(Bloomberg) — It’s becoming increasingly impossible to talk about any electrified vehicles—racing, luxury, or otherwise—without clarifying just which ones you mean. These days, referring to an EV could mean one of the two-wheeled variety.
On July 12, Harley-Davidson unleashed its first electric motorcycle, LiveWire, on a Formula E racetrack temporarily carved out of the streets of Red Hook in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The idea was to allow a few journalists enough lap time on the $29,799 bike to give them a sense of what it can do under optimal conditions. It’s a crucial step in Harley’s unrolling of its new baby, the first chance for critics to get seat time on the bike that must help save the 116-year-old Milwaukee darling.
Harley has stagnated in recent years, hurt by an aging fan base, tariffs, and encroachment from such brands as Triumph, Moto Guzzi, Ducati, and BMW. (The last has unveiled multiple electric motorcycle concepts and electric scooters for years but has yet to make a distinctive motorcycle of its own for the U.S.)
A 30-minute joyride around the track’s 14 corners and two major straightaways proved the black LiveWire I rode to be thrusty, powerful, nimble, and—at 460 pounds—more weighty in every sense of the word than other electric offerings from California-based startups Zero and Alta.
The Best Side
As you’d expect, if you’ve driven anything electric at all, the first and best thing about the LiveWire’s performance is the strength and smoothness of the instant torque. This is the greatest gift electric technology has given to people who love to drive, and ride.
The bike runs from zero to 60 mph in three seconds and 60 mph to 80 mph in 1.9 seconds. LiveWire has the kind of excellent and smooth roll-on acceleration from any speed—coming out of a tight corner or barreling down a backstretch—that you dream about.
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Seven drive modes include ones that will conserve battery power or enhance track performance; the LiveWire increased in handling finesse the faster it went.
It’s special because it’s heavier and looks beefier than something like Zero’s streetfighter-style bike. I loved how it handled itself around corners; the LiveWire is balanced so well, with a rigid aluminum frame and high-up, stylized battery pack that also add to its visual appeal. It felt powerful as I rode around Red Hook, with no hesitation or lagging. Rather than feeling like an electric appliance, the LiveWire felt like a proper motorcycle.
The bike emits minimal sound and no real vibration—I couldn’t tell the difference between when it was on or off, except for a green light band across the 4.3-inch color touchscreen between the handlebars. It also emits no heat, a boon for the day we rode, when temperatures approached 100F.
The Harley also boasts a new logo meant to reflect this era, which the company says will include multiple electric offerings—an electric blue outline of the traditional Harley badge, sans any lettering. (When I first saw it out of the corner of my eye, I thought it was something from Nissan.)
As with all electric motorcycles, LiveWire will require no engine oil, spark plugs, air filter, or major servicing. (Things like belt tension, gearbox oil, brake fluid and pads, and tires should all be checked regularly. Not that there was any mechanical trouble on my brief ride—it would take much more than that to show cracks in the Harley system.) It will seem top-heavy when you get on, heavier than other electric bikes, but that feeling will dissipate the moment you twist the throttle past 30 or 40 mph. And with the firm Harley seat placement—along with ergonomic not-too-high, not-too-low handlebars (a two-person seat is optional)—there’s much to mitigate any extraneous back and shoulder stress from the road.
What’s special about the LiveWire is, despite the new logo, it looks and even feels like a real Harley when you’re on it, even without those hog pipes. After all, perception is reality, right? (Let go of your attachment to the sound thing for this bike—keep a second Harley in the garage if you need to remind yourself that “loud pipes save lives” every once in a while.)
Of course, a 30-minute track session necessitates ample disclaimers: The ride was controlled by Harley PR executives, who rode at the front of the rider group and kept us under 70 mph or so at the fastest point on the backstretch.
The power regeneration mode that engages when you brake adds charge to the battery, like every other braking system on electric cars. It’s especially useful for regathering energy in congestion and traffic that requires slow-rolling and stop-and-go riding, though I rarely touched the brakes during our Brooklyn ride.
And it was a curated ride—30 minutes on the back of a precharged bike is a far cry from the real-life demands of charging and maintaining an electric motorcycle in the city. That dissonance is the biggest challenge in the marketing and selling of electric motorbikes—and electric city cars, for that matter—in the foreseeable future: Automakers are making EVs they say are perfect for the urban rider, but most urban riders have nowhere to charge one. Running an extension cord down to the sidewalk from your fifth-floor walkup is not an option. And I don’t care what your salesman who lives in Connecticut or New Jersey tells you—most parking garages in Manhattan do not have chargers in them, and the few that do struggle to keep them functional. Those plugs are also typically occupied by the dusty Teslas of longtime users or Nissan Leaf-loving neighbors of the garage. You’ll find yourself on a waiting list just to get some juice.
What’s more, the 146 miles of range (95 miles if you’re sitting in traffic) and the charging time required—one hour for a full charge on a DC Fast Charger—are not conducive to taking this bike to get away from it all on any sort of weekend excursion.
Harley-Davidson has yet to prove it can resolve the disparity between how and to whom its electric vehicles are marketed, as well as the real-world daily lives of said consumers. If the point of a Harley is to feel the freedom of the open road, your freedom on LiveWire will be severely curtailed.
Then again, Harley-Davidson knows it has to come up with some new tricks if it’s going to court a younger, fresh, and vibrant audience. (To stay alive, it must.) LiveWire looks cool, retaining the best styling cues from the iconic brand, and it performs powerfully within urban constraints. It’s a new trick from an old dog—and it could be just what the old dog needs.
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire motorcycle is available for preorder. It goes on sale in the U.S. later this year, with expanding global availability starting in 2020.