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The allure of the Indian FTR 1200 S motorcycle

Hannah Elliott
Bloomberg News

The motorcycle world is tough to gauge.

On one hand, we get continued reports of its general demise, with woeful tales of sinking sales, aging buyers and irrelevant new tech. Motorcycle sales in the U.S. peaked in 2006 at 716,268 and then tumbled, with bike sales falling by 41% in 2009 from the year before and then by an additional 14% the following year, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

The 1200 S gives riders a sporty alternative to Indian’s cruisers and touring bikes.

In 2016, U.S. customers bought 371,403 new bikes, half as many as 10 years prior.

On the other hand, bright spots illuminate the gloom, such as the rise of American flat-track races and the popularity of women-only riding clubs. And there’s always new product: If you take the 2020 Indian FTR 1200 S anywhere, for instance, people get excited. Really excited.

“Everyone loves that bike,” my neighbor tells me, recounting how many people stopped to admire it outside the cafe he owns on the corner of our street. This is a lifelong enthusiast who has ridden a rugged massive KTM motorcycle through South America and back, and who leads routine motorcycle expeditions into the wild off-roads of New York state. “The design is so cool. It looks incredible.”

With its red trellis frame, low handlebars, single headlight, and long, gently curved seat at just 32 inches high, the Indian FTR 1200 S catches looks from the sort of people you’d be surprised would care.

What everyone who admires the FTR — from the guys cutting trees on a nearby street, to the Vespa-riding photographer shooting fashion week — says next: “How does it ride?”

The answer: fantastic. The 2020 Indian FTR 1200 S is a steady, balanced and fast motorcycle suitable for sporty riders. It’s great for those looking beyond the cruisers and touring bikes Indian has been making in recent years. It’s powerful enough to ride on highway adventures, but nimble enough to manage in tight urban environments.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time. As Harley-Davidson faces corporate stagnation and lackluster sales, Indian seems to know it must do its own thing. The FTR may not draw new riders to the brand, but for those who want it all — who know motorcycle history and want the versatility of a thoroughly modern machine — it’s a welcome addition to a company on the right track. (No pun intended.)

The design of the FTR line is influenced heavily by flat-track motorcycle racing, the hundred-year-old sport that has gained prominence in recent years, thanks in large part to social media and savvy promoters. Riders on Indian FTR750 racing bikes have dominated championship titles in the American Flat Track series the last two years.

Many of its design cues — for example, the position of the intake airbox and the dual exhaust pipes — come directly from the balanced, efficient engineering and design dynamics of those championship-winning purpose-built race bikes. They were built to maximize balance, control and power. They also channel the one-off custom bikes from the early 20th century, when Harley-Davidson and Indian were going head-to-head in flat-track races. The goal is to deliver the feel and character of flat track. Even the Dunlop tires with shallower tread depth than other bikes offer embody a grippy, flat-track style.

Indian Motorcycle

Indian offers the FTR in three versions: the $13,499 1200, the $15,499 1200 S (which I rode for 10 days in and around New York), and the $16,999 Race Replica version, which offers a different paint scheme and special exhaust.

There are only a few discernible differences between the first two, including the red paint on the trellis frame and a few standard vs. optional tech additions. The 1200 S is the happy medium among the three. It is the most versatile and offers just enough personality for the buck to make it feel very special.

Both the 1200 and 1200S run on a powerful, all-new, liquid-cooled, 1203cc, V-Twin engine that gets 120 horsepower and 85 pound-feet of torque. They have a seamless six-speed transmission and pleasingly crisp gear changes. Riding the 1200S through the empty streets of Manhattan one morning was a study in stealth; a nicely flat torque curve means the chain-driven bike is an entirely predictable, confident beast that responds with steady power as you open the throttle.

Its low center of gravity helps the bike feel flexible under foot, too. Credit the fact that the fuel tank is located under the seat, rather than up front and top, as with most bikes. It makes the whole thing feel compact. (You’ll be able to get 3.4 gallons to a fill.) There are three ride modes: sport, standard and rain, each offering unique throttle response and traction control. I stayed most happily in standard.

I’ve never had a bike that bumps so easily into neutral, either, while it idles. Stability-, traction-, and wheelie mitigation-control help the bike lean cleaner, too, as you dip into turns. ABS comes standard, though you can disable it on the 1200 S.

Other notes to consider: The suspension can feel stiff over potholes and the general bump in the road. The tubular trellis-style steel mainframe and an aluminum rear subframe are optimized to help rigidity and minimize weight, a design that looks terrific, and the lighter the bike the more I like it, but that is not for those who want a cushy ride.

The most polarizing thing I found to be about the FTR was its progressive and efficient technology, set off most obviously by the 4.3-inch LCD touchscreen in the middle of the handlebars.

The biggest complaint I heard from rider friends and commenters on my social media was that it compromises that much-adored vintage/historic look that Indian generally tries so hard to maintain. It’s a fair point. But one run through the excellent cruise control, quick-syncing Bluetooth, fast-charge USB and push-button start, and that consideration felt minor. You can even customize the speedometer and gauge display into a bunch of different configurations to suit your mood and needs for the day.