Review: Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special

The story of Harley-Davidson has been a soap opera in recent years. The fully electric Livewire that was revealed in 2014? Quite the plot twist for a brand that’s usually linked to classic choppers and rumbling exhausts. And if that wasn’t already hard enough to swallow for the average Harley rider, they had to stomach an adventure bike and a streetfighter a couple of years later. Or at least the announcement. Preproduction models of both bikes (the Pan America and the Bronx) were shown at the 2020 Brussels Motor Show. Shortly afterwards the storyline spiraled even further with a new CEO who immediately decided to ditch the Bronx. Just to quickly give you an idea of a few plot lines.

The announced adventure bike did appear in showrooms this year, so I took the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special on a little trip to Germany to discover how it rides.

The Special version of the Pan America differs from the standard version with a range of extras: semi-active suspension, tire pressure monitoring, crashbars, handguards, heated grips, steering damper, centerstand, bash plate, radiator guard, cornering lights and a brake pedal that can be easily adjusted to two different heights. Starting prices: $17,319 for the standard Pan, $19,999 for the Special. My version also had the optional spoked wheels and the adaptive seat height.

If you don’t like the design of the Pan America: it looks a lot better in real life than it does in the pictures. The striking front will probably be the pitfall for this model even though owners will think of it as ‘different’ or ‘original’. After one week, I could dig it, even though I wouldn’t say love was in the air. Then again, you can’t call the GS a beauty queen, can you?

The Pan America is nicely finished and despite (or is it: thanks to?) that unusual snout it really looks like a genuine ‘big adventure bike’. Rugged, tough, ready to travel to any corner of the world.

You could say this entry into the adventure market is a revolution for the American brand, but the revolution is probably the all-new engine: the liquid cooled Revolution Max 1250 V-Twin with variable valve timing. Previously Harley would aim for low down torque, but now it’s going all out for horsepower: 152 hp and 128 Nm. If we put the BMW 1250 GS, the KTM 1290 Super Adventure and the Multistrada V4 next to it (136 hp/143 Nm, 160 hp/138 Nm and 170 hp/125 Nm in respective order), it’s clear that the Pan fits in nicely. If it stopped with this model, it would only be a small revolution for Harley-Davidson, so they recently also popped the engine into the all-new Sportster S. Undoubtedly there will be more models to follow.

Team Harley has developed a lot of new things in a short time, in areas where it has little to no experience. How did that work out for them? Time to hit the starter button.

The first thing that strikes me is the sound. None of that typical ‘Harleyesque’ potato-potato but rather a calmly spinning, neutral, rather quiet twin sound. Borderline boring even. I twist the throttle and feel how subtle the engine picks up. Not a rodeo-stallion but a perfectly controllable heap of power in between the legs.

The riding position is neutral and upright with enough comfort for several hours of non-stop riding. For me, the handlebars could have been positioned a little more towards the rider. My arms are just a bit too stretched out now. The advantage is that if you stand up on the footrests, the position is just fine. The seat feels narrow between the legs, which offers easy grip with the knees when you go offroad. But of course – just like with the majority of the heavy adventure bikes – it will barely be ridden offroad.

The Pan America has five preset riding modes: Sport, Road, Rain, Offroad and Offroad Plus. They each have their own settings for power delivery, throttle response, semi-active suspension, engine braking, ABS and traction control (the latter two are lean angle sensitive, by the way). In addition, there are three riding modes that you can set completely to your liking: Custom A, Custom B and Custom Off-Road Plus.

I played around with the custom modes for a while, but Sport quickly turned out to be my favorite. Tight chassis, nice and direct on the throttle without reacting too aggressively. Only on the highway I sometimes switched to Road for a more comfortable suspension setup.

However, I spent most of my time on twisty German roads and that was a blast with this big beast from Milwaukee. The semi-active suspension takes the weight of the rider/passenger/luggage in check and reacts to road conditions and riding input, taking into account the selected riding mode. The Pan America prefers fast corners and it keeps its line easily and stably. The suspension will soak up lesser quality asphalt as well in Sport mode, but a sniff on the brake lever makes the Pan dive firmly. It’s still an adventure bike after all.

Hairpin bends require some more effort from the rider. The 258 kilo’s feel a little less light-footed here. But fire it up, from a standstill or a rolling start, and the Pan America takes off like a rocket. When you do this, the power curve feels very linear. Too bad a quickshifter is missing from the options list.

The Pan America has an windscreen which is adjustable to four settings, even while riding. It’s not the handiest of systems, but it does the job and so does the windscreen.

The dashboard consists of a 6.8” tiltable color TFT display with touchscreen function when stationary. Unfortunately, it lacks logic. To get through the menu’s, you’ll need a lot of patience or the manual. Intuitive? Nope.

Same thing goes for the adaptive seat height. This automatically lowers the suspension when you come to a stop. But its setting is tucked far far away in the menu. Still, if you have short legs and want to buy a few extra inches of confidence, this might be a good option to get.

The overload of buttons on the handlebars doesn’t improve the usability. Everything is there, except for logic, simplicity and ease of use. Why do you have to turn off the indicator lights by pushing the button in the same direction again instead of just using a center button like the rest of the world? It’s a riddle to me. “Well, it has self-canceling indicators” you could say. But unfortunately those don’t always work perfectly. The buttons of the cruise control don’t give feedback either, which would be nice. On the side: it’s a shame the display doesn’t show the selected cruise control speed.

Another miss: keyless is handy, but if you want to use the steering lock or fuel cap you’ll still be digging for the key in your pockets. And the luggage cases require yet another key. Other brands have better (fully keyless) systems.

One final riddle: Why did Harley choose a USB-C port to power for example your GPS? Another adapter or new cable to take with you. What’s wrong with a regular USB or simple 12V connection?

Some minor head scratching, but in general the Americans made the right decisions. Time for the …

Conclusion

The Pan America 1250 Special is a convincing entry for Harley-Davidson into the adventure segment. The looks are a bit ‘different’ but for a Harley it’s especially the engine that feels different. Harley riders will be appalled as they try out the new Revolution Max V-twin for the first time. We haven’t seen the American brand this sporty before. Quite the surprise, that combines well with the chassis which you can adjust to your taste. It’s still a newcomer and there are some points of improvement, but nothing that can’t be solved. To all Harley fans that now ride a GS because ‘there is no other choice’: the game has changed. Join the revolution.

Pros

+ The Revolution Max engine: the revelation of this launch
+ Comfort that invites you to go for miles
+ The chassis can handle some serious sporty riding

Cons

– Quite a few points of improvement (most of them are details though)
– Display and operation: not very intuitive

Tech specs

Dimensions

Length: 89.2 in.
Seat height, laden: 31.1 in.
Ground clearance: 8.3 in.
Rake: 25
Trail: 4.3 in.
Wheelbase: 62.2 in.
Front tire: 120/70R19 60V
Rear tire: 170/60R17 72V
Tire type: Michelin®Scorcher®“Adventure”, Radial
Fuel capacity: 5.6 gal.
Oil capacity with filter: 4.75 qt.
Weight as shipped: 527 lb.
Weight in running order: 559 lb.

Engine

Engine: Revolution® Max 1250
Bore: 4.13 in.
Stroke: 2.84 in.
Displacement: 76.3 cu in
Compression ratio: 13.0:1
Fuel system: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Exhaust: 2-into-1-into-1; catalyst in header

Performance

Engine torque: 94 ft-lb / 128 Nm @ 6750  rpm
Horsepower: 150 HP / 112 kW @ 9000 rpm
Lean angle, left and right (deg.): 42

Chassis

Front fork: 47mm inverted fork with electronically adjustable semi-active damping control. Aluminum fork triple clamps
Rear shocks: Linkage-mounted monoshock with automatic electronic preload control and semi-active compression & rebound damping
Wheels, optional style type: Annodized aluminum tubeless laced
Wheels, type 9: Aluminum cast, satin black
Brakes, caliper type: Front: radially mounted, monoblock, 4-piston caliper; Rear: floating, single piston caliper

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