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The Story About How Asphalt & Rubber Got To Ride the Indian FTR1200 Before Everyone Else in the World

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Today, I am going to share with you a look behind the curtain – a look at several sides of the motorcycle industry that you don’t usually get to see. Our story concerns the Indian FTR1200 street tracker motorcycle, which just debuted in Cologne, Germany at the INTERMOT show…but really, this story started three months ago, back in the United States.

It starts with a leaked photo of the Indian FTR1200, taken from a production event in Los Angeles, which was then sent to Asphalt & Rubber by a loyal reader. This turned into A&R finding its way to Minnesota to ride a prototype of the FTR1200, and us being amongst the first to ride this highly anticipated motorcycle.

An exclusive media event, Indian’s plan was to have the largest publication from each critical market present, to give an early evaluation of this ground-breaking machine for the American brand.

While there were sole-representatives from the UK, Italy, Germany, Australia, Asia, etc – because of our efforts, from the United States there would now be two publications. Sorry for partying.

I have no doubt that the coverage from these other publications will read like initial reviews, part critique and part marketing pieces for the Indian Motorcycle Company. That’s not a slight to my colleagues, that is just the reality of the situation. How do you evaluate a prototype motorcycle?

“I have no idea what they are talking about,” I told an Indian staff member, while our post-ride video reviews/debriefs were being filmed. We had just ridden for a half a day on a motorcycle that we knew nothing about, and now we were expected to stand in front of a camera, and espouse our impressions of it.

Because of the looming weather, our tech briefing was after the ride, which is a frustrating thing when it comes to evaluating a motorcycle. As such, our impressions would be limited and relative. The power felt “good”…the brakes were “ok”…this exhaust looks like the work of a drunk plumber.

With no specs, no prices, no production volumes, no set list of features…what were these journalists talking about in their videos? I still don’t know.At $9,000, the FTR1200 could be one of the best motorcycles on the market, but at $20,000 Indian would have clearly missed the mark.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the $13,000 / $15,000 price points for the base and S models, respectively. It feels high…but we will get to that in a minute.

A Word About Riding Prototypes

Before we get down to brass tacks, I wanted to talk about riding prototype motorcycles. Over my tenure at Asphalt & Rubber, I have had the chance to ride several prototype machines.

The Mission Motors R comes to mind, which was an absolute beast of a motorcycle and a real shame that it never came to market. I also was the first to swing a leg over the Alta Motors Redshift SM, which at the time, the company called itself BRD. That bike was good out of the box, and has only gotten better with age.

Riding a prototype motorcycle is an interesting thing, and I mean that in the Chinese proverb sense of the word. Firstly, production bikes come with more polish, with often thousands of hours of testing behind them. This isn’t always the case with prototype machines.

Safety concerns aside, it is hard to judge the quality of a machine when it is in its pre-production form. By definition, a prototype is an unpolished piece of work, full of quirks and deficiencies. There is a sliding scale to this, of course, but in evaluation, one has to decide what is an endemic flaw to the design, and what is a temporary problem in a bike’s development.

This sets the bar artificially low when it comes time for some sort of review, and it sets up a situation where a manufacturer can hide a bike’s flaws behind the guise of it being a pre-production machine. This too is how you control the message.

All of this was swirling in my head as our tech briefing FTR1200 included all the known bugs that Indian was working to fix. For instance, not all of the elements on the dash were operational yet, the throttle mapping wasn’t refined, some basic specs were still in flux, and many of the cosmetic elements would not be on the motorcycle.

Every press launch that we are invited to is a controlled environment designed to win a journalist’s favor, and this factory tour and ride was no different. If you wanted to under-promise, and over-deliver, this is how you do it, I told my skeptical self.

A Tour of Wyoming…In Minnesota

In psychology, there is the concept of priming. It is a technique whereby exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention.

Now, understand that every media event that A&R or any other publication takes part in is an exercise in priming. Making the experience a positive one for the journalist is just one of the many tools that PR veterans use to help garner favorable coverage. 

But, this goes beyond just flights to picturesque locations, first-class meals and experiences, and a never-ending supply of high-fives and accolades. Company personnel are often briefed on each journalist; headshots and bios are distributed; recent stories forwarded for consumption; and so on. It is just part of the game, and studies in psychology tell us that it works.

Walking into the Wyoming, Minnesota R&D facility for Indian though, is a different exercise in priming. “We’re motorcyclists here. A lot of our employees ride to work,” I heard one Indian representative say casually, several times. Sure enough, entering the sea of cubicles where engineers toiled away, just about every employee had their helmet on display.

I normally wouldn’t think too much of this, if it wasn’t for the almost carbon-copy manner each helmet was put forth. Each cubicle had in it a large filing cabinet, and each cubicle had a helmet or two on it.  It was as if someone wrote a memo outlining the proper placement of one’s helmet in the office.

For a day with a good bit of rain on the forecast, there were certainly a lot more helmets on display than bikes in the parking lot. Funny that. But, that’s the game.

Moving through the factory, we got to see the various stages and tests that go into developing a motorcycle for consumer consumption. There is the shake table that can simulate thousands of miles of riding. There is the anechoic chamber where sound tolerances are test. Dyno rooms abound, and there is a dedicate room for emissions.

It is impressive to see what it really takes to bring a production motorcycle to market, and of course that is the point. Polaris is one of the largest powersports producers in the world, and their R&D facility in Wyoming, Minnesota is an integral part of the engine that drives the company.

Before We Get Too Far, Some Words About Tires

While I want to get talking about the bike itself, I wanted first to take a minute and talk about one of the more impressive items found on the Indian FTR1200, and that is the bike’s tires. Partnering with Dunlop, the Indian FTR1200 gets its authentic street tracker look from special rubber, which mimics the look of Dunlop’s flat-track racing tires.

As you would expect then, the Dunlop DT3-R is a DOT-legal replica of the company’s iconic tread, and on the FTR1200 the tires comes in a 120/70R19 size for the front wheel, and 150/80R18 size for the rear.

Indian has a one-year exclusive on this tire, and I have no doubt that enthusiasts and builders will be clamoring to get their hands on them, once that exclusive use is over (if not sooner).

One of the limits to having a true street-legal flat track bike on the market has always been the tire options available. Up until the Pirelli MT60 tires on the Ducati Scrambler, there were literally zero options on the market, which only left enthusiasts the option of ruining race tires on the street. Now Dunlop enters the game, and they bring with them an impressive tire for the job.

The handling of the Dunlop DT3-R is quite good, though some of this is added by the narrow tire sizes used by the FTR1200. There is some “road feel” or chatter that comes back from the blocked tread pattern – you can feel the tires move a little underneath you – but this is as you would expect with any heavily blocked/siped tire pattern.

At speed though, the Dunlop DT3-R feel solid, especially in a straight line, which isn’t as easy to achieve as you would think. What really struck me though is how flat the rear tire profile is on the DT3-R. Rated as a 150mm width tire, you could easily confuse it for 165mm or wider.

Instead of the tall profiles that the sport bike industry seems to be headed towards, Dunlop went the other direction with its design on the DT3-R. This means solid grip when the bike is upright, at the expense of grip on lean.

This became evident to us during our time shooting on a skid pad at the Indian proving grounds. Told to make some tight circles for some dynamic turning photos, a veteran colleague remarked to me when I was done that it looked like I was nearing the point of being on the tire’s sidewall. The photos seem to confirm that observation.

One of the oddities of riding a motorcycle for a living is that you become aware of very specific things. For instance, I know that I have the finely calibrated ability to put a bike at a 45° lean angle – a degree of attack that ensures a good knee-down photo, but also that the bike comes home in one piece every time. 

Checking the spec sheet, Indian rates the FTR1200 for a lean angle of 43° – which seems to confirm my colleague’s observation that our photo shoot was reaching the limits of the Dunlop’s abilities. While a non-issue for those drift around a flat track, this is a little troubling for street riders, who will surely want to carve some corners on the Indian FTR1200 when they get it.

With the 19″ front and 18″ rear, FTR1200 owners will be limited in their tire alternatives to the Dunlop DT3-R, with sport-touring tires likely being the only option to the Dunlops. This is the price you pay for a true street tracker look, unfortunately.

The Ride

Our route for the day took us through some country roads near Indian’s R&D facility, which meant our journey took us over some fairly point and shoot roads, taken at subdued speeds. Consider it a first date over drinks, not dinner.

Swinging a leg over the Indian FTR1200 for the first time though, I was struck first by how deceiving in height the motorcycle sits – 33 inches for the seat height. The height disappears a little though, thanks to the soft suspension, which should benefit shorter riders. 

The rider triangle is upright, but compact. Indian did well on balancing the comfort and sportiness of the FTR1200, making a bike that is comfortable to ride for extended periods, but still entices you to get on the gas a little.

Keeping forward motion was key during our ride, as the day was hot and humid, when it wasn’t raining. This only served to exacerbate the warmth coming off the FTR1200’s big v-twin engine.

It is hard to say how much of the heat was the day, how much was the still imperfect fuel settings on the bike, and how much of it is endemic to the motorcycle’s design itself. The short version though, it was a hot ride.

The Indian FTR1200 has three riding modes (Sport, Standard, & Rain), and the American brand has taken the welcomed philosophy of keeping quite a bit of diversity between these three options. Usually, the preferred riding mode on a street bike is “sport” as it offers maximum power and sharp throttle response.

On the FTR1200 though, the riding mode of choice is “standard” as Indian has left “sport” mode for truly sporty riding. Snatchy and quick, “sport” mode is true to its name, as are the other two options.

I would still like to see some refinement in all of the maps, especially with their initial throttle twist, as maintenance throttle levels of input were still a bit jerky and imprecise. Also, the “rain” mode seemed a bit too conservative in its approach, but otherwise it was enlightening to see a motorcycle manufacturer actually make distinct riding modes for specific riding situations, rather than several flavors of grey.

Hopping between the FTR1200 base model and FTR1200 S, the biggest difference is the Sachs suspension, which is fully adjustable on the FTR1200 S, but on the base model only preload and rebound adjustments are available on the rear shock.

The setup on the base model is quite good, though both bikes are a bit stiff for country road riding. Indian certainly seems to be leaning towards the sporty end of the spectrum with the FTR1200, which could cause some issues with base model owners who find the ride to harsh.

Over all, the Indian FTR1200 prototype makes a good impression, however I am careful not to give an opinion until I get to touch and ride the production model.

The bones here are good though, and now that we know pricing on the 2019 Indian FTR1200, we can begin to frame a context for this machine. I am optimistic about the FTR1200, but also cautious.

What I Like So Far

The big feature on the Indian FTR1200 is the machine’s big fat flat torque curve. Pick a gear – any gear – twist the throttle, and watch this street tracker come alive. If I had to write a full review of the Indian FTR1200 motorcycle, I would devote half of the story to this new v-twin engine. The motor is really the highlight to riding the FTR1200.

The raw numbers don’t really do justice to the FTR1200’s on-road performance, which is going to embarrass some internet tough guys who race spec-sheets with this motorcycle.

On the same vein, the mass of the FTR1200 is really not much of an issue. Let’s call the wet weight on the Indian FTR1200 a porky 520 lbs, but the bulk is held so low in the chassis that it disappears quite well when riding at speed.

The performance enthusiast in me would surely like to see the FTR1200 lose another 50 lbs or more, but in terms of actual on-road performance, the engineers at Indian have done a Spanx-level job of making this street tracker suck it in where it counts. 

Even with the 19″ wheel at the front, the Indian FTR1200 turns quite well, and gives good feedback to the rider. I usually find that 19″ front wheels are bit to vague for my liking, preferring the 17″ wheels found on most sport bikes, but I can honestly say that Indian made me a believer on this design choice.

Again, this is aided by the narrow wheel and tire choices being made at the factory, but I give credit too to the front-end geometry that Indian has picked for the FTR1200. This is the chassis of a sport bike.

The braking power from the front brakes is quite good, though it is betrayed by the softly sprung suspension, and its six inches of travel (5.9″ to be completely accurate). The modulation of the braking force leaves something to be desired, however, which could stem from either the master cylinder or brake pad choices.

A first in the sport bike segment, the touchscreen dash on the S model is a welcomed sight, and bonus points that it works with your gloves still on. The dash is upgradable too, via USB, which means that new layouts and features can be uploaded to the motorcycle, as Indian continues it model development.

On the more visceral side of things, the exhaust note is muffled, thanks to the EPA / Euro4 standards, though there is certainly potential here. I really want to see someone make a high-mount race-styled exhaust for this machine.

Lastly, the riding position in fairly comfortable – more upright than sporty – and I didn’t immediately hate the stock seat.

What I Don’t Like

When it comes to the Indian FTR1200, I catch myself telling the same anecdote over and over. A year or two ago, I got a call from an American manufacturer that wanted to pick my brain about building a sport bike model.

For a number of minutes, I listed basic performance specs and attributes that a sport bike should have, and what the basic customer expectations are in this space, from a technical point of view. And when I finished talking, there was silence on the other end of the phone.

“Uhh…yeah. We were just thinking maybe a new fuel tank shape, and maybe a racing stripe,” I heard in response, when they finally talked.

The takeaway here is that in the cruiser segment, what turns a motorcycle into a “sport” model is just some basic cosmetic changes, but that isn’t how the rest of the industry works, and that can be a tough transition for brands. I think the FTR1200 shows that struggle for Indian, and that’s where my real dislikes for this bike begin.

Take for instance the TFT dash. I don’t love the design and layout, that’s mostly a “me problem” though, and loyal A&R readers should know how much I judge a bike by its dash. It seems slightly ridiculous to me that a company makes a high-tech touchscreen dash, only then to recreate analog gauges on it, but that is a whole different issue.

What strikes me more is that Indian went through a great deal of trouble to implement an IMU for the ABS and traction control on the FTR1200 S, but gives zero ability to adjust those settings – beyond simply turning them off.

Modern sport bikes come with the ability to turn the rear-wheel ABS off, and to change the levels of intervention across the whole system. Settings for the traction control, wheelie control, rear-wheel lift, etc should be adjustable too…this almost goes without saying, but yet they are fixed into an on/off state on the Indian FTR1200 S (the base model doesn’t even have that basic option).

There is some hope on this front at least, since the dash (and presumably the electronics) can be upgraded via USB, but until then, it feels like this cruiser brand is still learning to speak “sport bike” fluently.

The fixed front disc rotors are another glaring piece of segment disconnect. Now let me be clear, the braking performance on the Indian FTR1200 is fine, and the design brief here surely doesn’t include the occasional track day, but there are certain aspirational elements that a $15,000 motorcycle should have, and one of them is full-floating disc brakes.

I have the same qualms with the base model’s Sachs suspension, which offers no adjustment to the forks, and only rebound and preload for the rear shock. At $13,000, would-be owners are paying too much money for budget-spec suspension.

Instead, I would have liked to see Indian play the B2B branding game, with fully adjustable Sachs pieces on the base model, and a brand like Öhlins for the hardware on the S bikes (semi-active pieces, perhaps?).

Similarly, I would have liked to see forged wheels on the FTR1200 S model, to provide some more differentiation between the two trim levels, and a little more performance. A little carbon fiber here could go a long way as well.

None of these issues are deal-breakers for the Indian FTR1200, but they show the larger struggle that the American company has in its transition from a cruiser-focused brand, to one a motorcycle brand with many different segments.

Maybe a bigger issue, Indian is trying to position the FTR1200 against premium European models, but the bike  is lacking the features and polish that OEMs on the other side of the pond have perfected.

Where We Go From Here

The FTR1200 marks an interesting point in time for the iconic American brand – it is like the height-mark for a growing child, etched into the door frame of a house. As such, we will look back on this day with some thoughts of “remember when” and nostalgia. This is a key moment in Indian history.

I say this because the FTR1200 is not the endpoint for Indian’s plans. Talking to the company’s representatives in Minnesota, it is clear that other models are planned, which will use the FTR1200 platform. What those models could be is anyone’s guess, but I can tell you that they won’t be cruisers.

I would not be surprised to see an adventure-tourer from Indian now. I also would not be surprised to see a 750cc version of this v-twin debut at a later event, and power another middleweight range of motorcycles. Small-displacement motorcycles, electrics, scooters, e-bikes…it is all on the table now…and that is huge.

Indian’s geography has changed as well. The biggest untold feature of the Indian FTR1200 is not found on the bike’s technical specifications, instead it is where the bike will be sold. Industry pundits should take note that such a pivotal motorcycle for this American brand debuted not in the USA, but in Germany.

Indian is making strong moves to establish itself abroad. It sees Harley-Davidson’s slow movement into Europe, Asia, and South America as an opportunity. Sure, the American market will still be important for Indian, and the brand still has much to do on domestic soil, but the real growth – the real opportunity – is abroad.

As such, we can expect to see Indian focusing its resources to bring its bikes across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. We can expect the developers outside Minneapolis to focus their eyes on models that will serve a global customer.

One step further, we can expect Indian to develop machines that will likely never turn a wheel in the United States. Let that concept sink in for a moment.

That is a powerful idea, and I am not sure it is one that has been fully flushed out by Indian’s rivals in Milwaukee. The motorcycle industry has a new map now, and the United States doesn’t sit as prominently in the center of it, as it once did.

But for Indian, that doesn’t meant that the United States can’t still sit at the epicenter  of the motorcycle industry.

Take note, because at the end of the day, Indian doesn’t want to be the next Harley-Davidson…they want to be the next Honda. This means that they are playing chess, not checkers.