Electric motorcycles have shown lots of promise, but lacked the real-world performance craved by gearhead enthusiasts. It only takes a few seconds aboard the Brammo Empulse R to realize this latest EV mount is a different beast – making significant strides toward parity with the internal combustion standard.
At last a 2013 production model, the Empulse has been a long time coming. First revealed in July 2010, it snared headlines with its claims of 100 mph top speed and 100 mile range. Brammo has since retooled the production Empulse with components developed by its TTXGP title-winning race program. A more potent liquid-cooled motor is mated to Brammo’s latest proprietary lithium-ion batteries, which store 9 kWh power. The Empulse also features a novel (for an EV ride) six-speed transmission. The result is road-worthy performance that obliterates Brammo’s previous offerings.
We took a spin on the up-spec Empulse R, featuring adjustable suspension and carbon fiber accoutrements after visiting the company’s Ashland, Oregon HQ. After tallying up a couple charging cycles during a brief test loan, we returned the Empulse R impressed with its performance gains. It represents a true coming-of-age for the electric motorcycle concept.
MotoUSA has a long history with Brammo, which is located 20 miles south of our own headquarters in Medford, Oregon. We were one of the first to sample the prototype Enertia back in 2008. The juxtaposition between that raw prototype and this production Empulse R is remarkable. That initial Enertia first ride was novel and strange – the ride quality and chassis components adequate, but flimsy by comparison to this new ride, which feels every bit a well-built production motorcycle. But it’s the Empulse R’s newfound power that’s transformative. This is a proper motorbike, and performs like one.
The new powertrain is anchored by a liquid-cooled permanent magnet AC motor. Brammo developed the motor with Parker, the same folks that provide the powerplant for its TTXGP-title-winning Empulse RR. A water jacket surrounds the motor housing, routed to a compact radiator, which allows the new Brammo to deliver far more palatable street performance than the air-cooled Enertia. Power claims for the Empulse are 54 peak horsepower at 8200 rpm and 46.5 lb-ft of torque (the Empulse RR racebike, by the way, cranks out 170 hp).
Powering the more potent Empulse motor is a pack of seven BPM-15/90 battery packs. Designed in-house by Brammo (the name stands for Brammo Power Module – 15 Volts with 90 Amp-hour capacity) each module is comprised of approximately 250 lithium-ion cells, which are manufactured to spec in China, then tested and assembled in Ashland. Total energy capacity is 9.3 kWh – triple the capacity of the original Enertia – and is the key to the Empulse performance gains. With increased capacity, range is extended, despite the more powerful motor tapping Amps from the system. A motor controller, from Sevcon, and Brammo’s onboard electronics monitor the batteries and motor. Power is metered out via two engine maps – the standard default setting and a more aggressive Sport mode.
Riders need only slam the throttle to feel that extra surge. Even in standard mode the Empulse R jolts off the line and ramps up to 60 mph with the best of any ICE middleweight. Brammo reps liken the Empulse performance as comparable to a conventional 650 Twin – a fair comparison. It’s certainly a pleasant surprise for those expecting a dour commuter bike.
The Brammo Empulse R is a unique urban play bike, ideal for
commuting but capable of backroad shenanigans too.
The Enertia, which was respectable enough in acceleration, seems rather tame by comparison. For example we recall a burnout attempt on the Enertia prototype was comically woeful – barely capable of breaking tire adhesion and leaving a cute hint of rubber. The Empulse, on the other hand, lights up the rear with frightening ease... Wheelies are a different matter, though a defter throttle hand than I might be able to loft the Empulse front end skyward (development rider and Empulse RR pilot Eric Bostrom being one of them). Company reps promise a derestricted Empulse can chop up power wheelies on demand right from the throttle – and we believe them. The motor’s got some serious pull.
The Empulse’s six-speed transmission, which makes it unique in the EV world, is a curious addition to the powertrain. Fitting a gearbox to an EV mount always struck us as a sound strategy, as the single final drive gear ratio (found on the Enertia and initial Empulse) forces an inherent performance compromise. At the very least a taller extra gear to increase top speed and extend range seemed worth the extra weight and engineering effort.
But it’s not quite that simple. Electric motors produce peak torque immediately, with a flat power curve. The broad powerband – essentially 0 to redline – makes multiple gears less essential than a traditional combustion engine. However, there is a peak efficiency for the electric motor – which Brammo claims is approximately 5000 rpm on the Empulse. So a gearbox can extend range by changing the gear to run in the optimal rpm – not to mention raise top speed capabilities.
In practice the Brammo’s six-speed gearbox feels redundant much of the time. The clutch seems unnecessary, as the bike can’t stall. So riders can coast to stops without having to pull in the lever (though it’s almost impossible not to pull it in by force of habit). The clutch can be feathered out for a more traditional launch off the line, if desired. But, again, it’s unnecessary and less efficient, as riders can simply twist and go, with the motor controller massaging any herky-jerky feel from the throttle. Though not equipped with a quickshifter, even upshifts can be clutch-less with a slight throttle blip. The only time the left lever is required is when downshifting, say banging down gears for a rapidly approaching corner. And here is where the clutch feels most familiar to traditional riders, who won’t appreciate how much they rely on grabbing the left lever for these bail-out moments – until it’s not there!
That’s why the six-speed transmission and clutch are on the Empulse, to deliver a more familiar riding experience. I reckon most riders will be like me, happy to ditch the clutch lever for the monotonous start and stop stuff. Otherwise it’s a welcome, if quirky, addition. Neutral is particularly baffling. Again, it’s unnecessary (not to beat a dead horse with that word), as the bike is effectively in neutral whenever it’s at a stop and the throttle disengaged. Also, for some reason Neutral is hidden between second and third gear. The latter fact we gleefully did not explain to our MotoUSA colleagues until after a couple zillion futile clicks between first and second.
The trick with the transmission is keeping the bike in optimal gear, which is easy to forget. It can start from tall gears without trouble, and likewise it can shriek along in lower gears at high rpm. Neither is optimal for milking the most out of range. Our biggest gripe is that six gears is overkill, and Brammo could get away with even just three (low, medium, high). But we won’t complain much, as the gearbox makes freeway speeds quickly obtainable.
The Empulse R is more than freeway capable, where it outperforms many small-displacement ICE mounts. In this regard, that 650 Twin analogy is a fair one, and high-speed passes are effortless. It hums along at 80 mph without trouble, and gets up to that speed at a rapid clip. Top speeds saw us able to crest the low 90s, which takes a bit longer to reach – but if we had a barren road ahead, the ton-up seems more than doable on the Brammo.
As befits an electric mount, the powertrain garners the most attention. However, the Empulse's chassis and handling distinguish it as a legitimate bike. It features top shelf components from European suppliers. Italian firm Accossato fabricates the aluminum frame, as well as the tubular steel swingarm and subframe. The suspension is three-way adjustable, with an inverted 42mm Marzocchi fork and Sachs shock (the standard Empulse utilizes similar components, but with fewer adjustment options). The Marchesini hoops are also a tasty, Ducati-like relish. Special praise is owed to the Brammo’s radial-mount Brembo stoppers, which deliver primo braking performance. All these top-shelf bits raise the performance and lust factor.
In action the Empulse turns and transitions with ease. It feels narrow, though much heavier than the Enertia. The difference on the scales is dramatic, the 470-pound Empulse weighing 190 pounds more. That said, the center of gravity is low and the Brammo doesn’t feel like it needs to be manhandled to turn – quite the opposite.
The Empulse chassis is more than up to the tasks of spirited slash and dash riding. We didn’t feel the need to fiddle with the adjustable suspension, as it’s compliant without being soft. It’s a sporty setup, not too surprising when considering the suspension is nearly identical to the Ducati 848 Streetfighter.
Our only handling gripes are with the Avon AV80 and AV79 tires, which weren’t exceptionally grippy. But that critique is couched by chilly temps and the poor conditions of wintertime roads in Oregon, littered with gravel and debris. The latter fact is exacerbated by the unnatural quiet nature of EV mounts, which transmit an unnerving amount of road noise, so riders can hear those scuffs and slips from the contact patch.
Which isn’t to say that the Empulse is an altogether quiet ride! When that motor engages full throttle, it emits a droning wail, far louder than we recall from previous EV mounts. Disengage the throttle and it's back to the uncanny ride sounds – like the suspension compressing and the chain drive slapping up its slack.
Power isn’t total silence on decel, as the Empulse motor reverses polarity to recapture a small amount of energy. In standard mode this is almost unnoticeable, but Sport mode features a more pronounced re-gen effect. The result is a sensation of “engine” braking, which combined with Sport mode’s snappier throttle, parlays into more engaging aggressive riding. For commuting duty the smoother standard mode is preferable.
The Empulse looks the part, and thankfully feels like a legit bike behind the controls. We found the ergonomics a natural fit for our 6’1” dimensions. Comfort doesn’t need to be outstanding, considering the limited range, but riders will burn through a charge without complaint. Riding position is upright with a slight forward lean – very similar to the Triumph Street Triple Brammo benchmarked for Empulse development.
Instrumentation and display is familiar from the precursor Brammos, but the Empulse starting procedure has been gracefully simplified from the over-wrought Enertia. The same can be said of the charging process, eliminating the redundant steps to a simple plug-in located at the top of the “tank.” The charging system features a high-speed J1772 port – an important upgrade that can take advantage of the emerging quick-charge EV infrastructure. These go unnoticed, for the most part, but are popping up around the nation – servicing a growing fleet of Nissan Leafs and other electric vehicles. A standard 110 Volt wall plug still works, but takes quite a bit longer to top ‘er off. Finding a quick-charge hookup cuts charge time by more than half, from eight hours to 3.5.
Range remains the limiting factor of the Empulse. But we are reticent to lambast the fact, as it represents such a massive improvement. Company claims of 100 miles seem ambitious, but doable. We zapped through almost a full charge, with 15% remaining after 53 miles. But that stretch included 80 mph stretches on the freeway and a lot of 50 mph divided highways, with some surface streets. Lightweight hypermilers could probably milk out the 122-mile maximum range, but real-world runs of 50-70 mile commutes seem more reasonable. In full freeway mode, 50-mile ranges seem possible, but pushing the limit.
Comparing the Empulse to the Enertia, which we sampled for an extended period of time as a commuter, the range factor is quite impressive. We were lucky to get 20 miles on the Enertia, and with far less performance. It’s not exaggeration to say the Empulse is three times the bike – it’s at least that and more.
Thankfully, the Empulse seems more resilient to a real-world throttling than its predecessor, too. The liquid-cooled motor stayed well within its operating temperature, and the batteries didn’t overheat. In fact, we had the opposite issue, our riding days occurring in brutal 30-degree temps. If we stopped for too long during photo stops, a dash warning indicated slight performance cut-back from the cold batteries – ironic as the Enertia had would regularly display a thermal cutback for overtaxing its air-cooled motor.
Fit and finish is something Brammo pulls off amazingly well for such a small company, and the Empulse only builds on this reputation. The design element has not been neglected, and the production Empulse will draw plenty of compliments. It’s a sharp looking ride, and more conventional than the iconoclastic Enertia. The red colorway hits with the blacked-out frame and aforementioned top-end chassis components. It looks and feels like a solid bike, and a luxury item – which is precisely what it is.
That brings us to the MSRP... The Empulse R we tested will retail for $18,995. The non-R model, which sheds carbon fiber bits and some suspension adjustment, is $16,995. That’s in line with mounts like the Ducati Multistrada ($16,995 stock, $19,995 S model), and is more expensive than the new BMW R1200GS ($15,800). It’s an odd thing about EV rides: they cost more, but are cheaper to operate. With running costs of two cents per mile, the proverbial fuel is cheap, but the batteries are not. Brammo backs up the batteries with a two-year warranty and claims lifecycles of 1500 cycles (which means after 1500 cycles they may recharge to 80%). Brammo reps estimate that a rider will net upwards of 60K miles during a typical lifecycle. If a rider can get that much seat time on the Empulse, they’ll be more than ready to upgrade to whatever battery technology has cooked up between now and then.
And that returns back to the rose-tinted promise of EV transportation. At the present it is emerging from hype and hyperbole, to gritty production reality on real-world roads. The Empulse represents an important, critical step for Brammo. The Oregon start-up has produced an attractive and performance-satisfying motorcycle that happens to be electric. Riders will like it. The real question is: will they like it enough to buy in, literally, to the electric motorcycle concept?