Restyled and ride-enhanced
The Indian Motorcycle line of bikes has been moderately successful since Polaris took the reins. I say “moderately” because they still only have a single-digit percentage of the total motorcycle sales. Indian has been appealing to a small segment of riders, mostly those who are nostalgic for the old-style art deco Indian fenders and a small segment who just want something American that is not a Harley. By eliminating Victory, Polaris lost a small segment of customers who just want something American that is not Harley and not an Indian. The crux of the sales problem has been getting out to a variety of riders, and their most popular bike, the Chieftain, only appealed to a small segment. Enter the Chieftain Elite and Limited, which gave Indian the opportunity to test the waters with a non-skirted fender on a Chieftain. Indian quickly realized that they had hit a home run when customers bought them up essentially as fast as they could make them. So the race was on to manufacture a touring bike that might be more appealing to the masses.
I have always been a cheerleader for Indian, way back to the days when they were made in Gilroy and were literally a Harley clone, but less reliable and more expensive, although I never really saw myself as their customer. Yes, I bought a Gilroy Indian for pennies on the dollar and put ape hangers on it, but that was just me taking advantage of an opportunity to finally buy an American V-twin. The Indian brand, although rich with heritage, never really spoke to me because of the art deco styling on the Chieftain line. Yes, the Scouts are more aggressive, but now that I’m in my late 40s, an around-town power cruiser is not my idea of what constitutes a reasonable bike to have in the garage.
The 2019 Indian Chieftain was released digitally; that’s to say there was no real unveiling. The cat was out of the bag before I even set eyes on it. When I first got invited to the launch I thought it was going to be like many others where there are a few new features but nothing substantial. That’s not to say that it was going to be bad, just that I wasn’t prepared for a full reimagining of a line, until I saw the press photos and release describing to me what Indian was missing—a bike that appeals to a broader demographic from a stylistic standpoint and one that could match other OEMs on the technological side.
When I got to Anacortes, Washington, from where the 2019 Indian Chieftain press ride was to leave, I immediately started to visually take in the specific new styling cues. The styling upgrades made sense; they kept to the original Indian lines but the fairing and saddlebags became more angular and aggressive. The chopped seat added to it and I was glad to hear the adjustable windscreen and auto-locking saddlebags were still found on most models. The rain had held off and as I returned to my room I found a pair of Indian “Black” riding sneakers. They would be good for around-town riding and I liked the style but knew that the damp Washington weather was going to have us riding through rain squalls so I opted for my trusty waterproof riding boots instead.
The next morning was promising in terms of weather. We got rained on intermittently but I got to put the redesigned Indian Chieftain through its paces. The ride felt essentially the same as previous iterations. The single rear Fox shock in back along with air ride supplied ample tunability as long as the air shock was filled properly (I found that out on my long-term loaner). If you have never ridden an Indian Chieftain please do yourself a favor, go down to your local dealership, have them check the air ride and then take it through some twisties. They have tons of ground clearance and are set up to be ridden hard.
There were a few performance and ergonomic changes. For 2019, all four Chieftain models, the Dark Horse, Limited, Chieftain, and Chieftain Classic, as well as a slew of other Indian models, a fully selectable ride mode comes standard and is easily switched by toggling through a menu on the hand controls. The first mode is Standard and just like it sounds, it is what you’d expect from a typical 111-inch Indian Thunderstroke V-twin, crisp response with a normal curve. The Touring mode allows for a smoother, less abrupt powerband and throttle response to accommodate two-up riding and mitigates the crashing of helmets. This could also be called the mellow or less aggressive mode. If you like to jet from light to light, the Sport mode can be fun, if used properly. if you like to ride aggressively it can be fun. I spent the better part of a morning carving roads with it on, but it comes at a price. The throttle response is touchy, jumpy—one might even define it as abrupt. It can be a fun mode but I found the standard mode gave me plenty of power just where I needed it.
The new Chieftains also come standard with upgraded LED lights front and rear, rear cylinder deactivation and an improved audio system. The bullet-style LED turn signals front and back make for added safety. The rear cylinder deactivation only kicked in once because of the cooler temperatures but it was seamless as I moved from a stopped position. I would need more seat time in warmer temperatures to give it an accurate appraisal but as with most it can be turned off if the rider chooses. The improved 100-watt audio system sports a dynamic equalizer allowing for optimal sound depending on the traveling speed. I noticed a significant difference compared to the previous audio system in quality, specifically when having the navigation on and being able to hear it crystal clear.
The cut-down Rogue gunslinger seat gives the Chieftain a more aggressive look that could almost be mistaken for custom because of its deviation from previous Indian seats which were heaven on the backside but not much to look at. Indian cut away a lot of the foam that made the previous iterations so comfortable and after a few hundred miles I could feel it. It didn’t make me want to get off it or insist on a gel pad; it was just a noticeable deviation. I will say that the lines of the bike improved dramatically because of the change in seat shapes, giving it a more aggressive look that matched the more angular saddlebags and less art deco fairing. I found no real change in seating position or reach to bars or controls.
The Indian Chieftain range has a variety of options available including the Chieftain, a stock version which is only available in Steel Gray and does not have LED lighting or lockable saddlebags but comes with a slew of options standard, and starts at $21,999. The Limited, which is what we rode during the press launch, starts at $25,999 and has lockable saddlebags, LED lighting, navigation, crash bars and contrast-cut wheels as well as the standard options. Rounding out the model line are the Dark Horse available in White Smoke, Bronze Smoke or Thunder Black Smoke and starting at $25,999 and the Classic offered in Deep Water Metallic over Dirt Track Tan, Thunder Black over Ivory Cream and Thunder Black, starting at $24,999.
The redesign is what I would consider an upgrade. There are still the full-skirted fender versions available with the Classic but the Chieftain Limited will speak loudly to the younger demographic of riders who want a somewhat customized bagger with all the bells and whistles that is as comfortable cruising downtown as it is on the open road. I know it did for me.