2015 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited vs. 2015 Indian Roadmaster: Heavyweight Bout

Text: Florian Neuhauser • Photography: David Burbach

Forget the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight. With these two American V-twin heavyweights, the Rumble in the Jungle with Ali vs. Foreman is much more appropriate. Our testing ground was the hot, humid “jungle” of the Deep South. I spent thousands of miles on a mix of interstates, country byways, and curvy mountain roads on these two machines—reminding me again of the allure of exploring our country on native thoroughbreds.

By now, Harley-Davidson has acknowledged the foray of Indian Motorcycle onto the scene and the impact to the market segment The Motor Company so dominantly controls. Fierce competition might not always be good for the companies, but the consumer will always benefit from it. Product innovation, pricing wars, and cries for attention are coming our way. Harley-Davidson is still the leader, but Indian has already thrown a big right hook—waking them from their slumber—and continues to throw jabs left and right. It’s the most exciting time for V-twin riders in a long while. 

At the Core 

The Motor Company listened to its customers and introduced Project RUSHMORE for its 2014 models with a Twin-Cooled High Output Twin Cam 103ci engine. They call it “precision liquid-cooling.” I call it “thank you, finally!” Basically, it circulates coolant around the cylinder heads and exhaust valves via an electric pump in combination with air-cooling. This more robust heat management allows for a higher 10.1:1 compression ratio, netting 10.7 percent more torque than the air-cooled Twin Cam 103.

Indian employs the Thunder Stroke 111, which it engineered in record time from the ground up. No small feat considering they kept traditional styling cues but with more modern internals. It puts out almost 120 lb-ft of torque and smokes the Harley on the road. Of course it’s not a race, but the extra power is greatly appreciated when passing slower traffic and a lot of fun throttling out of curves.

On the Road 

The most notable difference in the two machines while riding is the engine heat. Harley’s liquid-cooled mill is considerably cooler than Indian’s air-cooled plant. During testing the Harley’s engine heat was never an issue; however, the Thunder Stroke 111 grilled my right leg. Temps were in the 80s and into the mid-90s. While in motion it gets a little better, but beware of stop-and-go traffic on a blistering day.

The batwing fairing Harley made famous might be smaller than the Indian’s, but it’s much better in wind management. The wind deflectors beneath the batwing are great at redirecting air to the rider, and the Harley’s lowers are smaller and allow more air to pass through. The Roadmaster’s massive fairing and lowers don’t let any air get to the rider, which might be an advantage in cold weather riding. There are no wind deflectors up top, and the air vents on the lowers aren’t as functional. 

Clutch lever pull is better on the Indian. The Ultra Limited’s clutch requires much more strength. Both have big, clunky transmissions by design and feature a six-speed gearbox. The torquey engines don’t require much shifting. The Roadmaster has almost no driveline lash, though I experienced some on the Ultra Limited. The Harley has a toe-heel shifter, but the Roadmaster doesn’t, although, it’s available as an accessory. Because of the shifter, the Ultra leaves less room for the rider’s foot to move around. Once it’s planted on the floorboard there’s not much wiggle room, which would be nice on long rides. The Indian has more spacious floorboards and offers many more ways to rest the feet.

The suspension isn’t particularly great on either motorcycle, but the Roadmaster’s won me over. It’s much easier to adjust the rear with the air pump. With the Harley, it’s best to bring it to a dealer. Out on the road both do an admirable job of swallowing imperfections, although, the Indian is a little more forgiving.

Ground clearance is a big issue when carving through mountainous roads. The extra room allowed me to ride the Roadmaster a little harder and take it a little lower than the Ultra Limited—it doesn’t take much of a lean angle to drag hard parts.

Seating position on both machines is relaxed, feet forward, and slightly leaned back. A backrest makes all the difference, which the Harley had as an add-on. When riding the Ultra Limited, I felt like I was sitting almost on the tank with the handlebar closer to me. The Indian’s riding position had me further back and it was more of a reach to the grips. The Harley’s seat might not look as cool as the Roadmaster’s diamond-stitched brown leather saddle, but it’s more comfortable and doesn’t soak up water. The stitching must let water into the Indian’s seat because after getting it wet, it still lets out some moisture until completely dry. 

The Extras

Without a doubt, Harley-Davidson is the leader in accessories. They offer everything. Riding is personal and making a motorcycle feel that way requires the addition of accessories. Indian has some to offer, but it will take quite some time to have the assortment that Harley provides. 

While riding countless hours, a motorcycle dashboard becomes my control central. Switching back and forth between the two models, I found the Ultra Limited gave me more information and it was easier to read. It also featured the Boom! Box Infotainment System with integrated navigation, Bluetooth, etc. We tried uploading one of our RoadRUNNER GPX files, but Harley’s system could only handle a small amount of waypoints. The fix? There’s an update available at local dealers, which we learned about after we returned the bike.

The electronically adjustable windshield on the Indian is first class. No matter how tall the rider, it will reroute the wind around the helmet. The stock shield on the Ultra was not ideal for my 6-foot-2 frame, and I got some uncomfortable turbulence.

As for luggage, the Roadmaster’s rear loading trunk is better than the side loading one found on the Harley. Indian’s designers also figured out a way to engineer the trunk lid in such a way that it won’t knock off a helmet that’s resting on the pillion seat. It’s always in the details.

Flo’s Lowdown 

It’s difficult to pick a winner in this comparison as both motorcycles have features I like and each needs improvements in some areas. Both are long distance touring machines capable of devouring miles, whether solo or fully-loaded two up. There’s something special about roaming America’s backroads on native V-twins. 

During testing I covered a lot of ground and every day I came across several Harley dealerships. It gives me peace of mind knowing help is never far away. With time, Indian will no doubt expand its dealer network.