There are few weightier names in motorcycling than Chief. If ever there were a Mustang or Corvette of the two-wheel world, I’d say, this may be it. It’s a name that has been through highs and lows: In the roaring ’20s, it was the height of performance and style for Indian. One hundred years on, the one-size-bigger-than-Scout is back for another go-round. There is a lot of motorcycling history to that name, and Polaris, the parent and savior of Indian Motorcycle, knows it had better get it right.
Indian’s director of product design, a Swedish genius by the name of Ola Stenegärd, knew that an all-around update of the iconic Chief nameplate would have to really bring the heat for it to be taken seriously. The heavyweight cruiser market has been the domain of Harley-Davidson’s Softail for ages, and it would take something truly special to give the Motor Company anything to worry about. In both substance and style, this is that bike.
(Full Disclosure: Indian invited me to beautiful but chilly Sedona, Arizona, to test the brand new Chief motorcycle. I paid for my own travel, riding to the event on a loaner motorcycle rather than flying, though Indian did put me up in a nice hotel for two nights and a glamping tent in a mining ghost town for one night. And fed me good food.)
Indian identified a gap in its lineup between the strong-selling Scout and the large-and-in-charge Chieftain/Springfield/Challenger lineup of baggers. If someone outgrowing a Scout is looking to go on longer rides or seeking more comfort, or wanting more power, there’s a pretty big jump in price and size and weight to the large-scale baggers. The Chief is a smidge longer than the Scout and a couple of hundred pounds lighter than the big baggers, giving it a more approachable ride but without giving up all-day comfort.
Indian and Stenegärd identified three distinct aesthetics for a large cruiser — a ’50s dresser, a ’60s hot rod, and a ’70s bobber — and launched the new Chief with all three looks: the Super Chief, the Chief and the Chief Bobber, respectively.
Coincidentally, those three looks are available as direct corollaries in the H-D stable as the Heritage Classic, the Fat Bob 114 and the Low Rider S. Indian wants to snag a piece of Harley’s market share, and it has aimed squarely at Milwaukee’s bread-and-butter bikes. If you’re coming for the king of the road, you’d better not miss. Indian hit the nail on the head.
The team behind the Chief said that the focus was put on style, power and technology, in that order. Being the style-first brand isn’t a bad thing, because it sure as heck sells bikes. The Scout Bobber is a bike so uncomfortable that it feels nearly impossible to keep riding more than 30 minutes, but it outsells the more comfortable Scout by a wide margin purely by dint of its badassery. Indian could have put the focus on making the Chief a better bike, but that would cost more and sell less. By making the Chief a stylish bike, it has the best chance of bringing buyers to the dealership.
Indian’s choice of engines for big cruisers is hardly limited, in that it currently builds large displacement V-twin engines in the liquid-cooled PowerPlus and the air-cooled Thunderstroke. Highly successful bikes like the Scout and Challenger are liquid-cooled as tech-forward bikes for a new age.
For the Chief, however, Indian went full throwback with the air-and-oil dependent Thunderstroke engine in both 111-inch and 116-cube displacements. Base models across the lineup get the smaller engine of the two with 108 lb-ft of torque, while the higher-spec Chief Dark Horse, Chief Bobber Dark Horse, and Super Chief Limited models receive 120 lb-ft from the bigger twin.
The gorgeous high desert and mountain roads around Sedona, Arizona, are lovely any time of the year. Despite the bitter cold of an early spring and the threat of wet weather, Indian decided to host the important launch of perhaps its most important new bike here. For two days the group rode some of the best routes in the country, laying eyes on some of the most beautiful red rock vistas the American Southwest has to offer. As a Nevadan, I am most certainly an apologist for rocky terrain, but if you visit the Sonoran region and aren’t blown away by the views, there has to be something wrong with you. It was worth a few hundred miles of chilly fingertips to see what we saw from behind the handlebars.
If ever there were a bike more suited to the environment, I can’t really think of what it might be. A large-scale American V-twin cruiser is basically a distillation of the wide-open expanses of the American Southwest. Roll up a Mexican blanket on the back and any of these Chief models would instantly look the part of a decades-old grizzled veteran patrolling the windswept wastes. It’s maybe the perfect bike for the area, and maybe the perfect area for the bike. If you want to cosplay as a modern steel horse cowboy, and trust me you do, this is your bike.
On the first day I hopped aboard the Chief Bobber Dark Horse to enjoy a high-bars and forward controls riding experience. The route took us southwest out of Sedona with a magnificent blend of wide-open range and twisting mountain passes. We rode up to elevations over 7,000 feet above sea level, and wound down out into vast open desert on AZ-89, sliding down the face of Granite Mountain in a roaring unison.
We ended our evening in an old mining ghost town where temperatures comparatively soared into the high 70s. This was a welcome change from the 30s we had seen earlier in the day. Elevation is a hell of a thing. Down into the desert, we’d been given individual canvas tents with heaters and comfortable queen-size beds. There was no internet, but there was a big fire ring and as much booze as we could drink.
This is the kind of adventure that these bikes were built for. Nearly everyone who buys a Chief romanticizes spending two full days riding with a pack of bike-passionate pals on some of the best roads in the country, eating great food and positively burning it down at the end of the day, only to stumble into bed exhausted with a smile on your face. That’s the life that a bike like this inspires.
Between the booze, the dry desert air, the campfire smoke and riding the whole previous day, I woke up in camp the next day with a hellacious hangover and the worst case of cottonmouth. I quickly downed a coffee, three glasses of orange juice and two bottles of water in preparation for the day’s ride. I’m old enough that a hangover is enough to wreck my day, but not so old that I’m not going to climb back on that horse and do it all over again.
I was handed the keys to a Chief Dark Horse with low handlebars and mid-controls. While I had enjoyed an affair with the cruiser aesthetics of the Bobber the prior day, this bike was much more my speed, with aggressive forward-leaning ergonomics and my feet under me. The second day’s route took us back the way we had come, and I was ready for it with more control. I was in attack formation.
To the uninitiated looking at a bike like this, you might think it as comfortable as a sofa floating down the interstate. In all guises, the Chief is stiffly sprung and sporty. It’s a responsive bike that rides much lighter than its 670 pounds might suggest.
The higher-spec Dark Horse and Limited models receive a magnificent new four-inch round gauge display. It does a lot of heavy lifting on this bike, making a throwback design feel modern enough. It’s an attractive display with lots of options to make your ride easier, and comes with a nice USB charger to keep your phone juiced up.
I’m not a loud-pipes-save-lives guy, but Indian’s dealer-add-on Stage 1 slip-on mufflers sound phenomenal. The deep baritone of this big-displacement engine is great in stock form, but give it a bit more bap-bap-bap with this exhaust and it sounds even better. If you don’t mind a loud bike, consider getting this setup for your Chief.
Unlike the Scout, the Chief is actually comfortable enough to ride all day. With forward controls you might have some discomfort toward the end of the day, but if you have mid-controls you pull some of that weight off of your tailbone which helps a lot. You’ll still want to get off and stretch every couple of hours, but it’s possible to ride long distances on this thing.
Aesthetically, it’s pretty great. With a mix of old-school vibes, there is a version of this bike for every type of cruiser rider. Personally, I’m not a chrome and leather kind of guy, but if you are, the Super Chief is great. I don’t really love hanger handlebars, so I’m not really a Bobber guy either. The standard Chief, however, is my Goldilocks bike of the lineup.
The Thunderstroke 116 engine is a wonderful piece of air-cooled tech. With 120 lb-ft of torque, there is plenty of grunt on tap here for anyone willing to dip into it. It’s a big bike, but it’s also surprisingly quick.
All of the touring accessories you might want for your Chief — like any of three available windscreen sizes, or leather saddlebags — are easily detachable. The idea here is that you can ride a long distance, like an old board tracker or beach racer might, and then take everything off to race around for the weekend before putting it all back on for the ride home. It’s a nice touch.
In sport mode, the bike’s throttle is a little too jumpy for around town use, but it’s great for aggressive mountain road riding. I found comfort mode too docile for any situation and spent most of my riding time in standard mode. I don’t know if anyone would have complained if this bike were released with just one throttle map and ditched the expense of engineering the other two.
Speaking of expense, the Chief can get pretty costly. The top-of-the-line Super Chief Limited will cost a whopping $20,999. That said, the Chief lineup is pretty much locked on to Harley’s pricing structure for competitive versions, so they’ll probably sell at these prices. The base Chief 111 seems like a pretty decent deal at $14,499, though.
As always, I wish Indian would equip some of its bikes with heated grips from the factory. I know it is a dealer add-on available for pretty much everything the company sells, but it really makes sense to include it on something like a Super Chief without having to suffer the inconvenience of getting it tacked on later.
Maybe this is a positive for some people, but it’s pretty easy to scrape your foot pegs while leaned over in a corner. With a decent amount of grip and especially with the more aggressive ergonomics of the standard Chief, you can carry a lot of speed through the corners, but with the low and wide stance of the foot pegs you’re held back a little.
My personal spec would be a Chief Dark Horse, which starts at $16,999, as the extra power of the 116 engine and the advanced infotainment of the four-inch round touchscreen display is worth the extra cash. The bike looks exquisite in Stealth Gray, which is going to cost another $500. I’d probably have to get the Stage 1 exhaust with slash-cut tips for another $950 and the short quick-release windshield for $479.
Is this bike worth just shy of 19 grand? Find an open piece of road and find out for yourself. I’m going to go with “yes.”