“There are three ways to make a living in this business: be first, be smarter, or cheat.” So says Jeremy Irons as John Tuld, the CEO of a fictional Wall Street investment bank in the underrated 2011 film Margin Call. Medina, Minnesota is a long way from New York City’s Financial District, but I couldn't help thinking of that line when reflecting on the 110 miles I just rode on Indian’s brand-new Sport Chief motorcycle.
The Polaris-owned brand might not have been first when it comes to the new generation of pumped-up performance cruisers — Harley-Davidson’s revamped Low Rider S and ST models, the latter of which I reviewed quite favorably last year, stake a claim to that designation — but, perhaps through some combination of Tuld’s other two approaches, the Sport Chief left quite an impression on me.
See, I was lucky enough to join a small group of moto journalists in Austin, Texas as part of a press ride representing the first chance anyone not affiliated with Indian got to rev up the bike. I haven’t had too much time to reflect, but I’m stoked to share my near-breathless early thoughts on a bike that generally thrilled me.
Is the Indian Sport Chief new?
Very. Indian just announced it on Tuesday, February 22, and it starts shipping to dealers in early March.
What makes the Indian Sport Chief special?
I pretty much had a front-row seat for the answer to this question, as various Indian bigwigs walked us through the bike’s hallmarks at a barbecue feast the night before the ride. The Chief nameplate in general is pretty exciting for them: reborn in 2021, it fills the gap between the smaller Scout and bigger bikes like the Chieftain — and has boosted Indian’s share of the cruiser market from one percent to 11.
Having joyfully ridden and reviewed the Dark Horse edition of the Chief two years ago, I’m not surprised. Like most Indians I've tried, this new model is an awesome combo of power, retro style and modern touches. The Sport Chief, the Indian team told us, promises all that and more. The well-researched target is an interesting one: West Coast males aged 25 to 40 who want a bike that looks badass, rides hard and is easy to customize. (In other words, “Dyna Bros,” another journalist informs me.)
Toward that end, the bike boasts a host of striking features, including 6.5-inch machined risers with moto-style bars, KYB inverted front forks and that distinctively shaped solo gunfighter saddle. Perhaps most noteworthy is a unique bit of geometry: Fox Piggyback Rear Shocks boost the rear suspension’s travel, with a knock-on effect of increased lean angle. In concert with a bit more rake, your whole body receives a subtle shift into a more aggressive riding position.
Additionally, hitting that customization note, Indian offers a number of distinctive accessories — many of which retrofit to other editions of the Chief. Three that stand out are bigger and smaller windshields, 10-inch handlebar risers (not my jam, but to each their own) and Performance Adjustable Piggyback Rear Shocks by Fox — a $1,600 opportunity to fine-tune the rear suspension to your exact liking.
Compared to the Low Rider, the Sport Chief’s power numbers are slightly less gaudy: 1,890 cc of displacement versus 1,923, and 120 ft-lbs of torque at 2,900 rpm versus 125 ft-lbs at 3500 rpm. But those differences aren't that big, and I found myself salivating at the prospect of throttling out of Austin on this thing. (Of course, that might have just been the barbecue.)
How does this motorcycle ride?
Indian’s reps planned a pretty sweet route for us: aiming to get us beyond the city limits quickly, they sent us northwest toward Lake Travis, where we’d find some nice twisties (and a few surprising uppy-downies) to keep us cool under the blazing-for-February Texas sun.
Chasing some pretty experienced fellow riders, I quickly developed an appreciation for the Sport Chief’s performance. The bike shifts smoothly and accelerates effortlessly, punching above its weight to make it easy to get up to speed on the highway and dart in and out of traffic to keep up with a fast-moving group. While I didn't get the chance to roll the throttle all the way back, I kissed 90 mph a few times with no trouble, hinting at the easy triple-digit velocity possible in other circumstances.
Once we started zipping through some tree-lined, somewhat serpentine two-lane stretches, I grew to love what I’ll call the Sport Chief's "super-forgiving nature." Hit a curve too fast and a steady squeeze of the front brake lever enables the ultra-responsive dual Brembo brakes to bring you back on course. Accelerate out of a tight turn in too high of a gear, and the engine will growl but it won’t lag, while abrupt, steady throttle will ease you out of your error. Roll onto gravel — as we did many times during stops — and the 27-inch seat makes foot-paddling at low speeds a relative breeze.
That being said, there are limits to how sporty you can get with this bike. I learned that firsthand while leaning deep into a tight uphill turn early in the ride. That scraping sound as my left peg dug into the tarmac served a quick reminder this ain’t no YZF-R&7. It does have mid controls, after all.
Still, the overall effect is a ride that feels much lighter than 685 pounds would suggest. The Indian folks said one big aim with the bike design was “flickability” — a sense of whipping around on it rather than, say, lumbering. The ease with which I was able to maneuver, even in tricky situations, suggests that goal has been roundly achieved.
Anything else stand out about this bike?
I’d be remiss not to mention a couple small beefs — one unsurprising and one very much so.
First, Indian continues to put beautiful double-exhaust pipes on the right side of their bikes — and they continue to practically light my right calf on fire if I’m not paying attention when parking in tight spaces.
Second, and this is weird: that solo gunfighter is not exactly “secure.” Halfway through the ride, I noticed mine was slightly dislodged, went to adjust it...and it came right off in my hand. It’s easy enough to re-situate — sliding under some tabs in front and popping onto a node in back, but later on, I hit a bump while standing a bit, and sat back down onto an askew saddle. If I owned this bike, I’d probably try some superglue, so I didn’t find myself someday sitting back down onto an exposed frame.
That being said, I’ll conclude with a couple big bright spots. First, in the past I've griped about Indian’s Ride Command system. As much as I love the concept of a round 4.0-inch digital touchscreen that resembles an old-school analog gauge, I’ve found actually using it more trouble than it’s worth. The Sport Chief has a similar gauge to the one on the Dark Horse Chief I rode two years ago. Trying it out on the ride back to our hotel, the navigation seemed a bit sharper, and when our ride leader took a slightly different route, it adapted quickly and smoothly. They must have updated the software, because this feels like progress.
Second, in case it hasn’t come across yet…this bike is not only fun as hell to ride, but also like many Indian bikes, it looks freakin’ fantastic right out of the factory. I’m not sure whether that makes it smarter or if that’s cheating, but if you’re on the hunt for a performance cruiser, it’s certainly worth checking out.
P.s. People seemed to like 30 seconds of Powder, so here's 30 seconds of Sport Chief, courtesy of the Insta360 ONE X2.
Catalyst helmet by Kali Protectives; Bobcat sunnies by Smith Optics; Ronin CE leather jacket by Roland Sands; Contra 2 gloves by Icon.
How much does the Indian Sport Chief cost?
The base price of the Black Smoke version is $18,999. The Ruby Smoke and Stealth Gray editions start at $19,499 and the Spirit Blue Smoke Icon version starts at $19,999.
2023 Indian Sport Chief
Engine: Air-cooled Thunderstroke 116
Displacement: 1,890 cc
Gearbox: six-speed manual
Torque: 120 ft-lbs at 2,900 RPM
Curb weight: 685 pounds
Seat height: 27 inches