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2020 Indian Challenger Ride Review

Feature Motorcycle Reviews

2020 Indian Challenger Ride Review


Let’s Get Ready to Rumble! With a name like Challenger, you’d think that this bike has its sights set firmly on winning the fight for major touring bike market share. The name evokes visions of a prizefighter entering the ring, intent on knocking out the reigning champion. It knows its place, and it brings the goods to beat the competition. And you’d be right for thinking that. Indian Motorcycle marketing folks told me it is difficult to finalize a product name. It happens at the end of the product development project, and you have to make sure no other company has laid a claim to the proposed name. True, Challenger is the name of an automobile, but never before had this name been affixed to a motorcycle. This name fits this product because the bike is intended to challenge the reigning fixed fairing king, the Harley Road Glide, for touring bike supremacy. Additionally, it sure beats the “Raptor” code name that Indian used during development. Indian pulled no punches and made direct comparisons to the Road Glide during the press launch. They even had a stock Road Glide test bike available on our ride, to evaluate back-to-back against the Challenger. I, for one, am glad Indian didn’t dance around the subject or deny what it’s after. Ever since Polaris unveiled the rebirth of Indian, there’s been no doubt about its goal; being a serious competitor in the heavy American cruiser and touring market. The introduction of the Challenger helps round out the company’s offerings, provides the consumer with a new choice for a full-sized touring bike, and in my opinion will indeed take a bite out of Road Glide sales. (View the Challenger Challenge)

The president of Indian Motorcycles, Steve Menneto, gave me a big-picture overview of Polaris and Indian. While US motorcycle sales are soft, he was optimistic this bike would fit a need in the market and offer consumers a better long distance touring option. Polaris is involved with electric vehicle development, and Indian will be sure to benefit from the research in the future. Indian is now selling bikes direct in Japan, and he was happy to proclaim 340 bikes attended a motorcycle rally in China recently. Per data Indian has collected, it is connecting with younger riders.

With the release of the Challenger, Indian is looking to build the best V-twin American bagger ever made. Now them’s fightin’ words. This bike is not intended to replace the air-cooled Indian cruisers. The Challenger is being positioned as the big brother of the Indian lineup. It’s a cross between an American style and brand, and a better riding experience. During the initial tech presentation, Indian reps said a bike’s design is half science and half gut feeling, and muscular images were shown on the displayed mood board. The word chiseled was used several times as well. No, this bike wasn’t meant to follow in the classic Indian retro lines. It’s meant to be ripped. It has aggressive proportions with performance underpinnings, and as bikes go sportier, they get more chiseled. The Challenger is a modern interpretation of a performance bagger.

The customer for the Challenger is predicted to be younger and more hip to motorcycling trends; a more knowledgeable and discerning rider who travels long distances. While the Chieftain and Roadmaster customer admires the vintage look, the Challenger customer will probably be a fan of the custom American bagger scene. Indian noted that it interviewed current Road Glide owners to find out what they liked and disliked about their bikes. Then Indian set about correcting the pitfalls. I asked if there was fear of the Challenger cannibalizing sales from Indian’s other models, and was told, yes, that may happen. However, the hope is to devour sales from other brands of bikes as well.

I had to address the elephant in the room, so I asked an uncomfortable question. I was told this bike is not, nor ever was, intended to be the Victory Challenger. Despite learning that it had a four-year development cycle, it’s pretty much irrelevant what it started life as on a designer’s sketch pad. Victory is no more, and this is an Indian. However, I couldn’t help having some fun by riding the Challenger wearing my trusty Victory carbon fiber helmet I unearthed recently during our office move. While having a forward leaning performance look, the Challenger does wear the lines of the arched fuel tank found on some other Indian models. And there’s a reason for that.

Ola Stenegard, Indian’s Director of Motorcycle Design, filled me in. DNA runs through Indian’s entire line of bikes. Certain things need to carry over from model to model. Indian is really developing two families of bikes: the air-cooled models have rounded tanks and side mounted air cleaners, while the liquid-cooled models have arched tank lines and a backbone air cleaner. As for engine platforms, this is the Scout’s big brother, but the lower end of the engine resembles that of the big air-cooled bikes. This is Ola’s second time working for Indian, as he was with Indian in the Gilroy days. He actually came back to Indian/Polaris at the tail end of this project, and when he was shown the current projects, he felt there was nothing to tweak on the Challenger. Ola says, “The proportion was spot on, with no apologies.”

I asked Ola about one of my perhaps least favorite features of the Challenger. I’m not a fan of the conventional round headlight situated in the middle of the high-tech angles of the large headlight “mouth.” Ola admits the headlight was done at the tail end of the project, and the round design was chosen because of customers’ familiarity with the round headlight. “We didn’t want to throw the ball too far and balance runs through Indian bikes. The Challenger ‘face’ has clamps and blades and can’t be mistaken for anything else. It’s noticeable and identifiable when seen in the rear-view mirror. It’s a mix of tradition and the future.”

My immediate interest was with the all-new PowerPlus engine, so I homed in on it when meeting with Indian reps. The new engine’s name is a nod to Indian Motorcycle’s iconic history, paying homage to the Indian PowerPlus motorcycle produced from 1916 to 1924. But the name was also used in the 2000s on that generation’s Indian bottle cap engines.

Indian’s goal was to build the highest-performing American V-twin ever developed. The PowerPlus shares a few design features with the liquid-cooled Indian Scout engine, like overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, but the similarities end there. The 108 ci, 60-degree PowerPlus V-twin was developed to be a big-piston, big-torque engine that delivers maximum power across the entire curve. So, why not build it with more cubic inches? I asked why the engine was “limited” to 108 ci. The answer is you don’t need huge cubes with liquid cooling. But there’s always room to grow.

Starting at the base, the crankcase is a unit design featuring a high capacity semi-dry sump oil system and the crank oil and trans oil areas are completely segregated. There’s one long oil drain plug behind the kickstand; it has an O-ring midway up the threads. The one drain plug drains both crankcase and trans oil. The primary on the left side is gear driven and primary oil is fed by transmission drainback and there’s pressurized oil for the clutch. The stator and charging system reside inside the right-side engine cover and offers a 55 amp output. A timing wheel on the crank provides triggering for the crank sensor. The connecting rods are bigger and stronger than those on the 111 Thunder Stroke. There’s a single gear-driven counter balancer located behind the crankshaft. In riding the Challenger, I felt the engine seems to be smoother and quieter than 111, but it gets a bit busy at higher rpms. The water pump is located under the rounded boss on the left side of the engine and is chain driven off crank. There are no external hoses or lines to develop leaks, and only two rubber main feed and return hoses to the radiator. A single electric fan provides cooling airflow to the radiator and is obscured by some plastic shrouding. Packaging the radiator has always been a problem for motorcycle manufacturers, but I think Indian did a masterful job of blending the modest radiator into the frame surround and the whole look of the chassis is sanitary.

There is some similarity between the PowerPlus transmission and the 111 Thunder Stroke trans, but just a few shared parts. And the PowerPlus offers a true overdrive sixth gear. I was pleased to find it to be smooth shifting and not clunky. The oil pump is situated inside the primary cover; it’s a semi dry sump system. An oil filter points up on the engine behind the radiator, all hidden behind a plastic cover. The engine is virtually maintenance-free, with oil changes necessary at 5k intervals. There’s no oil cooler; Indian found it was not needed. Oil is pumped upward through passages in the cylinders, through the rocker shafts and out to hydraulic lash adjusters and rocker tips.

One important feature remains down at the base of this engine: The assist clutch. The premise is that it works the reverse of a slipper clutch. It provides high-speed clamping on the clutch plates. With the Indian assist clutch, you don’t need stiffer clutch springs, so the rider gets an easier clutch feel. There are aluminum-to-aluminum ramps which engage to provide the clamping force, and the clutch is cable operated. With ramp assist, engineers realized they could use a smaller clutch with fewer plates and softer coil springs.

This is a high revving American V-twin, with a hard rev limit of 6500. The PowerPlus makes peak power of 122 hp at 5500 rpm. And there’s massive 128 ft-lbs. of torque at 3800 rpm. I found this to be a super quick revving engine. When rowing through the gears, the tach needle is just a blur between 3k to 5k.

Piston speeds of the PowerPlus are high. Engineers had to make sure the power cylinder—the jug, rod, piston, and head—were stable. Compression ratio is 11:1 and the bore and stroke are 4.252″ x 3.799″. There are two cam chains on the right side of the engine, with hydraulic tensioners, driven by the crankshaft spinning the single overhead cams. The cams are different front and rear as are the heads. Of course, I couldn’t resist asking about cam swaps, because that’s what bagger guys live for. You cannot remove the rocker cover with the engine situated in the bike’s frame in its stock location. However, you can “droop” the engine to lower it slightly to gain access to the camshafts. There are no lower frame rails and the engine is a stressed member. So, the good news is you don’t have to completely remove the engine from the chassis. There are hydraulic lash adjusters near the valve tips for maintenance-free lash. And there’s a roller tip on the rocker where it contacts the camshaft. The rocker arm ratio is 1.35:1. Intake valve diameters are 43mm and exhaust valve diameters are 36mm. I spent two days riding the Challenger and over time I noticed a faint audible clicking noise at idle. This is not the hydraulic adjusters creating the noise; it is actually the closing of the intake valves.

Externally, you’ll notice “V covers” on both sides of the engine. Neither of these are air cleaners. The right-side cover hides emissions controls and the ignition coil and thermostat housing (connected with small hoses) is under the left-side cover. The coolant jug reservoir is located in the nose fairing. Maximum engine speed of the PowerPlus is 6500 rpm with a soft rev limit; the bike’s pulling power just levels out when you hit it. Fuel is provided by electronic fuel injection with oval-shaped 52mm dual bore throttle bodies receiving air from the backbone area. A three-hole “snout” located under the lower fork triple clamp is the air induction point. Engine responsiveness can be rider-tailored via three ride modes: Rain, Standard, and Sport that changes the throttle mapping and traction control. Changes can be made on the fly, but the throttle needs to be chopped to engage a new mode.
Indian has put this engine through its paces already with a million miles of simulated testing, including state-of-the-art dyno testing, and more than 300,000 on-road test miles. The PowerPlus will be built in Osceola, Wisconsin, with final motorcycle assembly taking place in Indian Motorcycle’s production facility in Spirit Lake, Iowa.

For me, riding the Challenger was a joy. Full disclosure here: The Road Glide is one of my favorite bikes. So, when someone comes along and says they’re going to out-Road-Glide the Road Glide, it gets my attention. The ergonomics of the Challenger feel akin to the Chieftain with nice, big floorboards for plenty of room for your foot placement and a comfortable reach to the handlebars. The windscreen on Challenger’s chassis-mounted fairing is extremely purposeful, meaning it works! Raising the screen electronically through almost 3″ of travel brought it to a level that had a genuine effect on windflow and turbulence control, yet I still look over the screen when it’s in the “up” position. There’s a neat little trick I found of double tapping the windscreen button to have it automatically raise or lower to its fullest amount without having to hold the button. While seated on the bike, the bottom of the two analog instruments are slightly obscured. This might be a problem for shorter people, but I was able to see the important information fine. Two lower dash pockets are situated below the huge speakers, with the right-side pocket containing a USB cord for phone charging or audio connection. The Ride Command 7″ dash touchcreen is customizable and glove-friendly. Key vehicle information is displayed, as well as the entertainment system. The Bluetooth pairs easily and the Challenger comes with two years of renewable connected services that feature weather and traffic overlays and turn-by-turn navigation. To say the 100-watt audio system is loud is an understatement. It plain kicks butt! I rarely spun the dial all the way to 11. The fairing-mounted 6.5″ speakers pumped out the sound clearly. The fairing also features adjustable air vents and NACA ducts.

The Challenger is smooth and stable, even over 100 mph. It all starts with a cast aluminum frame. The upside-down fork, wearing radially-mounted Brembo Brakes, soaks up the bumps fine, and the rear FOX shock is easily hydraulically adjustable so the rider can tune it to load or road. Simply remove the left body side cover and there is a hex that can be ratcheted to the desired preload. The tool is provided in the bike’s toolkit. No more air pumps. The 19″ front and 16″ rear cast wheels wear all-new Metzeler Cruisetec tires, designed specifically for this bike as well as floating brake rotors. This high-tech bagger also features Smart Lean Technology on the Limited and Dark Horse variants of Challenger. (Sorry, not available on the base model.) Pre-control lean angle sensitive traction control and predictive ABS uses a Bosch IMU to adjust the torque and ABS.

The Challenger comes with a shopping list of standard features that you’d expect on a full-service long-haul tourer. Electronic cruise control, LED lighting, a comfortable seat, keyless ignition, weather-proof 18-gallon saddlebags, and something I think should be standard on all bikes: A tire pressure monitoring system. A neat new feature was the electronically locking centrally mounted gas cap. It always remains on the bike and is flush fitting to the tank console when latched. Even the obligatory front fender Indian headdress was redesigned and modernized with an LED light band down the center. It’s truly a modern take on the classic. One item I was disappointed I did not find available, yet, was a topcase. Hopefully, Indian is working on an accessory add-on.

Pricing for the 2020 Indian Challenger, available in Titanium Metallic paint, starts at $21,999, while the Challenger Dark Horse, starting at $27,499, is available in Thunder Black Smoke, Sandstone Smoke, and White Smoke. The Indian Challenger Limited starts at $27,999, and is available in Thunder Black Pearl, Deepwater Metallic, and Ruby Metallic.

No bike review would be complete without finding a couple faults, and I’ve pointed out just a couple above. While I enjoyed the Challenger immensely, and agree the list of amenities is long, the important thing to point out is that it’s not the number of features on the bike that count. What matters is that everything works well to give the rider a superior ride experience. The gadgets on the Challenger are integrated well. It brings the heat with plenty of power output, great handling, and lots of comfort. I wish it had heated grips, but that’s an easy accessory fix. I was hoping for a little more differentiation from the Road Glide look. Several people commented that from the back, this bike is undiscernible from a Road Glide. While I noted earlier that Road Glide customers liked many things about their bikes, perhaps a little more distinction should have been worked into the plan. Indian said it wanted to offer the highest performing, fully-loaded bagger on the market. In my opinion, the Challenger has a wicked combination. Will the champ be unseated? The bell for the next round is about to ring. AIM 383