First Look: Harley-Davidson LiveWire electric motorcycle – a sharp shock to the senses

There has been much discussion over the internet, from pundits, fans, rider, the know-alls and know-nots alike, about that American motorcycle company and its plans for resurgence in the market. Part of those plans includes a foray into the world of electric motorcycles (e-bikes) and the Milawaukee firm’s offering, the Harley-Davidson LiveWire.

E-bikes have not had the best of starts, with many commenting on things like range, charging infrastructure, the cost effectiveness and environment friendliness of battery packs and so. The litany of nay-saying goes on and certainly, looking at things from the surface, there would be, for the “traditional motorcycle” rider, lots of things to say against the LiveWire.

But Harley-Davidson (H-D) needs something. Catering to an aging crowd of adult cos-players wearing leather vest and looking like pirates has a finite marketing life. If the riders who can afford the motorcycle you’re selling can’t lift it up without the help of a crane, then eventually you’re going to need fresh blood coming in and taking up the reins.

And this is where H-D’s problem lies. Many young riders have no interest in the H-D lifestyle and the current crop of bikes in the catalogue does not necessarily attract the younger, faster rider with much less spending power.

So, for H-D, it now looks to the future, teasing upcoming models like the Bronx and embracing new technology like e-bikes. For the LiveWire, it was a surprise sprung on us in Spain, where we were out riding the 2020 Softtails and doing a spot of hill climbing on Street 750s.

After being informed we were slated to ride the LiveWire a short distance away through the mountains, a lot of thoughts crossed our mind, first of which was range. The second thought was, exactly how heavy is this thing?

Going by the first approach, the LiveWire looks like a regular motorcycle. The wheels are the right size and in the right place, what is supposed to be fuel tank but isn’t is in the correct position and angle, the seat is at the right height and not placing your bum six inches off the floor like other Harley motorcycles.

There is even a curious, but welcome, lack of chrome with the LiveWire clad in a matte finish paint that looks for all the world like a plastic wrap but isn’t. There were three colours on offer and we chose the lime green over the black and bronze.

Why? Don’t ask the author. The LiveWires were lined up and we were asked which one. For some reason, the lime green appealed to the eye and that’s what we rode on the day.

Moving back to more important things, the H-D tech we meet in the basement the day before the ride let the author mess around a little with the LiveWires and was happy to show off the full-colour TFT-LCD dash along with the many functions available when connected to the author’s smartphone.

That the LiveWire is tech heavy and up-to-date, electronics wise, is more than apparent. No chrome-ringed analogue clocks to be seen here, or decorative embellishments of chromed skulls. The LiveWire is as modern and minimalist as it gets and appeals to the engineer in the author.

Getting on the LiveWire we had the published weight in mind – 249 kg. In terms of all out naked sports bikes, this is heavy, by some 50 or so kg, but well within the norm for a sports-tourer or adventure rig. We will not compare the LiveWire to a cruiser but it is not, Harley purists can show themselves out the door right now.

Lifting the LiveWire off the side stand put us in mind of, say, a 90’s Kawasaki ZZR-1100, which is about the same weight. You can feel the heft in the handlebars as you move it, but once upright, the sensation of being top heavy disappears.

Speaking the H-D tech, I asked about the range and such. Anecdotally, I was told the LiveWire I was sitting on had been ridden hard around the mountains of Antequera, Spain and returned reasonable range, coming in to the garage most nights with 70 or so kms on the display from a full charge giving 150 or so km.

As said previously, range for e-bikes, especially those ridden in anger, is something of a concern. The technician said there was one instance when the charge dropped very low but using regenerative braking, some 47 km of charge was returned to the battery but it involved “riding in a really boring manner.”

For the ride on the LiveWire, we were given about an hour so in the mountains, including video and photo opportunities. I asked if we would have the chance to wring the LiveWire’s neck to see if the performance lived up to the hype and the H-D lead rider said, “I’ll speak to you about that later.”

Setting off, with keyless start, pressing the necessary buttons on the handlebar brought the LCD screen to life. All seemed normal except the rumble of an engine between the legs was very much missing. However, the seating position was very definitely sports bike like, putting one in mind of a classic 80s machine, long and stretched out some.

The wide handlebars made the LiveWire easy to handle and once up to speed, there was nothing in it. The LiveWire is very much a motorcycle, it just happens to be powered by electricity.

For those of the assembled media riding a LiveWire for the first time, we were asked to set the ride mode in “Road” out of the four available ride modes – Sport, Road, Range and Rain. First thing we had to adjust our riding habit to was reaching for the clutch lever, there was none.

Instead, the LiveWire runs on direct drive and the only input required from the rider is to twist the throttle with fingers and foot on the brake. Nothing else is needed though that did not stop the author from wanting to change gears as the LiveWire built up speed.

A bit like making the transition between a manual and automatic gearbox in the car world. You get used to it after a while but some might take longer to adapt than others.

In any case, we started our ride and after a rapid change of elevation coming out of town we were now on the mountain road. Lifting the visor of the helmet – for a very short while, the weather was cold – we savoured the silence of riding the LiveWire.

Save the thrumming of the tyres on the road, the slight whine of the 15.5 kwH motor and the howl of the wind, the ride on the LiveWire was silent. So silent we scared the daylights out of a cyclist going up the mountain as we zipped past at some, well, not insane but still illegal, speed, despite giving the cyclist the necessary 1.5-metre separation.

As we stopped for the first photo shoot, the H-D lead rider came over to me and said, “now switch to sports mode.” While riding the LiveWire in road mode, it put us in mind of a very responsive motorcycle.

We had no issues with the equivalent of 105 hp and 116 Nm of torque coming from the motor, through the belt drive and into the rear wheel. If anything, we would swear it behaved like a litre-class naked sports bike.

Until we switched it into “Sports” mode. Now, the initial response from “Road” mode was nice, feeling like a well-tuned bike. In “Sports” mode, all the torque, every single Newton-meter, came on from zero rpm.

This means the LiveWire will rocket forward, very quickly till you look down at the speedometer and realise you are now in the region where sportsbikes wait at the corner with knives out, ready to slice open the unwary. Then the LiveWire gives them a sneer and drops into the corner with confidence and aplomb, the fully-adjustable suspension taking care of business while the rider negotiates the corner.

Don’t take this to mean things are perfect though. While the LiveWire corners and corners well, right up there with the current crop of sports bikes from any manufacturer, changing direction requires a noticeable effort.

Where something like say, a Ducati or Aprilia will flick through the esses with a thought and a touch, the LiveWire needs a somewhat firm hand. Again, the rider will quickly get used to this and it won’t matter after a couple of hundred kilometres.

Seat comfort was good for the LiveWire, though an hour in the saddle will not reveal much. Perched some 760 mm off the ground, the LiveWire will fit many riders with no issues.

The legs are where they should be for a standard motorcycle and did not feel in any way cramped or race-like. There was a bit of a stretch to the bars but we would assume this is something that can be taken care off with a replacement handlebar of the appropriate reach and width.

In terms of ride handling, as we said to the H-D representatives on the day, the best thing we can say about the LiveWire is it behaves like a motorcycle. No nonsense about heritage or character or feel, just a straightforward function over form two wheeler.

Fitted as it it will all modern riding riding conveniences, cornering ABS, traction control, rear wheel anti-slip control, electronically linked braking, all bundled together under H-D’s Reflex Defensive Rider System. This technological wizardry all means the rider can concentrate on the riding while the bike takes care of the rest.

Right about now I can hear the purists baying for blood and screaming things about deviating from the purity of the riding experience. Now, this is all well and good and the author comes from a time when motorcycle traction control and ABS was the rider’s eyes, hands, feet and brain.

Things are different now, and for a vast majority of riders, there is a lack of the step up through smaller motorcycles that riders of the author’s vintage went through. Developing the necessary riding survival skills, unless the young rider has a parent who is interested in motorcycling as a sport, is very much absent these days.

For H-D, this means making the LiveWire as easy to ride and unobtrusive as possible while giving the rider the greatest measure of safety, and in this we think they have succeeded. The LiveWire is easy to ride and easy to handle, torque delivery notwithstanding.

This is not to say there are no shortcomings to riding an e-bike. First among which is range. While in a developed society riding an e-bike and using public charging stations might work, in a country like Malaysia this is rather more difficult.

No doubt charging stations are available as the head of H-D Europe tried to show me but these are meant for cars, not bikes. Leaving your e-bike at a Level 2 charging station in a mall or petrol station might likely mean the rider coming back and finding the motorcycle burnt to the ground.

The other bug bear is the sound, or lack thereof. Malaysian drivers are, at the best of times, an inattentive lot. Add the distraction of smartphone usage while behind the wheel plus general lack of lane discipline and riding a silent motorcycle in traffic approaches levels of risk taking that some might find unpalatable.

In any case, these are questions best answered when e-bikes make it into the mainstream market in Malaysia, as opposed to being “a very expensive toy,” in the words of one very seasoned H-D rider. Right now, H-D Asia Pacific was not able to provide a likely date as to when the LiveWire will enter the Malaysia market, save a guarded “a lot depends on government approval.”

So, who needs a Harley-Davidson LiveWire, which has a price of USD 29,999 (RM126,806) on the H-D website in base form? No doubt, for that kind of money in Malaysia, you are at about where litre-class sportsbikes, superbikes and big adventure tourers are the weapon of choice.

Don’t make any mistake, the LiveWire is quite capable of matching a 1,000 cc sports bike for performance and will leave it in the dust for acceleration but is the attraction of electricity as motive power enough. For a certain segment of riders, the answer would be yes.

But for the general Malaysian motorcycle rider, distances covered even on a typical Sunday morning ride would be beyond the range of the LiveWire, say nothing about cross-border rides. The widespread implementation of e-bikes in the transport ecosystem is coming, make no mistake, but will need a concerted effort by the government to do so, otherwise there is no incentive to adopt as long as fuel is subsidised and cheap in Malaysia.

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