2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire ride review: Milwaukee's big pivot to the future

It is said that the purpose of art is to make us ask why. In this case, the new 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire is truly artistic. Developed over five years by a skunkworks team within the Milwaukee-based company, its startling mission is to serve as the tip of the spear for broad range of electric two-wheelers from the historic “Motor Company.” While making a big splash.

Putting aside its EV engineering and Buck Rogers design, the premium-priced LiveWire is functionally a motorcycle like any other, except that it lacks clutch and shift levers. Then again, so do various gasoline-powered DCT models like Honda’s NC750X and Yamaha’s FJ1300A, so such simplification is not unique to electric motorcycles. Swing your leg over the seatback and pick the 549-pound machine upright from its side stand. The seating position is good — semi-sporty with a low-rise handlebar and pleasing standard foot-peg position. An ape-hanger handlebar, swaggering chopper this is not.

If the LiveWire were in the garage charging — which takes overnight on 120-volt household current or an hour on a commercial fast charger – before riding, you’d unplug the included cable from a receptacle atop the dummy fuel tank, then either put it aside or store it in a dedicated onboard area.

“Starting” (our term) the LiveWire begins by approaching the machine with its keyless transponder in your possession; as long as it’s pocketed, you’re on to the next step, which is tapping a button on the right handlebar to awaken the instrument panel, lighting, motor controller and other functions. Two unique cues notify the rider that the bike’s ready to ride: Green LEDs frame the 4.3-inch color LCD touchscreen and a unique “heartbeat” rocking moment courses through the machine. This gimmicky but useful tactile feature is created by the ECU turning the 105-hp motor’s armature back and forth. It can be increased, decreased or eliminated by one of the 150 reported LiveWire Harley dealers at the customer’s direction (but oddly, not by the customer).

When you’re ready to ride, simply flip up the side stand, twist the traditional right-hand throttle, pick your feet up and go. Engineers worked hard to make the LiveWire nimble at slow speeds, and it is exactly that. Acceleration is brisk, and Harley claims 3-second 0-60-mph times under ideal conditions. Internal-combustion superbikes costing way less are quicker, but regardless, the LiveWire is thrilling enough off the line. Then, in ginormous contrast to vibrating, bellowing ancestral Harleys, the LiveWire goes about its business in relative silence, excepting a whir from the toothed belt final drive, tire noise, some mild background motor, controller, drivetrain and cooling-fan noise — and, of course, the wind past your helmet.

The liquid-cooled motor, battery pack and aforementioned styling are the defining elements of the LiveWire. Hanging below the cast-aluminum, bolt-together chassis is a six-pole (like in Tesla’s Model 3) permanent magnet synchronous motor. Its shaft is longitudinal, as in a Mustang or Corvette. And so, turning the rotation 90 degrees to enable using a belt final drive instead of a shaft drive (like on BMW’s R nineT), the motor drives through a dedicated helical-bevel gearset to a jackshaft and drive pulley.

Company materials indicate the 86 lb-ft maximum torque is available “instantly,” and top speed for the electric motor is 15,000 rpm.

A 15.5-kWh lithium-ion battery back mounts above the motor, in between the frame rails. You might wonder why the heavy battery back is mounted high and the relatively lighter motor low; government regulations require structural protection for the battery. In a four-wheel EV, this is provided by the frame rails, and now the same is true for LiveWire. Harley claims a riding range of 146 miles in the city, 95 miles in combined city/highway use, or 70 miles on the highway.

On the press launch held in summer 2019, the Harley-led brisk city/country ride loop covered 65 miles and left our test LiveWire with an indicated 27-mile range remaining; simple arithmetic thus suggests a useful range of 92 miles for brisk sport riding and city work – close to the corporate claims.

Another essential LiveWire feature is the seven different performance maps accessible via handlebar toggles. These include sport, road, range and rain, plus three customizable maps. Essentially, each map controls power delivery, regenerative braking and energy usage differently. We found sport mode provided the most satisfying ride experience, due to quicker throttle response, more robust acceleration and maximum regenerative braking, which mimics engine braking on an ICE bike.

Bluetooth smartphone connectivity and GPS navigation are standard and use the stock IP. Owners can access their LiveWire information such as battery state of charge by smartphone, but the machine cannot be programmed via smartphone; Harley says this eliminates the possibility of the ECU being hacked.

Whisking along at up to triple-digit speeds (we saw an indicated 111 mph, correlating closely to Harley’s stated 110 mph maximum) on the press ride is, as Chazz Michael Michaels mused in “Blades of Glory,” “mind-bottling, isn’t it?” Due to wind noise, you don’t hear birds, whispering aspens or burbling creeks at high velocity, but at city speeds, the LiveWire nicely connects you to the audible environment, enabling easy conversation with other riders, a passenger or even curious pedestrians or cyclists. Intriguingly, the LiveWire is suddenly the anti-Harley Harley, built by Harley.

Ride comfort is a downside for the LiveWire, with several factors contributing here. One is simply a human factors thing; automakers can add six-way adjustable seats, four-way adjustable steering column and two-way adjustable pedals to fit everyone from Pookie to Shaq, but bikemakers struggle to win an ergonomic sweet spot for riders of all sizes. As a result, the LiveWire’s seat is thinly padded, modest in height at 30.7 inches, and narrow at the front in deference to smaller, rather than taller, riders. Likewise, to keep the seat height low, suspension travel is limited to a substandard 4.5 inches, less than ICE competitors offer.

Crucially, increasing travel is impossible without raising the machine, because the stacked motor and battery limit ground clearance to just 5.1 inches.

Bottom line here, despite its contemporary Showa tunable suspension, we found the ride compliance poor at lower speeds on imperfect pavement. At highway speeds, the standard spring rates did a better job at attenuating impact energy. Fortunately, the seating position is amiable, although the handlebar needs slightly more pull-back and the mirrors should be larger and positioned higher and/or wider.

All in all, the LiveWire is a good motorcycle. It has brisk performance, nimble and predictable handling (except on bumpy roads), an impressively smooth and quiet powertrain (if you have carpal-tunnel syndrome and tinnitus, here’s your bike), and adequate range with the capability of charging on CCS Combo 1/J1772 public fast chargers. What remains to be seen is how many riders will buy them at $10,000 over a great superbike and with no known federal or state rebates, lease deals or other incentives that typically drive EV sales in the auto market.

We’ll see what happens.

On Sale: Fall 2019

Base Price: $29,799

Drivetrain: Liquid-cooled electric motor, single-speed transmission, belt drive, 15.5 kWh lithium-ion battery

Output: 105 hp, 86 lb-ft

Curb Weight: 549 pounds

Range: 146 miles city, 70 miles highway, 95 miles combined

Pros: Feels like a fully realized modern bike, not just an electrified take on the V-twin

Cons: A whopping price tag; limited range means it’s no continent-crosser

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