The question seemingly everyone wants to ask when discussing the new Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 is whether it's as good as the BMW R 1250 GS. On the surface, this seems like a legitimate question. After all, both are tech-laden two-wheeled vehicles designed to take you quickly and comfortably from point A to point B, regardless of whether a road exists between those two points. But really, the question is one that cannot be answered definitively because it makes a false assumption about motorcycles.
In the Western world, the primary purpose of a motorcycle is not necessarily to get you from point A to point B. Sure, that's a very important aspect, but first and foremost a motorcycle exists to make you happy. And happiness is a subjective thing; attempting to compare bikes isn't the same as comparing dishwashers. The truth of whether one motorcycle is 'as good as' or even 'better than' another is largely determined by the person making the statement.
Keeping all that in mind, I'll tell you the Pan America is one of the best ADV bikes on the market at the moment, handily outgunning offerings from Triumph, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Yamaha and Honda. And, yes, I'd even go so far as to say it's better than the mighty GS – with a caveat. I'll get to that in a moment, but first let me tell you how I arrived at this opinion.
The story of every Harley-Davidson motorcycle begins with the engine. In this case, it's a 1252cc liquid-cooled V-twin. The Revolution Max engine is an all-new powerplant for Harley, but look for it to show up in future models. We already know of one – the brutish 1250 Custom that Harley teased when launching the Pan America earlier this year – but I'm willing to bet it's going to show up A LOT in future bikes. It's part of Harley's heritage to build a good engine then hold on to it for a long time.
And, indeed, the Revolution Max is a good engine, producing 150 hp and 128 Nm of torque in this application. For those of you keen to keep score, those numbers put it in the same arena as big-ticket machines like the KTM 1290 Super Adventure S and Ducati Multistrada 1260 Enduro. Though, in my opinion (and to its benefit), the Pan America is not as psychotic as those two.
There are two flavours of Pan America – the Pan America 1250 and the Pan America 1250 Special – and both offer several riding modes. In Road, the bike accelerates quickly and smoothly, delivering a delightful amount of punch while retaining a tractability befitting a bike made by the company that has been fuelling most people's road-trip fantasies for roughly 100 years. I mean, above all else, I knew this bike would be good for touring. How could it not be? It's a Harley. What's more surprising is how engaging it is in Sport. Again, it's not psychotic. So it's not make-peace-with-your-family-before-riding fun, it's more laugh-until-you-go-hoarse fun.
Other riding modes include Rain, Off Road and one that's customisable to your tastes. Each more or less does what it says on the tin but what's amazing is that you can actually tell the difference between modes. Often that's not the case with other bikes; you might have 158 different settings of a thing but you need princess-and-the-pea sensitivity to feel the difference.
The Harley's ride modes speak to a rich suite of tech and rider aids that is, for the most part, genuinely useful. Highlights include Bluetooth connectivity that allows you to interface via an app. The Special offers – among other things – adaptive headlights and a semi-active suspension that lowers the bike at stops. On both versions the 6.8-inch TFT screen is clear, easy to read and packed with useful information. Uh, well, like I say: for the most part.
If you crash the bike, as I did (when riding off road and purely for research purposes, you understand) the TFT screen glows a menacing orange and delivers this message: "BIKE HAS BEEN TIPPED."
I cannot for the life of me think of a single practical application for this feature. In what scenario would it be necessary or even helpful? If the bike has been tipped, you have also been tipped. You're lying in the mud. You don't need the motorcycle to tell you how you got there.
I'm convinced this feature is a joke from the bike's software designers. In fact, I very much hope that it is. Because that cheekiness speaks to the Pan America's playful spirit. The bike is so nimble, so well balanced, so surprisingly light, so willing to rev that I found myself lamenting the fact I've never learned to wheelie properly. It's a bike that makes you want to play; a bike that makes you want to ignore its navigational aids and just go where your heart takes you.
And now we're getting back into that subjective area of how much fun a bike is, and the caveat I mentioned earlier about the R 1250 GS. With its iconic boxer twin, the GS has a very distinct character. If that's the thing that speaks to your soul, the quintessential something that defines the happiness of motorcycling for you, the Harley probably isn't going to change your mind.
If, however, you like the GS because it is a durable, comfortable machine loaded with tech and rider aids that make motorcycling less stressful and more pleasurable, then the Pan America is very much worth considering – especially since it is priced competitively (starting at £14,000) and comes with the high-level aftercare for which Harley is famous.
To that end, and on the subject of a bike's character, I can personally see and feel the spirit of Harley-Davidson in the Pan America – there's a cheekiness, an encouragement to enjoy riding on your own terms – but this is not the rumbling V-twin experience that many associate with the MoCo. The bike does not shake at stop lights. It does not make a sound like a wrench hitting a bucket when you put it into first gear. The stock exhaust is unlikely to earn contempt on your neighbourhood's Facebook page.
Just as with the die-hard GS fans, there will be some orthodox members of the Church of Jesus Harley Latter-day Davidson who will feel that the Pan America isn't Harley enough. Although, it's worth noting that in the UK and Ireland, Harley sold a hell of a lot of Pan America models months before anyone had even ridden the thing. One assumes most of those early buyers were Harley faithful.
Meanwhile, for those who haven't necessarily sworn allegiance to a given brand the bike is now at dealerships, so, you know, book a test ride. I think the Pan America's a kick-ass machine, but you're the only one who can decide if you agree.