First ride: Harley-Davidson’s new all-electric motorcycle

The LiveWire is a bold step for a brand with legions of disciples baptized in gas and oil.

This story was originally published on

Like many, I was shocked back in 2014 when Harley-Davidson, perhaps the most tradition-steeped motorcycle manufacturer on the planet, unveiled a prototype electric motorcycle with intent to bring a whisper-quiet hog to market. It was a bold step for a brand with legions of devoted disciples baptized in gas, oil, and ink. But the 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle is here, on schedule for an early fall 2019 delivery to 150 participating North American Harley-Davidson dealerships. I recently rode at the platform’s international press ride staged in Portland, Oregon, which marked the culmination of a near-decade-long development program.

Why electric, why now? “The barriers to entry are much lower than traditional product,” Harley-Davidson President and Chief Executive Officer Matt Levatich said at the event. “We can get people on an EV motorcycle and get them up the learning curve of full enjoyment much quicker. Then participation follows and investment in learning how to ride traditional motorcycles follows, once you catch the fever.”

LiveWire static
Harley-Davidson sees its investing heavily in electric vehicles both as a new revenue stream as well as an entry into traditional motorcycles. The LiveWire is The Motor Company’s first electric model, setting the stage for what is to come. Harley-Davidson

Levatich then added, “We see EV as a very important catalyst. It is part of our new product investment, but not all of our new product investment. We are continuing to invest in great traditional Harley-Davidson motorcycles. We aim to lead in the electrification of this sport. This is part of the future of Harley-Davidson and we’re investing to lead in it.”

The LiveWire is meant to be a “halo” electric motorcycle product to showcase the potential of the technology, and at $29,799 it is priced as such. LiveWire is not likely nor even expected to sell in great numbers, but it declares the company’s commitment to new avenues of product growth and increasing ridership, while setting the stage for more affordable and varied Harley-Davidson electric models currently in the works.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire
The 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire will be hitting dealers fall 2019 with a price tag of $29,799. Harley-Davidson

But those are for the future. Right now it’s time for my first ride on the production 2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire motorcycle. Approaching the bike for the first time, I dig the bike’s contemporary no-nonsense styling and sport-standard stance. And to my eye the LiveWire successfully conveys a genuine Harley visual feel, with a touch of XR and Buell Lightning influence. Fit, finish, and materials are of premium quality, as are the sourced chassis components such as the fully adjustable Showa Separate Function Big Piston fork and Balance Free Rear Cushion-lite shock. A six-axis Bosch IMU delivers state-of-the-art TC and ABS cornering bank-angle logic, while the pair of radial-mount Brembo Monoblock front calipers and braided-steel brake lines will stop you in your tracks.

At the core of the bike reside lithium-ion battery cells encased in a cast-aluminum housing featuring stylistic/functional heat sink battery cooling fins. Harley calls this an RESS, or Rechargeable Energy Storage System, that energizes the H-D Revelation permanent-magnet electric motor beneath. The RESS battery carries a 5-year warranty with a 10-year projected service life and is said to be a modular design allowing for future upgrades as storage technology advances. Claimed output of the Revelation powertrain is 105 hp and 86 pound-feet of torque, with range rated at a formidable 146 miles in the city and 70 miles at 70 mph during sustained highway use.

RESS lithium-ion battery and Revelation permanent-magnet electric motor
This is the first step of Harley-Davidson’s electric vehicle future: the RESS lithium-ion battery and Revelation permanent-magnet electric motor. Harley-Davidson

I gained a sense of the bike’s 549-pound curb weight as it took some effort to lift off the sidestand, but its 30.7-inch seat height and my 5-foot-10-inch frame allow solid footing at stops for an easy balance (there’s also a 1-inch-lower “slammed” accessory saddle available).

A proximity fob allows power-up by simply pressing a rocker switch located on the right grip. Boot-up is quick, with the default display appearing on the 4.3-inch TFT touchscreen dash following an H-D logo splash screen. Much of the provided info is familiar: odometer, dual tripmeters, digital clock, and a “Raise Side Stand” warning you can’t possibly miss. Although there’s no tachometer since it’s not of much use on a single-speed vehicle, there’s an optional speedometer display with an analog-dial appearance.

A pair of vertical light bars bracket the instrument cluster, and when lit, yellow indicates standby mode and twisting the throttle has no effect in this state. Arming the drivetrain requires thumbing an adjacent toggle, and once the lights change to green, it’s go time.

With Road ride mode selected (Sport, Rain, and Range are other options), a slight twist of throttle sets the bike into motion. The connection between the throttle and rear tire is very refined, delivering a communicative sense of control I immediately felt navigating between parked bikes at walking pace. The combination of intuitive throttle response, no clutch or gearbox to manage, and generous steering lock makes parking-lot maneuvering remarkably easy.

LiveWire taking a corner
Only the whine of the spiral bevel gear primary drive, the sound of the tires on the pavement, and the roar of the wind above 50 mph follow a hard twist of the wrist on the LiveWire. Harley-Davidson

A bit more throttle input effortlessly whizzes the bike smoothly into the urban traffic flow. With no engine vibration or exhaust noise, the LiveWire wakes one’s senses differently from any Harley I’ve ridden. The soft chorus of tire noise and a signature whine emanating from its spiral bevel gear primary drive fill my ears until 50 mph when the wind smoothly rushing past my full-face-helmet then dominates the soundtrack.

Quietly squirting from one traffic signal to the next, our pack of bikers still drew attention from curious curbside pedestrians. Listen up Portlandia, the Stealth Riders MC is on the discharge! Well into our ride on this mild midsummer day I noted an absence of heat radiating from the powertrain—a riding revelation in itself. All was not bliss, however, as sharp-edged bumps riddling Portland streets delivered a dental-jarring ride even with the suspension dialed to a softer setting than standard.

LiveWire Showa suspension
The LiveWire’s Showa suspension is taut, and although it is fully adjustable the ride is still stiff in softer settings. Harley-Davidson

Once free of in-town traffic, the pace picked up and the ride smoothed out. I gave the cruise control a go, finding its function seamless as a rheostat. It also provides a convenient dash notification of your set target speed when disabled, which is accomplished by applying brake or rolling the throttle forward beyond the closed position.

LiveWire on a bridge
Accelerating from 0-60 mph takes just three seconds on the LiveWire. Harley-Davidson

Roll-on acceleration at highway speed is impressive and the LiveWire pulls steady and strong through 100 mph. But even that pales to the thrill of blasting away from a standing start with the throttle pinned. Using a Vbox datalogger I verified Harley’s claim of 0-60 mph in three seconds to be an honest performance metric. While I’ve tested gas-powered performance bikes that are quicker out of the hole, none are as easily repeatable—and without clutch-abuse concerns.

The taut ride felt communicative and planted when whistling along winding roads outside the city limits. Steering was responsive and neutral, requiring light bar input to initiate turn-in and holding my chosen line with slot-car precision.

Encountering damp patches on a stretch through the forest proved just the environment to put the LiveWire rider aids to test. Harley-Davidson’s Reflex Defensive Rider Systems is the combination of TC, cornering ABS, Rear-wheel Lift Mitigation, and Drag-Torque Slip Control, the latter of which prevents rear wheel lock during regenerative braking. Even with a custom ride mode set to maximum power, throttle response, and regeneration, I was hard pressed to get the bike out of shape on corner entry or exit riding at a fairly quick street pace. I met a delivery truck crowding my lane while entering a damp downhill corner, and my trust in the cornering ABS allowed the LiveWire to slow up with room to spare.

Bosch’s six-axis IMU
Bosch’s six-axis IMU informs the LiveWire’s lean-sensitive ABS system that controls the four-piston Brembo Monoblocks squeezing 300mm discs. Harley-Davidson

Touchscreen functionality (only available while at a standstill) allows easy navigation of submenus offering customization of various dash elements and ride mode parameters, while thumb-operated dual mini joysticks located on the bar must be used when the bike is under way.

LiveWire handlebar
When in motion, the rider uses controls on the left side of the handlebar to control the LiveWire’s touchscreen. Harley-Davidson

A bar-mounted mode switch allows on-the-fly selection of the factory-set ride modes, each offering hard-coded levels for peak power, throttle response, regeneration (engine-braking that puts charge back into the RESS during deceleration), and TC sensitivity. A trio of customizable presets allows for user-defined levels for those very same parameters.

A bar graph spans the bottom of the instrument display, providing a visual indication of battery charge level with percentage remaining listed to the left and miles of estimated range to the right. The range figure is a dynamic calculation based on recent power demand, a feature I found myself monitoring frequently while riding. Panel tilt angle is adjustable and the auto-brightness level makes it all easily readable in direct sunlight. Although I wasn’t able to toy with it, Bluetooth pairing a smartphone running the Harley-Davidson App integrates turn-by-turn navigation, music, and call information to the dash display.

LiveWire dash
The LiveWire’s dash angle can be changed and the brightness level is automatic for easy reading in direct sunlight. Harley-Davidson

At the completion of the 65-mile test loop my bike’s dash showed 23-percent charge and 19 miles of range remaining. Considering that energy conservation wasn’t a concern during the ride, Harley’s claim of 95-mile combined city/highway range seems very plausible. Range and charge time remain very important factors in EV ownership.

LiveWire chargning station
The LiveWire comes with a 110-volt charging cable but also supports DC Fast Charge for a 1-hour charge time. Harley-Davidson

The supplied Level 1 charging cable that comes with the bike (and can be carried under the seat) plugs into any 120-volt household outlet and is said to require 12.5 hours to fully charge a depleted battery. While that may be fine if you have all night, for those on the go the LiveWire also supports DC Fast Charge which cuts that time to 1 hour. DCFC stations are cropping up at a fast-growing rate and the Harley-Davidson App will guide you to them. LiveWire owners will receive 500 kWh free charging at Electrify America DCFC stations. Better still, every H-D dealership that sells the LiveWire is required to install a DCFC station and provide LiveWire owners two years of unlimited use free of charge. That adds up to a pretty enticing incentive and clever thinking on Harley’s part.

Top it up with Edison while I kill time checking out those new Sportsters and Softails.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire Specifications

MSRP: $29,799
MOTOR: Revelation internal permanent-magnet synchronous motor w/ water jacket cooling
CLAIMED TORQUE: 86 lb.-ft.
FRAME: Cast aluminum
FRONT SUSPENSION: Showa 43mm inverted Separate Function Fork – Big Piston, fully adjustable
REAR SUSPENSION: Showa Balance Free Rear Cushion-lite shock, fully adjustable
FRONT BRAKE: Brembo Monoblock 4-piston radial-mount caliper, dual 300mm discs w/ Bosch lean-sensitive ABS
REAR BRAKE: Brembo 2-piston floating caliper, 260mm disc w/ Bosch lean-sensitive ABS
WHEELS, FRONT/REAR: Split 5-spoke cast aluminum, 3.50 x 17 in. / 5.5 x 17 in.
TIRES, FRONT/REAR: 120/70R-17 / 180/55R-17
RAKE/TRAIL: 24.5°/ 4.3 in. (108mm)
WHEELBASE: 58.7 in. (1,490mm)
SEAT HEIGHT: 30.7 in. (780mm)
WEIGHT: 549 lb. (249kg)
AVAILABLE: Fall 2019