Harley-Davidson made a decidedly bold gambit in 2020 with the introduction of the Pan America. After all, America’s stalwart heavy V-twin cruiser company—the 800-pound (quite literally) gorilla in the OEM room—was entering the ADV world, a realm already dominated by capable machines from a number of manufacturers.
What shook everyone was how impressive it was for a first-year machine. The 2023 model introduces refinements to the Pan America package in the form of the Special, which ensures its place on the ADV mantel as a true contender.
But first, some vanity. The introduction of the Pan America speaks volumes to Harley-Davidson’s innovative daring, which I feel they don’t get enough credit for.
To take such a risky corporate gamble in a new, highly competitive segment—with a risk of alienating a firmly ensconced and ardently devoted customer base—was impressive. The company deserves kudos for how cleverly they’ve managed their established persona as a tried-and-true American legend over the years, while at the same time testing new waters.
After all, H-D fielded a motocross team at the AMA nationals in the ‘70s. They dabbled in off-road. There was the radical departure from their conventional design with the water-cooled, sleekly silhouetted V-Rod.
More recently, keeping pace with the green movement, there’s H-D’s electrics—the Live Wire and the Del Mar. So, actually, despite ingrained perceptions, Harley-Davidson is in fact quite flexible and forward thinking.
Walking Up to It
The Pan America, dressed up in the Special’s bright yellow and white livery, strikes an impressive stance. It’s large and tall, with features hard to define, yet alluring.
The aesthetics straddle some invisible demarcation line between street-going muscle and off-road ruggedness.
In the case of the Special—fitted with boxy, hardcore off-road aluminum bags and spoke wheels—the machine begs for adventure, whether that means staying strictly on pavement or detouring into the rough. The looks are instantly appealing, yet continue to grow on you.
The 1250cc engine retains the classic V-twin appearance, but in a modern water-cooled configuration. Large diameter header pipes sweep rearward tastefully. Once astride the 32-inch-tall seat, your hands fall naturally onto the bar, the pegs organically keeping knee bend to a minimum.
In fact, peg reach feels so low you’d think they may touch down in corners. Not to worry—there’s plenty of lean angle available.
The Pan America’s 569-pound wet heft is slimmed by a narrow profile, courtesy the V-twin engine. A touch of the starter and that powerplant thumps to life.
Dropping the Clutch
Some initial engine chop and clunk on the first release of the clutch will catch you out. However, once you learn the Pan America’s character, everything is extremely smooth.
Nicely balanced syncopation between the clutch and the throttle, combined with the tight transmission and augmented by responsive, powerful brakes, imbue the machine with uncanny rideability.
The 1250cc beneath you feels directly attached to the road, each of the 150 horses tracking with real purpose. That peak horsepower is found if you rev it to 9,000 rpm, but there’s a sweet spot lower down where the engine feels happiest, using the ponies’ muscle with the 94-lb-ft pull of torque (at 6,750 rpm) to deliver a luscious one-two punch.
The relatively quiet deportment of the engine at idle becomes a growl at upper revs. When you get into the throttle, there’s a very present and reassuring buzz of power that resonates up through the chassis. Together, the bike and the rider fall into the pleasant realm of performance, with endless adrenaline on tap.
Transmission is succinct, responding predictably to shifts despite a bit of throw in the lever. On occasion—and to be fair, this was under very hard acceleration—the gearbox was reluctant to go from second to third, requiring backing off to get it to mesh.
Steady and planted at freeway speeds, the Pan America quickly reveals its sporting nuances when you encounter a good, tight canyon run. The bike is extremely maneuverable, with compliant, almost second-nature turn-in.
If you trail brake, the bike will not fight you in corners, staying on its set course with no threat of trying to stand up when leaned with brakes applied.
These traits are made possible due to the H-D’s advanced electronics, with wheel lift mitigation, enhanced cornering-ABS, electronic linked braking, traction control, and drag-torque slip control. These tools add reassuring safety given the power beneath you, especially when riding in the wet.
The sharp handling, combined with the forgiving nature of the motor—allowing you to either keep it revved up or lugging—grants a wide range of approaches as to how to enjoy the bike.
For off-road, after switching to dirt mode on the fly to remove ABS from the rear wheel and severely limit its influence on the front, the Pan America is eager to eat up fire roads. Depending on your willingness to pick it up in case of a fall, you can even navigate tricky single track.
However, first gear is a tad high for extremely slow riding, requiring finessing of the clutch to avoid stalling at inopportune moments. A plastic bash plate helps you to feel okay about not peppering the lower cases with debris.
Suspension, Brakes and Wheels
My test mount was fitted with H-D’s optional adaptive ride height system. The semi-active system automatically lowers ride height at low speeds, granting a more confident reach to the ground when stopped.
At speed, the system automatically monitors weight inputs and constantly adjusts transmission sag for optimum smoothness, both ends absorbing the irregularities of your chosen path, be it pavement or off-road.
The Pan America has inverted forks that hold dual, radially-mounted, monoblock four-piston calipers at the front, with a solo disc mated to a single-piston floating caliper at the rear. The resulting braking power is substantial. Brake application is nicely balanced between front lever and rear pedal with no noticeable oscillation of the ABS under severe braking.
Cast aluminum, satin black wheels are standard, in a 19-inch front, 17-inch read rear arrangement. Attractive and functional tubeless anodized aluminum-laced spoke wheels are optional.
A Very Fun Ride
With the engine at running temperatures, the heat off the header pipes will toast your leg at long stop lights. In order to fit the panniers, the mounting brackets place the bags’ outside edges beyond the width of the handlebar. As a result, you need to be aware you’re trailing more width than that of the mirrors.
This is especially pertinent to those in California (and other states), where we’ve been graced with lane sharing as a legal right.
The kickstand is the only element that doesn’t seem to fit the Pan America. It’s an odd little thing, hard to find without looking. The arc of its movement requires you to sometimes lean the bike (depending on the surface) to the right in order to retract it.
Overall, though, these complaints pale against the long list of positives of the Pan America.
The refinements that have found their way into the motorcycle serve to beautifully round out an already impressive machine. The engine, gearbox, chassis, suspension, and brakes all work gorgeously.
The three-position, manually adjusted windscreen does a good job at keeping the cockpit relatively free of turbulence. After familiarizing yourself with the lever and release operation, the screen can be adjusted on the move.
I was completely unaware of the seat, which is a good thing. Several long hauls on freeways and all-day canyon running revealed no uncomfortable characteristics. That big, highly visible 6.8-inch TFT screen carries a host of useful information.
Don’t feel that the Pan America is reserved for those with a penchant for going off-road. It makes for a very substantial and versatile street-going motorcycle, capable of delivering simple, pleasurable riding and touring, as well as adrenaline in aggressive canyoning.
Essentially, the Pan America is a very fun motorcycle.
If you find yourself acquiring one, be ready to talk. Riders and non-riders alike will ask you what it is.
When they see the familiar outline of the logo on the tank and realize it’s a Harley-Davidson, there’s often a look of shock. The surprising aspect to this phenomenon was the response from bearded, hardcore, bandana-wearing H-D riders. Every single one was intrigued and proud to see their beloved badge on something new and different.
You've come a long way, baby.
+ a complete, balance package that leaves little to be desired
- pesky little side stand
MSRP: $20,399; $25,383 as tested
Engine: Revolution Max, liquid-cooled, V-twin
Power: 150hp @9,000rpm; 94lb-ft @6,750rpm
Weight (Wet): 569lbs
Seat Height: 32in
Fuel Capacity: 5.6gal
Fuel Consumption: 46mpg (claimed)
Fuel Grade: premium
Colors: Vivid Black, Gray Haze, Industrial Yellow/White Sand