Used to be, electric bikes were a novelty. Lead-acid batteries meant that silky-smooth power and plug-in convenience was possible—for short rides. Thirty miles was too far to venture with an e-moto, unless your S.O. was following with a very long extension cord.
And now it’s 2013. Electric vehicles have come a really long way—which means you can go a really long way. This Brammo Empulse R, for instance, can go something like 56 miles at a steady 70 mph—121 miles at around-town speeds, and the actual riding we did on the bike made me think the estimates (which now have SAE guidelines) are fairly realistic. Top speed is over 100 mph, and unlike some of the e-bikes we’ve seen over the years, it actually looks like a motorcycle, with an Italian-built twin-spar aluminum frame, conventional Marzocchi forks, Brembo brakes and radial sportbike-spec tires. It even has a clutch and six-speed gearbox.
Riding an electric motorcycle is the most appliance-like experience you can have at 100 mph. Smooth, silent, easy to ride—that’s a given with an electric. But fast? Oh, yes; the Brammo can whip past gas-powered bikes with just a move of the wrist. Riding on a twisty road is a good time, as well, as you don’t have to worry about gear selection. Your only worry is the little battery icon on the instrument panel—if you buy this bike for sporting weekend rides, you may be disappointed. Until range gets longer and charging stations become ubiquitous, electric vehicles are best for trips of defined range.
Which brings me to the gearbox. I don’t get it. It’s adds little to the experience, if you ask me. Neutral is in between second and third for some reason, but you don’t really need neutral—the bike rolls freely in gear with the clutch engaged. Come to think of it, you don’t really need the clutch, either, although it does make getting under way smoother, a role throttle-management software handles on other e-bikes. I found myself shifting out of habit, but it felt like I was playing a video game with a disconnected joystick. I’m sure if I was doing a track day—or just spent a lot more time on the bike—I would start to figure out how to best use it, but my quick impression is Brammo should bin the clutch, make the transmission a two-speed (city and highway), and carve 40 pounds off the bike—or use the extra space and weight for more battery capacity.
Motive power and odd gearbox aside, the Brammo really feels a lot like an ICE bike. The steering is easy at any speed, but it holds a nice line in turns—it’s really well balanced and the chassis numbers feel familiar if you spend a lot of time on middleweight sporty-bikes. I really felt the weight; it’s 470 pounds, and though you don’t really feel the weight most of the time—the CG is comically low, like a scooter’s—you know it’s there. Oddly, the almost-silent ride (you do hear the motor zinging along, and the chain clanks over bumps) heightens the bike’s flaws.
So I’m surprised I’m saying this, as I’ve been champing at the bit to ride this thing for years, but I found it to be too much like a conventional motorcycle. Clever engineers could give it sound, vibration, engine braking and any other effect to mimic an internal-combustion machine, but then what’s the point? Aren’t consumers paying the premium to get a plug-in electric motorcycle, not an electric simulation of a gas-powered bike? Still, this is by far the most fun and exciting mass-produced electric bike on the market and deserves serious consideration, even a test-ride, before dismissal.
It’s not cheap, at $16,995 (the R model is $2000 more—you get carbon-fiber bodywork, along with higher-spec suspension), but you do get some dough back from Uncle Sam ($1700-1900) and Uncle Jerry ($900) and you won’t buy gas again. If you ride 10,000 miles a year on your commute, that’s $1000 a year saved compared to a 40 mpg bike at $4 a gallon (and it’s only going to go up from there). And it’s really fun to ride, giving up little to any middleweight commuter I’ve ridden. Would it be a rational purchase? Not really. But what motorcycle really is?
Second Take: Alan Lapp
I was eagerly awaiting the debut of this model for one reason alone: it has a gearbox just like a traditional bike.
With new bike releases, like in life, the key to happiness is to manage your expectations. I was weak in this regard: I had hopes. What I wanted was an electric analog to a traditional bike. What I got was an odd mix of traditional-bike and electric-bike behaviors.
The Empulse R is equipped with a tach: the electric motor is very quiet and balanced, therefore it does not provide much feedback. Surprisingly, I found that there is a rev limiter that stutters the motor at maximum rpm, virtually identical to a traditional engine.
It was disappointing how the motor controller—the computerized brain that examines rider input, and manages bike output—steps in and nannies all the fun out of having a clutch to play with. Should a rider try to do a wheelie (the motor is definitely powerful enough) by revving the motor and dumping the clutch, all that results is a lurch as the controller compensates to eradicate this hooliganism.
Regarding the transmission, more oddness ensues: neutral is between 2nd and 3rd. The ratios are very closely spaced, and launching the Empulse R in 1st gear results in satisfying acceleration. However, launching in 3rd or 4th gear does not blunt the acceleration very noticeably. I suspect that most riders will tire of the notchy, clunky shifting and leave it in 3rd around town, only shifting to 6th on the freeway.
I’ve previously compared e-bike performance to mid-sized dual-sport traditional bikes. This comparison is less-apt now: the Empulse R is far, far nicer to ride on the freeway than any dual-sport, and has confidence-inspiring chassis stability, even over grooved pavement. The brakes are fantastic, and the design is handsome. It seems to me that e-bikes are maturing rapidly, but are suffering some growing pains.