Harleys, the kind that make the LiveWire look affordable. She took one look at the rakish passenger seat and asked, “Now whose narrow ass is gonna fit on that?” I hadn’t considered that question. But no, an Electra Glide it is not. Although that would be a great name for a touring version of the LiveWire.
A LiveWire touring bike, though, would require some kind of advance in either lithium-ion energy density or charging infrastructure, because right now there’s only so much battery you can cram between the frame rails of a motorcycle. The LiveWire manages 15.5 kWh (13.5 kWh of which is usable), for an EPA-rated range of 146 miles in the city. At 70 mph on the highway, though, that range drops to 70 miles. That’s still plenty for most people’s daily rides, but you want to plan longer rides around high-speed chargers. Which, for anything outside of the Tesla Supercharger network, still isn’t easy. My closest LiveWire-compatible DC combo charger was 40 minutes away, at a Harley dealer. And while I have a Level 2 charger in my garage, the Livewire won’t charge at a Level 2 rate—it’ll plug into the charger, but only charges at a Level 1 rate. This is a perplexing choice on Harley’s part, since Level 2 chargers are everywhere but using one is no better than plugging into a wall outlet. Unless you’re at a DC fast charger (which provides an 80 percent charge in 40 minutes), charging is an overnight routine rather than something you do at a lunch stop.
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But if your riding habits comport with the battery’s capacity, the LiveWire would be an easy bike to live with. Maintenance should be simple: check your belt tension, brakes and tires. I love the smart turn signals, which appeared to cancel based on lean angle—straighten up and they turn themselves off. (Glancing down to check a motorcycle turn-signal indicator is both annoying and dangerous.) And Harley elegantly solves the on/off problem with electric bikes, by which I mean that it’s sometimes not entirely obvious whether they’re powered up. That could have nasty implications if you inadvertently grabbed the throttle while the motor is live. When the LiveWire’s ready to go, its motor generates slow pulses of vibration, the ghost of a V-twin silently coursing up through the bars.
I give Harley a lot of credit for building this. I’ll give its customers even more if they start buying it.
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