Alt-Rock Cruisers: BMW R18 meets Indian Challenger and Harley Heritage Classic
One of America’s greatest business leaders, Theranos impresario Elizabeth Holmes, was fond of saying, “First they think you’re crazy, then they fight you, then you change the world.”
Alright. Maybe she wasn’t a great business leader—who saw that coming?—but the slightly ridiculous 1800cc, two-cylinder, leather-saddlebag, CHiPs-windshielded cruiser I’m trying to force through six stopped lanes of Los Angeles traffic can’t be taken as anything but an admission on the part of the Bayerische Motoren Werke that Harley-Davidson knows
a) what boys like;
b) what guys want …
… here in America, anyway. The press release says that the BMW R18 is a throwback/retro take on the company’s pre-WWII R5, and if you just look at the photos it almost seems plausible, but five minutes behind the bars of the new one will put the lie to any claims about mining BMW’s own past for inspiration. This massive motorcycle channels Milwaukee the same way the last few steroidal and ridiculous generations of BMW’s M3 resemble a Pontiac Trans Am far more than they do any svelte four-cylinder touring-sedan racer of the Eighties.
Now here’s the problem: Germans love Harley-Davidson, to the point that the “Eaglerider” bike-rental operations in Las Vegas and elsewhere often have bilingual employees whose second tongue is Deutsch, not Spanish. Formula One champion Michael Schumacher spent a dozen summers riding the American West on Harleys, owned a vintage Indian Chief, and even designed his own “bobber” around a Harley-Davidson engine. Every year more than thirty thousand bar-and-shield bikes are sold in Europe, the vast majority of those to Germany. BMW’s last attempt at building a “cruiser”-style bike, the funky R1200C seen beneath Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies, was a flop both here and and in Europe. So what makes BMW think that American buyers will ride a Bavarian pretzel, when even the German riders clearly prefer the real deal from Wisconsin?
Let’s return to that Elizabeth Holmes quote for a moment. When Bruce Brown released On Any Sunday in 1971, just in time to coincide with the arrival of the “Universal Japanese Motorcycle” on these shores in force, it seemed obvious that the future of motorcycling in the United States was Japanese, with a little bit of European snobbery thrown in to season the high end of the market. And so it was for more than two decades. Even a controversial tariff on large-displacement bikes, meant to save Harley-Davidson from unbeatable competition, simply resulted in American-made Gold Wings. There was no stopping the Japanese juggernaut …
… or so we thought. Any motorcyclist who crashed his bike in 1985, fell into a coma, and just woke up this year would be astounded at what happened to the market. In 2022, the “cruiser” is far and away the most popular motorcycle form factor, and Harley-Davidson is the market leader, selling bikes at Honda prices—only the Honda in question is the Odyssey minivan, not the CBR600 sportbike. The way people use motorcycles has changed, as well. The era of meeting “the nicest people” on two weeks as they make their way to work or shopping is long past. Today’s big-selling bikes are weekend toys and garage queens, used for short trips and brand-specific events.
The market for American-style cruisers is so massive nowadays that it supports a second large-scale American manufacturer. After years of trying to make their house-brand bikes resonate with customers, Polaris has finally decided to go all-in on the Indian marque, and the results have been impressive. Not only are the modern Indians very good, they’ve also forced Harley to drastically accelerate the pace of innovation in their own lineup.
“Serious” motorcyclists laughed at the cruiser market for a solid four decades, but in the end Harley and the potato-potato won, just like Elizabeth Holmes predicted. (I think.) If you want to make money in the American motorcycle game, you need something that competes directly with Harley. But it can’t be just a metric-scale copy of a Harley; the Japanese tried that and failed. Your Harley competitor needs to have some kind of independent “hook” on which to hang its raison-d’etre hat.
Which leads us back to the BMW R18, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, a cruiser for people who think they are too sophisticated, too nuanced, too good to ride a Harley-Davidson. One imagines the typical R18 buyer as someone whose friends are all on Harleys. He wants to go riding with those friends, and he wants to do all the “poker rallies” and whatnot, but he knows he’ll be a fish out of water on a traditional Beemer or Japanese bike. At the same time, he can’t stomach the idea of being a Harley guy. Think of the typical PCA/BMWCCA type. Someone whose identity is tied up in being Euro-adjacent, as they say.
Owning an R18 will let him do all the cruiser stuff while still feeling superior to his Harley buddies. And here’s the best part: the BMW is actually cheaper than its American equivalent. (Nobody has to know that.) It’s hard to option an R18 up to $20,000. And it’s ten grand cheaper to start than the $28,499 Indian Challenger Dark Horse that we’ve also taken on this Palm Desert motorcycle adventure, another alt-universe cruiser that uses an oddly-shaped fairing and a truly magnificent powertrain to stake out a different kind of difference from the Harleys, so to speak.
Since it would be a bit churlish to ride a couple of Harley substitutes without including the real thing, we’ve brought The Motor Company’s own alt-Harley along. The Heritage Classic splits the price difference between the Beemer and Indian, at just under twenty-three grand plus accessories, and it’s powered by a slightly heretical Harley engine: the 114-ci “Milwaukee-Eight” V-Twin, which drives four valves per cylinder with a single cam and pushrod valvetrain.
Alright. Let’s ride.
“This thing rides like fake patina looks.” Leave it to young Kyle Smith to sum up the R18 in a single cutting simile. He’s not wrong; although our test took place in the mountains above Palm Desert, CA, it was my job to shuttle the big Beemer to and from Los Angeles for said test and I never warmed up to it. Not even a little bit. There was never a moment of the ride when I would not have rather been on the Indian, or possibly on my old 2014 Honda CB1100. Our other Smith, yclept Sam, is similarly unsympathetic: “Reminds me of the McDonald’s in the Frankfurt airport.”
Alright, so the R18 isn’t charming, and there’s a slightly unpleasant air of what pro wrestlers call “kayfabe,” meaning fake, about the whole thing. Even the real-deal mechanical aspects of the motorcycle, such as the violent right-side rock that accompanies every start and every quick rev of the massive Boxer twin, feel contrived somehow. But it’s not a bad bike. Some parts of it are very well thought out. “The gearbox is a brainless delight,” Sam noted, dialing back the snark a little. “Fit and finish put the other bikes on the trailer, especially in plating and plastics/switchgear. Handling and damping easily outclass the others; it’s far more adjustable in the midcorner, and far more confidence-inspiring over lumpy stuff. Also far more fun to ride fast, if you give it the right ingredients. But you have to work at it. It rewards and seems to want a trained rider, where the other two make you feel good no matter what you do.”
Kyle is similarly complimentary about the engine software: “The rider modes, named Rock-Roll-Rain in decreasing order of throttle sensitivity, are effective, and rain mode neuters the big twins torque significantly.” All three of us agreed that the riding position was just plain odd; it’s close-coupled, knees-up, heavy on the back strain, and seemingly designed for a rider well south of six feet tall.
As the slowest and least graceful rider of our trio, I was always trailing Kyle and Sam by some distance in the mountains, but the R18 extended that gap significantly. Bereft of both the Indian’s massive power and the Harley’s comfortingly flexible chassis, I always felt that I was about to drag the cylinder heads on the ground in the corners, and when the road straightened out I had no ability to catch back up. The ride back to Los Angeles was miserable, with freezing rain and vicious crosswinds as we passed the famous Cabazon Dinosaurs, and I found myself unable to maintain highway speed in the worst of it. More than four hours’ worth of lane-splitting on the approach to LA pointed out another R18 drawback: that wide engine is a nightmare for getting between Cayennes and Suburbans on the 405. Time and time again I would make a move that felt absolutely death-defying, watching the running boards of a pickup truck pass the cylinder heads with a Bible-page’s worth of gap, only to look up and see Kyle impatiently tailgating me on the far narrower, and much more traffic-adept, Harley.
Let’s be cynical for a moment: if you want to attend cruiser-bike events in your neighborhood but despise the idea of riding an American anything, the R18 is just the ticket. It’s not expensive, it’s built well, and it looks the part. But there’s a sad irony in the way BMW imitates Harley-Davidson here. They started with their existing boxer-twin product, the world’s most comfortable and competent bike for Aerostitch-wearing grownups, then punished the thing until it felt crude and dopey enough to match their idea of what a cruiser was. Harley-Davidson, meanwhile, entered the modern bike market with a swap-meet budget and technology from the Twenties but have busted their humps since then to improve their products in every aspect from peak horsepower to iPhone connectivity.
Riding the R18 tells you a lot about how the people who built it view cruisers; it also suggests quite a bit about how the people who buy it will view cruisers. If those worldviews line up with yours, this is the cruiser for you—but we’d rather ride something that views the segment as a sum of positive qualities, not an assemblage of deliberately negative ones.
Indian Challenger Dark Horse
“So well-sorted, it makes the other two look and feel like comic-book answers.” Hard to disagree with Sam Smith here. If the R18 is defined by what it subtracts from the experience, the Challenger is a creature of addition. Take the stereotypical cruiser—and add:
- An astoundingly stout-hearted engine that can summon warp speed at any place on the tach or speedo;
- A goofy space-age fairing that nevertheless works perfectly at isolating the rider from the unpleasantries of the open road while effortlessly allowing the joy of it;
- Good-enough brakes;
- All the technology/nav/phone-integration you could want;
- An ethereal combination of soft springs and road grip, kind of like the best Caterham road cars;
- Good, solid luggage that is just a missing quick-release feature away from perfection.
Indian has a particular control language, for lack of a better phrase; everything you touch is big, sturdy, high-effort, unbreakable-feeling. For short rides, it’s an annoyance. After five hundred tired miles, you appreciate being able to stomp and punch the bike along like a strong-willed but eventually-obedient mule. Like its Roadmaster and Chieftain stablemates, this is a massive and unconscionably heavy motorcycle, and feels far more droppable than either the Beemer or the Harley, but that same unapologetic mass lets it run at triple digits on the cruise control in absolute S-Class-on-the-Autobahn confidence.
This is the most expensive bike in our test, and you never forget that, not for a single moment. Because it’s worth it. The most fascinating part of the new-generation Indians, for your humble author at least, is how fragile and insubstantial a Harley feels in comparison. Like BMW, the nice people at Polaris have leaned-in on an interpretation of “cruiser” that isn’t strictly drawn from reality. The difference is that the Challenger feels designed to exceed the Harley, not dumb down to it.
Both of our Smiths called the Challenger Dark Horse a “beast,” and that’s accurate. It’s big, strong, confident in its virtues, and absolutely adequate to the task of running flat-out across the American West. What it is not: just a Harley clone. It wants to be better than that. In some ways, it is. There’s just one little problem: The new Harleys are a lot better than the old ones.
Harley Heritage Classic
Could this be the worst gearbox in modern motorcycling? If it isn’t, I can’t imagine what could beat it for the title. Sam Smith: “Neutral is nonexistent. Next to impossible to find when hot, and simply not in the gearbox when cold. Every one of us sat there going 2-1-2-1-2-1 over and over again, trying to find it.”
Kyle Smith: “The throw of the shifter is long even into first, and the thwack of the gears gnashing together … cracks. It’s not the sound of cracking off a home run, or even line drive. It’s not an intentional sound. It’s … haphazard.” Our experience with the Harley’s transmission was so bad that I’m going to find another Heritage Classic as soon as I can, just to see if “they all do that.” Regardless, this is one motorcycle that requires a test ride before purchase, just to see if you can live with the powertrain.
The rest of it, happily, requires no such resigned accommodation. The Milwaukee-Eight didn’t impress my young Smiths very much but as a veteran of many long miles on previous-generation Harley engines I found it charming, particularly in its eagerness to rev. There’s no engineered-in drama like you have with the R18 or Challenger, both of which have pixelated “character” added by some multi-million-dollar CAD-aided crankshaft calculations. This is just a classic V-twin doing its best to offer adequate power down low and an extended redline up top. It’s not the Honda S2000 of cruisers; that was probably the old Harley V-Rod. It’s like the Integra GS-R of cruisers. More space at the top of the tach than you’d expect, and cheerful about getting there.
Which is nice, given how unpleasant the transmission is to use.
Sam notes that “It somehow manages to feel more calculated than the Indian and less cynical than the BMW. It’s just a company doing one thing, the way it has always done it, and trying to maintain that idea against the winds of progress.” I disagree; to me this is an ambitious effort, from the powertrain to the electronics. But if you’re not in the culture, I can see how it doesn’t look particularly progressive.
Where Sam and I agree, however, is regarding the friendly and (literally) flexible road demeanor of the thing. “The bars are awfully flexible—they visibly bend without a lot of effort. It’s noticeable while pushing the bike around in a lot, or lifting yourself out of the seat at speed for a moment to relieve spine pain. Have to assume this impacts how the steering feels and reacts, and yet the thing tracks arrow-straight under most conditions, and bends into a corner consistently.” I personally felt most comfortable in the mountains on the Harley. It reminded me of a titanium-framed road bicycle; you see a fast bend, you start pressing down on the bars, and the frame conforms to the maximum safe speed. How odd, for a Harley to be the corner-carver of the group!
Some of the traditional Harley aesthetics rubbed all of us the wrong way; in particular, the turn signals and instrumentation seem designed for nothing more serious than a cruise-in at the local Sonic. This is so clearly a modern engineering effort that it seems incongruous to have it behave like a 1995 Softail in this regard. Oh well. If you want something that wears its modernity on its sleeve, try the Indian Challenger.
A quick glance through the Harley site shows that the Heritage Classic amounts to a value play of sorts, and the changes for 2022, including making the 114ci engine standard across all color schemes, reinforce that. That being said, one of the reasons that Harley-Davidson owns the bike market in this country is their astounding variety of models and options within those models. So while the BMW R18 is very much an this-or-nothing proposition, customers who don’t like the Heritage Classic might find their needs met elsewhere in the Harley dealership.
The conclusion, in which nothing is concluded
It’s difficult to imagine these three bikes being cross-shopped to any extent—not the way someone might look at a Mustang and a Camaro, or even an M3 and a 1LE-package Camaro. In particular, the R18 seems more of a customer-retention tool for BMW than a foundation for a future product strategy. One thing is for certain, however: For the next ten years at least, the cruiser market is the only market that matters for the manufacturers. They’ll need to take it seriously. In the words of another borrowed Elizabeth Holmes quote: When it comes to selling cruisers, you can’t just “try.” You have to do it. Right now, Harley and Indian do it better than anyone else.