By Bryan Harley, Cruiser Editor

Indian Aims for Harley's Crown

The 2015 Indian Chieftain is a visually striking machine. Tall and regal in front, valanced fenders lending a touch of class, the Indian logo gussying up its tank and a pearl of an engine at the center of it all. The massive engine is definitely a focal point – mushroom covers on large-diameter heads, cooling fins machined to a jewel-like sheen, stout parallel pushrod tubes hinting at the power lurking in the big bores beneath. The Blue and Ivory Cream paint job on our test unit helps bring out its lines, the curves of the front fender matching the curves of its saddlebags. A bit nostalgic in the fenders, a bit contemporary in the fairing, the Chieftain carries its own unique identity.

Hop in its saddle and the 2015 Indian Chieftain feels taller and bigger than its Harley counterpart. A peek at the spec sheets confirms the Chieftain does have a 1.7-inch longer wheelbase at 65.7 inches, but seat heights are almost identical at a laden 26 inches, the Street Glide sitting 0.1 inch higher. Maybe it’s because its floorboards and bars are a touch higher or its front fairing is raised more. Regardless, the Chieftain just feels like the bigger bike of the two.

One thing for certain is its engine puts out big power – 102.15 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm in fact. At 2,300 rpm, the Thunder Stroke 111 is already dishing out 100 lb-ft of torque and stays there up to 3,200 rpm. MotoUSA Road Test Editor Adam Waheed liked its responsiveness and the immediate spread of torque it delivers off idle. While putting up a respectable 0-60 mph time of 5.3 seconds, the Street Glide still got the drop on it, hitting the 60 mph mark 0.2 seconds quicker. Remember that 39.5 pound difference on the scales? The Chieftain also has a lower gear ratio in the first couple of gears, 9.40 to 9.59 in first, and at the throttle it’s the first in need of an upshift. Combine these two factors and it adds up to the 0.2-second gap. Once up to cruising speeds, both fourth and fifth gear provide plenty of car-passing roll-on speed. The one demerit we found was the incessant drivetrain noise when coasting along at a steady speed, which can become a bit tiresome.

Heading up the San Gabriel Mountains, the Chieftain is capable of greater lean angles and requires less input at the bars to get it to turn in. The fairing doesn’t feel like it comes with the same heft as the fully loaded instrument panel of the Street Glide Special.

“The first thing that stuck out to me is how maneuverable the Chieftain is. It is much easier to get in and out of a parking spot with it compared to the Harley. I also liked how little effort it requires to initiate a turn – it’s pretty nimble for an 800-pound motorcycle. Once turned, I love how much cornering clearance it has, and you don’t have to worry about scraping the floorboards like you do on the Harley,” agreed Waheed.

But get it on the side of its tires and the Indian doesn’t track with the precision of the Street Glide Special. As Waheed put it, “The Chieftain always wants to turn more or less and won’t just settle on a trajectory. You constantly have to make a small input into the controls to keep the motorcycle on line.” This is due in part to the way the front tire transmits broken pavement and parallel grooves to the rider through the bars. Fluctuations are small but lend credence to this need to work the bars more than the Street Glide Special, which is more stable and predictable in turns. A little more stiffness to the dual rate springs would most likely remedy this.

When time comes to mash some brakes, the big bike Chieftain relies on 300mm dual floating rotors with 4-piston dual calipers up front. It does require a hard squeeze at the lever to get into them, though, as the feel is a bit vague at first. The single 300mm disc with two-piston caliper has a firmer bite, and the ABS is less intrusive than the Street Glide Special’s arrangement. Despite outweighing the Harley, the Chieftain came to a complete stop from 60 mph quicker, winning the 60-0 braking test by 11 feet – 122.2 feet to the Street Glide’s 133.2.

On LA’s heavily trafficked highways, the well-padded seat, upright riding position and wide front fairing team with a heavy-duty single rear shock to provide a smooth, comfortable ride. Being able to adjust the height of the windscreen electronically is a bonus as the Street Glide Special’s windscreen is fixed in one position. While we mentioned the front feels a bit soft for our personal preference, the rear has no problem sorting out whatever the road throws at it with 4.49 inches of travel to range through. If you load up the bags for a road trip, the Chieftain comes with a handy pump to adjust the pneumatic rear. Simply pull off the left side cover, check the chart on the inside of the cover that lists the amount of air pressure recommended for total weight, and hook the pump to the air fitting in the right hand corner above the fuse box.

Cruising along, the Chieftain has a full complement of rider amenities that are both functional and make the experience more pleasurable. Cruise control buttons reside on the right hand control housing and are as simple to use as pushing a button to turn it on, getting up to the desired speed, then pressing the Set/Dec button. If you want to bump speed up a little, press the top Res/Acc area of the same button and it will adjust speed one mph at a time. Music from the two-speaker, 100-watt system is loud and clear up until high rpm range when it has to contend with the pipes and road noise. You can connect it to an iPod or smartphone and toggle through playlists through the audio control buttons on the left control housing. There’s a small cut-out in the right side of the front fairing to tuck your media device into. You can run Bluetooth through it, but you’ll need your own driver headset.

Centrally located in the fairing is a small digital display that provides everything from audio information to tire pressure readings. The dials for speedo and tach are analog and sit to each side of the digital display. A key fob replaces a standard key but must be in proximity to the bike to activate the push-button starter. It also electronically locks the saddlebags. The Chieftain's bags are a little wider and provide 17.2 gallons of storage each to the Street Glide Special’s 16-gallon capacity. The centrally located button isn’t as easily accessible and functional as the Harley’s new latch, and the composites feel a little flimsy compared to the Glide. Another thing we noticed is the control housings are fairly large and the four buttons to control the audio system sit flush to the housing, which make them difficult to manage with gloved fingers. We also frequently had to remove our hand from the bar if we wanted to reach the inner buttons like the one that raises and lowers the windscreen.

The Chieftain is a big, powerful bike with head-turning styling. Power delivery is immediate and urgent, it can rein in that power decisively when needed, and the comfort provided by its rear suspension and seat means you can ride it all day long. But add up the sum of its parts, and it lacks the refinement of the Street Glide, from gear engagement to the way it tracks in turns. There’s a handful of nitpicks – vibrations in the floorboards, a shift lever we could barely squeeze our boot under, saddlebags that feel a little flimsy, and control housings that feel comparatively cheap. It’s a high-quality ride, but for $23,000 there are attention to detail issues that need to be addressed before it’s on the level of the Street Glide. As Waheed put it, “If Indian could get rid of that drivetrain whine during coasting, improve the look and feel of the instruments/switchgear and fine-tune the way the bike holds a corner, they’d actually have something for the Harley.” Until then, though, the Street Glide is still the bagger to beat.