In 2008, one television series changed the course of cruiser history forever: Sons of Anarchy. Whether you cringe or clap at that statement, one thing remains true—the crime action melodrama ushered outlaw MC culture into the mainstream. Jax Teller’s club-style Harley-Davidson Dyna soon shaped the American V-twin Zeitgeist, giving rise to the West Coast performance cruiser movement and the proliferation of the “Dyna Bro”.
Now more synonymous with Dixxon flannels, Biltwell Lane Splitters, and Vans sneakers than Sonny Barger, club style went from counterculture to conventional. The Motor Company first capitalized on the trend with Dyna Low Rider S before going all in with the Softail Low Rider S/ST and Nightster models. With performance cruisers commanding such a significant market share, Indian Motorcycle headhunted its first club-style Harley riders with the 2022 Scout Rogue.
That poaching expedition isn't Indian’s last offensive either. The 2023 Sport Chief also has Dyna Bros square in its crosshairs. Flanked by upgraded suspension, top-shelf brakes, and a Jax Teller-worthy quarter fairing, the up-spec Chief courts mile munchers and canyon carvers alike. To prove as much, Indian invited us to Austin, Texas, to experience the next chapter in the club-style story.
When They Go Low...
Cornering clearance commonly curses a cruiser’s sporty aspirations. Indian addresses that shortcoming by arming the Sport Chief with dual piggyback Fox shocks and a KYB inverted front end. While neither component flaunts adjustability, they (literally and figuratively) elevate the platform for enhanced cornering ability. The Fox units not only increase the rear suspension travel by one inch (4 inches) over the base model Chief but maintain the single headstock-to-rear-axle line so coveted in cruiser circles.
At 5.1 inches of travel, the KYB fork yields one-tenth of an inch to the standard Chief. In tandem, however, the suspenders bolster the Sport to a 29.5-degree lean angle and 5.9 inches of ground clearance. That’s a one-degree and one-inch (respectively) uptick over the base model’s figures.
Throughout town, the new setup absorbed roadway inconsistencies with aplomb. I purposefully sought out every pothole along our route in an attempt to foil the fortified chassis. Yet, the Sport Chief never wavered. Of course, slower speeds favored the model’s non-adjustable springs. Nevertheless, I’m relieved to report I didn’t require chiropractic attention following each encounter. The Chief’s merits in the city certainly plus the platform, but let’s be honest, no one’s buying the big-bore cruiser to putt around town.
We ventured outside of Austin city limits to test whether the Sport lives up to its moniker, and the Chief was right at home in Texas Hill Country. On the meandering backroads, that extra cornering clearance proved its worth. As cruisers go, the steering leaned toward the heavier end of the spectrum, but leverage created by the six-inch risers and moto-style handlebars eased tip-in and mid-corner adjustments.
Paired with the mid-mounted pegs and solo gun-fighter seat, the rider triangle fostered a commanding position both upright and at lean. Unfortunately, those advantageous ergos still couldn’t keep the Sport Chief’s footpegs from touching down in the tighter twisties. The Big Twin relished high-speed sweepers but sparks flew as soon as the turn radii decreased. By day’s end, the Texas tarmac reduced the peg feelers down to knubs.
Even the Pirelli Night Dragon tires put the Chief’s limitations on display. While the sporty cruiser rubber delivered all the necessary grip, large chicken strips hinted at even more cornering potential. Likewise, dual four-pot Brembo calipers at the fore shed speed with surprising power and efficiency for a cruiser. In contrast to the same system found on the 2022 Indian Pursuit, the Brembo binders promoted confidence, goading me to push deeper and deeper into the braking zone.
On the whole, the upgraded package impressed. Granted, the lean angle remained a limiting factor but the Sport Chief performed admirably up to that threshold. Sadly, the fully-adjustable Fox shocks in Indian’s accessories catalog do little to solve the issue, as the add-on offers no additional travel or clearance. For that reason, we can’t wait to see what the aftermarket devises. After all, the club-style contingent encourages personalization at every turn.
More Power to You
Everything’s bigger in Texas and the same goes for the Sport Chief. Though the three other Chief variants champion Indian’s Thunder Stroke 111 V-twin in one form or another, the up-spec trim doesn’t dawdle in the middle ground. That means the firm’s Thunder Stroke 116 shoehorns into the platform’s steel-tube frame with little room for much else. The 49-degree V-twin also measures up to its 1,890cc displacement with 126 lb-ft of torque on tap.
Indian relies on three ride modes (Touring, Standard, and Sport) to wrangle all that giddy up. Each setting delivers on expectations as well, with Touring suiting long-haul highway runs and Standard acting as the go-to mode under all other conditions. On the other hand, take the Sport mode lightly at your own peril.
In the twisties and on the open road, Sport mode’s direct throttle response and unabated torque are right at home. It isn’t so much peppy as it is bullish. That quality isn’t as desirable in civic confines where the abrupt throttle pickup suffers no laggards. That bottom-end hit sends the Chief lunging forward with the commitment of an offensive tackle on 4th & 1. If you can wriggle to the front of each stoplight, Sport proves tenable in the city. Otherwise, count on countering Sport mode’s gusto with liberal clutch application.
Gallery: 2023 Indian Sport Chief
Luckily, the user interface allows riders to easily temper the Chief’s temper with a few taps of the four-inch round TFT display. Still, the Sport Chief prefers life outside the concrete jungle. During the first and final hours of our day-long journey, the group meandered through East Austin and the surrounding suburban surface streets.
Under such circumstances, the big-bore V-twin threw off enough heat to slow-cook my inner thigh like a smoked brisket. Only escaping that bumper-to-bumper traffic shuttled enough heat away from the air-cooled engine to ventilate the cooking cockpit. Wide open spaces also helped quell the Thunder Stroke 116’s vibey upper register.
From idle to 2,900 rpm, the lumpy V-twin firing order never bordered on bothersome. On the contrary, neutral throttle held at 3,000 rpm sent high-frequency tremors through the bars. The same sensation transferred to the seat with the revs maintained at 4,000 rpm. However, accelerating past those powerband milestones alleviated the situation, making yet another case for the club-style Chief to skip town.
With a base price of $18,999, the 2023 Indian Sport Chief takes direct aim at Harley-Davidson's Low Rider S. What the Thunder Stroke-powered cruiser lacks in experience it makes up for in name-brand componentry and full-bore club-style attitude. Indian only reinforces that rookie enthusiasm with an extensive accessories catalog for the custom crowd. In addition to the aforementioned fully-adjustable Fox shock units, the brand also offers 10-inch risers, tall windscreens, and two-up seating options for extra street cred.
The club style aesthetic continues to change with the times and Indian believes the Sport Chief can further enrich the evolving market. For the most part, the performance-minded model succeeds. As expected, ground clearance and engine heat accompany the air-cooled platform. Although, most classic cruiser customers will chalk those qualities up to “character”. In sum, time will tell if the Sport Chief attracts diehard Dyna Bros and changes the course of cruiser history in the process.