Electric Bike Action Bike Test: The Harley-Davidson Livewire
When Harley-Davidson first unveiled their ground-breaking electric bike in 2014, it was a pilot program shrouded in secrecy to test the waters and see if an electric Harley-Davidson was viable. Reactions were mixed.
Dubbed the LiveWire, the bike was the antithesis of everything that the American legacy brand had ever produced or celebrated. It wasn’t loud, it wasn’t massive, there were no clunky shifts to make, the brakes worked and the only fluids that might be found beneath it were from the brake lines or the liquid-cooling system for the motor and battery.
Have no doubt, though, the bike is a premium-quality build just like you’d expect from Harley-Davidson. Harley clearly saw the LiveWire as a “halo” project—not one made for average consumption, but to inspire and aspire to. In fact, in addition to the LiveWire, Harley has also invested in the Stacyc brand of battery-powered balance bikes for aspiring e-moto tykes.
LiveWire’s aluminum frame is intended to act as the starting platform for other bikes. It’s not fully welded; instead, much of it is bolted together to allow other modular pieces to be bolted on to change the bike. Almost the entire middle of the frame is taken up by the massive battery, with the motor mounted transversely below and the charger hidden under what would be normally act as the gas tank.
“Because the motor is mounted longitudinally underneath the frame, and the 90-degree gearing it takes to get to the belt drive, it has a very distinct sound that you can hear at all speeds.”
Despite being the most anti-Harley you can imagine, the LiveWire does live up to one traditional Harley feature—weight. Although it eschews the massive V-twin motor and oversizse exhaust pipes that have defined the Milwaukee-bred breed for decades, it still hits the scales at a portly 549 pounds.
The base color for the bike is Vivid Black, with both the Yellow Fuse and Orange Fuse colors adding $350 to
the price tag. Those are optional accent colors for the “gas tank” and headlight bezel.
One of the first things you notice on the bike are the Brembo brakes. There’s one caliper and disc in the back, and two on the front. In theory, this is a lot of stopping power. But, we’ll explain to you why you may not need it.
LiveWire uses a Showa big-piston suspension system, with the Showa SFF-BP (Separate Function Fork, Big Piston) up front and a Showa BFRC (Balanced Free Rear Cushion) monoshock in the rear. Both are fully adjustable.
The lighting is all LED and all very bright. The headlight is very futuristic, with three main LEDs that use lenses to spread them in the right directions for seeing and being seen. Turn signals are bright and self-canceling, which works instantly and intelligently, a huge help for some of us forgetful riders. Turn-signal buttons are on each side of the handlebars, meaning that to turn right, you have to hit the button on the right side of the bars and vice versa. For most riders, this takes time to adjust to, as usually both are controlled from a single switch on the left.
One of the key components in this bike is the traction control system. It uses a six-axis IMU (inertial measurement unit) that uses proprietary programming from Harley-Davidson that offers cornering ABS, cornering enhanced traction control, rear-wheel lift mitigation and a drag torque-slip control system to keep your tires perfectly in contact with the road when cornering, braking or on slippery surfaces. The LiveWire rolls on 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels that are mounted with Michelin Sport tires.
The LiveWire’s liquid-cooled internal permanent magnet motor was designed in-house and is called the Harley-Davidson Revelation. Like other H-D bikes, the motor is the focal point on the bike. It’s mounted transversely underneath the bottom of the bike and uses a 90-degree spiral-cut bevel-gear reduction to get power to the belt drive to the rear wheel. It boasts 86 pound-feet of torque and 105 horsepower (78 kilowatts).
The battery is warranted by H-D for five years with no mileage limit. Externally, it has air-cooling fins. The 215-pound battery is called the RESS (Renewable Energy Storage System) and is rated at a maximum capacity of 15.5 kilowatt-hour. The claimed mileage on a full charge is 146 miles in the city, and 95 miles of combined city and highway.
WHO IT’S MADE FOR
Like other electric bikes, this bike has no clutch and no gears, making it easier for someone who has never ridden a bike or driven a car with a manual transmission. It can be a good bike for a beginner, especially if you don’t want to deal with shifting gears, though it’s heavy and powerful, the latter of which you can tame through custom settings.
When you start the bike up (via a keyless remote), you have to do two things to make it go: you have to raise the side stand first (the display will remind you), then you’ll be reminded to turn the system on. H-D has implemented an unusual idea to remind you that the system is on, so you don’t accidentally rev the throttle like you would on an ICE bike. There’s a rhythmic, haptic pulsation from the motor. The easiest way to describe it is to imagine a 3-year-old standing behind your bike, kicking the tire lightly once every second. It threw us off until we asked about it, and H-D says that if you don’t like it, your dealer can turn it off.
There are four main power modes to choose from: Sport, Road, Rain and Range. Range is like Eco on other bikes. You can program in your own modes for specific acceleration curves, power delivery and regeneration. Sport was hands down our favorite, because it offers the most acceleration and the most regenerative braking (80 percent). That regen is so strong that we rarely had to use our brakes, even at lights. The only reason to drag a brake gently is to light up the brake light to alert others behind you that you’re slowing down.
We think e-motorcycle manufacturers should implement accelerometers into the system that lights the brake light just for this purpose. Honestly, using regen more than braking could make your Brembo brake pads last as long as the bike! On long canyon rides, we could put 2–3 percent back in the battery from the top to the bottom, hardly using any braking at all.
Acceleration is what makes this bike so fun. Zero-to-sixty time is 3.0 seconds, and the claimed max speed is 110 mph, but from what we understand, it isn’t electronically limited and may go faster than that. We’d be irresponsible if we said we tested this in practice, not in theory. The fact that it’s relatively silent means that you don’t attract any officers’ attention when you leave a light.
There is more motor sound emitted with the Harley than other electric bikes. When we rode the Zero SR/S recently, the sound disappeared at around 30 mph; you couldn’t hear it over the sound of wind going through your helmet. On the LiveWire, because the motor is mounted longitudinally underneath the frame and the 90-degree gearing it takes to get to the belt drive, it has a very distinct sound that you can hear at all speeds, even if wind noise is the dominant sound.
The bike has Bosch ABS and traction controls, and with the powerful Brembo brakes, you can quickly stop. The brake system worked perfectly. Without ABS, we’d have surely locked up the rear brake on more than one occasion.
Charging the bike can be done in three ways. Ideally, you have access to a level-three charger. Any H-D dealer that carries the LiveWire will have one, and many cities have them. With a level-three 3 charger, you can recharge a fully empty battery in one hour, or up to 80 percent in 40 minutes. With a level-two charger, it only charges at level-one rates, so it can take 8–10 hours, the same as if you use the provided household cable and plug it in at home for an overnight charge.
Does that mean it can’t go on long rides? No, but it will make you plan your rides to go to level-three charger on longer rides.
H-D claims the range is 146 miles in the city, and 95 miles combined for city and highway. The 146 miles in the city is accurate, but the 95 is not. Our experience of riding PCH up to the canyons in Malibu gave us closer to a 110–120-mile range, and we weren’t playing nice with the throttle. The LiveWire has a 15.5-kilowatt-hour battery, which has 13.6 kilowatt-hours of usable storage.
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire is a beautiful, premium-built and thrilling electric motorcycle. The ride is lively and fun, and there’s a lot of comfort baked in. Charging at a fast charger is fantastic for a lunch break, but a few times we could only find level-two chargers, which proved to be a real pain.
The high price tag can be somewhat offset by state and national tax credits, but that’s only up to $2500 off of a $30,000 machine. Is it worth it? For most people, we’ll say no. If you have a big-enough wallet (they do offer financing), and you like electric vehicles and want something simple to ride on two wheels (with no clutch), that’s a different story.
There’s no denying that as courageous as Harley was for introducing the LiveWire, it’s also seen as a huge gamble. With their traditional customers known to be aging out of the market for the expensive V-twin road bikes, the LiveWire is seen as a go-getter for the young and hip crowd who care little (and know less) about making trips to celebrated bike weeks in Sturgis and Daytona. However, owing to its $30-large asking price, many industry pundits are unsure if the bike will prove successful.
Motor: Harley-Davidson Revelation
Charge time: 1 hour (level three)
Top speed: 110 mph
Range: 110–146 miles
Drive: Harley-Davidson Revelation
Brakes: Brembo Monoblock, 4-piston, dual front, single rear
Fork: Showa SFF-BP (Separate Function Fork, Big Piston)
Rear shock: Showa BFRC (Balanced Free Rear Cushion) monoshock
Frame: Cast aluminum
Wheels: Cast aluminum
Tires: Harley-Davidson/Michelin Scorcher Sport, 120/70 ZR17 (front), 180/55 ZR17 (rear)
Weight: 549 pounds
Color choice: Yellow Fuse, Orange Fuse, Vivid Black
Size: One size
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.