Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra vs. Indian Roadmaster - COMPARISON TEST

Heavenly rides to a town called Hell prove you can take it with you

Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra and Indian Roadmaster
That's not a dragon, silly, it's a serpent. We know because this creature didn't have wings and didn't breathe fire. It left us alone after we tossed it some leftover tater tots from the Road Glide's side bag.Jeff Allen

There’s been a lot of talk about “bug-out bikes” lately—as in which is the perfect motorcycle to escape a natural (or unnatural) disaster. Earthquake? Tsunami? Political upheaval? Get on your go-anywhere adventure-tourer and leave it all behind.

Which is all well and fine should your world go to hell, but what if you're actually going to Hell? You don't want to roll up on Beelzebub astride some oversize orange dirt bike. No, you need a motorcycle that makes the proper statement. And nothing speaks louder than a badass big-inch V-twin. That's where the Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra and Indian Roadmaster come in.

Okay, so maybe a murdered-out bobber would be more sinister-looking than a colorful full dresser, but it’s tough to find a black bike by torchlight, and you’re going to need luggage to take it all with you. Especially if it’s a one-way trip.

Slab City, on the fringes of the Dead, er, Salton Sea in the southeast corner of California, offers the nearest thing to a dystopian society in these United States.

We had these two touring cruisers to compare and three days to get it done. It just so happened that Monday was Halloween, which meant Tuesday was All Saints’ Day and Wednesday was All Souls’ Day. Are you sensing a theme here? Add to this the fact that the Cubs finally won the World Series and surely The End was nigh.

So we plotted a course to Hell on Earth. Slab City, on the fringes of the Dead, er, Salton Sea in the southeast corner of California, offers the nearest thing to a dystopian society in these United States. Think Thunderdome without Tina Turner. Featured in the film Into the Wild, the place is a former military base that has devolved into a refuge for artists, students, and others who want to live way off the grid. They wouldn’t know what to make of our motorcycles...

Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra and Indian Roadmaster on-road action
Comin' for you! Indian's designers definitely took a good, long look at Harley's touring lineup before picking up their pencils. But the Roadmaster is more reminiscent of an Electra Glide than a Road Glide.Jeff Allen

Detractors like to say that Harley-Davidsons haven’t changed in a century, and that’s only partly true. While the classic 45-degree V-twin architecture originated on the 1936 Knucklehead, it has been continually refined. This latest version, called the Milwaukee-Eight, is equipped with a fuel-injected, twin-cooled (meaning oil and water), four-valve-per-cylinder engine that could almost be called modern. Holdovers include pushrod valve actuation with forked rockers and hydraulic lash adjustment, plus a non-unit six-speed gearbox. Even so, power is markedly improved from the previous generation, the 107ci (1,750cc) mill pumping out a credible 77 hp and 98 pound-feet of torque on the cursed CW dyno. That’s a far cry from the 50-ish horsepower Big Twins made not too terribly long ago.

Indian is a relative newcomer to the scene, never mind that the original company succumbed to financial pressures in 1950. Forget about everything that transpired between then and now because it was inconsequential—an S&S-powered Harley clone with valanced, art deco fenders does not an Indian make! To its credit, new parent company Polaris didn’t base the new Indian line on its existing Victory platform, instead designing an all-new 49-degree Thunder Stroke V-twin (albeit with old-fashioned air-cooling and two pushrod-actuated valves per cylinder) that pays homage to the original Power Plus. That 111ci (1,811cc) mill is no slouch, either, putting out 73 hp and 103 pound-feet of torque.

Harley Road Glide Ultra and Indian Roadmaster at Salvation Mountain
Sinners often find religion on their way to eternal damnation. We found Salvation Mountain at the entryway to Slab City. It was evangelist Leonard Knight's labor of love for 27 of his 85 years.Jeff Allen

Technically these two models are not an exact match because the Road Glide has a frame-mounted fairing while the Roadmaster’s bolts to its fork. The Ultra Limited would have been a better match; alas none was available. Aside from that one difference, however, these two machines are almost identically equipped. The Harley’s shark-nose fairing looks more modern than the Indian’s, which is said to have been influenced by streamliner locomotives of the 1950s. But the Indian looks more modern behind its fairing, as its multi-function touchscreen dash features multiple windows and is customizable. The Harley’s dash isn’t exactly low-tech, but it is a half step behind. The Indian scores bonus points for its heated seat and handgrips, keyless igni­tion, and remote trunk lock, but it also costs more. These options are available on H-D tourers, and prices for similarly equipped bikes are…similar.

Our descent into Hell began on a fitting note as we puzzled over how to reset the Indian’s tripmeter; we were 25 miles down the road before we noticed the little red icon at the upper edge of the touchscreen. And this delay, coupled with a range reading that inexplicably switches to “Low” when you most need to know exactly how many miles you have remaining, resulted in our running out of gas at the edge of nowhere. Ordinarily we would feel comfortable speculating that the Roadmaster might go 200 miles between fill-ups, but we now know that it goes exactly 196.6 miles. The most we saw out of the Harley was 213.6 miles, in normal commuting.

Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra static side view
As old-fashioned as the Road Glide appears, it looked positively futuristic in Slab City's Art Garden. Fans of "found art"--or recycled bicycle wheels, car tires and antennae--will love this place.Jeff Allen

To explore these two tourers' back-road capabilities, we took SR 78 over the Cuyamaca Mountains through heavenly Julian and down to the hellish Imperial Valley. Both bikes worked very well considering their near-half-ton heft; the Indian is 14 pounds heavier according to the CW scales, but in this class that's like having slightly bigger love handles. H-D's engineers did away with the traditional air-adjustable shocks this year (because they found that owners seldom checked the pressure) and substituted a simple adjustment knob behind the left saddlebag. The Indian continues to use air-adjustable rear suspension and includes a small hand pump with purchase; pop off the left side cover and you'll find a Schrader valve and a chart with recommended settings.

Chasing the Tail of the Dragon, we found the Harley to have greater cornering clearance before its floorboards touched down but the Indian to have more neutral steering, thanks in part to its lower, wider handlebar. The Harley’s chassis felt very planted—credit its standard steering damper and dual-compound Dunlop tires—but required constant bar pressure to hold a line. Some years ago, a lead tester with Harley said it tunes the chassis to require a bit of pressure on the inside bar, so this is likely a philosophical difference between makers. The ABS-equipped brakes on both bikes are impressively up to the task at hand; the Road Glide’s are linked front to back whereas the Roadmaster’s are separate.

Indian Roadmaster on-road action
The Roadmaster has a natural riding position that is all-day comfortable save for the bothersome seat stitching. The high-tech dash initially feels too "in your face," but actually is very user-friendly.Jeff Allen

In the desert near Ocotillo, we hopped on Interstate 8 East toward El Centro and our final destination. Impromptu roll-ons in both fourth and sixth gears confirmed that these two big V-twins are very evenly matched. The Indian’s greater low-end torque gave it the initial jump until it rolled over at 4,000 rpm, at which point the higher-revving Harley stretched its legs and pulled slightly ahead. Speaking of gears, it’s worth noting that the Harley’s new, hydraulically actuated Assist and Slip clutch (which enabled engineers to reduce the plate count and narrow the primary cover) has a heavy pull and a narrow range of engagement that makes for jerky starts. Curiously, the Harley’s gear display disappears if you so much as finger the clutch lever while the Indian’s takes a moment to update after each shift.

Nothing reveals flaws in aerodynamics and comfort like droning on the freeway, and both of these touring cruisers proved commendably comfortable. The Indian gets better marks for wind protection because its windshield is electrically height-adjustable over a 4-inch range while the Harley’s screen is fixed and prone to buffeting the rider’s helmet (it’s better with the fairing vents open). In terms of actual seating, the Harley is superior here, as the stitches on the Indian’s quilted leather saddle start to emboss themselves in your butt cheeks after a few hours. Both V-twins exhibit just enough vibration to give them some character but not enough to make your fingers and toes tingle.

Indian Roadmaster static side view
"Doors? We don't need no stinkin' doors." The classic-looking Roadmaster, attractively framed by the entrance to Slab City's Art Garden. Hopefully those propane tanks are empty!Jeff Allen

You can’t ride to Hell without mentioning heat. The Harley's twin radiators mean you stay cool, while the Indian broils the rider’s legs, especially on the right (pipe) side. Harley’s engineers moved the rear exhaust port inboard on the new motor, which undoubtedly helped combat heat, but we have to wonder about them reducing idle from 1,000 to 850 rpm. Our testbike never stalled at a standstill, but it sounded like it might because of its spaced-out beats.

The Roadmaster’s dash initially seems too “in your face” but in fact is easy to read and to use. The Road Glide’s dash is farther away, yet its GPS display proved difficult to read at night. That added distance also makes for a long reach to the touchscreen, though you can accomplish most functions using the thumb-operated joysticks. Both bikes are equipped with powerful audio systems that sound great while tailgating, pretty good below 50 mph, and distorted at freeway speeds. The Indian’s antenna is lower and better tucked in than the Harley’s, but ours broke nonetheless. FM was lost, but it has Bluetooth and cable connectivity. We preferred the Harley’s simple one-button cruise control but have to wonder why after all these years it retains separate turn signal switches, one on each switch pod. Even the so-traditional Germans at BMW ultimately abandoned those!

Harley Road Glide Ultra and Indian Roadmaster on the road
Heading on down the highway: We appreciated that the Roadmaster's fairing incorporates its speedo and tach; the Road Glide requires a glance downward to the tanktop nacelle.Jeff Allen

In the end—or The End—these two full-dress touring cruisers are so evenly matched that passing final judgment is an act of faith. If we have to play devil’s advocate, we’ll point out that the Harley is a bit more modern mechanically while the Indian has it covered electronically. The Road Glide costs less, but the Roadmaster gives you more for your money (down to its electric screen). The Harley is more authentic in that it traces its roots directly back to that very first machine built in that shed in Milwaukee, but the Indian feels like it could have sprung from the original production line in Springfield. The bottom line is you’ll be happy—perhaps eternally so—with whichever one you choose.

If your riding buddies don’t agree with your decision, tell them to go to Hell!

Harley Road Glide Ultra and Indian Roadmaster on-road action
Wrong way! Shutterbug Jeff Allen's long lens makes it look like that street sign is telling motorists to turn left when the road goes right. Out here in the Ocotillo desert, one can never have too much gas.Jeff Allen
Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra studio side view
Harley-Davidson Road Glide UltraCourtesy of Harley-Davidson
THE NUMBERS
UPS +Liquid-cooling, eight valves—are you sure this is a Harley?
+Better cornering clearance
+Improved suspension
DOWNS –Sound system could be louder for freeway riding
–Gear indicator a nuisance
–Adjustable screen viewing angle, please
Price $26,899
Dry weight 899 lb.
Wheelbase 64.1 in.
Seat height 29.3 in.
Fuel mileage 36.0 mpg
1/4 mile 13.77 sec. @ 96.14 mph
0–60 mph 4.9 sec.
Top gear 40–60 mph 5.5 sec.
60–80 mph 6.4 sec.
Horsepower 76.5 @ 4980 rpm
Torque 97.7 lb.-ft. @ 2840 rpm
Braking 30–0 mph 32 ft.
60–0 mph 135 ft.
2017 Indian Roadmaster studio side view
Indian RoadmasterCourtesy of Indian
THE NUMBERS
UPS Is that an Indian or a 20th century Limited? (Google it.)
Heated seat/handgrips
Torque!
DOWNS Low fuel indicator is frustrating
Saddle leaves grill marks
Hotter than the Harley
Price $30,399
Dry weight 913 lb.
Wheelbase 66.1 in.
Seat height 28.5 in.
Fuel mileage 35.9 mpg
1/4 mile 13.91 sec. @ 94.44 mph
0–60 mph 5.2 sec.
Top gear 40–60 mph 4.9 sec.
60–80 mph 5.7 sec.
Horsepower 72.4 @ 4440 rpm
Torque 102.7 lb.-ft. @ 2480 rpm
Braking 30–0 mph 31 ft.
60–0 mph 125 ft.
Indian Roadmaster at Slab City
Indian Roadmaster in Slab CityJeff Allen
Slab City artsy scene
Slab CityJeff Allen
Alien Crash Site signage at Slab City
Slab City signageJeff Allen