- Published: Saturday, 28 February 2015 17:23
An electric motorcycle is the last thing you’d expect to see from Harley-Davidson, but the biggest shock of all is what it’s like to ride
SEPANG, MALAYSIA — A futuristic electric bike from Harley-Davidson? That might well be the most unexpected development in the history of motorcycling, yet we’ve ridden Project LiveWire. Not in Singapore, but around the perimeter of the Sepang F1 Circuit.
The battery-powered, motor-driven machine has been at least four years in the making, and is the sort of bike to confound the critics who denounce Harley as a company whose engineering is to bikes what black-and-white movies are to cinema.
But as much as Harley’s engineers must be savouring all the head-scratching resulting from Project LiveWire, the bike was conceived with a serious mission in mind: to act as a two-wheeled ambassador for a new way to look at a 112 year-old bikemaker.
Specifically, the LiveWire bikes are meant to put Harley-Davidson on the collective radar screen of a young, sophisticated crowd, the sort of person who might be identified as the polar opposite of the typical Harley loyalist. All without alienating said Harley loyalists.
In that respect the bike has been overwhelmingly successful, says Harley.
“We’re seeing a real conversion of people’s mindsets about the stereotype of Harley, but also the stereotype of an electric motorcycle,” says Marc McAllister, the managing director of the Asia-Pacific region for Harley-Davidson.
As for the tattooed loyalists? “It’s been really positive,” says McAllister. “This is a Harley. It has a great look, sound and feel. It performs well, it’s emotionally engaging.”
I’ll say right now that I can second all that. It’s not only the most unexpected Harley ever, it provides a most unexpected riding experience.
The tone is pretty much set by the riding posture, which is far removed from the traditionally laid-back position atop the typical Harley. Instead, it’s far more streetfighter: straight handlebar, forward weighted, oozing aggression instead of relaxation.
Then there’s the power-up sequence. You click a regular engine cut-off switch to the ‘on’ position and the touchscreen digital displays provide a cool light show, with sparkly animations filling the screen as the LiveWire comes to life.
Here's a quick vid of what that looks like:
After that it’s sidestand up, a two-second push on a normal start button, and…. nothing. Even if the bike’s good to go, when it ain’t moving, it ain’t making noise.
Indeed, the LiveWire is notable for what it doesn’t have as much as for anything else. There’s no clutch lever, no gear shifter pedal, no pistons pumping heat and vibrations into the air at idle. Twist the throttle (though strictly-speaking it’s a potentiometer and not a throttle) and away it goes.
And boy, does it go. The Harley’s acceleration is strong and pleasantly linear, but above all it’s smooth. Like wafted-along-by-the-unseen-hands-of-angels smooth.
This is the only bike I’ve ridden that gathers speed in the unruffled way a Rolls-Royce does, and the experience plasters a grin on your face as much as the raw acceleration does. Electric motors make their maximum torque from zero rpm, remember, and in terms of how responsive it is, the LiveWire feels like, well, a live wire.
There’s a sort of screaming whirr to accompany the acceleration, too. You can definitely hear a LiveWire coming if the rider is caning it, thanks to a noise that’s been compared to a jet turbine’s whoosh.
“We specifically engineered that, to give a unique sound to Project LiveWire,” says Greg Willis, the director of marketing operations at Harley Asia-Pacific.
But it’s probably the handling that sets the LiveWire apart the most from other Harleys. The 210kg LiveWire takes a moderate amount of effort to deflect off-course, but once you have it leaned over it’s nice and stable, giving you plenty of confidence to use all that electric torque to blast out of corners.
It’s fun on country roads, but it would be supreme in town. It’s nimble and powerful enough for you to weave smartly and safely through traffic, and the motor drive provides surprisingly precise low-speed control, making u-turns and tiptoeing through carparks a breeze.
At standstill there’s no nut-roasting heat rising off an engine, and it seems to me the everyday ride to work would be much pleasanter on electric power than petrol. Even after brief spells atop the Harley, the words that every wife hates to hear creep into my skull: I want one.
It turns out I’m not alone. “People that have already ridden LiveWire came off the bike telling us they were now four times more likely to buy an electric motorcycle,” says Greg Willis.
For now, of course, you can’t. The bikes are just rough prototypes, though they look remarkably well-finished and production-ready.
But to hack in the real world, I’d say the LiveWire needs another 30 to 50km of range (if for nothing else to provide a psychological cushion against range anxiety). The 3.5-hour charging time is fine, but it’s done via a charger box so you can’t plug the it into any old wall socket directly.
Perhaps the real challenges for the LiveWire are external to Harley, though. Where would you charge one in Singapore? How would the cops classify it within our tired bike licence system? How much would the blackguards at the Land Transport Authority demand from a LiveWire rider for road tax?
Vexing problems, to be sure, and all the more so given how nice the Harley would be to ride in Singapore.
Psychologically, I wonder if I’d baulk at riding an electric bike in the rain — no one wants a nasty hit to the jewels with a whole bunch of joules — and sure enough, our LiveWire ride would have been called off the clouds had opened up at Sepang.
But just a few minutes on the Harley has made me look forward to a battery-powered future for bikes overall. It’s hard to think of another bike that can morph from soothingly refined for commuting, to laugh-inducingly manic at the simple flick of a wrist.
Beyond that, it looks and sounds distinctive, and the riding experience is frankly superior to that of any Harley you can buy today. For all that rain would have stopped play on the prototypes, I’d say this is one LiveWire that you’ll want to grab.
[For an extended version of this article, check out CarBuyer 232, on newsstands the third Friday of March!]
7 Fun Facts about Harley's LiveWire
The electric motor looks petite enough for a small woman to lift. Its cover took styling inspiration from superchargers
The frame is cast aluminium, and only weighs less than 7kg
It has upside-down forks, adjustable for compression and rebound damping
Harley won’t say how big the batteries are, but we’re guessing 6 to 7kWh.
It has belt-drive, of course. It’s a Harley.
There’s an oil cooler for the batteries. At ‘idle’ you can hear the pump whirring sometimes
LEDs are used throughout the bike. They save energy, after all.
A clarification from Harley-Davidson
Since our article on Project LiveWire ran, a representative from Harley-Davidson has been in touch to clarify that, while rain would have stopped our test ride of the bike, it would have been for safety rather than technical reasons. "The article makes mention that the Project LiveWire ride would have been called off if the clouds had opened up at Sepang," says the clarification. "A rain-stop is standard protocol on all H-D ride experiences. The Project LiveWire bike is safe to run in the rain."