2019 Indian Chieftain First Ride Review

New ride modes and all-new styling change up an old favorite

American motorcycles have a tendency to walk an imaginary line between maintaining tradition and adopting technology: Moving forward with new design, while respecting and paying homage to designs past. Indian’s 2019 Chieftain adds some new tech with three new riding modes and rear cylinder deactivation, while also redesigning the whole look of the bike with a new fairing and more squared-off saddlebag shape. It’s different but familiar. It’s still distinctly Indian while being familiar. To Indian purists, the shape of the fairing may look a little like a Street Glide, but to conquest customers, it may be just the bold new aesthetic they needed to jump over the fence.

As we rode through northern Washington in a group of about 20 brand-new Chieftains, there was one thing we kept hearing from bystanders when we would park: “Man I thought those were Harleys when you all pulled up, but dang! Those are good-looking Indians!” The fairing has lost the two large fog lights, slimming up the line around the bottom and bringing the focus in on the main headlight. Above the headlight there is a new vent, arguably the most Harley-centric design addition to the new fairing, with an outlet behind the windscreen to decrease head buffeting. The inner backing of the fairing stays pretty much the same, with new mounting points on the lower trees for the turn indicators. The saddlebags also lost their bubbly, rounded aesthetic for more of a squared-off, hard-line look. While my initial reaction to the 2019 model was pretty blatant with “that looks like a Street Glide,” the new styling seems to be instantly striking a chord with riders who hadn’t previously considered Indian an option.

2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse in Bronze Smoke

2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse in Bronze Smoke

Barry Hathaway

Three new ride modes have been applied to the Chieftains throttle map—Touring, Standard, and Sport. Touring was the base mode on all previous models, and Sport mode is based off of the mapping used after the 116ci displacement kit was installed. Touring mode is about what you would expect; it doesn’t feel particularly docile, but it does take some twisting of the throttle to get a big response. Standard is the mode. Standard is where I spent most of my time, even riding in the rain, as the throttle application is still pretty smooth but a little more aggressive and quicker to get there than Touring. Sport mode goes from zero gas to what feels like 15 percent as soon as you crack the throttle, which was definitely fun at first but seems like it’s intended to break traction and squeal rather than get power to the ground. For anything other than red light to red light screeching and burning rubber, I was more than happy to stay in Standard mode. When holding steady throttle on the highway, Sport mode got a little annoying, as it would pulse dramatically with slight throttle adjustments.

2019 Indian Chieftain Limited in Ruby Metallic

2019 Indian Chieftain Limited in Ruby Metallic

Barry Hathaway

The rear cylinder deactivation worked very well at managing heat from the engine. This had been an issue for the Thunder Stroke engine and Indian has made massive strides toward fixing it. Best of all, I only really noticed the deactivation when I was looking for it. Most of the time, I would see the icon on the display before I would notice the change in sound, and then as soon as I would crack the throttle, it would come back to life and off we’d ride. The engine is smooth and strong with great power, as it always has been, and with this new temperature control it’s only getting better.

cut back front fender

A new, smaller headdress adorns the cut back front fender over the 19-inch front wheel

Barry Hathaway

The rear end has been lowered very slightly by increasing the sag of the bike, or the amount it sinks once a rider’s weight is applied. Essentially, it sits one-inch lower on the showroom floor, and ⅝-inch lower than previous models once a rider puts their weight on.. Because rear geometry has remained essentially unchanged, the lean angles stay at 31-degrees and full suspension travel remains 4.5-inches. The floorboards no longer have the little metal scrape feelers extending from them, so that definitely makes a difference in what you feel scraping and when. A cartridge fork and an air adjustable (requires a pump) Fox Suspension monoshock do a great job of damping the bumps and keeping the bike tight and smooth through the corners. The chassis on the Chieftain is incredible, holding steady even when hitting small bumps through turns at triple-digit speeds. Compared to other baggers on the market, I am confident saying the Chieftain handles the best.

The 2019 Indian Chieftain Limited digging into the turns

The 2019 Indian Chieftain Limited digging into the turns

Barry Hathaway

A new Rogue seat gives the profile of the bike a lower line and the higher back of the seat does a decent job of supporting your lower back. In the two days we spent on the bikes, I never got saddle sore or felt eager to get off of the seat, which says a lot with my bony butt. The seat and saddlebags are both easily installed on previous models of Chieftain as well, so if you like your old fairing and want to add a little bit of the new flair, that’s an option from Indian.

Chieftain Dark Horse in White Smoke

The Chieftain Dark Horse in White Smoke is a new addition that we are instantly attracted to

Barry Hathaway

Paint options on the Dark Horse and Limited expand with a couple more colors added to each. The Limited now comes in Thunder Black Pearl, Ruby Metallic, and Dark Walnut, and while the paint on the Limited line is supposed to be one of its major selling points, I was not impressed. On the flat siding of the saddlebags, you’re left with sort of an orange peel texture, rather than a smooth mirror finish. When comparing the Limited to the base model $4,000 below it, I would expect a little more attention to this detail. The Dark Horse is available in Thunder Black Smoke, White Smoke, or Bronze Smoke, all of which have a nicer-looking finish than the gloss paint.

2019 indian chieftain dark horse matte black

The Dark Horse, in all of it's matte black glory, is our pick of the litter

Barry Hathaway

Limited and Dark Horse models both start at $25,999 compared to the base model Chieftain at $21,999. That extra cash gets you a crash bar, navigation installed on the infotainment, full LED lighting, remote locking hardbags, tire pressure monitoring, and paint options other than Steel Grey. That may seem like a big price gap, but compare it to the gap between a Road Glide and a Special at $5,900 and it doesn’t seem all that bad. The Thunder Stroke 111 is an excellent motor and the Chieftain chassis is one of the best bagger frames out there. Make up your own mind on the styling, but the experience on the bike is just getting better.

newly added vent in the front of the Chieftain's fairing

The newly added vent in the front of the Chieftain's fairing

Barry Hathaway

Specifications

Price $21,999- Chieftain, $25,999- Chieftain Elite/ Dark Horse
Engine Air-cooled, Thunder Stroke 111
Displacement 1,811 cc
Bore x Stroke 3.976mm x 4.449mm
Horsepower n/a
Torque 119 lb.-ft. @ 3,000 rpm
Transmission Six-speed
Final Drive Belt
Seat Height 25.6 in.
Rake 25º
Trail 5.9 in.
Front Suspension 46mm; Telescopic fork; 4.7-in. travel
Rear Suspension Single shock with air adjustment; 4.5-in. travel
Front Tire Dunlop American Elite 130/60B19 61H
Rear Tire Dunlop American Elite 180/60R16 80H
Wheelbase 65.7 in.
Fuel Capacity 5.5 gal.
Claimed Dry Weight 790 lb.