Monday, 11 December 2017

Ride Report: Indian Chieftain Dark Horse

"We have the Chieftain Dark Horse available at our HQ, would you like to ride it?"

It's fairly obvious what the answer to that proposal was going to be. Thus in due course, on an autumn morning that felt more like a spring day, I found myself on the train to La Garriga, the small town some 40 km (25 mi) north of Barcelona where Polaris, Indian's mother company, has its Spanish HQ. Once I had located the business park, a brief ten-minute walk from the railway station, I had no problems locating Polaris Espa├▒a's premises: the matte-black bagger that was going to be my ride for the next six days was already parked in the street, waiting for me to hop on board and rumble off into the middle distance.

A quick visit to the nearby petrol station and it was time to roll. Fire up the big 1800cc V-twin, switch on the radio (which I managed to do more by luck than by design - by the way, I still haven't worked out how one switches it off!), and hit the dual carriageway that snakes past the Montmel├│ Circuit de Catalunya F1/MotoGP track and on into Barcelona. Getting up to the speed limit, I instantly thumbed the button that controls the electrically adjustable screen and watched as the screen slid back and upwards into its fully-deployed position. That cut down buffeting and wind noise; adopting a slightly more recumbent seating position meant that I was in a pool of quiet air behind the swoopy "batwing" fairing; this was comfortable even with the open-face LS2 Spitfire helmet (read our review here) I was wearing on this mid-November day.

The Chieftain Dark Horse is the bare-bones "bad boy" of the Chieftain model range; the Dark Horse denomination is Indian's answer to Harley-Davidson's Dark Custom range. This means satin-black paint, as well as much less chrome than on the other bikes in the Chieftain rage, which makes it an ideal blank palimpsest for customisation. The black-on-black colour scheme on this long, low machine is a dark tailor-made suit and a black leather jacket rolled into one; the bike has the elegance of an Italian playboy at a garden party in a Tuscan mansion one second, the arrogant swagger and menacing mien of a Jax Teller the next. It's up to you to decide which one you want depending on how you feel that day; the powerful sound system that equips the bike just underlines this "Jekyll and Hyde" aspect - let it waft out Baroque music and jazz to accompany those Mr Smooth moments and punch out powerful rock and electric blues for when you have a bone to pick with society.

But hey, let's get back to riding this pur-sang. As I pulled out of the petrol station forecourt I was concerned that I'd be having a hard time steering the Dark Horse at very low speeds due to its length, considerable heft and raked-out fork (although the rake is less than on other Chieftains), not to mention the 130-section front boot. But as soon as I was going fast enough for the speedo needle to twitch upwards slightly, my sweat glands went back off duty and I relaxed; I might as well have been riding a bicycle, it was that easy. The pulled-back handlebars and their widely set grips (surprisingly slimmer than on some other custom cruisers I've ridden over the years) gave me ample control over the faraway front end and - more surprisingly - a fair bit of feel for what the front tyre was doing, which is not something one would expect from a big ol' cruiser. This very-low-speed stability is quite a good thing, because despite the fairly low seat height, the bike has a fairly broad beam, accentuated by the footboards, which means that at a standstill I didn't have both feet as flat on the ground as I expected. This isn't much of a problem on the flat, but can be a bit worrying on a gradient, given that the Chieftain isn't a lightweight.

Other than that, ergonomics on the Chieftain Dark Horse are very good. The pull-back 'bars are not too high and, as I've already mentioned, despite there being quite a distance between the grips and the top yoke I didn't have the impression that my inputs on the 'bars were being "telegraphed" to the front end. While we're focusing on the 'bars, I think it's a good thing to take a look at the controls. The left-hand pod contains the indicators, dipped/main beam switch, the windscreen control and several control buttons for the radio and onboard computer (these are backlit), while the right-hand pod houses the kill switch, cruise control buttons and hazard lights. The extra driving lights are controlled by a large button on the dashboard. With a bit of familiarity, you can use the onboard computer and radio buttons without removing your hand from the 'bars; as for the cruise control buttons (which are unfortunately not backlit) I found it easiest to use them with my left hand; although once the cruise control function is on, it's easy enough to set/reset it with your right thumb. A word of warning about the kill switch: it's very easy to snag it involuntarily with your thumb if you're aiming for the hazard lights, as I discovered on the motorway - suddenly finding myself in the overtaking lane with a killed engine was pretty hair-raising experience that I'm not eager to repeat anytime soon!

Moving further down, the footboards are well-positioned; combined with the Chieftain's surprisingly good ground clearance, they proved impossible to deck out in turns and on roundabouts although believe me I did try very hard to scrub them on the blacktop. One thing I did miss was a heel-and-toe shifter, which makes more sense on a bike with 'boards rather than footpegs. However, it is available as an optional extra; still, I do think that on a bike like this - and in this price range - it should be fitted as standard. On the right-hand side of the bike, the hefty brake pedal allows you to control the powerful rear brake.

The saddle is definitely one of the most comfortable bike seats I've ever sat on. Its generous shape and perfect padding and upholstering make it ideal for spending an entire day on the road, without causing pressure points (or "square arse syndrome" as I poetically like to put it); it is as comfy when riding sitting up to guide the bike through sinuous roads as it is when you're sitting back on a motorway or long straight A-road. It is equipped with a hidden mounting slot for the optional backrest, though I personally think that the accessory is unnecessary, despite being afflicted with a rather tender and delicate lumbar region. And of course, it would mar the Chieftain Dark Horse's lovely, flowing silhouette.

Speaking of the bike's lines I think I should start by mentioning the "batwing" fairing. Not only does it look great, but it is really effective at protecting the rider from the breeze. Most of the time I rode with the electrically-controlled screen fully raised, which allowed me to ride around with an open-face lid even late at night in the middle of November. I also rode it wearing a modular helmet (LS2 Metro), but found that there was too much buffeting for my liking, as well as with a Biltwell Gringo full-face equipped with 100% Barstow goggles; the Gringo's retro-styled round shell was less prone to buffeting and created less wind noise. The tips of the batwing, while not fully shielding the handlebar grips, diverted enough air away from them to enable me to wear perforated leather all-season gloves with light undergloves without suffering from congealed fingertips. The quiet zone behind the fairing also meant that I could easily hear my Waze satnav's voice instructions without trying to route them through the sound system's loudspeakers via bluetooth. The batwing contains the sound system's loudspeakers, a 12 volt power outlet, the instrument cluster and the button for the - standard equipment - additional driving lights. On the right-hand underside of the fairing is a small cubbyhole with a lid, equipped with a USB port; I must admit that I discovered this more by chance than design while looking for a convenient place to hang my helmet when parking the bike.

The Chieftain Dark Horse's lines are simply spectacular; if Cadillac made motorbikes, this is pretty much what they'd look like. I originally had my doubts about the fully-valanced front mudguard, but it quickly grew on me; I find that it matches the look of the rear end of the bike perfectly and gives it that touch of elegance that simultaneously manages to give a "stealth" look to the bike. The "warbonnet" running light on the mudguard is a small detail that catches bystanders' attention, particularly at night. The sides of the tank proudly bear the chief's head logo, leaving no doubt in anybody's mind about what you're riding. The rear of the bike is as curvaceous as any Fifties pin-up, with the single saddle leaving the curvature of the rear mudguard in plain view, mirrored by the lines of the side panniers that reach right down to the exhaust silencers, with cutouts in the base to clear the long, shiny mufflers in true custom bagger style. And they're not all form-over-function, either. Once open, the panniers can engulf quite a bit of kit, meaning that you can go for a long road trip without having to burden the bike with unsightly strap-on luggage. To keep your belongings safe, the panniers have electric central locking that can be controlled either from the RFID keyfob or from a small button on the petrol tank's central console, just below the large On/Off button that switches the bike's electronics on. From what I could see, the panniers can be removed; but then again who'd want to? For one thing, a bagger without panniers isn't a bagger, and for day-to-day use they're ideal for storing odds and ends: during the week I spent with the bike, the left-hand pannier was home to two pairs of gloves, a neckwarmer, a hi-vis tabard, my rain gear and a foldaway rucksack. And there was still room to spare - ideal for quick sorties to the shops.

But of course, the star of the show here is the monumental 111 cubic inch (that's about 1800cc on this side of the pond) Thunder Stroke engine. At a standstill, it attracts the eye with its sculptural appearance. From the massive and stubby primary drive cover, to the bijou-like timing case and up the pushrod tubes to those two massive, rotund cylinders capped by finned rocker covers, this powerplant is the embodiment of "eye candy". The imposing barrels and rocker covers are designed to mimic the look of the Indian sidevalve engines of the 1930s; even the primary drive case is a clear nod to that iconic engine. You could put that engine on a pedestal in an art gallery and it wouldn't look out of place.

Naturally, an engine has to do more than just be a pretty piece of engineering design: it has to deliver dynamically, too. And to paraphrase one of La Fontaine's more well-known fables, its song does compare to its plumage. Thumb the starter button and the enormous V-twin rumbles into life, promptly settling into a muted, discreet burble reminiscent of a big V8. Yet even at a standstill the vibrations are minimal, barely making the mirrors quiver. Just like Rolls Royce, Indian don't give any maximum power figures for this engine and, frankly I can understand why: the Thunder Stroke is all about torque. Mated to the long-legged six-speed gearbox and transmitting power to the rear wheel via a belt drive, each gear delivers a standing wave of torque, resulting in smooth and elastic power delivery. I was relieved to see that there was a gear indicator on the dashboard's LCD display, because I regularly forgot which gear I was in at any given moment. More than once I came to a halt at stop or give way signs and it was only when I pulled away again that I noticed that I was in second gear (and even third on a couple of occasions). But not once did I get the engine suddering in disapproval, even when dropping down to less than 2,000 rpm in fifth or even top and then winding on the power again. Nor did I find any real need to drop down a gear for determined overtakes; whatever the gear I was in, a spirited twist of the throttle would make the rear end of the bike squat down ever so slightly and, with a duet of muted bellowing from the exhausts and airbox, the bike would lunge forwards, making short work of the vehicle I had in my sights. If anything, the engine response reminded me of the kickdown effect one gets from an automatic transmission. On long, all-day rides this is really a plus, taking a lot of hassle out of riding the bike - just get it up to fifth or sixth gear, sit back and enjoy the scenery for the duration, only dropping down the 'box when absolutely necessary. This does wonders for fuel range; I was looking at more than 260 kilometres on one tankload, which is pretty good going for a large-displacement V-twin in such a heavy machine.

Now having a superlative engine is one thing, but it won't be of much use if it isn't sitting in a well-designed chassis. And the Chieftain Dark Horse's chassis is good. On paper, a central spine/double cradle frame sounds old hat, but it does what it says on the tin and means that this big bus of a bike handles much more sweetly than one could expect. The steering head angle is more upright than on other Chieftain models, which gives it an extra edge of nimbleness. That said, this is not a bike made for zipping through inner-city traffic or for hustling along a mountain road. Suspension is taken care of by a classic, right-way-up, unadjustable cartridge-type front fork (119 mm of travel) and an air-assisted single-shock setup aft (114 mm of travel). Suspension action is plush, but not too marshmallowy. Braking is under the responsibility of two 300mm floating discs clamped by four-piston calipers on the front wheel, and a single 300 mm floating disc and twin piston caliper on the rear, with ABS. While the front brakes are powerful enough, it's definitely advisable to use both front and rear brakes simultaneously to bring the CDH to a halt.

On the road, the Chieftain Dark Horse is a well-poised machine; its considerable length and capable chassis makes it very stable. On a quiet stretch of motorway I engaged the cruise control and let go of the handlebars. With both hands resting on the voluminous, 20 litre petrol tank, the CDH tracked straight and true, requiring just the slightest of inputs on the footboards to keep it in check. Motorways, dual carriageways and wide-open A-roads are the CDH's natural environment; nonetheless if you take it on narrower, twistier roads it handles in a way that belies its considerable dimensions and weight (377 kg with a full tank), letting you swing the bike easily into the turns thanks to the leverage from its beefy, wide handlebars. On sinuous roads, the ground clearance, which is considerable for this kind of motorcycle, lets you negotiate most turns without having to worry about shaving a few thou' off footboards, sidestand or exhaust cans. Even on occasions when I came steaming into turns a bit fast, I was able to apply the "accelerate and lean" strategy without grinding the underside of the Dark Horse or losing grip: in this sense the Dunlop tyres really impressed me. That being said, it's wise to exercise caution when negotiating tight hairpin bends: this is not a bike you lob into a turn at the last minute.

In an urban environment, the bike's dimensions can be a drawback; filtering is out of the question due to the wide batwing fairing and the side panniers, while parking the beast can become problematic, because motorcycle parking bays are just not made for something this big, at least not on this side of the Atlantic. One either has to find a wide enough slot at one end of a parking bay, look for a wide enough pavement, or simply parallel-park the bike like one would a car. And of course, the humongous engine generates a lot of heat, which can become uncomfortable when stuck in heavy traffic (though it does keep your feet nice and toasty in cold weather). Other than that, you can ride around town in second gear all day; as I discovered, it's easy to pull away from a stop sign or traffic lights in second with little clutch slip or juddering from the engine, thus cutting down on constant gearchanging, which can become annoying in urban traffic.

I admit to not having bothered to go hunting for this bike's top speed at any moment during the six days I spent with it, mainly because top speed isn't what it's all about. My estimate is that it must be good for about 200 kph (124 mph), give or take a few; then again, who wants to go that fast on a bike like this? At 140 kph (87 mph) it's solid as a rock, and that's enough speed to get you into hot water on motorways in most parts of Europe; here in Spain I'd possibly be looking at a suspended driving licence if I got nicked at that speed. So I admit that I spent most of my motorway time with the cruise control engaged at just below the legal limit to avoid falling foul of speed cameras. No, this bike is about wafting along with the music going, on cruise control whenever possible, enjoying the view from the exquisitely-upholstered saddle, and shaking your head in perplexity when guys on "crotch rocket" bikes go tearing by.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Chieftain Dark Horse we rode was a 2017 model; the 2018 model features a different front end with an open mudguard and different front wheel, while the dashboard is now equipped with the Ride Command onboard computer that centralises most of the engine information, along with the navigation and sound systems. As soon as we can get our hands on a 2018-spec Chieftain Dark Horse, we will publish an update to detail the differences and how they affect the riding experience.

What we liked
- Styling and finish
- Build quality
- Engine response
- No shaking
- Well-sized side panniers
- Comfort and ergonomics
- Massive pose factor
- Handling and ground clearance

What we liked less
- Yet again, we had to tighten a rear view mirror that came loose
- The sidestand is a bit far forwards for shorter-legged riders, making it difficult to deploy it
- The weight can be a nuisance when manoeuvring the bike on anything other than a flat surface: on a couple of occasions we'd have loved to have a reverse gear
- The sensitive circuit breaker switch is very easy to flick involuntarilyLS2 Metro

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