Racing up to the blind rise on the 2023 Indian Sport Chief, I roll off the throttle slightly, and the pleasing roar of the engine lowers to more of a threatening growl. As I crest the hill, there’s a moment of weightlessness, and I see a line of about a dozen other riders, all on the same performance cruisers, gliding down the roller coaster-like drop and blasting back up the sweeping left on the other side. It looks almost as if they are defying gravity – or getting ready to launch into the air. It’s a quick flash of a scene, a rush of exhilaration that makes me feel younger than my years, and I roll on the throttle again. The big Thunderstroke 116 responds without hesitation, pulling me forward as if it can read my mind and knows that, in that moment, all I want to do is catch up and take off into the sky with them.
The 2023 Indian Sport Chief: A New Take on a Familiar Favorite
The first Indian Chief, offering 61 inches of displacement, was released a little over 100 years ago. At the February launch for the Sport Chief, Brandon Kraemer, Indian’s VP of product and motorcycle electrification, said that Charles Franklin, who also designed the Scout, had a goal in mind when he developed the Chief.
“His goal was to take what was great about the Scout and basically make it a little bigger and a little more capable, a little more powerful,” he said, “and ultimately they did that.”
Kraemer continued to say that 100 years later, Indian “rebirthed that, with what you see here as the basis of the new Chief platform.”
He said that the Chief bridges the gap between the Scout and the heavier, more expensive Chieftain or Challenger ranges. Kraemer called it “a great canvas.”
In 2021, we tested the new 2022 Indian Super Chief Limited, an up-spec, touring-ready version of the new Chief platform that included the standard Chief, the Chief Bobber, and the Super Chief, all of which feature the air-cooled Thunderstroke 111 49-degree V-Twin. The Dark Horse versions of the Chief and Chief Bobber and the Limited version of the Super Chief boast the Thunderstroke 116, which makes a claimed 120 lb-ft of torque at the crank compared to the 108 lb-ft of the 111 engine.
The Dark Horse/Limited models also have a 4-inch round touchscreen TFT instrument panel as an upgrade from the traditional analog gauge on the regular models, as well as standard ABS, an $800 option on the base models.
“We wanted to focus on a really flexible design that we could take to many different places,” Kraemer said of the Chief base, adding that the Sport Chief was the “first derivative coming out of the all-new platform.”
Taking It Up a Notch
Kraemer said that while the 2022 Chiefs were largely targeted after the bobber segment, “we always knew we were going to go after the performance segment second.” Enter the 2023 Indian Sport Chief.
“Going back to what we originally set the Chief architecture up for, we definitely have it in our wheelhouse,” Kraemer said and mentioned the obvious rival in this category, the Harley-Davidson Low Rider S. “That’s what we’re going after.”
In our review of the 2022 Indian Super Chief Limited, we said that the new “Chief lineup is more stripped-down and elemental, reflecting contemporary tastes. Like their ancestor, the new Chiefs draw inspiration from the modern-day Scout, with a shortened wheelbase and exposed twin laydown rear shocks rather than a single shock hidden behind bodywork. They’re also much lighter.”
We appreciated that the new rear dual shocks reduced the wheelbase and added agility but felt the 3 inches of resulting rear travel (down from 4.5) was a design compromise – “overall the ride is much firmer and less forgiving.”
Like the Dark Horses and Super Chief Limited, the 2023 Sport Chief is an up-spec model with the Thunderstroke 116 engine, the 4-inch touchscreen TFT display, and standard ABS. Its suspension and brakes get a major upgrade over previous Chief iterations, including the same front end as used on the Challenger bagger, with a 43mm KYB inverted fork offering 5.1 inches of travel and a pair of Brembo 4-piston calipers biting 320mm rotors.
When it comes to rear suspension, Kraemer said when they created the new Chief models, one thing they focused heavily on is what Indian calls the “Signature Line,” which runs from the steering stem all the way down through the axle.
“The rear shocks are a big part of that, having that continuation of that consistent line.” Much like the cross-pollination evident in the front end, Kraemer cited the Scout as inspiration for the rear suspension, but he also said the company recognized that on a heavyweight cruiser, customers are going to want to customize.
“And we are too,” he said. “Having outboard rear shocks makes it really easy to jack the bike up and change the suspension, or you can lower it as well if you want to go that route. Obviously we’re going higher with the Sport Chief.”
Along these lines, the Sport Chief has new piggyback Fox shocks with adjustable preload that bump travel up by an inch (to 4 inches) and lean angle up by 1 degree (to 29.5 degrees).
From a visual standpoint, a new quarter-fairing also sets the Sport Chief apart from the other models, combined with a new moto-style bar with a machined triple clamp and 6-inch machined riser. A solo gunfighter seat with 2 more inches of bolster than the standard Chief is complemented by mid-mount foot controls.
Helmet: Arai Contour-X
Jacket: Highway 21 Motordrome
Gloves: Highway 21 Hook Glove
Pants: Highway 21 Blockhouse Jeans
The bike features cast wheels (19 inches in the front, 16 in the rear) wrapped in Pirelli Night Dragon tires, a 4-gallon fuel tank, a bobbed rear fender, dual exhausts, LED lighting, keyless ignition, cruise control, and three selectable ride modes: Sport, Standard, and Tour.
Where the Rubber Meets the Texas Roads
We tested the 2023 Indian Sport Chief on a 120-mile mix of Austin city streets, interstate, and winding Texas Hill Country roads. The pace was brisk where traffic would allow, and except for some patchy spots of construction around town, the conditions were perfect for trying out this new performance cruiser, especially rolling through Hill Country and the short side jaunt we took on a narrow road with some nice twisties.
The first thing I noticed when firing up the Sport Chief was the pleasing rumbling of that blacked-out Thunderstroke 116. We started our ride with some laps around the city, but it wasn’t until we hit the interstate that I really got a taste of what this bike wanted to do. Not to anthropomorphize too much, but I daresay the Sport Chief was just as eager as I was to open it up a little more than permitted by the stop-and-go of city driving.
The second thing I noticed was that round touchscreen TFT. Although it’s not new – at least to the lower-spec versions of the Chief – it’s still pretty to look at, much cooler than a rectangular display. Kraemer said it is important at Indian to keep adding tech without taking away from style, which he called “critical” to the company’s customers. “And it’s not easy, by the way, to find a round touchscreen.”
Riders can use the display to cycle through multiple interfaces, including two different gauge configurations, bike and ride information, and turn-by-turn navigation with connected features like weather and traffic overlays. Riders can also pair their smartphones to the panel via Bluetooth or USB and access music and phone information through the Ride Command system.
Once we got rolling, some of the unavoidable potholes and bumps of city riding were a little more jarring than I would’ve expected given the new suspension, and even with rear-cylinder deactivation, there was still some serious heat coming off the exhaust. But once we got outside of town and off the interstate into Hill Country, the Sport Chief really shone. And in this case, some of the positive response I experienced from the bike was directly related to that new rear suspension.
Changes to suspension subsequently alter the bike’s geometry. The new taller shocks not only give more lean angle but also pivot the front end and result in a slightly tighter rake of 28 degrees (from 29) and shorter 4.4 inches of trail (from 5.2). Kyle Goede, product manager for the Super Chief, said the reason they did this was for “flickability.”
“[It’s] a little bit easier to maneuver,” he said, adding that it was important when developing the bike to think about its performance aspect.
And Indian nailed it with that one. For a bike with a wet weight of 685 lb, it handled in the corners like a much lighter motorcycle. It was almost effortless. I can admit that I’m probably in the category of “most riders” and didn’t take advantage of the full increased lean angle, but it didn’t take much more than a bit of countersteering or shifting of my upper body to carve out a nice apex.
Speaking of those apexes, although I might’ve been more conservative in my cornering, when I came out of them and wanted to catch up, a twist of the throttle brought an immediate but steady and strong response. And as the speedometer climbed, the engine purred with a surprising smoothness, likely the result of the V-Twin’s counterbalancers.
One area where the ride felt a little rougher was at the top end of some of these speeds, but that had more to do with the accessories on the bike I was riding than the engine. There are several accessories for the Sport Chief that are also compatible with other bikes in the Chief lineup, including the Fox piggyback rear shocks (and an up-spec 24-click adjustable version), 10-inch risers, the quarter-fairing with a low (4 inch) or tall (9 inch) forward windscreen, an extended reach or reduced reach seat, the Chief Syndicate Seat and Syndicate Low Profile Passenger Backrest for two-up riding, and the Chief Pathfinder 5 3/4-inch adaptive LED headlight.
The bike I was riding had the 10-inch riser and the matching taller windscreen. While this riser indeed contributes to a look that Dan Peterson, PGA lead, called “meaner and badder,” it also led to a little less control than the 6-inch riser offers and less wind protection at higher speeds, even with the taller windscreen. However, even Peterson said the windscreens are “as much about style as they are protection,” so this was to be expected.
And from a comfort standpoint, I was happier to have the 10-inch riser. With my 32-inch inseam and the mid-mount foot controls, I felt a little cramped at times along the ride, even with the more open ergonomics.
When it came time to slow it down, the dual Brembo components up front put the “sport” into the Sport Chief with very little convincing required. And the standard ABS was definitely appreciated, especially when I came around a corner on that narrow, twisty side road and encountered a short stretch where the road surface went from asphalt to a patch of concrete that had been smoothed over by obvious years of seasonal high water. Fortunately, there was a sign warning of the upcoming slick crossing and I had already applied some braking, but I have a feeling if it weren’t for the ABS, I might’ve locked it up and dumped the bike off the short drop-off into the rocky riverbed … and felt like an idiot.
But once again, the Sport Chief did what a performance cruiser is meant to do: It performed. And as we wound our way back to the hotel at the end of the day, even after we had to plunge back into the stop-and-go for the last stretch, it was a performance that I didn’t want to end. I may not be the 25-40 age bracket West Coast customizer this bike is primarily geared toward, but that day, I sure felt like it.
The 2023 Indian Sport Chief comes in Black Smoke, Ruby Smoke, Spirit Blue Smoke, and Stealth Gray starting at $18,999.
2023 Indian Sport Chief Specs
Base Price: $18,999
Price as Tested: $19,929
Warranty: 2 yrs, unltd. miles
Engine Type: Air-cooled, transverse 49-degree V-twin, OHV w/ 2 valves per cyl.
Displacement: 116 ci (1,890 cc)
Bore x Stroke: 103.2 x 113.0mm
Horsepower: 76 hp @ 4,200 rpm (rear-wheel dyno, 2021 Thunder Stroke 116)
Torque: 106 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm (rear-wheel dyno, 2021 Thunder Stroke 116)
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet assist clutch
Final Drive: Belt
Wheelbase: 64.6 in.
Rake/Trail: 28 degrees/4.4 in.
Seat Height: 27 in.
Wet Weight: 685 lb