Cool Motorcycle! The Battle of the Middleweight American V-Twins
Since 1957 Harley Davidson has owned the "slice of cool" referred to by industry people as the middleweight cruiser category, with their Sportster.
Although it has evolved over the years into a more modern motorcycle with rubber-mounted engine and fuel injection, the target rider has not changed. The Sportster is geared towards the smaller rider, albeit an entry level or experienced rider. The Sportsters' light weight and deep rumble found its niche some 57 years ago and has stayed at the top of the charts longer than Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones.
Owners of the H-D Big Twins have always mocked ownership of Sportsters, tagging it as a "girl's bike" or "entry level". But looking at the sales it's been a steady performer and always a very desirable motorcycle with its storied history and a hard-core tradition. Harley Davidson has recently added two smaller liquid cooled motorcycles, the Street 750 and Street 500, and the Sportster is no longer the "runt of the H-D litter".
Harley Davidson has not sat on its hands either- there are currently five versions of the Sportster available in 2014: Superlow, Iron 883, 1200 Custom, Forty-Eight, and the Seventy-Two, each version filling a different need and response across the board has been great. So much so that other manufacturers have entered into the race for the best selling "cool middleweight cruiser"-
They say that "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" and that could not be more evident in the quest for out-cooling the Sportster. The metric cruiser V-Twin offerings differ slightly, have far too many plastic bits, but given the affordable price-point, they have their customer. Honda has its Shadow line, and its customer wants less noise, smaller displacement (750cc), and what Honda pushes the most- reliability. Suzuki has a smaller Boulevard, the M50, and it handles very nicely and is a great platform for customization, but at 805cc its acceleration pales in comparison to an H-D 1200. Kawasaki's Vulcan 900 Custom has great lines, but leans heavily in the direction of "Metric Cruiser" like Star's V-Star 950. All the aforementioned offerings are excellent motorcycles and they come in at phenomenal price points. So why hasn't the Sportster customer defected? The metric offerings lack the history, tradition, and the "cool" that the Sportster has branded into its model name.
Honda understood that, and their Shadow RS was a bold attempt to challenge Sportster, but even with a design that "shadowed" the Sportster with a peanut-like tank, its 44 ponies and plastic bits weren't quite enough to knock the Sportster off its perch.
Star (Yamaha) followed Honda with their attempt at the Sportster customer with the 2013 Bolt 950. A similar styled bike with an air cooled motor that in tests outperformed 883 Sportsters, was well received. The bike had the bobber vibe, but it too had a metric flavor that purists picked up on. It is a Japanese version of an America Icon and that never works here in the USA.
It seems all the metric offerings fall short in the "cool factor" that Harley Davidson appears to own- until now...
Established in 1998, Victory Motorcycles, a division of Polaris, has mounted a more serious challenge. They are the "other American V-Twin" and they have been on the fast-track to replace Harley-Davidson by outdoing them in performance, price, and cool factor. They have introduced new models each year since their inception and have continually improved their motors, transmissions, and styling. In just 16 short years Victory motorcycles has developed a loyal following that includes many former Harley Davidson owners.
Some of Victory's styling cues are too "futuristic" for hard-core Harley riders, but not for the young and upcoming riders who have no brand loyalty yet and some metric cruiser folks who like the idea of owning an American V-Twin that's not Harley Davidson. Going forward that's a lot of potential customers that Victory will have waiting at their doorstep and they're well aware of it.
Indian Motorcycles was founded in 1901 and produced 143 motorcycles in 1902 in their Springfield, Massachusetts plant. The Scout and Chief V-twins, introduced in the early 1920s, became the Springfield firm's most successful models. Designed by Charles B. Franklin, the middleweight Scout and larger Chief shared a 42-degree V-twin engine layout. Both models gained a reputation for strength and reliability. After a long storied history of bankruptcy and changing ownership, recent financial struggles forced the sale of Indian Motorcycles once again.
When Polaris bought the Indian brand in 2011 many thought it would just be a Victory motorcycle with Indian branding. Turned out that Polaris had different ideas and the Indian motorcycles all use proprietary motors and their designs maintain the Indian tradition while at the same time keeping up with modern motorcycle technology. If Indian was to survive and thrive there was no better place for them to land than with Polaris.
Based in Medina, Minn., Polaris was formed in 1954 to make snowmobiles and later became a leader in all-terrain vehicles. Seeking to broaden their base, Polaris introduced Victory motorcycles in 1998, when Harley was struggling to keep up with demand. Polaris has invested over 100 million dollars in Victory and Indian and has plans to increase their number of dealership showrooms to 300. Harley Davidson currently has 767 and owns 52% of the American motorcycle market compared to Victory-Indian whose current market share is estimated at 3-5%.
On August 3, 2013, Polaris unveiled three all-new Indian-branded motorcycles based on the traditional styling of the marquee and the Thunder Stroke 111 motor. The motor has a triple-cam design with a chain-driven center cam turning front and rear cams via gears, permitting parallel placement of the pushrods to give a similar appearance to older Indian designs. It is air cooled, with large traditional fins and an air box in the cast aluminum frame. All Indians share this aluminum frame design, though the wheelbase and front end rake vary depending on model.
At the 2014 Sturgis bike rally Indian Motorcycles made its presence known with the introduction of a new model, the 2015 Indian Scout. Unlike the metric Sportster copycats, this motorcycle, although in the same category as the Sportster, seems to trump it in every category, suggesting it is not to be compared to Sportster, but rather has created its own category- "Contemporary Classic Midsize Cruiser".
With great lines and fine details that more than exemplify the Classic American V-Twin, the Scout is powered by a proprietary, liquid cooled 1133 cc motor that has a 10.7:1 compression ratio, 100 ponies, over 72 ft-lbs. of torque and a dry weight of only 538 lbs. At $10,999 for a black one, this motorcycle has already caught the attention of the entire industry. The reception has been so well that Indian is taking reservations for the bike which is scheduled to be delivered late 2014. For $500 you can buy "first refusal", which is a fully refundable fee if you opt out. Certainly the new model announcement has been a well-marketed event, relying heavily on social media, but not only does the bike spec off the charts, it's beautifully detailed and has no worthy competitors at the moment.
It appears that Indian has knocked one out of the park with the 2015 Scout. Is there a new kid in town?
If there's one thing Harley Davidson has been willing and able to do since being challenged by Victory, and that's to continue to design cutting-edge motorcycles that manage to keep them at the top of the cruiser heap. Should be a very interesting year Sportster fans...