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2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire first ride review: Harley's electric future is bright

Harley-Davidson is finally bringing its long-teased LiveWire electric motorcycle to production. This is the future of Harley, but is it good enough for its $29,799 price tag?

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
6 min read

Hello again, old friend. What you're looking at is the Harley-Davidson LiveWire, a very different bike from a very traditional motorcycle company. It's Harley's first EV, and the first EV from what I would consider a major, mainstream motorcycle company. At $29,799, it's also one of the most expensive. I was lucky to ride a prototype of this bike way back in 2014, and while I'm not entirely sure what's taken so long to bring it to production, I'm very glad to say that this thing was worth the wait.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire


2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire shows us the way forward

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The formula

The traditional formula of Harley-Davidson is something like this: Take a massive V-twin engine and wrap a motorcycle around it. That motorcycle can either be on the minimalist side, like in a Sportster, or the excessive side, like in an Electra Glide, but always that engine is the key, loping away to announce the presence, arrival or departure of bike and rider.

With the LiveWire it's all a bit different. Here, the core of the bike isn't a V-twin or any other kind of engine, because there simply isn't one. There is instead an 105-horsepower electric motor, but despite its chrome plating it's really the battery pack that serves as the heart of this bike -- so much so that Harley isn't even calling it a battery pack. Oh no, this is a "Renewable Energy Storage System."

Whatever it is, it stores 15.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity in its lithium-ion heart, enough for the LiveWire to cover an estimated 146 miles of maximum range. That's in low-speed city driving, though. Hit the highway and you'll do as few as 70 on a charge, with a combined figure of 95. (The bike scores 98 miles on the World Motorcycle Test Cycle.) That's a fair bit shorter than something like a Sportster 1200, which will do about 200 miles on a tank of good 'ol gasoline, and quite a bit less than the electric Zero SR which, with the Power Tank, is rated for 223 in the city.

So regardless of how you look at it, range is on the low side. But then the LiveWire has a trick up it sleeve: DC fast charging. Find yourself a suitable charger, of the sort being installed at every 250 LiveWire-selling Harley-Davidson dealerships globally, and you can get a full charge in less than an hour. An 80 percent charge takes just 40 minutes.

Augmenting all that is a comprehensive set of off-the-shelf goodies, like fully adjustable Showa suspension with Big Piston forks. Radially mounted, four-piston Brembo monobloc calipers squeeze dual discs at the front, while a quiet and maintenance-free belt drive spins the rear wheel.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Physical controls are busy but comprehensive. The gauge cluster, however, leaves something to be desired.

Tim Stevens/Roadshow

The controls

It wouldn't do for an advanced motorcycle like this to make do with any 'ol gauge cluster, and so Harley-Davidson has augmented the LiveWire with a capacitive-touch LCD that, yes, works with gloves on. Even big, thick leather gauntlets. Mind you, you won't need to touch it, as you can toggle through the important screens thanks to a series of controls on right grip.

The display enables a remarkable amount of customization and flexibility, but I have to say I'm disappointed by the aesthetic. There's nothing either classic or futuristic about the thing, it just looks like a basic Android tablet with a slapdash set of apps and widgets. You can do things like send navigation information from your phone and create the perfect drive mode for every mood, but I really wish it looked more, well, premium.

Thankfully it's got it where it counts, starting with a sea of rider modes. Four to start, including road, rain, sport and range. These adjust the throttle response, ultimate power, amount of regeneration and intrusiveness of the traction control. If that's not enough, you have three more (A, B and C) that are fully customizable. Sadly it's not quite as comprehensive as the Ducati Multistrada, as you'll still need to fiddle with the suspension the old-fashioned way (read: screwdriver and wrench), but this kind of personalization is still greatly appreciated.

All that is tied to Harley's most comprehensive rider-assistance package yet, featuring basic stuff like traction control and ABS but augmented with a six-axis accelerometer to ensure both function properly at any degree of lean. There's also anti-wheelie and even anti-stoppie, ensuring you don't get a surprise when grabbing either a little too much throttle or brakes.

And if that weren't enough, Harley is pairing the bike with an active LTE data connection, meaning you can do things like monitor charging status and even your bike's location remotely -- perfect for parking in a sketchy neighborhood. This service will be free to LiveWire buyers initially, but the company doesn't know how much it'll cost in the long-run.

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

Engaging? Oh yes, very.


The ride

Though much of my day in the saddle of the LiveWire was spent on twisty lanes that snaked through the beautiful forests in the Pacific Northwest, thankfully I didn't have to test those safety systems to avoid Bambi or any of her friends. That said, I did get a taste of ABS when braking on some of downtown Portland's broken asphalt, and the traction control kept me pointed in the right direction when the rear wheel spun up while following a railway line.

That I didn't sample the rider aids more frequently talks to the comprehensive nature of the overall package. The suspension feels a little under-damped at first blush, but probably necessarily so to deliver a good mix of ride quality while also keeping this 549-pound sled heading in the right direction.

Even more impressive is the throttle mapping. Harley has clearly spent a lot of time making sure it's pristine. Whether navigating parking lots at a walking pace, creeping along in traffic waiting for the car ahead to move or screaming through sinuous back roads, the LiveWire always reacted just as I wanted to. Many other EVs are too snatchy with the throttle, lurching forward with the slightest twist. Some go too far the other way, requiring a wide-open throttle to get any response.

LiveWire does it right, and when you do really open the throttle it leaps forward with eye-opening rapidity. Eighty-six pound-feet of torque is better than fair, plus it's available instantly and always makes this thing feel remarkably quick. At low speeds it will teleport into any gap in traffic. At higher speeds the LiveWire is more relaxed -- such is the way of EVs -- but never feels slow. This is a bike with all the real-world usable power you could ever want with the brakes and suspension to match.

Riding position is definitely more sportbike than cruiser, but still fairly upright and relaxed. I didn't spend much time at particularly high speeds but, despite the lack of fairing, buffeting wasn't an issue. The small seat is quite comfortable and, at just 30.7 inches off the ground, will prove an easy reach for most. (Harley-Davidson will also offer an even lower seat for anyone so inclined.) 

2020 Harley-Davidson LiveWire

The LiveWire does not disappoint. But will it sell?



At first blush, $29,799 for a motorcycle offering less range and less speed than the immediate competition is a tall order. However, if you've read this far and still can't get past that point, let me remind you again that this is a Harley-Davidson. Bikes bearing the Bar & Shield rarely compete purely on price and performance. Beyond that, the LiveWire is a far more comprehensively built and tuned bike than its immediate competitors, while the existence of a pervasive dealership network certainly doesn't hurt.

The question remains, however, whether the brand can rely on its heritage to sell premium bikes with a premium price to a new generation of fickle consumers. And I confess I'm still a little skeptical about whether the company can actually sell the things. Harley-Davidson famously tried and failed to woo the last new generation of buyers with Buell. Today, will its dealerships prove more welcoming to those interested in carbon offsets than loud pipes? I certainly hope so, because the LiveWire is a great ride. It'd be a shame to see it wither on the vine.

Update: Corrected horsepower from 85 to 105.