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New Motorcycle Review: Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250

The Motor Company's powerful contender for the ADV woman rider

By Erin Sills, WRN Co-Chairwoman
5/11/2021

I’ve been excited to take my turn at the bars of the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America since first reading of H-D’s impending launch into the adventure (ADV) riding world. It certainly makes sense to me that America’s #1 motorcycle manufacturer would want to capitalize on the growth of the ADV riding segment, which women are eagerly exploring. But historically known for its air-cooled V-twin cruisers, did the Motor Company get it right?

harley-davidson pan america 1250
Adventure motorcycles like the new Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 allow us to confidently explore even the most remote areas of the country and the world.

Harley clearly did its homework, spending more than four years studying the needs of the adventure riding segment: strong, powerful bikes that are comfortable for long distances on pavement and provide maneuverability, durability, and suspension capable of smoothing out rough off-road terrain.

harley-davidson enthusiast
Harley’s 118-year heritage is rich with off-road riding as seen in these early-century editions of the Motor Company’s magazine, Harley-Davidson Enthusiast. After all, most American roads weren’t well-paved until the middle of the twentieth century, so technically all motorcycles before then were designed to be ridden on rough surfaces.

As a riding coach for one of the country's leading motorcycle adventure tour and training programs, RawHyde Adventures, I was proud to be the only woman journalist in my group for the weekend’s launch. The irony also wasn’t lost on me when I arrived at RawHyde’s new Zakar facility in the Mojave Desert aboard my well-outfitted 2014 BMW R 1200 GS, the Pan America’s head-to-head German competitor. Like the BMW, the Pan America boasts a liquid-cooled 1250cc engine and sport touring creature comforts ranging from cruise control to heated grips to variable ride modes. But I quickly discovered the Pan America introduces some significant distinctions—namely its Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) option and its powerful new Revolution Max motor—that will help Harley carve its own path in the adventure riding segment.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 rawhyde adventures zakar training
We were welcomed to RawHyde Adventures new “Zakar” training facility in the Mojave Desert as our home for the weekend. Zakar is named such in a nod to the Dakar adventure riding race and a tongue-in-cheek acronym reference to the rustic nature of the accommodations: Zombie Apocalypse Kamp (i.e. Camp) at RawHyde.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 bmw r1200gs adventure bikes
Here's a fun lineup of adventure bikes sitting outside the RawHyde Zakar container-built town square. From the right: my 2014 BMW R 1200 GS, 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America, a Ural Geo, and a KTM 890 Adventure R.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 right
While there are some styling similarities between the Pan America and other adventure bikes, the unmistakable V-twin engine, squared gas tank and shape of the fairing makes the Pan America undeniably different.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 special baja orange
The Pan America is available in two versions; the base model Pan America ($17,319) and the Pan America Special ($19,999) shown here in Baja Orange/Stone Washed White Pearl. The Special offers optional laced wheels, Anakee Wild knobby tires, heated grips, hand guards, center stand, and various protections designed for off-road conditions.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 special erin sills rawhyde adventures mojave desert
I enjoyed two days and 375 miles aboard the Pan America 1250 Special for the best twisties, highway, and off-road trails the Sierra Nevada mountains and Mojave Desert could offer.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 rocks gravel asphalt
Harley provided us with a true test of the new adventure bike’s performance which included rocky ascents, gravel, sandy descents, and wide-open asphalt.

Ergonomics and Adjustability

Even before riding the Pan America it was clear that Harley-Davidson adopted some category-standard features to address the ergonomic challenges presented by adventure riding. With ADV riding, bikes need to be comfortable for the rider in both a seated position (for long distance touring) and a standing position (for off-road maneuverability.) The Pan America has a two-position rear brake lever, five-position clutch and front brake levers (helpful also for smaller hands), removable footpeg inserts, and a four-position windshield that’s easily adjusted manually using your left hand while underway. I found these adjustments made the transition from street to dirt and back a seamless one.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 windshield
The Pan America’s standard windshield provides four height options and is easy to adjust manually with one hand while riding.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 brake lever foot peg
The Pan America's rear brake lever is adjustable, allowing the rider to place it in the “high” position to make it easier to reach when riding off road and standing on the pegs.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 foot pegs
The Pan America’s foot pegs come with a rubber insert that can be easily removed for off road conditions in which the rider might prefer to have more grip for their boots against the pegs. Here you see the front peg with the insert removed and the passenger peg with it still inserted.

While other ADV bikes provide multiple seat choices and position settings, one of the most interesting distinctions of the Pan America is the Adaptive Ride Height (ARH) option available on the Pan America Special ($1,000). The factory ARH option lowers the rider’s seat height when at a complete stop, providing an extra inch of “feet on the ground'' reach for the shorter inseam motorcyclist yet ensuring sufficient ground clearance required when underway off road. This is important as it addresses one of the common barriers to entry for women with off-road bikes which are usually very tall to ensure adequate clearance of rocks and other obstacles.

Check out this short video clip of the ARH lowering the suspension on the Pan America 1250 Special to make it easier for this rider to reach the ground at a stop.

I found the action of lowering the height quite smooth and unnoticeable except when getting on the bike while the side stand is still down. My tip … turn the ignition on before getting on the bike if you’d like that extra inch of lowering before you mount the motorcycle.

As with other Harley-Davidsons, the Pan America offers three seat options: the standard, the Tallboy Solo ($249), and the Reach Solo ($249). Each seat can be placed in either the low or high position giving another inch of customization for the rider. With ARH and in an unladen condition (no rider or luggage on the bike) the Pan America’s seat height can range from 31.7 inches to 34.7 inches.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 woman sitting seat height
At 5 feet 7 inches with a 30.5 inch inseam, I found the standard seat in the low position (left) to be the best combination for my riding comfort. The Tallboy Solo seat and raised suspension in the right photo illustrates the 3 inch change in height.

Performance

Once underway, I quickly appreciated the next thing that makes the Pan America distinct from others in the category … the quick and powerful throttle response of Harley-Davidson’s all new Revolution Max 1250cc V-twin motor designed specifically for the Pan America. Harley says the liquid-cooled motor provides 150 horsepower at 9,000 rpm and redlines at 9,500 rpm. I found the power delivery very smooth throughout the powerband, yet it did give off a bit more vibration than I’ve experienced on other ADV bikes. 150 hp certainly gives the 565-pound Pan America a lot of great power to work with.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 revmax engine revolution max
Harley’s all new Revolution Max motor provides a lot of power and a distinctive Harley feel (a.k.a. vibration!) to the ride.

Something traditional Harley-Davidson riders will need to become accustomed to with the Pan America is the chain final drive. Harley chose to use a chain in order to reduce the chance of belt damage caused by rocks and debris picked up off-road. While the chain drive is definitely a great selection for off-road riding, it will require lubrication and adjustment on a regular basis to ensure the chain is properly maintained.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 dirt woman rider adventure erin sills
While most Harley-Davidsons are belt-driven, the Pan America uses a chain final drive in order to reduce the chance of belt damage caused by rocks and debris picked up off-road.

Like many modern adventure bikes, the Pan America offers multiple ride modes (Road, Sport, Rain, Off-Road and Off-Road Plus) to provide the rider flexibility in power delivery, braking, and suspension for variable road conditions. Road mode is very comfortable for general street and highway riding, while Sport mode offers a precipitous increase in throttle response when ramping it up for the twisties. Similarly, Rain mode provides a distinct dampening of horsepower which is helpful in slick conditions on asphalt or when encountering deep sand off road.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 sport mode erin sills hunter racing
I confess to riding primarily in Sport mode on the asphalt and found the Pan America's weight distribution and balance makes it very easy to handle through all conditions.

Four of the modes are easy to toggle through and select while riding by pushing the “mode” button on the right hand control cluster. As a safety measure, however, Harley requires the bike to be at a complete stop for the rider to select the Off-Road Plus mode; a mode which significantly reduces the traction control provided to the rear wheel and turns off the anti-lock braking system (ABS), allowing the rider to accomplish a “skid turn” on dirt, for example. The bike automatically resets the mode from Off-Road Plus to Off-Road when the ignition is turned off, so the rider has to remember to reselect Off-Road Plus after every water or photo break or has to make a second stop to put the bike in that mode.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 tft display dark mode
The Pan America’s 6.8-inch touchscreen TFT display provides a wealth of information. While riding I can easily see the fuel level, ride mode, mileage, speed, gear, and turn indicators.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 tft display dash
I found some information (e.g. tire pressure) was given a font that was too small for my 56-year-old eyes. To Harley’s credit, the technicians made note, and I expect this is something they will rectify with future releases.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 tft display
The menu is easy to navigate to make selections and customize the ride mode by using buttons near the handgrip or by using the touchscreen.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 map tft display
Pairing to my Apple iPhone was quite easy, and when the free Harley-Davidson app is installed and location services are enabled, the rider has access to turn-by-turn directions, a record of the ride, dealer locations and events that may be nearby.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 left grip controls
The controls of the Pan America are very intuitive to use and comfortable to reach while riding. The left hand cluster includes controls for the brights, cruise control, heated grips (with 3 levels of heat) and the display menu.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 right grip controls
The right hand controls include the starter, engine cut-off, hazards, ride mode selection, and the audio controls for use when the bike is paired to a smartphone.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 special erin sills riding orange bike
The first day of the launch all the journalists rode the Pan America Special outfitted primarily for riding on the pavement. This Baja Orange/White version has a small skid plate to provide basic protection for the motor, “80/20” Michelin tires (80% street/20% dirt) specifically designed for Harley-Davidson, and a Screamin’ Eagle exhaust. The exhaust doesn’t change the power delivery, but it does provide a deeper growl from the motor.

Harley worked with Michelin to develop their co-branded Scorcher Adventure tire to ensure the rider has a comfortable experience both on and off the asphalt. The more diehard dirt rider will prefer a full knobby tire like the Anakee Wild’s on the Pan America Special.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 special rugged terrain
For the second day, Harley swapped out our bikes to the Specials outfitted for more rugged terrain to include the Anakee Wild knobby tires, a more substantial skid plate, a radiator guard, and removal of the foot peg inserts.

Regardless of what motorcycle you’re riding, the proper application of both the front and the rear brakes is incredibly important. Braking gently and smoothly becomes even more paramount when riding off-road due to limited traction. If too much front brake is applied, for example, the front end can wash out causing the bike to go down. But when used properly the front brake (with its two large brake rotors) is actually the most effective in slowing the bike. Some late model motorcycles, including the Pan America, use linked braking which will apply various amounts of rear brake even when the rider is only using the front brake lever. I found the Pan America’s brake system, which provides more linking under heavier braking and less under light braking conditions or low speeds, very smooth and confidence inspiring even in the trickiest of fine gravel.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 umbrella
Fellow motojournalists Jesse Ziegler, Chris “Baldy” MacAskill, and I grab a moment of shade along the side of the trail as we await the other riders. I highly recommend you pack a small umbrella for this purpose when traveling through areas with very few trees or other opportunities for a break from the harsh desert sun.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 mojave desert rocks sign
Road signs come in all shapes and sizes when you’re traveling in the desert!

harley-davidson pan america 1250 erin sills led lights
While we didn’t have an opportunity to ride at night, I’m quite confident the 30-LED DaymakerLED headlamp would light up the trail nicely. Even more interesting though, is Harley’s Advanced Daymaker headlight (upper light bar) provided on the Special Model as it adds more lighting as needed based on the lean angle of the bike.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 passage quest womens adv gear
Harley-Davidson partnered with well-known riding gear brand REV'IT! to develop two jacket, pant, and boot options called Passage and Grit. To its credit they put the research in to launch both men's and women's options for each, though they weren't available for this test. Shown here is the women's Passage jacket, pants, and helmet, and the women's Quest boots.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 REV'IT! Klim
I loved the breathability, protection, maneuverability, and styling of the REV'IT! Tornado 3 jacket, pants and gloves I wore for the launch. By including and removing the inner liners, I found the jacket and pants the perfect solution for riding temperatures that ranged from a low of 50 degrees leaving San Francisco to a high of 89 in the sun of the Mojave Desert. This was also my first test of Klim's Adventure GTX boot which held up to its claims of providing ample calf, ankle and foot protection while still being comfortable to wear for a full day of on- and off-the-bike exploration.

harley-davidson pan america 1250 special panniers SW-MOTECH
Harley designed three luggage systems for the Pan America (sport, aluminum, and soft,) all of which are waterproof, provide ample capacity, and come on and off the bike easily. Shown here are the most rugged offering, aluminum side and top cases designed in partnership with SW-MOTECH to weather the occasional off-road tip-over quite heartily.

Want to be one of the pack? Experience the Pan America first hand through Harley-Davidson’s Pan America 1250 demo tour stopping at 14 locations across the country from May through October, 2021.

Specs At A Glance: 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 / Pan America 1250 Special
Engine size: 1250cc
Seat height: 31.7 inches to 34.7 inches
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gallons
Wet weight: 534 pounds / 559 pounds
MSRP: $17,319 /$19,999

WRN Recommendation: While definitely not a “beginner’s bike,” the Pan America’s Adaptive Ride Height, linked braking, and multiple dirt modes make it a great bike for the experienced road rider who is learning to be just as comfortable off the asphalt as on it. We also recommend it for the more experienced adventure rider who is ready to add the 150 horsepower of the Revolution Max motor to their excursions.


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