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Harley plugs into the future with electric prototype

Harley LiveWire’s project has an aluminum exoskeleton frame.

Doug Firby/The Globe and Mail

Thunderous noise. The potato-potato-potato idle of the shuttering engine. Back-breaking bulk. The manoeuvrability of a tank. These are qualities that have made Harley-Davidson what it is today – the geriatric symbol of aging boomers, who tie on their headscarves, throw their beer bellies over the tank and head out to be wild every summer weekend, full of dreams about what might have been if they only could've landed on the wrong side of the law.

It is not – so not – about virtually noiseless, agile and impeccably clean sport bikes that can take on the Japanese crotch-rockets and save the Earth at the same time.

Until now. Enter the Harley LiveWire – a prototype electric motorcycle, but unquestionably one that is headed to market (widely rumoured by 2020). It is the bike that could change everything you think about the largest mass-produced U.S. bike manufacturer. If, that is, it can find its market. Which is no small task, given the skeptical eye traditional Harley owners cast on this 21st-century interloper into their 1950s motorized fantasy.

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"It's so Japanese," sniffed Calgarian Glen Anderson, part of a small group treated to LiveWire demo rides at Calgary's Kane's Harley dealership. "I bought a Harley to ride a Harley – with the clunks and bangs and all the rest of it."

Clunks and bangs are not the LiveWire's idiom. Its surprisingly powerful (74 hp) electric propulsion system jumps to life with a flick of a wrist – no gears, no clutch, no drama: just a butt-squeezing rush of acceleration. That's because the relatively modest power plant is mated to a lean 210-kilogram chassis. The admirable power-to-weight ratio lets it blast from zero to 100 km/h in a claimed four seconds.

A brief test ride showed it has track-ready agility, easy – if slightly heavy – handling and an almost complete absence of sound, except for a whine whose pitch gets higher as the revs build. Harley owners either love it or hate it.

"It was a fantastic ride," said John Littauer, who owns an auto repair shop that converts gasoline-powered cars into electric. He came out to do some comparison driving. "The bike is so small and agile – it's perfect," he said. "Besides, I want a quieter bike so I can sneak out of the house."

Warren Loyns, a retired Saskatchewan farmer, said this Harley wouldn't work for his cruises – "I go for days at a time" – but he can see it as a commuter bike. "If they could quadruple the range, I'd be interested. The regenerative braking is interesting."

The demo bikes have an estimated range of 90 kilometres, a figure that could be extended with larger lithium-ion batteries in the production model. As with many electric vehicles, the

LiveWire generates power on deceleration, adding a strong "engine-braking" phenomenon. The drag when you release the throttle is so powerful, brakes are almost redundant, except to trigger the rear lights.

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"It would be a good city bike," said Jenine Elson, of Chestermere, Alta. "It's definitely not a cruiser."

The LiveWire represents Harley's most dramatic gamble since its ill-fated investment in Italian small-bike maker Aermacchi in the 1960s, and a bolder statement than its Buell café racer line, which was discontinued in 2009. But then, the 111-year-old company is watching its customers age, and knows it has to find a way to reach 18- to 35-year-olds and women – riders who are relatively rare in the Harley stable. Fortunately, competition in the electric bike category is light, with only boutique manufacturers Zero and Brammel seriously in the game.

"It's nice and quiet," said Cindy Dewis of nearby Airdrie. "It's a change. It's like driving an automatic; you can just concentrate on going."

Harley is staging similar test rides across North America and seeking customer feedback. Actual production dates, final specs and prices may hinge on what the company hears. Even from Harley loyalists, there's grudging acceptance – like Dewis, who owns two other Harleys.

"I wouldn't give up my bikes [for this one]," Dewis said. "But it's an alternative."

You'll like this bike if ... You have an environmental conscience, and confine your riding to the city, racing between cafés or commuting to work.

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TECH SPECS

  • Base price: NA
  • Engine: 55 kW, oil-cooled, longitudinally mounted three-phase induction electric motor
  • Transmission/drive: Direct drive (single speed), belt drive via bevel gear
  • Range: 90 km in econo mode
  • Alternatives: No mass-produced competitor, but Zero and Brammel both make boutique models

RATINGS

  • Looks: Imagine a slightly scaled-down Ducati monster with an engine that looks like it came off a 1950s jet fighter.
  • Riding position: All forward-leaning sportbike; no laid-back cruiser. Which means it’s unlike any current Harley. Its compact design is a bit cramped for anyone of more than average height.
  • Performance: At slow speeds, the steering can feel heavy, but the bike’s overall lightness and sport suspension give it a nimbleness that begs to be put to the test.
  • Technology: A large, centrally mounted screen tells you exactly how much power you’re using and how far you can expect to go. The regenerative brake system squeezes maximum sparks of the modestly sized battery.

The Verdict

9.0

This highly refined motorcycle feels like a production model, rather than a prototype. It is smooth, predictable and begs to be pushed.

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