First Ride Review: 2017 Indian Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite
The latest in the battle for bagger supremacy.
Three short years ago, America’s First Motorcycle Company had but three bikes in its lineup, with no dealerships to sell them. Today, there are nearly 450 dealers worldwide flying the Indian Motorcycle banner and they’re working with a product line that consists of no less than 12 different models. And that, said Reid Wilson, IMC’s Director of Marketing, all happened while they (Polaris) had two brands to deal with. Now with the winding down of the Victory brand, Wilson says that they are now totally focused on Indian, enough so that they’ve even afforded the luxury of opening up a new custom paint facility. But more on that later.
Brisk sales and the recent success of the Scout flat-track program have shot-callers at parent company Polaris excited, but even they know that there’s no such thing as a dramatic increase in the two-wheeled market. Indian fully expects to continue duking it out as the American V-twin underdog and matching blows with the Motor Company in the new-model arena with trends like custom-inspired special editions of existing models.
Oh yeah, we can hear that collective groan beginning to resonate. Is this leading up to another styling exercise? Technically yes, but even a cursory once-over is enough to see that the 2017 Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite both have a new look that is far removed from the elemental style of the standard Chieftain and the Chieftain Dark Horse that we rode last year.
The most obvious change is right there between the fork lowers: a larger diameter wheel and tire. Both the Limited and Elite get a new contrast-cut cast-aluminum wheel set measuring 19 inches up front paired with a matching 16-incher at the rear. And if that front looks larger than 19 inches, it’s an illusion created by the 10 spokes that are machine-cut from the hub all the way to the edge of the rim.
So jumping onto the big wheel bandwagon was pretty simple, but showing off the new rolling stock put the styling team in somewhat of a quandary when it came to the front fender. The iconic valanced fender that Indian motorcycles have long been associated with had to go. This is a radical styling departure from the brand’s traditional look and, according to Product Manager Josh Katt, not one that Indian took lightly. “What we’re trying to do with this product,” explained Katt at the San Diego press launch, “is to take cues from the custom market. We’ve been looking at what guys have been doing to the Chieftains and the trend is toward bigger front wheels.”
If you’re thinking that the sawed-off fender takes too much away from the heritage of the Chieftain, remember that through the 1920s and 1930s, all of the Scout and Chief models had open fenders similar to this design.
As for any difference in handling with the 19-inch front wheel and tire, there is none that I could feel since the overall height and width of the new Dunlop American Elite 130/60-19 tire is virtually identical to that of the Elite 3 (130/90-16) on the standard Chieftain. If the 19’s shorter sidewall transmitted more road imperfections than the 16, I didn’t notice.
Sharing the same chassis with the standard Chieftain, the Chieftain Limited and Chieftain Elite delivered the same well-mannered handling characteristics that belies a bike of this size and weight. Even in low-speed situations, the Chieftain handles predictably and is a friendly machine. While it might not be our first choice for a daily commuter, it certainly isn’t a bad one either.
Also unchanged in the Limited and Elite is the Thunder Stroke 111 V-twin delivering a claimed 119 pound-feet of torque. And as they did for the 2016 Dark Horse press ride, the guys from Indian brought along a couple of Elite models souped up with the Stage 2 Performance Cams, Thunder Stroke Stage 1 Slip-ons, and High Flow air cleaner. The engine add-ons are good for claimed increases of 7 percent in torque and 10 percent in horsepower. And yes, you can hear and feel the difference.
Other custom touches like a paint-matched headlight bezel, a “streamlined” leather saddle (no change in seat height from the standard Chieftain), and logo script on the brake calipers are nice little touches that we get to say are new to the Limited and Elite.
As a custom painter in a past life, the highlight of the presentation for me was the talk about the limited edition Chieftain Elite and how each bike is individually painted by hand. It’s obvious even in the photos that this is clearly no mass-produced finish. In fact, Indian has gone so far as to purchase a separate manufacturing facility located in Spearfish, South Dakota, where a talented group has been developing Indian’s in-house custom paint capability over the past year.
The first product of their work is the beautiful Fireglow Candy Red paint with marble accents on the Elite. The paint is a true candy with a metallic-gold base, several layers of the candy red toner with black marbleized graphics under a glossy coat of clear. There’s over 25 hours of paint labor that goes into each Chieftain Elite, and Indian says that no two are exactly alike.
he finish on the Chieftain Elite that I was riding in these photos was flawless. The metallic pattern was even all around as was the candy red tint coat. I I ran a finger over all of the graphics and felt no trace of a masking line anywhere. Nice job painters!