The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Does Everything You Doubted It Could

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Does Everything You Doubted It Could

Photo: Harley-Davidson

There may not be a more important motorcycle in Harley-Davidson’s current lineup than the Pan America. If you want to play in the high-end adventure motorcycle space against hot tickets like BMW, Ducati and KTM, you’ve really got to bring the heat. Harley stepped up to the plate to build its first adventure touring bike and has fired a shot right across the bow of the big Euros. This is a firefight you’ll want to watch intently.

(Full Disclosure: Harley-Davidson invited me to warm Mojave, California, to ride its new Pan America motorcycle. I paid for my travel, driving my own car rather than flying. Harley provided a day of off-road riding school with RawHyde, plus some great food and two nights of sleeping quarters in a shipping container in the desert. That doesn’t sound half as cool as it was, I promise.)

Climbing into the saddle of this H-D off-roader is an interesting experience. It’s clearly related to other Harleys, as it has a big soft seat and a large fuel tank requiring a fairly wide stance. Most ADV bikes spend their lives making big miles on the highway, and if there is anything Harley knows more than other motorcycle brands, it’s how to do big highway miles.

Can it possibly be any good off-road? Wouldn’t you know it, I happened to ride it off-road. It’s pretty damn good.

Illustration for article titled The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Does Everything You Doubted It Could
Image: Harley-Davidson

What Is The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America?

None of you have an excuse to badmouth Harley ever again. This is a cool-ass king-shit bike that looks great, rides better, and goes literally anywhere. It takes lessons Harley has learned in the past with explorations to other markets and moves forward from there. While the bike shares no parts with the old Buell Ulysses, that bike was a great springboard forward for the Bar and Shield. And although this totally new Revolution Max 60-degree V-twin, a DOHC with variable valve timing, shares no parts with the old V-Rod motor, much of the engineering behind that motor ended up influencing this new engine.

It’s pretty obvious that the Pan America is Harley’s new bike for the expanding ADV segment. It’s meant to compete with the likes of the Ducati Multistrada V4, BMW R 1250 GS and KTM 1290 Super Adventure. It’s competitive with all of these models, not only on weight and power, but also on price, with a starting MSRP of $17,319.

Even at that bargain of a price in this segment, the Pan America has a ton of quality equipment onboard. Showa makes the shocks, Brembo makes the brakes and for the most part, Harley makes everything else. The paint is magnificent, the fit and finish truly on point, and most everything has been designed in a very user-friendly way.

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Image: Bradley Brownell

The engine is the star of the Pan America 1250. Not only is it an incredible piece of powertrain engineering, but it’s literally the keystone of the chassis as it is a stressed member of the bike’s structure. With 150 horsepower and 94 lb-ft of torque, it has competitive power ratings in its class, but more important, it never feels like it needs more. And by bolting the bike’s front and rear subframes directly to the engine case, the bike is both incredibly stiff and surprisingly light. With a wet weight of just 534 pounds for the standard Pan America 1250, it’s 15 pounds lighter than an R 1250 GS and 5 pounds heavier than a Multistrada V4. Right where it needs to be!

The Revolution Max engine is a water-cooled 1252cc dual-spark V-twin with a 30-degree offset firing order, giving it the tractability and more even pulses to the rear wheel which are important in off-road riding. Unlike Harley’s big-boy aircooled engines, this one is fully balanced inside the case with both side-to-side balancing as well as fore-and-aft. The balancers are tuned to retain just enough vibration to make the bike feel “alive” as Harley puts it. The balancers work really well, as this is the smoothest powertrain Harley offers this side of the LiveWire. All of this is tied to an equally smooth 6-speed gearbox housed in a common casting with the engine.

I know it’s something of a point of contention, but I really like the aesthetic choices Harley’s designers made for the Pan America. Harley didn’t want to follow the traditional “beak” design, the current trend in this segment. With a big bold Bar and Shield logo across both the fairing and the tank, it looks uniquely H-D. The fairing, by the way, is inspired by the shape of the (admittedly much larger) fairing on Harley’s iconic Road Glide model. For this reason alone, I have taken to calling the Pan America by a new name, Off-Road Glide. Everything in the ADV segment is ugly — I’ve said this before — but Harley bucks the trend here.

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Image: Bradley Brownell

The fuel tank is a 5.6 gallon all-aluminum affair. Harley says it learned a process pioneered by Tesla for its blow-molded aluminum tank halves. The halves are welded down the middle, which explains the plastic cover running down the tank. This piece very much reminded me of the old two-piece tanks Harley used on shovelheads back in the day. A very neat piece of throwback that really works in this instance.

While this isn’t the first bike from the folks in orange to offer a full suite of rider safety electronics (Harley’s branded Reflex Defensive Rider System was introduced on the LiveWire and H-D’s touring lineup in 2020), it is a totally new system specific to this motorcycle. Like everything else in this segment, this system includes cornering-sensitive linked brakes, ABS, traction control, a slip-control system and hill-hold functionality. While it doesn’t have the blind-spot monitoring, radar cruise and quick shifter of the Multistrada V4S, that’s also a $24,000 bike and much more road-focused than the Harley.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

The Pan America also offers adaptive suspension on the Special models, with semi-active preload adjustment to keep your ride at 30 percent sag, no matter what you put in your cases and who is riding pillion. From there, it’s adjustable to sport, road, rain, off-road, and off-road plus modes. That system is incredibly good at keeping things under control, adjusting things in the blink of an eye. If you order a Special, you can also choose to equip it with adjustable ride height, enabling the bike to lower as much as two inches as it comes to a stop. This is a must for shorter-legged riders; it let me flat-foot on both sides of the bike at a stop without sacrificing ride height when the pavement fades to sand and gravel.

This is a huge departure for Harley, and that’s shown in the details of the Pan America. The bike has a chain drive rather than the Motor Company’s traditional rubber belt drive, because chains are easier to repair in the field. This engine also has a 9,500 rpm redline, which is huge for a Harley product. And maybe the biggest change is seen in the Pan America’s turn signal controls, now housed within a single button on the left handlebar rather than a signal button on each side that Harley has typically used.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

The Pan America is a huge change for the brand, but one that its engineers have really given their all. For all the shit talk directed at the brand, its engineers are still brilliant, and they have put together a world-class bike in a new-to-Harley segment.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

The Ride

For this two-day event, we spent the entire first day running off-road riding drills led by the instructors at RawHyde. I’ll have another blog about that experience soon, but for now just know that it was a great learning experience, it was hot and it kicked my ass — but I didn’t fall and I didn’t fail. At slow speeds in the loose stuff, the Pan America is extremely competent, especially with the optional tubeless lace wheels and Michelin Anakee Wild off-road tires.

The second day was much more road-focused, taking us out of Mojave on Highway 58 between the 14 and the 5 (and more California highway system jargon) to run up the Caliente Bodfish road, which is a great twisting mountain jam. We had our choice of wheels and tires for the second day, and despite knowing the day ended with several miles of washed-out dirt switchbacks, I chose to rock the OEM-fitment Michelin Scorcher tires specific to the Pan America. These don’t have blocky tread, instead offering improved road performance at a marginal loss of off-road competence. Even still, the dirt segment was handled with ease on these tires.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

I’m a big guy at 6-foot-2, but I have a relatively short inseam at 30 inches. With a tall torso, I definitely needed the aftermarket accessory handlebar risers equipped in order to be comfortable both sitting while on paved road and standing on the pegs on dirt. That riser moves the bars up and back by two inches. One of the great things about this bike is that it offers so many different variables to make riders of pretty much any height fit well. In addition to the standard seat, Harley offers a shorter seat and a taller seat, all three of which fit into a low and high position on the bike.

On the paved stuff, this is a very comfortable and competent cruiser. It’ll lean over through the corners better than anything with this kind of all-day ride comfort should. Yes, a Multistrada would be faster on a curvy road, but only just, and I think the H-D might be the more comfortable steed. I’ll have to get on the Duc again soon to confirm that theory. Little details like fit and finish are much nicer on the Harley. For Harley to even be mentioned in the same breath as a stellar machine like the Multistrada is pretty telling, though. This is an excellent first effort for the Wisconsinites.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

Every time I swung a leg over the orange and white Special, the same thought crossed my mind: confidence-inspiring. I’m sure much of that was found with the RawHyde courses on day one, but by working together the bike and I made it across foreign terrain that would have spooked me a few days prior. On the road it rides like a tall sport bike with a great throaty, torquey motor. In the desert it rides like a heavy dirt bike. I even took it on a local dirt bike track for a few big-air moments.

Will It Send?

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Image: Harley-Davidson

Yes. It will send.

What Makes It A Special?

For both days of the event, I was riding a Pan America 1250 Special, which is the more expensive version of the motorcycle. Obviously the Special has its own colorways, including black, gray and Deadwood Green in addition to the hero color, which is the $350 extra Baja Orange over Stone White Pearl. That last one is really the only possible choice one could make when ordering one of these. Not only does it look positively badass on its own, but it’s an extra little raspberry blown in KTM’s direction. What did you think they meant when they said Ride Orange?

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Image: Harley-Davidson

The most important aspect of the Special is that electronically adjustable semi-active suspension. The components are still Showa-developed, but Harley developed its own software to operate the system. This system works by altering the damping front and rear according to a wide range of parameters, including lean angle, throttle application, load weight and more. With a sensor on the unsprung mass and another on the sprung weight of the bike, the distance between the two can be managed by adjusting the damping based on predetermined settings.

Where the standard Pan America can be equipped with only one custom ride mode depending on your personal preferences, the Pan America Special has room in its brain to store three distinctly different custom ride modes, on top of the five standard preprogrammed modes.

The Special can be ordered with optional tubeless spoke wheels (shown here) for $500. If you’re going to get serious about off-roading, you’ll want to order them.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

What’s Great

Aesthetically, this bike is killer. I love the unique magnesium engine cover which helps make the big V-twin a style statement piece. The tank is a great shape, the fairing is cool and the bike looks seriously purposeful.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

Above 4,000 rpm this engine sounds top notch. It’s throaty and booming enough that a traditional Harley rider would welcome it into the fold with open arms, but it’s not so vocal that it’s a nuisance on the road. It’s a good deep sound that fits the character of this bike.

Speaking of the engine, it’s powerful and makes for an exciting ride. The dual VVT means the engine really wakes up at high rpm without sacrificing the low-rpm torque needed for off-road maneuvers. However you want to ride it, the Pan America’s engine will oblige.

I really like that starting price in the $17,000 range, a good value not typically shown by Harleye. This price kind of splits the difference between the less expensive Japanese offerings and the more expensive Europeans, which is a great place for Harley to slot into, if you ask me.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

The Screamin’ Eagle titanium sport exhaust available for this bike sounds fantastic. The stock pipe is pretty good, but adding that lightweight piece to the rear really wakes it up without making it obnoxious.

What’s Weak

My biggest gripe with the Pan America is found in the windscreen, for a few reasons. First and foremost, it’s a flimsy thin plastic that bounces around at highway speeds. Being tall, I had the windshield extended as high as it would go, and I still found a whole lot of wind beating me about the head and neck.

The worst part here, however, is in the adjustment of the windscreen. It looks like it would be a one-handed adjustment with a little trigger on the left side of the bracket, but you need to pull that trigger with your left hand while pulling up on the screen with your right hand. It’s certainly not something that can be done at speed.

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Image: Bradley Brownell

While I definitely needed the handlebar risers for comfort purposes, they push the handlebars up to block the bottom of the TFT dashboard display. There’s nothing important displayed down there, but it’s still an annoyance.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

Harley said it moved its most frequently used buttons onto the faces of the handlebars, but over two days I didn’t really use any of them. Obviously I didn’t have the audio controls functional, because I went without audio for both days, so the visible buttons on the right were useless. The buttons on the left toggle through display options, and I pretty much just let that stay in the same mode both days, meaning I never really used those either. Meanwhile the ride modes button, ignition switch and cruise control switches were hidden up on top of the handlebar away from sight. I’m sure with time you’d get used to it, but I would have preferred these buttons in my line of sight.

With all of the trick suspension and off-roady bits, the price starts to balloon pretty quickly. Honestly, even fully loaded as-tested at around $22,000, it’s still pretty competitively priced with the full boat Euro models. I’m just bummed that I don’t really have $22,000 to spend on a new bike.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

Conclusion

In a world of beaky-looking ADV bikes, be the Off-Road Glide. The Pan America is an attractive bike with good approachability. With the adaptive ride height option ticked, you can option a stopped seat height of just 30 inches. That’s great for shorter riders who want to go on adventures. I never really wanted to spend this much time off road, but now that I have, I’m inclined to believe I should get an ADV bike for my excellent local Bureau of Land Management acreage. For my purposes, I’d probably still look for a smaller and cheaper bike to fit that role, but I honestly think the Pan America 1250 Special in orange and white would serve my needs quite well.

For those who believe this was too long, and didn’t read: It’s a pretty bike, it’s fun to ride, and I kinda’ want one.

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Image: Harley-Davidson

Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.

DISCUSSION

downwardmachine
The Downward Machine

In your article “What Do You Want To Know About The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250?”, I responded

Can it be repaired with metric tools?

What is its observed mileage and effective range?

Can you turn off the ABS on the rear wheel? And when you do, does it stay off after restarting the bike?

Does it have traction control modes? If so, are they simple and useful, or too complicated to bother with?

Are there any obvious vulnerable points to disable the bike on a fall?

Do you have to remove a bunch of stuff to get at simple maintenance things, like the oil plug? Would a mechanically inclined person be able to make short work of such tasks out in the field?

Is the seat easy to remove?

Are there any hidden compartments?

https://jalopnik.com/1846740186

You answered none of these questions.