Road Test Review
Just two years after Polaris Industries acquired the brand in 2011, with rightful fanfare Indian Motorcycles launched an all-new line of functional and stylish heavyweight V-twin cruisers and baggers.
Consensus was that the engineering and design teams had nailed it–the massive Thunder Stroke 111 engine with its heavy finning, parallel pushrod tubes and flathead-like downward-facing exhaust was a gorgeous interpretation of Indian V-twin tradition, and the teardrop gas tank and Art Deco valenced fenders on the bikes were a hit with enthusiasts. With 104 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel the Thunder Stroke 111 was the powermeister until recently, too, and is still within 5 percent of the regular production leader.
Six model years later the Thunder Stroke Indians–Chief, Springfield, Chieftain and Roadmaster–have established themselves as solid alternatives to the competition, with bucket-loads of satisfying performance, comfort and style. On that last point, recently some Indian customers–Chieftain bagger fans in particular–have asked for an alternative to the bike’s traditional heavy-fendered look, something a bit leaner and more aggressive. Indian’s initial response was a larger 19-inch contrast-cut front wheel and slim open fender on the 2017 Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite.
They were enthusiastically received, so for 2019 Indian has pushed the envelope further by trimming and slimming the fairing and “slamming” the saddlebags on the new Chieftain, Chieftain Dark Horse and Chieftain Limited. The original fairing, bags and overflowing fenders return on the Chieftain Classic, but those sharper lines and harder edges on the restyled models give them a lighter, more performance-oriented appearance without sacrificing any luggage capacity or wind protection.
The fresh look is completed by full LED lighting, new fork guards and attractive badging. A sleek new Rogue gunfighter seat and lower ride height in back also give the bikes a more low-slung appearance.
One of the Chieftain’s strong suits has been its rear suspension, which we’ve found compliant and comfortable for cruising with just enough tension for sportier riding. A new air shock design with different springs and more damping on the restyled 2019 models has an inch of additional sag to lower ride height without reducing the four inches of suspension travel. Between it and the thinner seat the rider definitely feels more bump shock in back, but overall the ride is still quite plush for a bagger, and the rear is now in better balance with the nicely dialed-in cartridge fork for brisk riding. And if you prefer the former shock, Indian says new and old are interchangeable.
Engine or ride modes are all the rage these days despite being superfluous on a lot of bikes, but on the 2019 Chieftains new Sport, Standard and Tour modes actually make sense, especially the latter two. All three provide full power, but Tour softens throttle response enough to make two-up riding a smoother experience for passengers (think fewer helmet bonks, or “turtle kisses”), important now that Indian has remapped the fuel injection to eliminate the lag off idle we’ve complained about in the past. Standard mode delivers brisk, crisp response without any abruptness and is where solo riders will likely spend most of their time. Sport notches up the response to instantaneous, not an improvement over Standard in my book but some may find it entertaining.
Excessive engine heat has been at least partly addressed for 2019 with Rear Cylinder Deactivation (RCD), which shuts off the rear cylinder in the big air-cooled, 1,811cc OHV V-twin at idle when it gets up to temperature and it’s warmer than 59 degrees outside. Harley has used a similar system for years, and it’s a godsend in slow-moving or stopped traffic. On the Indians the cylinder instantly reactivates when throttle is applied, so it’s virtually undetectable–in fact the Chieftain actually idles smoother with it on.
The new riding modes and RCD are activated via the Ride Command infotainment system, which has been updated with a more intuitive customization menu for the 7-inch touchscreen display. Turn-by-turn navigation, Bluetooth connectivity and scads of vehicle and trip info are all right at your fingertips. This year the bike’s 100-watt audio system also gets new speakers in the fairing and a customizable dynamic equalizer to compensate for road, wind and engine noise.
Combine these nice visual and audio features with keyless ignition, remote saddlebag locking, cruise control, tire pressure monitoring, highway bars and an electric windscreen, and the result is a quick, comfortable and convenient touring cruiser with a satisfying rumble and gobs of getaway power at your command.
I liked the Chieftain Limited well enough, in fact, that following its press introduction ride around Washington’s Cascade Loop, I strapped a waterproof duffel on the back and rode it more than 1,700 miles home to Southern California via the majestic Olympic Peninsula. Through driving rain in Oregon and over the winding coastal roads of the Redwood Highway in Northern California, the bike never missed a beat, and it was comfortable enough that even on the last 650-mile day I really only stopped for fuel and a few photos.
Excellent passing power without any energy-sapping vibes, smooth shifting through its six gears, confidence-inspiring ABS brakes and a highly functional fairing and windscreen contribute greatly to the Chieftain Limited’s touring aptitude. Generous cornering clearance and the sportier new suspension let you hustle the 827-pound fully-fueled bike around corners quite briskly, and despite its bar-mounted fairing it steers effortlessly and feels stable and planted in all but heavy crosswinds, which tend to waggle the handlebar a bit. Those long floorboards let you stretch your legs out or tuck your heels underneath you, a huge plus, and the new Rogue seat is well-shaped and provides some lumbar support, though longer-legged riders may wish they could scoot back farther.
I enjoyed mostly cooler weather on my ride, and when it did warm into the 90s in Southern Oregon the riding was primarily highway, so I never noticed much engine heat. This has mostly been a problem on the Roadmaster, with its fairing lowers that route the wind around your legs and the engine. So far even around town heat hasn’t been a real issue on the Chieftain, but I’ll get it out in some traffic on our next warm day and post an addendum to this story down the road.
Indian thoughtfully made the streamlined closeout panels between the saddlebags and rear fender easily removable, which exposes the saddlebag mounts in between and simplifies strapping luggage on the back. The watertight saddlebags are spacious enough for solo multi-day rides and lock with a key or remotely from the ignition fob or bike center console; a keyed steering lock is also provided.
That new LED headlight is a powerful companion at night, and the mirrors are quite functional as well. Though it’s hard to keep from twisting the Chieftain’s throttle to reap its strong surge of torque and rumbling exhaust note, a restrained right wrist will net more than 40 mpg from the 5.5-gallon tank of premium, for a nice range of more than 220 miles. Two-up riders will also appreciate its generous 558-pound load capacity and long list of useful accessories like enhanced audio and performance packages, top trunk, fairing lowers and custom fit options like seats and handlebars.
While Indian has bowed somewhat to recent custom trends with that 19-inch front wheel vs. the former 16 and slamming this and that, if you ask me the new Chieftains look fantastic, and in the process Indian hasn’t sacrificed any of the handling, comfort and convenience that has made them such wonderfully long-legged baggers. When I jumped on the Limited this morning for the short ride to work, all I could think of was heading north instead and taking it to the limit….