Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special on and off-road review

Pan America 1250 Special Review Visordown

One of the most talked-about adventure motorcycles has now been ridden, and here’s our verdict on the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special

THE story of the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special is one that started in 2018 when the Milwaukee factory confirmed it was to enter the adventure touring arena. It’s here where Harley hoped to do battle with the established names, and the new Pan America has the big guns in its sights.

Harley-Davidson Pan America | Harley-Davidson Streetfighter | EICMA 2019 | Visordown

And as we have seen from Harley-Davidson in the past, when they break into a new area with a product, see its awesome LiveWire electric motorcycle, they don’t take it lightly and go in half-cocked. Reaffirming that is the fact that Harley has thrown the kitchen sink at this bike, with a ground-up build featuring an all-new engine, chassis, suspension, brakes, all-new electronics, and some never seen before tech called Adaptive Ride Height. Is it enough to break the glass ceiling created by the BMW R1250 GS?

Here’s hoping!

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special price and colours

There are two versions of the bike up for grabs, the Pan America 1250 and the Pan America 1250 Special. The standard is, as you expect, the base model, and that starts at £14,000. It’s available in River Rock Grey and Vivid Black.

The Pan America 1250 Special starts from £15,500 and is available in Vivid Black, Gauntlet Gray Metallic, Deadwood Green, and the Baja Orange / Stone Washed White Pearl. The main difference between the two models is that the Special features innovative Showa Semi-Active front and rear suspension. The Showa kit allows riders to spec the bike with Harley’s headline-grabbing party-piece – Adaptive Ride Height.

Aside from that, the Special also comes kitted out with tyre pressure monitoring system, centre stand, multi-position rear brake, brush guard, aluminium sump guard, Daymaker cornering lights, hand guards, heated grips, and an Öhlins steering damper.

For this review, we are riding the Pan America 1250 Special only.

2021 Harley-Davidson 1250 Pan America engine

Powering the new bike is an all-new, ultra-modern, and thoroughly impressive engine. Harley-Davidson’s team of engineers have made the Revolution Max 1250 which is possibly one of the most refined and tractable V-twin engines you are ever likely to come across.

The VVT-equipped, 1252cc engine produces 150hp at a heady (for a Harley-Davidson) 8,750 rpm and 94.4lb-ft of torque arrives at an equally thrilling 6,750rpm. The engine utilises a 30-degree split-pin crank. The design is key to the engine’s refined character and delivery, helping it to have the primary balance of a 90-degree twin with compact dimensions of a 60-degree engine. Another update for the Revolution Max 1250 is the introduction of full liquid cooling for added efficiency and quiet running.

The route for the day with Harley-Davidson was a morning road ride into Snowdonia National Park, followed by a lunchtime session at the awesome Mick Extance Off Road Motorcycle Experience Centre. The route was a proper mix, tight and twisty single track stuff around the lakes, followed by fast and flowing stretches over the top. It really did have it all. Oh, and rain, lots, and lots of rain.

Flicking the bike down into its pre-programmed rain mode commands the bike’s suspension, ABS, throttle mapping, and traction control to all tow the line, and the 150hp machine now winds up with all the ferocious intent of a 47bhp A2 bike. The suspension supple, and the ABS and traction control are on high alert to keep it all pointing the right way. Indeed, an experienced rider will fairly quickly get bored, but it is impressive nonetheless to see how accessible the Pan America can be. Hitting the faster, and far less slippery roads north of Lake Vyrnwy, I flick the bike into sport mode using the toggle switch on the right-hand switch cube. Now with full power on demand, a sharper more direct throttle, and much more dynamic suspension settings, the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special is a totally different animal. The handling is more responsive, turning more quickly and getting down the road with much more poise and confidence. The engine is still as refined as before, just now with a bite to match the baritone bark from the single, high-level exhaust pipe.

Engine settings and riding modes make for a transformative change

One of the things that struck me about the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special is just how obvious the change is when you alter the riding modes and engine settings. This bike really can go from purring along with all the ease and accessibility of a bike half its capacity, to snarling and yanking your arms out of their sockets with just the touch of a button. The standard bike includes four pre-programmed and one customisable mode, while the Special gets two more custom modes for you to play with. Standard modes are Road, Sport, Rain, Off-Road, and Off-Road Plus. All the modes can be changed on the fly by using the Mode button on the righthand switch cube.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 chassis and handling

With the engine nestling at its centre as a stressed member, the Pan America’s frame is a minimalist piece of kit, with a small headstock that mounts to both cylinder heads, and a chunky yet attractive subframe at the rear. The clean-sheet design of the bike was a point that Harley was keen to get across at the launch, and it’s not until you ride the thing that it all becomes clear. At 258kg in running order, the Pan America isn’t the lightest in the big-bore adventure motorcycle class. But with its minimalist frame design, all the weight is exactly where H-D’s engineers need it to be. The silhouette of the bike is pretty big, with the bold-looking front end dominating your eye line. Out on the road though, the bike feels easy to ride, with benign handling characteristics. It’s easy to get it doing what you want, as long as you’re prepared to put the effort in the faster you go!

An honourable mention should really go to Michelin, for its co-branded H-D Scorcher hoops on the bike. They feature a block pattern that is 30 percent off-road 70 percent on and was very impressive. In the wet, they provided grip and poise, and never once felt cumbersome. Equally impressive was the off-road performance of the tyres, as we were able to head onto the rain-soaked slate trails of the Mick Extance Centre without changing anything but settings and then hammering along fire trails at motorway speeds in complete confidence and control – ish!

For those wanting a little more extreme off-road performance, handbook-approved Michelin Anakee Wild off-road rubber can be selected.

A refreshing change for the brand is the use of proper, branded componentry for the bike, with Brembo supplying the braking hardware and Showa the suspension. To put it bluntly, wading into this market with anything other than top-spec kit would be a massive own goal, and Harley would have been well aware of that.

The Brembo four-pot callipers at the front are matched to a radially mounted master cylinder and 320mm discs. The brakes are strong, with a fairly nice lever feel, although they do lack that confidence-inspiring initial bite of some of the competition. Some aftermarket and slightly more exotic pads would be on my shopping list.

Backing up the hardware is a full suite of electronics including lean-sensitive traction control, ABS, and hill hold control. The higher-spec Special also gains the cornering headlights, and TPMS – although both of those can be added to the standard also. The Pan America 1250 Special, also features a plethora of pre-programmed suspension settings. They cover Comfort, Balanced, Sport, Off-Road Soft, and Off-Road Firm.

One outcome of using electronic suspension on a bike is that it can sometimes overly sanitise the experience and rob us of some of the pitch and dive that happens while riding. You don’t get that will the Pan America 1250 Special, it still feels alive, and moves around underneath you as you’d expect of a ‘normally’ suspended bike.

Like with the engine settings and power modes I mentioned above, the suspension settings are equally easy to pick up on, with definite and distinct changes as you flick between the sport and off-road settings.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Adaptive Ride Height

One of the biggest talking points about the bike is the Adaptive Ride Height suspension that can be added to the Pan America 1250 Special. It’s a £600 option that requires the electronically adjustable semi-active Showa suspension to work.

The premise is simple; while riding along at normal speeds, the bike maintains its designated ride height. When you come to a stop the suspension lowers by up to a couple of inches. Pulling away again and getting up to speed will see the bike rise to its optimum ride height, as it uses the natural movement of the suspension to pump itself back up.

First off, not being able to touch the floor on a big adventure bike is one of the biggest barriers stopping people like me from getting on them and riding off-road. Props to Harley-Davidson for coming up with something genuinely innovative, useful, and works beautifully. And I know it works beautifully because I genuinely couldn’t perceive it to be doing anything. The only tell-tale sign that it was doing anything was that once I got up to speed, just the very tips of my toes could touch the floor, with around half a foot on each side once I’ve come to a stop.

It’s the kind of tech that does make you ask, why hasn’t this been done before? Electronic suspension has been around for some years now, and the fact that Harley has come up with something truly pioneering on its first attempt in the sector, it’ll surely be a bit galling for the established names.

To read our deep dive feature on the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Adaptive Ride Height system, click here.

What we like about the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special:

  • Engaging yet accessible chassis and engine
  • Wet grip on and off-road
  • Comfort
  • Electronics package
  • Adaptive Ride Height – a ground-breaking feature

What we didn’t:

  • Some handlebar switches are a bit fiddly
  • Adjustable screen awkward to use on the fly and wobbles a bit

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 verdict

Harley-Davidson really is taking a wander into the lion’s den with the new Pan America. Going toe-to-toe with BMW in its own back yard, and the rest of the manufacturers takes some serious balls and an even more serious motorcycle. And while Harley could have totally gone the wrong way and created an adventure motorcycle in name but with little to back it up, I think they have pitched the new Pan America range pretty much perfectly.

While it’s true that there are more capable off-road machines available on one side of the argument, and vastly more sporty adventure touring machines on the other, how many of each camp actually get used to the full, day in day out?

What I’m trying to get across is that the new Harley is an extremely good all-round adventure motorcycle, probably better suited to how actual adventure bike fans ride their bikes than some of the established names. When riding on the road it has poise, balance, acres of grip, power, and exceptionally good levels of comfort. But then you take it off-road, and it is just as multi-talented again, thanks to its low centre of gravity, otherworldly suspension system, and excellent selection of tyres.

Granted, it's not without its faults, but in truth, the list above includes niggles rather than actual complaints. Most owners would learn to live those before the engine was even run in. And let’s remember, this is Harley-Davidson’s first crack at a modern adventure motorcycle. They’ve already come up with a complete package that should have many within the motorcycle industry giving this bike their full attention.

We won’t be settling for the one-day test ride in wet and windy Wales either, we are going to be booking in a Pan America 1250 again in a couple of weeks to give the new bike a thorough going over, with long hours in the saddle, on and off-road.

Images: Gareth Harford