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BIG RED: INDIAN CHIEFTAIN LIMITED | Bike Tests

Youngy takes time out to try something a little less him in the Hollywood hills

Straight up mates, big-arse baggers just ain’t my bag. Nothing against bags. I bloody love bags. I’ve got loads. But to me, like so many things American, baggers just seem a bit, well, wrong. Like driving on the right, and turning right through a red light, and stop signs at roundabouts. And, like, without even a greasy whiff of irony, naming fast food ‘restaurants’ the likes of Fatburger (yes, really), and In and Out Burger (yes, really really). And, like, saying ‘like’ far too much. Just stop it.

But now, after a week getting intimate with Indian’s chief captain of fancy baggers, the Chieftain Limited, I do get it. And, I even have to admit to liking it, somewhat ironically, in an ironic and therefore thoroughly un-American way. Like, I ended up loving it.

The Chieftain was full of surprises, almost all of them positive. Firstly, the Chieftain doesn’t ride as heavy as it looks, and is. The trick to building a well-mannered yet ludicrously enormous and ostentatious motorcycle is to hide the lard in the right places. This means keeping the fat low and central, while keeping the phat all up in your face. Once rolling, the Chieftain gives the sensation of the heavy bits being stowed a great distance south of its Tropic of Axles, which is quite an achievement for a bike taking up so much strata title. That low-set mass, plus its leverage-plenteous handlebar, added up to agility beyond my dreams of what this barge-come-bike would be capable of. It’s the Chieftain development team’s single most impressive and worthwhile achievement. A showbike for riding. Including corners. Tick.

Tacking port to starboard up the Ortega Pass above Lake Elsinore, the Chieftain continued to unveil its party tricks. Showing it’s just as happy scratching its way up a mountain connecting apexes as it is sailing down a gun-barrel freeway collecting low-fives and insects. Even the underbelly of its long lustrous tailpipes took much less punishment than expected, considering the exuberance of rider input.

Apart from style-over-substance design-room vanity, or just plain bad engineering, there is no reason any bike should have fun-limiting levels of cornering clearance, no matter what the motorcycling genre. I have the impression that Indian, née Polaris, get this principal, perhaps in a way that another great American motorcycling brand often misses.

Another chassis-related revelation was that the big red road-boat had more than adequate anchor power, an essential ingredient which can get overlooked and under-specced on heavy bikes. Pulling the Chieftain Limited up in the shortest possible distance became my favourite freeway game, such is the supreme novelty of being able to late brake a bagged-up barge while Royal Blood bleeds from its 100-watt stereo sound-system. Bangin’ along is so what the Chieftain was born (in the USA) to do.

The aforementioned audio-torrent floods the air and earholes behind the Chieftain’s batwing fairing with tunes Bluetoothed or wired from your device of choice. For which there is a handy phone-sized home with USB powerpoint just above the dash. Mobile DJ duties can be controlled via a toggle switch beside the left handgrip, while volume is also controlled automatically and sympathetically to fellow road users according to your speed. But beware, there’s a trap for rolling ravers; the audio controls are close and similar to the indicator switch. So don’t go and blow your street cred by indicating an embarrassing phantom turn, while attempting to hurriedly skip an embarrassing Phil Collins track. Not cool.

A supersized touchscreen display sits in the middle of the batwing, giving you gloves-on control of all the Chieftain’s electronic whistles and bells. Turn-by-turn navigation comes as standard, and worked a treat to help me find my way around Los Angeles and beyond, even offering the unlikely option of a ‘scenic’ freeway-free route through Orange County to Perris Raceway, where I’d planned to catch some pro flat-track racing at the SoCal Half-Mile.

On the touchscreen you’ll also find menus to monitor ‘Vehicle Status’, with everything from regular trip meters and fuel consumption info, plus useful tech data like engine hours, battery voltage, tyre pressures, and time until your next service.

The Vehicle Control menu also gives you the choice of three riding modes; Tour, Standard and Sport. Power is identical in all three modes, with throttle progression and sensitivity tuned to suit the mood. I felt the need for all three moods, at various times, and can confirm they are all appropriate to what’s written on the label, while overall engine calibration performance was around the scale which Indian will being hoping they can eventually match with the FTR 1200; decent to good.

Suspension performance is paramount in keeping a big-ticket rolling rockshow on the road, and for most situations the Chieftain’s stout 46mm conventional fork and direct-acting, air-assisted monoshock maintain a steady ship and a suitably Glam-plush ride. However, it wasn’t all crushed velvet suits and feather-trimmed moonboots along the road to Perris, as more serious road scabs proved a bigger challenge. Large, sharp-edged cracks and potholes were dealt with more harshly, both aurally through the chassis and in terms of sensitivity through the touch points, though never in a way which deterred the Chieftain from its intended trajectory. It remained steadfast.

Rather than increasing spring preload to deal with different payloads, the Chieftain comes with a shock pump to adjust air pressure in the rear damper unit. So, although it was set to the recommended pressure for my weight, perhaps some further experimentation would have revealed a sweeter ride on rougher roads, particularly for my inappropriately anarchic riding style.

I think I’ll just blame it on that Thunder Stoke engine. A whole 113mm of stroke to be precise. Unmistakably American and undeniably central to the Chieftain’s muscular, burlesque stage presence is its bedazzlingly chrome-plated, 111 cubic-inches of breeze-cooled V-jazzle; ‘look at me’, doesn’t even come close.

While those cubes add up to a walloping 1811cc in the new money, the acceleration provided by the Chieftain’s massive pair of 101mm jive-slugs isn’t so much vivid, as vivacious. Swiftly gliding up to cruising speed involves as many, or more suitably, as few gears as you prefer. Because, all the most thunderous stroking occurs in the grunt chasm nestled between its hebetudinous idle and the heady revs of 2000rpm (revolution per millennium?)

For this reason, my one slight gripe concerning the Chieftain’s powerplant is that its gear ratios could be wider, or perhaps the final-drive ratio a little taller. At 110km/h, it’s strumming along at 2500rpm in top, but I reckon 2000rpm at that speed would give an even more laidback ride, and without any significant stifling of acceleration. Unless you’re one of those strange dudes who tows a bike caravan. In which case, get a bloody Ram up ya drive, weirdo.

From the cushioned comfort of the footboards, my pampered feet found the controls easy to foot and to fondle, even in my heavy-duty bastard boots. Gear changes are smooth and ponderously positive, rather than sportsbike-like (like, sorry) snickety quick.

Delicate dragging of the rear brake all the way through and out of a corner, even once the throttle is open, is an effective technique for handling long heavy bikes. The Chieftain’s rear anchor allowed me the level of feel to do this, helping to steer it smoothly through the even most geo-puckered of hairpins.

Meanwhile, up top at the ’bar, the hand controls are bigger than a B52’s. The switch cubes alone could house an entire Brady family in each side. But bigger is not all better, Mrs B. The buttons for cruise control and screen adjustment are way too far away to poke a thumb at, requiring your hand to abandon its throttle duties to do so. And don’t get me started on why cruise control should never be found on the right-hand side of the ’bars!

The levers are also huge, and could easily be repurposed for emergency tyre levers, but it’s a shame only the brake is span-adjustable. (We) small-handed people like bikes, too, you know. But, thankfully, the clutch is fairly light and progressive, so feathering it with fingertips caused no problems.

Surprisingly un-large are the teardrop shaped mirrors, so it’s also quite surprising that they work so well for surveying where you once were. Atop the batwing sits a curiously squat screen. Although electronically adjustable from quite low to lower, I preferred to keep it at its lowest setting. Not because I’m short, but because its dark tint and slightly distorted optics disagreed with my eyeballs and, even when lowered, the batwing and screen offered ample wind protection for most riding anyway.

Indian refers to the Chieftain’s seat as a Gunfighter, and I assume it’s because I’m a lover, not a gunfighter, that I haven’t got the foggiest what they mean by it. But I do know it kept me contently bum-fortable for long days on the Range. However, I’m not so convinced it would be quite so kind on old pillion-pants up the back. The passenger seat’s un-bumlike design and firm density, the hard minimal fold-down pillion pegs, and the peekaboo pull-out rodeo strap, all had me sympathising for the dink. An upgrade to the extended-reach leather seats could work out best for your backrest buddy. They come in black or tan, and they’re studded. Yessssss. It’ll be happy heinies all round.

Being an bonafide bike whore, it’s actually pretty rare that I don’t manage to find something endearing about any motorcycle that is thrust at me with a nod and a wink and a disclaimer, just so long as it has two wheels and a pulse. But it is rare that I become fond friends with one, particularly one from way over the other side of the tracks from where my motorcycling habits were formed.

A road trip will either forge friendships, or fold ’em. Maybe I am a bagger man after all? Nah. The Chieftain was simply the right bike, in the right place, at the right time. It made me sit back and relish the ride, and forget about time.

I won’t be buying one, it’s still not my bag. But I do thoroughly commend the Chieftain Limited to anyone with a eye for Americana, a nose for quality, an ear for dynamically equalised audio, and a loin for the wide open yet winding road.