2013 Brammo Empulse R Review - Video
The e-bike we've been waiting for
Brammo has been teasing the world with its Empulse and up-spec Empulse R electric motorcycles for more than two years. Boasting performance claims of 100 mph and 100 miles per charge, it would blow its competition out of the water if the hype were true. We media types and consumers alike couldn’t wait to get our hands on one to flog around.
Instead, we waited. Fueled only by pictures on the internet and social media chatter, Brammo created substantial hype for its product, while doubters started to wonder if they’d ever see an Empulse in the flesh.
Finally the wait is over. We’ve got our hands on a $18,995 Empulse R, which costs two grand more than the base Empulse and features fully adjustable suspension and carbon fiber accent pieces. It’s time to discover if the hype was worth the wait.
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An e-Bike With a Twist
So far, every offering in the electric motorcycle market has done away with clutch levers and shifters, opting instead for forward movement via a single-ratio transmission gear set. That’s true for the entire Zero line to the shockingly fast Lightning we rode just a few months back.
The Brammo Empulse R (and the standard model) breaks that mold. Ask Brammo engineers and they’ll tell you there’s an inherent flaw with the single-speed design — top speed is sacrificed for quick acceleration, or vice versa. It’s the same issue Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles encountered long ago, and the solution is obvious: add a gearbox. Which is exactly what Brammo has done.
The Empulse line is the first e-bike to feature a multi-speed transmission, allowing optimal acceleration without sacrificing top speed. Operating this transmission is unique, as the clutch isn’t needed to start or stop. Its sole purpose is to simply change gears. To start rolling, just twist the “throttle,” regardless what gear you’re in. Another quirk: neutral is between second and third.
“The neutral position is a remnant based on the mechanical layout of the gear stack we are using,” says Brammo Service Manager Adam Lukoic. “Since neutral is used far less on our bike than an ICE, it was determined to be an acceptable compromise.”
Yes, placing neutral between second and third is weird, but considering how little neutral is used, one wonders why it’s even there at all. However, the law deems it necessary, and it also comes in handy during maintenance or repair work as well.
Glance at the Empulse and the focal point is what sits between the Accossato-built frame rails. The stack of Lithium-Ion batteries is the main attention grabber whenever the Empulse R is parked in a crowd. The fact it’s not hidden by plastic fairings enhances its appeal to even the casual observer, who can tell it’s not your typical internal combustion engine, even if they’re not entirely sure what it is.
Together the battery packs produce a maximum of 10.2 kWh. This is slightly less than the Lightning’s 12 kWh or up to 11.4 kWh on the all-new 2013 Zero S that is claimed to have a 137-mile range and can be recharged to 95% capacity in an hour or less. The Empulse uses a liquid-cooled, permanent magnet AC motor (a first for an e-bike) for power, to the tune of 54 horses and 46.5 ft.-lb. of torque, according to Brammo, rated at the motor not the wheel.
A J1772 charge port sits atop the faux “fuel tank” where you’d normally find a fuel cap, and allows for charging at any level II station, which are becoming more prevalent thanks to the burgeoning electric automobile industry and the infrastructure it requires.
A 110AC to J1772 adapter is included for plugging into your typical household wall outlet. However, bring a backpack if you plan on taking it with you, as there’s nowhere to store it on the bike itself.
Charge times from a completely drained battery range from 8 hours with the 110AC unit to as little as 3.5 hours at a level II station. Like a cell phone, the Empulse’s Li-Ion batteries don’t need to be fully depleted before plugging in. Brammo says every 10 minutes of level II charging produces five miles of range.
Naturally, the next question is “how far will it go on a charge?” Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so simple, as it really depends on riding conditions. Brammo rates the Empulse at 121 miles city, 56 miles highway, and 77 miles combined, following SAE test procedures. We opted not to purposefully ride until the batteries were empty, but judging by how quickly the battery gauge on the dash depleted, our heavy right hands would have never accomplished such mileage.
A simple web search for “Level II charging stations” will pull up several websites with listings for charging stations throughout the country. With some careful planning, an all-day ride can be achieved, but you’ll need to include strategic stops along the way to recharge.
As for the rest of the bike, Marzocchi and Sachs supply the fork and shock, respectively. On the standard model, both ends are only semi-adjustable, while full adjustability comes on R models. Dual 310mm discs and four-piston radially mounted Brembo calipers up front provide massive stopping power. Marchesini wheels adorn each end, fitted with 120/70-17 front and 180/55-17 rear Avon AV80 tires.
A Different Kind of Riding Sensation
The Brammo Empulse R is a different kind of motorcycle, and as such it requires a slightly different riding style. Lukoic says our tester is a “marketing bike” with “very subtle differences” between it and the customer bikes to be sold at dealerships. Mainly, software bugs and glitches we’re not used to seeing. More on those below.
Starting the bike is a simple press of a button, though the only indication the bike is operational is the “ON” indicator on the dash. With a 31.5-inch seat height, reach to the ground is comparable to most sporty ICE motorcycles — toes touch the ground comfortably, but someone with a 30-inch inseam isn’t flat-footing.
From a performance aspect, the beauty of an electric motor is the available torque anywhere in the rev range, and we were delighted with the Empulse’s power. There’s easily enough torque to propel the 470-pound machine briskly from a stoplight, dusting cars in the process while hardly making a sound. On/off power application can be harsh, especially at slow speeds. “The only tricky bit about operating the Empulse is achieving the desired regen/coast balance,” according to Chief Editor, Kevin Duke. “A bit of driveline lash inhibits maximum smoothness.” Annoying, yes, but not a deal breaker.
In addition, the transmission’s shift quality is somewhat clunky and “feel as though you’re shifting Lincoln Logs,” says Matrimonial Editor Tom Roderick. Clutchless upshifts are possible but require perfect timing and a very forceful flick of the toe.
For comparison purposes we brought along a Honda NC700X. While not a sporty-type motorcycle like the Brammo, its claimed curb weight of 472 pounds is only two more than the Empulse R. Plus, the Honda’s 670cc parallel-Twin engine put out 47.8 horsepower and 42.6 ft.-lb. to the wheel — pretty close to what the Brammo would crank out after going through the gearbox and final drive to the rear wheel.
During our informal roll-on tests, the Empulse’s bottomless powerband noticeably edged the torquey NC700X every time, regardless of gear, though not by much. This satisfied our curiosity, as both Tom and I rated the Empulse’s power as similar to a 650cc Twin judging by our seat-of-the-pants dyno.
Despite having six gears we never felt the need to shift beyond third, even for highway cruising. “We were advised to keep the motor in the 5000 to 6000-rpm range for optimal efficiency,” notes Duke, “but first gear at 6000 rpm equals about 50 mph.” So why even have six gears?
Lukoic says Brammo didn’t feel the need to “reinvent the gearbox,” citing development and testing costs weren’t worth the hassle, so Brammo selected an off-the-shelf transmission. He also cites a greater difficulty with motor-control stability, as fewer gears would mean a larger variance in motor speed during downshifts.
In direct contrast to an ICE motorcycle, the Empulse, like all e-bikes, “is more in its environmentally conscious element on city streets in stop-and-go traffic,” writes Kevin. “Barely any energy is used in that environment, with zero electrons burned while stationary, and the regenerative braking feeds energy back into the system while decelerating with the throttle fully closed.”
Duke also noticed coasting without the regen is accomplished by leaving the throttle cracked slightly open. Although the amount of regen is constant anytime the throttle is closed, the effect a rider feels is dependent on gear selection – the greater torque multiplication of lower gears makes it feel stronger.
Brammo tells us the upcoming production model will have two regen settings (something our tester did not), Normal and Sport, with the former programmed to receive approximately half the regen torque as the latter, which is what our tester was programmed for.
The Silent Sportbike Killer
As evidenced by the effort Brammo is putting into its TTXGP racers, the Empulse R was made to shine in the twisty stuff. As such, we flogged our Empulse in the SoCal hills to test its mettle.
Straight away, the ample amount of torque gets the Empulse up to speed quickly, although Duke notes that the Empulse’s motor controller doesn’t deliver full juice right off the line, perhaps for rider safety or conserving battery energy. MO’s Ed-in-Cheese also poo-pooed the software that wouldn’t allow him to clutch up a wheelie, but he was pleased the code writers enabled the ability to perform a burnout!
Duke says he was overall satisfied with the motor’s thrust. “Propulsion from its motor isn’t lacking in the least,” he notes. The drag-race-fiend reported an impromptu sprint contest against a Triumph Thruxton that “was basically dead even until we had to shut it down around 60 mph.”
After experimenting with different gears, we settled on second throughout our jaunt in the twisties. In the tight stuff there’s still plenty of grunt exiting corners, and the broad powerband negated the need to shift during the short straights between corners.
Accelerating through longer, flowing sweepers and onto straights would bring motor speeds near redline, but before a shift was required the next bend would appear. Regardless of the turn, the Brammo made quick work of it.
Its 24-degree rake and 3.8 inches of trail are identical to a Yamaha YZF-R6, but the Brammo features handlebars instead of clip-ons, making manhandling the bike through the twisties almost effortless. Duke says it feels like a slightly heavy SV650. Meanwhile, the capable suspension soaked up bumps and delivered great feedback.
“After a little familiarization the Brammo will confidently lean far enough into a tight corner to scrape its rear-set pegs,” notes Tom. “Which is even more impressive considering its 7.5 inches of ground clearance is an inch more than a Triumph Tiger 800.”
As much as he enjoyed the bike’s ground clearance, there was another kind of clearance newlywed T-Rod noticed once he rode with any kind of aggression. “The tank is narrow and pointy and dangerous to my manhood,” he said. The seat, too, is limiting. Kevin was critical of the riding position also because of “a steep slope at the rear of the seat that prevents moving further rearward.”
Nonetheless, the Empulse R’s ability to scoot is impressive, but its stopping power is even more so. Such is to be expected from the big discs and Brembo calipers, leading Roderick to joke, “When the bike's ability to accelerate matches that of its braking performance, Brammo will have a real performer.”
A New E-Bike Standard?
While riding the Empulse R answered some initial questions, our time with it raised even more. Take the transmission for example. Before the advent of the six-speed transmission, cog boxes with fewer gears existed. And considering we mainly used just the first three speeds, “gears four through six seem superfluous,” says Kevin.
During our initial ride, error codes and warning messages kept appearing on the dash, though there was no noticeable decrease in performance. We took the bike back to address these issues and discovered the software loaded into our marketing test bike wasn’t current. A simple upgrade to the production-spec software cured this matter in minutes and later rides produced no such messages on the screen.
Fault codes may be alarming to some, but “Brammo considers them to be a benefit to customers,” Lukoic says. Included with the Empulse is a full list of codes in the owner’s manual to help the owner self-diagnose a problem instead of having to go to the dealer. “Our belief is that this results in higher customer satisfaction and usually leads to quicker resolution of an issue if it does occur.”
Unnecessary gears and software updates aside, we’re impressed with the Empulse R. It offers vibration-free performance and sporty handling that feels much like an ICE-powered motorcycle. We wouldn’t mind a little more power off the bottom, but as-is power delivery is well metered. Because thrust is provided so gently and the suspension components are top notch, “the Empulse is an easy bike to ride fast,” Tom writes.
From a visual perspective it looks the business, too. While the eyes are initially drawn to the batteries, its Marchesini wheels, carbon fiber accents and a gold-colored fork adds visual appeal. Duke gave props for its “nicely finished componentry,” while Tom added “It's a good looking bike and goes a long way in elevating electric bikes to ‘cool’ status.”
Range anxiety is still a prominent issue with the Empulse, which kept us from venturing further than 60 miles per charge. Duke tried to be very light on the throttle during his 55-mile ride and returned with a 34% charge remaining. That kind of distance with this amount of performance seemed impossible just two years ago.
We’re confident as battery and motor technologies improve, so will these numbers, but judged purely on performance, Kevin surmises, “the best thing I can say about the Empulse is that it acts like a real motorcycle.”
Is the Empulse R worth its $18,995 price tag ($16,995 for standard models)? Probably not for most. But that princely sum gets you one of the most unique motorcycles on the road. If you’ve got the cash burning a hole in your wallet and are into conversation starters that actually perform, this e-bike may be for you.
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