Will the next form of Indian vs. Harley-Davidson competition be electric?

Mar 06, 2017

A Polaris executive recently said the company plans to bring an electric motorcycle under the Indian brand to market in four or five years.

This is not new ground for the vehicle manufacturer, whose recently defunct Victory subsidiary offered the Empulse, a very similar bike to the one Brammo offered before Polaris acquired part of that firm.

It's part of the plan to attract a new type of customer, Steve Menneto, president of Polaris’ motorcycle division, told Reuters just a few days ago. Range on the new model, one of the crucial performance indicators for electric motorcycles, is said to be 120 to 140 miles when ridden aggressively. "The characteristics of the (new) powertrain are going to be more applicable to be able to ride a bike in pleasure and twisties, and kind of how you would use pleasure bikes today," said Menneto.

Victory Empulse
The Victory Empulse was formerly a Brammo, but Polaris bought that company's electric motorcycle assets. RevZilla photo.

Some of you may remember my review of the Victory Empulse. I had a surprisingly good time riding that motorcycle. In all honesty, however, the only time I ever considered purchasing one was after Victory folded and panicky dealers were unloading them.

A fatal flaw I found with it was its range, said to be 140 miles. Real-world riding on the Empulse (Lem-style, which means violently) put the range at something more like 70 to 80 miles. Now, the new bike promises the same range (or worse!) as the old one, which doesn’t seem to be an improvement. But it would be if it lives up to the claim. I'm thinking Menneto is betting on battery tech moving forward by leaps and bounds in the near future.

Range discrepancy is just one part of why the entire Common Tread staff is a little skeptical. Polaris has a bit of a track record of overpromising. You may recall our coverage of the Octane. Plenty of motorcyclists felt that bike didn’t “deliver on the promise of modern American muscle,” in the words of Victory’s GM, Rod Krois. Subterfuge was revealed a year later when Polaris very abruptly shut down Victory operations. Right up until the bitter end, mouthpieces for the brand painted a rosy picture.

Indian Roadmaster Classic
The "new" Indian Roadmaster Classic, which appears to be a Roadmaster with factory-installed leather fringe and topbox. Indian Motorcycle photo.

It's interesting that the five-year time frame for introducing an electric motorcycle puts Indian in potential competition with Harley-Davidson in a whole new segment. Last year, a Harley exec said the Motor Company would come out with a production electric vehicle in five years. It's one thing to see Harley and Indian competing in American Flat Track racing this year, but who thought we'd see them competing to sell electric bikes?

Well, maybe we'll see them competing. Like the Harley LiveWire, the electric Indian is probably going to be vaporware for a considerable time. To me, this appears to be a grotesque play to make it seem as though Indian is attempting to do something other than make another Chiefmaster Deluxe Vintage Classic. Is it for real? Lance is firmly in "I'll believe it when I see it" mode with Polaris these days. Me? I think Polaris has backed themselves into a corner and they know it.

Like everyone else, I want to see them branch way, way out from what they are doing now. They really have no other choice — the brand is woefully short on diversity within its line. The Thunderstroke 111 is getting long in the tooth already, and having only the Scout using their other existing engine platform seems difficult to justify financially. I'm betting that they’re scrambling to keep the ship afloat until they roll out some truly innovative bikes. At this point, they have almost no choice — how many strikes will the market allow them?

This e-bike would be a great first step, but promising to roll out a bike during the next presidential election seems pretty far away, doesn't it?

My final concern about this bike involves Menneto's quote about the powertrain being suitable for twisties. In the case of the Octane, while the powertrain and chassis were technically derived from a Pike's Peak racer, they were watered down enough that it's a bit ludicrous to couple them up with any hint of performance in the traditional sense.

For now, I’ll let my breathless optimism win out over cold pragmatism.