LiveWire is a phenomenal motorcycle, but is it the right motorcycle?

And just like that, the LiveWire and I went face first into the hedge at full throttle. Now, before we get too far into this, there are two things you should know. One, I had just spent over an hour flogging Harley's new electric wünderbike through some of the loveliest and most technical roads the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area has to offer and was really feeling myself. Two, there's no neutral on an electric bike. When active, it's always armed, as it were. My cockiness high spirits, combined with the LiveWire's always-on status was a recipe for disaster. Or hilarity. Either one.

I had just come back from my penultimate photo pass. The route was exhilarating. Turn right out of the staging area, a cozy little joint called the Rock Creek Tavern, on to a long, flat straightaway just over a mile long where you could unwind the LiveWire and get a sense of its power. Then, as quick as you like, get off the throttle, let the regenerative braking haul the bike down to a manageable speed, and ease into the gentle left-hander. Sweep right over the bridge, then hard left to a short uphill straight into the lethal, left-handed, decreasing-radius hairpin where the photographers were camped out. Whip through the hairpin as fast as you can to look your best for the cameras (while trying to ignore them), throttle out, scream up the hill and into one more gentle right-hander, then pull over at the dirt road to wait for the next pass to do it all over again backward. Lather, rinse, repeat.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
This thing sounds like a speederbike. It's awesome.

As I pulled back into the tavern's parking lot after my sixth pass, I felt like Rennie Goddamned Scaysbrook. Each pass I'd made had been faster and better than the last, every line tighter and truer. I was, in the words of Lightning McQueen, speed. You see where this is going, right? I got into the turnaround at Rock Creek at a bad angle—nose down a little hill and pointed at a hedge separating the parking lot from the property next door. So, like I would with any other bike, I pulled back on the bars to yank the bike's front end up the hill for a little turnaround. You know, the electric bike, the one with no clutch lever and no neutral. As I pulled back I apparently grabbed a fistful of throttle (apparently, because things get blurry for a few seconds here) and the LiveWire leaped forward like a stung horse.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
Not shown...
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
...the bush I crashed into.

We probably reached 30 miles-per-hour in the six feet between where we started and where we hit the hedge. I buried the LiveWire in that hedge up to the foot pegs before I had the presence of mind to lay off the throttle and bail out. I was half on the bike, half stuck in the hedge and, after a moment, the bike listed slowly to port and trapped my right ankle. I was immediately rushed by a dozen Harley techs checking to see if I was okay, reassuring me, and tending to the bike—which seemed more freaked out than I was, if the numerous warnings and buzzings and flashing lights on the TFT were any indication. Pride definitely wenteth before the fall. So, yeah. That's my story of how I crashed a LiveWire into a hedge in front of God and everyone else during a press ride.

Earlier, in Downtown Portland...

2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
One of each, please.

It wasn't all high drama and hedgerows, though. The morning of the press ride was gorgeous with the sun rising in a mottled Pacific Northwest sky. We were all in a fancy-pants hotel downtown, and when I opened my curtains, I could see the candy-colored LiveWires lined up in ranks in front of a big tent across the street. Inside that tent was a good, hearty breakfast, some powerful coffee, a pile of my colleagues in the motoring press, and a gaggle of Harley employees—including CEO Matt Levatich—just itching to tell us all about the LiveWire.

2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
This here? Delicious. Delicious and refreshing.
2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
Just having breakfast with Harley's CEO, no big...

After our eggs and coffee and amazing tropical fruit parfaits, we all settled in to listen to the Harley people wax poetic about their new bike. First off was an impassioned speech from Levatich about new riders, the future of Harley-Davidson, and LiveWire's place in it, as well as various technical briefings from Harley engineers. There was also a bit about the bike's target demographic that definitely left me (and, seemingly, many of my colleagues) with a mixed feeling of incredulity, bemusement, and dread. Harley seems to be on shaky footing here (more on that later), and the messages regarding who and what LiveWire is for are mixed at best. After about 90 minutes, and a spirited Q&A session where we all asked some very pointed questions, we all saddled up and headed off to our first photo stop.

2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
These little guys were there, too!
2019 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
How do you do, fellow kids?

Stopping, Starting, and Cornering... Oh My!

Let's talk about what makes the LiveWire tick for a moment before we hit the road, shall we? At the bike's heart is the new Revelation electric motor, a powerful, water-cooled mill that generates a claimed 105 horsepower and 86 pound-feet of torque from zero RPM. As soon as you even look crosswise at the throttle all those ponies are on tap, which makes for an interesting experience to say the least. All that power gets to the rear wheel via a spiral bevel gear and a belt final drive. Harley claims that the bike does 0-60 in three seconds, and after riding one around, I believe it. Acceleration is instant and savage. The LiveWire is all ate up with (electric) motor.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
It's a revelation!

The Revelation draws power from a 15.5-kilowatt battery that provides a range of 146 miles in the city or 95 miles of combined city/highway riding on a full charge. Speaking of charging, the bike is set up for both level 1 and level 3 charging. The former uses a standard household outlet and will charge your bike overnight like your phone. The latter is the high-output DC fast charging that can get a battery from empty to 100 percent in an hour. The bike is also equipped with an adjustable regenerative braking system that not only recharges the battery when you come off the throttle, but also acts as a sort of engine brake for those riders who might be missing their clutch and shifter.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

The bike's frame is a modular, cast aluminum affair that uses the battery pack as a stressed member. The suspension is a premium, high-tech, fully-adjustable kit. It includes a Showa 43mm inverted Separate Function—damping on one side, rebound on the other—Big Piston fork up front and a Showa Balance Free Rear Cushion Lite monoshock aft. Braking is handled by a dual 300mm floating rotor setup grabbed by Brembo four-piston monoblock calipers on the front wheel and a single floating rotor on the rear wheel bit by a Brembo two-piston caliper. The stiff frame, high-quality suspension, brake hardware, and surprising 45-degree lean angle work together to make the LiveWire handle more like a Japanese naked hot rod than a lumbering, big-twin Harley.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
LiveWire's 150 dealers will all have a Level 3 fast charger on site.

A Technological Marvel

The LiveWire's technological innovation doesn't end at its ability to stop and corner, however. If the Revelation motor is LiveWire's heart, the powerful, adaptable Reflex Defensive Riding System is its brain. The RDRS is an onboard computer and electronics suite that controls the bike's high-tech systems and provides numerous rider aids and riding modes to fit any taste or style. It includes a cornering enhanced ABS system, cornering enhanced traction control system, rear wheel lift mitigation, and drag-torque slip control system. That's a lot of technobabble for what is, essentially, a bunch of sensors and a six-axis inertial measuring unit that help the rider keep the wheels firmly planted on nearly any kind of surface.

All of the bike's techno-wizardry is controlled through a trick 4.3-inch, full-color TFT display that makes up its gauge cluster and infotainment control system. It's equipped with an ambient light sensor that adjusts both brightness and contrast (I never had trouble reading the TFT through my polarized visor no matter how bright it was outside) and displays the clock, speed, and idiot lights. It can also cycle through various functions and displays like range, voltage, odometers, etc. As befits a thoroughly modern motorcycle, the TFT is Bluetooth enabled and can sync to iOS or Android devices. The rider can sync up, toss their phone in a pocket, and control everything via the bike's touch screen. That includes things like displaying turn-by-turn navigation and controlling music and phone calls. Pretty nifty. Sadly, none of the test bikes were set up to actually do this, so I didn't have a chance to try it out. Hopefully next time.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Of course, since we live in a dystopian, app-driven, subscription-based Cyberpunk hellscape now, the LiveWire is fully cloud-connected and can be controlled and communicated with via the Harley-Davidson App. Called H-D Connect (natch), the app allows a LiveWire owner to connect to their bike and do things like check its settings, charging status, security, etc. Owners can set up push notifications so that the bike alerts them of the current status of the battery, if anyone is dicking around with the bike when they shouldn't be, and all sorts of things. It's like a Tesla up in there, seriously. Do we need all this? Maybe. Harley sure thinks we do. I just worry that it's a bit... much.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Yeah, Well... How Is It?

In a word, the LiveWire rules. It's a towering technological achievement on Harley's part, a powerful, aggressive, sporty, comfortable, incredibly fast, and agile electric bike that showcases what can be done with essentially infinite money and a six-year development time. Despite the one little hedge-related hiccup, my time with the LiveWire was amazing. It did everything I asked of it. It attacked every corner eagerly and effortlessly, and the various electronic systems allowed me to push the bike right to the edge of my riding abilities—if not its own prodigious capabilities—without anxiety. I felt like I could count on the bike, like it was there for me. It let me wind it out and never punished me for it.

Gallery: 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire First Ride

At speed, LiveWire is a goddamned freight train. It just pulls and pulls and never seems to run out of steam. Roll the throttle on at any speed and the Revelation spools up instantly to rocket you into or out of any situation. Acceleration is like a kick in the ass, and more than once I felt like I was just hanging on while the bike drove instead of actively piloting it myself.

The ergos are fantastic, too. The bike has an aggressive, slightly forward, naked bike seating position with mild rearsets and flat bars. The saddle was surprisingly comfortable for how small it looks, and with the low, low center of gravity, it was flickable at speed and nimble in tight confines. I would have liked the TFT better had it been mounted a little higher, but that's just me. Also, since the bike doesn't vibrate or generate tons of wasted heat, LiveWire is super comfortable for the long haul and doesn't beat you up like other bikes. I was tired at the end of my ride, but a contented tired like from a hard workout. Not a deep, exhausted tired you'd get from, say, wrestling with a hot, loud, vibrating big-twin all day.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

As for fit and finish? Well, that's only mostly great. Everything not part of the handlebar is pretty great. The paint is deep and rich, the surfaces feel good to the touch, and everything fits together seemingly perfectly. The LiveWire wasn't slapped together at 4:55pm on a Friday and it shows. My biggest gripe is with the switchgear, levers, and mirrors. The switches and binnacles are bog-standard Harley parts bin bits with add-on buttons for the new LiveWire-specific systems. Their layout sucks and is completely counter-intuitive. I eventually just stopped using everything but the turn signals (and even then I had to keep looking for them) because nothing was where it should have been. In addition to the parts bin switches, the mirrors and levers are standard H-D fare, too. Seriously, Harley? Seriously? You're gonna put the same handlebar controls on your 30K, high-po, hot rod halo bike as the ones I can get on a Sportster? Or on a Street 500? That's some seriously bad form right there.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Overall, I was deeply impressed with the LiveWire. I did a whole lot of whooping and demented cackling in my helmet as I thrashed it around the twisties outside of Portland. That's about as good a recommendation as I'll give any bike. LiveWire is fun. Fun and cool in a way that, in my opinion, many of the Motor Company's products are not. Is that enough, though?

Denouement

Friends, I have some seriously mixed feelings about the LiveWire. It's not the bike itself that's the problem, though. Like I said earlier, it's a fantastic achievement and everyone involved with the project should be proud. It's just... I don't know. Who the hell is this bike for? During the pre-ride presentation, the presenters told us a whole lot about the marketing and target audience without actually saying anything. Harley claims the LiveWire's target demographic is "Youngish, wealthy, urban early-adopters who enjoy being on the cutting edge with a highly developed personal style and a desire to be associated with luxury and/or premium brands". That's a paraphrase, but you get the gist of it.

I'm going to write a longer opinion piece soon about this whole target demographic situation, but suffice to say that now I'm not sure LiveWire has an audience and I'm not sure it'll find one. I want the LiveWire to succeed because it deserves it and so does its development team. Will Harley let it succeed is my question. Will the company give the bike the support it needs (and will it give the select dealers who will carry LiveWire the training that they will need to sell it), or will this be a Buell and/or VROD situation all over again? Time will tell, I guess. Until then, let's wish Harley and LiveWire all the luck in the world, because both are going to need it.

Rider: Jason Marker

Height: 6'1"

Build: Shops for clothes in the "husky" department.

Gear:

  • Helmet: Shoei GT Air-II
  • Jacket: Dainese Bardo Perforated Leather Jacket
  • Gloves: FIRST Mfg. Co. Hutch
  • Pants: Rev'It Lombard 2 with add-on armor
  • Boots: Dainese Tan-Tan Boots