Running trails and getting dirty with Harley.
Harley-Davidson has been about as relevant in the big bore adventure segment as a skateboard at the Dakar. Having loafed on the ADV genre for decades, The Motor Company is finally taking a swing at the segment with the 2021 Pan America, a purpose-built adventure bike to battle stalwarts like the BMW R 1250 GS/GS Adventure, KTM 1290 Super Adventure, and Triumph Tiger 1200.
The Pan Am boasts familiar H-D visual elements wrapped around some impressively future-forward technology. This new tech is benchmarked against a field that’s seen numerous iterations and refinements over the years. First (and perhaps foremost) in this image-conscious category, the clean-sheet Pan America strikes a look that stands apart from its rugged competitors. Harley says its styling aligned with the brand’s design language. There’s also a prevailing visual sentiment that departs from the familiar with an unapologetically brutalist look: blocky shapes, menacing headlamps with a secondary strip of lean angle-sensitive adaptive drew headlamp inspo from the Fat Bob and fairing cues from Road Glide, keeping the bike’s LEDs positioned above, and an imposing chunkiness that disregards any attempt at being pretty.
Of course, the highest-stake component isn’t its looks, but rather the all-new Revolution Max powerplant. The liquid-cooled, 1,252cc, 60-degree V-twin shares the same bore and stroke as the late, great V-Rod, but has next to nothing in common with any existing Harley engine apart from its dimensions. Equipped with dual overhead cams, variable valve timing, and a lofty 13.1:1 compression ratio, the fully counterbalanced engine requires premium fuel but returns a stout 150 horsepower at 9,000 rpm and 94 lb-ft at 6,750 rpm. That’s more horsepower but less twist than BMW’s R 1250 GS’ 136 hp/105 lb-ft, but well below the hot-rodded KTM’s 160 hp/103 lb-ft. The engine connects to a six-speed gearbox which, at time of launch, is not available with a quickshifter.
The standard Pan America ($17,319) packs fully adjustable front and rear suspension, while the Pan America Special ($19,999) adds semi-active front and rear suspension, an adventure-friendly skid plate, handguards, adaptive headlamps, a steering damper, tire pressure monitors, and a center stand. A slew of other electronic features like drag torque slip control also come standard. Our two-day ride in Mojave, California, was set up exclusively with Specials outfitted with the optional spoked tubeless wheels ($1,650) and adaptive ride height; the latter a $1,000-dollar, high-tech system that uses speed and gyro-fed algorithms to subtly drop the suspension 1-2 inches as the rider coasts to a stop for easy reach.
Aware that saddle height is a crucial issue among adventure bike shoppers, Harley offers a wide variety of solutions aside from the adaptive ride height system. So, what’s the seat height on the Harley Pan America? Well, depends on a few factors: the standard model paired with an optional low seat brings the minimum saddle altitude to 30.1 inches, though the seat’s position can be raised an inch. The Special can dip as low as 31.1 inches, or sit up to 33.1 inches high with an optional tall seat in its highest position.
Saddle up on the Pan Am, and you’re met with a 6.8-inch TFT touchscreen, a slew of hand control switches, and an adjustable windscreen. The TFT displays a large virtual tachometer with a discreet rev indicator that surrounds customizable fields which use a surprisingly small font. Hold down the display button, and the screen reverses its black-on-white scheme for a slightly more contrasty layout. Bluetooth connectivity can be routed through the Harley-Davidson app, a la LiveWire. Though the rider triangle is comfortable for most (one 6’ 6” rider in our group required a bit of adjustment before getting comfortable), there’s an awkwardness to some of the controls: the start button/kill switch is curiously positioned atop the right grip, the turn signal switch requires a bit of a reach and deactivates if it’s tapped a second time, and the kickstand can feel too low to the ground with the auto-lowering suspension until the bike is completely rested on its side.
The Revolution Max powerplant fires up with the requisite Harley thrum, whose timbre is accentuated by an available Screamin’ Eagle titanium exhaust that shaves off 6.5 lbs of mass. Rather than the familiar potato potato tune of its Milwaukee 8 cousins, the Revolution Max’s sound is a bit steadier and more refined, offering a bass note that’s present but not obnoxiously loud. Tipping the scales at 534 lbs (or 559 lbs in Special trim), the Pan America feels substantial as it’s lifted off its side stand. Twist the throttle, though, and it gets up and goes nicely enough off the line, with the smooth spinning V-twin getting into its groove once it passes around 2,500 rpm or so.
While the Harley mill doesn’t have the lumpy, low-end thrust of BMW’s 1250 boxer, it does have a healthy midrange and an even stronger pull towards max revs. The high-end oomph is surprising, especially from the brand known for loping, low-revving air-cooled engines. The clutch lever is light and the six-speed shifter clicks through gears with crisp accuracy, though the engine’s eagerness makes us wish a quickshift option was available for more seamless acceleration.
Ride modes include Road, Sport, and Rain, as well as Offroad and Offroad+. The latter setting is the least restrictive. Independently customizable modes also enable throttle mapping, engine braking, ABS, traction control, and suspension damping settings to be individually calibrated. This offers a fairly deep array of variables to mess with and allows riders to tailor the bike’s behavior to their riding style. Cruise on pavement, and the Pan Am feels surefooted, smooth, and easy to ride quickly and confidently.
Throttle response is less syrupy in Sport mode, and Road’s more refined manners make it easier to ride smoothly. Our miles of highway riding, while relatively sedate in pace, revealed good wind protection (at least for my 5’ 11” frame) and minimal fatigue from the usual Harley culprits like rattly grips or ear-splitting exhaust. Bumps are soaked up well, even with the spoked wheels which displace 14 pounds more unsprung mass than their cast aluminum counterparts. The linked, lean angle-sensitive brakes operate with good lever feel, and there’s enough power in the four-piston front stoppers to enact serious deceleration. The single-piston rear is strong enough to be applied individually when desired, or for sliding the tail off road at will.
Ride modes can be switched on the fly, though Offroad+ requires the bike to be at a standstill, as it frees up most of the electronic nannies and enables the Pan America to move around more freely in the dirt. During a few brief stints off-road, my Pan Am responded about as well as you could hope a 559 lb motorcycle to. Equipped with Michelin Scorcher tires during the first day of primarily on-road riding and Michelin Anakee Wilds on the second, more off-road-oriented day, the Harley felt equally ready for both styles of riding.
In fact, according to H-D brass, the bike was developed over the course of 1 million test miles split equally between tarmac and trail. Some of the suspension’s off-road development miles were actually accumulated on the LiveWire mules ridden by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman in the 2020 documentary Long Way Up. That said, I didn’t spend the entirety of the second day testing the Pan America off road because, well, an unplanned dismount upended my plans.
My memories of the proceedings are hazy—concussions have a way of wiping away direct recollections around the time of impact—but I later learned that our ride leader and several other riders also laid down the Pan Am on some of the sandier trails, which I’ll admit made me feel about 5 percent less awful about my mishap. I was fortunate to be decked out in gear that helped me avert far more serious injuries: An Arai XD4 helmet, an Alpinestars armored Revenant jacket, a Dainese D-Air vest which deployed an airbag that likely saved me from a cracked rib cage or worse, and armored Alpinestars boots.
At the end of the day, the Harley-Davidson Pan America acquits itself remarkably well in a field of motorcycles that have enjoyed years of evolution and continual refinement. Sure, there are niggly bits here and there— the windshield adjustment mechanism can get testy, the kickstand positioning is less than ideal, the onscreen graphics can be hard to read, and some of the switchgear requires an awkward reach—but the underpinnings are stout and clearly well-developed. From the refinement of the drivetrain to the variability of the suspension, and even the availability of appropriately ADV-focused accessories and Rev’It-developed riding gear, the Pan America is very well sorted.
Harley’s new Pan America offers an auspiciously American adventure bike alternative that doesn’t feel like a compromise of any sort. Distinctive, well-executed, and perhaps most importantly soulful, it nods at the brand’s flat track roots while finally elevating them beyond the heavyweight cruiser realm and well into the 21st century. While there’s no telling how long the adventure bike trend will remain white-hot, Harley-Davidson’s development of the Pan America into a well-rounded on and off-road bike speaks volumes to what we hope is a bright future for the brand.