CW Comparison Test: Indian vs. Harley vs. Guzzi

There's no shortage of heritage on this road trip to Death Valley.

H-D Softail Deluxe and Indian Chief Classic and Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom group static shot

Did everyone see the commercial Indian Motorcycle created to describe the arrival of "choice in American motorcycles"? It's brilliant. Hundreds of Harley riders stream down a two-lane highway, while at a crossroad a mini pack of Indian riders waits patiently. Finally, one appropriately wizened Harley guy stops the herd, examines the new bikes, then, after a theatrical pause, offers the Indian riders an approving nod, which gives them the right-of-way.

When reintroducing the California 1400 Custom, Moto Guzzi didn't create a commercial to announce its threat to the establishment. As Italy's oldest continuously operating motorcycle manufacturer, it's a brand that drips history and clout. And like most things Italian, it's sneakily sexy: Versace, Bolo­gnese, Donatello, Aprilia. Blame it on cultural pheromones.

But the bottom line is this: Neither brand is trying to be what is already something else. That something being Harley-Davidson. And this is where the game differs. Indian and Guzzi only needed to reemerge with models true to their own traditions to be winners.

Oh. But wait. This isn’t a story about brands. It’s a comparison of the modernized versions of each brand’s iconic motorcycles: Harley-Davidson’s Softail Deluxe, Indian’s Chief Classic, and Moto Guzzi’s California 1400 Custom.

Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe static side shot
UPS DOWNS
Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe * Cool vintage vibe * Excellent finish quality * Slick transmission action * No cruise control * Horrible cornering clearance * Harsh rear suspension

BIKES & _BRRR_DENS

And so, at the break of dawn, just as traffic in Southern California comes to an early boil, we are rolling east toward the high desert and its empty, open roads. And maybe toward the truth about these three pivotal cruisers, though the only thing true right now is that we’re miserable. It’s in the low 30s, and without windscreens, we’re freezing. We’d opted for the undressed versions of the Softail, Chief, and California to get a sampling of the machines in their purest forms. Bags and windshields are totally subjective, though this morning, man, they make a load of sense.

A couple hours later, in a café near nothing, the coffee and hot sauce-drenched omelets finally take effect, and we can begin to discuss the hardware. Senior Editor Blake Conner has started off on the, cough, cough, Hard Candy Custom Voodoo Purple (a fourteen-freaking-hundred-dollar option) Softail Deluxe. No matter what you think of the dazzling metal-flake hue, it's an exceptionally easy bike to ride, light in feel and smooth in function. Unfortunately for those testing, all of whom are average in height (roughly 5-foot-10), it was the most uncomfortable of the bikes to ride farther than the local 7-Eleven, especially if getting there involved freeway speeds. The cool-looking wheelbarrow handlebar is wide and sweeps back a little too far, while the seat is dished at the rear, which tilts you away from the bar, putting strain on your lower back. That said, if you're on the smaller side, perhaps even of a persuasion that favors purple, this machine could be a perfect fit for you.

The Chief is the heaviest (99 pounds heavier than the Guzzi) and has the longest wheelbase of the bunch (68.7 inches by our measure) but is also, by far, the most luxurious to ride. Since we rotate the bikes alphabetically at every stop, riding the Indian was like a visit to the spa that followed each stint on the Harley.

The California 1400 Custom offers neutral ergonomics, much more of a standard-style seating arrangement than traditional cruiser positioning, and the best seat of the bunch. And not just for comfort. Surprisingly, the more luscious-looking, real leather seats on the Harley and Indian are kinda slippery, which can be a little distracting when you’re poised for a twisty bit of road.

All three bikes do an admirable job damping engine vibration, especially at lower revs, where these bikes deliver ample torque. Guest tester Ryan Orr said the Guzzi was so smooth it reminded him of an electric bike. But once the Softail and California are wound up, vibration finds its way through the bars and floorboards, while the Chief remains surreally smooth from the bottom to the top of its generous powerband.

Indian Chief Classic static side shot
UPS DOWNS
Indian Chief Classic * Gorgeous * Crazy-smooth powertrain * Rock-solid handling * Poor turning radius * Cheesy-looking bar controls * Unattractive passenger peg mounts

DEATH & BEER

We are headed to Death Valley, with its naked earth and lore. In the middle of the day, we stop at a veritable shack called the Panamint Springs Resort to sip sodas while ogling its collection of 180 different beers. What a perfect ploy to stop traffic in the parched desert.

In addition to being one of the most geologically fascinating destinations on the planet, Death Valley National Park also offers some pretty serious thrill rides amid its jagged edges. Unsurprisingly, the sportier Guzzi was a champ for this kind of riding, with rational steering geometry and a well-balanced chassis. Further, there’s good front-end feedback, and the suspension is firm enough for aggressive cornering yet forgiving in the bumpiest of sections. The Italian contender is also the first cruiser on the market to offer dialable traction control, an appreciated asset on the sand-strewn desert roads.

Also not surprising, the Guzzi offers plenty of cornering clearance, but in an extraordinary twist, it turns out that the Indian actually offers the best clearance value among these three bikes. And, actually, it’s the best of any traditionally styled, floorboard-equipped cruiser we’ve ever tested.

And when you’re heeled over on the big Chief, it’ll also hold a wonderfully dedicated line. Steering feel is solid and weighty but not ponderous. Extremely predictable. The two testers who hadn’t experienced the “behemoth” in the twisties were blown right out of the water. From Conner’s notes: “I’m totally surprised how well the Indian handles despite that exceptionally long wheelbase.” To Orr’s: “Cornering this beast was no problem, thanks to nice suspension action and all that clearance.”

“When you’re heeled over on the big chief, it’ll hold a wonderfully dedicated line.

And the Harley? What can one say when a bike is so busy shredding its own floorboards? The Softail actually has really good steering geometry, but any potential for fun is negated by its unforgivable lack of lean angle. And we’re not talking about grinding during aggressive riding. Your grandma would shed sparks on this machine. True, it’s not a top priority on a cruiser, but H-D has proven it knows how to make classic American bikes corner (look no further than the FL touring line), so we know it can be done. Another fun-vampire is the Softail’s lack of rear suspension travel, which makes that vintage hardtail styling too near a virtual experience.

And just to get the rest of the bitching out of the way, the Softail also has the weakest brakes, mostly for lack of a second disc up front. Indian has incorpo­rated a hearty dual-disc, four-piston-caliper system without missing any marks on the aesthetic front, and likewise, the Chief offers superior suspension and cornering prowess without paying any noticeable tax on its slave-to-heritage styling.

Stopping the sportier Guzzi are dual Brembos up front and a single rear to follow. There is plenty of grab for the lightest bike in the test, the lever offering good feel, plus the best road-surface feedback of the bunch.

Admirably, all three machines come with ABS as standard equipment.

Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom static side shot
UPS DOWNS
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom * Exceptional value * Sport-cruiser feel * Sophisticated electronics package * Plastic fenders in a steel-fender crowd * Cruise control is on/off only * Worst fuel economy/range

POWER & MONEY

After teasing the rental-car-bound tourists with our cool moto toys, we tuck into some steaks at the Furnace Creek Ranch and talk about…what else? Motorcycles.

Looks are subjective, of course, but we’re able to agree the Moto Guzzi is the sexiest looking of the bikes we’re evaluating, simply for its exotic architecture. On a more emotional level, the Indian is glorious. Especially the rider’s view of the Chief Classic, looking out over the modern instrument cluster with that huge headlight nacelle that stretches forward for days. Man, it’s a nice scene. The bedazzled Harley is undeniably well finished, with its chrome-accented, old-school hardtail-esque rear end being its most admired angle.

But at the end of the day doesn't it come down to power and money? All of these bikes are fast—certainly powerful enough to quicken the pulse. And interestingly, the Guzzi's 1,380cc V-twin is pumping out almost 10 more top-end ponies than the Indian's 1,819cc Thunder Stroke 111, which, of course, squashes everything in sight when it comes to torque. And, oh yeah, that's including the Harley. Let's just say that if the Thunderstroke 111 were arm wrestling Harley's 1,690cc Twin Cam 103, the Indian would put Harley's hand right through the table.

And money? The Indian Chief Classic is well priced at $18,999. As for that sexy, super-fun-to-ride Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom? It’s a crazy $4,000 less than the Indian. The Harley with the sparkling purple paint and $460-optional wheels hangs its head at $19,759.

Harley-Indian-Guzzi-group-action-1

WHAT REALLY MOVES US

Again we start the day early. There aren’t many things more moving than an empty desert set aflame by the morning sun. We rush up the dirty, tangled road to Dante’s View and let the silence tickle our ears.

When it comes to cruisers, a motorcycle can't simply be a bike without also being a brand. When you buy one, you become a member of a tribe—in the case of Harley-Davidson, a massive one. But in this wonderful now moment, there is both government and opposition.

The crowds and cool factor of the H-D world definitely have their appeal, and there is no denying the lasting value in the purchase of the Softail Deluxe. But the retro vibe is a bit too real here and left us sorely wanting for a next-gen Softail. The Guzzi, meanwhile, charmed us enough last year to take Best Cruiser in Ten Best voting and undisputedly carries on as one of the most soulful, sporty, and value-priced cruisers of all time. But the Chief out-torques them both and, while not as agile as the Guzzi, can lean just that much farther.

Exceptionally classic in look, with an exceptional breadth of performance, the Indian Chief does, indeed, preside.

SPECIFICATIONS
|Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe|Indian Chief Classic|Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom
PRICE|$19,759|$19,499|$14,990
DRY WEIGHT|709 lb.|780 lb.|681 lb.
WHEELBASE|64.5 in.|68.7 in.|66.9 in.
SEAT HEIGHT|26.1 in.|28.4 in.|29.3 in.
FUEL MILEAGE|40 mpg|36 mpg|35 mpg
0-60 MPH|4.6 sec.|4.5 sec.|3.7 sec.
1/4 MILE|13.34 sec. @ 98.49 mph|13.20 sec. @ 98.46 mph|12.54 sec. @ 105.21 mph
HORSEPOWER|71.0 hp @ 5230 rpm|75.9 hp @ 4300 rpm|84.6 hp @ 6180 rpm
TORQUE|87.3 lb.-ft. @ 3070 rpm|105.3 lb.-ft. @ 2850 rpm|78.6 lb.-ft. @ 2820 rpm
TOP SPEED|113 mph|114 mph|125 mph
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - group shot #1
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - group action #1
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - group action #2
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - group action #3
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - group shot #2
Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe - action shot
Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe - static shot
Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe - cockpit view
Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe - name badge
Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe - studio right-side view
Indian Chief Classic - action shot #1
Indian Chief Classic - action shot #2
Indian Chief Classic - action shot #3
Indian Chief Classic - static shot
Indian Chief Classic - cockpit view
Indian Chief Classic - Indian head on front fender
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - action shot #1
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - action shot #2
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - static shot
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - cockpit view
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - name badge
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - floorboard
Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom - studio right-side view
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - front profiles
Harley - Indian - Guzzi - group shot #3