Is the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Less Special Than the Special?

Harley-Davidson is still making tricked-out baggers like the Street Glide Special, but they’re no longer the brand’s only focus. In addition to expanding into electric motorcycles, Harley-Davidson launched into the adventure segment this year with the 2021 Pan America. Or more specifically, the 2021 Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special. But just because one trim has ‘Special’ in its name doesn’t inherently make it so. Or does it?

Mechanically, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special are almost identical

The side view of a brown 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 side view | Harley-Davidson
Spec2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250, 1250 Special
Engine1252cc liquid-cooled V-twin
Power150 hp
Torque94 lb-ft
TransmissionSix-speed manual with slipper-assist clutch
Final drive typeChain
Front suspension and travel1250: Fully-adjustable Showa inverted fork; 7.5”
1250 Special: Electronically-adjustable semi-active Showa inverted front fork; 7.5”
Rear suspension and travel1250: Fully-adjustable Showa monoshock with piggy-back reservoir; 7.5”
1250 Special: Electronically-adjustable semi-active Showa monoshock with piggy-back reservoir; 7.5”
Seat height1250: 31.8”
1250 Special: 31.1” (standard), 30.4” (with optional Adaptive Ride Height)
Curb weight1250: 534 lbs
1250 Special: 559 lbs
Starting price1250: $17,319
1250 Special: $19,999

Given that the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 and 1250 Special are built on the same platform, it makes sense that their specs are so similar. And besides having the same amount of suspension travel and identical powertrains, both use their V-twin engines as stressed members. Both Pan America trims even have the same 8.3” of ground clearance and identical Brembo disc brakes.

Superficially, the 1250 Special has more paint options than the Pan America 1250. But their similarities continue underneath their skins. Both trims come standard with a full safety suite, including hill-hold control and cornering-enhanced ABS, traction control, and rear-wheel-slip control. They both also come standard with cruise control, LED lighting, 6.8” TFT tilting displays with Bluetooth, as well as adjustable seats and windscreens. Also, even the base 2021 Pan America 1250 has adjustable brake and clutch levers, Cycle World notes. Plus, both bikes have five different riding modes—plus two custom ones—that alter the throttle response, engine mapping, ABS, and traction control.

So, if the two 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 trims are so similar, what separates the base bike from the 1250 Special? As it happens, several things.

The Pan America 1250 Special has more standard features and tech—including its killer app

A gray-and-black 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special with accessories in a grassy field
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special with accessories | Matthew Skwarczek, MotorBiscuit

Arguably the biggest difference between the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 and the 1250 Special is their suspension. The latter trim has electronically-adjustable suspension that’s linked to the different riding modes. Sport Mode, for example, firms up the ride for sharper handling, though it remains comfortably compliant. And it automatically adjusts the preload based on rider and cargo weight.

However, seeing as other motorcycles offer semi-active suspension, that’s not the Pan America 1250 Special’s truly special party trick. What’s really “genius” about it is the optional Adaptive Ride Height, MCN says. I’d go so far as saying that it’s this bike’s killer app—more on this in a moment.

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

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Only available on the 1250 Special, Adaptive Ride Height starts working at speeds under 16 mph. Based on input from the throttle, clutch, and braking system, it automatically lowers the Pan America’s ride height by 1-2”, making it easier for riders to put their feet down or swing their legs over the seat. And once you’re moving, the ride height rises back up to maintain sufficient ground clearance. But if you want, you can disable the feature, or set it to a short or long delay.

Although the Adaptive Ride Height is optional, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special has some extra standard features compared to the ‘standard’ bike. For off-roaders, there’s an aluminum skid plate, engine guards, handguards, and heated grips. And though spoked wheels are optional, a tire-pressure monitoring system comes standard. Plus, the 1250 Special gets a standard height-adjustable rear brake pedal, center stand, steering damper, and adaptive headlight.

Is the Special trim of Harley-Davidson’s adventure bike special enough for its higher price?

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As standard, the 2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special is about $1700 more expensive than the standard trim. And the Adaptive Ride Height adds $1000 to that. So, is it worth the upcharge?

After riding the Pan America 1250 Special for a week, I can honestly say, yes. Admittedly, I haven’t ridden the standard Pan America 1250. However, with how much extra gear you get with the Special, especially the trick electronic suspension, the upcharge is arguably a bargain. And RevZilla says the Special’s “suspension improves handling on the pavement, not just in the dirt.” Plus, while the Chicagoland weather made heated grips unnecessary, come winter, I’d be singing a different tune.

Also, I recommend getting the Adaptive Ride Height, especially if you’re a shorter rider. It’s smooth enough to be almost imperceptive. And it genuinely made me more confident about riding and controlling such a large and heavy (to me) motorcycle.

It’s worth noting that the base Pan America 1250 isn’t a bad bike in comparison. Harley-Davidson crafted a solid machine that can handle off-road riding, touring, and some sweeping country road fun, RevZilla reports. The 1250 Special is a stellar motorcycle because it’s built on the same foundation as the standard bike.

But this is indeed a case where a trim named ‘Special’ does live up to its moniker.

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