Freedom, thrill, power, and the call of the open road. These are just a handful of reasons many Americans decide to straddle a motorcycle. Riding on two wheels is an experience cars cannot match and each motorcycle and scooter has its own feel. A Honda Grom lets out your inner hooligan, a Vespa is a functional piece of art, and a Kawasaki Ninja H2 is probably the closest you’ll get to strapping yourself to a rocket Wile E. Coyote-style. A bagger pairs the sensation of commanding a high-powered machine with stunning visuals all wrapped in a package that makes you want to hit the highway. I did just that with the 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse, and for the most part, it felt like I was writing a novel about the open road.
As with all of my motorcycle tests, the Indian was used as my daily driver for the approximately one month that I had it. I rode the Challenger Dark Horse to doctor appointments, through heavy Chicago traffic, to my favorite train museum, and even on a road trip to and from Detroit. I finished my testing conflicted and physically sore, but I couldn’t help but miss that big red brute.
(Full Disclosure: Indian Motorcycle loaned me 2023 Challenger Dark Horse to test how I pleased for about a month. It arrived with just 108 miles on its odometer, then I added over 1,000 more miles to it.)
What’s In A Name?
I’ve written about Indian’s history a couple of times before, and you can read about it by clicking here and here. Honestly, I’ve only scratched the surface of over a century of bright red cycles. I haven’t even touched the legend of Burt Munro. Something that I’ve long wondered is how Indian got its name.
Ford is named after a person, as are Harley-Davidson and Chevrolet. Smart is an acronym for “Swatch Mercedes Art” and Acura apparently borrows from the Latin word “Acu,” which more or less means something done with precision. This naming curiosity was only amplified by the headdress logos found on my Challenger tester, so I did some digging.
Indian started in 1897 as the Hendee Manufacturing Company. Its first motorcycle was built in 1901 thanks to engineer Oscar Hedstrom. Today’s Indian calls itself America’s first motorcycle company. That distinction is important as Indian wasn’t America’s first motorcycle. Many historians see the 1898 or 1899 Orient-Aster by bicycle manufacturer Waltham Manufacturing Company as America’s first motorcycle.
An archived page of Indian Motorcycle’s website gives us an initial explanation about Indian’s name. It explains that in 1897, Hendee’s original bicycles carried names such as the Silver King, Silver Queen, and American Indian. Apparently, Hendee decided that of those names, his brand should be called Indian as it best reflected the domestic nature of the vehicle.
Motorcycle news site the American Rider gives us a quote from a speech Hendee made at the Springfield Rotary Club in 1931. For reference, Hendee left his company in 1916:
“I realized that in the name Indian we had a winner for bicycles. When the motorcycle came along a year or so later, it simply was out of the question to think of calling it anything but Indian. The name fitted the motorcycle even better than it did the bicycle, and before many moons had passed, the new warrior had deposed the Old Chief from the Wigwam.”
Some sources, such as the San Francisco International Airport Museum, say that Hendee had Native American heritage through his mother, and that was also his motivation for choosing Indian as a name. At any rate, Indian Motocycle (the brand’s early name did not include “Motorcycle”) embraced the Native theming and called its Springfield factory the Wigwam, advertising leaned on Native imagery, executives were called Chiefs, the dealer network was called the Tribe, and the brand’s motorcycles had similar themes. The company name was officially changed to Indian Motorcycle in 1923.
When Polaris revived Indian Motorcycle, the brand reversed many of those actions. Walk into an Indian Motorcycle dealership you won’t find that imagery. Many of Indian’s motorcycles today also just say “Indian” on them without any Native iconography. Indian’s big baggers and tourers are the exception to that.
Polaris has faced some pushback over Indian’s naming and imagery. As culture news site InsideHook reported in 2021, some Indigenous people have differing opinions on the subject. The publication interviewed numerous Indigenous people, and I will quote one interview from the report:
“They are using Indigenous people as mascots for their motorcycles,” Cliff Matias, the founder and international president of Redrum MC, the self-described largest Indigenous motorcycle club in the country, told InsideHook. When asked if he thinks the company needs to change the name, Matias wasn’t ready to offer a definitive opinion.
“I mean, look, is Indian Motorcycle using Native Americans and a Native American image for financial gain? Absolutely,” the 57-year-old said, speaking by phone from Daytona Bike Week in Florida. “Are they giving back to Native country for that use? Not that I know of. That becomes an issue in general right there.”
Matias went on to note that some Indigenous people find the motorcycle brand offensive, and some do not, from InsideHook:
While Matias, who is Kichwa and Taino, was hesitant to draw a line in the sand himself, he did explain the complicated situation Indian Motorcycle presents in his club and his community. On one hand, some Native Americans have latched onto the nostalgia embodied in the heritage brand. “A lot of Natives buy Indian Motorcycles,” he said. “We’ve kind of adopted the motorcycles into our own genre, our own presence.” Others see it differently.
“There are members of the club who find it offensive, for sure. We have tribal chiefs in our club, we have famous Indigenous actors in our club, so there are pretty influential people in the club who, for some of them, it’s an issue,” Matias said. He described the situation as “a double-edged sword.”
In response to these concerns, Indian Motorcycle said:
“Since we acquired Indian Motorcycle in 2011, we have worked to honor the hallmarks of this iconic brand while respecting our riders and the communities we serve. Like any respected brand, we are actively listening, learning and connecting with all stakeholders to determine the best path forward for our brand.”
“We are committed to engaging Native American communities through advocacy and partnership.”
Click here if you’re interested in reading more.
Some people have offered their own individual opinions online. I have also found that there are a number of Indigenous riders who love their Indian motorcycles and ride them with pride. Obviously, it’s not my place to tell you, dear reader, what to think. But, if you’ve ever wondered how Indian Motorcycle’s name came to be, now you know!
The 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse
The Indian Challenger is a more recent addition to the Indian lineup. It was announced in October 2020 and Indian says the motorcycle was designed to be both a technological marvel but also something a bit like a piece of art. Indian’s designers paid a lot of attention to little details that make the experience just a bit better. What’s impressive to me is like the Indians of old, this motorcycle has a focus on brute force and speed. Getting your Challenger in Dark Horse flavor means what would normally be chrome is now black with other finishes in black as well. Personally, I dig this red and black motif far more than the miles of chrome you typically see on big boys like these.
Power comes from a 108 cubic-inch (1768 cc) PowerPlus 60-degree water-cooled V-twin which pumps out 122 horsepower and 128 lb-ft torque. That engine is cradled by a lightweight cast aluminum frame and supported by a hydraulically adjustable FOX shock in the rear. For comparison, the Challenger’s biggest competition is the Harley-Davidson Road Glide, which comes with a Milwaukee-Eight 107 making 92.5 HP and 111 lb-ft torque. Even the spicy Road Glide, the King of the Baggers ST, has a Milwaukee-Eight 117ci V-twin making 106 HP and 127 lb-ft torque.
The Indian is ever so slightly lighter, too, coming in at 840 pounds fueled up to the Harley’s 842 pounds. You’ll need the $7,299 Screamin’ Eagle 131 Crate Engine and its 121 horsepower and 131 lb-ft to match the Indian and the $7,999 Screamin’ Eagle 135 Crate Engine to beat it. In other words, Indian makes more power than a Harley-Davidson with fewer cubes of displacement and for less money. The base Challenger is $24,999 while a base Road Glide is $21,999. But if you want that extra oomph, it’ll cost you more than the Indian.
Of course, since the Indian Challenger Dark Horse is a performance bagger, you expect to be able to lean at least a little bit. Indian offers 31 degrees of lean angle on both sides. The Harley leans 29 degrees to the left and 31 degrees to the right. If you opt for the sporty Road Glide ST, the angles are 31 degrees and 32 degrees, respectively.
I did say that Indian designed the Challenger to be a technological powerhouse, and you do get some nice toys to play with. Many of the motorcycle’s functions run through Indian Ride Command, a seven-inch touchscreen system with built-in navigation, weather and traffic, customizable gauge displays, Bluetooth, USB, an audio system, and even controls for two riding modes.
All of this runs through a quad-core processor. You also get Smart Lean Technology, a Bosch IMU netting your cornering control with dynamic traction control and ABS, as well as Drag Torque Control.
In addition to all of that, you get a massive fixed front fairing with adjustable vents, an electrically adjustable windscreen, and 100 watts of audio firing from 6.5-inch speakers.
On A Steel Horse I Ride
Taking command of the Indian Challenger Dark Horse is an experience that uses most of your senses. You feel the 840 pounds balancing below your crotch, you hear the V-twin’s thunder through your helmet, witness the vast expanse of dashboard ahead of you, and smell the mix of fresh paint, motorcycle saddle, and exhaust. The grips on the handlebar have a similar feeling to the handle on a barbell. And like trying to lift too much weight, the motorcycle delivers instant chaos if you dare to crank the throttle as far as it would go.
Earlier this year, I bought a 2005 Triumph Rocket III. That beast has 140 HP and 147 lb-ft of torque. Launching from a dead stop makes you feel like you’ve been strapped to a Falcon Heavy or a Saturn V. Much of that is thanks to the Avon Cobra Chrome 240/50R16 tires, which hook quickly, throwing you back hard enough that you hope your hands could handle it. The Triumph’s tire is wider than some car tires! Meanwhile, the Indian has a Metzeler Cruisetec 180/60R16 in the back. Put the Indian into Sport mode, crank the throttle, and that Metzeler will nearly instantly begin spinning. If you don’t have traction control tuned on I sure hope you know what you’re doing.
Otherwise, the motorcycle’s safety systems arrest the spin, letting the Metzeler catch up to the rest of the party. A part of me wonders how this bike would launch with a more sticky tire back there. In Sport mode, the motorcycle would happily light that tire up on command from the grip. In Standard mode, the motorcycle was a lot more restrained and I had to work more to get it to do shenanigans.
Anyway, once you’ve found traction in that tire, the Challenger Dark Horse belts out a thunderstorm of noise that quickly sounds a bit closer to a machine gun from a video game the closer you get to redline. Where Harley has its characteristic “potato” sounds, Indian brings so much bass in its soundtrack that you feel the exhaust in your heart. The best part is that the exhaust isn’t that loud, either. You can fire the Indian up in the early morning, as I have, and not wake your neighbors up.
The only thing that makes the sound of the Indian better is reaching the end of a gear in the motorcycle’s six-speed transmission, quickly popping into a new gear, and getting to do it all over again. Once again, I don’t have any independent numbers to show you how fast it is, but it pulls so hard that I’ve been able to surprise sportbike guys at green lights. It’s amusing to see a fella in your rearview racing to get going to catch back up to you. I’m not saying you’ll beat a sportbike, but you won’t be a slouch, either.
Where the Challenger’s powertrain shines best is on the highway, where, like my Triumph Rocket III, the motorcycle keeps a simply ridiculous amount of power in reserve. Are you going 69 mph stuck behind a semi-truck drag race? The second you get an opening you can drop a gear and disappear, your speedometer hitting triple digits faster than a kid can steal a Kia. The power is effortless and relentless. In fact, the computers halt your takeoff run at 110 mph. That’s just under the speed rating of the tires, anyway. And don’t worry, it has ample brakes to cease your forward momentum. Dual 320mm rotors up front are clamped down by a 4-piston caliper. In back you get a 298mm rotor and a 2-piston caliper.
No matter your speed of travel, the Challenger Dark Horse feels composed and stable. This is a bike that feels as stable at 30 mph as it does at 115 mph. And corners? If I didn’t know any better, I would say Indian tried to turn a bagger into something far more sporty. It leans into corners with the same sort of ease offered by the Harley-Davidson racer-inspired Road Glide ST bagger. That means it’s seriously fun to kick around curves and go ahead, ignore those yellow speed reduction signs. The Challenger can handle it. I don’t usually recommend taking turns on a big cruiser, but in this case, I would tell you to take the scenic route just to feel what the Challenger could do. In terms of performance, this motorcycle has a fitting name.
The 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse isn’t just about unstoppable force, though that is its headlining feature. As I said before, you get Indian Ride Command, a touchscreen system that is your gateway to the motorcycle’s functions. Really, the system is a hybrid of touchscreen with physical buttons. Everything is where you would expect it to be and the screen is operable even through your riding gloves. I have just a couple of complaints here.
The first is that on startup, the motorcycle displays a fancy animation that ends with the Indian Motorcycle logo. This would be really cool if it didn’t lag on every start. I have a feeling the system is actually booting during this time, so the quad-core processor is a bit busy. I’m not sure how Indian would solve this, except maybe delaying the screen’s startup a few seconds so the animation is smooth. It’s not a huge deal, but something you notice every time you hit the power button.
My second complaint is with the navigation system, which seems to have no idea how to estimate your time of arrival. I rode the Challenger Dark Horse out to Michigan to drive the Bollinger B4 electric truck. I needed to be there by 10:30 am and at first, I left home with just short of a 6-hour ride and an ETA of 9:57 am. During my ride, the ETA was never stable, and times got as high as 12:59 pm. I scanned the maps ahead for traffic and aside from one bad area, there was nothing that would cause me to arrive nearly three hours later than the original ETA. After a fuel and bathroom stop, I actually arrived at 10:26. The ETA only became accurate in the final 30 minutes of the ride.
Aside from the untrustworthy ETA, the system was otherwise fine. Ride Command controlled my music without problems and everything was clear and easy to read, even in direct sunlight. The directions were also as good as any navigation app, though, and this part is weird, the navigation voice was definitely one of those not human-voiced things, yet it sounded like the computer had English as a third language. It would say “I-294” as “EEE Two Hundred Ninety Four.” Close enough, I guess.
Indian advertises 18+ gallons of weatherproof storage. Indeed, the dashboard has two handy slots to store small things like your wallet and your phone. The hard cases in the back will scarf down some large items, including your jacket, purse, boots, and gloves, but not a full-face helmet. Handy is the fact that the cases lock with the Challenger’s chunky key fob. That said, they don’t seem very weatherproof. Both of the hard cases on my tester had small puddles of water in them after sitting in the rain. Though, to Indian’s credit, the cases didn’t fill with water when riding in the rain. So, maybe water just drains in a weird way when the bike is sitting.
Another note about storage, you get a USB cable in one of the dashboard boxes. If you have a power-hungry phone like my Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra, this is more of a trickle charger. It’ll top up your phone, but very slowly.
Circling back to the infotainment system, the stereo on the Challenger Dark Horse gets really loud. It’s either on the level or even louder than the stereo found on the Can-Am Spyder F3-T. The volume counter goes up to 11 and when it’s set that high, you won’t hear anything but music piercing your poor ears. You could probably wake up the dead and get them twerking with a sound system this loud. Clarity is ok at low to medium volume. Crank it up and the speakers can’t handle any bass, so you’ll hear a lot of distortion. During my road trip to Detroit, my helmet speakers died, so I turned on the bike’s system. I kept the stereo at a medium-low volume. It was loud enough to hear, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone else. I loved it.
The 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse has a seat height of just 26.5 inches, which is about the same height of the seat of my Buell Blast. That means a short person can flat-foot this monster pretty easily. Ergonomics are pretty good as well. It was easy to reach the brake pedal and the shifter was precise and easy to use. The foot-forward riding position isn’t as comfortable as a Can-Am three-wheeler, but my arms and legs didn’t feel any pain even after a long ride.
What did feel pain was my butt. The gunfighter-style seat on my unit was cupped to hold you in under hard acceleration. I loved that part. Unfortunately, the seat just didn’t work for me on a long-distance trip. Two hours into my six-hour trip to Detroit, I started feeling a sharp pain roughly around my tailbone. Stopping and taking a walk helped a little, but as soon as I got back into the saddle, the pain returned.
By the time I got to Detroit, I hurt so much back there I started worrying I broke something. It didn’t help that I saw an alarming color when I used the bathroom. That color turned out to be Gatorade I had the night before, but it hurt so much that I seriously attributed the color to the motorcycle and briefly asked myself if I should go to a hospital. I decided to tough it out and rode an even more painful six hours home. I was sore for a couple of days after.
I’m not entirely sure what went wrong there. Other reviewers, some who weigh more than me, claim the Challenger to be a really comfortable motorcycle. Why was it so painful for me?
The suspension is firm, but not that firm. The seat did seem to lack some cushion compared to other big bikes I’ve ridden, but it didn’t seem painfully thin. Maybe it’s just my body shape.
Indian does sell a touring seat for the Challenger and my tester did not have that. Perhaps that’s the missing piece of the puzzle.
A Love Letter To The Open Road
Despite the pain I felt, the 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse was a motorcycle that I always looked forward to riding. It was a motorcycle I loved staring at, a motorcycle I loved hooning, and a motorcycle that ultimately, made for a fantastic road trip companion.
The Challenger Dark Horse goes down the highway with so much stability and such good handling that you could probably run the 6-gallon tank dry without even touching the handlebar. Seriously, I tested this out a little and found myself able to change lanes and take highway curves with no more effort than shifting my hips. The Challenger Dark Horse is so good at putting down miles I would choose it over many cars, provided I have a better seat. It got about 40 mpg in my care, too, which meant some respectably long legs.
The motorcycle was a crowd magnet, too. Oftentimes I parked somewhere just for gentlemen to appear out of the ether. All of them had stories about having raced an Indian or about how their fathers owned Indians. Seeing this Challenger welled up old, happy memories for these riders.
Younger people loved the flashy paint, the LED lighting, and the styling that made the Challenger look like it was speeding while it was sitting still. The paint was a show-quality finish and everything felt nice and hefty, as if they were milled out of blocks of solid metal. Only the pebbled plastic on the dashboard felt like it could have been better.
Pricing for the Challenger starts at $24,999. For that price, you get a black or gray motorcycle with chrome bits and basic Ride Command with navigation and Apple CarPlay integration. Paying $29,499 gets you a Dark Horse, which features the ability to run Ride Command+ which gives you snazzy traffic and weather alerts, Smart Lean Technology, ride modes, destination search, and a live readout of the vehicle’s status. Paying $30,999 gets your Dark Horse in the sweet red and black my tester came in. Obviously, these are some seriously expensive motorcycles, but I could almost see where the dollars went. Aside from the few aforementioned problems, the build quality was great.
To me, it seemed to me that the 2023 Indian Challenger Dark Horse was a love letter to the open road. This is a motorcycle that hits so many of the right marks when it comes to a bagger. It looks like it means business, it has the bite to match its bark, and it’s not afraid to get twisty. But most importantly, this is a motorcycle that you can ride to see the entire United States. Go ahead, take it to the Tail of the Dragon. Sure, it’ll ride down the Overseas Highway in Florida. Ride it anywhere, and so long as the seat feels good enough, you will arrive in style and satisfied.
(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)
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