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Brammo Empulse R Motorcycle Review

Friday, March 1, 2013
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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Brammo Plans for the Future
Taking over an abandoned Wal-Mart in small-town America to manufacture green transportation… Sounds like Al Gore ranting in an Ambien-induced stupor, right? Not so, not so… It’s Brammo’s immediate business plan.

The Empulse model is currently assembled at Brammo headquarters in Ashland, Oregon (located 17 miles south from Motorcycle USA’s HQ). Battery assembly is also in Ashland, at a separate location. Eventual plans will see Brammo consolidate its operations into a former Wal-Mart in nearby Talent, Oregon. The Enertia model is manufactured in Hungary, part of Brammo’s partnership with Flextronics. The Empulse is a home-grown American product.

Securing the Wal-Mart space is pending final financial investment, but full-scale production of the Empulse in Ashland is imminent. The company promises a large queue of pre-orders is on deck for the production line (though company reps won’t give a hard figure sales totals).

Brammo is also actively securing floor space at big-name anchor dealers, as it looks to build a more traditional distribution model. It is zeroing in on major metropolitan areas close to home, like the Bay area, Los Angeles and Portland.

The company has secured multiple rounds of investment funding to push forward with its development plans. Polaris Industries has been one of Brammo’s biggest investors, backing up at least two rounds of funding for the company. 

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Comments
martinwinlow   June 30, 2013 03:18 AM
@ philthy_utah - I agree on all of your points. A comparison between these two would be very useful to me as a Vectrix rider looking to upgrade my electric commute. The Vectrix has but one gear and although it does quite well, it is a real compromise between quick (and safe) starts off the stop line and top speed. Even one gear would transform this machine. But the linear acceleration as you put it really does define the best aspect of the electric drive train, IMO. Battery swapping - There is a big debate going on within the Tesla community at the moment about this. After the recent demise of Better Place who tried to do it for cars on a global scale and failed, $1B later, swapping has a rather tarnished reputation but in certain circumstances it does make huge sense, fleet use for starters. Tesla's Elon Musk (co-founder and CEO) has big plans for it and if anyone can make it work, he can. (PS - ebikes are generally electric bicycles rather than motorcycles. We need a different word for them. My vote is for 'ecikl' (after the Croatian word for a motorcycle 'motocikl' and as a nod to Croatian born Nikola Tesla, the inventor of the electric motor!) @ woodco100 - Yes, that about sums it up. The question is, if you could charge it again in 10 minutes, would that make any difference to you? It would to me, but no information available in this article or anywhere else on (real) quick charging for the Brammo, more accurately called 'Level 3' charging which offers this sort of power. Unfortunately using such power does heat (and therefore damage) the battery thus requiring active cooling - like the Tesla Model S has. The cells used in the battery can take it, it just needs the associated, fairly modest (as the Brammo already has an active cooling system for the motor), engineering to be included on the bike. And the right socket and, again, modest electrical additions, of course. For me though this is a deal breaker, as the lack of fast charging (even in 30 minutes or an hour) means one could not drive this machine on a cross country trip, not practically anyway. @Poncho167 - Indeed, as others have stated, you are clearly not familiar with the EV thang! To sum it up, you basically get to forsake paying oil-rich loons from regularly trying blowing us all to Kingdom Come for charging at home and/or at work for one tenth of the cost of the equivalent fossil fuel cost. If, like me, you can charge at work for free, not only do you get to park right next to the building's back door but my commuting cost is one 20th of what it was before, or, if you are reading this from the UK, a 40 mile round trip costs about 15p. If you have your own PV you can even do it for free! I'm ignoring all the other benefits of course; quiet, smooth, relaxing, planet-saving, (did I mention cheap running costs?) simple to operate and maintain.... the only catch is range per charge, but we can sort that out too... in-road inductive power transfer, anyone? Doubling the cell energy density would also work - bear in mind it has already doubled (and fallen in cost at least 3 fold) in the last 5 years... And lastly, @ gregsfc... It has always puzzled me where they get their data from as I can tell you from personal experience of converting a petrol Daihatsu van to electric and running it for 14k miles over 18 months, the cost of the electricity was fully one tenth of the cost of the equivalent petrol (one 20th actually as I could charge it at work for free). This was for a mix of 'freeway' 55-60 mph speeds and around town as well as country lanes, here in the UK. Our petrol is (was) about £7 a gallon and off peak electricity (ie at night) is £0.05p/kWh. You, as you Americans say, do the 'math'. You can see my figures here... http://www.evalbum.com/2092 Nice to see such a generally forward thinking bunch of comments on an EV review for once. Regards, MW.
gregsfc   March 30, 2013 03:34 AM
I'm absolutely down with the EV concept for PTW transportation. Now that they've got performance, refinement, and range at a practical level, the OEMs now need to work on bringing them to market for regular folks. I don't need an MC that matches a 650 with respect to performance, but I do need more than what the Enertia provides. The new Zero S would just about do it for me but still too many bucks! Just look at the MPG-e ratings on these bad boys; anywhere from 200-300 on the hwy and even better in the city. That's up to five times more fuel economical than gas-powered bikes. Even if this number is 15% exaggerated, they are far more economical compared to ICE counterparts when compared to EVs in the auto industry where EVs are only 2.5 times more economical than advanced ICE autos. I've always thought that the PTW industry was leaving a lot to be desired in the fuel efficiency department, and I think these new ev entrants prove my point.
Maxx   March 9, 2013 03:16 AM
I think this is a good concept but not quite ready for me to purchase. Looks like this will be another novelty. "Brammo reps estimate that a rider will net upwards of 60K miles during a typical lifecycle". Then why warranty the batteries for only 2 years. Most of the people I meet and ride with, general on put 20k on a bike before the trade or sale it and definitely not in 2 years. With 250 and now 300 cc motorcycle making their way into the market at less than a 1/3 of the cost. This is another overpriced, too late idea.
philthy_utah   March 7, 2013 09:24 AM
Swappable batteries would most definitely be a game-changer. Sure it may take a while to implement, but long-term it's a great solution. I commute 35 miles each way to work on an interstate (speed 65+) on a fairly fun road. Plug it in at work, and repeat to go home. Until now, ebikes were not going to fit the bill. But now... range and speed are there. And if you haven't ridden a good ebike, you're missing out. Can't expect them to "replace" an internal combustion bike. But at 1 cent a mile compared to 8 cents for "fuel", and along with maintenance savings, for a commuter, an ebike is $1000/year cheaper to operate in my case.
.357 Magnum   March 6, 2013 11:07 AM
Poncho167, hahah, "this wouldn't work for you because you would have to charge it every night after work?" That's kind of the point, isn't it? While it's doing nothing in your garage, you can charge it up every night. Electric bike makers aren't trying to get you through the week, just the day. YOU have to sleep to recharge too, so why's that a bad thing? Don't we all do the same thing with our phones: use them during the day, then recharge them at night?

I would have said they're still 5-10 years away from having suitable range for commuting 5-10 years ago. Right on schedule, I think both the Zero and Brammo offerings this year are finally "there," for those of us who ride every day. Though I'm not a fan of the six-speed transmissions for electrics (and would much prefer a clutchless hi-med-lo setup like Bart describes), I will be keeping a close eye on prices, subsidies, and local availability. I'll keep a gasser for Iron Butting and cross-country touring, but these are in the realm of daily drivers now. Kudos to Brammo and Zero both, for these recent improvements!
Poncho167   March 5, 2013 03:11 PM
These are still probably 5-10 years away from having any range. This wouldn't work for me because I would have to charge it every night after work.
MCUSA Bart   March 4, 2013 08:50 AM
philthy, you're reading our mind... First things first, we need to score a ride on the Zero, which we're working on. After that we'll do our best to get a more comprehensive comparison of the two. Stay tuned.
woodco100   March 3, 2013 06:22 PM
"In full freeway mode, 50 mile ranges seems possible, but pushing the limit" That pretty much says it all. If you ride 75mph you will need to rechare every 45 minutes.
philthy_utah   March 3, 2013 10:24 AM
Would love to see a comprehensive ride comparison between this and the 2013 Zero S. For me, low weight (I have a Zero XU) brings a lot more joy than "a motorcycle feel" through Brammo's gearing. I for one would not want to trade a 90 lb increase in weight to be able to shift. The fun of electric bikes is the linear acceleration of which weight is key. But gearing would bring better top speed. So how about a comparison?