Harley-Davidson's 2021 Pan America Crushes Your Preconcieved Notions

You can go anywhere - fast - on this impressive dual sport.

Adventure Rider's Pan-America Review

693f7c0332a01a7c78763e393ebf22b7_377cb8ef435dc858.jpgA low angle makes a lot of difference, but this wasn't the only time I got the Pan America airborne. It lands quite nicely. Photo by Brian Nelson/Harley-DavidsonLet’s just get to the Big Question: Have they done it? Has Harley-Davidson, American icon, maker of low-slung, chrome-laden, air-cooled retro-modern cruisers and heavy, heavyweight touring luxosleds, created a true dual-sport motorcycle that is, first off, worth a damn, and secondly, able to compete in the now white-hot adventure bike category already populated by established and respected machines?

Answer: A resounding YES! What a bike! And not just “what a great first effort” (although that certainly counts as well) or a qualified “what a great American bike” (but again, that also counts). In all sincerity: What an impressive motorcycle Harley has created in the Pan America. I must have one! And that’s coming from someone who has owned exactly zero Harley-Davidsons over a 30-plus year riding career, but also from someone who owns a dual-sport, has ridden many dual-sports and has ridden extensively off road for many of those years.

Like many doubters, I snickered a bit when the Pan America was first announced. I mean, really? An H-D ADV? But over two long days of riding on and off road in the Mojave Desert, I was absolutely won over by the Pan America’s tech, power, grace and style – and I’m picky as hell. And if you think I’m blowing The Motor Company some sunshine because they put me up in a hotbox of a reskinned cargo container rocked by howling winds all night and fed me salmon over rice for a few days, I’m here to tell you that’s not how I roll. Ever. How has Harley-Davidson, amidst sliding sales, CEO changes and a raging pandemic, achieved such a feat?

You could argue the underwhelming 2005 Buell Ulysses was Milwaukee’s first ADV attempt, but while on site at the RawHyde Ranch facility in California where the Pan America press demo event took place, I talked at length with several Harley higher-ups and engineers about how the Pan America came about, the ideas and decisions that went into it, and what the goals were. Bottom lines: Harley did take some lessons from the Ulysses, but they also hopped way out of their own box, did a ton of research, talked to a lot of Harley riders AND dual-sport riders, and then committed to lofty goals a lot of pundits (ahem) thought they could never hit. And then they hit those goals. A real-deal full-on dual sport from… Harley-Davidson? We truly live in amazing ADV times.

Max Tech and More Tech

I’ve never owned a Harley, but I’ve ridden and reviewed many over the years, and one thing I do admire about modern Harleys cruisers is the way the company has hidden a lot of modern tech (ABS, the new RDRS safety suite, etc.) to preserve the retro look and feel of their bikes. But the Pan America is loaded with tech goodness and it’s fully out in the open, and it’s not there for the sake of being “techie” – these are useful features that benefit a wide range of riders and level up the Pan America’s performance and capabilities. Let’s start with the new-from-the-crank-up liquid-cooled 1252cc Revolution Max engine.

294bb63df65151e21810cd961c97799c_26b8b2e0f91a8e02.jpgH-D brought this cutaway Revolution Max motor and you can see the variable valve timing modules in the DOHC head and the slim cam chain guides. I need one of these in my man cave. Photo: Bill RobersonI spent a lot of time bending Lead Engineer Matt Paradise’s ear at the event as I poked at the cutaway Revolution Max engine they brought to share with us journos. The 60-degree V-Twin (and yes, they did decide early on to go with a V-Twin because: Harley) is loaded with things you would not expect from Harley-Davidson, but would definitely want in a motor making a claimed 150 ponies and 94 footies of torque. There are four valves in each DOHC head and no pushrods (or fins) in sight. There’s variable valve timing with 40 degrees of range for layering on torque down low and horses up high, and it is dialed in. This motor pulls hard in any gear – even sixth – and when the tach crosses 6,500rpm, best hold on as it comes on the cam and pulls you forward like no other Harley – and few other dual-sport machines. Harley is of course known for “that sound” and while the Rev Max mill makes a nice noise, especially on the more uncorked optional Screaming Eagle 2-1 exhaust, the aural aspect was clearly far down the list of concerns. Sure, it sounds just fine but the focus for Paradise and the Pan America engine team was primarily on power, reliability, smoothness, power, light weight and more power. Mission accomplished.

Paradise told me the plant uses a 30-degree offset in the crank for a “sorta 90-degree” cadence, and two balancers calm the more narrow and solid-mounted 60-degree vee. The innovative balancer in the lower part of the engine cancels most (but not all) of the pulses both up and down and side to side. It is oddly semi-helix-shaped and an engineering feat he was clearly proud of, although it required a lot of hours in finite element analysis simulation to get it right. Paradise said they wanted to dial out most of the vibration but keep just enough that riders knew power was being made, rather than making the bike feel too numb. Again, they’ve hit this mark just about perfectly. During long hours in the saddle over the weekend outing, while both putt-putting around the skills course at walking speed and on strafing runs along freeways and in the twisties, the motor never seemed stressed or buzzed my hands or feet – but I knew it was there. I certainly had a few hoots in my helmet as my bike zipped to the 9,500rpm redline while traction control worked to keep the front wheel down on pavement. This is no used-to-be-a V-Rod or rethought Ulysses motor. This is a fully modern motor Harley can build a lot of great new bikes around.

2cfe79d1c813533eabaf8ae1a6711d52_ce1d862ae5e3d6f2.jpgHarley-Davidson says the 1,252cc Revolution Max motor makes 150 horsepower, and I’d say that’s accurate. Big, big power. Photo courtesy of Harley-DavidsonHydraulic valve adjusters mean perfect tune all the time and keep maintenance concerns at a minimum. Three oil scavengers keep the dinosaur blood flowing during extreme maneuvers dual-sports can sometimes be required to perform, and if the bike goes down, built-in sensors kill the engine to avoid oil starvation. During RawHyde’s dirt riding school sessions, we always knew who had dropped their bike (and I’m guilty here as well) because the hazard flashers automatically activate (engine guards did their job – repeatedly). I’m a fan of big power and the Revolution Max plant has the goods and then some when called upon, while also being able to idle through technical sections of a trail by doing nothing more than feathering the cable-actuated clutch to coax it around a 1mph corner. It’s a remarkable, highly flexible power plant and an engineering achievement that Paradise told me cost him a lot of sleep as the engine design developed before and during Covid slowdowns. And despite hours of slow speed riding under a baking sun, my temperature gauge never went above 210, and I didn’t even hear a cooling fan kick in. 

The unit motor/transmission also functions as a stressed member of the frame, with the steering head and rear subframe bolting directly to the block – no rubber grommets, donuts or other squishy parts. The stressed-member approach saves weight and simplifies things, and it’s another departure for Harley, as is the chain final drive (at least since the 1980s). In fact, Harley techs who helped build the bike pointed out numerous weight-saving measures as the team strove to stave off heft in every facet of the Pan America. Final result: The Pan America Special weighs in at 559 pounds wet, right smack in the sweet spot between bikes like the BMW GS1250 Adventure, Ducati 1260 Enduro and other big-bore overlanders. Adding cases, crash bars, lights and other farkles will pump up the weight of course, but that’s where the next big Pan America technical feature set shines: suspension. 

Sophisticated Legs

The Pan America Special uses Showa “semi-active suspension” and by that I mean the suspension systems always sets sag at 30 percent no matter the load. Just you going for a joyride sans accoutrements? 30 percent sag. You, the better half and three full pannies topped with camping gear? 30 percent sag. Harley also made it very clear that no matter how the bike is loaded, top speed – which is limited to 135mph – is always available. There’s no load penalty on performance. And if 135 on a dual-sport is too slow for you, well, you’re either far too good a rider for most any dual-sport – or you imagine you are. That’s plenty fast for this type of bike, and hard on the gas, the Pan America blasts through 60mph in a few seconds with 100 a few seconds after that. I’d say “it’s not a sport bike” but I was clearly riding it like one after I dialed up Sport mode during the open road session while the spoked rims were wearing Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires that were also surprisingly passable in the dirt. For the pure off-road day, the press bikes had ADV-oriented Michelin Anakee Wild skins with aggressive knobbies. Combined with the Pan America’s dirt-riding modes, they worked well through sand, dirt, mud, rocks and silty troughs on the RawHyde desert training course. Roost? You bet it can, and on a small whoops and jump track at RawHyde, I was able to get the Pan American airborne if just a bit, and landings were controlled and drama-free. Other riders got a lot more hang time than I could manage and marveled at the Pan America’s composure. 

9416324c9d80651d0b51e040c1be24b8_c1e2123d6cbfa121.jpgThe suspension on the Pan America special is semi-active and can be firmed up for dirt riding, but it always keeps sag constant. Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson.Beyond the engine and suspenders, the innovative tech on the Pan America was most impressive. One optional ($1,000) feature available on the Special version of the Pan America is Adaptive Ride Height (ARH). One caveat for many riders who would like to get into adventure riding is seat height, which on most ADV bikes could best be described as “really damn tall.” Harley has addressed this issue in three ways: There are three seats available (tall, short and standard), and then two seat height placement options on the bike itself. The seat removes with a key twist for quick adjustment, but the real frosting is ARH, which automatically lowers the suspension two inches as the bike comes to a stop, and then raises it back up once you’re underway again.

The system is automatic, and almost completely transparent in operation, and can be adjusted both in terms of how and when it activates or it can just be turned off. The result is flat (or at least flatter) feet on the ground at a stop, which is a huge advantage for shorter riders who may have had to tip-toe to balance a big bike – especially on tricky terrain. As any rider can tell you, if your big fully-loaded rig gets going over, it usually takes more than tiptoes to save it. ARH gets your feet down, and even though I have a generous 34-inch inseam, the feature made the Pan America much more comfortable at a stop, even for me. This is a feature that no other ADV bike maker offers and really opens up ADV riding to more people, and I’ll bet you a pair of dusty boots it starts turning up on competing bikes very soon. Game changer? That may be overstating things, but for those who have wished to head off road but were stymied by seat height, two inches plus a lower seat clicked into the lowest option on the Pan America makes a big, big difference. On the other end of things, yes, you can get 2-inch bar risers for the Pan America, but not so you can impress your pals with your ape hangers. They simply raise the bars for better standover control for taller riders, and no cable swaps are required. One of the journalists in my group had a bike so equipped and was thankful for the option. Seriously, H-D has not missed many tricks here.

Go Into The Light

The nose of the Pan America has come in for some criticism and I’d have to say I was critical as well at first, but while the style is a bit bulbous, it’s also a sly nod to some classic Harley form factors and looks better in person than it does in photos. Harley’s Senior Manager of Marketing, Paul James, an experienced ADV rider himself, told me they just didn’t want to go the “beak” route like everyone else, and I can understand wanting to stand out. Instead, the Pan America has a fairly typical (and effective) front fender. But that chesty front end – which looks best in black, grey or a cool new pine green color – also houses even more interesting tech in the form of a third top-mounted cycloptic Daymaker Adaptive LED headlight that features directional LEDs that peer through corners.

6be4c0effa3dfd804654a2f0b84bba1c_ea6984ebd1fc527d.jpgAs I lean into this slight left hander, the top headlight begins to peer into the turn. Lean more, and more LEDs activate. Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson 

This innovative, even automotive-like system is again completely transparent and automatic, but also tunable through the big LCD touchscreen. Essentially, as the bike leans, LEDs activate and linearly brighten toward the curve, and as the turn ends, they fade away. Seeing it in action is cool and yes, it makes a useable difference. Harley also offers a pair of high-powered spot/flood aux lights that are controlled on the switch pods. A late night demo of the bike with all lights active was instructive. The light output is broad, very bright and reaches far into the distance. Turn signals up front act as marker lights and a compact LED array out back makes for a slickly styled and minimalist brake light array. 

Ride Modes and Brakes

Ride modes are central to any modern motorcycle as high tech as the Pan America, and the bike’s brain offers Sport, Road, Rain, Off-Road, Off-Road Plus, Custom Off-Road Plus and a pair of user-defined custom modes. There are also five “sub modes” within each major ride mode for even more fine tuning.

57ad99b4577186f672ab9023bfd80410_0ab24cc97e1a1b93.jpgDirt Plus mode turns off ABS to the rear wheel while retaining it (minimally) for the front, allowing controlled slides like this one. Brembo brakes were excellent as usual. Photo courtesy of Harley-DavidsonTicking the bike into dirt-focused Off-Road Plus mode does away with rear wheel ABS, while dialing back front wheel ABS to a minimum. Front wheel ABS cannot be fully turned off, which may be a point of contention for some riders but in this case, with a big bike like the Pan America, I agree with this always-on approach, especially after seeing the efficacy of the system. In our RawHyde braking drills, front ABS was still active enough to keep things upright when we intentionally dynamited the excellent Brembo brakes on a rock-and-sand strewn dirt road. The back tire did indeed go right into a full-on skid, and coupled with the still-present front wheel ABS, the stable front wheel allowed me to swing the back end around as it slid, a technique I’ve used to skirt obstacles and “steer with the rear” on my own bike, which has no ABS whatsoever (but could use it). It’s clear Harley went in deep with adventure riders during the design phase to really understand what was needed – and wanted – on the road and off of it. The result is a suspension system and brakes that instill confidence, especially when controlling a machine of this size and weight in slippery or technical situations. 

For road riding there’s traction control, wheelie control, cruise control, cornering ABS, linked ABS and even a hill-holder mode, much of it captained by a Bosch six-axis IMU that tracks bike movement over 100 times per second. Again, the tech is largely transparent in operation, and changing modes definitely changed the bike’s behavior. It was impressive to say the least.

Screen Time

903450d37e52aec58cf7b772fc244447_81c7e12050d24f03.jpgA good view of the cockpit, with the large LCD screen, bar d-pads and standard windscreen. Photo courtesy of Harley-DavidsonRounding out the main Pan America tech suite is the large 6.8-inch touchscreen in the cockpit, which sits under an adjustable height windscreen that rattles around a bit too much during off-road sorties but works quite well on the open road. Several windscreen sizes are available, thankfully, from shorter-than-stock to taller, more road-touring options. Height is changed with a small hand lever that works well enough, but could use a rethink since dust tended to muck up the mechanism a bit.e11bafe382ad57de82fdb12c5876125e_c7407cd44af494b8.jpgThe ‘touch’ part of the 6.8-inch touchscreen only works if the bike is stopped, and it can present a lot of info – or just the basics, or full-on GPS.The LCD display is spacious and my initial impression was that it was far too busy in terms of all the data points presented, at which point Josh Richardson, who trains dealers on the bike, tapped the screen a few times and switched it to “simple” mode, which reduced it to speed, a big tach, ride mode, fuel level and… not much else. Fantastic. It also has dark mode for night riding, and in normal mode, each corner quadrant can be configured to show data points like range, tire pressure, trip meters, and more. In Simple mode, that info can also be shown in the center of the display and toggled from the handlebar while riding. The “touch” part of the touch screen is off while riding for safety, but two D-pads on each bar allow nearly full control of the panel and a few other buttons allow for quickly changing ride modes, traction control and other features while underway.

The Pan America will of course pair up with a smartphone, helmet coms and the Harley-Davidson app, at which point the display can also show GPS maps, phone ops, music data and so on. And since the system is entirely screen-based, updates in the future can offer more display and customization options. After a short period of acclimation, I found the system easy to use and as informative or as basic as I wanted it to be. Again, Harley has done their homework here.

The Two Pan Americas

The Pan America is available in two trims, the $17,319 base “1250” model in basic black (and really, that’s one of the most attractive color options) with cast aluminum wheels and the base feature set, and the “Special” with heated grips, the adaptive headlight, center stand, aluminum skid plate, TPMS, and a long list of other upgrades, which rings in at a reasonable $19,999. Harley folks said that, at present, the wire wheel option is $500 for both wheels (a total bargain), and the wheels have a smart design with spokes that ride outside the rim so they can run tubeless tires. Spoke replacement and other wheel service can also be done with the tires mounted and the wheels on the bike.

b98d7be40d4688274bcdd9bbdf185e68_d7ee3292c2ee621f.jpgThe Pan America Special fully farkled and ready for adventure. Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson

 I like that Harley is offering the Pan America in the two flavors not just because it’s a price issue but because it also allows riders to better tailor the bike to their own personal mission. Will every Pan America sold launch its rider onto a globe-spanning adventure a la Charlie and Ewan? Certainly possible, but unlikely. The honest truth about dual sport bikes, especially the big ones, is that they turn the vast majority of their miles on pavement getting to the dirt roads, and even then, few riders have the skills, ambition or resources to mount such overland adventures. But if the rider truly wants to head into the veld, the tech and design of the Pan America does a better job of granting entry to off-road riding than most 1000cc-plus ADV rigs out there.

What Harley Davidson is offering riders is ultimate flexibility. Click through the Parts and Accessories page for the Pan America and you’ll note the usual crash bars, windscreen options and so forth. But there are also three sets of panniers/bags, including a much more aero option that clips cleanly to the rear subframe with no brackets. A Pan America with those bags, the taller windshield and not much else would be a monster sport tourer, what with the bike’s range topping 200 miles at a reasonable clip from the 5.6 gallon tank. And with those Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires, riders can still get their velocity on in the corners while also being able to venture off the pavement to that distant camping spot, remote cabin or secluded lake at the end of a forest road – with confidence. That’s true dual sport capability, combined with comfort and practicality. And for those that do want to head down some Icelandic single track or pick their way through a forest trail? Optioned correctly, the Pan America will definitely get you there.

How We Got Here

I talked with marketing guy and long-time Harley-Davidson exec Paul James at length about how the bike came into being, and he told me he was there from the start years ago when Harley went looking to expand their offerings outside the cruiser and touring genres. I asked who Harley-Davidson thought was going to buy the Pan America, and his answer was telling. He said their research, which included in-person (pre-covid) visits to Harley owners and adventure bike enthusiasts, revealed a couple of surprises. First off, many Harley owners own multiple motorcycles, with an adventure bike being one of the more popular choices alongside their hog. And James said that those Harley owners were very open to the idea of H-D offering a capable ADV machine. Certainly, hardcore Harley cruiser folks may see the Pan America as anathema, but James said in general, that wasn’t the case, and seeing how the initial slate of bikes up for preorder is sold out, he may be onto something. 

Next, James said that many riders they talked to who did not own dual-sport machines were interested in trying one out, if only they could find a bike that they could feel comfortable on. So Harley put a focus on implementing tech – such as the Adaptive Ride Height feature – that would allow entry for more riders looking to go on ADV adventures. ARH is an elegant, transparent answer to the seat height problem, and if they can get the word out, the result could be a spike in new ADV riders astride an American-made adventure bike that will likely greatly exceed their expectations. It certainly exceeded mine.

Is It Worthy?

The Pan America is a great new bike and a potent new vehicle for the future of Harley-Davidson. James admitted to me that The Motor Company is working very hard to expand their market appeal beyond the biker image baggage that can bog them down to some extent, and bikes like the LiveWire, the Pan America and the Serial 1 electric bicycles (which, in reality, are really just low-powered electric motorcycles) are their headlong foray into that effort. And while James politely said No Comment on whether future releases like the hoped-for Bronx street fighter are imminent, he did say the Revolution Max could certainly power other new, different and arguably better Harleys that would appeal to riders outside the cruiser sphere. 

0ee0eae7f2e69a0dbc401d133e26d040_54b15db2cc1e14f2.jpgWe pushed the bikes hard on dirt and pavement and they got dirty, dropped and dinged up. It was an exhausting – but memorable – introduction. Properly set up, I’d ride the Pan America pretty much anywhere. Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson

 But the real magic – and the real importance – of the Pan America is how it illustrates the commitment of Harley-Davidson to stretch and commit to something new, and really, something very untested for the company. Harley folks stressed that across its nearly 120-year history, many Harleys have been off-road warriors, and that’s certainly true, but the Pan America is clearly the most focused, cooperative effort between hardware design, software implementation, engineering and plain old customer research to create something that is really entirely new. That they have succeeded so well on their first try in this new age of ADV motorcycling bodes well, both for future Harley offerings that will speak beyond the brand to new riders, as well as to us older throttle jockeys with a taste for adventure.