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A low-angle view of a gray-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special by a forest

The 2021 Pan America 1250 Special Takes Harley-Davidson on a Bold New Adventure

Harley-Davidson has never made an adventure bike before. But especially as a first effort, the 2021 Pan America 1250 Special is an impressive new direction for the company. And while it still needs a few tweaks, it can genuinely compete with the ADV segment's best.

If I say ‘Harley-Davidson,’ what kind of motorcycle do you picture? Most likely it’s something like a Street Glide Special or air-cooled Sportster. There’s nothing inherently wrong with either bike, but neither fully portray Harley-Davidson anymore. It has an electric motorcycle sub-brand now, not to mention a line of e-bikes. And then there’s arguably the biggest break from Harley-Davidson ‘tradition’: the 2021 Pan America. It’s not your stereotypical Harley. But after riding a Pan America Special for a week, I can say that’s a solid beginning to the company’s next chapter.

A new V-twin isn’t the only ‘Revolution’ the 2021 Pan America 1250 Special brings to Harley-Davidson

A low-angle view of a gray-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special by a forest
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special low-angle view | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit
Spec2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special
Engine1252cc liquid-cooled V-twin
Power150 hp
Torque94 lb-ft
TransmissionSix-speed with slipper-assist clutch
Front suspension and travelElectronically-adjustable semi-active Showa inverted front fork; 7.5”
Rear suspension and travelElectronically-adjustable semi-active Showa monoshock with piggy-back reservoir; 7.5”
Seat height31.1” (standard)
30.4” (with optional Adaptive Ride Height)
Curb weight559 lbs
PriceStarting: $19,999
Tester as equipped: $25,103.65

Harley-Davidson calls the 2021 Pan America 1250’s V-twin ‘Revolution Max.’ Appropriate, given it’s a liquid-cooled Harley engine that redlines at 9500 RPM. However, the rest of the company’s first-ever adventure bike is also a distinct departure from what you might think a Harley-Davidson is.

For one, while many Harley-Davidson motorcycles have belt drives, the Pan America has a chain for easier off-pavement repairs. Plus, its engine acts as a stressed member of the frame. And it has Brembo brakes with cornering-enhanced ABS. Also, cornering-enhanced traction control and ‘Drag Torque Slip Control,’ aka rear-wheel-slip control. That’s on top of a 6.8” tilting TFT display with Bluetooth, cruise control, five standard riding modes and two custom ones, and LED lighting. Additionally, the brake lever, clutch lever, seat, and windshield are all adjustable.

However, getting this adventure bike’s killer app requires stepping up to the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special. While both trims have fully adjustable Showa suspension, the Pan America Special has the electronic version. It automatically adjusts its preload based on how much weight the bike’s holding; changing the riding mode also tweaks it. And the electronic suspension is required to get the optional Adaptive Ride Height—but more on that shortly.

With just a few accessories, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special can tour on- and off-road

A low-angle rear 3/4 view of a gray-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special with accessories
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special with accessories low-angle rear 3/4 view | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

While Adaptive Ride Height is optional on the Pan America 1250 Special, Harley-Davidson does give it some extra standard features. Besides the electronic suspension, it also gets a steering damper, aluminum skid plate, adaptive LED headlight, engine brush guard, center stand, and adjustable rear brake lever. Also, heated handgrips, handguards, tire-pressure monitoring, and the exclusive Off-Road Plus Mode.

Both Pan America trims also offer plenty of optional accessories. My test bike came with locking, weatherproof aluminum top and side cases, plus their mounting systems, as well as a Screamin’ Eagle titanium performance exhaust and muffler guard. It also had laced spoked wheels, a heavy-duty skid plate, and the aforementioned Adaptive Ride Height.

While the skid plate upgrade, muffle guard, and wheels are de rigueur for the dedicated off-roader, RevZilla says, I wasn’t able to test them in a suitable environment. And if you’re just using the Pan America Special for touring and commuting, they’re not strictly necessary. Neither is the performance exhaust, though it is 6.5 lbs lighter than stock and makes a resonant baritone roar at high RPMs.

Although I didn’t take the Pan America Special off-road, a Harley-Davidson representative told me that most buyers won’t, either. Instead, they’ll likely use it as a touring bike and an around-town commuter. So, that’s what I did, too. And after a week’s worth of riding, I can definitively say that, for a first effort, this Harley is seriously impressive.

The 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America Special “isn’t just good for an opening salvo, it’s just plain good,” Autoblog says

The overhead rear view of a gray-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special's handlebars, TFT display, and windscreen
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special handlebars and display rear overhead view | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

It might weigh 559 lbs, but the 2021 Pan America 1250 Special carries its weight well. That’s due to its stiff chassis, aided by that stressed-member engine, as well as its suite of electronics, Autoblog explains. Although it’s by no means a sportbike, the Pan America feels lighter than it is, turning in and leaning easily with effortless steering.

It’s still a big bike, dimension-wise, and the steering damper naturally slows the steering slightly. And like many ADVs, its suspension geometry does make low-speed, 90° turns slightly awkward. But even so, it doesn’t feel out of place on a sweeping back road.

The electronic Showa suspension also deserves a significant amount of credit for that handling prowess. Yet even in Sport Mode, when the shocks are at their firmest, the Pan America Special remains compliant and well-damped. And in Road and Comfort Modes, it smooths out even rough railroad crossings, ridged road medians, and big mid-corner bumps.

But the Adaptive Ride Height is arguably even more impressive. It knows when you’re coming to a stop through the throttle, clutch, and brakes, and gently lowers the ride height by 1-2”. So, even with the seat in its high setting, my 5’9” self could easily put a foot on the ground. And when you’re setting off again, the Pan America Special rises back up to preserve ground clearance. It’s so smooth, I often couldn’t feel it. This is genuine game-changing motorcycle tech.

The Revolution Max is definitely not an Evolution engine, but that’s not a bad thing

The side of the front half of a gray-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special front half side view | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

I previously sampled a different version of the Revolution Max when I rode the new Sportster S. The Pan America Special’s version is tuned for less low-end torque but more high-end horsepower. As a result, it doesn’t feel quite like any other Harley-Davidson V-twin, RideApart notes. It also sounds more like a Triumph parallel-twin than an air-cooled V-twin at low RPM, though it deepens into a burbly baritone roar as the revs climb. But, like Harley-Davidson’s other engines, it has hydraulic valve lifters—no adjustment needed.

This engine wants to rev, especially in Sport Mode, and truly comes alive when you let it. The V-twin does require more revs than you might expect to get going, but it’s responsive even in the gentler Road and Rain Modes. But while its strengths lie in the upper half of the RPM range, it still pulls strongly at low RPMs.

Speaking of Rain Mode, its less aggressive engine and throttle mapping, as well as the ABS and traction control, came in handy when I rode through a rainstorm. So did the height-adjustable windshield. Said windshield also blocks enough wind at its highest setting that I could crack my helmet visor open even at highway speeds. While I didn’t do that for long, I could’ve easily ridden on the highway for hours with how comfortable the seat and riding position are.

Harley-Davidson pairs the Pan America 1250 Special’s responsive V-twin with a slipper clutch and six-speed manual. The former has a low-effort pull and good feedback, making take-offs a breeze. And the latter strikes a fine balance between slick smoothness and mechanical satisfaction. As for the brakes, the Brembo pads have better initial bite once they’re warmed up. However, they’re strong and easy to modulate with two fingers.

It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough to put the adventure bike world on notice

Because the Pan America 1250 Special is such a departure from Harley-Davidson’s usual offerings, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started riding it. But like Autoblog, RevZilla, and RideApart, I came away impressed.

That being said, the Pan America Special has a few things to work on. While it’s not the only adventure bike with a plethora of handlebar-mounted controls, some of them feel awkwardly placed. Like me, RevZilla wasn’t a fan of the cruise control switches. Also, while the TFT display is crisp and the menus easy to navigate, the font is rather small, RevZilla and Autoblog note. And while you can adjust the BMW R 1250 GS’s seat on the fly, the Pan America’s seat doesn’t do that.

However, remember that BMW has spent literal decades tweaking and refining its adventure bikes. True, the Pan America Special isn’t the best adventure bike on sale right now, nor is it the cheapest. Yet it can honestly compete with motorcycles from long-time ADV-game players. The Pan America isn’t quite like anything Harley has made before. But as new directions go, it’s a promising solid start.

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