Supplement, Wheelers

2020 electric Harley-Davidson: Against all odds

Published : 03 Nov 2019 08:11 PM | Updated : 07 Sep 2020 01:52 PM

It's easy to be skeptical of the 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire. The first fully-electric motorcycle in Harley-Davidson’s 100-plus year history is going to have some baggage. The company itself is struggling financially, enamored with an aging demographic, and lacking in sportbike knowledge—let alone an EV sportbike. The $30,000 sticker doesn't help either.

As the Drive automotive mag team silently coasted onto the Formula E racetrack in Brooklyn, New York for a recent test drive, our hopes weren't high. Wow, were we about to get schooled.

The 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire, By the Numbers

Base Price: $29,799 

Powertrain: 78kW motor and 15.5-kilowatt battery | 105 horsepower, 86 pound-feet of torque | single-speed transmission | rear-wheel drive

0-60 MPH: 3.0-seconds

Top Speed: 110 mph

The LiveWire boils down to a single idea: Harley-Davidson did the impossible and delivered a motorcycle that's not just technically advanced, but one that continues the Milwaukee brand’s legacy of making riders yearn for the open road.

Where ancient engines suck, squeeze, bang, and blow, the “Revelation” 15.5-kWh battery pack coupled with the 78-kW permanent-magnet motor is anything but antiquated. It also feels eerily alive thanks to a subtle heartbeat—sorry, "haptic pulse"—sensation emitted by the motor in an attempt to give the electric bike some Harley character. Generating 105 horsepower and 86 pound-feet of torque, LiveWire doesn't match its higher horsepower Ducati, KTM, Honda, and BMW competition. Whereas those rivals' engines must wait a split second for fuel and air to become flames and acceleration, Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire needs no prep time. The shove is instant. 

Throttle open, the LiveWire could be mistaken for an amplified jet engine's high-pitched whine. LiveWire engineers knew its sound had to be dynamic to satisfy Harley-Davidson's reputation for aural assaults and goal accomplished. The air around it crackles with static. Yet, that turbine squeal isn’t intrusive once you decide here isn’t there, and there is where you want to be. 

Formula E’s Brooklyn circuit is small and narrow, measuring just 1.5 miles. For race cars, that means speeds aren't that impressive. But on a motorcycle, especially the Harley-Davidson LiveWire, it's perfect. There's just enough room for the bike's electric, longitudinally-mounted drivetrain to shine; along the circuit's rear, just before the Start/Finish straight, a long left-hand sweeping turn provided the opportunity to really lean in at speed and test the claimed 45-degree layover angle.

Pitched into the turn, the LiveWire didn't feel like a 526-pound motorcycle Harley. It may as well have been on Atkins—light, nimble, and wildly easy to pitch. We continued to carry more speed through the sweeper as 90 mph became 98, 98 became 102, and 102 mph became 107 on the last pass. A figure damn near close to the LiveWire’s 110 mph top speed, by the way.

More impressive than its cornering capability is how LiveWire blasts away from apexes. Again, it need not wait to convert electricity into violence. Ready-to-rock power means you just twist LiveWire's throttle and the world goes plaid. Analogous experiences are few and far between in that first second. Maybe a nitrous-fed drag racer or a rallycar's on-boost turbochargers? It’s forever at the ready, always there, prepared to rocket you away and prompt manic laughter. It’s not fast for an electric motorcycle, nor a Harley-Davidson. LiveWire is just fast, period. 

This was mainly a track test, but everyday, slow-speed maneuvers never induced that traditional Harley-Davidson clunkiness. The LiveWire has far more in common with something like Ducati's Hypermotard 950, a truly dynamic machine, than the Italians will want to hear. No matter the turn’s angle or sharpness, LiveWire's stupendously low center of gravity carried us through.

Harley-Davidson fit LiveWire with the usual sportbike electronic aids, too. Four drive modes—Road, Sport, Rain, and Eco—tailor the motorcycle’s battery usage and power delivery. Traction control and wheelie control further ensure LiveWire’s instantaneous torque doesn’t send the rider flying. There's also a linked app that can stream music through compatible Bluetooth headsets, display navigation directions, and show riding data like distance and charge levels. 

It might be the future, but it's not perfect yet. First, the Brembo monoblock brakes aren’t as great as the acceleration; as light as it feels when you're leaning over, 526 pounds can’t be hidden when braking from 100 mph for a zero runoff turn. An upgrade with more bite is needed and would go a long way to making a great bike even greater. Its various regenerative braking settings aren't quite as resistive as an electric car's either—that's either a plus or minus depending on your preference.

    -the Drive

Second, Harley-Davidson should offer a higher seat for larger individuals like myself. After my stint, the cramped controls led to achy knees. Though my 6’4” frame is larger than your average motorcyclist, Harley-Davidson has always given customers different seat options. The LiveWire deserves those ergonomic considerations, too. 

But of all things, it's price and range that loom large over the LiveWire's head. According to Harley-Davidson, its battery is good for a max of 146 miles in the city, while mixed, higher-speed use will lower it to the mid-90s—in other words, don't expect to get that 146-mile range that often in the real world. Harley-Davidson has been working with Electrify America to alleviate range anxiety issues, and the LiveWire does come with free access to fast-charging stations for up to 500-kilowatt hours. It can charge quicker than most electric cars, from flat dead to 80 percent in just 40 minutes. Still not quite the two-minute gas station stop most bikers are used to, though. Juicing up from a Level 1 AC charger is a much slower affair, over 12 hours from zero to full.

As fun as it is, as advanced as it is, there’s no ignoring the Harley-Davidson's $29,799 price tag. That money can get you Ducati’s almost-MotoGP V4 S superbike. The HD team is upfront that the LiveWire is an engineering showcase, and the first of many to come (with presumably lower cost-of-entry). In that lens, LiveWire’s price isn’t as insane, but it's also not primed to deliver unto Harley-Davidson that much-sought infusion of younger riders. 

Time will be LiveWire's crucible. Years have passed since Harley-Davidson debuted Project LiveWire, the prototype to the motorcycle you see here, back in 2014. The world has changed in that time, with EVs increasingly seen as the true future for cars. Yet HD's endeavor wasn't a sure thing. Like most, we watched the project with heavy skepticism. Having finally sat behind the handlebars, we're itching for another go.

-the Drive