Brammo Empulse preview: Up close with the ultimate electric motorcycle

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview front side garage close testIn the end, it could be that Brammo’s timing is just about right.

After a long gestation period following an initial announcement in 2010, the Oregon-based maker of electric motorcycles is just weeks away from unveiling its finalized and long-awaited Empulse and Empulse R models.

Back in the ancient e-bike history of 2010, an Empulse prototype set the electric vehicle and motorcycle worlds abuzz with its sharp, naked-bike looks and tech-forward design, including a liquid-cooled motor, top-shelf components like twin front radial-type disc brakes, adjustable suspension and a promised 100mph or better top speed – along with a 100-mile range.

The real-deal electric motorcycle seemed to have suddenly arrived. And then, there was mostly silence.

A delivery target for the Empulse in 2011 came and went, and was rescheduled for 2012. So why the delay? First, a little back-story.

As Empulse design and development continued, Brammo picked up financial support from Polaris, which had also recently gotten into the motorcycle game with its line of Victory road bikes and picked up the storied Indian marquee.

Brammo also inked a deal with international film star Jackie Chan’s JCAM Advanced Mobility Company Ltd., an electric vehicle distribution company based in Hong Kong. Brammo’s Enertia bikes – which are built in Hungary – began flowing overseas. Meanwhile, Brammo’s deal to sell Enertia models in Best Buy stores came to an end.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview bike side front police model hong kongOverseas interest in Brammo’s electric bikes appears to be strong. Adrian Stewart, director of marketing for Brammo, said the Hong Kong Government is replacing a fleet of 80 Honda motorcycles with a special “LE” version of the new extended-range Enertia Plus, complete with strobe lights, police graphics and panniers for the police gear.

As the Great Recession dragged on in the United States, high gas prices and tight budgets just about everywhere had people looking for alternatives to $100 SUV fill-ups.

But there was still no Empulse.

Get it in gear

After the initial Empulse prototype was released in 2010, development hit a crucial junction as Brammo engineers decided to add a controversial component: a gearbox. The move necessitated a major rethinking of the bike’s design and how it worked and performed overall.

Adding a gearbox to the Empulse would make the machine a major departure from the status quo. The majority of current electric motorcycles, including Brammo’s Enertia models, stick with the design paradigm of a single-speed transmission that relies on the torquey, linear power delivery of the electric motor.

Because an electric motor’s torque output is essentially flat (and robust) from pretty much a standstill, you can simply turn the throttle and the bike goes, no shifting, clutch or undue complications required. Pretty much every electric bike available now works this way.

But the thought of rolling down the highway with the poor electric motor screaming to near meltdown has always seemed backward and inefficient, too.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview engine closeup gearbox internal
Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview front side wheel closeup engine   Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview piston closeup engine   Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview front wheel closeup engine   Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview right side closeup back wheel engine   Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview side garage engine

On flat, level ground, wouldn’t it make sense to route the minimal power needed to maintain speed through a gearbox, thereby saving battery power, extending range and possibly saving wear on the motor?

Brammo appears to agree, at least when it comes to the Empulse. But there was an ulterior reason, too. As Brammo CEO Craig Bramscher explained in a video commissioned by the company, catering to traditional motorcycle enthusiasts also played a role in the decision.

“For motorcyclists, shifting is a big part of it. And for dirt and other locations, you almost have to have it to feel right,” Bramscher said. “People grab for the clutch, and if its not there and if you’re a seasoned motorcyclist, something doesn’t feel right.”

As a rider with 30 years of clutch-and-gearbox experience, I’d have to agree.

In the end, Brammo went with a compact 6-speed unit from IET. A wet clutch mates the motor to the gears and a chain completes the final drive.

Powering up the Empulse

While Brammo buys the transmissions from an outside source, Stewart said the company creates much of the complex electronics in-house, including the bike’s sophisticated power management system.

Perfecting a reliable delivery and control system for the rows of dense, high-powered 103-volt batteries in the Empulse takes more than just a plain rheostat. It takes time.

Brammo also eventually departed from a stepped model plan that included three Empulse models with battery specs giving different ranges (and prices), to just the maximum range model and the more farkled premium-spec Empulse R, which includes fully adjustable suspension and various carbon-fiber bits.

Action in Ashland

Digital Trends recently toured the Brammo skunkworks in bucolic Ashland, Oregon, where the Empulse models will be assembled on a small production line inside their facility.

Brammo’s Ashland headquarters is composed of three buildings. The main building houses the design hub in a large, high-ceiling room where designers post sketches of their next-gen bikes (no photos, please), and the sophisticated R&D lab where they test and refine the bikes’ batteries and power management systems.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview inside owner brammo headquarters adrian stewartThe Empulse will also be assembled by Brammo team members in the building, physically close to where the bike was designed.

Several pre-production and Empulse test models, which looked essentially production-ready, were on hand, although the very accommodating Adrian Stewart resisted our attempts to steal a ride on the new machine ahead of the August rollout.

Look, but don’t ride (yet)

The Empulse is very impressive in person.

Stewart stressed that many of the components that make up the Empulse are designed specifically for it.

When Brammo built the Enertia, “none of the parts were ever designed with a motorbike in mind when they were created,” he said. “What you’ll see now is, we’re moving to a bike where every part has been custom-built for an electric motorcycle.”

The Empulse is about the size of a 600cc sportbike and the naked-bike format includes no fairing or much in the way of weather protection. The design is clean and minimalist – Bramscher cites Apple products as a design influence – and while the engine is the usual centerpiece for traditional bikes, on an electric bike, the motor basically looks like a big round clutch cover.

It’s the batteries that stand out on the Empulse.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview li ion battery powerThe seven blocks of lithium-ion batteries housing up to 10.2 kilowatts of go-juice between the frame rails are the product of intense in-house development. Stewart proudly claims they have one of the highest energy densities of any battery technology available.

“This is fundamental,” he said of the battery development and power program. “This is the only way we can get the density and performance need to run the bike.”

A cover over the top of the batteries will give riders the familiar “gas tank” aesthetic and feel of a traditional bike. A standard e-vehicle J1772 Level II power port resides under the “gas cap.”

The batteries are also built in a way to keep them cool (calling on a lot of amperage heats them up right quick) while supplying the output needed to carry the bike to more than 100mph, or 100 miles of relatively conservative (70mph) riding. Lose-your-license speeds will result in lower range levels, naturally.

Power output from the permanent-magnet, liquid-cooled electric motor is rated at 40 kilowatts at 8,200rpm – which translates to 54 horsepower along with a tick over 46 foot-pounds of twist across much of the rev range. Final drive is by chain and while we saw some design sketches that included belt drive, Stewart said Brammo has “no plan to go to belt drive.”

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview dashboard battery monitor lcdDue to lawyer-enforced obligations, Stewart could not power up the bike so we could see the instrumentation, which includes an LCD panel that shows speed, gear position, power system information and more. Next to the LCD display is a large, traditional tachometer with an 8,000rpm redline. There will also be indicators the bike is “on” when it’s sitting silently at a stop.

Despite its radical drivetrain, the Empulse does share some parts with more traditional bikes. The prototype models use an adjustable remote-reservoir Sachs rear monoshock, along with dual radial Brembo brakes up front and street-fighter style black handlebars above adjustable upside-down Marzocchi forks. The radiator for the engine’s liquid cooling system hangs below the battery array. A 180-section radial rides out back; hoops specialists Marchesini are supplying the wheels.

The Empulse is a two-up bike with a stepped seat that should allow pillions to see over the rider and allow a fairly comfortable ride. There’s no storage under the tank or seat, but Stewart did say there would be a pannier and top box kit available from the luggage pros at Givi as an option.

The spec sheet says the Empulse should tip the scales at 470 pounds. Regular motorcycles usually also have a “wet” weight figure for a full tank of gas plus oil, etc, but that’s just one more thing to get un-used to. Expect the Empulse to weigh… about 470 pounds.

One Empulse in the stable wore the familiar red and black livery of the concept model, while another bike nearby was clad in spendy carbon fiber. An Empulse R handout with specifications also includes a “White Noise” option, but no photo was included.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview plugin electric charging portCharging the bike will be simplified with the standard J1772 charging receptacle, which will allow the bike to soak up some free or cheap electrons from charging stations popping up like dandelions across the nation and around the world.

Count on three and a half hours at 220 volts to bring the Empulse up to full zap and 8 hours when plugged into the same 110-volt outlet as your shop vac.

Brammo estimates that, on average, you can count on paying for $4 worth of juice – four dollars — to go 400 miles. Or less, if your employer lets you, um, gas up at work or you can snag a taxpayer-funded e-vehicle parking spot with a charging kiosk.

Yes, that works out to about one cent per mile. We’re pretty sure our premium-loving Kawasaki ZRX-1200R is costing a bit more than that – a large bit.

Brammo’s Empulse spec sheet says the bike gets an equivalent MPG rating of 485 miles per gallon, but how it arrived at that figure is not clear.

On the road with the Enertia

While a test ride on the Empulse was not in the cards at this point, Stewart did agree to grant a ride on a single-speed Enertia model.

Having never ridden an electric motorcycle before but with hundreds of thousands of road miles on regular (and usually high-powered) motorbikes, I was certainly curious. The Enertia did not blow me away with its acceleration or top speed. But that’s not really the point of the Enertia models.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview bike left side back electric vehicleIt’s a good-handling bike, with modern, full-size motorcycle tires and brakes, a well-finished design, and it’s and quiet and comfortable to boot. As a way to get around a city, it really can’t be beat. I had to keep telling myself: You never have to buy gas for it. While the bike is a bit tall, it is not intimidating, which is the goal, according to CEO Bramscher. Naturally, Brammo employees ride them all over town.

I’ll admit the Enertia was fun to ride and a very different experience from a petrol-powered machine.

On a section of open country road, the electric motor whirred dutifully as the Enertia climbed steadily to 70mph before I had to brake for a corner. I found myself reaching for the clutch (not there) and stabbing for the gear shift (also not there) out of habit, and I more clearly understood the decision to add those things to the Empulse.

But overall, the Enertia has a true motorcycle feel to it, with common cycle switchgear, and impressive instrumentation that includes always updated riding range, battery status, motor temperature, ambient air temperature, time of day, a tripmeter and odometer. Speed is displayed on a large analog speedometer.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview speedometer dashboard electric vehicle controlsOf course, when you come to a stop, there’s no audible way to tell the bike is “on” except for some low-level cooling fan noise, so an array of green LEDs blinks frenetically across the top of the gauge panel to remind you the bike is live, as it were.

Turn the throttle a bit and the bike eases forward with a weird, near-silent, hand-of-God motion that will someday be so common as to be unremarkable. It still feels a little odd right now.

Give the throttle a hard twist instead, and the Enertia scoots forward, never threatening to do any wheelies but fast enough to leave most auto traffic behind with no problem.

Both the Enertia and Empulse feature regenerative braking, which quickly changed my braking habits during the Enertia test ride.

Instead of my normal braking behavior, I found myself coasting to stops when possible to stuff a few zillion electrons back into the battery. On a large hill, which the bike had no problem climbing, the long coast down at the speed limit or better ticked up the battery capacity by several points. Thanks, gravity.

For those with off-road inclinations, Brammo also makes a line of pure electric dirt bikes with the Engage moniker.

Moving forward

In the two years since the Empulse model was announced, the e-vehicle market has greatly expanded, as has nascent infrastructure in the form of charging stations, which have begun to take root in many cities in the US and around the world. Gas prices are still a major budget issue for most people, making hybrids more attractive and new pure-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf a viable option.

High-profile motorcycles like the one-off Mission R and the winged Motoczysz EIpc, which just lapped the Isle of Man at over 100 mph to win that storied venue’s electric-only race, have given electric motorbikes a rising performance profile among enthusiasts.

The nascent charging infrastructure in many cities in the US and around the world is taking away some of the range anxiety of pure electrics. And as we know, battery technology is mimicking the path development computers took early on, with performance rising while costs (hopefully) go down.

Brammo Empulse electric motorcycle preview front show stand electric bikeTime (and sales) will tell if the decision to add a gearbox to the Empulse was the right one. Fortunately, that time is very soon. All factors considered, Brammo’s timing for the Empulse really could be just about perfect.

Brammo is accepting pre-orders for the Empulse ($16,999) and the Empulse R ($18,999). While those prices may seem steep, just remember: no gas to buy. Ever. Brammo also offers reasonable financing.

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