Harley's concept electric bike has big potential

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A twist of the throttle and the motorcycle smoothly and quietly pulls away from a stop, feeling like something attached to the end of a long, invisible elastic band. The bike accelerates cleanly into traffic, making barely a sound until you really twist the grip, when a high-pitched whine emerges from the electric motor and drivetrain mounted low between your feet.

This smooth, stealthy machine is called Project LiveWire, and if it weren't for the bar-and-shield logos scattered throughout and the other bits of conspicuous branding, you'd never know it was a Harley-Davidson. Sure, the shape of the tank is somewhat reminiscent of the XLR1200, and the belt drive looks like it might just fit on a Sportster, but beyond that, everything is different.

Project LiveWire
Tim Stevens/CNET

This is a radical project for a company as tied to its roots as is H-D, something that's been three years in the making. Harley engineers wanted to get it right, and you can understand why. For many owners, the noise and distinctive vibes of a big V-twin are key aspects of the experience. LiveWire more or less does away with both.

But not entirely. While all electric bikes have some level of futuristic whirr to them, usually thanks to the reduction gearing, the sound in the LiveWire is much louder than most. Mind, even at full-throttle LiveWire is still far quieter than a Fat Bob with straight pipes at idle. It's a piercing, progressive noise that turns heads. For many riders, turning heads is what it's all about.

LiveWire backs up that sound with performance. 74 horsepower may not sound like a lot, but it's more than a Sportster 883 -- and, at about 450 pounds, roughly 100 pounds lighter. That, plus the instant torque of the electric motor, means plenty of oomph, enough to get the front end very loose should you get a bit too aggressive with the throttle.

Still, with no clutch or shifting to worry about, it's very easy to ride. Quite comfortable, too, with an upright riding position and pegs that are neither too far forward nor too far back for casual city touring. That said, one H-D engineer told us there's still plenty of ground clearance to get your knee down when the LiveWire hits the track. That's one thing I can't wait to try out for myself.

Project LiveWire
Tim Stevens/CNET

Unfortunately, with an estimated range of just 53 miles, you probably won't complete many laps. Indeed this is more intended to be a city commuter, enough to get you to work and back, then charging up overnight -- a process that takes about 3.5 hours from empty. When I spoke with members of H.O.G., the Harley Owners Group, that's where they thought the LiveWire would be best-suited. I was curious to get their take, as all had rumbled in on big baggers bedecked with chrome and tassels. LiveWire does have a little chrome, but it has no room for bags -- nor a passenger, for that matter.

The H.O.G. members we spoke with thought it was an interesting bike, and enjoyed their time on one. City commuting was mentioned as a natural application, except for one big problem: noise. More specifically, the lack thereof. The topic of "loud pipes save lives" is widely debated, but suffice to say these members are believers that booming exhausts are worth the disturbance when it comes to safety. Project LiveWire, of course, has no pipes at all.

Persuading the company's loyal followers will be a huge challenge, but perhaps the best part of LiveWire is how it's being launched. Harley-Davidson representatives are taking trucks of the bikes to major dealerships and motorcycle gatherings around the world, giving hundreds of test rides and asking only one thing in exchange: opinions. They really want to know what their faithful think about this thing, and you can be sure they'll take it right back to the drawing board if that's deemed necessary.

Project LiveWire
Tim Stevens/CNET

But it isn't. LiveWire feels like a great bike that's fun to ride and, if H-D can get the range up while selling it for a decent price, it could be quite successful. Is it better than the Brammos or the Zeros of the world? Not really, no, but this kind of dealer network and brand recognition add a huge amount of value. That leaves only two questions: when, and how much?

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