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The LiveWire is Harley-Davidson's first electric motorcycle.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

The quiet revolution has come to motorcycling. And manufacturers are hoping the gentle whir of an electric motor will help revive a fading industry.

Harley-Davidson Inc. did a lot more than unveil its much-vaunted electric motorcycle – the LiveWire – in Portland, Ore., recently. It also made clear it is a motorcycle company reinventing itself.

Visual cues filled the media room: On one side sat the visual mock-up of what appears to be a jumped-up kick scooter. On the other side sat the mock-up of what looks like an electric bicycle, but with footpegs in place of pedals.

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Harley-Davidson intends to release a working prototype of this small electric motorcycle, which resembles a bicycle with footpegs.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

If the past at the largest and most enduring U.S. motorcycle maker was built on noisy and bulky badass brawn, then the future appears to be the diametric opposite – quiet, ultralight and very clean. It’s as if the makers of what the Hells Angels’ Sonny Barger once proclaimed the gang’s wheels of choice have switched gears and made a U-turn off the Highway to Hell.

“We are shifting our mindset,” Harley-Davidson chief executive officer Matthew Levatich said in recorded statement.

“We will lead the electrification of the sport,” added Nik Ellwood, international public relations lead.

Company representatives insist they remain committed to developing traditional touring motorcycles powered by internal combustion engines. But they also know their core buyers, the grey ponytail set, will soon be hanging up their boots, and the next generation of buyers – if there is to be a new generation at all – will be cruising to a different tune.

Harley’s play for younger and non-traditional riders comes at an anxious time for motorcycle manufacturers. In December, 2017, two dozen U.S. industry veterans published a paper entitled, “Can this industry be saved?”

It paints an alarming picture. Sales of motorcycles fell 53 per cent in the United States from 2006 to 2011 and have stayed low ever since. (In Canada, annual sales of street motorcycles have been relatively flat between 2014 and 2018, according to the Motorcycle & Moped Industry Council, rising by less than 1,000 units to 35,990.)

Baby boomers, the most consistent motorcycle buyers, are aging out quickly. Nearly half of all buyers in the United States are 50 or older.

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The industry has failed to draw in women, minorities and millennials as new buyers.

Those are the very demographics Harley is targeting with an ambitious line of EV (electric vehicle) bikes, starting with the LiveWire. Part of the appeal is ease of entry for new riders, says Ben McKinley, manager of industrial design, electric vehicles, at Harley-Davidson. EV bikes, for example, eliminate the need to learn how to use a clutch and shift gears. New riders can just twist the throttle and go.

“Motorcycling can be intimidating for a lot of people, and when you add that level of complexity, it doesn’t really help,” McKinley says. “So, if we can deliver something that’s a pure experience, the twist-and-go aspect of it, you’re going to learn how to ride, learn how to lean. You’re not going to have to mess with the rest of it right away.”

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A weekend-long (don’t) crash course in riding a motorcycle

Ben McKinley says the new LiveWire offers a 'twist-and-go' experience that's accessible for new riders.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

The LiveWire, the first of Harley’s electric motorcycles, is simple to operate, certainly, but its $37,250 price tag in Canada makes it anything but accessible for most young buyers. McKinley says the LiveWire is the “halo” motorcycle – the expensive, premium EV bike aimed at “the early adopter, somebody who wants the best of everything.” The EV bikes that follow will be “thousands” cheaper.

There is much to admire in this electric bike, which reaches buyers nine years after the company assigned a small team to play in the EV field. The LiveWire is strangely beautiful in a futuristic Tron kind of way, and certainly unlike anything that has ever come of out of Harley’s assembly plants in York, Pa., or Milwaukee, Wis.

The bright aluminum electric motor is slung low beneath a massive 100-kilogram air-cooled battery.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

It has a massive lithium-ion battery, made by Samsung, that is partly concealed under a faux “gas tank” that houses the charging port. Its electric motor is slung low and long, echoing Harley’s emphasis on the engine as a visual focus. Its 11-centimetre colour touch screen is simple and clear, and its switches are where they can be found on any Harley.

The centre of gravity is high because of the tall, 100-kilogram battery, which Harley prefers to call a Rechargeable Energy Storage System (RESS). It is air-cooled and wrapped in a rigid cast-aluminum frame. The bike has adjustable suspension components by Japan’s Showa, with mechanically adjustable damping and rebound, and a monoshock in the rear.

The monoshock rear suspension, made by Showa, is manually adjustable for comfort or high performance.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

These high-quality components make the machine look sporty and help conceal its weight. The passenger seat pad is so tiny, however, only the skinniest butts will be willing and able to double up.

What really stands out is the riding experience of this incredibly fast and agile machine.

The electric motor produces 105 horsepower and 86 lb.-ft. of instant torque that launches the 250-kilogram machine with frightening intensity. With no gears to switch, it provides a constant surge of power that propels it from zero to 60 miles an hour (97 kilometres an hour) in just 3.0 seconds, according to the company.

Instead of a classic Harley roar, the only sound is a swelling whine engineered into the vehicle to enhance the “aural experience.” As one H-D rep said, it sounds like a jet fighter heading down the road.

The LiveWire offers seven riding modes, including normal, rain and eco. My favourite was sport because the acceleration is aggressive, and so is the stopping – powerful regenerative braking slows the bike down rapidly when you let off the throttle. Driving into corners at speed, the rider barely needs to touch the brakes, making the beefy Brembo dual-discs up front seem like overkill.

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Massive dual-disc Brembo brakes on the front wheel help bring the LiveWire down from high speeds.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

Harley-Davidson has brought modern safety systems to this bike in a package it calls the Reflex Defensive Riding System. It includes traction control, antilock braking, rear-wheel-lift mitigation under hard braking and modes that can be adjusted to weather conditions. The rain mode, for example, trims torque and regenerative braking to reduce the risk of slipping on wet roads.

The company also promises an online, smartphone-compatible communication system by August 20. Buyers will get a one-year free subscription to H-D Connect, which will provide service reminders, a charging-station locator and Bluetooth connectivity, and will even send a signal to your smartphone if someone is tampering with your bike. H-D Connect, however, was not ready for testing at the media event.

Range is rated up to 235 kilometres in the city, but drops significantly under hard riding and on the highway (rated at 152 km). This effectively means the LiveWire cannot stray too far from an urban environment. The bike can be charged overnight at home using standard household electricity or topped up in an hour or less using a DC fast charger (also known as a Level 3). Most Canadian cities are adding Level 3 chargers, and 17 of the 69 Harley dealerships in Canada will have them available for LiveWire owners (and free to use for the first two years).

Although the LiveWire is a well-executed against-type innovation for H-D, what is even more fascinating is what its arrival heralds.

“LiveWire is the tip of the spear,” McKinley says. Pointing to the two prototypes, he says, “Almost anybody is going to be able to hop on one of those bikes and ride it. If you know how to ride a bicycle, then this is the logical next step.”

CEO Matthew Levatich says the company’s electrification strategy aims to make motorcyclists out of people who may have never ridden on two wheels.

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“We aren’t building motorcycles,” he said. “We are building riders.”

The 17 Canadian dealers that have confirmed they will carry the LiveWire are accepting orders now. Deliveries in Canada are to begin in mid-September.

The first LiveWires are expected to reach Canadian riders in September.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

Tech specs

  • Base price/as tested: $37,250
  • Engine: H-D Revelation all-electric
  • Transmission/drive: No gearbox, belt drive to rear wheel
  • Economy: Estimated range per charge of 235 km/city; 152 km/highway
  • Alternatives: Zero SR/F

Looks

The modern sport-bike appearance is gilded with accents that nod to Harley design traditions, including the classic logo and a low-slung motor. Clever placement of the faux gas tank and aluminum frame draw attention away from the massive battery pack.

Performance

Although heavy for a sport bike at 250 kilograms, the LiveWire’s 105 horsepower and 86 lb.-ft. of torque is instantaneous and constant, providing a riding experience quite unlike any internal combustion bike. The adjustable suspension system by Showa and dual-disc front Brembo brakes help keep things composed and under control. ABS and traction control will be especially valuable safety features for inexperienced riders.

Technology

H-D Connect is promised for the Aug. 20 launch and will bring a potpourri of tools, such as online maintenance notifications and a signal to your smartphone if someone is tampering with your toy. Sophisticated ride modes, ABS and traction control add to rider safety. Dealer-serviced software upgrades are promised.

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Cargo

It’s a sports bike. It’s not carrying anything but the rider and a small bag.

The verdict: 8

The LiveWire sets the standard for EV motorcycles.

Harley-Davidson/Handout

Arguably the most important new Harley-Davidson product in 50 years, the LiveWire sets the standard for electrification on two wheels – and hints at more affordable products to come. With the steady advance in battery technology, the LiveWire is likely to be dated in five years. But, if you can afford to buy one now, you probably won’t care if it is – because you’ll own a piece of history.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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