The asphalt-thumping, mirror-shaking rumble of big V-twin is definitively one of the most American sounds on the road today. Except this time, the thump isn’t coming from a Harley-Davidson. This new steed is the low-slung Indian Challenger, and it’s got Milwaukee’s finest firmly in its crosshairs.
Some back story: Indian Motorcycle was founded in 1901 and quickly earned notoriety through its soulful machinery and race victories, eventually becoming the world’s largest bike builder. Harley set up shop only three years later, but it still took them a couple decades to catch up. Thus, fueling a rivalry that lasted until Indian folded in 1953. Indian returned with fresh bikes in 2013 under new ownership by Polaris and has been raging against the Harley name ever since.
And so, on a fall brisk morning in 2019, I find myself cruising down the stunning Pacific Coast Highway in Big Sur, California, on an Indian unlike any other in the brand’s turbulent history. At least in profile, the bagger silhouette is somewhat familiar, with a large, fixed fairing up front, a low seat nestled in the middle and sloping hard cases at the rear. But head-on, the Challenger’s all-LED lighting takes on an almost futuristic look, projecting the mean menace on the road as it blends a round central headlamp with bright, flanking accents. Resting atop the fender is an illuminated Indian headdress that recalls olden times.
Unlike the retro cues throughout, the view from the cockpit is entirely modern, with a 7” touchscreen, offering weather and traffic overlays on the navigation display. The system is managed by chunky buttons along the bottom — not the most advanced interface in this age of next-gen electronics. But the screen responds to inputs from gloved hands, and once you get used to the sometimes clunky operation there’s actually a lot of control at your fingertips, from bike data like tire pressure and ride mode settings, to music controls for Bluetooth or USB connections. And speaking of tunes, there’s a decently loud 100W system out of the box on all models, which range from $21,999 to $27,999. But the real thump begins with two levels of audio upgrades, which increase maximum volume by up to 50%. There’s a PowerBand Audio upgrade, which offers beefier fairing speakers, and PowerBand Audio Plus, which improves the fairing speakers while adding front-facing woofers to the rear saddlebags. Cruise at high speeds with the top-level sound system, and you’ll likely be able to hear your music with surprising clarity. Ride slower with the standard setup, and you’ll get perfectly decent sound that’s still loud enough to piss off everyone within a 10-car radius.
Roll away from the standstill, and the Challenger delivers a strong wallop of torque that’s easily modulated via a light effort clutch lever. The powerplant, a new 1,768cc twin Indian calls PowerPlus, departs from Harley’s air-cooled formula by using liquid cooling for best-in-class output: 122 horsepower, and 128 lb.-ft. of torque. To pack in the liquid-cooling hardware, Challenger loses some of its retro looks by squeezing a radiator up front. At least the big fairing hides much of the bulk by exceeding its width.
There’s a whole lot of hustle when you peg the throttle, and this 800+ lb. bad boy really moves when you’re powering through the six smooth-shifting gears. Wanna hit the canyons? You’ll want to firm up the rear suspension, which can compress excessively if left in the stock, middle-of-the-road setting. Though certainly not a sport bike, there’s enough maneuverability to make flinging this big-boned bruiser an entirely feasible endeavor. The dual-disc, four-piston Brembo brakes stop strongly with excellent feel at the lever; opt for Dark Horse ($27,499) or Limited ($27,999) models, and you get lean-sensitive dynamic ABS and traction control, which instantly calculates how far the bike is cornering and adjusts intervention accordingly.
In my opinion, traction control is usually overkill on large cruisers, though I did feel that during our thrashy session through a tight mountain pass, the Metzeler tires could have been stickier. But the long distance creature comforts are outstanding, from the power-operated windscreen (which moves up to 3” for airflow adjustment), to cruise control and a keyless ignition system that enables wireless locking of the weatherproof, 18-gallon saddlebag setup.
While Challenger offers plenty of street-smart-style out of the box, Indian also brings a next level of customizability through two accessory collections. The Rogue lineup of items brings punchy gloss and matte black items as well as ape hanger handlebars and a barkier stage I slip-on muffler kit. If you’re craving long distance amenities, the Tour collection offers items like backrest pads and touring windscreens.
This big beast of a bike propelled me several hundred miles across California’s scenic central coast over the course of two days, delivering ballsy acceleration, tunes and navigation, and long distance cruising comfort. It’s a shot fired directly into Harley’s court, one that’s sure to keep the American bike wars raging well into the 21st century.