Is the electric Harley-Davidson LiveWire a real game-changer?
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire is one of those momentous vehicles that takes everything its parent company is famous for and casually lobs it out of the window. Imagine if Ferrari announced they’d be making a diesel family SUV – it's as weird an idea as Harley building an electric bike.
But Harley’s cleverer than to presume it can continue its cruiser-led dominance of the chromed-bike scene forever. After all, bikers are getting older, and if razzing around on two wheels is to have any longevity we need young people getting into the sport. Also, one way to future-proof your business is, as in the car world, to start producing vehicles that aren’t powered by piston engines.
But it’s still very odd that Harley-Davidson – a pretty traditional maker of bikes – is the first mass-market bike manufacturer to get an all-electric motorcycle on to showroom floors. It’s a curious beast, and one that could mark a huge leap forward for the Harley brand. With that in mind I stuck my protective leather jock strap into a suitcase and headed to Barcelona – where a fully charged LiveWire was waiting.
It all feels wonderfully normal
Riding the LiveWire feels weird and alien for, ooh, about five seconds – or as long as it takes you to get your feet off the ground and onto the reasonably high footpegs.
I imagine traditional bike customers are going to be concerned that riding an electric bike will feel incredibly strange and awkward, without manual gears, a clutch lever or a big vibrating engine. But with half a mile under the LiveWire’s tyres, I’d already started to focus not on what electric propulsion takes away from the ride, but what it adds.
The way the LiveWire’s chunky throttle twistgrip speeds the bike up and slows it down feels utterly natural. There’s no jerkiness, and if you piped the sound of a roaring V-Twin into your helmet you’d be convinced there was a cable opening some throttle butterflies somewhere under your bum. The connection between your right hand and your speed feels as natural as on any regularly powered bike – and this removes perhaps the most significant hurdle to making electric bikes enjoyable for petrolheads.
You can adjust how much regenerative engine braking you get from the Harley’s ‘Revelation’ motor using the preset riding modes or by using one of the custom ones. You can also adjust the power output, the throttle responsiveness and the level of traction control intervention. But leave the bike in the preset sport mode (which sits above wet and road in terms of aggression) and the bike feels pretty easy to balance on the throttle mid-corner, and you’re always confident about how early you can crack the throttle to drive out of the corner.
It's got some power
Speaking of drive, sports-naked riders might turn their noses up at the Revelation motor’s 105hp-equivalent output, but the 116Nm of torque’s the star of the show. Sure, it’s available from basically zero rpm, but the power mapping’s sharp enough to give you lightning-quick traffic light launches without overwhelming the back tyre or your brain. Up to about 100mph the LiveWire accelerates with the sort of urgency you’d associate with a modern 160hp V-Twin.
Despite my best efforts I couldn't deck the LiveWire's footpegs out… swap out the standard tyres for stickier rubber and they'll scrape
In rain mode that acceleration tails off pretty quickly as your speed increases, but in all other modes the drive almost seems to intensify a little as you approach 70mph. It’s plenty fast enough, and you sort of wouldn’t want it to be any faster when you start to get on the brakes.
Stopping the thing
Braking is one area where the LiveWire simply can’t mask its mass. At 249kg wet (‘cos it does have brake fluid and gearbox oil), it’s a heavy old thing to slow down and stop.
And despite sporting decent sportsbike-spec Brembo monoblock front brake calipers at the ends of its Showa Big Piston Forks, you’ll want to add a good few metres extra into your braking areas. This thing will chew through brake pads if you do a lot of hard stops. You sense the weight trying to keep the bike going, and although the Brembos do shed speed as quickly as you need to, it takes a little mental recalibration after riding a normal bike.
Best looking Harley on sale? We reckon.
What about the back brake? Well, use that at anything above walking speed and it’ll chirp the back tyre and immediately give the ABS unit a work out. Even if you’re using the rear brake to trim your line mid corner you won’t be far off triggering the rear ABS – it’s just too sharp, and it feels as if there’s very little progression in the lever under your right foot.
The other electronics work more happily in your favour – the traction control light winks as you gas it (or should that be electron it?) hard out of corners still leant over, and the cutting of power is largely unnoticeable, simply because the bike’s just trimming down the motor’s output for a bit.
It's the most dynamic Harley ever
The big news, dynamically, is that none of the journos on the ride decked the footpegs out on the ground. Looking back at the photos it's clear we came close, but the LiveWire must surely be the sportiest and most dynamically accomplished Harley-Davidson ever. We weren’t hanging about on the serpentine stretches of Tarmac above Barcelona, and the only negative handling trait I experienced was the front tyre sometimes struggling to cope with my trail braking and getting a bit wobbly. But otherwise it felt like a well sorted roadster which drops into turns with ease.
Once you've got used to the weight demanding an increase in braking distances, the LiveWire's a hoot to throw about
The sportiest Harley it may be, but you’ll still want to be mindful of mid-corner bumps. Given how hard the suspension works to keep a quarter of a tonne of moving bike in check, it’s not surprising when the bike shimmies and wanders off-line when you’re leant over and hit a bump in the road. It’s not unnverving, and just serves as a reminder of how hard you’ve found yourself riding the LiveWire.
What will the LiveWire be like to live with? Well, you can charge it at a rate of 13 miles per hour on a UK domestic three-pin plug. But you’ll want to find your local fast-charge station with a CCS connector (as on most modern electric cars), which will put 192 miles per hour into the Harley’s battery. And considering it can only hold 150 miles of electricity, that’s not bad going.
You control the riding modes using the tiltable touchscreen dash
Speaking of range, realistically you’re going to get 80 miles out of the battery if you ride everywhere like your merkin’s aflame, and closer to the claimed 150 mile maximum if you choose the ‘range’ riding mode and exercise some restraint.
The downside to this being the first electric bike from a household name is the price. It’s a whisker under £29,000 – or about £420 per month if you stick £6,000 down as a deposit and keep the bike for three years while limiting yourself to 4,000 miles per year.
If you can handle the price and have local charging points – and you probably do – then the LiveWire will give you a riding experience like nothing else. It’s well-built, has the support of the usual Harley dealer network and feels like a premium product. It’s a bike that takes away a lot from your riding experience, but gives so much back in terms of forcing you to concentrate on your lines to carry maximum speeds. If this is the future of biking then, frankly, bring it on.
Harley's first electric bike hits the spot for non-cruiser riders
Right, that's the review – now here are some cool things we noticed on our ride
I won't lie – the LiveWire was my first proper electric bike experience. I thought I'd share a few little notes about the things you probably haven't thought about, but which make riding an electric bike quite enjoyable.
• They make zero noise at idle. So, riding in a group of six journalists, every time we stopped at the lights we could hear each other clearly and never had to shout over clattering engines.
• You can creep up on your mates in car parks and toot your horn at them. Hilarious.
• Launching these things is eeeeasy. You can even hold the bike on the rear brake with the throttle wide open and just step off the brake. Whooooosh.
• They sound cool when you pin it. Harley’s engineers worked hard for two years to cut a bevel gear in the gearbox in such a way that you get an amusingly futuristic whine when you accelerate hard, and it’s something you can hear on other bikes when riding along.
• Because of all the electric gubbins, the LiveWire has an in-built tracker which can ping an app on your phone if someone’s fiddling with your bike while you’re not riding it. It’ll also send you a code that you can pass on to the Police so they can track it.
• You can probably wheelie it, but I didn't see anyone doing so on the launch. Sorry.