The Battle of the Pushrods
Baggers are big business. New bikes are coming from some interesting quarters in the industry, including the typically cruiser-averse BMW with the new R 18 B. Indian, conversely, has been making touring motorcycles practically since the dawn of time—and certainly since they were restarted by Polaris back in 2011. That legacy continues with the limited-production Chieftain Elite bagger, which is limited to 120 units, but the Indian website shows you can still order it. I was able to ride both bikes recently.
The $34,999 Chieftain Elite was the first machine to arrive, and it’s the top-spec variant of Indian’s Chieftain series. The $24,095 BMW R 18 B is Bavaria’s entrant and is based on the $15,995 R 18 base model, introduced in 2020. The bike I had in for review included several optional packages, bringing the price to $28,815.
Both bikes feature bar-mounted fairings, hard rear cases, extensive on-board tech including ABS, ride modes, heated grips, cruise control, touch screens, navigation, app connectivity, and multi-speaker audio systems. They are thoroughly modern motorcycles overall—except perhaps in the engine department, where both have old-school two-cylinder, two-valve air-cooled motors, with some oil cooling capacity.
It's in the powerplant configuration where the Indian and BMW diverge the most. The Indian’s Thunderstroke 116 V-Twin comes in at 1901cc, while the BMW’s new 1.8-liter flat opposed twin is a few cubes down at 1802cc. These are big, torque-intensive powerplants, despite their reliance on more… Romantic mechanical technologies like pushrods and cooling fins.
When the BMW arrived, I was shocked at the sheer size of those black 901cc cylinder heads, which seemed like stubby wings that could get the bike airborne. Pushrods proudly grace the tops of the cylinders, and deep finning bleeds away the heat of combustion.
The Elite’s V-twin jugs are crowned by valve covers made to appear like the caps on old side-valve Indian motors. Indian has done a masterful job of creating this illusion, as the bike had some onlookers fooled into thinking it was a vintage model or a customized classic. A beige and brownish Slate Smoke matte finish sets off the machined cooling fins. There isn’t a speck of chrome on the bike, but the Elite-only Black Vivid Crystal/Carbon Crystal paint scheme is loaded with metal flake and dazzles in direct sunlight.
The BMW arrived in First Edition Black Storm livery, a $2,150 option that includes deep black paint, trimmed with classic dual white pinstripes, that call out to the bimmers of old. It also adds a chrome package that includes mirror-quality valve covers, front engine cover, intake shields, and other bits. BMW gives another cool wink to the past by leaving the driveshaft spinning out in the open air.
Both bikes look good, but the style award goes to the BMW—but just barely since the fairing design tries a bit too hard to not be a “batwing” while serving the same function. It’s not that the Indian isn’t a good-looking motorcycle, but it didn’t draw comments like the BMW did.
Ride Time: Indian Chieftain Elite
The Indian arrived before Oregon’s wet weather cycle began, and I pointed it east toward the center of the state where a friend let me base out of a cozy cabin in the Oregon Outback, where traffic is always light. The Elite idles with a chunky burble, and the stock pipes have a noticeable punch and snarl as the revs build under hard throttle. There’s no reason to spin the pistons up past about 4,000 rpm; torque is plentiful right off idle and peaks at 126 lb-ft at 2,900 rpm, and 94 hp a bit later. There’s rarely a need to rev it—just grab the next gear in the purposeful six-speed gearbox and roll on more torque as needed. Vibration has been tamed across the rev range and the Elite still has a V-Twin vibe, but it never annoys.