Last year, Harley-Davidson proudly crowed that the Pan America 1250 Special was the best-selling “adventure touring” motorcycle in the country. There’s a good reason for the storied Wisconsin brand to phrase their achievement in precisely those terms. What exactly is an “adventure touring” motorcycle? That’s a good question.
Broken down simply, it’s about as vague as answering what either of those machines might be on their own. What’s a touring motorcycle? One you can “tour” on! Yeah, okay, but are you “touring” if you take your bagger to go get groceries? Or are you only “touring” when you’ve packed overnight luggage? Are you “adventuring” only when you ride on a gravel road, or is a pizza run also an adventure?
We’re poking fun to make a more earnest point, which is that there’s no watchdog organization counting the beans that tell Honda or Suzuki or KTM or Ducati what they can call their two-wheeled appliances and how to enumerate their sales. Even states don’t have clear demarcations between what’s a street-legal motorcycle and what’s strictly made for dirt.
The Pan-American 1250 Special in Numbers
So here’s the greasy back-of-the-napkin math on the Harley-Davidson Pan-American 1250 Special. It’s a 569-pound, 150-horsepower monster targeted directly at BMW’s equally beefy R 1250 GS, which happens to be the chief competitor in the vaguely defined adventure-touring category. Harley has two innovations to up the ante—both its amazing Revolution Max V-twin and an automatically adjustable-to-your-height suspension. The latter drops the bike a few inches to just over 30 inches when you come to a stoplight. That’s not just comfier for shorter riders. Everyone has more control on a lower motorcycle.
While other bikes offer more ground clearance and lower weight, Harley’s arguing you want its V-twin’s extraordinary muscle and nobody should have to sweat riding a really tall bike. And? Well, simply put, the bigger “adventure” segment is more about looking the part of riding off-road than shredding the gnar on every ride. This isn’t a novel idea: How often do expensive SUVs touch dirt? Exactly.
Here are three big takeaways from riding Harley’s Pan America for a few weeks.
It’s the Engine, First and Last
We’ll get to the suspension in a moment, but the experience of riding the Pan Am is almost deceptive. It feels like you sit “in” the bike, rather than on it. That’s partly because there’s a lot in front and above the core of your body, with the tank rising and giving way to an integrated fairing/headlamp unit that holds the TFT display. And, ahead of that, a clever height-adjustable windscreen that lets you raise it to block the blast of a highway run or lower it so you can see off-road terrain and obstacles more readily.
The geometry of the Pan America helps a great deal when you have the power of an econobox Honda Civic driving a two-wheeled lightning bolt that happens to weigh about a fifth of such a car.
Still, this isn’t some sort of screeching monster. That V-twin is actually very easy to control, with power ramping very smoothly, and a ready delivery rising from about 2,200 RPM. The actual fun of riding the Pan Am isn’t at the top end near the 9,500 RPM limit, but in the fat middle, just boring holes winding along roads. You can be lazy with shifts and just use the throttle for muscle, as needed. The Revolution Max doesn’t seem to care. It gets its mean face on at about 5,000 RPM and will yell in a throaty bellow from 7,000 and up, but hey buddy, go gently! Remember that “tourer” part of the label.
Well, Maybe It’s Actually the Suspension
If the byways you’re plying aren’t intestinally wound but instead, gentler, wider arcs, then the Pan-Am will make you grin like a total idiot. It helps that Harley shod it with extra-wide (120/70R-19 front / 170/60R-17 rear) Michelins handling cornering duties. While this is an adventure bike (or is it a touring one?) it’ll lean hard, a lot like a sportier rig. Much of your riding exuberance will get swept up by Harley’s integrated, lean-sensitive traction control. That will mostly prevent your antics from biting you in the behind.
But don’t forget: This is a pretty heavy bike. If the path starts to really tighten, you’d better be ready with the Brembos. Luckily, you’ve got stopping mojo to spare: 320mm rotors in the front and a 280mm disc in back. Also, these are linked, reading the pressure you’re using on the lever or pedal, and spooling that into both front and rear grabbers. This is a smart feature, and Harley’s wise to integrate it. It allows you to ride fairly aggressively and still use your brakes to control your line, or trail brake out of corners to set up the next one.
Faults: The Pan Am wants to understeer, a lot like the average sports sedan, but the behavior is wholly predictable. Once you know what the bike will and won’t do, dialing in your riding style follows instinctually.
You can also adjust how firm or soft you’d like the suspension. Both manually, and when you toggle between presets, from Sport through Road, Rain, Off-Road, and Off-Road Plus. While we can’t imagine toggling through the TFT all day to noodle with the ride quality, it’s pretty cool to be able to set out on a ride on roads you know and play around with how the bike feels, sessioning the same asphalt. Naturally those settings all control engine output, too; though to be honest, for pavement, Sport and Road are pretty perfect in dry conditions.
When you get into the slop, as with the competition’s bigger bikes, you’re aware of the Pan Am’s weight. Luckily Harley did study the recipe for enabling reasonably adept dirt play, which starts with its Off-Road Plus mode. Maybe they should label it On-Road minus but, because this setting spikes the auto-lowering feature of the suspension, it snuffs out rear-wheel ABS, which is critical to induce a bit of slide that can help change directions in heartbeat; it also pauses linking of front and rear braking. Add to that the ability to kill traction control entirely, which, again, gives back more modulation on technical dirt. Now, you have a moto that’ll let you play in the loose and gritty.
The rub here is still the heft and limited ground clearance of just 6.9 inches. In really deep mud or when trying to clear rockier apexes, the best plan of action will be very careful line selection and a lot of throttle to power out of trouble.
Are you wondering then, if it’s a legit off-roader?
Better to ask: Do you want to dump your $20,000 motorcycle while ripping it through the woods? Hey, remember we started all this off with the muddled category of “adventure touring.”
You can ride this bike off-road, yes. But a lot like that big, burly BMW, Harley’s targeting a rider who probably wants to ride a lot of paved backcountry roads that occasionally give way to gravel two-track. Here you can do that all day and tilt the Pan America at lean angles that are steeper than any hog they sell can handle, with a different look and vibe. AKA: This isn’t your grandpa’s Harley, and that’s darn refreshing.
And finally, duh! The Pan American is selling like ice cream in August, so who are we to quibble?