Put in the key. Turn key. Wait for the electronics to boot up, and push the starter button.
It’s the ensuing silence that takes some getting used to.
Adam Lukoic, Service Manager for Brammo, who is seated on the well-worn Empulse Test Bike No. 2 next to me, looks me in the eye through his helmet and says, “It’s ready to go.”
But I’m not completely sure I am as I sit astride the $18,999 Empluse R, arguably the most advanced electric motorcycle available to the riding public today.
I’m standing next to production bike number 24, completed just minutes before at the hands of the assembly team inside the Brammo complex in bucolic Ashland, Oregon. Protective tape still covered some of the bike’s plastic parts when Lukoic rolled it out to the parking lot.
I throw a leg over the Empulse and settle in. The riding position is upright, sporty, comfortable and much closer to a Monster than a Gixxer thanks to the flatish standard-style bars, slim waist and rear-set pegs.
Inside the large round analog tachometer with an 8,000rpm redline, an “ON” indicator glows green. The tach needle rests motionless at zero rpms. The Empulse is totally silent at a standstill.
Across the top of the informative LCD display, a row of bright green LEDs flash in rapid succession. That’s my primary cue that the Empulse is live.
And since the Empulse R feels and pretty much looks every bit like a full-size, middle-weight sporting motorcycle, the silence and lack of drama is a little unsettling for someone used to the vibration, sound, general mechanical cacophony and even the smell of starting a traditional motorcycle.
Minutes before, Lukoic explained that the Empulse can be ridden like a regular motorcycle: clutch in, click the 6-speed gearbox down to first, roll on the power, ease out onto the road. Oh, except neutral is between second and third.
But Option 2 cannot instantly overcome 30 years of habit so I decide to default to what I know for now and haul in the clutch, feed in some throttle – and immediately zing the 54hp Italian-made SMRE liquid-cooled electric motor nearly to redline.
Up ahead, Lukoic has already rolled out of the Brammo parking lot and perhaps did not hear my miscue, or if he did, he’s probably chuckling in his helmet as another rider makes a rookie mistake on the Empulse R.
A new era in riding requires new thinking, so I force my hand off the clutch, click into first gear and gently roll on some power.
The Empulse gets underway smoothly from 0 rpm with only a slight gear whine coming from the engine bay. As we roll around through town, there’s never a need to take the bike out of first gear. And in reality, you could ride it around town in any gear. But Lukoic recommends using first gear, primarily for the acceleration aspect but especially for the engine braking and recharging.
Engine braking? That’s regeneration on the Empulse. Free gas, as it were. Just do it, Lukoic advises. I try to make my left hand obey. It does, at least most of the time.
The Empluse R is geared such that you can easily go 45 to 50 in first gear before the motor winds it’s way anywhere close to redline. And it’s not geared overly tall, as acceleration is snappy and torque abundant – but without piston power pulses. It’s the cliché “engine like an electric motor” experience, made real, with power to spare.
To slow down, just roll off the throttle. It’s true twist-and-go riding if you want to do that – and why not? Suddenly, a clutch seems like so much unneeded strain and drama for city riding.
Still, I feel it’s nice to have the clutch option, and Brammo went to great lengths – and delays – to rethink and redesign the initial gearless prototype to bring that critical familiarity to the production bike.
Roll off the power and the engine braking indeed feels instantly familiar, although I must consciously keep my hand off the clutch lever as the bike comes to a silent stop. The stalling out I keep expecting of course never happens, and after a few stoplight repetitions of the clutchless go-and-stop cycle, I become more comfortable with it.
The “throttle response,” while a bit of misnomer here (it’s a rheostat, technically, like a volume knob on a stereo), is smooth and progressive, enabling the rider to go anywhere from 1mph to well over 100mph with, again, an instantly familiar feel and gapless, linear control over the bike’s performance.
But even when I forget and revert to Gas-Powered Bike Mode in my riding behavior, all is well. Clutch, engine and drive train behave as expected. But when clutching in while slowing or coming to a stop, I lose out on putting juice back in the battery. And on a bike where range anxiety is your constant passenger, every little bit helps.
I resolve to engine brake as much possible, knowing that if needed, the dual Brembo calipers up front will haul the Empulse down quickly, clutch or no clutch. But if you can really get the hang of engine braking, you may never have to replace the pads again.
Pre-ride, Lukoic informed me that in general, the bike is happiest between 5,000 and 7,000 rpm. He says some early riders clicked up through the gears and lugged the bike, wastefully dumping extra juice into the motor. Just like a 600cc gas-powered sportbike, it really doesn’t pay to lug it.
As we slice through hilly streets in and around beautiful Ashland, I try to keep the motor spun up but since the bike is ethereally smooth, I sometimes click up a gear and then check the tach only to see it hovering around 3,000rpm. I click the gear lever back down and focus on just leaving it alone and enjoying the ride.
As a rural roads open up ahead of us, I get a better feel for the Empulse at speed. Lukoic and Director of Product Development Brian Wismann both mentioned the Suzuki SV650 as a target for the feel of the bike, and they have come very close to the mark – sans the obvious electromechanical differences. The Empulse R has plenty of zip (zap?) and rails through curves with a settled, sorted feel courtesy of adjustable Sachs suspension components and moderately sporty geometry. It is plain fun to ride.
Even the seat feels somewhat familiar – and looks great as well, black and red (on my bike at least) with a dished rider section followed by a slim passenger perch with grab handles. Wismann tells me it’s the same company that makes seats for Triumph’s lineup. It’s firm but supportive and well-made.
On a rural stretch of hilly two-lane road I glance down to see 60mph in third gear, but I’m again below 5,000rpm. I let Lukoic get a little out ahead and goose the gas – er, rheostat – and the Empulse R shoots forward with purpose, the motor whining a bit in my helmet as the revs climb and the speedo ticks off 70mph. Roll-on power is strong but deceptive, again thanks to the smoothness of the motor.
North of Ashland, we curl around and down onto on onramp towards Interstate 5, which is crowded with semis and minivans all dutifully doing 10mph over Oregon’s ridiculous 65 mph speed limit. We roll onto the highway behind a semi and with the bike still in third gear, I roll on the juice to catch Lukoic as he changes lanes to make the pass.
Shooting down the highway, I glance down and see 85, and click to fourth, the bike pulling hard even though the twistgrip is nowhere near the stop. Another click to fifth as we fly past a knot of cars and I see 92 on the display with one more gear to spare, but we need to make the upcoming exit so I roll off as I close quickly on Lukoic during the lane change. The Brembos haul the Empulse down quickly, along with gear changes, as we pull up to the light at the top of the offramp.
And this time, I just leave it in first.
Too soon, we roll back into the parking at Brammo HQ. Our 20-mile ride used about 15 percent of the battery power available, and it was at about 60 percent charge when we left. This is no touring bike, although it is certainly comfortable enough. That time will come, eventually.
Riding the Empulse is imminently familiar, but it is still a lesson in change. It looks, for the most part, like a regular motorcycle. It goes and stops like a traditional motorcycle. It’s useful, like a good motorcycle should be. As a city bike, it’s probably unbeatable for ease of use.
The Empulse made me reconsider the essence of motorcycling. Is it the sound? That’s certainly a component, and judging by the thriving aftermarket exhaust business, it’s an important one. The sound of the Empulse – or the lack of it – is something many riders will have to get used to, but I found that I didn’t miss it a bit as we flew down the road, and I have owned some very noisy bikes.
Or is it the look? The Empulse R looks sharp while being different, but still fits in. So far, overall reaction to the bike’s aesthetics have been highly positive, judging from comments and attention I saw the prototype receive at the 2010 Portland International Auto Show. The production Empluse R is nearly identical to that machine.
For most serious riders unconcerned with how they look or how they sound or what people think of their choice of bike, I’d gamble it’s the actual riding experience that will seal the deal. How it moves, turns, stops, goes, how it feels out on the road is the main reason many people part with their hard-earned cash for any bike. In that regard, the Empulse is on the mark.
The Empulse isn’t fussy. It isn’t demanding. It doesn’t have tons of personality. But at this stage of the game, with Brammo focused on putting out a high-quality, reliable, rideable product, personality can wait for the next iteration or even the one after that. For a bike so remarkably different from the status quo, Brammo has succeeded in is making it instantly familiar in so many ways.
And that perhaps is the biggest compliment for the Empulse. Outside of a few operational differences, it feels familiar. Useful. Exciting. And above all, great fun to ride, just like a proper motorcycle should.
You just never, ever have to put a drop of gas in it.
- Goes, stops, looks, handles like a traditional motorcycle
- High-quality components
- Hand-made in USA
- Never needs gas!
- Range still an issue
- Re-learning clutch behavior (optional, really)
- Time lost answering a ton of questions from people
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