Livin’ La Vida LiveWire.
Pros and Cons from a fortnight with Harley’s Electric Offering.
I was lucky enough to score a two-week loan of the new Livewire ¬and racked up almost 1000km riding around Brisbane and environs. I really enjoyed it. It’s a really good fun motorcycle – with some obvious caveats.
As we keep reiterating. Their new models are an important part of Harley-Davidson’s growth into the future. The company is looking to expand its market and attract a more diverse range of owners.
The new machines don’t replace the Softails or Touring models – they offer alternatives or additions to them – and according to our reader surveys many of our subdcribers already have a Commuter and/or an Adventure bike in the garage, as well as a nice Classic, Twin-cam or M8.
Which brings us to back to the LiveWire. It’s defined by H-D as an ‘Urban Vehicle’ and it really is a combination of a commuter bike and a lively round-town sports machine in a stylish, battery-operated package. One that offers a quite different and unique riding experience.
That famous quote by some clever wit went: ‘Man wasn’t meant to fly … but he sure needs to accelerate’. If nothing else, the LiveWire fills that need satisfactorily. Quite exhilaratingly so.
Looking at the spec sheet the numbers aren’t really all that impressive. 105 horsepower and 116nm of torque in a package that tips the scales at 251kg in running order - or roughly the same mass as a 1200 Sportster. My XB12 Buell produced 103 ponies and weighed around 195kgs dry – and that was almost 15 years ago.
So, on paper I expected similar level of ‘hurry-up’ as the old XB. But as often happens when I ride the specifications sheet rather than the machine, the reality is far removed from the assumption.
To borrow a line from Vespa, another champion of Urban vehicles, the appeal of the LiveWire is its ‘twist and go’, but unlike the scooters – it all happens very, very quickly. With no clutch to engage or gears to select, the power and torque delivery is virtually instant from the moment you wring the throttle and it’s delivered in a purely linear, straight-line fashion.
Pretty much all of its power and torque is available at any given speed or in any situation - depending on which riding mode is selected and the level of traction control programmed. The power surge is virtually instantaneous. The only other bike that I've personally tested that had a similarly immediate ‘Bam!’ was a Ducati Hailwood replica - where the time between wringing the throttle and surging rapidly forward seemed infinitesimal.
It's the same with the Livewire; you think it, you twist it, and you're gone, because it’s all there, all the time. There’s no need to drop it down a few cogs to find the torque or maximum power. Subsequently at operating speeds it feels like there are more than the specified 105 ponies whining away beneath you.
On the day I collected it the crew at Morgan & Wacker I headed straight up Mount Glorious to the west of Brisbane. Halfway up the hill I got stuck behind a horse float. When the first passing opportunity arose I wound the throttle on at 60kph and the immediacy of the bikes acceleration took me completely by surprise. My hand slipped on the grip and I slid back on the saddle – and let out a joyous expletive with a lesson well learned: Be prepared – this bike can be quite brutal. Particularly in Sports mode – and I found it a very satisfying thing.
In the modes
Sports is just one of 4 standard riding modes available. These can be selected from the clear and legible TFT touch screen display (that is also adjustable for viewing angle) – or from a rocker on the right-hand indicator switch.
Highway mode gives a balanced mix of power and some regenerative braking.
Sports mode offers maximum power and minimum regen.
Rain mode reduces everything and optimises the traction control while ‘Regenerative’ mode delivers 40% power and maximum charge back to the battery when braking or slowing down.
There are also three user programmable modes available for the rider to dial in their own preferences as well.
Using a mix of Regen mode and highway mode I was able to get around 200km range up and down Mt Glorious and back to home. Anywhere around town and in the stop-start traffic range wasn’t an issue at all. Also around town I appreciated not having to row it through the gears, feather the clutch or worry about the engine overheating. It is an easier way to ride. The reasonably upright riding position helps see over the traffic too.
I’ve never ridden a bike where I was so pleased to encounter a red traffic light. It’s very narrow and it made lane splitting to the front of the queue very straightforward. But the main attraction is the opportunity to launch - and that comes right back to the joys of rapid, linear acceleration.
Once I came to grips with the LiveWire’s unique power and riding style I started work on dialling-in the Showa three-way adjustable suspension front and rear.
The experience from owning the Buell with a similar setup came into play and I was able get it tuned for my payload with a little trial and error. It is a finely fettle beast however, and I found it to be particularly sensitive to tyre pressures – or rather the correct tyre pressure.
Half-a-turn too much on the rebound damping or a few pounds under in the tyres and it could feel like it was dragging the front end over rough surfaces – or go too far the other way and it could feel a little top heavy or skittish. Once dialled in, I found it to be quite well mannered and planted in most situations. It’s not Buell good – but it was quite rewarding on the mountain road. Around town I found it easy to chuck around.
Stealth is good.
I actually enjoyed the stealthy nature of the electric’s almost noiseless progress too. Coming back down the mountain I passed a motorcycle cop parked up on the opposite side of the road not far from The Gap.
It was the bloke who has established a reputation amongst the local motorcycle fraternity as being very harsh on exhaust noise and other modifications – to the extent that some will no longer travel the only viable sports-riding road near Brisbane because of him.
But at this particular moment he was head down, faffing around with his phone and I was level with him before he was even vaguely aware of my presence or could raise the radar gun. The mixed look of surprise and bewilderment coming out from under that Police issue flip face lid as I rode quietly by was well-worth the price of admission.
I also enjoyed being able to slip out of my neighbourhood late at night to chase the many night shots I took of the bike without setting off every dog in the street.
I liked lots of its other tech too, the cruise control, the variety of information that can be displayed on the screen or the way it can be paired via Bluetooth from your phone and earphones (or headset) to control volume and your playlist via the toggle switch on the left-hand switch block.
The dash can interface with the H-D app on your phone to display navigation directions and distances to turns from the app.
I’ve been an electric bike enthusiast since I rode my first one in 2010 and overall, I found there is much to like and to enjoy about this bike … but.
I did find that the range is quite acceptable around town and riding up and down the nearby mountain – where regenerative braking regularly pumps power back into the battery. 200km was viable and quite acceptable for an afternoon joy ride under those circumstances.
What the bike hates however is the freeway or long open roads that offer nothing but a constant drain on the power cell. Without the opportunity to regenerate, the range suffers – badly and ‘range anxiety’ becomes a very real thing. You start to sweat on the battery power bar and wondering when the point of ‘I must return’ lies.
Several times my pals down on the Gold Coast posted up that they had a ride on the weekend. On the LiveWire this simply was not viable from my base in Brisbane. It would need a recharge not long after I met up with the lads. It’s a big limitation.
Plugging it in to the 240volt outlet in my garage (Type 1 charge) overnight would see it fully juiced and ready to roll in the morning. This wasn’t a problem at all. It takes about 80 minutes to add 10% off the mains so it was definitely an overnight option, but conversely, I really enjoyed riding past the Servo next day.
The bike can use the more abundant type 2 commercial chargers as well, but they will only replenish the battery at the Type 1 rate.
The only fast charging Type 3 option available locally was on the wall at Morgan & Wacker.
Commercial Type 3 charters will add 80% to the battery in around an hour, but in most cases, you also need to bring your own Type 3 cable because most of these are set up for Teslas and they have their own proprietary plug - so that isn’t really viable. It does have its own charging cable stowed under the seat, but it’s a Type 1. IE – overnight or a very long wait.
Could be better
The low-beam headlight is possibly a concession to saving battery power and is not as good as other Harleys – possible better than an XB Buell, but not much. High beam conversely is reasonably good.
The mirrors are also not up to the usual Harley’s standard (industry best) – I had to move my head to look past my elbows or tuck a wing in. I’m a larger human than the bike is really made for and that was true for the peg to seat height ratio too. The seat is comfortable, but I ended up sitting on a few layers of sheepskin, to lift the height. An aftermarket fix would sort that issue though. But overall, it’s built for reasonably compact person.
The wiring harness behind the instruments could have been much better presented, but overall fit and finish was what you’d expect from a H-D product.
Our market research also tells us that there are many HEAVY DUTY readers that own more than one Harley and plenty of the builds we feature have cost well over the asking price of the LiveWire, but it’s $50k price tag certainly puts it near the top of the price list. It’s a big ask for what we’d call a ‘Bike for the other side of the shed’.
Yes. The small matter of the large price tag notwithstanding. Although after writing this test Harley have rebranded their electric range and the price appears to be coming down significantly.
But as a pure motorcycle enthusiast … I’d love one. It’s so different. But it couldn’t be my, or most people’s, only bike.
As one that sat alongside my ‘main’ ride, it would be great for 80% to 90% of the riding I do.
Running errands, going to location photo shoots, a quick skid for mental health reasons … I found it to be great fun and quite exhilarating to ride.
Fit a taller saddle and I’d happily ride it, charge it, and ride it (very quietly) again all the way between its 20,000km service intervals and back again – within significant limits.
Starting in the range mode, the most sedate, still gave me instant, impressive, useable power. We left the meeting place and ran up the motorway to our first photo destination, and I was able to give it a little. Wow! This thing has some oomph. Into road mode, and a little more. A little later, I was able to try it in sport mode, and it became a beast! Extremely responsive due to full power all the time, and
very nimble. A lot of the shots require multiple passes, so there are many u-turns to be made. No problem on this one!
The most interesting facet for me was the weight distribution. It didn’t take long to get used to it, but it was unique. The mass of the bike is felt from tank to stand and was new to me. Initially, it felt like it wanted to lie down, but this feeling passed quickly as I became accustomed to it. The centre of gravity is actually very low.
After we arrived at the location for the first shots, Dave asked me, “In one word?” My response was “Brutal”.
In hindsight, still the word I would use! The power application is smooth and fun. The electronic brake control is confidence providing. The customisations available at your thumbs are amazing and so easy to implement on the fly. The angle-adjustable display is the icing.
When I was heading to our meeting point, I thought I would hate it. When I didn’t hear it ride in, I wanted to hate it, but after riding it, I can’t! I would have one in my garage next to my Breakout in a heartbeat!