I've seen the future, and it's a grim place for hoons like you and me. Cameras will monitor our speed. Congestion will reduce our opportunities to drive fast. Our own vehicles will report driver behavior back to the authorities. Hell, it's 2012 and it'd be socially unacceptable to enjoy our vehicles' performance even if we could afford to put gas in the tank. But what if there were a third way?
I think I might have found just that in this Brammo Empulse R. It was designed by and for the 21st century hoon.
(Full Disclosure: Brammo wanted me to be the first journalist to ride the Empulse so bad, they flew me up to Oregon, fed me salmon burgers, then woke me up at 3am and shipped me back to LA on the earliest flight out.)
It only took two days of riding to corrupt the nice young man. On the first, a former AMA and World Superbike racer decided I couldn't be the only one grinding away pucks and got his knee down on the road for the first time. On the second, he put the kind of pass that would get you disciplined on the race track or by a Forest Service Ranger and was promptly told off for his actions.
Back at the factory later, and I was making fun of Eric Bostrom for his do-or-die pass. His response? "But Wes, you did the same thing to a logging truck five minutes later!" True, but that sort of thing is expected of me at this point and besides, we were in a rush to get back to the factory before the cops showed up. Eric's supposed to be the friendly face of motorcycle racing and an ambassador for the Brammo brand.
Eric and I were up in Ashland, Oregon riding the new Brammo Empulse R, the first electric motorcycle to enter mass production that's capable of exceeding both 100 MPH and 100 miles in range (it does both, I checked). That's something of a watershed moment for the mode of transportation, but not really the kind of thing capable of capturing the hearts and minds of enthusiasts on its own.
A couple days before flying up to Oregon, one of the Brammo guys texted me. "You're packing your race suit, right?" Umm, I mean I wasn't really planning on it. This thing's a commuter, right?
A one-piece leather suit is sort of the bike equivalent of a nice pair of driving shoes. You know, the ones you can feel the pedals through, the ones that aren't too clunky and just stiff enough in the right places so you can operate the gas and brake pedals at the same time, with the same foot. You wouldn't wear a pair to go drive a Prius and I wouldn't typically get all dolled up like a gimp to toodle along at low speed on a bike designed to be barely capable of getting from A to B — which is every electric motorcycle that's ever worn a price tag, to-date, no exceptions.
But the Empulse is different. Not only is it enjoyably fast in a straight line and long-lasting enough that you can actually take it somewhere and enjoy riding it, but it uses the unique merits of its propulsion method to do something better than most gas vehicles: go around corners. Since you and I are both initiates in the Cult of Hoon, we understand that's where the real fun lies.
In designing the Empulse, Brammo benchmarked a bike that's not only an extraordinary handler, but one that that plaudit can be applied to in a wide variety of situations. The Triumph Street Triple is fun in town, fun on the highway, fun on race tracks and really, really fun on really tight back roads. So adapting its frame and suspension measurements to the Empulse is a good starting point. Brammo then adds higher-spec, fully-adjustable suspension and fancy, lightweight forged aluminum Marchesini wheels. That's good, because the Empulse R you see here is twice the price of that Triumph.
That those components help is a given, but Brammo has used all the above to accentuate the fundamental rightness of electric drivetrains. Shorn of the mechanically-necessary, spread-out nature of Internal Combustion components like fuel tanks, airboxes, cylinders and crankshafts, it's free to locate the heaviest components — the batteries — around an ideal center of gravity that's relatively high up, between the riders' legs. The 54 HP electric motor and (a first for electric bikes) six-speed transmission are small and light enough to fit right on top of the swingarm pivot location, essentially eliminating their effect on handling.
ICE motorcycles have been chasing mass-centralization for years. Concentrating as much of it as possible around the CG makes a bike both quicker to change direction and more stable once it has. And the Empulse reaps those benefits to an extreme degree. Its riding position and big, flat handlebars are virtually identical (if slimmer between the legs) to the Triumph, yet it flicks from left to right with a near unbelievable level of immediacy. Once you've decided you're leaned far enough over, the bike will just stay there, utterly planted and utterly stable. I ended up running over pine cones and bits of wood while at full-lean just for fun; doing so wouldn't upset the bike at all.
What ICE bikes haven't been trying to achieve is an elimination of the noise and vibration that pollutes communication between you and what the tires, suspension and brakes are trying to tell you. On the Empulse, free of vibration and with the only noise being a TIE Fighter-like whine, all that info suddenly finds its way to you in a newly powerful manner, empowering better decision making, faster reactions and, as a result, massive levels of confidence.
It's that confidence that ends up defining the riding experience. Its effect is that, despite a 51 HP power deficit and a 54 Lbs weight difference (in the Triumph's favor), it's the electric bike that ends up being faster along very tight mountain roads. Its basic speed (the speed at which rider and bike are effortlessly operating in intuitive harmony) has the Triumph working hard and taking chances just to keep up.
That changes of course if things open up and the Street Triple is free to use its power. Where its 675 cc triple makes 105 bhp and accelerates nearly as hard as a supersport bike, the Empulse is more akin, in a straight line, to loading it down with a fat passenger.
But that's also indicative of what makes the Empulse such an effective, fun tool for enjoying riding on today's roads with today's risk-averse society and today's cops. You can absolutely rag the thing, do so in near-silence and at speeds that will merely result in a speeding ticket, not a trip to jail.
Helping you wring the absolute most from the Empulse is that six-speed gearbox and traditional clutch lever. Previous electric motorcycles have all used single-speed transmissions, drawing unwelcome riding experience comparisons to a scooter. Roll on the throttle on one of them, and they'll (slowly) accelerate in a fairly linear manner to top speeds ranging from 60 to 85 MPH. It's hardly the stuff of adolescent petrolhead dreams.
On the Empulse, the need to chase a power band returns. Redline is at 9,000 RPM and max power is at 7,000. In neat-o happenstance, max efficiency is also there too, so even while cruising on the highway, keeping the bike between 6 and 8,000 RPM allows you maximize range while retaining the ability to simply open the throttle to pass a car or dart through a gap in traffic.
And it's that ability to do that last thing — bust traffic — that makes the Empulse such a uniquely effective tool for real roads, right now. Not having to sit in traffic on the way to or the way home from a good road allows you to spend more time really riding. It also removes the ability of slower traffic — like those pesky Forest Service types — to ruin a good run. Just nip on past them and try not to pull over while they still have you in sight.
The best part? The 9.3 kWh battery pack lasts for about 50 miles of full-throttle, knee down fun. The cost for those 50 miles (121 miles at city speeds) at current national average electricity prices? About $1.25. Think about that from the cockpit of your 16 MPG Mustang as I come whizzing past like Darth Vader on a bomb run.
Photography credit: Tyler Maddox