Automorbit, Motorcycle – For decades, Harley-Davidson sat atop the throne of American motorcycling virtually unchallenged. Not that many companies didn’t try to get a piece of the heavyweight motorcycle market, but no company has ever succeeded like The Motor Company in combining products customers want with a knockout backup of unbroken cultural experience that comes from surviving and often thriving since 1903. But when Indian Motorcycle was revived by Polaris and started producing all-new heavyweight V-twin cruisers and touring bikes for 2014, a century-old rivalry was reborn.
Indian came out swinging with its Thunder Stroke 111 air-cooled engine and H-D fired back with the pushrod, four-valve-per-cylinder Milwaukee-Eight. Now Indian provokes its competitor once more with the 2020 Challenger and its liquid-cooled, SOHC PowerPlus 108 engine, seeking to dethrone the Harley-Davidson Road Glide as the platform for performance-minded builders and change what it means to be an American bagger altogether. To seek answers, we pitted a 2020 Indian Challenger Dark Horse against the 2020 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special. Any long-term challenger (ahem) to Harley-Davidson has to succeed on both the technical and cultural level. Consider that from 2000–2019 Harley-Davidson sold more than 1.9 million touring models, an average of roughly 96,000 units a year. Overcoming a foundation like this is Indian’s great battle, and also Harley-Davidson’s, as it is clearly competing against its own highly successful existing product with timeless design.
Although Harley-Davidson doesn’t break out sales by specific model, the baggers have been the real volume leaders in the touring line. It’s no surprise, because this gives you the comfort and convenience of a touring platform in a motorcycle that is more nimble and rideable. Touring heritage leads you to expect easy six-hour stints in the saddle, but bagger style and performance will have you pulling these bikes out of the garage for much shorter trips.
We intended to do both, with a couple of several-hundred-mile days and lots of local riding. Two separate “long” days were conducted, one with Road Test Editor Michael Gilbert, the other with Editor-in-Chief Mark Hoyer. But before any of that, we weighed the bikes on our scales, took them to our closed-course testing facility to gather performance data, and ran both bikes on our in-house Dynojet 250i rear-wheel dynamometer. Numbers logged, Gilbert and I hit the road to Angeles Crest Highway north of Los Angeles, known for its many turns, amazing mountain scenery, and fine blacktop. But you can’t get there from our Orange County office without slogging across 70 miles of some of the busiest roads in the country. A balanced test, in other words. So, after checking tire pressures and adjusting shock spring preloads (the Harley has a big knob, the Indian requires an included wrench), Gilbert and I left the office, sticking to side roads until we were out of town.
While overall profile and V-twin layout make initial riding impressions similar, one thing is plain: Launching from traffic lights, the Challenger consistently pulled ahead, despite its overly active traction control, which is too inhibiting even in the most permissive of three available ride modes (it can also be turned off). The Indian’s engine is just more lively and pulls stronger, longer, despite the two V-twins having similar bottom-end torque numbers. As we continued to make our way through town, both bikes maneuvered through traffic without producing excessive heat felt by the rider—each bike’s rear-cylinder-deactivation system coming into play at stops. Even with their size, these motorcycles are easily managed at low speed and surprisingly fun to ride from stop to stop thanks to the high torque numbers, but the Challenger carried itself better, feeling lighter than its 839-pound-wet weight suggests. “The Indian maneuvered better at slow speed,” 5-foot-7-inch Gilbert said. “I was more confident navigating tight traffic than I was on the 849-pound Harley.”
Once on the open highway we did some informal top-gear roll-on acceleration comparison testing, where the Indian continued to pull away. The performance revealed a few interesting points related to the torque curves recorded on our dyno. The Road Glide Special’s Milwaukee-Eight 114 delivered a stout 108.3 pound-feet at 2,600 rpm. On the road, that rpm translates to about 65 mph in top gear. Therefore, initial roll-on is strong since the engine is at its torque peak, but because the curve declines following this rpm, acceleration flattens out. The Challenger also runs about 2,600 rpm in sixth at 65 mph, but peak torque comes at 3,300 rpm, meaning initial hit is equally as strong as on the Harley, then the Indian’s torque increases as revs rise, giving a pleasing surge in forward motion. Add to this the Indian’s higher redline (6,500 rpm versus 5,500), making the Challenger the bike that moves faster when you really want to go.
This was demonstrated during official back-to-back testing also. The Challenger’s top-gear roll-on acceleration from 60–80 mph took 3.68 seconds, while the Road Glide took 4.16. In a standing-start quarter-mile, the Challenger topped the pair with a 12.72-second run versus the Road Glide’s 13.78. The Challenger’s 26.7 more horsepower and higher rev limit combined with a broader torque curve (and higher peak) meant power was not only more abundant, but more readily available throughout the range. After switching back to the Harley from the Indian on our street testing days, riders found themselves hitting the rev limiter on the Road Glide, expecting more power to come that just wasn’t there.
As we stopped for lunch and looked back on the bikes, it’s difficult not to see design notes of the Road Glide in the Challenger’s fairing. The basic shapes are similar, vents on the side, etc., but it begs the question of how many ways one can design a functional frame-mounted fairing, and if customers would find visual parallels in any design that worked right. You’ll decide which you prefer. The trademark Harley-Davidson sharknose fairing has gone through some variation, but the rough silhouette has remained the same for 40 years—no small feat for any piece that has such a large impact on the motorcycle’s function and appearance. As we wrapped up our meal, neither of us were surprised to see two guys talking near the parked bikes and waiting to hear them start up.
The rubber-mounted, 45-degree Milwaukee-Eight sounds iconic—it’s unmistakably Harley-Davidson. The rubber mounts allow the engine to shake independently of the chassis, controlling vibration felt by the rider. The engine’s mounts and counterbalancer were carefully tested and tuned with customer feedback to deliver the desired amount of sort of animal shake at idle and some non-cruise-speed engine rpm, while turning beautifully smooth, for example, at highway speed in top gear. The engine remains air-cooled (some H-D tourers with fairing lowers get “Twin-Cooled” with liquid and hidden radiators), and has plenty of space around the motor for, well, cool air. It also lets the engine breathe visually. The 45-degree OHV V-twin from Milwaukee has an essentially unbroken chain of history dating back to the 1937 EL Knucklehead, which may be why every bike sold since it feels so classic and culturally evocative—it has been the sound, feel, and look of American motorcycling for generations.
The PowerPlus is also counterbalanced, but solid mounted so it does not shake, and is quieter at idle. But twist the throttle and the 60-degree V-twin comes to life with a roar as satisfying as its rival, albeit with its own rhythmic qualities. Of course, the Indian also has a large well-integrated radiator built into the front of the frame with the wires and tubing that come with it blocking much of the free space around the engine. This is the trade-off that results in the marked difference in horsepower and torque output. Stock for stock, the Milwaukee-Eight 114 looks and sounds great and offers a cleaner overall look without the extra coolant plumbing, but it can’t stand up to the performance of Indian’s PowerPlus.
“Paint, chrome, and overall finish are a real currency in this class and style of motorcycle and the Road Glide Special shows H-D’s strength in this category,” said Mark Hoyer, editor-in-chief. The matte finish paint on the H-D is deeper and more vibrant than the Indian’s, and the contrast between the black coatings and chrome on the Milwaukee-Eight worked more successfully to most of us than small polished points on the PowerPlus motor. Few manufacturers can reach the quality of fit and finish that Harley-Davidson consistently produces, and while the Indian is close, it is still a step behind.
Getting back on the road, any quietly irking ergonomic issues from the morning had grown into louder discomforts. At 6-foot-4, I found the Road Glide’s handlebars to be a little narrow and pulled too far back. Gilbert on the other hand, at 5-foot-7, had no complaints, saying “I found that I preferred the Road Glide for its tighter rider triangle with less of a reach to the bars than the Indian.” The Challenger’s bars were slightly lower, wider, and farther forward, making them much more comfortable for me, but could present difficulty for shorter riders. The seats on both bikes were plush and supportive, easy to sit on all day. Long floorboards on both bikes let you move your feet around. The Challenger has an electronically adjustable windshield that extends nearly 3 inches and it proved to be a huge advantage over the Road Glide’s low, fixed windshield. Overall, from easy miles on the highway to hard riding through Angeles Crest, and even at our different heights, the Indian proved to be a more comfortable middle ground for both of us. With that ergonomic balance, the adjustable windscreen, and adjustable front brake lever, the Challenger was a more versatile fit from the factory, whereas the Road Glide Special relies on accessories and the aftermarket to make it a perfect fit for its owner.
We finally reached our destination, the iconic winding blacktop that climbs through the San Gabriel Mountains: Angeles Crest Highway. We escaped from traffic and the city, and it was finally time to push these heavyweights to see how suspension, brakes, and chassis would respond. Utilizing Gilbert’s MotoAmerica national-level roadracing expertise, both in his ability to ride fast and provide accurate feedback, I tried to keep up as we chatted through the Cardo communicators in our helmets. Chasing each other through the hills and swapping bikes a couple of times an hour, we ground our floorboards and shook the hell out of whatever was in our saddlebags.
The Challenger’s engine advantage remained clear, but its inverted fork and Fox shock are also tuned beautifully. The ride was supple and comfortable on the highway, yet taut and composed when tilting the bike to maximum lean angle. Harley’s last update to the touring platform showed massive improvements in ride stability and cornering ability with the introduction of its Showa Dual Bending Valve fork, but the Challenger was the clear winner here. The Road Glide just felt harsher and less controlled in comparison. It is worth noting that the Road Glide Special is equipped with “Premium” low dual shocks with only 2.1 inches of rear-wheel travel—a clear decision to make the bike sit low and look cool. The Premium standard-height shocks fitted to the Road King and Ultra Limited, for example, offer 3.0 inches of travel. The Challenger’s single shock offers 4.5 inches of travel.
Both bikes come with dual front disc brakes and Brembo manufactured calipers, Indian’s branded as Brembo and H-D’s branded for Harley. In both outright performance and the style of performance, the Challenger’s brakes work better. The Road Glide’s caliper is axially mounted and works on 300mm discs, while the Indian’s are radially mounted with 320mm discs. The levers on these bikes are not light-squeeze sensitive as is typical on high-end sportbikes—they take a good firm squeeze, by design. Even with that, the Indian still provided good feedback and precise control. The Road Glide stopped well enough, but brake feel was lacking in comparison and, as Gilbert put it, the lever “felt like grabbing a brick” during performance testing. In our 60–0-mph brake test, the Challenger stopped 6 feet sooner than the Glide, while the distance 30–0-mph was essentially identical.
The 2020 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special in Barracuda Silver Denim costs $27,799 plus $995 for the optional Reflex Defensive Rider Systems (RDRS) on our testbike.
The 2020 Indian Challenger Dark Horse in Sandstone Smoke has an MSRP of $28,249 with Indian’s Smart Lean Technology package, standard on all Challenger models.
The Road Glide Special was equipped with the $995 accessory Reflex Defensive Rider Systems, a technology package centered around traction and safety. Traction control and linked ABS brakes are “cornering enhanced” thanks to an IMU, while drag-torque control reduces tire slip on downshifts. The TC does its job well (and can be switched off), intervening when necessary to control engine torque output. In fact, it worked better on launch, never cutting in as abruptly as the Challenger’s does. Indian’s Smart Lean rider-aid system comes as standard equipment on the Challenger and offers a similar feature set, but without Vehicle Hold Control (an electronic “hill holder” for the brakes) or linked braking, and as said, preferred to leave the traction control off because it was overly intrusive.
While stopped for a quick break, we took the opportunity to compare H-D’s infotainment with Indian’s Ride Command, as well as the audio systems. The Harley is sporting two 6.5-inch speakers at 25 watts per channel, and the Indian has two speakers of the same size, as well as two smaller tweeters delivering a total of 100 watts. Both systems get loud enough to hear at highway speed, but Challenger’s was significantly clearer at high volume with deep bass and crisp high notes. The Glide’s audio system sounded good at lower volumes but started to get muddy when we turned it up, and was worse when trying to listen over wind noise. Navigating through system software on each bike’s TFT touchscreen (7 inches on the Indian, 6.5 for the H-D) fell in the Challenger’s favor, as well, with intuitive controls on the left switch housing allowing quick, easy navigation. The Harley-Davidson has a joystick on both the left and the right switch housings serving different functions, so working your way through its system is a little more complicated and takes some getting used to, particularly on the right side while also operating the throttle.
Despite the overall functional strengths of the Challenger, there were two elements that left us wanting—clutch feel and throttle response. At small throttle openings, response was vague and sometimes felt delayed, while the clutch lever provided zero engagement feel. It made every departure from a stop a kind of guessing game and caused an unpredictable variety of launch styles as testers tried to figure out what was happening. This uncertainty likely contributed to how often we were invoking traction control. “Aside from the Harley-Davidson’s lower power output, I liked operating the engine and transmission more on the Road Glide Special simply because of the precise and predictable throttle response, great clutch, and solid shift action,” Hoyer said.
In the midst of our testing through Angeles Crest, we noticed all of the alert lights on the Challenger’s dash started lighting up. The bike’s performance was not affected (yet), but we pulled over to investigate. There were no visible issues aside from the flashing alerts, so we continued riding and headed home at the end of the day. Just a few miles from the office, the small compartment on the right side of the fairing popped open (which it did repeatedly during ensuing testing) and the proximity key fob that Gilbert had stashed inside was lost. The bike subsequently stopped running and shut down. Gilbert parked and walked back to find the key. Upon returning the key to the bike, its electronics systems would light up and the bike showed all the previous alerts, but it would not start. After retrieving the Challenger, Indian later diagnosed a wire-routing issue that caused the insulation to chafe through. Indian said wire routing on our preproduction testbike hadn’t been finalized and would be rectified for production units. The second preproduction Challenger testbike provided later—a Limited model—had a similar problem during our additional road testing.
The Road Glide has style, tradition, and aftermarket support behind it that a first-year model could never hope to achieve—three areas that have always been big motivators for buyers in this category and a trio of Harley-Davidson’s biggest strengths. That said, Indian has produced a truly excellent touring motorcycle with the Challenger. Beautifully tuned, high-quality chassis and brake components meet an engine that outperforms anything in Harley’s current lineup, elevating the definition of “performance bagger” from an American manufacturer. It also begs the question of where the next-level factory Road Glide or Street Glide hot rod is, with inverted fork, improved shocks, enhanced brakes, and maybe a 117ci engine, but minus the 2020 CVO Road Glide’s $40,539 base price.
Until that bike arrives, the Challenger’s capability and comfort can’t be ignored and it is the clear technical winner of this shootout. As for cultural impact, it probably won’t take 117 years of uninterrupted motorcycle production history for Indian to catch up, particularly with how well managed the brand has been since its revival, building strongly on the existing Indian love and legacy in this new era as it clearly seeks to match up model to model with Milwaukee iron. It may not happen overnight, but Harley better be paying attention.