The hoglet: Harley-Davidson's Street 500 "learner bike"

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Harley-Davidson Street 500 (Photo: Noel McKeegan/gizmag.com)

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Back in September 2013, Harley-Davidson shocked us with the news that it was building a 500cc learner bike, and considering building an electric motorcycle – two ideas so antithetical to the H-D brand that we could hardly get our heads around them.

Scarcely a year later, and we're living in a brave new world. Project Livewire has been traveling around the United States giving riders a brief taste of what an electric Harley might look and feel like, with a series of test rides across the country.

And this weekend at the Melbourne Moto Expo we had our first chance to look at the Street 500, the bike Harley hopes will open up some significant new markets in the coming years, particularly in regions where new riders face power-to-weight or capacity restrictions in their first few riding years.

The Street 500 is built around a new engine – a 492cc, liquid cooled "Revolution X" v-twin designed to echo the bulletproof Revolution engine developed in conjunction with Porsche for the V-ROD range. In Street 500 trim, the engine makes 29.5 ft-lbs (40 Nm) of torque at 3500 rpm. Peak horsepower is unspecified, but that's really not what Harleys are about, anyway. H-D Australia assures us that the sound, feel and "soul" of the motor is H-D all the way.

Fuel economy is listed at 64 miles per gallon (3.7 liters per 100 km), which means the tiny 3.5 gallon (13.2 liter) tank is good for an astounding 224-mile (360 km) range. At 489 lbs (222 kg) wet and ready to roll, it's still a large and heavy bike for a learner, but its 27.9 inch (709 mm) seat height and low center of gravity should make it easy enough to lift up and throw around, even for female shorties. It'll be the lightest filly in the H-D stable, beating the Iron 883 by some 80-odd pounds.

Like all Harleys, it's built to be customized, and the ride-away price of US$6,700 (AU$9990 in Australia) will be a starting point for all kinds of custom additions that can take the bike in a number of different directions design-wise – as demonstrated by some very nice customs H-D displayed at Moto Expo:

Underneath the odd-looking fork gaiters at the front, the Street 500's suspension travel is two inches longer than the Iron 883 – ostensibly to handle rough urban roads, but it also won't hurt the baby Harley's chances of breaking off a piece of the gigantic Indian motorcycle market.

Some 13.4 million motorcycles were sold in India in FY 2011-12, a staggering figure that dwarfs America's total sales of around 450,000 units in the same period. Certainly, most of those sales are at the very cheapest end of the market. Honda India has sold more than 30 million of its 125 cc CB Shine, which retails around 48,000 rupees (US$773).

But there's also a market for larger machines. Royal Enfield's 350-500 cc motorcycles may be ancient in design, but they're selling at a rate of nearly 2 million units a year for prices around US$2200.

If and when the Street 500 launches in India beside its Street 750 brother, the price is likely to be around 3 times higher – but vastly more affordable than the rest of the H-D range. It'll be interesting to see if and how the move pays off for the iconic American brand. On one hand, there's the possibility to post some extraordinary numbers. On the other, the Street 500 will have to blow riders away with more than its badge to compete in such a price-conscious market segment.

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