Bikes we love Test rides

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 – Ride Review

Harley's first attempt at adventure touring lives up to the hype

I’ll let you in on a secret: some of the folks at Harley grind their teeth when the Pan America 1250 is compared to BMW’s R 1250 GS. They shouldn’t. In a way, the comparison is a compliment. It’s also karma. 

For as long as I’ve been alive, Harley-Davidson has been the standard in the world of cruisers, defining the genre. Any manufacturer keen to swim in the genre’s big-money waters has to look at what Harley is doing and either replicate or improve upon it. Even then you aren’t guaranteed success, however, because if a person wants to buy a Harley he or she usually wants to buy a Harley.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250

Meanwhile, in the world of adventure touring, BMW’s boxer-twin GS has been king for more than 20 years – also having defined the genre. Its dominance hasn’t been quite as lopsided as Harley’s (Whereas most manufacturers have given up even trying to dig into the MoCo’s market share, I can think of only one that doesn’t offer an adventure machine; and that one exception – Indian – is rumored to be working on an FTR-derivative bike that may be revealed as early as this year) its influence has been undeniable. So, the fact that Harley’s first attempt finds itself being put head-to-head by reviewers should be seen as success.

I’ve had the chance to ride the Pan America a few times since its launch earlier this year, and I’ve ridden several iterations of the GS over the years – along with adventure machines from Moto Guzzi, Triumph, Ducati, Suzuki and Honda. I won’t claim to be an adventure bike expert but I think I have enough experience to be able to answer the question that all those comparisons are inherently asking: “Is the Pan America as good as a GS?” 

Yes. 

Or, no. 

The answer depends on what’s important to you. If you feel that what makes a GS good/great is the delightfully agricultural feel of its boxer twin, then why have you even read this far? If you want a boxer twin, get a boxer twin. Just as anyone who wants a Harley is wasting his or her time by looking at other brands, nothing else is going to make you happy. 

However, if you like the GS because it’s a rugged, comfortable, powerful, tech-loaded machine that’s capable of getting you to Tuktoyaktuk and back (Or, at least, perceived as such; in truth, reliability hasn’t been a GS strongpoint in recent years), then the Harley easily stands toe to toe. In my opinion, it even stands ahead in some aspects. Having ridden both the Pan America 1250 and Pan America 1250 Special in good weather and bad I will tell you honestly that if I had the money I would have already bought one.

SOME NUMBERS

Starting price: £14,000 (Standard) | £15,500 (Special)
Engine: 1252cc liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin with variable valve timing
Power: 150 horsepower
Torque: 128 Nm
Seat height: 868-894 mm (Standard) | 830-856 mm (Special)
Fuel capacity: 21 liters
Weight: 242 kg (Standard) | 253 kg (Special)

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

If you’ve only seen the Pan America in photos I encourage you to hunt one down and view it in person. In the flesh, it doesn’t look as silly. Photos make it look plasticky. This has been a problem for a few recent Harley models: their aesthetic is refined but not in a way that speaks to craftsmanship. Bikes like the Fat Bob, short-lived FXDR and new Sportster S look like they were designed and made by a machine that doesn’t give a damn about heritage or tradition or any of the other intangibles that make a Harley special.  

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250
It looks better in person

The same problem exists for the Pan America, though it’s less of an issue because adventure bikes are supposed to be ugly. The GS taught us that. Though, in trying to avoid flat-out copying the GS, Harley has avoided the enormous beak and severe lines that BMW has trained us to believe adventure bikes need. I respect that, and overall I think Harley’s done a good job of setting itself apart from the crowd. 

But I don’t find myself salivating over the Pan America. In a classic ’80s film about a dude working hard and getting his life together you wouldn’t have him gazing fondly at a picture of the Pan America as he tucks his day’s wages into a savings jar. It doesn’t look aspirational.

And even up close the engine still looks too plasticky. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to a Pan America and flicked its 1252cc Revolution Max V-twin engine to make sure it really is made of metal. 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Harley set out to make a modern adventure touring machine here and although there’s a part of me that wishes this looked more like a Harley I can’t really explain what I mean by that. And I can’t really decide if it would have actually been a good idea. Attempting to make the bike look “more like a Harley” might have resulted in something that was too gimmicky. 

There are two flavors of Pan America: the “standard” Pan America 1250, and the Pan America 1250 Special. But for paint schemes and a bit of plastic at the gas tank they look the same. The standard – the one I prefer – is taller (at the seat) by about 3 centimeters, roughly the height of a peanut.

In either guise the Pan America’s seat and ergonomics are all-day cozy for this 6-foot-1 rider. The ‘bars are just a teency bit wide for filtering through traffic but that’s an issue for every adventure bike. I can’t speak for passenger accommodation but certainly it’s the case that the seat is large enough for actual human beings – thankfully diverging from the Softail philosophy of making the passenger suffer, (presumably so they’ll get fed up and buy their own bike).

Like all adventure bikes the Pan America is a little ugly, but uniquely so

As is The Way Of Things on modern adventure bikes, the grips have more buttons than necessary – 26 by my count. Yes, you read that correctly: twenty-six buttons. Some are useful, but many are not. Falling into the latter category are the audio adjustment buttons on the right grip. There’s no stereo on this bike; the buttons exist on the assumption that you will: 
A) Want to listen to music while riding, even though it’s a distraction
B) Have music files on your phone (as opposed to using Spotify or the like) 
C) Be willing to install the Harley app on your phone 
D) Own a phone that plays nice with the Harley app (my Pixel 4 does not) 
E) Do all your riding in an area with good mobile signal (the Harley app gets confused otherwise) 
F) Own a Bluetooth-equipped helmet that plays nice with all the other variables

The truth is, connectivity on motorcycles is still more a nifty idea than consistent reality. Especially in this case; the potential points of failure here are too numerous to even try getting it to work. And why would you even want the bike to serve as middleman in all this, anyway? If you want to listen to music in your helmet, just use the helmet’s controls.

Meanwhile, I do like the Pan Am’s 6.8-inch TFT screen – if not simply for the fact it’s the first TFT set-up I’ve seen that doesn’t look like an afterthought. It looks like it actually belongs, like it was always a part of the design, rather than being a technology that was added at the last minute because that’s what all the cool kids are doing. Triumph and Yamaha are not able to say the same about their TFT displays.

Harley’s display also manages a special trick of simultaneously being unmissable and not distracting. Its spread of information is always there, easy to read, but the lighting/angle/positioning of the display means it doesn’t pull your eyes away from the road.

Like every Harley these days, the Pan Am has keyless ignition. Simply flick a switch on the right grip, wait for the TFT screen to boot up and press the starter. That second step – waiting for boot-up – is vital. The bike punishes impatience, occasionally refusing to turn over if you press the starter early. Then you have no choice but to turn the bike off and start over again. I’m guessing the overwhelming majority of riders will never notice or care about this quirk, but it’s one of those things that becomes annoying once you become aware of it.

ENGINE

Recently the United Kingdom announced that from 2035 it plans to ban motorcycles that aren’t zero-emission machines. A number of other countries have similar plans in the works. So, the Pan America’s liquid-cooled V-twin engine is notable not just in that it is an all-new powerplant from a company that tends to keep its engines in service for multiple decades, but in the fact that, as such, it could possibly be one of the last – if not the last – internal combustion platforms Harley ever produces.

The Pan America has a confidence-inspiring low center of gravity and manages to feel more like a middleweight machine than a big ADV beast

I should point out that I have no idea what the MoCo’s plans are. My short-lived career in H-D’s PR team gave me a tiny bit of insider knowledge but not nearly as much as you might think. Largely, the ways of the MoCo are as much a mystery to me as to you (I mean, the LiveWire brand split. Why?? How does that do anything other than create problems for LiveWire and Harley??). But if these are indeed the final years of petrol-engined Harleys, the Pan Am’s Revolution Max powerplant is a hell of a way to go out.

It’s a thoroughly modern engine. That, as with the bike’s looks, may raise some eyebrows amongst old men and traditionalists. A few riders have lamented that the Pan America doesn’t quite feel like a Harley. I get what they’re saying. The Pan Am’s 60-degree twin doesn’t shake and sputter or give the feeling of sitting on a living, dangerous thing – as one might feel about, say, the Twin Cam or Evolution engines. But, you know, those weren’t engines that you would actually want in an adventure-touring machine. I mean, the Twin Cam sucked at doing much more than looking/sounding cool in urban situations. The Revolution Max is a big-boy engine for the big-boy world. 

And as with the criticisms of the Pan America’s look, it’s hard to imagine exactly how you would make this bike feel “more like a Harley” without it being a gimmick. So, members of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson should try to block out the fact that it’s a Harley engine and focus simply on the fact that it is a good engine. A really good engine. 

Producing a claimed 150 horsepower and 128 Newton meters of torque (More than on the new Sportster S, by the way, but at higher revs), it is the most powerful stock engine H-D’s ever offered. That’s not to say it’s completely devoid of Harley characteristics; it may feel ready and willing to do batshit crazy things, but it also feels like it will hold up for a really long time. Expect to see these bikes trundling on for many decades after petrol engine bans have been implemented.

The standard Pan America 1250 has five riding modes: Sport, Road, Rain, Off-Road and a custom mode. On the Special you get two more: Off-Road Plus and an additional custom mode. Somewhat uniquely in the motorcycling world, Harley has equipped the Pan America with riding modes that are actually different. Usually you need princess-and-the-pea sensitivity to spot the changes in a bike’s riding modes but here Road genuinely feels different from Sport, which genuinely feels different from Rain, and so on. I like this.

I suspect the majority of owners will spend their time switching between Road and Sport. In both cases, throttle response is smooth and overall performance is tractable. There’s definite punch when cracking the throttle in Sport but not the snatchy feel of, say, Sport mode on the BMW F 900 XR. It’s playful, not erratic, and makes me wish I knew how to wheelie. It is so tractable that some owners might choose to keep their bikes in Sport most of the time, growing addicted to easy, no-think overtakes and slingshot acceleration out of corners.

TECHNOWHIZZBANGERY AND FEATURES

In addition to being the most powerful production motorcycle Harley has ever made, the Pan America is also the most technologically advanced – to such an extent that I get a little bored in thinking about it. 

Let’s start with the stuff I find useful. Cruise control is standard on both versions. You also get a bevvy of rider aids like cornering linked braking, cornering ABS, cornering traction control and hill hold control. Semi-automatic suspension serves as the primary difference between the standard and Special versions, that feature is necessary for Harley’s much ballyhooed (and optional) Adaptive Ride Height system.

If it were my money on the line I’d be choosing the standard version over the Special

You’ve probably heard about ARH; it magically and imperceptibly lowers the bike’s ride height by up to 5 cm at stops, ostensibly making adventure riding accessible to those who are shorter of leg. I’m not being superfluous in describing it as magic and imperceptible. For the most part the only way to know the system is working is to swing your feet around when the bike is moving: the ground is further away than it was when you were at a stop. But you never feel the bike moving up or down. It’s almost creepy.

As a taller rider I’m not able to manifest a great deal of excitement for ARH. I don’t need it, so it feels like it’s something I’d have to worry about breaking and costing a ton of money to fix. I’ve met a few folks who have loved it, but I’d still save money and stick to the standard version.

As I say, semi-automatic suspension (and, by extension, the ability to have ARH) is the biggest difference between the standard and Special, but there are others. The smallest and stupidest difference is the presence of an ambient temperature readout; you don’t get one on the standard. And unlike the Special’s heated grips and center stand it’s not available as an accessory. 

I mean, not that you’d really care. For the most part, ambient temperature gauges on motorcycles are inaccurate and unnecessary (You’re outside – you know whether you’re hot or cold). But how cynical and money-grubbing is it that someone at Harley made a conscious decision to not have it? Someone told the software team to leave that feature out of the standard’s operating system. 

It’s a tiny thing and it doesn’t matter and most will never notice or care and it will have zero effect on your enjoyment of what is largely a fantastic bike. But I can’t help being annoyed on principle.

While I’m bitching, I’ll also mention the Pan America’s utterly pointless “Tip-Over Alert” feature. If you drop the bike, the bike will tell you that you’ve dropped the bike; a big orange alert message on the TFT screen that says: “BIKE HAS BEEN TIPPED.” 

Who needs this? Who wants this? If your observational skills are so poor that you can’t identify when a motorcycle is upright you really, really, really should not be riding. Or driving. Or riding a bicycle. Or, in fact, doing anything unaccompanied. 

Honestly, I cannot think of a plausible scenario in which Tip-Over Alert would be useful, necessary or convenient. It is so wildly useless that I have become convinced it is, in fact, just Harley trolling its riders. If that is the case, I kind of respect the move. It is, of course, a factory feature on both the standard and Special. 

ON ROAD PERFORMANCE

You may have noticed that all my criticisms of the Pan America are trifling – stuff that is either personal opinion or doesn’t really matter. This is because Harley gets the important stuff so, so right. The bike is arguably the nimblest of the big adventure bike category, managing to feel more like a middleweight machine. This helps with confidence on slick roads and gives you more ambition on dry ones.

With a claimed 150 hp on tap, the Pan America has no problem achieving and maintaining autobahn speeds. On British motorways, cruising at about 80 mph, it is rock steady. Iron Butt riders in the United States will find themselves almost disappointed at how this bike takes the challenge out of long distances. A finicky rider might want for slightly better wind protection from the easy-to-adjust three-position windscreen but I didn’t find it to be particularly noisy or turbulent. I’m willing to bet Harley already offers an alternative in its voluminous accessories catalog and the aftermarket can’t be too far behind.

This thing was seemingly built for twisting Welsh roads

On curving A-roads the Pan America is a joy, happily taking on fast corners and twisty runs. It is most engaging in Sport mode, of course, which allows you to roar out of corners and dance around any slow-poke drivers with whom you’re sharing the road. It feels light and is so incredibly stable and well-balanced. I am not the ballsiest of riders but I found myself willing to play around on this bike – I felt relaxed, felt I could trust the bike to do what I wanted it to do.

At urban speeds the Pan America is equally stable and well-equipped. The aforementioned widish ‘bars challenge your ability to squeeze through particularly narrow traffic gaps, but if you’re really choosing bikes based on the ability to maneuver between buses you should probably be looking at scooters instead.

At really, really, really slow speeds – navigating a parking lot full of old people and children, perhaps –  I will concede that the R 1250 GS is a tiny bit easier to ride. I’m being pretty nitpicky there. Most road riders won’t notice or care.

OFF ROAD PERFORMANCE

With every year that passes I dislike more and more the idea of riding off road. Or, at least, I dislike the idea of riding an enormous, expensive bike off road. It’s just stupid. It’s like using a jet-ski to cross an ocean, or going camping in a semi truck. These are not the right tools for the job. Possibly a large part of my feeling that way is rooted in my tendency to crash big bikes off road but it’s a chicken-or-the-egg sort of thing: do I think big bikes off road are stupid because I crash a lot, or do I crash a lot because big bikes off road are stupid?

Anyway, point is: I may not be the most reliable when it comes to reviewing the Pan America’s off-road chops. People whose opinion I trust, eg, Ryan Adams of Motorcycle.com, tell me that it is surprisingly legitimate, so be sure to check out his opinions, too.

Maintaining my near-perfect record of crashing big bikes off road

For my part, I’ll admit I wasn’t in love with the Harley. I mentioned above that the Pan America isn’t as easy to ride really, really, really slowly as the R 1250 GS. It’s off road where this truly comes into play. The BMW has a certain tractor quality that a terrified soul like me prefers in no-pavement conditions. It has the ability to absolutely creep through uncertain terrain, whereas you need to maintain an oh-so-slightly higher speed to keep the Pan America upright. 

Good off-road riders won’t care – they’re happy to move well in excess of the necessary speed – but good off-road riders probably aren’t going to be taking a Pan America off road because, as good off-road riders, they know that enormous bikes aren’t the best choice off road. 

Outside of that, though, the Pan America’s excellent balance plays to its favor in the dirt. On a fire road or anywhere else where you’re not trying to dance around boulders or trees, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. 

Meanwhile, as far as crashing is concerned: I have mentioned the infuriating “BIKE HAS BEEN TIPPED” message, and the fact that you have to shut off the bike and wait for it to reboot after stalling. Those are annoying. But, otherwise, the bike takes a (light) drop well. 

I binned it on some rocks and watched a handful of influencers do the same without any real damage occurring – a scratch here, a ding there. I was working for H-D at the time, so I know that the same bikes were shipped to the Adventure Bike Rider Festival without needing more than a good clean. They then spent several days being ridden hard and dropped often by the public, with the biggest casualty being a coolant hose that came loose.

VERDICT

Many of the reviews I’ve seen have spent a lot of time beating the dead horse of Harley stereotypes and questioning whether Harley belongs in the adventure game. For my part – and as I have also said about Indian – my only question is why they hadn’t entered this game earlier. 

To me, the spirit of the adventure tourer is 100-percent in alignment with the Harley ethos of riding really far. For the Boomer generation, that was interpreted as riding really far on highways (or, as the generation has aged, looking like you could ride really far), but Harley riders before them were doing all kinds of wonderfully stupid shit with their bikes. I’m sure you’ve seen the black and white photos. So, if anything, the Pan America is a return to form.

Worth the money. Deserving of the hype

This bike is one of those rare, beautiful examples of a manufacturer actually understanding what it’s good at and delivering. It may not look, sound or feel like the Harley-Davidson your grandad would know but it very much belongs in the company’s stable.

Put the brand name aside and you’re left with an excellent motorcycle that holds its own against all contenders in a crowded segment. In some cases – against the Triumph Tiger 1200, in particular – it is so much better that you almost feel badly for the competition. In other cases – against the R 1250 GS, for example – you’re largely just splitting hairs. 

Pricewise, the Pan America is, surprisingly, one of the most affordable of the segment, especially if you choose the standard. Frustratingly for Harley, only the base model GS comes in as a better buy – costing £375 less. No cruise control on that one, though. Or Tip-Over Alert… 

THE THREE QUESTIONS

Does the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 fit my current lifestyle?
Well, let’s see… I like being happy. I like giggling in my helmet. I like riding to far away places and not being in pain. Yeah, I’d say the Pan America is a perfect fit. Capable of doing everything I want a bike to do, as well as some stuff that I don’t care that much about (off road), competitively priced and carrying an iconic name – what’s not to love?

Does the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 put a smile on my face?
Without a doubt. When I first rode the bike I could not get myself to shut up about how good it was. At the time it was kind of my job to hype the thing but even so I was being over the top. I remember being particularly delighted at the fact that all the superlative copy I’d written about the thing had been the truth. It really was as good a motorcycle as I had been saying it would be. If anything, all the advertisements and social copy I’d written had undersold just how good it is.

Is the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 better than my current bike, a 2006 Honda CBF1000? 
Bwahahahaahahahaha! My Honda doesn’t make fun of me if I drop it, but that’s about it. The Harley wins in style, power, torque, character, tech, comfort, usability, desirability, aftermarket options, resale value, ease of maintenance, practicality, environmental compliance and countless intangibles. It’s better in pretty much every way that a motorcycle can be better.

GEAR

HELMET: HJC RPHA 70
JACKET: Bering Norris
PANTS: Some old Hein Gericke leather jeans I bought off eBay for £5 because I had a weird moment of thinking they’d look cool with adventure boots.
GLOVES: Klim Adventure
BOOTS: Forma Adventure