Indian, one of America’s most storied early motorcycle brands, is in comeback mode these days. And the 2017 Indian Chieftain Limited is a big, dramatic looking cruiser that feels like it’s built around its touchscreen infotainment system more than its 111-cubic inch engine. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of rumble left.
(Full Disclosure: Indian flew me out to San Diego and parked a free taco truck in front of me so I could ride the Chieftan Limited on a happy stomach.)
So how did we get here?
Let’s take it back to 1911. Indian was riding high as world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer and it had just taken the first three places at the Isle of Man TT. That bought the company a few decades of glory, but it faded. And then Ralph B. Dodgers came along.
Dodgers would go on to do a lot of successful things, like build Fortune 500 companies and become the chairman of PBS. He was a great businessman. But Ralph didn’t know shit about motorcycles.
Under Dodgers’ leadership, Indian launched a bunch of stinker models, spent a fortune on ad campaigns with movie stars, and pissed off its dealer network. It took Dodgers eight years, but by 1953 he had succesfuly put the company out of business. Oops.
Since then, more than one group tried to revive the brand. All failed.
Until 2011 when Polaris, a $4.5 billion power sports powerhouse from Minnesota, came along. I’m going to paraphrase here but the midwestern snowmobile folks basically said: “Let’s build a good fucking motorcycle and not fuck the looks up.” And so began the relaunch of Indian Motorcycles.
Under Polaris, Indian has made some fantastic bikes: two amazing mid-size bikes (in my opinion the best bang for your buck on the market) the Scout and Scout Sixty; two vintage looking cruisers the Chief Dark Horse and the Chief Classic; four classicly-styled baggers the Chief Vintage, Springfield, Chieftain Dark Horse, and Chieftain; and, of course, a “luxury” fatty cruiser for your dad called the Roadmaster.
No company is making objectively bad cruisers these days—these are all great bikes. But what Indian was missing most was a modern aesthetic bagger. Which brings us to today, and introduces the Indian Chieftain Limited. It’s the company’s “baddest bagger ever,” AKA, something that looks more like a Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special.
The Chieftain Limited is a $25,000 luxury liner of a motorcycle meant for long, comfortable cruises. This thing’s favorite flavor of asphalt is arrow-straight two-lane blacktop crossing big tracts of open America.
This isn’t so much a completely new bike as a looks-and-tech refresh of the Chieftain. It’s a big 1,811 cc ride with a massive handlebar mounted fairing and matching hard saddlebags.
The bike is expensive, but the construction quality and aesthetic execution feel on point for the elite tier of cruising motorcycles. And the Chieftain Limited’s open front fender, contrast cut 19” wheels and blacked out finish make this bike the missing contemporary bagger to the Indian lineup.
The Thunder Stroke 111 engine (1,811 ccs is 111 cubic inches) belches out 119.2 ft-lbs of torque, which is a lot. Like, more than a Ducati Diavel Carbon. That’s good because this Indian weighs 849 pounds ready-to-ride and is rated to move a total of 1,385 pounds. You can put 536 pounds worth of people on this monster!
But the Chieftain Limited feels more like it’s built around its entertainment system than its engine. The new Ride Command system’s 7-inch touchscreen is easy to use, the screen has great visibility, and in theory (I didn’t get a chance to test it on my ride) can upload your own custom GPS files.
The interface is intuitive, and a customizable split screen lets you choose what info you want to see. As a rider who often uses a handlebar-mounted iPhone on tours, this system is a superior navigation and entertainment tool. Of course, you can still hook up your phone via USB or Bluetooth.
The 100-watt stereo sounds awesome, and if you want to entertain everybody else in traffic you can expand the sound by adding saddlebag speakers. The whole system feels user-friendly, and small touches like a power adjustable windscreen and remote lockable bags give the bike a convenient feel. Just push the button, keyless ignition, and off you go.
Oh, I should mention, there also happens to be a motorcycle attached to the computer and speakers.
The Chieftain Limited has bountiful acceleration, and it’s surprisingly more spritely than you might expect 1,000 pounds balanced on two wheels to be.
Cushy suspension and a low 26-inch seat height make it comfortable enough to get on, go off on, mess around and be halfway across the country before you start getting sore. There’s plenty of clearance for normal riding, though. I only dragged a floorboard once showing off for the camera.
Braking is rarely impressive on a bike this size, but the Indian’s dual 300-mm front rotors (complete with Indian engraved on the caliper housings) stop with confidence.
The first thing I noticed was that the engine sounds a bit... woodpeckery (that’s the technical term). Throughout my day of riding, I never got used to it, it just sounds off.
The clutch pull is too heavy and finding neutral is awkward. Both those things that make city riding uncomfortable. Besides that, most everything else on this bike is easy to get along with.
I would be interested in getting a long-term impression of the Ride Command system, as I think it will be one the biggest selling points for this segment.
After brand loyalty, design and comfort matter when you’re putting on thousands of miles. I’d like to evaluate just how much does Ride Command really improves a long-haul ride.
However, the most interesting thing to watch will be what Indian decides to do not just with the Chieftain platform, but the entire cruiser segment.
Since parent company Polaris dumped its entire line of Victory bikes, which had begun to get traction with the cruiser market, will Indian be doing all the work in that space? Indian has been diving deep, with great success, into its race teams, and have built an amazing platform with the Scout. Just how much more R&D time and money will go into evolving cruisers? It’s hard to imagine a growing market of new riders interested in $25,000 dressers.
The Chieftain Limited will certainly score riders already devoted to cruiser rigs, but will not set the internet or new buyers ablaze. But, let’s say (pray for) a mid-control version of the Scout Sixty in the sub-$9,000 range? That could be a game changer.
While riding the Indian Chieftain Limited it was impossible not to make comparisons to the Harley-Davidson Street Glide Special. Indian has made some style and tech wins here, and it will be interesting to see how riders react once they hit dealers. Not a bad showing for a company only six years old.
This is a fine bike, with a unique style and all sorts of nice finishes that will win current riders over. Indian has found a nice balance of respecting its history, but tastefully refreshing it. If you ride one, you’ll like it. It’s one of those situations where every button and gizmo is so nicely done they all seem like assets versus annoyances.
It’s a competent, smartly designed ride. Hop on one and go.
Chris Force is a travel, design and motorcycle journalist based in Chicago. His work has appeared in... well, a lot of places.