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Common Tread

2017 Indian Chieftain Elite and Limited first ride review

Apr 04, 2017

I am aware that a sizable portion of the Common Tread readership has no interest in dressers.

Touring bikes, though, are where Indian’s putting its chips nowadays — at least for the time being. In February, they unveiled the "new" Roadmaster Classic. Around that same time, they invited Common Tread to test two new variants of the existing Chieftain, the Limited and the Elite. Safe variants on bikes that do well on the sales floor seem to be the order of the day. (The aforementioned Classic and Harley-Davidson’s Road King Special spring to mind.) These are immensely competent motorcycles, but even if you are not interested in a long-haul big bike, Indian dropped a tidbit at the unveiling of these cycles that’s going to wag more tongues in the comments section than anything about the bikes.

Indian had their new bikes, the Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite, set up in a hip San Diego warehouse-type deal, where they had also set up a makeshift bar. After they gave their spiel on the new bikes, I cornered Reid Wilson, Indian’s Director of Marketing, because I wanted to clarify something I thought I heard.

Reid Wilson
Reid Wilson: “We’ll be outside the cruiser, touring, and bagger segments within the next five years.” Photo by Barry Hathaway.

“We’ll be outside the cruiser, touring, and bagger segments within the next five years,” Reid confirmed. Wow. With the Victory demise still fresh in the minds of buyers, I think that’s a particularly bold statement.

And that’s really the crux of why these dressers (that I’m getting to shortly) matter to nearly every rider: Indian is now the sole motorcycle-producing division of Polaris. If you’re a dresser rider right now, you are the coveted customer. You buy bikes — profitable bikes. The domestic motorcycle makers are hurting right now, because demand in United States is down, and there is little worldwide call for big, heavy bikes. These new variants are going to make it easier than ever for you to pick exactly the bike you want just the way you want it. You spend money, you get choices.

Hip warehouse bar
Indian introduces the newest Chieftains. Photo by Barry Hathaway.

And if you’re not interested in a dresser? Consider these bikes a form of reverse subsidy for the next generation of riders. Young Americans pay for the Social Security collected by the average dresser rider, yet there’s a good chance that system will collapse. If Indian’s playing its hand intelligently, they’re taking those profits and expanding into classes younger riders are likely to purchase in, both home and abroad. ADV? Standard? Offroad? I have no idea. Reid wasn’t talking any more on the topic, but the obvious hope is that these bikes put money in the R&D coffers. Is that five-year timespan realistic? Hold that thought — I’ll get back to that in the conclusion.

Chieftain Limited
2017 Indian Chieftain Limited. Photo by Barry Hathaway.

With that explanation out of the way, let me get back to the bikes at hand and plainly state what I’ve hinted at so far: The Elite and Limited are not different enough from the standard Chieftain to call them different models. They are, however, great bikes, from what I can tell. I had the opportunity to ride one during Daytona Bike Week in 2016. I was testing the Springfield, another solid touring performer in the Indian lineup. I needed to cruise from St. Augustine to Orlando to catch a plane. Indian handed me the keys to a Chieftain, which I enjoyed immensely.

2017 Indian Chieftain Elite (left) and Limited (right). Photo by Barry Hathaway.

The Chieftain is a simple motorcycle to explain. With its handlebar-mounted fairing and hard bags, it squares off against the Harley-Davidson Street Glide. The Limited and Elite packages jockey for position against Harley’s Street Glide Special and CVO Street Glide, respectively. These are big, serious touring bikes that aren’t as awkward around town as a full-dress machine, and are a little bit more style-conscious than the full touring rig.

The Chieftain family is bolstered by the Chieftain Dark Horse and Chieftain. The Dark Horse ($21,999) is the entry-level model, with modest amounts of chrome. Bumping up to the Chieftain ($23,999-$25,199), one receives a passenger seat and p-pegs, additional paint options, and more chrome (the amount of which varies, oddly, by paint color). The big addition here for 2017, to me, is the new Ride Command infotainment system. If you're a technophile, the Dark Horse should not make your list. That goes double if you've got a sweetheart you like to bring along.

The Limited ($24,499), Indian’s new offering, has a few more tricks up its sleeve than the previous iterations of the Chieftain. The dowdy 16-inch front wheel is replaced by a ten-spoke contrast-cut wheel that’s three inches larger. Predictably, the wheel is shod in bias-ply rubber, in this case, a Dunlop American Elite. (Rears on all Chieftains are an Elite 3.)

Alloy wheels were not present on Indians in 1939, but fenders that showed off the wheels sure were. RevZilla photo.

To expose this wheel, the front fender is cut away. There’s no valance. For some, the heavily skirted fender is synonymous with the idea of Indian bikes, but Indian pointed out something I knew perfectly well on the press launch: the voluptuous fender didn’t come along until 1940. A ‘39 Chief looks a heck of a lot “leggier” than the post-war models, and I think Indian was attempting to capture a bit of that with the Limited.

Beyond that, Limited riders also get a color-matched headlight bezel and a shorter windscreen. (That’s an electrically powered item, like all the bikes in the Chieftain lineup.)

This paint looks really pretty in person. Photo by Barry Hathaway.

The Elite ($31,499) features all the same jazz plus a few other goodies, like fancy paint, for starts. (It looks like that new paint facility in Spearfish paid off! Indian’s paint application and color selection don’t get spanked by Harley’s.) Also on the list are LED passing lamps and headlight, a windshield with a “flip,” saddlebag lid speakers, fancier rider floorboards, and mini floorboards (as opposed to pegs) for the pillion.

Riding the Chieftain

The Chieftains are heavy bikes — 831 pounds dry — but they are accessible for shorter riders, as the seat is only 26 inches off the ground. Getting on one feels predictable; exactly what you’d expect mounting a big American dresser. The primary now sticks out noticeably further than Harley’s redesigned unit on the Milwaukee-Eight bikes. Pick the beast up off the sidestand and press the power button so the new-for-2017 Ride Command system can greet you. (Yeah, it has a power button. Keyless ignition is standard. Man, I’m getting old.)

When you fire it up, there’s a cool animated smoking-Indian-logo-thing going if your bike is fitted with Indian’s Ride Command system. This is a whole different ball of wax than Harley’s Boom! audio setup. (Harley may have won the slim primary contest, but Indian’s slaying H-D in the info/nav department.) Mark my words: these electronics will pull more riders from H-D’s ranks than any other part of this bike. There’s a little more on this system deeper in the review, but suffice it to say if Indian is seeking to acquire customers who aren’t getting ready to up and die soon, electronic wizardry seems like a real good start.

I rode both a Limited and an Elite, and I was on the Elite first. Indian’s guys unashamedly corked the bat and gave me a hooked-up model with their performance cams, mufflers, and air cleaner. The Indian fired right up and purred. I am torn over the engine. I love its power delivery, especially with the goodies. The downside to that mill? It sounds weird. The jugs are set at a 49 degree splay, which just sounds a bit off to my ear. That figure is strange because the original incarnation of Indian vee engines were narrower than Harley’s at 42 degrees. Long story short: I appreciated the power, but didn’t love the sound. And the looks? I already wrote about ‘em. The OHV engine is masterfully disguised as a faux flathead. It's done beautifully, but it doesn't make mah socks go up and down.

Indian engine
Indian's faux flathead. Photo by Barry Hathaway.

The engine's prodigious oomph is ridiculous right from idle; it’s a smile machine from the lowest revs. The fine folks at Indian were kind enough to have some members of the CHP along to make sure we didn’t die on our press ride, which was real thoughtful. All of the people I have met from San Diego have been real swell folks, the cops included. When I tested out all the torque on a wet road by spinning the rear wheel for a few dozen yards after coming off a stop sign, they were as mellow about it as the Chieftain was.

The fuzz
"I'm in San Diego. It's not going to be a lanesplitting ticket or a weed charge, I guess." Photo by Felix Romero Garcia.

The engine is just a doll. I was plenty pleased with the unmodified Limited, too. Thunderstroke-equipped bikes are not fast, per se, but you just don’t expect a bike of this size to be so quick on its feet, modifications or not.

Front wheel
The front wheel is on display for all the world to see, and the valanced fender is nowhere in sight. I followed the front wheel around for the better part of a day and I had a good time doing it. Handling is not affected negatively, which is sort of expected from a factory big-wheel bike.Photo by Barry Hathaway.
Now when it comes to handling, I think the Indian really shines. The Moto Guzzi MGX-21 is probably the dresser with the greatest potential for being a sweet-handling machine: it’s got lots of ground and cornering clearance, but the suspension was mushy. The Harley-Davidson offerings are at the other end of the spectrum: much firmer for 2017, but the bikes are still too low and the suspension, though improved for 2017, does not best the Chieftain’s cloud-like ride.

Indian suspension on the dressers is like Baby Bear’s porridge: juuuuust right. The ride is plush and cushy, but firm enough to hold up if you want to romp the bike a bit. Cornering clearance is noticeably better than the H-D competition, but I expect H-D to introduce a new chassis this year, so that could even the playing field. I could get the Indian to scrape boards, but I had to really try to make it happen, whereas on a Harley, it seems inevitable. Since Harley improved suspension on the touring models this year, though, they’ve made up some ground.

Where am I?
I really do love the vibe in San Diego. Fortunately, I was not lost, or I would have taken a significantly dimmer view of this sign. Photo by Lemmy.

As far as brakes and tires, I was satisfied. The triple disc, quad-piston brakes do just fine, and the tires stick to the road as best they can. I’ve never been a fan of Dunlop’s cruiser tires, but the Elite and American Elite are ones that I can actually live with. They did cut loose — predictably — on that wet burnout, but for the most part, they behaved themselves pretty well, even on painted road markers in the wet weather. (Just my luck I show up in San Diego during the winter and get two days of rain.) The brakes slow the bike down without fussing or carrying on.

The power windshield is nice, I guess, but a bit fancy for me. I feel as though the Indian dressers are made for a smaller rider than Harley cooks their bikes up for, so I needed the shields in the full-up position at all times. The flipped model on the Elite is the only way to fly for a taller rider — and I’m only six feet. Plan on buying one if you are tall and you’re buying a Limited. The stereo is actually loud enough to use at speed with a full-face lid on, and the sofa on this bike is almost as comfy as a motorcycle saddle. I’m kidding, of course, but it really is pretty comfy. I could knock down a thousand-mile day on this bike no sweat.

What I didn’t like

My first gripe is a minor one. The lack of a warbonnet is understandable, given these bikes’ mission of “sleek but modern,” but I’m still a sucker for that fender lamp. (You can’t say “warbonnet” any more, apparently, according to Indian’s legal-eagles. Or at least they can’t. Nor can they use Indian’s original spelling of “motocycle.” Who knew?!)

My other gripes really have only to do with how this bike stacks up against the competition. Indian’s cams, air cleaner, mufflers, tips, plus a re-tune and labor tallies up in the neighborhood of three grand per their marketing guys. (You can check the price of the parts online, but the tuning and labor will vary depending on the shop, obviously.) That’s a heavy chunk of change to drop on a bike that’s supposed to be the nicest in its segment. Let’s compare the nicest Chieftain — the Elite — to the nicest H-D equivalent, the CVO Street Glide. The Indian is $31,499, and the Street Glide is $37,799.

Bikes in a line
RevZilla photo.

The Street Glide, however, comes with upgraded mufflers, tune and air cleaner already on the bike. And the cams? Well, H-D might not throw in the cams, but they do include seven more inches of displacement, which is a hell of a lot more difficult to install. By contrast, the same engine in the lowly Chieftain Dark Horse is exactly the same one in the upmarket Elite and Limited. Does budget matter to the buyer in this segment? No, but cubic inches sure do. The Harley leaves you room to grow bigger yet; that’s H-D’s bread and butter. The Indian? Lloyd’z is the only game in town. They offer a reasonably priced 121-cubic-inch big-bore kit. (The stroke on this engine is almost 4.5 inches, and due to the one-piece crank, it would be insanely expensive to try to bump that up.) The catch is that the cases need to be machined for the kit, so an entire engine teardown is necessary. Long story short: If you ain’t a machinist, you better look at nitrous or a blower if you want to go faster.

Another oddity for me is the footboards on these bikes. They don’t scrape nearly as easily as a Harley’s boards, but if you do drag one, you’re in trouble. Regardless of whether it’s the Limited’s rubber-covered units or the Elite’s billet pieces, they flip up just a scant few degrees before they contact other parts. For instance, on the left, the aluminum actually hits the pretty primary! This is also a problem because the rider has little warning between the scrape and a high-center.

The Indian’s clutch is also a plain-jane clutch. I personally don’t mind this, but I know lots of riders expect a slipper clutch these days. The assist function’s greater holding power isn’t really demanded in the dresser context, but lighter lever pulls sure are. Assist serrations in the clutch can either be used to achieve greater clamping power or the same clamping power as a non-assist unit, but with reduced effort for clutch pull with no increase in throw. As a result of this, slipper-assists, once the domain of the race world, show up on everything these days. I two-finger clutches like I’m riding dirt, even on the street when I can, but couldn’t two-finger the Indian clutches — not because the pull was too great, but because of the length of travel (to keep the pull manageable, I guess). The result was that my ring finger would get smashed and I couldn’t get enough clutch action to shift smoothly. Note that Harley’s new bikes do indeed offer a slipper-assist clutch.

A big concern is the “clacking” that seems to be emanating from a fairly significant number of Thunderstroke engines. The noise is thought to be improperly machined oil pump gerotors, but that’s not definitive. Indian has stayed relatively silent on this issue, according to the forums, and owners seem to be growing a bit restless. One user reports that an Indian Factory rep is aware of the problem and it is not an isolated one.

When asked about the issue, an Indian representative gave a typical sanitized reply. “Exposed V-twin engines with industry leading torque naturally make some noise under various operating conditions. If a customer has a concern with a specific noise, they should bring it into their dealer and our trained service staff will diagnose the concerns as needed.”

You want to sour me on your product, Indian? Provide a bullshit statement like that one instead of an honest answer about your product’s shortcomings.

Ride Command
The Ride Command system is very sophisticated, yet intuitive. Photo by Barry Hathaway.

What I liked

I mean, personally, I have little use for electronics on a bike. I have to deal with gadgets all day long — the last place I want to see them is on my motorcycle. But I’m not immune to the fact that I’m a minority. Most people want their bikes to be technologically capable, and Indian delivers the goods.

First, you should know Polaris has their own in-house tech team devoted to building their infotainment and nav, based in Silicon Valley. A large percentage of that team is made up of riders. I actually specifically asked about this because the system was so easy and intuitive even a bobo like me picked up on its operation posthaste. I did not feel like I needed a manual to get going on it.

The stock infotainment system allows riders to use regular gloves and still use the system. (Special touchscreen-compatible gloves exist. Indian riders may still want a set because even though the bike works that way, your phone prob’ly does not.) It enable riders to pinch and swipe to manipulate the screen. It can be operated with the trigger buttons on the control pods so you never have to remove your hands from the bars. The Bluetooth functionality is said to integrate just fine with aftermarket comm systems. There are no wires or plug-in converters to use. The only nanny device built in is the nav system disallowing one to add addresses on the fly. (You can choose locations that exist in the system, like fuel or grub, while you are underway. This seems pretty reasonable to me.)

A coming refresh on this system is going to allow multiple waypoints to be added, somewhere between 20 and 100. Various .gpx files are going to be supported, too, which should allow riders to share rides easily. Going forward, the idea is to make feature updates like that one backwards compatible with older bikes, à la Tesla. That’s a nice little Easter egg. Indian is considering hosting some sort of a web interface where riders can convert “ride files” into usable formats.

These go to 11!
Indian has a Spinal Tap fan in the house, it appears. This radio goes to 11. Photo by Barry Hathaway.

But that’s not the best part. That award goes to the radio’s max volume. No way that’s a coincidence. (The Limited’s stereo is the first one that I’ve been able to get loud enough in the OEM configuration.)


The Elite and Limited are excellent motorcycles. They’re not very different from the existing Chieftains, but that's partially because the existing Indian bagger is so damn good. So, in summary, “Which is better? A Chieftain variant or a Street Glide iteration?” isn’t really a question I’m interested in trying to answer. There are enough differences between the two bikes at this point that I feel like the question ought to be, “Which one of these is better for me?” That is likely to have some very real — and varied — answers.

Indian's thoughtful touches make Chieftains a standout in their class. Do they have new stuff coming down the pike, though? RevZilla photo.

Are these different models? No. Not at all, and I won’t even pretend they are. They’re great bikes, but the timing of their release is unfortunate at best. The Roadmaster Classic was so insignificant and blah that not a single Common Tread staffer even suggested covering it. At a time when Harley has released bikes that are really appealing to the younger crowd like the FLHRX and the new Street Rod, the offering of the Elite and Limited seems out of touch and and aloof. A five-year introduction time for crazy new models seems insanely long from my chair. I know that big changes take some time, but five years may as well be 50.

Ultimately, I feel it would be a shame to see these bikes die an early death not because Indian produced them, but instead, because of the other bikes they failed to build.

Harley has stopped betting solely on the greybeards — can Indian wise up and do the same?