Switch on the Brammo Empulse R and push what appears to be a start button, and no starter grinds an engine to life, no ignition ignites a volatile mixture and no exhaust barks as it purges burnt gases. Instead, the dashboard blinks ever so silently as the Empulse boots up. Twist the throttle a few seconds later and the 470-pound machine whirs and pulls away briskly.
Acceleration is quick and extremely smooth as the tach soars toward 9000 rpm. A quick pull on the clutch and a toe-up of the shift lever brings a solid click to second, then third, then fourth. In just a few short seconds, the Empulse R is traveling an indicated 85 mph. This machine is a motorcycle first and only then an electric vehicle. Impressive.
Path to the Empulse’s current design, however, was long for Brammo: The Ashland, Oregon-based company first showed the bike in the summer of 2010—a racier, higher-performance and longer-range electric bike than its Enertia city bike, which was based on the racebikes that it ran in the TTXGP and other electric races. The configuration was straightforward: Two aluminum beams bent outward and reached straight back and down to the swingarm pivot. Cradled between the beams were Brammo-designed lithium-ion battery packs. Below the packs was the electric motor controller and above were the vehicle control computer and recharging circuitry, covered with something that looked much like a gas tank; it even had a cap, which covered not a filler to put gasoline in but the socket for a level-2 electric recharging plug. This original pre-production Empulse had a 50-plus-horsepower electric motor cradled down near the swingarm pivot driving a chain directly from its output shaft.
Compared to prior electric motorcycles, the Brammo spoke a design language that could be heard by experienced motorcyclists: It simply looked right. The initial press coverage brought a wave of potential buyers requesting to be added to Brammo’s waiting list.
As Brammo listened to those buyers, explained Brian Wismann, Director of Product Development, the more it became convinced that the original Empulse wouldn’t satisfy them. “We were worried about the performance,” said Wismann. With a relatively low-voltage electric system (just over 100 volts, compared to the 400-plus volts of electric roadrace bikes), the Empulse’s motor couldn’t deliver the exceptional low-speed torque required to feel vigorous acceleration away from a stop with a single gear ratio.
So, Brammo delayed production and went back to the drawing board, working with Italian company SMRE to package a new, water-cooled, permanent-magnet AC (PMAC) motor with a six-speed gearbox. Then it redesigned the Empulse around that new drivetrain.
Do electric vehicles need gearboxes? It remains an open question, with Zero and electric-car-leader Tesla staking out the “No” end of the argument and even Brammo forgoing one on its latest racebike. But there’s no doubt when you ride the Empulse R that the gearbox works in this application. Shift the Empulse R like a normal motorcycle and it accelerates well, with performance that feels similar to that of (but smoother than), say, a modern 650 Twin. There’s little need, however, to use the clutch except for quick upshifts. At stops, contrary to all conventional motorcycle reflexes, there’s no need to pull in the clutch because the electric motor simply stops and smoothly restarts from zero rpm when you twist the “throttle.” Perhaps a different word is now needed for the control that no longer has anything to do with regulating airflow into an engine. From that stop, you can accelerate away smoothly in first or sixth gear; the difference is that one pulls a lot harder than the other.
Where the Empulse R feels most motorcycle-like, though, is on a curvy road, like the many around Ashland. There, the Empulse R belies its dimensions, feeling smaller and lighter than its 58-inch wheelbase or 470 pounds suggest. Some of that deception is because the Empulse is truly skinny and some the result of weight distribution and chassis geometry. High-quality suspension components and good brakes come into play here; the Empulse feels balanced, sporty and fast. The gearbox proves useful, as well, as the best acceleration is achieved by keeping the motor whirring between 6000 and 9000 rpm.
Of course, there are some limitations to the Empulse R. Even though battery capacity has been stretched to more than 9 kilowatt-hours, it only gives the Brammo a range of 75 miles or so of backroad riding at relatively moderate speeds. High freeway speeds (80-plus mph) can bring that down to just over 50, while slow-speed city riding can extend it to more than 100 miles. Superior battery capacity and new technology costs money—Ducati 1199 Panigale-type money. The standard Empulse is suggested to sell at $16,995 before any electric-vehicle rebates or tax breaks that may be available, while the Empulse R with carbon-fiber bits (fenders, headlight and taillight assemblies) and upgraded suspension (fully adjustable Marzocchi fork and Sachs shock) is $18,995. That’s expensive, but with just 300 Empulses scheduled for production in 2012, this best current electric motorcycle may still be in short supply.