Harley’s ‘Pan America’ Adventure Bike Moonshot Sticks The Landing

Harley’s ‘Pan America’ Adventure Bike Moonshot Sticks The Landing

The parking lot at the Portland-area Harley-Davidson dealer was full of riders on low-slung cruisers and touring rigs when I went to pick up the Pan America Special. Some sort of riding event was about to take place despite the cold November rain, and when a staffer wheeled out the motorcycle I’m reviewing here, a crowd quickly gathered around the burly, business-like black and grey machine that stood out against the acres of chrome and glossy paint.

Honestly, I expected derision. But I was genuinely surprised by what I heard from these leather and denim-clad riders, many of whom looked like they’d never turned a wheel in dirt in their riding lives. “Can’t wait until mine arrives,” a burly biker with a locally notorious club patch on the back of his jacket said with genuine enthusiasm. “Got my deposit in but they say I have to wait until maybe June to get one,” said another with a hint of sadness. Other riders chatted while taking photos and giving long, close looks at the Pan America, which was spec’d out with aluminum panniers, crash bars, wire spoke wheels, high-intensity auxiliary lights, and more. “That thing looks f###ing fun as hell,” added a large, bearded rider you would never want to see on the other side of a bar fight. “Where you gonna go?” he asked. Weather permitting, I explained, I hoped to get to the coast and maybe into the mountains, if the roads remained somewhat clear of snow, which was in the forecast. “Don’t let the snow stop you, dude. Looks like you could get anywhere on this,” he said, eyeing the deeply knobbied tires. “I heard about it but this is the first one I’ve seen in person. It’s (effing) cool. I may have to get one.” It was a common, and unexpected, reaction.

That acceptance and even enthusiasm for this most un-Harley of Harleys from those clearly hard-core Harley folks is just one of the remarkable aspects of this most unlikely machine from America’s longest continually operating – and traditionally very conservative – motorcycle maker. And it may mark a distinct and historic turning point for The Motor Company, as Harley-Davidson is known in riding circles.

Full disclosure: I’ve never owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, or a single share of HOG stock. I’ve ridden and reviewed many Harleys over the years (and decades) that I’ve been riding. But own one? Unlike those true believers in the parking lot, it just hasn’t been my thing. I have nothing against Harleys and I typically enjoy riding them, but they’re expensive (for a journalist), and I typically prefer sportier, more modern high-performance bikes. I’ve also never been into the whole let’s-play-pretend-bad-attitude-biker thing that seems part and parcel of owning a machine from Milwaukie. I just like to ride motorcycles simply for the fun and excitement – even the efficient utility – of riding. What brand they are is pretty much irrelevant to me, as long as the fit is good and the capabilities are up to expectations. In my personal garage I have bikes of different makes and styles from three countries, but no Harleys, and no cruisers of any type. I do own a 650cc dual-sport, however, and have been riding off-road for over 10 years now (out of 40 riding years total).

If you follow motorcycling, you likely already know what the Pan America is. If you don’t, let me first give you a thumbnail sketch of what it isn’t. It’s not a cruiser. It’s not a chopper. It’s not a typical air-cooled, push-rod powered heavyweight Harley luxury touring platform. It’s unlike any Harley that’s come before. And that, of course, is the whole idea.

What the Pan America is, however, is a thoroughly modern, tech-laden and highly capable “ADV” or “adventure bike,” a hybrid of dirt and street motorcycles that can be ridden long distance on pavement and then well away from it, down dirt roads, through streams and shallow rivers, across continents, and to places that fire the imaginations of riders who see borders not as barriers, but as gateways to adventures. This niche in the motorcycle market is extremely popular now – and highly competitive.

Adventure bikes like the H-D Pan America, BMW’s iconic GS machines, Yamaha’s Ténéré line, KTM’s burly Adventure series, Honda’s Africa Twin and even Royal Enfield’s bargain Himalayan and all the rest are, at a very basic level, gussied-up dirt bikes you can ride on public roads. Since motorcycles were first cobbled together 125 years ago, they were of course immediately set to race, but many others saw them as an affordable and exciting way to see the world – especially a world without a lot of roads. That’s what modern adventure bikes like the Pan America are: Personal beasts of burden designed to go places no car or ordinary motorcycle would attempt, while also capable of being ridden every day to the store, work or just for fun. Adventure bikes, while typically not the prettiest of motorcycles due to their more utilitarian mission, are the super-capable Swiss Army knives of motorcycling – and they are hugely popular. And right now, Harley’s Pan America is the model with the most fun tools included.

Pan America Special Tech Overview

I touched on the major points in my first look at the Pan America last year, but after two months of riding, I have a much better feel for the features and how they operate in real-world situations. As I noted, Harley was only able to get me the Pan America during the darkest, wettest, coldest weather Oregon sees all year, but no matter, I have gear for that and the bike itself is built for just such conditions, so I rode it every chance I could, rain or shine (but not snow, although it could likely handle it just fine).

At the heart of the Pan America, which comes in both a $17,319 base model and the $19,999 “Special” trim that I had in for review, is the new Revolution Max 1,250cc engine. Being a Harley, it’s a V-twin, but that’s not just a concession to history, it’s a smart choice for this kind of bike. Unlike BMW’s GS 1250 with its flat-twin cylinders hanging out in the breeze making the bike fairly wide, the Pan America’s power plant is slim and better protected from impacts and tipovers. Fully modern with fuel injection, liquid cooling, anti-vibration measures, variable valve timing and multiple ride modes, the RevMax is a very un-Harley tech powerhouse. It produces a stunning 150 horsepower and over 90 pound feet of torque, with a screaming 9,000rpm redline, numbers far, far beyond the capabilities of Harley’s more typical air-cooled motors, save the torque figure. And while every other Harley in the catalog uses a belt final drive, the PanAm routes power to the back wheel with a chain spun by a six speed gearbox. Only BMW has moved away from chain drive on most of their adventure bikes, using their traditional shaft drive instead, which has its advantages and drawbacks.

Beyond the new motor, there’s a long list of “I’ve never seen that on a Harley before” features, such as a large full-color LCD touchscreen display that shows ride data, GPS maps and more instead of the more typical round speedometer and tachometer, a complex frame that uses the engine as a stressed support member, an LED headlight system that peers into corners as the bike turns, highly adjustable ride modes and braking systems, and a self-leveling suspension system that can also lower the motorcycle as it comes to a stop so riders can get a firm grip on the ground.

And while the handlebar pods are awash in buttons, they are at least of their own design, with a “normal” turn signal switch on the left bar instead of Harley’s traditional (and sometimes confusing) one-signal-button-per-side configuration. The start/stop button is in a bit of an odd spot atop the right pod, but after weeks of riding, I found that Harley has done a good job of putting the most-used buttons in the best spots, and after a while, I could pretty much operate most functions by feel. Lone complaint: The high-beam toggle on the left pod is a bit too easy to toggle, and I often accidentally activated the very bright high beams while fussing with other buttons.

Adventure bikes are tall motorcycles by nature and often heavily loaded, which means they can be a bit tippy at a stop. The PanAm’s rider seat has three height options and can be quickly adjusted without tools, plus there are optional tall/short seat options that expand on seat height preferences. If you’re under about 5 foot 8 inches tall, Harley’s optional Adaptive Right Height (”ARH”) feature automatically lowers the bike up to two inches as it comes to a stop, and it’s a huge confidence booster. While I don’t need ARH since I’m long-legged, it was still nice to easily flat-foot this big bike at a stop, and the system is very transparent in operation. No other motorcycle has it. ARH is a $1,000 option, and it can also be turned off as needed. ARH is indispensable for shorter riders interested in the Pan America, and also expands this bike’s appeal to a wider range of riders, including women, who are riding motorcycles in greater and growing numbers, according to industry sales data.

Harley also went to great effort to keep the Pan America as light as possible, a tough task seeing how adventure bikes must be extremely durable, which usually means making parts out of steel, aluminum and other metals rather than plastic or carbon fiber. But the Pan America weighs in at just under 500 pounds in base form, right in line with offerings from BMW, Yamaha, Honda and other contenders. My bike, with the added side cases and other accessories, was just over the 540 pound mark fully fueled. With all the options tallied, such as the pannier cases, aux lights, wire wheels, ARH system and more, the price tag came in at just over $23,000 by my math, which for a turn-key fully kitted large-displacement adventure bike, is actually quite reasonable and compares well to the competition.

Ride Time

Like most adventure bikes, the Pan America’s capbilities and design strongly encourages riders to get way outta town for long stretches. Seeing how it was the dead of a Pacific Northwest winter while I had the PA in for review, I had to pick my riding windows carefully since road conditions can change dramatically as you leave the Portland area. The towering Cascade Range lay to the east and if it’s 42 degrees in town, it can be 30 and frozen 20 minutes out of town as the roads quickly climb into the mountains. Going west, the rugged Oregon Coast is separated from Portland by the lesser Coast Range, where passes peak at 1,500 feet in altitude and temperatures are more mild due to the ocean’s influence. After Harley-Davidson kindly extended my review period due to weather (it snowed for a while), some clear and not-too-cold days appeared in the forecast and I pointed the Pan America towards Astoria, one of the West Coast’s oldest cities, located at the topmost tip of Oregon where the mighty Columbia River finally meets the Pacific Ocean.

The Pan America features several ride modes including Rain, Road, Sport, Off-Road and Off-Road Plus, all of which change up throttle mapping, traction control, ABS sensitivity and other parameters. Riders can also change some settings within the ride modes. I started the journey in Road mode, which is the “normal” mode for street riding, and headed north along the Columbia River. Heated grips activated, base layers on and every possible liner installed in my RevIt! riding ensemble, I was snug as a bug and the temperature read 43 degrees as I traced along Highway 30 through small towns like St. Helens and Scappoose.

At Rainier, you can cross a majestic but also vertigo-inducing bridge across the Columbia River into Washington and pick up some sweet small rural highways, but the eastern end of the bridge was shrouded in thick fog, so I stuck to the 30 and began climbing into Oregon’s panhandle. Low-angle sunlight peeked through the tall stands of fir trees as I gained elevation, and the temperature on the Pan America’s comprehensive but also configurable display ticked down as the air thinned, showing 40, then 38 then 35 degrees as I crested a hill and began to descend – right into a large valley thick with fog. The road now wet and temperature low, I dropped the Pan Am into Rain mode, moved the windscreen up to its tallest position and picked my way down the thankfully nearly deserted highway as visibility dropped to a couple hundred feet at the most. Cars, pickups, RVs and the occasional log truck seemingly jumped out of the fog as I burbled along in 4th gear, the auxiliary lights on the Pan Am all activated to hopefully give drivers an extra second to spot me as we approached each other on the very narrow two-lane highway. Throttle response in Rain mode is clearly softened and ABS is ticked up, adding a measure of braking confidence. The fog was so thick it was beading up all over the bike, my helmet visor and my gear, so at a rest stop, I pulled over and added the Aqua Pac rain shell from Adventure Spec to my wardrobe.

Ten minutes later, the road briefly climbed out of the fog and before dropping into another enshrouded valley, and as I passed through tiny Clatskanie, the temperature ticked down to 33. But it would go no lower, and I never encountered any frozen tarmac, thankfully. Soon enough I was back along the river’s edge, blasting through pockets of fog and sunlight, the Pan Am back in Road mode and the willing Revolution Max motor egging me on as longer straights appeared between sections of curves. My bike was wearing DOT-legal knobby tires better suited for dirt (and sand), but the tires were also well-mannered for road riding and I caught myself racing along at well above the speed limit (55) numerous times. For a big bike, the Pan America is planted and neutral, even with the knobby tires, and it rails through turns far better than I expected. Harley-Davidson spent considerable effort on ride quality and the high-tech suspension system on the Pan America Special auto-levels the bike no matter how it’s loaded down. I was carrying camera gear and some snacks along with some extra clothes in the panniers – a light load – but the bike is designed to ride with a set amount of suspension “sag” no matter if it’s just me and some cameras on a day trip or a rider, a passenger and three overloaded panniers heading out for a six-month round-the-world odyssey.

Arriving in Astoria, the ocean’s influence has thankfully pushed the temperature back up into the low 40s, and after a quick stop for some breakfast, I head for a beach where I know I can get the bike out onto the sand for a photo op (and riding op). But local law enforcement is waiting at the trailhead and tells me that yes, I certainly can go get out on the beach if I really want to but he strongly discourages me, saying a tsunami warning is in effect due to a distant volcanic eruption. Not wanting to tempt fate and the infamously unpredictable Pacific ocean, I instead head southeast on Highway 202, a writhing stretch of rural roadway that follows rivers, streams and mountain passes through Oregon’s timber-covered panhandle back towards Portland. It’s a narrow but clean and smooth two-lane rural road I’ve ridden many times, and I slip the Pan America into Sport mode.

The Revolution Max motor goes from subservient to downright angry as throttle sensitivity jumps, an aggressive fueling map engages and the bike’s brains back off the nannies. After several weeks of riding, I’m more familiar with the Pan America’s riding dynamics, and the 202 is largely deserted (and typically free of law enforcement) so I ride aggressively. Despite being a big bike riding on knobby tires, and with heavy side cases and an XL rider, the Pan America Special rails through turns and the trio of big Brembo brakes haul it down quickly as each new apex approaches.

My bike has over 4,000 likely indelicate press rider miles on it, so I feel free to spin up the motor to its 9,000rpm limit and rifle through the truly slick-shifting gearbox, and the Pan America rockets out of corners and blows through triple-digit velocities on the undulating straightaways. Instead of a typical Harley high-decibel exhaust symphony, a dull roar from the OEM-upgrade Screaming Eagle 2 to-1 exhaust is nearly drowned out by wind blast. This bike is not about The Noise, to be sure, and I’m fairly hooting in my helmet with joy as I ascend through corridors lined with towering redwoods and Douglas Firs.

But just 20 or so miles into my (rapid) return journey, I round a corner at speed and hit the brakes hard as I suddenly come upon construction vehicles and flaggers in the roadway. “Washout,” the woman flagger tells me, “road is closed about a half mile up.” A road washout is not so unusual in this area as it receives copious rain all year, but this time I’m not a fan of the timing. I do need to get back to town… eventually. The flagger looks the Pan America up and down and comes to an obvious conclusion. “Bike like that, you should take the forest roads through to the other side,” she says. After a few minutes of her giving me directions and setting up the GPS display on the LCD using Harley’s app, I backtrack a short distance and find the gravel byway around the closure. I drop the Pan America into Offroad mode, which dials back but does not disable ABS and traction controls, and head into the veld.

The muddy gravel logging road threads for miles through deep woods and along clearcuts, and through some small pockets of fog that are quickly dissipating as the sun climbs a bit higher into the sky. The temperature drops into the high 30s but then stabilizes, although I do see a few frozen puddles along the way in shaded areas. Now, the Pan America is in its other element, and I push the speed up a bit as it blasts through ruts full of pine needles and numerous muddy passages. Exiting tight corners, I get brave and goose the throttle, throwing some muddy roost from the back tire before traction control intervenes on my behalf as the back end of the Pan Am begins to rotate around a touch too much. The supple suspension eats up washboard sections and chop, and as the road climbs toward Klaskanie Summit, the way forward goes from gravel to rutted, rocky two-track in places, and I pick through the rough stuff in first and second gear, standing on the pegs, grinning in my helmet, visions of crossing Siberia and the Peruvian Andes slotting onto my mental bucket list.

One of the key metrics for an adventure bike is not just how fast it goes, but how controllable it is while going slow – as in walking speed, or slower. Slowly picking through highly technical terrain or singletrack on a big bike requires balance and finesse from both bike and rider and the Pan America feels confident and planted in the dirt, certainly thanks to the off-road tires, but it also feels lighter than it is, and is very well-balanced and controllable at low speed, another admirable attribute for this big bike. 

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Dirt Plus mode on the Pan Am disables rear wheel ABS and drops front wheel anti-lock activation to its lowest level, but that’s as far as the Pan America will let riders dial down the braking helpers, and I’m also able to kill rear wheel traction controls with a handlebar button. While veteran adventure riders may take issue with not being able to totally kill ABS, I am personally thankful for the front wheel keeping a modicum of anti-lock activation as I plow into a muddy corner hard on the brakes, and then slide the rear wheel a bit to rectify my poor choice of line (and speed), nearly tipping the bike into the bog, but the front wheel keeps turning and I keep things vertical. Overshooting the turn would have sent me over a steep embankment and I probably would have needed to fire up my Garmin InReach to call for rescue via satellite. Cell phones don’t work out here; local loggers still use CB and UHF radios. I make it through the corner upright and press on, and eventually the fun forest road detour reconnects to the paved 202, and I roll into the holler of Jewel muddied and happy.

From there, I bomb down the traffic-free and twisting Highway 103 in Sport mode and pick up Highway 26 back into Portland, where the Pan America got a quick bath before the rain began again. It was an informative, exhilarating ride.

Conclusions

For a first-year, Version 1.0 pure adventure bike from a company that has never made one before, there’s surprisingly little to complain about. The fonts on the LCD screen are too small in places (I’ve been told a software/firmware fix is likely in the works), and the right side exhaust pipe is angled up so that the right side pannier has to be smaller than the left case. Looking at it, if the exhaust was angled down just a touch, it seems a full-size case would easily fit. The windscreen height adjustment lever works but it could be better, and bright light from the top adaptive headlight array reflects a bit of bright light off the bottom of the windscreen mount toward the rider at night. The handlebar pods have a lot of buttons on them, but the more I used them, the more they made sense, for the most part.

Otherwise, there’s much more to praise than damn on the Pan America. The Revolution Max motor is incredibly flexible and forgiving, from putt-putting compliantly at low speed down a technical section of a muddy forest road to raging down deserted back roads in Sport mode well into triple digits. It has copious power while also possessing good manners, including very low levels of vibration no matter the revs. And while I didn’t do any crash testing, thankfully, the Pan America’s defensive system of a narrow V-Twin buttressed by bash plates and crash bars lends riders confidence if there’s a misstep. But the PanAm’s goodness extends far beyond its new power source.

Adventure riders encounter all manner of roads – and sometimes no roads – and being able to change up braking, traction and throttle behaviours are key to safe and enjoyable rides on and off the pavement. Harley has done an excellent job letting experienced riders access and adjust many of those parameters, while also providing simplified yet technically complicated ride mode umbrellas for beginners or those just getting started in adventure riding. Nice touches abound, including the nearly six-gallon gas tank, adjustable levers, an effective windscreen, adjustable seat, the excellent ARH ride height system and general overall high levels of comfort and control that make for an outstanding distance-swallowing machine, even if it never touches a muddy trail. This is a bike that will be very difficult to outgrow – or outrun.

Lurking under all the capable hardware is a bigger central idea, however: For Harley-Davidson, attracting new riders to the brand is a huge part of what the Pan America is all about. Harley has seen its fortunes slip in the last few years due to a number of factors, but the Pan America – and near-future bikes that will utilize this engine – will have renewed drawing power for the brand. The new Sportster S is leading that charge, and uses a slightly detuned version of the Pan America’s RevMax motor. It’s now available and is a far cry from the old Sportsters of old, as it were. Many more will follow.

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When I returned the Pan America to Harley-Davidson, the parking lot of the dealership was largely empty, but the few riders that were there still came over to take a closer look. I explained I was reviewing the bike, and one rider wanted a thumbnail of my impressions. “Fast, fun and very capable. It can take you just about anywhere,” I said, recapping my tsunami detour and subsequent forest road odyssey. Another rider turned to his friend and said “I’m getting one” with a laugh and reveals he already has a dual-sport bike but is ready to sell it to get a Pan America – since it’s a Harley – but also because he said he had his doubts when the bike was first announced and now he’s heard and read several positive reviews.

And that small insight explains a larger part of what made the huge Pan America gamble palatable to Harley-Davidson. Harley will always have an “H-D-or-nothing” core of loyalists, but motorcycle riders’ tastes in aggregate are changing, and the company is scrambling to change with them. More women ride Harleys (and motorcycles and scooters in general) than ever before, and are not so married to brand loyalty. Many Harley riders own multiple bikes from multiple brands, often including an adventure bike, and according to a chat I had with H-D’s marketing boss Paul James last year, many Harley riders they talked to in run-up research for the PanAm who didn’t own an adventure bike had it high on their wish list. If only the motorcycle company they love so much would produce a capable, competitive, uncompromising machine that stacks up to the competition both in price and performance. With the Pan America, Harley-Davidson has answered that call with a standout motorcycle that not just measures up, but surpasses the competition in many ways.

It’s still a bit of a head shaker to me (and many reviewers) how Harley-Davidson was able to get so much right on their first try at making a truly worthy adventure bike. I’ve definitely found a Harley-Davidson I’d like to add to my crowded garage. This is a motorcycle I can see selling (some of) my other motorcycles and perhaps a few other prized possessions to acquire. Given their dark financial passage as of late, I think the Pan America will eventually be seen as the bike that perhaps “saved” Harley-Davidson, informed a large part of its future and perhaps leads to a whole new group of hard-core enthusiasts. It’s now at the top of my personal list of motorcycles I plan to own, and that’s really saying something.