New bike review: Harley-Davidson Pan America Special

Pan Am Airways may have gone the way of the dodo back in the ’90s, but Harley-Davidson is keeping the spirit alive with the launch of its new adventure bike, the hulking Pan America.

I’m thinking of writing a letter to Harley-Davidson boss Jochen Zeitz, asking him to rename the company’s new adventure bike the “Pan Australia”, rather than the Pan America.

I reckon there’s no more suitable country than ours for this bike, given that half of our gazetted roads are unsealed, with the other half frequently riddled with potholes and corrugations.

Indeed, this is a country where dual cab 4x4 utes have taken over as the preferred family vehicle and where our towns and cities are often separated by distances requiring a packed lunch, or even two.

Here, the Pan America cum Pan Australia stands proud as a conveyor of riders across everything from single track to freeways and, of course, the grind of the daily commute.

Based on its price, performance and efficiency, this new Harley sits toward the top of the growing pile of litre-plus capacity behemoths that fall into the adventure bike category.

Despite being available overseas in two models, Harley’s first adventure bike arrives here in a single up-spec “Special” trim, costing $31,995 rideaway. 

That’s competitive with rival offerings from the likes of BMW, Ducati, KTM and Triumph.

Standard features include electronically adjustable semi-active suspension, tyre pressure monitors, center stand, multi-position rear brake pedal, hand guards, aluminium skid plate, Daymaker headlight, heated hand grips, cruise control and steering damper

For those who prefer a bit more fruit, options include tubeless spoked wheels and adaptive ride height, both of which were fitted to our test bike at an additional package cost of $1485.

Despite being one of the world’s most recognised brand names, the Harley name is only discretely displayed on the Pan Am’s wheels and rocker covers, with blank bar-and-shield logos on the tank.

Harley-Davidson Pan Am Special

There’s not an ounce of Harley chrome in sight and a less kind correspondent might describe it as looking like a big, black, plastic wheelie bin. But not me. 

Over the course of two weeks, we took the Pan America on pretty much every type of road surface we could access; from sandy single track, through muddy slop, potholed B-grade back roads, suburban commuting and open highway.

While it proved a practical and accomplished all-roader, it doesn’t look, feel, sound nor perform like any of the 100-plus Harleys I’ve ridden in the past couple of decades. 

The engine is true to Harley form in that it’s a V-twin, but the new liquid-cooled Revolution Max 1250 sounds and performs more like a parallel twin, lacking the familiar thump and big-bottomed torque of Harley’s V-twins.

That said, it’s a nicely refined unit with variable valve timing and 112kW of power spread across the rev band. 

Only Ducati’s Multistrada musters more power in this segment, while the Pan Am’s 127Nm is bettered only by BMW’s 142Nm torque monster GS. 

The Pan Am’s maximum power and torque are achieved higher in the rev range than other Harleys, too.

Travelling at 100km/h in sixth gear, the engine is spinning at 3800rpm which is about 1200rpm higher than most Harley engines, and it’s absent the brand’s distinctive potato-potato soundtrack.  

The engine is also married to a rather un-Harley-like transmission, notably slicker than the company’s usual offerings, with an easy to find neutral and gears that mesh so nicely that it’s possible to shift up and down without using the clutch. The spread of ratios allows low gearing for technical terrain as well as a reasonably vibe-free highway cruising. 

Here, you can flick on the diligent cruise control system, which does an excellent job of holding its set speed, even when travelling downhill. 

Harley-Davidson Pan Am Special

Other brands are already introducing more sophisticated adaptive cruise control systems that regulate the bike’s set speed according to the vehicle in front, but we’re happy enough entrusting our licence to Harley’s cruise, even if it does cause some surging of revs as it works to maintain the selected speed.

Otherwise, the Pan Am comes with four preset riding modes (Highway, Rain, Sport and Enduro) which adjust throttle sensitivity, ABS, power output, traction control and suspension damping.

There’s also a customisable mode that you can tailor to suit your individual riding style.

Like most big adventure bikes, the Pan Am stands tall, with high handlebars, wide footpegs, expansive windscreen and generous 21.2-litre tank. 

The adjustable seat height is relatively modest at 850mm, with an optional suspension system dropping it to 830mm, meaning it should cater to most rider types.

Weight is 253kg, or 15kg less than the market-leading BMW R 1250 GS.

Ergonomics are impressively comfortable, with a commanding riding position, plenty of leg room, a generous reach to the bars and a big, plush saddle for both rider and pillion. 

The latter also gets chunky hand grips that double as pannier mounts. 

It’s the sort of accommodation that will convey rider and pillion for hundreds of kilometres a day in a good level of comfort, with the added protection of a three-level adjustable windscreen. 

You adjust the screen via a lever on the left, enabling the right hand to remain on the throttle. 

Harley-Davidson pan American Special

That said, I found it a bit awkward to adjust on the fly, so recommend pulling over to change the screen height. 

None of these behemoth adventure bikes feel particularly at home on single track, but the Harley doesn’t feel too awkward in these conditions, even if its V-twin engine does place weight relatively high in the chassis. 

The standing position – on generously sized footpegs with pop-out rubber inserts – is agreeable, without the need for bar risers. 

However, you can’t see the front tyre when standing, which makes it difficult to precisely place the front wheel in tricky terrain 

When it comes to instruments, the Pan Am features a large 6.8-inch TFT display screen incorporating the speedometer, tachometer, odometer, gear selected, fuel gauge, clock, trip meter, ambient temperature, low temperature alert, side stand down alert, tip-over alert, cruise control, and distance to empty. 

While all this info is available on the home screen, some of the type is small and difficult to read. 

Scrolling through the various screens offers a selection of more tailored information, with larger and easier-to-read letters and numbers. 

You can also pair your phone to the bike and access phone calls, music and navigation through the H-D app.

Otherwise, all controls are easily reachable, among the plethora of switches and buttons on the two big switch blocks.

The Pan Am continues Harley’s sensible tradition of using side stands that lock, preventing the bike from rolling forward and falling over.

However, the stand in this case is a bit short and too far forward for my liking, making it difficult to deploy on flat ground, or where there is a slight uphill on the left.

The big centre stand is a welcome inclusion, too, but it’s difficult to deploy without assistance from a pillion or riding buddy.

Finally, of course, you can dress up the Pan Am with a wide range of Harley accessories, including three durable luggage systems, as well as adventure riding gear developed in collaboration with respected European motorcycle apparel specialist, REV’IT!.

Key stats 

Price: from $31,995 rideaway (test bike included tubeless spoked wheels and adaptive ride height at $1485).

Warranty: Two years/unlimited km.

Engine: Liquid-cooled, VVT, Revolution Max 1250cc V-twin.

Power: 112kW @ 9000rpm.

Torque: 127Nm @ 6750rpm.

Gearbox: Six-speed, chain drive .

Weight: 253kg.

Suspension front/rear: 47mm inverted fork with electronically adjustable semi-active damping control, aluminium fork triple clamps / Linkage-mounted monoshock with automatic electronic preload control and semi-active compression and rebound damping.

Brakes front/rear: Four-piston radial mono block caliper, 320mm discs / single-piston floating caliper, 280mm disc, ABS.
Dimensions : 2265mm (L); 965mm (W); 1510mm (H); 1580mm (WB); 850mm (S).