When Harley-Davidson announced it was building an electric bike, the news was greeted with a fair degree of scepticism.
Very few of the major bike makers have embraced electric motors so the idea that Harley might be a pioneer seemed far-flung.
Undeterred, and recognising that the brand needed a fresh audience, Project LiveWire was born and for the past few months Harley-Davidson has been touring the concept around the United States. Now it’s come to Europe and Stuff was invited to join the first group to ride the bike in the UK. On, it should be noted, a distinctly British rainy day at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire.
If it's good enough for Scarlett
Harley is keen to stress that these bikes are prototypes but they look pretty close to a finished product. Mind you, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is seen riding one in the latest Avengers film, and we certainly wouldn’t like to be the dealer that set her loose on a half-finished bike.
Certainly, the bikes we rode were neatly-finished machines, with Harley’s (first ever) cast aluminium frame housing a 300V battery and three-phase brushless electric motor that is good for 91mph. The rest of the bike nicely blends the old – in the shape of Harley’s traditional switchgear – with newer details such as the full colour touchscreen display. Choose one of the two riding modes, range or power, and with a gentle whirr the LiveWire is ready to rock. Which brings us immediately to the bike designer’s most immediate problem: a lack of sound.
Bring the noise
Traditional Harleys are all about sound and vibration. It’s what tells you you’re on a bike with genuine heritage, and not a me-too version from the Far East. (Not that there’s anything wrong with a cruiser made by Honda or Kawasaki or Yamaha – it’s just that they can’t resist making their cruisers run smoother and handle better!)
The solution to the electric quietness? Harley actually engineered a whine into the bike using a bevel gear on the motor’s drive. According to the LiveWire PR material it sounds like a jet fighter. Personally I’d describe it as a high pitched, but very appealing, whine. No, really. It sounds good.
We were warned to be careful as the bike’s strong torque and the wet test circuit were potentially awkward bedfellows. Electric bikes develop huge torque from idle and we would hope the finished bike would have some level of traction control. And ABS braking. Fortunately, the throttle response on the LiveWire is actually very good. The motor’s torque seems to be slightly damped at lower revs, then builds progressively before coming on very strong towards maximum output.
Make no mistake. This might be a Harley, and an electric bike, but the LiveWire is fast. A 0-60mph time of less than four seconds is claimed, but what impressed us the most was the drive from 55mph onwards. Wind the throttle open and it hits its restricted top speed of 91mph in no time at all. And it corners too.
Riding us round the bend
For some reason, probably styling, Harley has opted for a 18-inch front wheel. Most road bikes have 17-inch wheels front and rear, so the odd-sized front felt slightly sluggish to turn. It’s probably something that could be improved with suspension adjustment - time, weather and eagle-eyed Harley execs prevented us from getting too tweaky this time out.
The main point about the handling, though, is that the LiveWire doesn’t feel like a bulky 210kg motorcycle. Long-serving Harley riders will be particularly impressed with how sporty and agile the bike feels. Harley claim the LiveWire’s range is 53miles. We’d be happier with 100 miles, and looking at rival electric bikes, that’s not unreasonable. Another small request for the production bike: those low-slung mirrors might look natty, but they’re awful at actually being mirrors.
More tech please, we're British
No doubt this is already being considered, but we’d like to see more made of the bike’s fancy touchscreen too. It already has GPS built-in, but no sat-nav. Neither is there currently a smartphone app through which you could plot routes and check the battery charge from the warmth of your front room. That sounds nice.
But all of these minor change requests will matter little if the biggest hurdle can’t be overcome and that’s the price. Early adopters of new technology always pay a premium and the first generation of electric motorcycles have all been very pricey. Harley-Davidson is holding aces here, as it already sells on the strength of its brand and it can market the LiveWire as a fashion item rather than a practical, eco-concious city bike. However it chooses to play it, we distinctly hope the LiveWire does make it to full production.