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The Pan America 1250.

Harley-Davidson/Courtesy of manufacturer

Harley-Davidson laid almost all its cards on the table today with the launch of its all-new Pan America adventure-touring motorcycle. If this bike succeeds, it will be a breath of fresh air for the embattled company. If it fails, it’s back to Square One.

There will be two versions of the bike, both available in showrooms this spring: the Pan America 1250 lists for $20,999 and the Pan America 1250 Special lists for $24,199. This undercuts its chief competition, the BMW R1250 GS, which starts at $21,550 but rises quickly with options and a special 40-year-anniversary edition to $26,300.

At the heart of the new bike is an all-new 1,252 cc, liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-twin engine that makes an official 150 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque. Harley-Davidson doesn’t usually release horsepower figures, but this is probably its most powerful production unit so far. This engine will also power a street cruiser that will be announced soon.

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This is probably Harley-Davidson's most powerful production unit so far.

Courtesy of manufacturer

The Pan America’s engine is integrated into the bike as a stressed unit to replace the traditional frame, helping to bring the wet weight down to 242 kg (534 pounds) for the base bike and 254 kg (560 lbs) for the Special.

Both models are equipped with adjustable Showa shocks and Brembo brakes and loaded with technology, including LED lights, standard cruise control, touch screen instrumentation and at least four selectable drive modes that adjust the power delivery, engine braking, traction control and leaning ABS.

The Special includes heated grips, a centre stand, two more ride modes and electronically-adjustable suspension. It also offers an option of the Pan America’s party trick, a (so far) unique feature called Adaptive Ride Height, which automatically lowers the bike by up to five cm when it is stopped to make it easier to place both feet on the ground. The seat of the regular bike can be set to two different heights, with the lowest at 86.9 cm (34.2 inches), while the adaptive height will lower that to 83.1 cm.

The Pan America 1250 Special.

Harley-Davidson/Courtesy of manufacturer

The success of the Pan America is key to the success of Harley-Davidson because the American maker has so far been relying on its heavyweight cruisers and tourers, but the riders of those street machines are getting older and not being replaced with a younger generation. As well, the adventure-touring segment has grown hugely in popularity with the appeal of TV shows like Long Way Round, with Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman. The BMW GS bikes they rode in that show are now BMW’s biggest sellers.

In the motorcycle market, cruisers are like sedans while adventure-tourers are like SUVs, and their sales mirror their respective images: comfortable, sedate cars driven by your parents, compared to rugged, macho, go-anywhere vehicles driven by your stereotypical macho heroes.

“This is like a missing link,” says Brad Richards, Harley-Davidson’s VP of Styling and Design, in the video released Monday. “Frankly, we own the Grand American Touring market – we are the market … but we’ve got to start thinking about a new customer, too. This is something that should have been in our line-up, and all these things eventually came into place, and we eventually said yeah, let’s do this, man. We can absolutely own this.”

Sales of Harley-Davidson motorcycles were down 17 per cent last year compared to the year before, continuing a five-year decline. Revenue for 2020 dropped by a quarter over 2019.

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The success of the Pan America is key to the success of Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson/Courtesy of manufacturer

“Five years is a long time,” said Harley-Davidson’s CEO, Jochen Zeitz, to investment analysts earlier this month. “If you look at the past five years, we’ve never hit our numbers, and we’ve underperformed and overcommitted every single time, and that’s got to stop.”

Zeitz was introducing the company’s new five-year “Hardwire” plan. This replaces the ambitious “More Roads” plan of the previous long-term CEO, who was ousted last year. It’s already cut the number of models in the product line-up by about a third, closed dealerships, focused only on international markets that show current promise (shuttering a new factory in India in the process), and is ramping up the development of electric motorcycles.

“Our ambition is to enhance our position as the most desirable motorcycle brand in the world,” said Zeitz.

It will also concentrate on its most profitable models, which are large and luxurious touring bikes, cruisers, and the three-wheeled trikes that help older riders stay on the road. Smaller, more affordable motorcycles will be developed in partnership with other international bike makers, while its electric motorcycles will be split into a separate division.

Harley currently produces the Livewire electric motorcycle, which lists for $37,250 and is intended to herald an entire lineup of practical, urban motorcycles and electric bicycles.

Harley-Davidson/Courtesy of manufacturer

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