top of page

Harley-Davidson Pan America | New Zealand First Ride Review

It's finally here. Harley-Davidson’s first adventure class machine has arrived in New Zealand and Harley Australia tee'd us up with a Pan America for a few weeks to get to know the brand's first Adventure Class machine.

I’m not gonna lie, I have been waiting with bated breath for the Harley-Davidson Pan America and as a result, I came into my test ride of the Pan America without a clean point of reference.

Having watched pretty much every review from the rest of the world in the wait for the bike to arrive in New Zealand dealers, I was already pretty clued up to the fact that the Pan America was far from a dud. But there’s hearing about a bike and experiencing it for yourself, and I was pretty keen to put it to the test against my memories of the BMW GS.

In fact, it's the BMW GS and the other European competition that Harley-Davidson aimed the Pan America directly at and the bike enters the market with a truly competitive package. NZ pricing starts at $33,995, which undercuts both the direct competition from BMW and KTM, plus Harley-Davidson has squeezed some clever tech into the mix as well.

The Pan America is centred around the all-new Revolution Max 1250 V-twin (actual capacity 1252cc) with the engine forming a crucial part of the chassis as a stressed member.

The valve train is very much unlike a typical Harley engine and features both Dual Overhead Cams (DOHC) and variable valve timing. As such, the "Rev-Max" produces 150hp of peak power backed by 127Nm of torque which is more than enough to punt all the 258kg of Pan America nicely. Yes, it’s not class-topping power as the KTM fanboys will scream from the rooftops, but it is a nice willing engine with its own unique character (as far as H-D products go) with a nice torquey bottom end followed by an exciting top-end thanks to that variable valve timing.

Power delivery is further tuned by using the four factory set rider modes (rain, road, sport, off-road) with the bike also featuring heated grips for comfort as well as a Six-Axis IMU behind it all. My test bike being a Pan America Special gains spoked wheels and Harley's new Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) system which comes at an extra cost of $1675 on top of the base price.

The physical suspension system is supplied by Showa, but Harley developed the ARH system’s electronics in-house. The system is electronically adjustable for pre-load and compression/rebound damping through the TFT display with simple options (Sport, Comfort, there is plenty of travel at both ends with 190mm, while ground clearance is a respectable 210mm.

If you want more detail on the spec of the Pan America, click here to check out our full rundown on the bike.

On paper then, it is the complete package for a modern adventure tourer. But what is it actually like to ride?

Heading to Hamilton's Road and Sport Harley-Davidson to collect the press Pan America, the first thing the team did was ask me to sit on the bike to see what seat would suit me best. The bike has an adjustable seat from the factory, allowing it to be in either standard or low settings, while a factory lowering seat is also available. After determining that the factory seat in its low setting would suit me just fine, we went over the bike in a bit more detail before I could bring it home to Cambridge.

First impressions of the Pan America were pretty impressive. Riding away from the dealer after the obligatory yarn with a random passerby, the Pan America didn't feel like an intimidating machine at all. Sure, it's 100kg heavier than my usual ride and possesses a full 126hp more, but riding it was a doddle.

I've got to call out the clutch, in particular, for being incredibly light for a big-bore motorcycle. It is easy to hold and modulate with a bare minimum of effort which really comes in handy once you hit the rougher stuff. The gearbox itself (a 6-speed unit) shifts nicely through the gears without any undue clunks or bangs like we've come to expect from Harley's traditional gearboxes.

This easy to ride nature is definitely helped by the ARH system, which lowers the bike as you come to a stop so you can easily reach terra firma. The system is basically seamless and you can't really feel it working.

If I can say one thing about the Pan America it is that it is one of the most approachable big bikes I think I've ever ridden. Sure, it weighs a decent amount and is physically quite large, but once you're aboard it feels more akin to a 650cc V-Strom than a massive 1250.

It's not just the big tech items that make the Pan America a nice bike to live with either, the windscreen, for example, is manually moved from position to position with just your left hand and can be done so on the fly, the footpegs have easily removable rubber inserts which can be pulled out in a few seconds before riding off-road (for both rider and passenger too) and the bike comes out of the box with heated grips.

It even has reasonably good crash protection with big crash bars on either side of the engine and a skid plate from factory, although if you were going to do a lot of off-road riding you'd want to upgrade the latter to the H-D accessory one for peace of mind. However, the bike isn't perfect and I do have a handful of thoughts on where it could be improved.

While the bike has good drop protection, the radiator itself is quite vulnerable and could use a solid guard to protect it from stones if you plan on riding lots of gravel. In a similar vein, the handguards from the factory are wind deflectors and not much more. They feel flimsy and definitely seem like one of the areas where H-D has saved money and weight on the Pan America. It's not a drama, and a set of Barkbusters is less than $200 and not every Pan America owner will actually need proper handguards so it is money well saved by H-D.

A problem for many bikes with oodles of technology as seen on the Pan America is how you actually control it all, and for the most part, the Pan America is pretty easy to manage in this regard. However, while riding home from the dealership with my thick winter gloves on I did find the switchgear a bit on the busy side and tricky to use. There's not a lot of feedback from the buttons either, particularly the indicator cancel button, but this is offset by the fact the indicators are self-cancelling. Considering the bike has heated grips this was easily fixed by wearing my favourite pair of summer gloves and cranking the hand warmers.

The TFT display is clear and easy to read, however, some of the widgets and text can be a little on the small side. The display is customisable, though, which means you can switch between a simply display or customise the widgets surrounding the speedo to show the stuff you want to see the most prominently displayed.

A neat addition is the ability to display directions on the TFT from the Harley-Davidson app OR show a full map on the screen for navigation duties. The only limit I've found with my time is the Harley app is more of a point-point navigation system and doesn't allow you to set waypoints. But for the task of getting from point A to point B efficiently, it is quite nice to not need a GPS mounted to the handlebars.

With the kids safely occupied for a day, I managed to sneak away for one of my favourite loops of mixed riding around the Waikato.

Overtaking is a piece of cake in all gears, though shifting out of sixth to fifth helps activate the VVT faster and punt you out of harm's way (and up to rather silly speeds) faster. Once the engine gets onto that hot cam it really sings and had me comparing it to a flatplan V8 in terms of the noise it produces. It's not your traditional Harley rumble, but damn if it doesn't sound good!

Considering the bike weighs close to 260kg it is actually quite nimble on the road with its 19/17 inch wheel combo and electronic suspension, and I had a blast flicking from side to side on the switchbacks heading up the south face of Mount Pirongia.

Turning on to Pirongia West Road (one of my favourite stretches of gravel to play on) I switched the Pan America into its custom off-road mode and carried on. In addition to reworking the throttle response, the off-road mode also revises the traction control and ABS settings to allow for controlled fun but also catch you if you get a bit feisty with the throttle.

Honestly, I didn't expect the Pan America to be so much fun with traction control still turned on (you can turn it off on the right-hand switchgear) but it allowed just enough slip to step the rear out and make you feel like a hero before catching you. With the TCS off on the gravel, the factory rear tyre gets quickly spun up thanks to that big engine.

The tyres themselves, Michelin Scorcher Adventures, cope well in a variety of terrain and transitioned well from pavement to gravel and back again. The one time they felt out of their depth was when I found myself in inch deep mud thanks to roadworks, but most street-oriented adventure rubber would be the same in that regard.

After looping north along the Kawhia-Raglan coast and remaining thoroughly impressed with just how easy the big Pan America was to ride I brought it home to wash off the adventure and prepare to give it back.

Then New Zealand went into Covid-19 Alert Level 4...

While I've missed having my own bike to play with while we've been locked down, having the Pan America for an extended stay has meant I've been able to fiddle with it more than usual and even then I'm sure there are things that I still could learn if I was actually riding the bike full time.

Here's a couple of takeaways from the prolonged experience.

After two washes, I'm still finding nooks and crannies where I've failed to wash away the mud from my big ride, with the front chin-mounted cooler (I forget what it's for) collecting mud and gravel. Overall it has been reasonably easy to get to a respectable level of cleanliness compared to other bikes with more plastic to hide mud, but the black colour scheme of the press bike I think doesn't work as well in a practical sense as the hero white/orange or matte colour schemes also on offer.

Harley says they worked hard to keep the weight down on the Pan America, and a result of this is a minimalist look that has really grown on me. Sure, aesthetically the bike is challenging to some, but it is purposeful and functions really well. The plastics feel lightweight and while some will lament the amount of plastic used (particularly in the rear grab handles/luggage rack) it does the job of keeping the bike's weight down which in turn helps it ride so damn well.

Even the fuel tank, which is 21-litres in capacity, is lightweight and made of aluminium instead of steel to keep the weight down. On top of this is a neat little easter egg as well which features a topographical map that is said to be a special place near Milwaukee and is worked into the Pan America badge below the fuel cap.

So in a nutshell, has Harley-Davidson done enough to compete in the fiercely competitive adventure market? I hate to say it, but I have to agree with the majority of reviewers out there and say Harley-Davidson has done a bang-up job with the Pan America and come to market with a truly well thought out bike. Yes, it isn't perfect in some ways but considering the monumental leap in technology and the well thought out execution I'd happily own one if I had the $35k casually sitting in my bank account.

The only concern I'd have is how will the Pan America be welcomed into traditional HOG rides? I can imagine owners being tempted from breaking off from the group to go explore gravel sideroads which could cause friction with the traditionalists among Harley's owners.

REVIEW BY Mathieu Day-Gillett

PHOTOS BY Mathieu Day-Gillett, Graeme Murray and Harley-Davidson USA.

1 Comment

I can't look at the headlight without thinking "Bender".

bottom of page