December 6, 2022

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2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review

Jesse Ziegler | April 27, 2021

We set sail on the all-new Harley-Davidson adventurer.

The Harley-Davidson Pan America is capable off-road, although this looks a little easier than reality.

Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Ziegler

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 comes fighting straight to the premium end of the adventure-touring motorcycle spectrum. It’s throwing punches and aiming to land more than a few. It’s not pretending, posturing or hoping. It’s performing. Surprised? Yeah, me too.

Make no mistake, H-D is lining up against adventure giants here, putting the modern ADV segment innovators and brand leaders to task with an American-made, hell-bent, high-tech adventure-touring all-terrain weapon. Is that even possible?

My eyes really opened to the potential of this bike being a contender when actual specs were released on the new machine. Things like Adaptive Ride Height and an engine-spec sheet reading like an engineering dossier on modern power will do that. But I still had doubts.

Finally, after two days of testing this bike in the California desert—a place I’ve ridden a lot of off-road and adventure motorcycles over the past 15 years—I can admit nearly all of my preconceived notions of what Harley-Davidson’s Pan America 1250 would be were simply wrong.

Harley-Davidson made a real adventure bike here. And I’m ready to party.

A polarizing stance and style best describe the Pan America looks. One thing we can agree on is the engine is front and center in the design choices here.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special | Show Us The Money

I tested the Pan America 1250 Special model exclusively—the fully loaded of the two Pan America models offered from H-D, starting at $19,999 MSRP. Any color other than black will add $250-$350 to that. Plus, there are fees for freight and California emissions (in our case) that add another $590. We also had the Adaptive Ride Height installed, which is a $1000 factory installed option, and the laced wheels ($500). As tested, we’re right around $22,500 or so. Some bikes in the test fleet also had a Screamin’ Eagle Street Cannon titanium muffler and stainless mid-pipe ($924.95). Mine did not.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Pan America 1250 without the “Special” designation. It rolls into the ADV segment at $17,319 MSRP. Two color options are available where non-black gets you for an additional $250. This removes the semi-active electronic suspension benefits or ability to incorporate the Adaptive Ride Height. The “non-special” model also loses Tire Pressure Management System (TPMS) on-screen and Ambient Air temp from the display. I would pay the money for the Special, easy.

Multi-surface capability is abundant on this bike, opening the Harley-Davidson brand to customers looking to get off the beaten path.

Harley-Davidson has done its homework, plain and simple. They’ve researched the competition, and competitive bike owners to find the features and benefits they should include, then they added a few more.

From electronic suspension to custom selectable ride modes, the H-D Pan America checks so many high-tech boxes. It’s not going to win over the analog off-road warriors looking for maximum simplicity, but if comfort, tunability and control are what you’re after in a cross-country ride, and you feel like geeking out a bit, you will be happy here.

I’m going to break down the bike into component groups to better give you a grasp of what America has to offer the ADV world. But first, a word on off-road.

This bike works fine off-road. Despite it looking a bit unruly, it actually has decent off-road manners for a 19/17-inch front/rear-wheeled bike. The 19-inch front with a fatty tire does the float thing a bit in the soft stuff, but only surprises you with a tuck if you turn aggressively. Otherwise, it maintains composure across all sorts of terrain, preferring harder pack routes than full sand sections but dealing with rocky gravel and dirt just fine. As you’ll read below, the suspension and engine performance have a lot to do with this performance.

It also works very fine on the road. It punches a big hole in the wind with its blunt chin and screen, providing good comfort even when wearing a moto helmet.

Now let’s get into how it actually works!

On-road performance of the Pan America is impressive, with the modern chassis, suspension and power feeling anything but traditional for the Bar & Shield brand.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Weight

Harley-Davidsons are heavy, right? Well, for a 1250cc adventure machine, H-D is bringing these bikes to us at claimed weights that might surprise you. Our bike, as tested, has a claimed fully fueled weight of right around 560 pounds. It’s not a middleweight ADV weapon, but it’s fighting in the big-dog class.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Suspension

First, when it comes to vehicle dynamics, Harley-Davidson’s Vehicle Loading Control and Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) steal the show.

First, Vehicle Loading Control auto-adjusts suspension preload based on laden weight. Rider, rider plus passenger, rider after dinner, rider after dinner plus cases of beer for the campground—whatever load is applied to the motorcycle, the system automatically sets 30% sag by adjusting preload and will set itself accordingly. You don’t have to set anything, and the bike adjusts by itself. Awesome, right?

Well, the same set of sensors and suspension components also activate the Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) function. This code simply lowers the motorcycle to the least amount of spring preload setting possible, dropping seat height by one to two inches (depending on ride height/laden weight) as the vehicle stops. Hear that? That’s the mic dropping on seat-height complaints.

Along with the Adaptive Ride Height feature, H-D offers a number of seat-height options within a four-inch range.

ARH is tunable so you can keep it locked out at the preload at stops (tall people, or ultra-slow-speed riding) or delay the drop in long or short duration after a stop. I highly recommend dropping the bike when stopped, and I used the long-duration option so I could maneuver around tight, slow terrain without the bike lowering.

I don’t have a problem with seat height, and I still have this feature turned on all the time. Every time I stopped for another photo pass or to eat a snack, the bike settled down into a flat-foot, knee-bent seat height—extremely comfortable for me and hugely confidence inspiring for shorter riders. As soon as the vehicle starts rolling again, the system auto-adjusts ride height to the laden weight and you’re back to ripping like normal.

Seat height is even more customizable. Harley gives the buyer a number of options within about a four-inch range.

On top of this are Semi-Active Suspension Modes. The fork and shock react to vehicle speed, suspension position, vertical acceleration, roll angle and rate, throttle and brake inputs and the selected Ride Mode to dial in comfort via damping circuits while riding. There are five zones pre-programmed into the bike: Comfort, Balanced, Sport, Off-Road Soft and Off-Road Firm damping profiles. These are preloaded into Ride Modes as well. So the suspension is both active and adjustable if you want to mix settings around as you create custom ride modes.

ARH and the Semi-Active Suspension is going to get a lot of press, as it should. The simplicity of this system is a no-brainer and expect to see copycat forms of it across the board soon. It’s great. However, a lowering bike alone will not make a great Adventure weapon. For me, in particular, the bike needs to handle off-road at a pretty good clip. I know from experience this isn’t an easy task with a 560-pound V-twin touring bike.

Harley-Davidson did some serious development for its on- and off-road suspension settings. The semi-active Showa units performed extremely well in our two-day test.

Over-taxing a fork and shock at speed off-road is easy and making one cover the range of impacts out there is a challenge, but the Pan America’s Showa 47mm Balance Free Fork (BFF) with semi-active damping absolutely delivered. I went as fast and hard as I ever want to on this bike and it responded with control and balance almost every time. I slowly increased my pace to the point I was getting close to being irresponsible. And only once did I surprise the system at low speed hitting a very abrupt rock edge. It was an intentional test to see if the system would resist bottoming and it didn’t. But, if I had a bit of speed, everything tightened up and the same level of hit was mitigated. The fork is really good across the board and shined in heavy braking or even the occasional all-wheel lift scenario (that’s a jump).

The shock, a Showa Balanced Free Rear Cushion-Lite (BFRC) is doing a lot, as well, but I feel the rebound damping in its algorithm could use some tuning. Remember, this shock is auto-tuning preload for the laden load on the bike as well as semi-actively tuning compression and rebound. I didn’t have any issues with it blowing through the stroke, but I would like to see some rebound damping applied to keep the rear-end kicking to a minimum.

At touring pace, the shock was comfortable and compliant, only when I got rowdy did it want to kick.

As you would expect, H-D has a massive parts and accessories offering for the Pan America, including three sets of luggage options to cover all touring disciplines.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Modes

Harley-Davidson’s Ride Modes are similar to what we see elsewhere on high-end performance touring motorcycles of today. Powered by a six-axis IMU as other leaders use, H-D has added some nice versatility and upped the game. There are five pre-programmed ride modes: Road, Sport, Rain, Off-Road and Off-Road Plus as well as two Custom Modes (A and B) and one Custom Off-Road Mode.

Each of these Ride Modes combine levels of on-bike electronic systems to enhance control and comfort, receiving appropriate levels of power output, throttle response, engine braking, traction control and suspension settings.

Inside the Pan America vehicle dynamics suite is Cornering Enhanced Linked Braking, Cornering Enhanced Traction Control, Cornering Drag-Torque Slip Control and Hill Hold Control. All of those are generally self-explanatory except for maybe Drag-Torque Slip Control (DTSC).

DTSC essentially adds torque to the rear wheel in heavy deceleration situations, such as aggressive downshifting. While the integrated slipper clutch will reduce wheel hop, DTSC takes it further, applying rotational torque to the rear wheel to maintain contact with the ground.

Likewise, the Linked Braking/ABS system deserves some explanation. This system connects front- and rear-brake systems and allocates pressure based on vehicle attitude/place in space/lean angles and braking pressure. And the Hill Hold feature is nice if you’re being lazy on uphills, or downhills. Simply stomp on the rear brake for a couple seconds or hold the front and the bike locks in place—this proved useful as I grabbed yet another snack on a steep downhill. Likewise all-out braking performance was stellar at speed in all conditions with the Brembo components proving their worth yet again. Emergency stopping drills proved the linked braking could keep the bike level and stopping quickly, and off-road, the system worked well at adapting to different terrain.

Inside most of these systems are more features such as Rear-Wheel Lift Mitigation (to limit nose wheelies under heavy braking), and Front-Wheel Lift Mitigation (anti-wheelie). There is not All-Wheel Lift Mitigation (jumping), thank goodness.

As you could guess, Sport Mode offers the most aggressive power delivery, increased engine braking, limits traction control and, on the Special model, semi-active suspension damping rate is increased for higher speed riding.

Road Mode is for daily riding, balanced in the middle of system intervention, power delivery and suspension comfort/performance.

Rain Mode smooths everything down with maximum intervention if tires slide or spin, and has the most compliant suspension settings on the pavement.

Off-Road Mode is where the party starts. Horsepower and torque are biased to low-rpm riding. ABS is active on both ends but designed for loose surfaces and Traction Control is on the same level as Sport Mode, the least intrusive setting there (but still very much on). Again, suspension is automatically adjusted to Off-Road Mode on the Special model.

Off-Road Plus Mode is where the after party comes alive. Here, rear ABS and DTSC are disabled, allowing for rear-wheel slides at will. Traction control is set to its lowest possible active setting (but still on), and Front-Wheel Lift Mitigation is killed so wheelie away you crazy bastards! Front-wheel ABS is also at the lowest level of intervention.

Custom Modes allow you to select performance characteristics independently. In Custom Mode creation, you can adjust engine-power delivery, throttle response, engine braking, traction control intervention level, ABS intervention level and suspension damping levels within specific ranges and apply them to Custom A, Custom B or the Custom Off-Road Mode. So, feel free to get nerdy in there.

I built three custom modes in about 10 minutes and quickly figured out that turning traction control completely off is key to real off-road fun. I made a Custom Off-Road Mode with Aggressive Throttle response, light engine braking and firm suspension settings. Then, I entered the “Plus” mode to kill the rear ABS. Finally, I turned off the Traction Control and the result is all of the off-road photos in this story. It honestly sounds harder than it is. The changes are real, and the system is easy to navigate. I turned the bike into a capable desert ripper with one thumb on the joystick (but you can also touch the screen) just like that.

True to its American manufacturing roots, Harley-Davidson is producing the Revolution Max 1250 engine in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with final bike assembly in York, Pennsylvania.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Power

The Revolution Max 1250 engine is a success in V-twin development for the adventure-touring segment and beyond. Harley-Davidson customers will be seeing this engine in more models in the future, I’m sure, because it’s that good. Stacked full of tech and modernity, this engine puts Harley-Davidson in competitive status with performance powerplants from Japan and Europe. The motor is modern in spec and even more so in performance delivery and feel. It feels as impressive as the build sheet with a broad range of usable power either chugging through sand or surging at highway speeds.

I’m particular about engine power delivery and I’m not impressed by numbers as much as I am throttle feel and corresponding motorcycle attitude. The Pan America combines great throttle feel, engine response, torque delivery and the motorcycle follows along with a great attitude. It’s a connection that inspires confidence off-road but exhilarates on the pavement. The engine’s changes through different Ride Modes are noticeable and simply make sense. And the entire package is a lot of fun to ride. From highway straights to sandwashes, it proved itself plenty versatile.

In development since 2017, the Revolution Max 1250 engine incorporates double overhead cams over four valves per head (sodium-filled exhaust valves to control heat), independent electronic variable valve timing, hydraulic self-adjusting lifters, dual spark plugs per cylinder, two engine balancers, and an aggressive liquid-cooling architecture. It’s engineered to be as lightweight as possible, even using magnesium engine covers, and delivers serious performance numbers.

The electronic variable valve timing deserves some focus here. The system adjusts valve timing independently for each exhaust and intake pair of valves. That means cylinders one and two are treated separately as are intake and exhaust circuits. Depending on ride mode selection or other settings, the bike will adjust power delivery via valve timing. Solid.

Speed. Harley-Davidson’s adventure-touring weapon enjoys it and the components can handle it.

The 30-degree V-twin with a 90-degree firing order produces a healthy thump of torque (92 lb-ft at 6750 rpm) and horsepower (150 hp at 9000 rpm) for a superbike feel from the country conquering ride. Surprised? You’ll get over it.

Harley-Davidson engines have always been about more than just propulsion. They’re a central style and brand anchor. In fact, the sound of the H-D twin is almost as important as any number it produces. It is The Motor Company, after all. And the Revolution Max 1250 doesn’t miss in living up to the brand hype here. But it does it differently, for sure. Some would say better.

No, it’s not stereotypically HOG loud, but the engine is authentic to the brand in the sense that it stands front and center. In fact, this engine is such a central part of the machine that it is, literally, also the chassis. There is no spar or trellis interrupting your view of the V-cylinders and snaking, swooping exhaust. The engine is the main stressed member of the frame with front, rear and top bits bolted on to complete the motorcycle. But it all starts with the engine.

And it does sound nice. It has a nice V-twin beat to it and brings a healthy volume of high-quality.

Power delivery follows suit. I love a torquey twin and while this isn’t quite to the level of a BMW 1250 GS’s low-end grunt, it is getting close—a huge compliment. Likewise, this bike excels at acceleration, producing sportbike-like performance in forward momentum that will have you wishing for a quickshift function (it doesn’t have one). Surprisingly, the six-speed gearbox kept up to my abuse as often as I power-shifted across three cogs—which was a lot. And the cable-actuated clutch never felt weaker or faded under my immature abuse of it at will.

At right around 6000 rpm, you will approach maximum torque, here the bike comes alive like a banshee and if you can save a couple shifts to go from there, I highly recommend it. The machine will push serious air, and you get to go along for the ride. I don’t believe it revs as high or as hard as the Ducati Multistrada or the KTM 1290 Adventure, but its nudging up there pretty well for a first attempt.

I think the Revolution Max 1250 engine is fantastic. It gets down the road like a touring machine should and it is adaptable to an aggressive romp through the desert just fine.

The Pan America is stable while spinning and drifting. So enjoy destroying tires comfortably, we say!

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Show us the Frame

Seriously, where is it?

In the Pan America, the engine is the key stress member of the frame system. Every other component is bolted to the engine or bolted to framework that’s bolted to the engine. The entire front fairing, triple-clamp setup, steering and front suspension is one part. The seat, another. And the cast-aluminum rear swingarm/suspension setup a third. One engine, three bolt-on segments of motorcycle necessities, no real traditional frame whatsoever.

Here, Harley-Davidson has done a couple things. One, they’ve controlled weight by eliminating a cradle-style frame to hold the engine and ancillary parts. It’s simpler with fewer connection points and, as an engineering task, there are fewer areas to manage flex because the frame doesn’t exist. Another benefit, is the airbox (under the fuel tank) and fuel tank can be lower in the chassis, dropping the weight of the fuel.

Speaking of the fuel tank, the Pan America utilizes a molded and welded aluminum tank to haul 5.3 gallons of go-juice. This was enough to squeeze nearly 200 miles out of tank during irresponsible riding for photos.

The result is a stiff, responsive ride with enough compliance buffering off rigidity to make the ride comfortable. Controlled on the street with off-road chops for getting rowdy, the bike felt on the stiff side, if anything. Certainly not a wallowing, lethargic, heavy-feeling ride.

A touchscreen TFT dash brings new tech to the adventure touring segment via phone-led app navigation and glove-friendly on-screen controls.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Buttons

From the saddle, Harley-Davidson is providing a lot of controls for the rider as well as a tiltable 6.8-inch TFT touchscreen display. The touchscreen dash is nice and works with gloves and in the rain if you’re not into handlebar buttons during snack stops.

Relying heavily on a Bluetooth connection to your phone, the system allows you to access and view vehicle diagnostics and settings (no phone required), music, see and receive incoming phone calls and more. The biggest headline here is the moving map navigation display that pulls straight from your phone. Navigation is provided via the Harley-Davidson App and shows on the screen in a full map, or you can select a speedometer screen and turn-by-turn icons will show in a widget zone. Again, the map is touchscreen capable for zooming, panning, etc.

The windscreen on top of the dash is adjustable through a nice range with a one-handed trigger mechanism. Remember to adjust it before you set off, because it tightens at speed via wind force.

Punching a hole in the wind has never had a more literal meaning than with the Pan America. This fairing put our 5’10” test rider in a comfortable position out of the wind, even with a moto helmet. Shorter and taller windscreens are available.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | Complaints

The bulk of the new Pan America from Harley-Davidson impresses. But there are a few areas where improvements can likely be made, or the bike simply misses for me.

First is ergonomics. The bike, while ingeniously using the engine as the entire frame, misses a bit of ergonomic benefits that a traditional frame can offer. Here, we’re required to stack risers on top of the triple clamp to get bars above the tank. The stock risers are a few inches tall, and optional taller risers are available. But I don’t like either option because the stock bar curves back and sweeps in aggressively that makes it less than ideal. It’s biased to on-road comfort, but even then, the sweep is a little aggressive for wrist comfort on long days.

Foot controls are less of an issue, although I wish the quick-adjustable brake tip made a bigger jump to the high-position. As it is, the change between low-to-high is minuscule.

I’d like to see an on-demand variable-slip traction control, like KTM provides via its Rally Mode. I’m impressed with Harley-Davidson’s application of a massive suite of tech, but if they could just give me that tunability, I could leave TC on, and still party super hard. All TC settings for off-road are too intrusive for me, personally. But having it all the way off made for a couple puckering moments as the engine easily outpaces available traction.

The on-screen information is good at the dashboard. But the text font size for anything other than the speedometer numbers is very small. And I’m not that old, I promise!

The stock aluminum skid plate leaves electrical regulator/rectifier fins exposed behind the front tire and we’d bolt on the beefy thick aluminum accessory unit ASAP, just as the H-D team did for our bikes on the off-road day.

Our 5’10” test rider adapted to the stock setup decently, but taller riders will be forced to use additional bar risers and experiment with bar/control position.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review | What’s Next

I’m already looking to the future for Harley-Davidson’s adventure range. I personally feel they surpassed almost everyone’s expectations with this first effort and am intrigued as to what they can do with more market knowledge after this first swing. They’re not exactly entering a red-hot zone of motorcycle sales, as the big-bike ADV segment is the only thing flat across the country. But they certainly used it as a proving ground to show they can deliver in all-terrain worlds. Right now, the Pan America is worth serious consideration if you’re in the market for a full-size touring rig. CN

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Specifications

Engine: Revolution Max 1250, VVT, 4-stroke
Valvetrain: Chain-driven, DOHC, 8-valve
Displacement: 1252cc
Bore x stroke: 105 x 72mm
Compression ratio: 13.0:1
Horsepower (claimed): 150 hp at 9000 rpm
Torque (claimed): 94 ft-lb at 6750 rpm
Fuel system: Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
Exhaust system: 2-1-1, catalyst
Lubrication system: Pressurized wet sump
Transmission: 6-speed
Clutch: Wet, assist & slip
Final drive: Chain (19t/48t)
Frame: Stressed member, alloy steel trellis frame
Swingarm: One-piece cast aluminum
Front suspension: 47mm inverted for w/electronically adjustable semi-active damping control
Rear suspension: Linkage-mounted monoshock w/ automatic electronic preload control and semi-active compression & rebound damping
Front-wheel travel: 7.5 in.
Rear-wheel travel: 7.5 in.
Wheels: Anodized aluminum tubeless laced
Front wheel: 3 in. x 19 in.
Rear wheel: 4.5 in. x 17 in.
Front tire: Michelin Scorcher Adventure, 120/70R19 in.
Rear tire: Michelin Scorcher Adventure, 170/60R 17 in.
Front brake: Dual 320mm discs w/ 4-piston caliper/ABS
Rear brake: Single 280mm disc w/ 1-piston caliper/ABS
Seat height: 31.1 in.
Ground clearance: 8.3 in.
Rake x trail: 25° x 6.2 in.
Wheelbase: 62.2 in.
Fuel economy: 48 mpg
Fuel capacity: 5.6 gal. w/ one gal. reserve
Weight (dry, claimed): 527 lbs.
Warranty: 24 months (unlimited miles)
Service interval: First 1000 miles, every 5000 miles thereafter

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