First ride: Harley-Davidson LiveWire review

Sounds like a Scalextric, accelerates like a sports bike

I REMEMBER cautiously reporting the news of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire Project last year, not quite able to believe the clear evidence.

First a Harley-branded electric bike was photographed on set of an Avengers film. Then a Harley teaser video appeared of a bike zipping past the camera too fast to see, with no other sound than a whoosh. But only when it was officially announced the next day did we have the confidence to say this was definitely an electric Harley. It seemed as likely as Old Spice making washing up gloves.

Now I've ridden the Harley-Davidson LiveWire (Project) and it continues to defy my preconceptions about the brand. The last time I rode a Harley, a Softail Breakout in 2013, I felt like I'd gone back in time. I wanted to break out. Yesterday at Millbrook Proving Ground, it was more like swinging a leg over the future.

Part of the experience of riding a motorcycle is the sound it makes. That's why we all find so many ways to describe it: bark, howl, 'ring-ding-ding', 'potato-potato'. So it doesn't help the cause of electric bikes if they barely make a noise at all. How do we talk about that?

The LiveWire makes a noise. I doubt there was any need to amplify the sound in that teaser video. The 'whoosh' is real. Harley’s Senior Vice President, Mark-Hans Richer, has described it as like a 'fighter jet on an aircraft carrier’. I don’t think it sounds like a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. More like a very big Scalextric. But the important thing is it makes a sound loud enough and distinctive enough to give it a sense of character and drama. A sci-fi drama.

Camera and recording equipment were strictly forbidden at the circuit (because car makers test secret new models there) but there are numerous clips of the LiveWire’s sound on Youtube, including this one.

The more you open the throttle, the louder it gets, just as we expect from a motorcycle. Open it suddenly and for a moment the note is louder still, and deeper. The response is similar to the moment of induction roar a petrol bike can make when the throttle is snapped open, even if the sound is very different.

You can't be too carefree with the LiveWire's throttle, though. Open it a bit, respectfully, and the response is smooth and progressive - but aggressive torque is never far away.

Peak torque is 52lbft, about the same as 600cc four-cylinder sports bike. But unlike on a sports bike, that peak is always just a wrist twist away. It doesn't matter what gear you're in – there's only one. It doesn't matter how fast you're going, or how fast the engine is turning. Open the throttle and it's there, biting, as if you've knocked down a gear to find it. Ease off and it's gone, the drive civilised and gentle again.

Peak power is 74hp and the LiveWire is claimed to do 0-60mph in under four seconds, which I do not doubt.

Harley-Davidson had warned the test ride may be called off if it rained. The LiveWire remains a prototype, without ABS or traction control, and there were fears rear tyres could spin up in the rain under clumsy throttle hands. As well they could.

As it happened, it did rain, and Harley let the ride go ahead anyway, albeit briefly. It included one lap of Millbrook's banked high-speed circuit, with a focus on getting necessary photography done, and a section of the Alpine hill route, with steep blind rises hiding steeper descents and sharp turns.

The strong torque hauled the LiveWire up the hills like a cord reeling it in from the top. On the descents, shutting off produced an effect like engine braking, as the LiveWire used its own kinetic energy to recharge.

That braking effect continues until you’re hardly moving, by which time the LiveWire has fallen silent and there’s a sense you ought to do something, like pull in a clutch, to avoid stalling. But you don’t. It just stops and waits, ready to come alive again when you next touch the throttle.

The handlebar switches are like those of a conventional Harley. There are separate indicator switches, one on each bar. A button on the right bar switches the machine on. The dash is a colour touch screen, which you press to choose ‘power ride’ or ‘range ride’, depending on whether you want to go as fast or as far as possible. I chose power.

You’re effectively still in neutral, and twisting the throttle will do nothing, until you press another button on the right bar and a zero appears on the screen. Now a twist of the throttle will unleash that torque, although there is no sound to indicate the change. Harley’s presentation included a warning about this, and I can see how it could catch you out if you absent-mindedly twisted just to test the action.  

The short ride was enough for me to say the LiveWire felt sportier than I'd expected of a Harley. The pegs are directly below the single seat, not way out in front. The bars are straight but you have to lean forward to reach them. The machine doesn't feel heavy but there is a sense that a significant share of the mass sits low down in that big billet-aluminium-encased electric motor. The brakes, a single disc front and rear, felt sharp. The suspension, a single shock and upside-down fork, felt firm.

There was no opportunity to explore the extent of cornering clearance but I can say the LiveWire has some, an improvement on the Breakout I rode in 2013.

The event was part of Harley’s ‘Livewire Experience Tour’ (™) which has already seen 7,000 test rides in the US and Canada and is now making its way across Europe. The point of project LiveWire, according Harley, is to ‘gain feedback’.

I was asked for feedback in a questionnaire, which gave some insight into Harley’s ambition to change preconceptions about its brand. It included a list of adjectives and asked me to tick which ones I would use to describe Harley before and after the ride. It included words that people probably do use to describe Harley, like ‘traditional’, and words the firm would probably like to be described as, like ‘visionary’. I ticked ‘traditional’ in the before section and ‘up-to-date’ in the after section.

Another question asked whether I’d consider buying a LiveWire. While I’d been riding it, I’d thought: ‘This is fun. It really could be an alternative to a conventional motorcycle.’ But faced with the direct question, I realised that, with its 53-mile range, I wouldn’t have been able to get from home in London to the circuit in Milton Keynes and back. Or would I? About 40 miles each way and a three-and-a-half-hour charge time… It would be touch and go. I think I ticked ‘not sure’.

Model tested: Harley Davidson LiveWire

Price: prototype

Power: 74hp

Torque: 52lbft

Weight: 215kg

0-60mph: under four seconds (claimed)

Range: 53 miles

Charge time: 3.5 hours

Availability: prototype

Watch our video review of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Read our Brammo Empulse R review

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