Test rides

2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire – First Ride

Harley's first electric effort pushes all the right buttons and moves the game forward

I’ve ridden a fair few electric bikes now and the actual riding of the things never gets any less weird, even though, at the same time, they are the absolute, complete and utter definition of user friendliness. If anything, riding a conventional “box of exploded bits” bike should be weird; there are five primary things to control with two hands and two feet. But I, presumably like you, have spent so many miles enveloped in that conventional experience – juggling gears, revs and bite points – that when something easy and intuitive comes along, it’s that which feels weird.

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Electric bikes are great, and, I’ve no shame in saying that I 1000-percent like them. And ditto I’ve no shame in saying I’m really glad the Motor Co. has followed through and built the LiveWire. It would have been too easy to shelve it, to throw it back in the shed and carry on being Harley-Davidson, but it didn’t. It actually went and built it, and as of right now you can march into a dealer (12 UK, 250 worldwide… so far) and buy one. You can take it back for servicing, and do all of the stuff you can do with basically any other mainstream bike. Well, except strip it down and modify the heck out of it, because you might accidentally fry yourself (so don’t do that). But, the fact is, Harley have built a properly modern, properly purposeful, properly thought-out bike… it just happens to be an electric bike at the same time. And that’s how it should be, really, if electric things are going to become normal.

A properly thought-out bike

You can even talk about the LiveWire like it’s a “real” bike. It’s got 105 horsepower and a stupid amount of torque (116 Nm). It’s got all the toys anyone would expect to find on a bike built in 2019, like cornering ABS, traction control, anti-rear-wheel-lift and anti-rear-wheel-slip. It’s got a TFT dash, one that you can actually use via touch just like you would your mobile phone, as well as via handlebar controls, and it’s got fully adjustable big-piston Showa forks as well as a fully adjustable Showa rear shock unit. It’s got a dual-disc Brembo brake setup, and a USB charging socket. You can customise the riding modes, sync your smart phone, use cruise control, and blah blah blah de blah. It’s all there, it doesn’t want for anything.

If you’d overheard someone reeling all that off at your local bike meet, there’s only one thing in all of that which would tip you off to the fact we’re talking about an electric bike, rather than, say, a Ducati Monster or an Aprilia Tuono V4 1100. That would be the anti rear-wheel slip, which kicks in when the regenerative braking system is adding so much resistance that the rear tyre starts to lose traction (which would be bad). Furthermore, you’d basically never guess you were overhearing a conversation about a Harley. When’s the last time you saw a Harley and the words Showa, Brembo, TFT, cornering ABS, etc, all in the same sentence? Yeah, never.

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You get the point: the LiveWire’s simply not a gimmick or a toy. It’ll charge to 80 percent in 30 minutes on one of the super-fast DC chargers and to 100 percent in an hour, or overnight from a standard household outlet. On that, it’ll do about 100 miles of combined urban and rural riding. You’ll get way less if you ride it like an absolute dickhead – as I and all the other journos did – and it’ll do way more (about 140 miles) if you’re only riding around a city doing an average of 20-30mph or so.

To ride, it’s electric, so it’s a bit weird, just as I was saying. As you pull away from a red light or out of a side road, you do that thing where you get to about 20mph and your hand momentarily reaches for a clutch lever that doesn’t exist, your foot flinches before your brain kicks in and says: “Oh, haha, nope.”

Harley puts its motor on full display

It doesn’t make any noise when it’s stationary, and there’s a constant need to remind yourself not to try to rev it back to life it at the lights, until you get used to its little “heartbeat” feature, that is. At a stop, the LiveWire’s motor pulses gently, like a heartbeat’s “lub-dub,” which injects a bit of personality and helpfully reminds you that the bike isn’t dead. Around town it’s simply a pleasure: no noise, no heat, no pressure to keep air moving over you. The throttle’s buttery smooth, telepathically predicable and really responsive when you need it to be.

Out in the twisties, it’s nothing short of entertaining. Ridden within appropriate bounds, it turns well, brakes well and goes like shit off a shovel. Harley claim 0-60 in 3 seconds and 60-80 in two, and my backside dynamometer/cranial chronometer agreed with both of those claims. It is stupid, stupid fast. And since there’s only wind noise, it’s all too easy to look down and realise you’re way over the limit. It’ll happily pop a wheelie, and the noise it makes is actually pretty decent – although not “thrilling turbine” stuff as all the marketing material claims. It’s an electric whirry noise, and a bit more grinds-metallic than a Zero or Energica.

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If you really ride it like you’re after a stint in the gaol you’ll keep up with basically every other bike out there except the absolute nuttiest of nutters on a 1000cc naked. It’s fast enough to scare you, and things only start to get a bit worrying when the pace is quick enough for the lengthy wheelbase (1490 mm) to have a greater say in things, resulting in a fight into every corner. But, frankly, it goes really, really well – whoops, hollers, grins, laughs, the lot. Proper fun. I’d change the Michelin tyres, though.

On the LiveWire, it’s the small things that I really like, the nuanced things that you get attached to on a bike. The things other electric manufacturers simply haven’t even thought of: the kind of stuff Harley have had more than a century to figure out. I like the pulse when the LiveWire’s not moving, and I like the fact the motor’s on display – just like Harley’s conventional bikes – rather than hidden away behind the battery somewhere. I also love that the fuel cap has a bit of added theatre: it’s where you charge it, which is way better than having to awkwardly flip the seat up or plug a kettle lead into the rear-set area, which just looks dorkish. These things do actually make an otherwise fairly lifeless machine into something a bit more.

Proper fun

But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s nowhere near as exciting to ride as something like a Yamaha MT-10, or even something a bit more normal. Yeah, the heartbeat thing is cool but it still has none of the theatre or occasion of an internal combustion engine. You’d have to be mad to try to cross a continent on one, or do anything but a fairly short local loop or predictable commute. Anything more would require a fair amount of planning. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but…

Sales of gas-powered bikes are not going to plummet overnight now that the LiveWire is here. It’s not going to solve our environmental problems, either. And it costs £28,995, for crying out loud. You could buy two epic petrol-powered bikes and have enough left over to fuel and insure them for a year for that much. Harley says its target audience is moneyed youngsters living in cities, and I’d say that’s probably more right than it is wrong, but I suspect there’s not nearly as many of those people out there as Harley might be hoping for.

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Thing is, precisely none of that matters. It’s inconsequential. And it also doesn’t matter that, if ridden badly enough, it’ll only do about 60-70 miles on a charge (because a Panigale V4 or any other badass superbike will also only do about 70 miles on a tank if ridden the same way; trust me, I know). What matters is Harley-Davidson, of all brands, has just set the benchmark. And not only a benchmark on the bike itself, but a benchmark on the infrastructure surrounding the bike. For that, it deserves huge praise. Now all the others will follow.

Is BMW Motorrad doing things with motors and batteries besides the C-Evolution? Of course it is. Just over the mountains, Ducati will be tinkering, too. You’d have to be an utter fool to think it isn’t. All the marketing bullshit is being written right now. Zero, Energica? What they’re doing is cool, too, but the small things are where Harley has just taught everyone a big lesson, and it’s smashed the others with 250 dealers to boot.

Harley-Davidson has set the benchmark

Electric biking wasn’t and isn’t ever going to be as completely badass as the high octane equivalent. But if it’s at least as good as the LiveWire, we’ll all be just fine. If I had to take the LiveWire on my four-mile commute across London, or take, say, a Royal Enfield Continental GT, I’d take the LiveWire. Every. Single. Time.

Rider Stats

Rider: Jake Barnes, aka Randle McMurphy
Height: 5 feet 9 inches
IQ: Room temperature
Dietary Requirements: 50hz 230v AC

Helmet: Hedon Heroine Racer
Jacket: Harley-Davidson 115th Anniversary
Jeans: Furygan D30 Steed
Gloves: Racer High Racer
Boots: Dainese Axial D1

2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire