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The Native S is a deceptively ordinary looking electric motorcycle considering that it and the company that manufactures it can claim a number of singular distinctions.
Having been produced since September 2008 by Electric Motorsport of Oakland, Calif., a company thats been turning out e-bikes since the early years of this millennium, it is arguably a grandfather among the new crop of U.S.made electric street motorcycles.
And unlike most companies in the fledgling industry, Electric Motorsport is operating profitably and developing its Native line of motorcycles and scooters with its own money, while others seek government grants and venture capital.
Working under a modest budget, Native has no PR agency representing it, doesnt chase motorcycle events around the country with a demo fleet, and has only a basic website.
However, nothing has stopped it from making motorcycle history.
Last year, using a hotrod version of the Native S, Electric Motorsport won the Open class in the worlds first TTXGP electric motorcycle race at the Isle of Man. In doing so, Native also became the first American motorcycle manufacturer to win a race there since the Indian Motocycle Company did in 1911. (Team Agni took victory in the TTXGPs more prestigious Pro Class.)
Natives name was selected to acknowledge its American grassroots heritage. Having one Native American partner in the company, plus enthusiasts for vintage Indian motorcycles, its name was also chosen out of respect for the American company that came before it.
While Native is its own brand, it is only one element in its parent companys overarching mission to make e-bikes viable. To get as many creative and visionary people involved as possible, Electric Motorsport functions as an open source company, selling parts and sharing knowledge. Its GPR-S chassis, from which the Native S is based, is available for anyone be they professional builders creating their own e-bikes for sale, or private individuals.
As for Native Cycles, thus far it operates with only four western dealers (that can ship anywhere in the country but usually sell locally), and have sold only about 250 motorcycles and scooters.
But while you may not have heard much about Native, Electric Motorsport is anything but unknown in Electric Vehicle (EV) enthusiast circles. As a resource to the entire small world of the EV industry, it is called on for all sorts of projects, including electric motorcycle conversions and electric go-carts, while also filling orders from $400 to $10,000 for an elite list of buyers.
Its customers include MIT, Stanford, Brigham Young, Purdue, and other equally well-regarded universities from a total of about 200. Likewise, it has sold to Honda, Ford, Subaru, and other OEMs for their small behind-the-scenes projects.
Electric Motorsport even sold Zero Motorcycles its first 30 motors and allowed Zero to take its own name. Electric Motorsport once went by the moniker of Zero, and ran a website called TheZero.net. The company decided to let it go when founder and CEO Todd Kollin realized that the term zero is considered derogatory in Europe.
Electric Motorsport also routinely ships to Europe, Asia, Russia, Australia, Dubai, and more places worldwide. Additional domestic customers have included the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, NASA, and several more U.S. agencies.
The funny thing is, we had to drag all this info out of Kollin, who probably plays it down more than he should.
Its a fancy clientele list is what we have, he admits, speaking of orders Electric Motorsport has filled. Its not always piecemeal, but they know where to get the stuff, so they call us up. Our motors and drive systems wind up in the craziest places I could never imagine.
Some of these crazy places have been electric-powered water pipe inspection equipment, life-size dinosaurs, irrigation equipment for the driest parts of Australia, barstool racers¬ you name it.
At its core, Native is driven by motorcycle and bicycle riders still active in R&D and racing. This year, theyre fielding a converted Yamaha R6 in the TTXGP electric motorcycle racing series as they continue developing environmentally friendly ways to let people get where they want to go.
We were never trying to be supersport. We were just trying to be transportation, Kollin says, Were trying to push the smaller, lighter vehicles, and efficiency.
A turnkey bike
Although the 60 mph Native S we tested costs $7,500 when equipped with Thundersky lithium ion (li-ion) batteries, similar performance can be had for $4,500 when specd with Absorbed Glass Mat lead-acid batteries. These batteries are heavier, however, and may only accept 400-500 recharge cycles, compared to the 2,000 possible for li-ion.
The Native S came about as a result of Electric Motorsports constant experimentation on countless projects using every kind of motor, battery and chassis and demand by do-it-yourself customers for project bikes.
A few years back, Electric Motorsport was producing forerunners to its present offering from modified rolling chassis purchased from Derbi, which makes a GPR line and from which the GPR-S bikes were named.
Electric Motorsport produced these to various performance levels, but when Piaggio bought Derbi and made the chassis unavailable, it forced Kollin and company to look for a new platform to electrify.
They wound up contracting with Thailand-based Tiger motorcycles to import unfinished bikes modified to Natives specs, ready-made for EV purposes. These are based on a Cagiva F4, Kollin says, and now produced under Tigers name in a former Kawasaki plant. Kollin says it was once also the basis for an internal combustion engine-powered police bike in Asia, and is yet sold as a petrol recreational version to the Asian market.
Electric Motorsports graduation from merely converting existing DOT-legal bikes to becoming an actual OEM came in August, 2008, when it secured its manufacturing license for the state of California.
Its modular platform ranges from the GPR-S rolling chassis kit sold under the Electric Motorsport name for $2,500, and an almost ready-to-ride GPR-S lacking only batteries for $3,500, to the finished Native S bike for $4,500 already mentioned, and the $7,500 Native S in this review. This said, build levels can far exceed even the primo model to satisfy paying customers.
For example, instead of a standard-issue 72-volt, 19 hp-rated, EMC-RT brushless DC motor, an AC induction motor can easily be swapped in for those wanting more than what the stock version can offer.
Theyre not happy with 19 hp, they want to put a 47 hp motor in there, Kollin says.
"Upgraded examples of this bike have hit 120 mph...it has no problem handling the extra power."
Upgraded examples of this bike have hit 120 mph a speed Brammo and Zero have yet to see and Kollin says it has no problem handling the extra power.
What it is and what it can do
Our test bike came courtesy of Harlan Flagg, a partner at one of Natives dealers, Hollywood Electrics, an e-bike-only seller in West Hollywood, Calif. It is a regularly used demo built in 2008 that Flagg said is basically specd as a 2010 but still labeled as an Electric Motorsport GPR-S instead of the current Native S logo.
Aside from a somewhat wider fairing to conceal its motor and battery, and lack of an exhaust system, this rectangular-steel-framed bike, along with its braced box-section alloy swingarm, offers no visual clues to suggest it isnt engine-driven.
With a wheelbase of just 51.75 inches, and seat height of 29.5 inches, the 285-lb two-seater the only passenger-capable e-bike we know of rolls on 100/80-17 rear, and 90/80-17 front tires, and bears close resemblance to the diminutive Italian bike its loosely derived from.
The Natives preload-adjustable twin shocks look old school compared to its inverted non-adjustable 35mm fork, but their travel of 110mm front and 115mm rear are about what youd expect for its present urban/suburban domain.
Braking is handled by twin-piston, Tiger-branded front and rear calipers, clamping a 290mm front rotor and a 200mm rear.
Six-spoke alloy wheels and a bikini fairing with twin pseudo projector lights add to the sportiness of the little machine. Switchgear is functional and basic, although the headlights hi/lo switch on our demo was notchy, and the blue hi-beam indicator was frozen on.
On top of the tank is a lockable trap door. Out of it comes a short three-prong cord just like an electric drill would have to facilitate charging.
Unlike some other e-bikes, no special procedures are needed. Just park, make sure the key is turned off, and plug in. Its computer will top off the battery, monitor its level, and prevent overcharge.
Depending on how much its depleted, the battery can take under one hour to as many as four to recharge. As is true for many modern battery-powered devices, the battery management system will not allow a deep discharge, as that could damage the battery. As set-up by Native, the bikes 72 volt, 2.88 kilowatt-hour, 24-cell battery pack can be drained to about 20% of capacity before going into a current-limiting limp mode. At this point, a rider may have 5 miles at half the normal power to get to a charging outlet.
On the road and around-town
Getting started is as simple as turning the key and triggering a right-side switch inboard of the standard switch housing.
Rolling the throttle produces progressive, nearly silent-running power thats insufficient to wheelie but enough to stay ahead of traffic, and its on par with an average 200cc 4-stroke up to its 60-mph top speed.
Its peak of 12.3 hp, as measured on Genes Speed Shop Dyno, arrives at 39.5 mph, but theres a solid swath of 10-12 hp from about 25 to 50 mph to ensure adequate acceleration.
However, our staff recorded a few complaints about the demo bikes throttle response.
Although it felt assertive from a stop, it also surged at low speeds, says Pete. Its power response, especially in the 35-45 mph range, was delayed after reapplying throttle from a closed position.
The Natives motor controller doesnt seem as sophisticated as some other e-bikes, Duke notes. Its a little jumpy right off the hop, lacking a bit of refinement.
To its credit, the Natives narrow tires make sense for their reduced rolling resistance. The IRC Eagle Grips never let us down, and made for a nimble little bike.
Steering and handling feel like any number of well-handling gas-powered bikes Ive ridden, Pete notes, Nothing quirky or bothersome about the chassis performance; just neutral, responsive control.
Likewise, the braded steel-lined brakes offer firm lever/pedal feel, working progressively, and respectably well for a runabout.
At 5-feet-8-inches tall, Pete didnt object to its ergonomics, and said it was a fit he could live with despite the short seat-to-peg distance. On the other hand, at 6-feet-tall, I felt cramped, and would have liked to replace the saddle with a taller one.
This did not mean the bike was not fun. It is dead-nuts simple to hop on and ride. It requires no warm-up, and everything basically works as intended. For short round-town hops although this may sound like heresy to traditional motorcyclists this bike can be as fun or even more fun than a larger, gas-powered motorcycle. Part of this impression may come from its novelty. Other than the usual motor/chain whir, the only sound it makes is a not-unpleasant pulse sound from the hub-mounted speedo pickup.
Speaking of which, as is true for other e-bikes, pinning the speedo toward max speed does create an extraordinary appetite for juice. Keeping it below 40 mph stretches range to the 30-40-plus miles this bike is advertised for.
We did not even try to run it on the freeway, because its not likely legal there, and we were forewarned this could drain the battery in as little as 20 miles.
Other nits include random squeaks and rattles.
The Native S could prove to be a particularly inexpensive-to-own machine.
Operating costs are pennies for e-bikes, compared to gasoline-powered machines. Aside from wear items like tires, brakes, and chains, these machines can potentially be run for many thousands of miles for under $100 in total electricity costs.
Kollin says the Natives drivetrains are industry standard, and despite our experience with a somewhat rough running, un-prepped demo that was rushed to us on short notice, he has sold the same motor/battery/controller package to about 3,000 satisfied customers.
But while these bikes are said to be reliable overall, finding qualified service in much of the country will be up to the user. Motorcycle shops can handle the basics, of course, and servicing the drivetrain could be tackled by them, or others who specialize in small electric drivetrains, such as golf cart repair shops.
For those with DIY capability, the Native S or an unfinished GPR-S iteration from its parent company could especially make sense. Electric Motorsports $2,500 rolling chassis and $3,500 just-add-batteries models could also prove to be inexpensive-to-own machines.
Kollin estimates it would cost a minimum of $2,000 to convert an old gas-bike to the level of his ready-made bikes, plus the cost of the donor bike, additional fabricating time and materials.
As for the $7,500 li-ion Native S we tested, we think this could fill certain transportation needs too, but Kollin says he knows it will seem like too much for those who might be better served with less expensive versions.
Maybe theyre just getting this to go down to the corner store and back. Why would they want a lithium vehicle to go to the corner store and back? Our lead-acid turnkey is only $4,500, Kollin says, and it has the exact same power, the exact same speed, the exact same everything.
Exact same, that is, except for batteries that will weigh more and lose their charge-holding capacity sooner.
Aside from this fact, which Kollin also readily concedes, we find it remarkable that a company CEO would be willing to pitch a less-expensive product in this way, and we believe this speaks to an enlightened philosophy weve thus far observed.
Electric Motorsport appears to be working under an ethical yet shrewd strategy to serve the entire EV industry toward sustainable solutions, while not floating schemes it feels could bring other investors down or compromising its ability to remain financially sustainable itself.
While the Native S is not for everyone, it is certain that its made by people with as much experience building electric motorcycles as anyone, and it could prove viable for some.
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