Ural Electric Sidecar Review

One more example of three-wheeled Russian throwback joy

Ural sidecar
An electric Ural sidecar is a little like satellite navigation on a 70-year-old biplane. Weird, yet fun. And potentially useful.Jenny Linquist

Four billion years ago, a Ural sidecar rig rolled out of the primordial soup and set to lurching about the world, seeking adventure and bears and vodka and whatever the hell else Russian hacks survive upon. Or maybe it was 5 billion years. No one knows. Urals are so old and have been so fundamentally unchanged for so long, all anyone can remember is that they were first manufactured in Russia, in the Ural Mountains, when our solar system was in diapers.

And now, at last, there is change, in the form of an electric Ural. Sort of.

The bike we tested is a factory prototype, a proof-of-concept designed to gauge public interest. Like all modern Urals, it contains a prehistoric leading-link fork; unlike any other Ural, it also holds a lithium-ion battery pack and a 60 hp electric motor.

If that juxtaposition seems weird, well, that’s probably because it is weird.

Fun fact: The phrase “primordial soup” was popularized by the Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin in 1924.

Another fun fact: In February of 2017, two writers from this magazine rode a gasoline-powered Ural non-stop, 32 hours from Seattle to Los Angeles, as part of a record-breaking stunt. I was one of those writers. The trip acquainted me very well with the quirks of Russian sidecars.

Summary of the first two facts as it pertains to this discussion: If the Russians know anything about motorcycle evolution, anything at all, then I am convinced they ain’t tellin’.

Batteries and motor extracted from a Zero motorcycle
That’s right, a lightning bolt! Batteries and motor extracted from a Zero motorcycle replace the Ural’s long-serving horizontally opposed 750cc twin to motivate this now-ancient design.Jenny Linquist

“We are solving the motorcycle industry’s problem,” Madina Merzhoyeva told me. She said this with no small amount of laughter, because she gets the joke.

Merzhoyeva is head of marketing at Ural’s American arm, a charming, Russian-accented mother of two with a wicked staccato laugh. She and a small staff handle Ural distribution from a quiet office park in Redmond, Washington, near Seattle.

Jason Rae, the company’s vice president of operations, rolled the bike out of the company’s garage for me on a sunny Tuesday in November.

“We wanted to build an EV [electric vehicle] Ural,” he said, “because we thought it would be cool, for lack of a better word.”

Maybe this is 32-hour Stockholm Syndrome speaking, but they weren’t wrong. Nor will you mistake an electric Ural for anything else. The EV was built on the bones of the company’s base model, the 750cc Ural cT. ($14,499, 41 hp, 42 pound-feet, around 150 miles on a tank of fuel.) It reeks of old-school Ural—frame tubes thick as your forearm, uneven plating, metalwork like a tractor pull—plus the punctuation of the current century. The horizontally opposed, BMW-derived engine is gone. A thick, orange-jacketed power cable has been neatly zip-tied to one of the sidecar braces. A three-prong male charging plug lives under the gas cap. There’s a stylized “E” logo on the tank with a lightning bolt in the middle.

LCD dash is ex-Zero
LCD dash is ex-Zero. Under the “gas” cap is a chargingJenny Linquist

Ural farmed out the bike’s drive conversion to ICG Design, an industrial-design firm based in California. When ICG was done, a 60 hp, 81 pound-feet, air-cooled electric motor sat underneath the seat, nestled behind a B-shaped piece of billet-aluminum trim. The motor turns the bike’s main rear wheel via a slender exposed shaft, drawing juice from a 19.5-kWh lithium-ion battery module mounted in the sidecar. The battery sits under the tub’s seat and can be recharged from empty to 95 percent in around 13 hours. Like the rest of the powertrain and the single-color LCD dash, it was purchased new from California’s Zero Motorcycles. Merzhoyeva says that Ural has no direct relationship with Zero and simply bought the parts off the shelf.

electric Ural
From this angle, you might expect to hear valve clatter or similar noise, but the serenity of the electric Ural is strangely charming.Jenny Linquist

That, in a nutshell, is how you build an electric Ural. Everything else—spring rates, damping, trunk space, even the three Heidenau tires—remains unchanged from the cT. Range varies with usage and ambient temperature, but Ural says 100 miles is possible with a full battery. Reverse—all new Urals offer reverse, for parking—occurs via software, the motor driven in the opposite direction.

To back up, you flip a single-throw, two-position switch mounted beneath the rider’s right hip. The bar-mounted kill switch still functions as a kill switch, and if the bike’s parking brake is applied, the motor gets no juice.

I keyed the ignition, released the brake, flipped the kill switch, and watched a few warning lights extinguish. The dash woke, looking exactly like the dash on a Zero. Silence.

“It doesn’t really start,” Rae said. “It just…is.”

So I twisted the grip, and off we went, whirring merrily into the distance. As with any small EV, forward motion reminds you of a golf cart: You hear tire scrub, the subtle scuff of brake-pad drag, wind rush, and little else. The comparison is exacerbated by being out in the wind on a blissfully unstable machine that treats steering inputs like a nuisance.

Ural in front of fruit stand
Urals can carry much fruit.Jenny Linquist

As with the gas Ural, there is enough torque to slide the front wheel on dry pavement, and the rear tire will light up in the wet. At 822 pounds, the EV is around 30 pounds lighter than a cT, but the batteries mean the sidecar carries more weight, so the electric bike is more planted in the kind of right-hand corners that can make a standard Ural lift its tub off the ground. (Sidecar people call this “flying the chair.” If you are not a sidecar person, know that this pastime is both fun as a hatful of monkeys and only half as dangerous as it looks. Also know that the EV will still fly its chair just fine.)

Finally, because there is less mechanical drama—Ural’s standard twin is anything but smooth and quiet—you tend to be less distracted while riding, more prone to silliness. Ural says the EV’s top speed on level ground is almost 90 mph. On a gas Ural, that number is accomplished only with a tailwind and blatant loathing of your main bearings. On the EV, the extra power means that you top 80 often, grinning like an idiot, bars wobbling and steering damper cranked all the way down, wondering if today is a good day to die.

There are obvious upsides to this scenario. We should not have to tell you what they are.

More upsides became obvious with seat time: For a new rider, an electric sidecar removes the last imagined barrier to motorcycling. Unless you’re trying really hard, you’re unlikely to fall over. The lack of noise and vibration makes the bike seem friendly, even if it’s not. You can bring a passenger and talk to them at speed. An electric bike won’t leak oil or overheat or get cranky if you feed it bad fuel. There’s less drama, more riding.

silent electric prototype
Tire scrub, brake noise and your own terrifying thoughts come through loud and clear on this mostly silent electric prototype.Jenny Linquist

When I mentioned all this, Merzhoyeva agreed, noting that weight and power are less critical with sidecar rigs. Tubs, she added, can carry batteries without thinking too much about packaging.

Ural thus believes the bike would be perfect for new riders in cities, even though a sidecar is no less difficult to city-park than a car, and too wide to lane-split.

Such is the charm of a Ural that the contradiction didn’t bother me while riding, though I have no idea why.

While in Redmond, I also had a chance to test a hack equipped with Ural’s 2019 gasoline drivetrain. The company has recently put no small measure of focus on engineering, and its coming lineup will offer more efficient cylinder heads and pistons, plus new Keihin fuel-injection. Predictably, the new engine starts easier and is more willing to rev, snarling through situations where the old one moaned and strained.

bulk of the batteries reside in the sidecar
The bulk of the batteries reside in the sidecar, with much cabling back to the mother ship. Cooling fins on the electric motor are just visible below the seat. Power to rear wheel is delivered through stock-shaft drive.Jenny Linquist

Ural insists that most of its customers are commuters, not long-distance adventurers, so small changes like these tend to be important. It’s nice, though it all served to make me wonder, even more, what the owner of an electric sidecar might want. But hey, as Voltaire said, judge a man by his questions, not his answers.

Demand will dictate whether the electric cT sees production, so if you want one, pick up the phone and say so.

As the company’s American chief, Ilya Khait, told me, “Fifty pre-orders might do it. A hundred definitely would.” Cost? Ural didn’t share a number, but battery and electric motor would cost more than the flat-twin.

“I wouldn’t say that anybody asked for this bike,” Rae said, “but the reaction has been really positive so far.”

Who’s surprised? This is a new idea, silly and fun. It might represent the future. It certainly represents the past. But mostly, it’s one more example of three-wheeled Russian throwback joy. And if Ural can’t do that well, who can?