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ADV News2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America Special First Ride Review

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America Special First Ride Review

We get our first ride on America’s all-new adventure bike.

Published on 04.28.2021
Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review

You could feel the anticipation in the air rolling up to the Harley-Davidson Pan America Press Launch. Not only were the journalists eager to throw a leg over the all-new ‘American’ Adventure Bike, but the Harley executives were now finally getting a chance to share with the world what they’ve been putting their heart and soul into for several years now.

There’s a lot on the line with this introduction for the Motor Company, who has struggled with sinking sales and an aging customer base in recent years. With its back against the wall it was time for a bold move, striking out from the brand’s traditional cruiser roots. Harley wouldn’t be starting from scratch though, having built Baja-winning dirt bikes in the 1970s, along with its significant dirt track racing experience and they even owned Buell for a time, who made Harley-powered Adventure Touring bikes in the early 2000s. But taking on the tech-laden Europeans brands, in your first foray into the ultra-competitive Premium ADV class, is a giant leap of faith.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special
It’s been three years since Harley-Davidson first announced they would be throwing their hat into the ADV ring.

The Milwaukee manufacturer has been ‘all in’ with this moon-shot effort though, leveraging every bit of its engineering and design talents, along with making significant financial investments. And they wouldn’t be content with just building a copycat either. They aimed to take a fresh approach and challenge the way it’s been done, to create something truly unique and authentically Harley-Davidson.


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We all love an underdog story, but there are a few hurdles to clear for this bike: getting ADV Riders to consider a brand so closely associated with cruisers; delivering competitive performance; and gaining acceptance for the bike’s bold styling… To say the Pan America’s looks have been controversial would be an understatement. Yet that seems to be exactly what Harley designers were going for. “Iconic, innovative designs tend to scare the hell out of people at first. And if you don’t have that, you haven’t pushed it far enough,” says Brad Richards – Harley’s VP of Styling and Design.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Test
H-D incorporated design elements from their cruiser and touring models into the tank, fairing and headlight to pay tribute to the brand’s heritage.

With rows of Pan Americas lined up against a backdrop of shipping containers painted desert storm tan and a frenzy of activity, the scene at basecamp Zakar in the Mojave Desert looked like a staging ground for some type of attack. We’d have two full days and nearly 400 miles of testing ahead of us both on and off-road. The first day would be primarily a street test on road-biased Michelin Scorcher Adventure tires. The second day would be primarily off-road with Michelin Anakee Wild 50/50 dual sport knobbies. But before we jump into the ride, let’s take a close-up look at what you get with the Pan America.

First Look

The Pan America 1250 comes in two different flavors, the standard model and the Special. Included equipment on both models are cruise control, electronic ride modes (including one custom mode), linked brakes, cornering ABS, lean-angle aware traction control, Hill Hold Control, Drag-Torque Slip Control, LED lighting, a 4-way hand-adjustable windscreen, a 6.8” color TFT display that includes Bluetooth integration for calls and music, plus turn-by-turn map navigation on the dash.

WATCH: Walkaround and sound sample of the all-new Revolution Max 1250 engine.

The Special model is loaded with additional premium equipment like an electronically-adjustable semi-active suspension, aluminum skid plate, engine guards, hand guards, heated grips, center stand, steering damper, multi-position rear brake pedal, tire pressure monitoring, ambient air temp, two additional customizable ride modes, and a Daymaker adaptive cornering headlight.

Our test bikes were also equipped with tubeless spoke wheels – a $500 optional add on – and the industry-first ‘Adaptive Ride Height’ (ARH) system that lowers the bike 1 to 2 inches upon stopping – a $1,000 add on.

The Engine

At the heart of the Pan America is the liquid-cooled, 4-valve, DOHC Revolution Max 1252cc V-twin engine. The all-new powerplant was specifically designed for smooth low-end torque and low-speed throttle response. It utilizes a 90-degree firing order that gives it an ear-pleasing exhaust note and smooth power delivery, and Harley says they engineered it with just enough vibration to give it some character.

The engine has been optimized to reduce weight and has a narrow profile, while at the same time, VVT (Variable Valve Timing) helps broaden the powerband and improve efficiency. It’s designed to run on premium-grade fuel (91 octane) for maximum power but the Revolution Max will automatically retard the ignition timing if it senses a lower-grade fuel.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Revolution Max Engine
The new Revolution Max 1250 pumps out 150 hp and 94 ft-lbs of torque. Harley made sure the big cylinders were unobscured by the tank or any wiring to ensure the engine is the visual centerpiece of the bike.

A robust oiling system has also been applied to ensure a constant flow of oil to the main bearings and other components. It also utilizes Hydraulic Lifters, which means the Pan America never needs its valves adjusted. The powerplant puts out 150 horsepower and 94 ft.-lbs. of torque with an EPA estimated 46 mpg fuel efficiency. Harley-Davidson also offers ‘Screaming Eagle’ performance upgrades that can boost power even more with high-performance cams, muffler and air cleaners.

The Revolution Max 1250 engine gets mated to a 6-speed gear box. Power is sent to the rear wheel through a chain, while a ‘clutch assist’ system offers a lighter pull and a ‘slipper clutch’ helps smooth out aggressive downshifts.

The Chassis

Weight reduction was a major consideration for the engineering team and the engine is used as a central member of the chassis to trim some pounds. As much weight as possible was placed down by the skid plate to lower the center of gravity as well. The Pan America 1250 weighs in at 534 pounds, while the Pan America Special is 559 pounds wet.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 chain drive and swing arm
The Pan America features 7.5 inches of suspension travel and 8.3 inches of ground clearance.
Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Optional Spoke Wheels
Michelin Scorcher tires are standard on the Pan America or the more-aggressive Anakee Wild knobbies can be installed as an option for maximum off-road traction.

The standard Pan America comes with a fully-adjustable suspension, while the Pan America Special features semi-active, electronically-adjustable suspension front and rear (both made by Showa). The fork is a 47mm upside down unit with a single rear shock that incorporates a linkage system for a progressive feel through the stroke. Suspension travel front and rear is 7.5 inches (190mm) and ground clearance is 8.3 inches (210mm). The Pan America 1250 Special’s seat is adjustable with an unladen 33.4-inch seat height in the low position and 34.4-inches in the high position. With the ARH option, the unladen seat height drops to 32.7 inches in the low position and 33.7 inches in the high position.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Seat Height
The standard saddle in the low position with the Adaptive Ride Height option gets the unladen seat height down to 32.7 inches.

The innovative Adaptive Ride Height feature still retains the full travel of the suspension, only lowering the bike when you come to a stop — a feature shorter riders are sure to appreciate. It can also be configured with different settings to change the speed at which it lowers the bike and it may also be disabled during off-road riding when more ground clearance may be needed in rocky terrain.

First Impressions

Thumbing the starter button for the first time (it uses a key fob), it was a little surreal looking at the Harley-Davidson badge load up on the dash of an Adventure Bike. As I let it idle, a throaty exhaust note and smooth lope made clear this is not your father’s Harley. Yet as I revved the big 1250 Revolution Max engine up, it began to stumble. “Problems already?” I thought. But a Harley tech assured me this was just a safety mechanism that keeps the engine below a certain rpm while idling, to protect against an inadvertent shift into gear. Once you pull in the clutch, the engine is allowed to rev freely.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Screaming Eagle Exhaust
Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 6.8-inch TFT display
The 6.8” color TFT display supports infotainment generated by the rider’s Bluetooth-equipped mobile device, including music and calls. Navigation is supplied by the free Harley-Davidson App for iOS or Android.

At start up, it definitely has the sound of a smooth-running, modern performance V-twin but there was some extra valve train ticking that I wasn’t used to hearing. After speaking with the engineering lead on the project about it, he mentioned that it can take a little while for the hydraulic lifters to pump up with oil and during this time they can be noisy.

I found the TFT display to be easy to read, without any noticeable glare in direct sunlight. I also liked that you can adjust the angle of the screen position. Thumbing through the menus, it has a lot of options but seemed fairly intuitive compared to many of the systems out there. There’s a big button to turn off traction control and another one to change ride modes, so you don’t have to dig through menus on the TFT to get to these important features.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Ride Modes
The Pan America 1250 Special gets 5 standard (Rain, Road, Sport, Off-Road, Off-Road Plus) and 3 customizable ride modes.
Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 LED Lighting
The front turn signals, positioned down low, are protected behind the crash bars. The Pan America features LED lighting throughout.

A new take on things are the front turn signals that could easily be mistaken for auxiliary lights. They are positioned down low where they are protected by the crash bars. Harley offers a set of optional auxiliary lights that can be mounted underneath. Something else that caught my eye were a set of black metal cooling fins sticking out of the skid plate. I was told this is the voltage regulator and Harley reps assured me it’s been hardened to take trail abuse. There is also an optional skid plate that provides complete coverage of the regulator.

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Center Stand
Harley-Davidson Pan America skid plate
H-D reps assured us the voltage regulator sticking out of the skid plate has been hardened to take trail abuse.

Putting down the kickstand was also a little strange. It’s positioned about six inches in front of your leg rather than behind it but it seemed to work fine. However, I was a little concerned that the ARH system might cause problems with a ‘fixed-length’ kickstand if it decides to auto-adjust the ride height while the bike is leaning on it, but I had no issues with it. I had no problems with the center stand either and it was actually well designed — I was able to get the 550+ pound machine up on its stand from the seated position.

The handguards are fairly soft plastic like many stock units, and they have a pop-on design on the bar ends that looks like it will come-off easily if you drop the bike. And while I appreciated the adjustable windscreen that can be set with one hand, I noticed it didn’t look like a very robust mechanism and might not fair too well in a fall.

Harley-Davidson Pan America Hand Guards
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America handle bar switches

A few features for touring that are standard equipment are a USB power port on the side of the dash, two under-seat power ports for heated gear, and an SAE connector for a battery trickle charger. There’s also a nice storage box under the seat where you could put a tow strap, bolt bag, spare gloves, or other small items.

On The Road

Heading out on a broken paved road for our first early-morning ride, I accelerated through the first couple of gears and the first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Wow, that’s a lot of torque!”. It feels great right off idle and once I opened it up on the highway, the acceleration was hard hitting like you’d expect from a 1200cc brute. Hyperdrive kicks in right about 6,000 RPMs and it keeps pulling hard until you hit the 9,000 rpm redline. There’s no quickshifter though, even as a factory option, which is something we’ve come to expect on bikes in the premium ADV category.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America handle bar street test

It took me some time to get used to the ergos, which felt a little unorthodox. A tapered 1-1/8” bar sits high in relation to the seat, and the seat felt low even in its high position. The bars also have a straighter sweep than most touring-oriented bikes and my legs felt slightly cramped at 6’2” tall. By mid-day I switched over to the aftermarket tall seat that raises the seat height about one inch. This seemed to put the reach to the bars in a more-natural position and gave me a more comfortable bend in the knees. However, its taller design crowns at the top, which means it has less surface area to support you. After giving both a good test, I felt like the standard saddle was the more comfortable of the two.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America offroad

The Automatic Ride Height system works much more seamlessly than I expected. I tried several times to feel the ARH feature working at a stop but had a hard time noticing it. The system calculates the rider’s weight and adjusts your preload while you ride, then just as you come to a stop it lowers the bike to reduce the seat height. After playing with some of the settings, I set ARH to perform its adjustment on the fast setting, and finally I could feel it working. If the bike sits at a stop turned off for a while, sometimes it will pump back up again. When you turn the ignition on, the ride height will immediately drop back down to its lowest available setting.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America

And while we are talking about sitting at a stop, I did notice some engine heat on my legs during photo stops with the engine running. It wasn’t clear how bad it might get on a hot day though. We’ll need more testing to know for sure.

Highway

We had a good thirty-minute ride on the highway before getting on a twisty road that led us up into the Piute Mountains. I adjusted the windscreen to the top position, which puts it in a swept-back position that might work for shorter riders, but it seemed too low for me. The second-to-last windscreen position is actually higher, so I preferred that for maximum wind blockage. Wind protection was decent, but it felt like it could use some more time in the wind tunnel and I could see it vibrating in the wind.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America highway

Cruising at 75mph, vibration was almost non-existent. It’s a very smooth engine on the highway with only faint vibes coming through the bars and pegs. Nothing that would be considered uncomfortable though. Sixth gear feels a bit high which definitely helps with the vibrations although, despite the massive torque, it still requires a downshift if you want to pass at 65 mph. With its tall gearing and great stability, it feels like it would be ideal for cruising to Vegas going 95 mph the whole way. Although, the tall bars and long reach might be a bit tiring after a few hours. The standard seat however, is firm but supportive and should be comfortable for longer stints.

I tried out the heated grips and cranked them up to the highest setting. They seemed to get warm but not really hot, which might be a concern if you ride in colder climates. Also, heated seats are not available on the Pan America. 

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America
Tall gearing and a smooth motor make the Pan America an ideal mount for long-range cruising on the interstate.

The Cruise Control was simple to operate and if you need to accelerate to pass a car, it resumes your set speed afterward. However, there is no speed setting indicator on the dash. If you hit the increase speed button too many times, it may start accelerating up to a speed that is higher than you intended, causing you to adjust the up/down buttons blindly until you get it right.

As far as mileage, it doesn’t have a fuel efficiency indicator anywhere on the dash. Claimed average EPA mileage is 46 mpg but I’d estimate we were getting mid-30’s during our two days of testing. Considering all the full-throttle photo passes we did with the tach bouncing off the rev limiter, it’s not surprising though. You should expect better mileage under normal driving conditions.

In The Twisties

A simple push of the ‘Mode’ button allows you to toggle through “Rain”, “Road”, “Sport”, “Off-road”, and “Off-road plus” ride modes. Switch it to “Sport” and hold the TC button for a few seconds to turn Traction Control off and unleash the full power of the Pan America, allowing you to do wheelies in first through third gear or smoky burnouts that leave block-long blackmarks on the asphalt. There is no separate wheelie control though.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America wheelie
Mo Powa! The Pan America is a Wheelie Machine in Sport Mode with Traction Control turned off.

Throttle sensitivity in ‘Sport’ mode is very aggressive. In fact, I’d say it’s the most aggressive throttle I’ve experienced on any adventure bike. In tighter turns, I had a hard time rolling on the power smoothly. It jerks if you breathe on it.  So I preferred riding in ‘Road’ mode for tighter turns. Although, you can customize the settings in the custom modes to dial down the throttle response a bit so that it’s easier to manage.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America performance

In ‘Sport’ mode the suspension feels firm, without any excessive dive or squat. The Dual 320mm front brake rotors with radially-mounted, monoblock, 4-piston calipers; get the bike stopped in a hurry and the Drag-Torque Slip Control, along with the slipper clutch, help you apply maximum braking force without any chirping or skidding. I also preferred riding with the engine braking maximized in the custom settings, to improve my stopping distance.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America in the turns
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America in the twisties

Riding around bends is something you wouldn’t expect a Harley to be good at, but the Pan America actually feels pretty sporty and nimble for a big ADV Bike. While I wouldn’t go out and try to chase down sport bikes on it, the Pan America feels at home in the turns.

In the Dirt

Our first foray into the dirt actually came at the end of our street test day. I was surprised Harley-Davidson allowed us to touch dirt with these high-powered, 560-pound machines on smooth tires. It was an easy road, but we were riding on a layer of sand that could get deep in spots, and riding in each other’s dust made it more challenging. I later found out that the road had been hard packed a few days earlier when they originally scouted the route, but grading machines had just come through leaving a soft layer of sand on top of the road.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America in the dirt
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America steering stabilizer
Making the Pan America’s steering stabilizer adjustable would be a nice feature to have.

At one point the rider in front of me went over a rise and hit a deeper patch of sand, the front end lightened up and he got some pretty serious head shake. I didn’t think much of it, until a few miles later the same thing happened to me. The bike comes with a steering stabilizer, but it’s not adjustable. Being able to crank it up on soft roads like these would be a nice feature to have, especially considering the sporty 25-degree steering head angle of this bike.

After about 25 miles of riding on dirt, the stand-up ergos continued to feel very comfortable. The pegs are wide for stock, so it wasn’t a problem standing up with the rubber covers installed. With the tall bars and a straighter bar sweep than normal, riding in the ‘Meerkat’ position all day felt natural. Taller risers are available as an option, but you probably wouldn’t need them unless you are extremely tall.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America off-road

Getting the big girl turned around on a tight trail wasn’t a problem, thanks to a low center of gravity that helps hide the Pan America’s weight. Harley-Davidson achieved this by placing the battery and other major electrical components down by the skid plate. Reps also say they saved about 7-8 pounds up top by forming the fuel tank with aluminum rather than steel.

Day Two was primarily a dirt route with the bikes running on Michelin Anakee Wild knobby tires. Standing up on the pegs felt even better without the rubber footpeg covers. Removing the covers also gives you about an inch of extra leg room in the seated position. The tank is fairly slim when seated, so there’s no excessive splaying of the legs and you can grip it with your knees.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America jump
She flies pretty good for a big girl!

We headed down a rocky and occasionally sandy jeep trail with a number of twists and turns on our way to the Burro Schmitt tunnel. I was looking down at my TPMS gauge and it read 40 psi in front and 46 psi in the rear. This was a much rougher, bumpier road than the day before, so I asked the Harley execs if we were planning on airing down. They felt it wasn’t necessary though so we continued on.

The Michelin knobbies gripped a whole lot better in the dirt than the Scorchers, but I did feel we were running too much air pressure. This made the ride less compliant in the rocks and it felt a bit skittish at times on bumpy terrain. Not to mention the firm rear tire had a harder time hooking up traction when getting on the gas. The overall feel of the bike off-road was still good but it might have been significantly improved by dropping the air pressure down a bit.

Electronic Rider Aids Off-Road

I started out the day riding in the standard ‘Off-Road’ mode, which reduces peak power in the upper RPMs, limits intervention by the Traction Control system, and increases the initial damping for more control on uneven surfaces. The power felt smooth and controllable but I felt that the traction control was too restrictive. This is really more of a safety mode for someone who doesn’t have much off-road experience and just wants to get down the trail at a casual pace. If you are an experienced off-road rider, you’ll notice the traction control constantly kicking in and the ABS setting can get scary if you run into a soft patch. The big dual discs have plenty of stopping power and good feel in the dirt, but the ABS system seems to be more street-oriented in sensitivity.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America suspension

Hold the ‘Mode’ button down for a few seconds though while in the ‘Off-Road’ setting and it shifts into ‘Off-Road Plus.’ This makes everything work much better. Traction control goes down to its least intrusive level and the linked brakes switch to front ABS only without any cornering sensitivity. Now you can get full lock up on the rear tire and Traction Control allows more tire spin and wheel lift for aggressive riding. The initial damping on the suspension is also reduced to improve compliance over bigger hits.

The ‘Off-Road Plus’ mode worked well for more aggressive riding, and it seemed to fix the overly sensitive ABS issues. In fact, I performed a braking test comparing ‘Off-Road’ and ‘Off-Road Plus’ modes on the same terrain and it took significantly longer to stop in the standard ‘Off-Road’ setting. There is no way to turn front ABS off completely but you can turn Traction Control off by holding down the ‘TC’ button. This gives the rider full control over wheel spin and wheelies. It takes more attention to avoid wheel spin with TC Off, but the power in ‘Off-Road’ mode is fairly manageable compared to ‘Sport’ mode. I preferred riding with TC Off for more control, but the Traction Control setting in ‘Off-Road Plus’ is actually pretty good most of the time.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America power slide

In the custom suspension options, you can set the suspension to ‘Soft’ or ‘Firm’ damping settings. I also turned the Automatic Ride Height system off to avoid any unexpected behavior in the rocks. With the soft settings, the suspension feels good for slow to mid-paced riding, offering nice compliance over smaller rocks and rough spots. Once I started hitting bigger bumps and obstacles in the trail though, the fork would clunk and the skid plate touched down on several occasions. In ‘Soft’ mode, the ride is plush, but it runs out of suspension quickly when pushing the pace.

Riding with the ‘Firm’ setting improved the suspension significantly for more aggressive riding. Now I could push the pace and the bike really seemed to come alive at higher speeds. The motor feels great ripping around on the trail with its menacing snarl and there’s plenty of power on tap to handle anything in your path. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting to have this much fun on the Pan America.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America wheelie

After pushing the pace for some time I had a few instances where the fork clunked and I bottomed out the skid plate several times with 8.3 inches of available ground clearance. Every once in a while, the bike would get off line or do something strange that made me consider reeling it in a bit. I found I wasn’t always getting good input from the bike, which left my confidence waning. I think part of that could be attributed to the street tire pressure. I also feel it’s a bike you need to spend some time on to really know what it will do in different situations before you can ride it to its full potential. 

Thankfully, custom ride mode settings are saved when you switch off the ignition, except the Traction Control ‘Off’ setting. But there is a trick to kill the engine without losing the TC Off setting. When coming to a stop, you can turn the kill switch off and on quickly, which stops the motor but the TFT screen remains powered on. Just thumb the starter button when you are ready to ride, and it retains the TC Off setting.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America dirt performance

Just for curiosity, I tried Sport mode with TC Off and high throttle response, which was predictably scary. You’d have to have a death wish to ride off-road in that mode for any significant length of time. The tire kicks out sideways with the slightest throttle input. It’s quite a handful.

The Bottom Line

After countless wheelies, jumps, high-speed drifts, and tire-shredding burnouts, we put the Pan America through the gauntlet over two days of testing. In the dirt, it proved to be a capable performing big bike over a range of terrain, with a slim profile, approachable seat height and not so top heavy feel. On the twisty backroads, it felt right at home with an agile chassis, plenty of available lean angle, and mind-bending acceleration. Out on the open highway, it offers a comfortable perch with all the accoutrements and long legs for high-speed, long-range cruising.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America ergos

Overall, it’s a well-rounded machine that hits its marks on the spec sheet and in the real world, to match up well with strong competition in the Premium ADV Segment. The Motor Company also managed to push the envelope in certain areas with innovations like its Automatic Ride Height system that lowers the seat height at a stop, without reducing suspension travel while you ride. And they also introduced hydraulic lifters into their Revolution Max powerplant that make expensive valve adjustments a thing of the past.

The Pan America is not without a few foibles though. After hours of riding in the dust, some journalists, including myself, had problems with the windscreen adjustment mechanism and turn signal switches getting gummed up. The hand guards had a tendency to pop off the end of the handlebars and would need to be reset as well. I was also left wondering about the crash durability of the Harley after a couple of riders had falls on the trail. I wasn’t a witness to these incidents, so I can’t speak to the severity of the impact, but both resulted in significant damage to the windscreen and dash area.

Despite some misses on its first try, Harley-Davidson did get the big things right. They now have a strong foundation to work from and these other issues can be more easily addressed over time. They may not have hit a home run out of the park but they did hit a triple, and it’s only the first inning.

I think fans of the Harley brand, who are curious about the world of adventure riding, will find this an attractive option to open up new opportunities off the beaten path. The array of advanced electronics, a relatively low CG and reasonable seat height will make it manageable during those first excursions off-road. And while the Pan America isn’t a bike designed for gnarly off-road terrain, it does have enough performance in reserve to keep more experienced off-road riders entertained.

Clearly, Harley-Davidson was gunning for the BMW R1250GS with the release of the Pan America. They might not have achieved the same level of refinement or the off-road prowess, but many riders will appreciate its slimmer profile, powerful Revolution Max 1250 engine, and the previously mentioned innovations like ARH and hydraulic lifters. It’s an exciting machine to ride both on and off-road, with character in spades, that is truly a fresh take on the ADV Segment, and the price comes in at a few thousand dollars cheaper than the Beemer too.

2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America adventure bike
The Motor Company pushes the envelope with innovations like ARH that lowers the seat height at a stop and hydraulic lifter that make expensive valve adjustments a thing of the past.

Is it enough to grab market share from the category leader? It’s definitely a viable option for anyone in the market for a liter-plus Adventure Touring Bike with all the bells and whistles — especially those who value that ‘Made in America’ badge on their products. All Harley-Davidson Pan Americas will be built in York, Pennsylvania, and engines are manufactured in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Only time will tell if this Pan America ‘Moon Shot’ pays off, but so far the future looks bright with Harley-Davison reporting strong pre-sale numbers to date. For now, we are looking forward to getting more seat time on this truly unique motorcycle, getting it out on longer rides, and exploring its full range of capabilities. 

Gear We Used

Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Specs

ENGINE:Liquid-cooled, DOHC, 60-Degree V-Twin
DISPLACEMENT:1,252cc (76.3 cu in)
BORE X STROKE:4.13 in. (105 mm) x 2.83 in (72 mm)
HORSEPOWER:150 @ 9,000 RPM
COMPRESSION RATIO:13:01
FUEL SYSTEM:Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection (ESPFI)
EXHAUST:2-into-1-into-1; catalyst in header
TORQUE:94 ft-lbs @ 6,750 RPM
CHARGING:Three-phase, 45 Amp system (300 Watts @13 Volts, 1200 rpm, 585 Watts max power @ 13 Volts, 2250 rpm)
ELECTRIC POWER OUTLETUSB C-Type , Output 5V at 2.4 Amp
DRIVETRAIN:Chain Driven
FRONT FORK:47mm USD Fork with compression, rebound and preload adjustability. Special model only: Electronically adjustable semi-active damping control.
REAR SHOCK:Linkage-mounted piggyback monoshock with compression, rebound and preload adjustability. Special model only: Automatic electronic preload control and semi-active compression & rebound damping on Special model.
SUSPENSION TRAVEL:7.5″ (190mm) front and rear
RAKE:25 degrees
TRAIL:4.3″
WHEELBASE:62.2″
GROUND CLEARANCE:8.3″
LENGTH:89.2″
UNLADEN SEAT HEIGHT (HIGH/LOW SEAT):34.2″/35.2″ (Standard); 33.4”/34.4” (Special); 32.7″/33.7″ (Special With ARH)
FRONT TIRE:120/70R19 60V
REAR TIRE:170/60R17 72V
TIRE TYPE:Michelin Scorcher Adventure, Radial
FRONT WHEEL:19″ x 3″ Cast Aluminum, satin black (Anodized aluminum tubeless spoke wheels optional)
REAR WHEEL:17″ x 4.5″ Cast Aluminum, satin black (Anodized aluminum tubeless spoke wheels optional)
FRONT BRAKE:320mm twin discs. Radially mounted, monoblock, 4-piston caliper, with cornering ABS
REAR BRAKE:280mm disc. Floating single piston caliper, with cornering ABS
DISPLAY:6.8″ touchscreen color TFT with Bluetooth phone connectivity
OIL CAPACITY:4.75 qt. (4.5 l)
COOLANT CAPACITY:2.32 qt. (2.2 l)
SERVICE INTERVAL:First 1,000 miles (1,600 km), every 5,000 miles (8,000 km) thereafter
FUEL CAPACITY:5.6 gal.
FUEL ECONOMY:46 mpg (5.1 l/100 km)
WEIGHT (FULLY FUELED):534 lb. (Standard); 559 lb. (Special)
GROSS VEHICLE WEIGHT RATING:1,003 lb. (455 kg)
WARRANTY:24 months (unlimited mileage)
MSRP:$17,319 (Standard); $19,999 (Special)
AVAILABLE COLORS:Standard: River Rock Gray & Vivid Black. Special: River Rock Dark Gray, Vivid Black, Deadwood Green, Baja Orange & Stone washed White Pearl.

Look for it at your local dealer starting this May with an MSRP of $17,319 for the standard Pan America 1250 and $19,999 for the Pan America 1250 Special. A strong demo program is already in the works, so you are likely to find a test ride at your local ADV Rally. For more details, check out the Harley-Davidson website.

Photos by Kevin Wing

Author: Rob Dabney

Rob Dabney started a lifelong obsession with motorcycles at the age of 15 when he purchased his first bike – a 1982 Honda MB5. Through his 20’s and 30’s he competed in off-road desert races, including the Baja 250, 500 and 1000. Eventually, his proclivity for exploration led him to dual sport and adventure riding. Rob’s never-ending quest to discover what’s around the next bend has taken him on Adventures in Mexico, North Africa, Europe, and throughout the American West. As a moto journalist, he enjoys inspiring others to seek adventure across horizons both near and far.

Author: Rob Dabney
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27 thoughts on “2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America Special First Ride Review

  1. If Harley was interested in attracting a new generation of riders they would have designed a 700cc retro scrambler that retails for $8000. The only people this bike appeals to are the same deep pocket boomers who already buy their cruisers. And it’s super ugly to boot. Huge fail if your mission was to expand your customer base.

    • Just because you don’t have the jack doesn’t mean that thousands of others who are well heeled won’t be plopping down their deposits for this excellent bike. I live in the Omaha, NE metro area and the largest dealer here told me they already have deposits down for 4 Pan Americans. And considering that these people have only seen the bike in photo’s says quite a bit to me. They are getting one bike for demo purposes and I plan to give it a go. I am 6 ft tall and can ride most anything but getting up on top of a KTM or those other ADV bikes is ridiculous and those beaks and paint jobs are not for me. I really love the looks of the Pan Am. As for your $8000 bike, those buyers will have to go elsewhere and besides Harley would only be able to piece together a POS for that price. Just look at that water-cooled training bike that Harley made the last bunch of years, what a god awful looking thing that was and is. They finally flushed that turd from their lineup. It is no wonder they had to can the last CEO when he was making decisions like that bike. The Pan Am is going to be a winner for Harley.

      • Hey I guess some people are into that George Jetson / Hoover Vacuum asthetic and don’t mind paying 18k for the privilege. More power to ya. When I see a 26yo on one I will be the first to admit I was wrong.

        • My brother’s 31 and seriously considering a PA. He wants a Harley, wants an adventure bike, and likes the power of the 1200cc+. So not quite a 26 year old but pretty dang close.

          And I’m 30 and if HD ever comes out with an 800 PA middleweight, I’ll strongly consider trading in my 790 adv r. because ‘Merica, I like Harley’s heritage and want to be a part of the brands evolution.

        • Good luck getting one for $18K. I think most will be tapping the $25K price point. It was a good review. The ARH would concern me, I’m 6’2″ and don’t need a bike that lowers and it’s just another failure point. It’s a porker at 560 plus pounds. My 1190 is only 486 wet on a certified scale after some careful diet work. That rectifier looks like a sure failure point. My skid plate has marks all over the front of it and I don’t ride hard off-road with it. We’ll see, I’m betting HD dealers will have no idea how to sell it, the HD faithful will stay away in droves. It’s too expensive for most buyers and more expensive than almost all the other ADV bikes. It is without a doubt butt ugly. Adv bikes are quirky and not exactly beautiful but, they look functional like a Jeep. Not this thing. The front looks like a toaster oven or Bender from Futurama. Not a recipe for success.

    • 17k-20k isn’t much scratch for a lot of people. And one other really appealing thing about this bike is the dealer network. There’s a harley dealer in every town. I have a Triumph Tiger currently and my nearest dealer is 80 miles away. And the Harley dealers around me are actually quite good. I just ordered my Pan Am and can’t wait to get it. Paid retail and can take it for a test ride. Many dealers will not let you touch a bike until you buy it. So we’ll see, I’m optimistic.

    • dude, it doesn’t cost anymore than the 1200 triumph , KTM 1290 or the BMW GS. Hate Harleys much? and the retro scrambler thing is over.

  2. That’s one ugly Miximus Prime-Autobot looking bike. I suppose if a person wishes to purchase a retirement cruiseresque’ adv. bike for the pavement, this may be it. Harley should just stick to the street, it has a long successful history there. But they also have a long and somewhat dubious history of flops as well. This bike will however probably be somewhat successful due to Harley owners love for the marque, and their desire to try something new…any creation by Harley Davidson seems to incite some sort of electrical enthusiasm…just look at this write-up. No other ADV brands are given this much page space. Personally for the 18K I would just buy a toyhauler/mobile shop for my Kawi’s and head out for an extended parts- unknown adventure camp and ride for about a year or so.

    • Hello Will. Welcome to ADV Pulse. I assume you must be new here because we dedicate this type of page space to our bike reviews regularly, especially for those models with all the bells and whistles that take a longer word count to explain like the Pan America. We try to be as thorough and detailed as possible to get the best information out there… Perhaps it was a little too long for you to get through, but there is a section about how it performs in the dirt up there you can check out. It’s not a dirt bike by any means but it’s perfectly capable of going down trails in the ‘adventure bike’ range. It’s no slouch either in the 1200cc class. I can appreciate your dream of buying a Toyhauler to go trail riding campsite by campsite. Sounds like fun. And hopefully, you can appreciate that others might have a different dream that doesn’t involve hauling a trailer around. We all have our Adventure preferences. It doesn’t make one way better than the other. Personally, I’ve tried many different ways, and I’ve found things I can truly appreciate about all of them.

      • Hello, No, I’m not new here. I’ve posted a few times concerning new models I’ve purchased that have been reviewed here. I’m a life-long, globe-trekking motorcyclist. Having ridden/owned virtually every brand at one point of another. I spent a large portion of my life as a motorsports professional, restored a lot of bikes, built Cafe’ racers before it was cool, etc…I could go on, but there’s not much point in blowin’ smoke. After 35 years of riding, on multiple continents and in various climates and environments, I just know what works for me. I appreciate that other people like what they like and they may have a different set of wants and needs. I don’t particularly want a toy-hauler…I was just illustrating the cost similarities between the two. I pretty much ride everyday of my life, currently riding a 2020 KLX and a 2018 Versys 650, not that that matters much. I don’t really care for the Versys 650 much. But I love the KLX. It’s perfect for ripping around just about everywhere I ride, which is currently Bangkok, Thailand and the surrounding provinces…a dual-sport bike here is a must have item. I didn’t mean to offend about the Harley review, I haven’t ridden it of course…but it looks like a tank and at almost 600 lbs, it may as well be. I’ve owned a couple of Harley’s over the years…mostly just rode them in good weather, around the beach areas in Florida where I used to live…for sport touring I always rode my old 86′ BMW K100…had 300,000 miles on it when I sold it and it still ran great. I’ve just never been a big Harley fan, but to each their own. I’m really just happy to see people riding and enjoying motorcycling, no matter what their on…I say if you like it… if it fits then why not?

        • Well then, welcome back Will! Sounds like you are on an interesting journey. The KLX is a fine machine. We recently completed a review of both the KLX300 and KLX300SM if you haven’t seen it yet. I was never much of a Harley fan either, or any cruiser for that matter, but I do see this as a big moment considering they have jumped into this segment and given it a serious go. Especially after their lackluster support for Buell which could have given them a strong foothold in the ADV world much earlier. I also remember back in 2009, when no one believed BMW could build a serious sport bike, they launched the S1000RR and left everyone dumbfounded. I’m not saying the Pan America will be as revolutionary as that bike, but I do think people should give it a chance before dismissing it outright. Now that HD has caught the ADV bug, perhaps they’ll decide to build a full range of them in the future – including smaller, lighter, more off-road capable ones. Their success will bring new riders into the sport, drive innovation and increase variety for all of us, so I wish them the best!

          • Rob, I’m fully aware of the KLX300. The local Kawasaki dealership, where I purchased my bikes and have my service work done are directly across the street from my shop, here in Sai Mai, Bangkok…I stare across the street all day!! LOL…I think next time around, I might opt for the SM version…I almost bought the DTracker, instead of my KLX, but they didn’t have it in stock at the time. I had a a Suzuki SM400 in Florida and had a blast on it. 400 thumpers are about the perfect size for me. Back in the day, when I used to build Cafe bikes, my favorite platforms were the Honda CB/CL 350 and 450…sooo, many mods possible. Anyway, about Harley D., I also wish them the best of luck with their newest endeavor, and I hope they do decide to offer up a model or two that are smaller and lighter. I would be interested in a leaner 500cc version. Cheers man!

  3. @mridge50 ARH is an optional add-on. If you don’t need/want it, then simply don’t get it. In any case, the ARH can be turned off as needed.

  4. The only people this bike is going to attract are already harley fan boys. I mean it’s got looks only a harley fan boy could love and it costs more than most peoples cars are worth. Good luck with that.

  5. I have seen other write ups on the Pan American. This one was by far the most informative. Left no stone unturned. Very nicely organized and well written.. Felt like I was there riding it myself. Photos were pretty good too. Will the bike succeed? I hope so. A healthy HD Corp should be good news for all of us USA based motorcycle fans. Keep up the good work.

  6. It’s a miss in my book and one of the most overhyped intro’s in recent memory. 3 years plugging it before it finally arrives ! ? There are 4 or 5 other proven bikes in this space I would choose before Harley.

  7. Bunch a pussies posting here. If it’s not for you move along. Traded my 2018 KTM 1290 SA for a 2019 Indian FTR 1200RR. Saw the PA then and wanted one. Took delivery of the first one sold in TN last week. The PA reminds me of the KTM in almost every way. Great engine, great suspension, great brakes, comfortable riding position(hate the seat). Looks WAAAY better than any KTM. BEEN A KTM FAN FOR YEARS BUT THEY ARE UGLY AS HELL.

    Party on. Ride safe.

    Black/Gray 2021 PA.

  8. The voltage regulator absurdly sticks out of the skid plate — and “Harley reps assured me it’s been hardened to take trail abuse.” As part of your allegedly thorough test you should have administered some “trail abuse.” Assuming Harley won’t freely replace crushed regulators, how much do they cost? Good luck with all that when you’re in the back of beyond.

    • A good amount of trail abuse was administered during the off-road test day. However, the optional heavy duty skid plate was installed on our bikes that fully covers the regulator. Like most bikes, the standard skid plate offers limited protection. If you want to avoid damage from more aggressive trail riding, you can get an upgraded skid plate.

      • You say “A good amount of trail abuse was administered during the off-road test day” — but presumably NOT to the regulator itself. Harley claims the regulator is “hardened to take trail abuse” AS IS. I think we all know that is ridiculous, because that is a ridiculous place to put a regulator. With all due respect, you should have called Harley’s bluff by exposing the REGULATOR ITSELF to “trail abuse.”

        • The trail abuse I mentioned was to the bike as a whole. There was no opportunity to test the regulator’s trail toughness because, as I said, the optional heavy duty skid plate was installed on the bike which covers the regulator completely. I’m only relaying what Harley said to me. Basically they said they engineered it to take some trail abuse. I make no claims to how durable or fragile the regulator is, nor did I ever say you should take their word for it. The reason I called it out in the review is because I see it as a potential vulnerability that people should be aware of. Anyone concerned about it can get a proper skid plate, just like you might with many of the adventure bikes out there that come with limited protection from the factory.

          • Thanks for your reply. Even “the optional heavy duty skid plate” looks particularly fragile directly in front of the regulator (presumably to pass cooling air until it gets caked with mud). Next year (hopefully) the regulator won’t have to do double-duty as a bash plate.

  9. I’m glad to see Harley dipping into innovation! The headlamp section looks very 70’s space invader and not classic Harley, it is ugly… Seems Harley is going the way of water cooled lately? I’ve always loved the simplicity of air-cooled, bigger fins ect.. I own a 2004 Buell, made during the Harley ownership, it weighs just under 400lbs… I own other Harleys also… Something about this Pan bike just does not feel Harley.. Is it loaded with chinese made hardware? I can’t get past that ugly fairing, it needs a more classic Harley front on it.. I’m impressed with the horsepower figures, but I would like to see a little more torque… Put that engine on a few lightweight “simple” chassis, maybe?? Add air cooled fins, and be sure any maintenance is easily done to keep its longevity value.. I can buy a Honda XR650L and load it with travel items for less than half the price of this beast, NOT that I’m a foreign bike fan at all.. Just saying, the Pan seems less “practical”… I like the direction Harley is going, as far as performance goes, but be damn sure it is reliable first, not 4th….. Quality will keep buyers coming back…

  10. As someone who expected this thing to be a flop, trust me it is not. My son and I just test road the crap out of one in Hill City SD during the motorcycle rally. It is very fast, handles, turns, and stops excellent. It shifts good and looks good in my opinion. Looks are subjective, throttle response isn’t. I won’t tell you by how much we exceed the speed limit but it was a lot. My only complaint is it has a lot of buttons. If this platform proves reliable for the long haul, BMW and KTM have some serious competition.

  11. I test drove the pan 2021 today I was Impress how strong and Twerky the engine is. With that being said the shift is little different the clutch is awesome and yes be repaired to ride Willy if you get on it . I think they need to try to do something about the heat coming off the exhaust system by the right foot and leg area .

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