Expert Reviews

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America First Ride Review

Originally published on Canada Moto Guide: 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special First Ride

In the immortal words of Monty Python, “And now for something completely different.”

That legendary British comedy troupe made its name out of entertaining and surprising audiences, with a penchant for non sequiturs that knew no bounds. Over the years, Harley-Davidson, too, has come out of left field with a few of its own unexpected turns.

Not counting the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) days when the company had its name on everything from golf carts to snowmobiles, Harley – known primarily for building big cruisers and touring bikes – has branched out into several peripheral motorcycle markets in an attempt to attract younger buyers. Its latest endeavour sees the brand taking on the adventure segment with the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America.

Ready for Adventure

An adventure motorcycle from Harley-Davidson? Well, why not? After all, BMW built a cruiser. Heck, the newest Ford Mustang is an all-electric SUV. After creating the LiveWire electric motorcycle, Harley has pretty much thrown out its playbook anyway.

Unlike the Street 500 and 750 models that were universally panned by the media upon their introduction for quite obvious cut corners in a bid to reduce costs, the Pan America is the real deal. Despite being the inaugural entry into a completely foreign segment, it is obvious that The Motor Company didn’t rush this to production.

Starting by interviewing existing dual-sport customers and field-testing competitive models in the segment, Harley aimed to build a rugged yet versatile adventure bike for North American consumers in particular. It’s no surprise that Harley had BMW in its crosshairs, using the GS as a basis to compare weight and functionality.

Starting at $20,999, the Pan America 1250 is offered in Vivid Black and River Rock Gray (for an added $450). The standard model gets cast aluminum wheels, while premium laced wheels are a $585 option. The first of its kind for Harley, they were designed to take a tubeless tire and be easily repairable if damaged in a remote area.

In addition to adaptive lighting and semi-active suspension, the 1250 Special gets a more robust infotainment screen and larger colour palette for its higher MSRP of $24,199. The options range from Vivid Black to Gauntlet Gray Metallic, Deadwood Green, and, finally, Baja Orange/Stone Washed White Pearl.

I cannot think of a motorcycle in recent memory that’s appearance has been as polarizing as the Pan America’s. Those defending its looks cite the fact that adventure bikes are more about function than aesthetics, and question if there has ever been a truly handsome example. Fair point. Visual cues can certainly be drawn from the Road Glide’s shark-nose fairing and the new signature LED lighting from the Softail lineup, but also a vintage Hoover vacuum cleaner. Logos and graphics are understated, with merely a bar and shield gracing the tank, and a simple nametag on the 1,250-cc Revolution Max engine.

A Centrepiece of Power

New from the ground up, the liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin engine is quite literally the centrepiece of the motorcycle, as it was designed to be a structural component of the chassis. Dual overhead cams (DOHC) feature variable valve timing (VVT) independent to each cylinder that can be adjusted as much as 40 degrees of rotation for a broad powerband. It’s a beautiful-looking and -performing engine, but the sound emitted through the simply massive stock pipe leaves something to be desired. Internal balancers reduce engine vibration, so there’s no traditional potato-potato Harley sound or feel to be found here. In fact, clicking the ignition switch into place and pushing the start button brings about a sound more reminiscent of tractors I’ve driven rather than motorcycles I’ve ridden. It was designed to meet emission standards, of course, as well as providing a high ground clearance to prevent damage.

Harley-Davidson doesn’t typically provide horsepower numbers, but it’s comfortable sharing that the Pan Am’s 1,250-cc engine makes 150 hp and 92 lb-ft of torque. With a 13:1 compression ratio and a 8,750-rpm redline, this engine has no trouble singing for its supper. It has been designed for optimal grunt down low, too, though. It’s a high-tech engine that requires 91-octane gasoline.

The weight of the engine was reduced through single casting and the use of lightweight materials like magnesium, and coating surfaces with nickel silicon carbide. The Pan Am weighs 245 kg (539 lb), while the Special is a claimed 254 kg (559 lb) due to the addition of the spoked wheels and adaptive suspension. Full of fluids, the Special I was riding tipped the scales at 260 kg (574 lb), which is the second-lightest Harley I’ve ever ridden behind the Street 750, but the Pan Am handles the weight much better. Another departure from the Harley norm is that the Pan Am utilizes a final chain drive rather than a belt, rationalizing that it would be easier to repair in the field.

Chock-full of Features

Both the 1250 and 1250 Special models get 19-inch front and 17-inch rear wheels, outfitted with co-branded Harley-Davidson and Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires that were designed specifically for the Pan Am to have ideal traction on a variety of surfaces. A set of Michelin Anakee Wild tires (120/70R19 front; 170/60R17 rear) can be installed on either the cast aluminum or the laced wheels for those looking for a more aggressive off-road option.

The Pan Am’s Showa suspension offers 190 mm (7.5 in) clearance both front and back, with a seat height of 850 mm (33.5 in) that may be troublesome for those of shorter inseam. The Pan America 1250 features a passive front and rear suspension system that’s fully adjustable for preload, damping, and rebound; but one of the benefits of moving up to the Special is its electronically adjustable semi-active suspension that includes adaptive ride height (ARH). For reference, I’m six feet tall and I had trouble touching the ground at a stop when riding the KTM Super Adventure 1290 R that has an 880-mm (34.6-in) seat height, but the Harley’s didn’t give me any trouble at all. Based on conditions, riding activity, or riding mode selection, sensors will adjust damping and automatically drop to the lowest setting when stopped.

The semi-active suspension settings will vary based on the pre-programmable riding modes, including comfort, balanced, sport, off-road soft, and off-road firm. There are also four selectable ARH sub-modes that allow for greater personalization based on preference.

Both the 1250 and 1250 Special feature LED signature lighting, with turn signals located inside the brush guards to protect them from obstacles encountered off-road. The 1250 Special gets additional adaptive lighting that uses sensors to measure lean angle and provide additional illumination into the corners.

The 410-mm (16.1-in) windscreen offers ample wind protection and is manually adjustable with a rider’s left hand so it can be done while on the move. Both higher and lower options are available as options. There is a long list of factory accessories ranging from brush guards and skid plates to seating, handlebar, and luggage options. Of course, there’s also a wide selection of Harley-Davidson-branded adventure gear to choose from.

Both the Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special feature an adjustable 6.8-inch touchscreen display that provides a wide variety of instrumentation and functions. The home screen features a speedometer, tachometer, odometer, and clock, along with indicators for riding mode, fuel level, high-beam, turn signal, temperature, battery, check engine, and suspension setting. Incoming phone calls, a low fuel warning and a “kickstand down” prompt will pop up on the screen to alert the rider. The system is Bluetooth capable and compatible with both Apple CarPlay and Android, Auto which supply the GPS navigation through a Harley-Davidson app. This is the first Harley-Davidson to feature a moving map navigation display.

Real-Deal Ride

The Pan America’s prowess really starts to show when the road gets rough. I was imagining what it would feel like to take any of the many heavy Harleys I’ve ridden over the years off-road, but this is a very different motorcycle. The riding position is neutral, with legs tucked up and arms at a comfortable position. The mechanically actuated clutch’s action is light but precise, making it easy to feather when navigating dirt, sand, or rocky terrain. A slipper function prevents the rear wheel from slipping or hopping if the rider downshifts with too much gusto.

The Pan Am’s seat offers a decent amount of comfort in a variety of seating positions. The shape of the 21.2-L fuel tank makes it easy to manoeuvre around when seated or standing. Braking is handled by a radially mounted monoblock with a four-piston caliper up front and a single piston caliper in the rear. There’s a decent amount of grip, but the initial bite eases on gently rather than abruptly, making it easy to feather when riding on loose dirt and gravel. The rear brake pedal position was ideal for operating while standing up to help modulate the rear end. The tank is made of aluminum that’s covered with a plastic mold for cosmetics and comfort. Having the bikes for a little more than 24 hours made it difficult to establish fuel economy or range, and I’m hoping to have more time with it later this summer for a full test.

Final Thoughts

There is some stiff competition in the large-displacement adventure bike segment already, with the likes of Triumph, BMW, and KTM having solid entries. The folks at Harley knew they couldn’t infiltrate this arena without guns blazing, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the many thoughtful features that show they did their homework. If I was to purchase one, I would switch the exhaust and add a set of handlebar risers so it would be more comfortable for my proportions, but that’s a personal preference. My only real gripe would be that the single turn signal switch (unlike most Harleys, there isn’t one on each side) felt flimsy and finicky to operate with heavy gloves on. Then again, the fact that this is my biggest complaint thus far should be telling.

Harley unfortunately has a history of bringing new models to fruition and then letting them flounder. There is, of course, Buell, the V-Rod family, and the Street lineup, just to name a few. In each case, boatloads of money were spent on research, design, and production, only to be abandoned before the products could gain any traction in the marketplace. You’ve got to give Harley credit for trying to stay fresh, but here’s hoping it holds out this time and continues to develop this chassis, because the Pan America is worthy of keeping around. It isn’t just a respectable first effort, it’s a solid contender at a competitive price point. Some may think Harley building an adventure bike is silly, but after experiencing the Pan America 1250 Special in person, its competitors shouldn’t be laughing.