Challenging Milwaukee’s best with top-shelf capability and the most horsepower and torque in the bagger class
Words by Greg Drevenstedt
Photos by Barry Hathaway
Since its relaunch in 2014, Indian has struck a balance between honoring the past and looking to the future. Its first few models—the Chief Classic, Chief Vintage and Chieftain—had skirted fenders and an air-cooled V-twin with downward-firing exhausts that evoked nostalgia for Indians your father or grandfather used to ride. But when it brought back the Scout for 2015, it broke from cruiser tradition and gave it a high-revving, liquid-cooled V-twin. And last year Indian introduced the FTR1200 street tracker, featuring a high-performance engine and optional rider-assistance electronics.
Indian has also renewed its head-to-head competition with Harley-Davidson, reigniting a fierce rivalry waged on racetracks, at factories and in dealerships during the first half of the 20th century. Indian ended Harley’s decades-long dominance of flat track with consecutive AFT Twins championships in 2017-2019, and no doubt a portion of Indian’s sales over the past few years have come at Harley’s expense.
Now Indian has introduced a new model for 2020 whose name makes its intentions clear: Challenger. At its heart is the all-new liquid-cooled PowerPlus 108, a 1768cc (108ci) V-twin that makes a claimed 128 lb-ft of torque and 122 horsepower. Indian’s air-cooled Thunder Stroke 111/116 V-twin has powered all of its heavyweight baggers and tourers. Rather than implement partial liquid cooling as Harley-Davidson did with its Twin-Cooled Milwaukee-Eight V-twin (and as BMW did with its R-series boxer), Indian decided to go all-in with liquid cooling for the PowerPlus. It didn’t have to go far for inspiration, either. Indian’s middleweight Scouts are powered by a liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-twin with DOHC and 4 valves per cylinder, and the PowerPlus has the same engine configuration and number of valves but uses a SOHC head.
Indian says the PowerPlus “was developed with a big-piston, big-torque mindset with an end game of maximum power delivery across the entire curve.” When we put the Challenger on Jett Tuning’s dyno, its belt-driven rear wheel cranked out 113.3 lb-ft of torque at 3500 rpm and 107.6 horsepower at 5600 rpm, with redline at 6500 rpm. That unseats the previous king of torque among V-twin tourers we’ve tested, the Yamaha Star Venture (110.9 lb-ft of torque, 75.9 horsepower), as well as the top-of-the-line Harley-Davidson CVO Limited (110.0 lb-ft of torque, 96.0 horsepower). The Challenger’s broad mountain of rear-wheel torque tops 100 lb-ft from 2400 to 5600 rpm, and its horsepower curve increases steadily from 2000 rpm to peak.
The PowerPlus 108 gets the job done with an oversquare bore and stroke of 108.0 x 96.5mm, 11.0:1 compression and dual-bore 52mm throttle bodies. It also has overhead camshafts with hydraulic chain tensioners and valves with hydraulic lash adjusters. Power is sent to the rear wheel through a 6-speed transmission with an overdrive top gear and a cable-actuated wet assist clutch.
In the world of baggers and tourers there are two distinct camps: those with fork-mounted fairings, like Indian’s Chieftain and Harley-Davidson’s Street Glide, and those with fixed or frame-mounted fairings, like Indian’s Challenger and Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide. By taking weight off the handlebar and fork, motorcycles with frame-mounted fairings require less steering effort than those with fork-mounted fairings, and our road test, which included hundreds of miles and plenty of technical cornering along California’s Big Sur coast, demonstrated just how agile and well balanced an 848-pound bagger can be.
Hidden beneath the Challenger’s 6-gallon tank is a modular aluminum backbone frame similar to the one on the Chieftain (they share the same wheelbase and rake/trail figures), but rather than straight downtubes the Challenger’s flare out and are sculpted to wrap around the radiator like they are on the Scout’s. Indian’s stout chassis, which shares significant DNA with frames that contributed to the impressive handling of Victory’s big touring models, feels rock solid. Pushing hard on a 25-mile twisting road that climbs over the Santa Lucia Range and puts any motorcycle’s handling to the test, the Challenger never lost its cool.
With a non-adjustable 43mm inverted fork with 5.1 inches of travel, a preload-adjustable hydraulic Fox rear shock with 4.5 inches of travel and 31 degrees of cornering clearance, the footboards rarely touched down and the ride was responsive, taut and comfortable. The Challenger rolls on 19-/16-inch cast wheels shod with Metzeler Cruisetec tires, and a pair of big 320mm front rotors clamped by 4-piston Brembo monoblock radial provide ample stopping power, though they could use more initial bite. New for 2020 is what Indian calls Smart Lean Technology, which uses a Bosch IMU to enable cornering ABS and traction control (TC can be turned off but ABS cannot) as well as Drag Torque Control.
A bagger like the Challenger will spend most of its time cruising at a more modest pace on less taxing roads, and it excels in such an environment. The PowerPlus 108 not only delivers right-now torque for rapid acceleration, its liquid-cooled design also means much less heat radiates into the cockpit, eliminating our biggest complaint about the air-cooled Thunder Stroke. Even with liquid cooling, though, the PowerPlus offers rear cylinder deactivation at stops to further reduce heat from the exhaust header beneath the rider’s right thigh. Throttle-by-wire enables electronic cruise control as well as three riding modes—Sport, Standard and Rain—that adjust throttle response.
As much as we appreciate the Challenger’s performance and handling, what delivers the mail in this segment is style, sound and comfort. The Challenger’s snout-forward, wide-mouth fairing was clearly inspired by the Road Glide’s sharknose fairing—both even have closable vents on either side of the headlight that bring fresh air into the cockpit—but the Indian sets itself apart with LED running lights/turn signals that bracket the headlight, an electrically adjustable windscreen with a 3-inch range and a dashboard that’s much closer to the rider. The Challenger offers good wind protection, a supportive seat with a high rear bolster, rubber-mounted footboards and enormous top-loading saddlebags with remote locking. Total storage capacity, including two small fairing pockets, is 18 gallons, or 68 liters.
There are three versions of the Challenger. Standard equipment on the base model ($21,999), available in Titanium Metallic only, includes ABS, keyless ignition with remote saddlebag locks and the Ride Command infotainment system with a 7-inch customizable color touchscreen and a 100-watt audio system. The Challenger Dark Horse ($27,499-$28,249), which is available in several matte colors with blacked-out finishes, adds Smart Lean Technology, navigation, a customizable route builder, connected weather and traffic services and contrast-cut wheels with tire-pressure monitoring. The Challenger Limited ($27,999-$28,749) we tested is available in several metallic colors and adds color-matched fender closeouts and highway bars.
Even though the larger air-cooled Thunder Stroke 116 was also introduced for 2020, satisfying customer demands for more torque while also edging out Harley’s Milwaukee-Eight 114 by a couple of cubic inches, the PowerPlus 108 is the engine that will take Indian’s heavyweight models into the future. It offers the performance, comfort and lower emissions that only liquid cooling can provide, and in the Challenger it delivers impressive grunt and smoothness without giving up the rumbling character that makes a V-twin the most popular type of engine among American motorcyclists. That plus muscular, modern style, an excellent chassis, a full range of available technology, generous wind protection and luggage capacity and plenty of long-haul comfort make the Challenger one heckuva bagger. We look forward to seeing how it stacks up against the competition.
2020 Indian Challenger Limited
Base Price: $27,999
Price as Tested: $28,749 (Ruby Metallic color)
Warranty: 1 yr., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse 60-degree V-twin
Displacement: 1,768cc (108ci)
Bore x Stroke: 108.0 x 96.5mm
Compression Ratio: 11.0:1
Valve Train: SOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: NA (self-adjusting)
Fuel Delivery: EFI, 52mm dual bore throttle body x 2
Lubrication System: Semi-wet sump, 5-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet assist clutch
Final Drive: Belt
Charging Output: 803 watts max.
Battery: 12V 18AH
Frame: Modular cast aluminum w/ engine as stressed member & cast aluminum swingarm
Wheelbase: 65.7 in.
Rake/Trail: 25 degrees/5.9 in.
Seat Height: 26.5 in.
Suspension, Front: 43mm USD fork, no adj.,
Rear: Single shock, remote adj. for spring
preload, 4.5-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 320mm floating discs w/ opposed 4-piston radial monoblock calipers & ABS
Rear: Single 298mm floating disc w/ 2-piston
pin-slide caliper & ABS
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 19 in.
Rear: Cast, 5.00 x 16 in.
Tires, Front: 130/60-B19
Wet Weight: 848 lbs.
Load Capacity: 537 lbs.
GVWR: 1,385 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 6 gals., last 1.0 gal. warning light on
MPG: 91 AKI min. (low/avg/high) 35.7/37.8/39.7
Estimated Range: 227 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 2,500