Indian’s Challenger Limited feels like a bagger for people who hate baggers, or maybe for people who’ve had to give up other, sportier kinds of motorcycles due to age or injury. It’s got all the bagger bonafides — hard bags, big fairing, feet-forward controls — but it also has a modern suspension, high-performance brakes and a seriously nasty (in a good way) liquid-cooled engine. It’s different, but I love it.
That big, 108-cubic-inch, liquid-cooled engine goes a long way towards endearing this bike to me. Unlike most air-cooled baggers or tourers, which focus on torque at the expense of horsepower, this engine offers both: 122 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque. That horsepower number is impressive, too, because the bike only revs to 6,500 rpm and, of course, revs equal power.
That big beast of an engine — which, I should add, Indian offers performance parts for, like cams and intakes to make it even more powerful — is mated to a very nice-to-use six-speed transmission. The gearbox isn’t subtle or slick, but it shifts positively between gears with a very satisfying thunk and I never have issues with finding neutral or getting false neutrals. The clutch is a wet, multi-plate unit and while the lever is rightfully heavy given what it has to control, the engagement is smooth.
The Challenger’s suspension is arguably the most sophisticated setup available for an American-style cruiser. It features a 43-millimeter inverted cartridge-style fork and a hydraulically adjustable Fox rear monoshock. These work together to help control the Challenger’s bulk — all 831 pounds of it when fully fueled. The Challenger handles well enough that people road race them in the increasingly popular King of the Baggers series.
The braking system is almost as impressive as the suspension. The bike gets dual 320-millimeter floating rotors and four-piston Brembo monoblock calipers up front, with a 298-millimeter rotor and single dual-piston caliper out back. There is a lean-sensitive anti-lock braking system fitted to Dark Horse and Limited models powered by a six-axis Bosch inertial measurement unit.
The Challenger features a pretty robust suite of electronic rider aids. There are multiple ride modes — standard, rain and sport — and they are adjustable on the fly through the bike’s glove-friendly touchscreen. There is also a lean-sensitive traction control system that works well, even when the rider decides to get a bit ham-fisted with the throttle — something that’s easy to do, given the dinosaur-roar of that big engine in its upper rev range.
Riding the Challenger is an interesting exercise in duality, depending on where you’re trying to ride. I live in downtown Los Angeles and riding the Challenger here is miserable. It’s huge, which can make filtering between cars at a stop difficult. It’s also super heavy, so there’s always the fear that it’ll tip over during a low-speed maneuver. If that happens on a regular bike, it’s embarrassing, but you can pick it up and keep going. With the Challenger, I doubt I’d be able to sling its 800-pound bulk up by myself.
When you get out of town, the Challenger completely transforms. What was huge and heavy now feels comfortable and stable at speed. The big fairing provides excellent wind protection and the massive engine smoothes out and purrs along with a sense of near-limitless power. The huge 6-gallon gas tank means that you don’t have to worry about timing your fuel stops. The Challenger is a bike meant to crush a continent, with plenty of twisty roads along the way. In this setting, it’s brilliant.
Indian calls the Challenger a “sports bagger,” so I feel obligated to test the bike’s handling chops on the same canyon roads I use to testand Lamborghinis. In this case, the experience is both rewarding and a little terrifying. The Challenger does a great job of controlling its weight through the fast curves. Its sportbike-spec brakes also do an admirable job of hauling the leviathan down from speed, but I can’t get used to having my feet out in front of me and trying to force so much weight around. Will the bike do it? Absolutely. Is it something I’d like to do again? Hell no.
A highlight of the Challenger experience for me is its standard electronically adjustable windscreen. It makes a massive difference in how much air hits the rider. In town, I want the screen low so I don’t overheat behind the enormous front fairing. On the freeway, I want it high so that the worst of the windblast goes over me. There are a pair of ducts on the fairing and an opening in the windscreen that is exposed in the high setting to provide some airflow.
On the long rides to which the Challenger is so well suited, having tunes on hand is key. To that end, Indian’s standard RideCommand infotainment system offers quite a bit of functionality, including Apple CarPlay integration. Music can be played through your helmet’s Bluetooth integration and or through the standard 100-watt stereo system, which features a pair of 6.5-inch speakers built into the fairing. There are also a number of trip-tracking features built-in and even a tire pressure monitoring system. Above the RideCommand screen is a pair of analog gauges — speedometer and tachometer — with trip computer LEDs.
One weird omission on the Challenger is the lack of standard heated grips. Heated grips are available as a dealer-installed accessory, and they do have 10 settings, but they’re an extra $309 plus labor. That’s stupid on a luxury touring bike that retails for nearly $28,000. I’d also like to see a heated seat, but it appears that the only bike in the class that offers that as standard is the BMW K1600GT, so I’ll give the big Indian a pass.
After several months of living with the 2021 Indian Challenger, I grew to love it for what it is: a big, fast and very comfortable long-distance motorcycle. It’s a bike that does an admirable job of justifying its price tag — as high as it is — and which offers surprising levels of performance.
At the end of the day, though, with the Challenger’s weight and ergonomics, I’d rather buy a Honda with its mid-mounted controls and smoother flat-six engine. Still, the fact that an American V-twin cruiser is even in the running with the ‘Wing represents a huge leap forward for Indian.