New bike review: Harley-Davidson LiveWire
Famous US brand’s quiet achiever won’t suit all tastes.
Harley-Davidson once famously – and unsuccessfully – applied for a patent for its characteristic “potato-potato” exhaust sound.
The year was 1994, Johnny Depp was rocking the centre part, Pearl Jam’s Better Man was on high rotation, and the coolest battery-powered thing was a Sony Discman.
Fast forward three decades and the world has moved on, such that most iconic of motorcycles the Harley-Davidson now comes with battery power.
Your correspondent first attended the international media launch of the Harley-Davidson LiveWire in Portland, Oregon, in July 2019, back when humans travelled the globe and many of us were still a wee bit sceptical about the prospects for electric bikes in general, let alone one from the grandaddy of American heavy motorcycle manufacturing.
Given Harley’s proud tradition of building big bikes with distinctively resonant V-twin engines, it was a real shock to be riding in a pack of hogs making virtually no sound.
But that brief 100km launch ride showed me that the all-electric LiveWire genuinely lived up to its name, proving lively enough in most circumstances and easily capable of reaching highway speed limits in an impressively rapid three seconds.
The new Harley’s build quality, handling, technology and styling were also deeply impressive.
It took fully 17 months after that first ride for the first LiveWires to arrive in Australian showrooms and when they did they wore a whopping $49,995 price tag – and an extra $295 if you prefer orange over standard black paint.
Even for a brand with such historically high pricing, the LiveWire is an expensive proposition, bettered only by the limited-edition Harley-Davidson CVO and Tri Glide trike.
Having then waited several months after the first Australian arrivals for a test ride, I was keen to see if those now-distant impressions from the US launch were accurate.
Fortunately for me, Harley offered a longer than usual two-week loan, so I had plenty of time to experience the Livewire on home soil.
The first thing to note is I found the overall experience of living with an electric motorcycle quite enjoyable; while the second is that the more I got to know the LiveWire, the more I found to like about it.
Don’t get me wrong, it still feels a bit wrong to be riding a Harley that doesn’t sound like one, but the bike maker has given the electric motor a slight pulse to appease riders who like an engine sound and installed a bevel-geared primary drive to provide a slight whining sound, so the bike is not completely silent.
Despite this, the tinnitus in my ears caused by years of riding loud bikes is still louder than anything the LiveWire emits.
After a while I came to enjoy the mindfulness of riding around town in near silence, which seems to heighten the senses and make me a more alert rider.
Out on the highway, wind noise is the LiveWire’s dominant soundtrack, with a significant upside being that you can hear music, GPS directions or phone calls on your helmet intercom at lower and safer levels.
Heading up through the hills on my favourite piece of road, the LiveWire handled and performed as well as most litre-plus naked bikes and in some respects even better.
It’s on the heavy side of course, at 251kg, thanks in part to its battery, but with its weight distribution sits nice and low and with its quality Showa suspension it feels quite nimble.
The sticky purpose-built and Harley-labelled Michelin Scorcher tyres are also well up to the task with the net result that the LiveWire is a surprisingly enjoyable corner carver.
It also steers with pleasing precision with little centrifugal mass to overcome when turning, although the front wheel will still follow longitudinal cracks and there is some bump-steer.
Ride quality is pretty good for the most part with the only gripe being the suspension feeling a little abrupt over high-frequency bumps.
The Brembo brakes are excellent, too, with good initial bite and a nicely progressive modulation, and they’re ably assisted by the electric motor’s natural resistance or “engine braking” when you wind off the throttle.
This regenerative braking process serves to put charge back into the battery and once you get accustomed to it you can ride the LiveWire without using much brake pedal at all, which bodes well for pad and disc life.
The regenerative braking effect is so strong, in fact, that the bike’s rear stop lights flash when you roll off the throttle to warn following traffic.
The LiveWire has no clutch because it uses a single speed transmission like most EVs, meaning the rider needs to simply twist the throttle to achieve instant acceleration.
This makes it eminently suitable for complex roads or tracks with lots of turns. I didn’t miss changing gears at all and only reached for the non-existent clutch once during my stint with the bike.
Among the LiveWire’s other features are cruise control, self-cancelling indicators, and Bluetooth connectivity.
You can also pair your phone to the bike with an “HD Connect” Android and iOS phone app that remotely checks battery and charge status, shows the nearest charging stations, provides service reminders, and will even notify you if your bike is being tampered with. Better still, if the LiveWire is stolen, a GPS tracker shows its location.
An unexpected benefit of electric motorcycling in warmer climes is the fact the water-cooled motor and battery remain cool to the touch, even when working the bike hard, meaning the rider’s legs remain cool during steamy summer days.
However, riding the LiveWire is not all beer and skittles, because the bike has some quirks that might annoy some riders.
For a start, it comes with a three-metre charging cable stored under the seat that costs a whopping $1100 to replace, so remember to lock that seat.
It's also difficult to fit the charger and cable in the limited space provided, prompting concerns about inadvertently pinching or damaging it.
At this price you would think Harley could make a more convenient charging module with retractable cable that fits more neatly under the seat.
The supplied Type 2 charging cable plugs into a household AC mains wall socket at one end while the other end goes into a socket on the bike where the petrol cap would normally be.
The charge cable is also capable of handling DC fast charging but Harley says it will not operate on Tesla’s free charging network, found at many urban shopping centres.
Despite this, I tried the plug, which looks the same as the Universal Mobile Connector (UMC) used by Tesla, on three occasions with a two-out-of-three success rate.
A full charge on 240V mains power takes about 11 hours but if you can get to a Level-3 quick-charge point you can charge the battery to 80% in 40 minutes and 100% in 60 minutes.
However, it should be noted that while the Rechargeable Energy Storage System does not limit the number of times a Level 3 DC fast charger can be used, Harley warns that more frequent DC fast charging will “stress the battery more than Level 1 charging”.
The company recommends avoiding using DC fast-charge exclusively with the suggested best practice being to alternate charging between Level 1 and Level 3 DC Fast Charge in a 4:1 ratio (four Level 1 charges to every Level 3 fast charge).
Other than this, the high-voltage lithium-ion battery comes with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty and Harley says it should last 10 years without significant loss of capacity, unless it is frequently quick-charged, not treated well or used extensively in extreme cold conditions.
Harley also claims the LiveWire’s 15.5kWh Samsung battery is good for 235km of city range or 152km of highway range.
Noting these range limitations, I still experienced regular range anxiety because of the variables that can and do impact how far you can travel on a charge.
For example, a 20km highway ride showed up as the equivalent of a 30km journey, using almost 15% of the battery, while a 23km ride through the suburbs showed up as using only 18km of range and 10% battery.
This variability, and the fact that charging points aren’t readily available, meant I was constantly calculating how far I had left to travel on a charge, which leads to the creeping low-level angst known as range anxiety.
It’s real and gets even more complicated when you factor in riding style, carrying a pillion, and the engine mode selected.
The LiveWire offers no less than seven different rider modes, encompassing Eco, Sport, Rain, Highway, and three customisable modes. These modes vary ABS and traction levels, but also throttle response and engine braking.
In summary, if you love the sound of a Harley and the flexibility of long-range touring, the LiveWire is probably not for you.
While 235km might sound like reasonable range for a bike, it’s only available when riding around town, where stop-start conditions provide lots of regenerative braking to top up the battery.
If you want to ride out on the open road it’s best to not count on travelling any further than 152km in total, a distance that ultimately limits the bike’s suitability for cruising.
Yes, it’s perfectly fine for cafe runs, short blasts up your favourite mountain road and commuting, but $50k is a lot to pay for a commuter bike, even one wearing a Harley-Davidson badge.
It’s not like you’re going to get your money back any time soon through reduced running costs, either.
The cost of fully charging the bike is less than $4 at Queensland’s current rate of 25c/kWh which is about a quarter of the cost of an equivalent-range, high-performance ICE bike.
However, even with this saving, and factoring in $400 plus consumables for an 8000km service, the high initial purchase price far outweighs any economic advantages.
For some consumers, however, the environmental benefits will trump any financial considerations and for those with access to green electricity it can be a genuine zero tailpipe emissions alternative.
For others, even when using Queensland’s dominant coal-fired power, the LiveWire will do its bit to help reduce tailpipe emissions in polluted urban areas.
This is an intriguing machine and no doubt one of the early versions of what will eventually become a flood of electric motorcycles.
There’s a lot to like about the LiveWire and we can see its appeal for early adopters and environmentalists.
But for Harley diehards it’s so far removed from the type of bikes they love that it explains why Harley chooses to market this bike and its future electric motorcycles under the separate LiveWire brand.
Price: $49,995 ride-away (+ $295 for orange paint).
Warranty: Five years/unlimited km on main battery, two years on bike.
Motor: Water-cooled internal permanent magnet synchronous.
Power: 78kW @ 15,000rpm.
Torque: 116Nm from 0-15,000rpm.
Gearbox: 90-degree gearbox with belt-driven rear wheel.
Suspension front/rear: 43mm upside-down Big Piston Showa forks/fully adjustable rear Showa shock.
Brakes front/rear: Four-piston caliper, 300mm dual discs; 4-piston caliper, 260mm disc, ABS.
Dimensions: 2135mm (L); 830mm (W); 1080mm (H); 1490mm (WB); 780mm (S).