Harley-Davidson has introduced an adventure motorcycle that will redefine the approachability of large adventure bikes.
I’ll spend the next 4,000 words or so dissecting that statement, but if you read nothing else, you can walk away with my general thesis.
Let’s take a second to appreciate the significance of this model. This is Harley-Davidson’s first time venturing outside of the cruiser and touring segments since before I was born (at least with a gasoline-burning model). So for them to branch out into the wildly popular and hugely competitive ADV segment is a big deal. For them to introduce such an innovative and impressive machine is even more important.
For this event, Harley gave us two and a half days and nearly 400 miles with the bike, an impressive amount of exposure for a press launch. We rode everything from snaking mountain asphalt to rocky Jeep trails with sandy washes. We got to use both the street-oriented Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires designed specifically for the Pan America as well as the optional Michelin Anakee Wilds for more bite off-road. And we were afforded the ability to try out accessory seats, bar risers, and tailor all of the controls and levers to our personal preferences to match our individual riding styles.
There is a lot to unpack here. So grab a beer, kick your feet up, and settle in. This is everything you need to know about Harley-Davidson’s new adventure bike, the Pan America.
The Pan America and Pan America Special
The Pan America is available in standard trim set up with mag wheels, a non-electronically controlled suspension, and a slightly taller stock seat height than the Special. It weighs in at a claimed 534 pounds fully fueled. Note that the cross-spoked wheels are a $500 option from the P&A catalog and will add 14 pounds to the weight of the bike.
The Pan America Special comes with the mag wheels in stock trim as well, tipping the scales at 559 pounds. We rode the Pan America Special and with the cross-spoked wheels and accessory skid plate and our test bikes came in around 574 pounds. The main reason for the increased weight is all of the extra hardware you’ll find on the Special.
Typically I don't comment on the looks of a motorcycle as everyone has their own idea of what looks good or bad, but there have been a slew of questions rolling in on social media on this front. So all I'm going to say is that in my opinion the Pan America Special, as it was outfitted for us to ride, looks much better in person.
The up-spec Special gets a center stand, crash bars, skid plate, Öhlins steering damper, tire pressure monitoring, plastic handguards, a reversible brake pedal with variable height, and Harley’s Daymaker Adaptive LED Headlamp. But the biggest upgrade is the addition of the semi-active Showa suspension and the ability to add the Adaptive Ride Height feature.
Adaptive Ride Height and suspension
The Pan America Special features an electronically controlled 47 mm Showa fork up front and a linkage-mounted monoshock out back. Both come equipped with 7.5 inches of travel and a fully automatic preload adjuster and semi-active damping. Unlike other electronic suspension systems I’ve used, where you select the preload setting with a little picture of a solo rider, or two riders with a suitcase, the Pan America’s system determines it for you and constantly keeps the bike set at 30 percent sag.
Working in conjunction with the system’s automatic preload adjusters is Harley-Davidson’s Adaptive Ride Height control system. The ARH system is easily the most innovative and revolutionary component of the Pan America. It works with the Special’s suspension system to electronically reduce preload at stops, thus lowering the bike one to two inches, creating an easier reach to the ground for shorter and novice riders.
In Auto mode, the system lowers quickly if you come to a quick stop and lowers more slowly for a gradual stop. In Short Delay/Long Delay mode, you can adjust the delay of when the bike will lower. And in Locked Mode you can turn ARH off completely and lock the bike at its full height. Adaptive Ride Height Control is a $1,000 premium over the standard Special.
The numbers Harley provided included some discrepancies, including laden and unladen seat heights. I’m reporting the numbers I was given by the engineering team and they’re measured with a 180-pound laden load. There are currently three seat options available for the Pan America Special (the Standard is about a half an inch taller), each with two different height positions to choose from. The stock seat height in the low position measures 31.1 inches while the high position bumps it up one inch to 32.1 inches. The tall seat starts at 32.1 inches and goes an inch higher to 33.1 inches and the low seat can drop you down to 30.1 inches. Coupled with the ARH system, you can achieve an incredibly low 28.1-to-29.1-inch seat height, depending on your weight.
While the system takes all of the guesswork out of determining preload, you manually choose from five different damping profiles. For street riding there is Comfort, Balanced, and Sport and for the dirt there is Off-Road Soft and Off-Road Firm.
The Revolution Max 1250 engine
At the heart of both Pan America models is the all-new Revolution Max 1250 engine manufactured in Harley’s Pilgrim Road Powertrain Operations facility in Wisconsin. A liquid-cooled, 1,252 cc, 60-degree V-twin with DOHC and four valves per cylinder. The connecting rod journals are offset by 30 degrees, creating a 90-degree firing order. Combined with dual crankshaft counterbalancers, the engine produces what I would say is a very smooth feel while cruising and an almost lumpy, grunty character as you accelerate.
The Revolution Max engine comes equipped with computer-controlled Variable Valve Timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. The system can advance or retard camshaft timing for up to 40 degrees of crankshaft rotation. The result is an even spread of power both low and high in the rev range. That being said, the engine really wakes up in the top half of its rpm range, but we’ll talk more about that in the riding section.
Harley is claiming 150 horsepower at 9,000 rpm and 94 foot-pounds of torque at 6,750 rpm. The engine prefers 91 octane to achieve these stats but can run on lower octane fuel in a pinch. A knock sensor will automatically retard the timing at the expense of peak power.
The drive-side camshaft bearing journal is part of the drive sprocket, thus making it possible to remove the camshaft for service or future performance upgrades without disassembling the camshaft drive. Speaking of service, the Revolution Max engine features hydraulic valve lash adjusters, which eliminates regular valve checks. Change the oil once every 5,000 miles and ride.
Unlike other Harleys that feature a separate transmission housing, this Revolution Max uses a unitized powertrain, sharing its housing with a six-speed gearbox and slipper-assist clutch. The clutch is cable-actuated and there is an adjustable lever to fine tune the fit. There is currently no quickshifter option and when pressed Harley executives refused to comment “on future product iterations.” So, maybe down the line?
The engine breathes through an airbox that sits under the tank, which means the tank has to be removed for filter checks and changes. While this has been the bane of my maintenance existence over the years after a dusty ride, Harley-Davidson reps assured me that it was an easy “remove three bolts and lift” process. I’ll require a long-term loaner before I’m able to determine the exact ease of maintenance for myself.
The stock exhaust is made of stainless steel and weighs in at 15.3 pounds. The Screamin’ Eagle option doesn’t add much in the way of exhaust note but it does look sleeker and it drops 6.5 pounds off of the stock option.
The Pan America has one of the most sophisticated electronic suites I’ve ever used. The downside is that there was a lot to learn and the system wasn’t as intuitive as some of the others I’ve ridden. I’ll do my best to break it down, but if you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to address them.
The engine is controlled via five different riding modes: Rain, Road, and Sport for street riding and Off-Road and Off-Road Plus in the dirt. Each of these modes utilizes a six-axis IMU to control lean-angle-sensitive ABS and traction control as well as throttle response. Harley calls their systems Cornering Enhanced Traction Control System (C-TCS) and Cornering Enhanced Linked Braking System (C-ELB).
The braking system electronically links the dual monoblock, four-piston Brembo calipers at the front wheel with the single-piston Brembo caliper at the rear wheel. Heavier application of the brake lever or pedal increases linking functionality and light braking nearly eliminates it. Linking can also be completely disabled using the Off-Road Plus mode.
There are varying levels of traction control intervention. Ranked from most intrusive to least: Rain, Road, Off-Road, Sport, Off-Road Plus. In addition to disabling the linked braking feature, Off-Road Plus mode also disables ABS at the rear wheel as well as Rear Wheel Lift Mitigation (stoppies) and Corner Enhanced Drag-Torque Slip Control (C-DSCS). This feature matches the torque at your rear wheel to reduce excessive rear wheel slip in aggressive deceleration and downshifts. It works in conjunction with the slipper clutch.
Off-Road Plus reduces but does not disable Front Wheel Lift Mitigation (anti-wheelie control). In order to completely eliminate this feature you need to turn off Traction Control, which can be done with the push of a button on the right hand side of the handlebar controls. ABS will always remain on at the front wheel, even in Off-Road Plus mode. (This is a good thing.) Speaking of buttons, there are a lot of them and a lot of information on the screen.
In addition to the standard five modes, there are also three customizable options, which allow you to dial in throttle response, traction control, engine braking, ABS, suspension damping, and ARH settings. All of this can be set by using a combination of the controls at your left hand or via the touchscreen 6.8-inch TFT dash. Only the Special has a fully customizable Off-Road Plus Mode as one of its three slots.
You can also pair your phone to control your music and use the GPS navigation in Harley’s app. Harley didn’t have us download the app to try out that functionality and I didn’t bother pairing my phone, as I prefer to control my music with my com system while riding. If you want to charge your phone while you’re riding, there is a little USB-C port on the right side of the dash.
So now that we have a good grasp on what we’re dealing with here, let’s get out and ride.
Riding on the road
The day started at 7:30 a.m. and temps were already in the low 80s as we rolled out of RawHyde’s Zakar compound in the middle of the Mojave Desert. We hit the road, taking Highway 58 across the desert. The Pan America was cruising at 75 mph, spinning a rather relaxed 4,300 rpms.
I say relaxed because this is unlike any other Harley engine that I’ve ever ridden. Most Harleys don’t rev much beyond 5,000 rpm, but I found this one to be relaxed and happy between 3,000 and 5,000, the perfect range for setting cruise control and keeping on down the road. You can get the Pan America down to 2,000 rpm, but it begins to shimmy and shake and let you know it would be more comfortable around 3,000 rpm.
Some of the riders complained of a buzz around the 4,000 rpm mark, but even with the rubber inserts pulled out of the footpegs, I felt nothing out of the ordinary for a big V-twin. If anything, the engine was surprisingly smooth when holding a steady speed at sub-5,000 rpm.
Cruise control worked well to give my hand a break, but in true Pan America fashion, there were three buttons when two would have worked. The location was a bit odd, as it was on top of the left hand control panel. The first couple times I accidentally ended up turning on the heated grips. It does require the rider to look down at the buttons until you get a feel for it. Even then, I had trouble remembering there was a separate “off” button rather than just hitting the same button a second time.
Stock wind protection was in a weird in-between location for my taste. I think fans of taller, more encompassing windscreens will be disappointed with the coverage, but for me, I would opt for the shorter accessory screen. I kept it in the lowest position and as a taller rider I was still getting a lot of buffeting. The mechanism to raise and lower the screen was a bit clunky, but I was able to make adjustments on the fly while riding.
Leaving the highway, we headed north on Bealville Road and the riding got more fun as we headed into the foothills of the southernmost part of the Sierra Nevada range. The engine surprised me as it’s much more of a “revver” than I was expecting. North of 5,000 rpm is where it really wakes up. It pulls incredibly hard to nearly the 9,500 rpm redline. I found myself in third and fourth gear most of this day.
The gearbox had a much more modern feel than what I’ve typically experienced with Harley-Davidson. The clutch pull was relatively light and shifts were quiet and quick. The slipper function, in conjunction with C-DSCS, worked seamlessly for aggressive downshifts.
I tried all of the street modes and found Rain to be way too soft and Road to be a nice all-around option. But I spent most of my day in Sport mode. The slightly more aggressive throttle response and firm damping really fit the roads we were on. Handling was relatively neutral. It didn’t turn in overly quick but you didn’t need to wrestle it through corners either. A gentle nudge on the handlebar and the bike went where you pointed it and it held a line well. The suspension felt firm yet plush at the same time.
I left Adaptive Ride Height on for this full first day. It worked flawlessly. You don’t even notice it but when you come to a stop, the ground is just right there to meet the sole of your boot. I left it on automatic the whole time and, even as a tall rider, I enjoyed the functionality. It was just so damn impressive. I really do think this is a game-changer for the ADV segment.
I also enjoyed the linked brakes because I only had to focus on the front lever and those brakes brought the Pan America to a halt on the spot. ABS kicked in a few times but it didn’t feel overly noticeable or disturbing. In Sport mode, the traction control lets the bike get pretty wild before kicking in. That being said, if you want to pull the front wheel up I’d recommend hitting that TC button on the handlebar. Just a note there, the bike has to be running at idle and sitting still to turn off the TC.
The Scorcher Adventure tires provided plenty of street performance and feel. For the last 20 miles or so of the first day, the pavement transitioned to a wide sandy track of dirt road. I was impressed with how well these tires handed the hard-packed bottom. Even riding through some of the deeper sand washes the bike held stable at speed.
For this section of the day, I played around with Off-Road and Off-Road Plus modes. I preferred the minimal TC interference of the Plus mode as it allowed me to slide around a little bit before it intervened and allowed me to lock up the rear. With the less aggressive rubber, however, I think novice riders will fare better using the standard Off-Road mode.
I wasn't impressed with the design of the kickstand. The tab to kick it out is much further in front of your foot than you realize and if you leave it deployed while putting the bike up on the center stand, the center stand blocks you from kicking it up. In addition, I did have a bit of a problem reaching the rear brake pedal while standing. Even with the end flipped to the “high” setting, it wasn’t quite high enough to suit my riding style. However, I was able to get that adjusted before heading out for the full day of off-road riding.
The second day’s ride started a little later than the first day. Scott Custer, a test engineer from Harley’s Arizona proving grounds, spent the early morning working with riders to make sure all of our controls were adjusted to our preferred setup for off-road riding. I was able to raise my shifter and brake pedal to work better with off-road boots as well as have my clutch and brake levers rotated down for ease of use while standing. Some folks opted for bar risers, but I did not. Even at six feet, three inches tall, I preferred the standard risers.
I did, however, enjoy the tall seat. Even with ARH turned off and the bike locked in its tallest position, I was still able to pretty much flat-foot this bike with both feet down at the same time. If anything, I want a taller seat from Harley-Davidson for this bike. I’d love a Rally option to eliminate the bump between the rider and passenger seat as it would allow me to move around a bit easier.
For the dirt, I opted to create my own custom off-road riding mode. I chose off-road throttle, firm off-road suspension damping, and engine braking reduced by one click. From there, you have to select your custom map, then hold down the Mode button on the right hand control. This will turn your map purple on the dash, letting you know Off-Road Plus has been engaged. This is what disables ABS at the rear, limits traction control, and unlinks the brakes.
I spent the first few miles like this, but eventually I hit the TC button and just locked TC off completely. I think the limited TC of Off-Road Plus allowed for a decent amount of slip to play around on, but if you’re an experienced off-road ADV rider, you’re going to want to hit that TC button.
I did run into a glitch with the system where it kicked an error message and defaulted to Road mode, randomly turning TC and ABS back on. This was a bit unnerving the first few times it happened in the middle of our photo passes, as I wasn’t expecting it. Talking with one of the folks on Harley’s team, they were able to clear the ECU via the diagnostic setting on the dash and it didn’t happen again for the remainder of the day.
For what it’s worth, the engineers were actively taking data from our bikes and our rides to fine tune and repair all of these glitches on the production models, which start hitting dealerships in May.
The first half of the day was spent on rocky Jeep trails with sporadic sandy washes riding up to the Burro Schmidt tunnel. For this very first portion of the ride, we all had our bikes in the Soft damping setting, as that is what some of the folks on Harley’s PR team had recommended. This setting is pretty much unusable above 35 mph. It’s just too soft and the bike is very unsettled and it almost feels harsher than the Firm setting.
Long story short, just use the Firm setting if you’re over 200 pounds. Even at slower speeds, the Firm setting just felt much more comfortable and planted.
I think the average rider will find the Pan America Special very stable and approachable for tackling the typical fire road. It held a line and was relatively easy to ride up to about 30 to 35 mph. For more experienced riders, I found 50 to 55 mph to be the limit I was comfortable with. At that point, the limited ground clearance and suspension became an issue as I started bottoming out over rocks and landing after bigger whoops.
Typically in off-road scenarios I run 26 psi of pressure in the front tire and 28 psi in the rear on a large ADV bike. Harley reps wouldn’t let us lower the tire pressure of the off-road-focused Michelin Anakee Wild tires. At one point, the TPMS on the dash showed that I had 41 psi in the front tire and 48 psi in the rear. I imagine they were concerned with someone getting a flat tire while bombing over the rocks, and while no one got a flat, it also led to a harsh ride.
I tell you this because for me, the suspension had a very “street” feel to it. It wasn’t nearly as plush as I was expecting off-road. But a lot of that could also be explained by the rock-hard street pressure the tires were set at.
The bikes we were riding were outfitted with Harley’s accessory skid plates, which were a bit beefier and provided more coverage than the stock ones. I was disappointed these weren’t included as the standard option on the Special. Instead, the standard skid plate on the special leaves the regulator/rectifier hanging out in the open directly behind the rear wheel. I have a problem with the location of the reg/rec in general.
Both the reg/rec and the battery are located in the same location. When I brought up my concerns with Senior PR Manager Paul James, he assured me that they tested it and had no issues.
Frankly, the biggest issue I immediately found is that it forces the skid plate to square off rather sharply. So if you do hit something like a sharp rock or log, the bike doesn’t slide over top but rather catches the full brunt. (This is why I opted not to use the Black Dog skid plate on my personal KTM 1090, opting for the angled KTM plate instead.) In addition, even if the reg/rec is super robust, it’s right behind the front wheel. If that packs up with mud and dirt, how well is it going to cool the electronics? Finally, where I ride in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, there are a lot of regular swampy water crossings. I can’t imagine having the battery and reg/rec constantly submerged is going to fare well over time.
While these are valid concerns for people who want to push the boundaries of the Pan America off-road, I don’t see it being designed to do that. I see it as being an approachable bike to allow shorter and novice ADV riders to push their own boundaries off-road.
Even for someone a bit more experienced like myself, I was very surprised with how much I enjoyed this bike off-road. I think the Pan America strikes a careful balance between approachability and capability. I would imagine that hitting up some of these Jeep trails at 50 mph is going to be plenty OK for the average rider. It was for me.
On the highway back home, I did run out of gas. Unlike the Indian Chief review, where I was trying to test the range, this one wasn’t on me. But I can tell you that the warning range light will let you know you’re out of gas at 170 miles. You’ll actually run out of gas at 181 miles. That is, if you spend the day bouncing off the rev limiter ripping down Jeep trails.
The Pan America has a starting MSRP of $17,319 and the Pan America Special comes in around $20K. Our Special, as tested with the Adaptive Ride Height and cross-spoked wheels, costs about $21,500. This prices the Pan America competitively against not only BMW and KTM, but also Triumph and Suzuki.
There seemed to be an understanding from those I talked to at H-D that the KTM is a more off-road-focused machine and that’s not really who they’re going after. The Pan America is taking more of a well rounded approach. I’d add that the KTM has the tallest seat height in the game with varying heights between 35 and 37 inches. For shorter riders, that can be prohibitive.
The new V-Strom 1050XT Adventure has an MSRP of $16,999 and doesn’t hold a candle to the performance, technology, and quality of the Pan America. The Triumph Tiger 1200 XCa comes in around $22,000, but I don’t think it’s as balanced and approachable as the Pan America on- or off-road.
Of all of these bikes, I would argue that Harley-Davidson is really going after the BMW R 1250 GS/GSA first and foremost, which, comparably outfitted, will run you somewhere between $21,770, and $23,595, to the best of my ability to add up all of BMW’s extras. I’m a big guy and even for me the GSA can feel intimidating. Compared to the flagship boxer in the Bavarian lineup, the Pan America feels more approachable, less intimidating, and just easier to ride. However, the BMW feels like it’s got a bit more refinement in its overall approach and you can probably push it a bit harder than the Pan America.
All things considered, Harley-Davidson has introduced a fantastically innovative motorcycle to the world of large ADV bikes. They didn’t just bring a bike into the segment, they also introduced new ways of addressing problems that have plagued this slice of motorcycling for years.
Yes, Triumph and BMW offer low-height versions of their most popular bikes, but those bikes are permanently lowered, whereas the Pan America is only lowered for getting on and off the bike.
Did Harley nail everything right out of the gate? No.
The suspension feels a bit street-oriented, even in the off-road setting, it’s got limited ground clearance, standard protection on the Special could be improved, electronics and buttons could be simplified. and a lot of heat comes off the engine when riding at lower off-road speeds.
But do I think the Pan America is a very impressive first effort from the Motor Company? Yes, yes I do. Frankly, I think it’s just an impressive addition to the big-bike ADV segment regardless of the brand name behind it.
Adaptive Ride Height is fantastic, hydraulic valve lash adjusters are a welcome addition, it feels smaller and more compact, which makes it more approachable, fun, balanced, and relatively easier to ride both on- and off-road when compared to other big bikes. And I think it’s going to prove to be a real contender among the established ADV crowd.
Bravo, Harley-Davidson, you did good.
|2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 and Pan America 1250 Special|
|Price (MSRP)||$17,319 (base), $19,999 (Special), $21,500 (as tested, not including the cost of the upgraded skid plate)|
|Engine||1,252 cc, 60-degree, liquid-cooled, four-valve, V-twin|
|Claimed horsepower||150 @ 9,000 rpm|
|Claimed torque||94 foot-pounds @ 6,750 rpm|
|Frame||Steel trellis, aluminum midsection|
|Front suspension||Showa inverted 47 mm fork, adjustable for preload, compression, and rebound, semi-active option on the Special; 7.48 inches of travel|
|Rear suspension||Showa monoshock, adjustable for preload, semi-active option on the Special; 7.48 inches of travel|
|Front brake||Dual Brembo radial-mount calipers, 320 mm discs, ABS|
|Rear brake||Brembo floating single-piston caliper, 280 mm disc, ABS|
|Rake, trail||25 degrees, 6.2 inches|
|Seat height||31.8 inches (laden with 180-pound rider)|
|Fuel capacity||5.6 gallons|
|Tires||Michelin Scorcher Adventure, 120/70R19 front, 170/60R17 rear; (Optional: Michelin Anakee Wild)|
|Claimed weight||534 pounds (base, wet), 559 pounds (Special, wet), 573 pounds (as tested)|