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Let’s Talk About the New Indian Chieftain

Indian's bagger gets new fairing, riding modes, and rear cylinder deactivation feature

Indian Motorcycle announced this week it had changed the aesthetic of its flagship bagger, the Chieftain, and I can’t quite decide how I feel about the new look.

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The most obvious change comes in the bike’s fairing, with the Chieftain losing its streamliner-style weather protection for something a little more angular. A little more familiar…

There’s something familiar about the Chieftain’s new look…

When I first received Indian’s press release Wednesday I was in Thessaloniki, Greece, attending the European press ride for Harley’s FXDR (review coming early next week). I throw that bit of information in partly to explain why the site was so quiet this week (sorry) and to set up the fact I was sitting at the bar with Andy Hornsby of American V magazine. I opened up one of the press images on my phone and said to him: “Look, the new Street Glide.”

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Because, well, at first glance that’s kinda what I saw. I mean, you’ve got more angular fairing, that letterbox air vent, those boxy panniers, and the more modern sort-of two-person saddle, which Indian refers to as a “Rogue gunfighter seat.”

2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide
2019 Indian Chieftain

Look closely, though, and you will see some differences. In particular, the Chieftain’s headlight is still encased by the fairing, whereas the Street Glide’s headlight sort of “wears” the fairing. As I looked at it, I started to realize that rather than mimicking the Street Glide the new Chieftain gets its looks more so from a departed family member: the Victory Cross Country.

2016 Victory Cross Country

I mean, yeah. There’s a lot of Cross Country to be seen in the Chieftain now. So, uh, how do we feel about that, gang? Is this a smart move?

My own take is that I’m inclined to like the changes, but obviously I would say such a thing. I’m a big Indian fanboy and have gone on record naming the Chieftain as my dream bike. Before that, however, my dream machine was the Cross Country, and longtime readers will know I was also pretty big on Polaris’ now-departed homegrown motorcycle brand. So, yeah, of course a Chieftain with Cross Country styling cues is in my wheelhouse. And the more and more I think of it, the more it makes sense.

Within the rarified air of big twin cruisers/tourers it’s accepted truth that Victory bikes were actually quite good. The reason the brand failed was due primarily to lack of name recognition. When Victory rolled its first bike off the assembly line on 4 July 1998, it was 95 years behind Harley-Davidson in terms of capturing the hearts and minds of generations.

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Truth is, once Polaris acquired the Indian name in 2011 it should have shuttered Victory right then. There was no way the Victory name could hold up against the Indian name if the two were competing in the same arena. Had Victory immediately diverted and produced, say, the FTR 1200 we’ll be seeing in a few weeks, it might have survived – it might have made sense to keep putting resources into the brand – but that’s not what happened.

2019 Indian Chieftain. Sadly, it still appears to have a honking big antennae that extends further back than the bike.

From August 2013, when the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage, and Chieftain models were unveiled to the world at Sturgis, Victory was doomed. One of the reasons Polaris didn’t kill it immediately, though, was the fact it had one bike performing relatively well: the Cross Country. When Victory finally was shuttered in January 2017 it left something of a gap in the market – a small gap, arguably, but a gap nonetheless. The gap was in big twin cruiser/tourers with a modern aesthetic. Most of Harley’s bikes at the time harkened back to the 70s and earlier; Indian’s efforts spoke of a 1950s aesthetic.

Almost immediately Indian began to try to fill the gap with the cut fenders, sparkly paint and boosted stereos of the 2017 Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite, but there was still that old-school-styled fairing and even older-school seat.

The somewhat blacked-out engine of the new Chieftain is visually reminiscent of Victory’s Freedom 106 powerplant

It seems to me someone in Polaris is obsessed with the idea of having a motorcycling equivalent to American muscle cars. He/she/they seem to believe there is a space/desire in the market for a true two-wheeled version of the Ford Mustang. I’m pretty sure that belief was the driving force in the design of Victory’s Judge, Gunner, Cross Country, and Magnum models. This all-new Chieftain strikes me as a continuation of that philosophy.

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So, we can say its DNA is legit. If America’s motorcycle manufacturers were on stage for one of those Maury paternity test episodes, Maury would be turning to Polaris and saying: “You are the father!” It may immediately remind a person of the Street Glide, but the Chieftain is, in fact, an organic extension of what Polaris has been doing for quite some time.

2019 Indian Chieftain

So, again, is this a smart move? I’m inclined to say yes – you may disagree. If you do, Indian is keeping the old design for its Chieftain Classic (which also retains the “classic” valanced fender) and Roadmaster models. Which strikes me as a pretty clever move.

“As we continue to evolve the Indian Motorcycle brand, we want to expand our lineup with more aggressive style options, while still maintaining the availability of our more classic style options,” said Reid Wilson, senior director for Indian Motorcycle.

The Chieftain’s pannier used to be large enough to hold a Kriega US20 bag, water, and a baseball cap. Hopefully that hasn’t changed.

With two different fairing styles Indian has managed to catch up with Harley (Street Glide and Road Glide) and help the Roadmaster stand out a little more. One of my criticisms of that bike was the fact it felt it was just a Chieftain with full accessories; but going forward, the luxury tourer might feel a little more exclusive.

The Chieftain, Chieftain Dark Horse, and Chieftain Limited models all get the new styling. Confoundingly, the Chieftain Dark Horse is no longer a blacked-out, barebones model. Priced the same as the Chieftain elite, it’s available in Black Smoke, White Smoke, and Bronze Smoke color schemes. As best I can tell, the primary difference between the Chieftain Dark Horse and Chieftain Limited is chrome – the latter has lots, the former slightly less.

2019 Indian Chieftain Limited
2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse (No longer necessarily dark)

Whatever your flavor of Chieftain it will be equipped with the same three riding modes announced last month for the Roadmaster and Springfield models: Tour, Normal, and Sport. The rear cylinder deactivation feature announced for those models will also be a part of the Chieftain line-up going forward, as well as full LED lighting and new fork guards.

“Several enhancements have also been made to [the] stock audio system to significantly improve sound quality,” claims Indian in a media release. “First, the tweeters have been separated from the mid-range speakers to optimize sound output and clarity. Second, a dynamic equalizer that’s fully customizable now adjusts specific frequencies at different vehicle speeds to provide peak system performance at all times.”

All bikes in the Chieftain line-up come equipped with Indian’s commendable Ride Command infotainment system

If you want to spend money creating a mobile disco, Indian dedicated some 300 words of its press release to the subject, but I’m not going to. Ask a dealer about accessories. Or better yet, buy a Shoei Neotec II with the inbuilt Sena SRL system, connecting to your phone via Bluetooth – it’s cheaper, annoys your fellow road users less, and is easier to hear at high speed.

Pricing for the 2019 Chieftain begins at US $21,999 in Trumpistan. Prices here in Airstrip One have yet to be released.

2019 Indian Chieftain