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2016 Victory Empulse TT review

Victory_empulse_tt_bike_review_17

Have you ever been really excited by a bike you know you’ll never own? Of course you have.

I don’t anticipate ever having a pink slip to a Harley J, Yamaha YZF-R1M, or a Moto Guzzi California, but I’ve got a wicked case of the hots for all of those. Diametrically, when I first saw the Brammo Empulse, it did little to stir any emotion in me. Fast-forward a few years, and I was picking up the Victory version of the bike, completely unaware my feelings would change.

The bike

The Victory Empulse TT has switched nameplates. As you probably remember, the Empulse was previously produced by Brammo's motorcycle division, which was acquired by Polaris Industries, Victory’s parent company. With the change, the moniker also took on some letters, a pair of Ts. (I'd like to buy a vowel!) Those refer to the 2015 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy competition, where two specially prepped Empulses took third and fourth places. A few other changes were made. The rear tire is slightly narrower, and the paint is different. Rather than try to start from scratch like Harley-Davidson did with the LiveWire, Victory dramatically reduced the cost to enter this market and capitalized on another company’s R&D.

Victory Empulse TT

The Empulse is a compact package that feels itty bitty to me. Seat height is 31.5 inches and the wheelbase is only 58 inches. By sport bike standards, it's a little porky at 470 pounds, but let’s face it — the electric motor and batteries cannot be light. Those pieces, by the way, are said to put out 54 ponies and 61 foot-pounds of torque, and you can supposedly get over 100 miles on a charge. Charging on a normal 120V receptacle  takes about nine hours (Victory cites different figures in different places) from a totally drained Empulse. Top speed is over 100 mph and all that tasty, torquey electric power is shot through a very interesting transmission. It’s a standard sequential manual six-speed box, with an odd neutral location between second and third gears. Similarly strange is the clutch. It is only needed for switching between gears. You don’t need it to take off or come to a stop.

The Empulse TT comes off as a rider’s bike. The suspension is adjustable front and rear for preload, damping, and compression. It wears a set of sticky Continental ContiRoadAttack 2 tires, not some half-baked tire for putzes who can’t ride. (The front is an obligatory 120/70ZR17, but the rear has been changed. Victory now specs a 160/60ZR17, which is more in keeping with bikes at this level of power output.) The bike is small and lithe, and there is cool motorcycle stuff all over it: a rear hugger, tubular swingarm, abbreviated front fender and tail section. Some other electric bikes are electric vehicles that happen to be motorcycles. The Empulse TT is a motorcycle that happens to have an electric motor.

The Empulse TT features basic instrumentation and a single color combo, red and silver. Triple disc brakes provided by Brembo are another indication that this bike is meant to be ridden by riders who can compare it against other motorcycles. The front brakes are quad-piston radial-mount pieces, with a conventional dual-piston hanging out back.

While I am glad to see that the running gear is top-notch, I expect some buyers may be put off by the lack of frills, in context of its MSRP of $19,999. No ABS, no traction control, no GPS, no Powerlet port. Yeah, it's expensive, but in the United States you can get a federal tax credit amounting to 10 percent of the purchase price and some states also offer tax incentives, which help offset the cost. Maintenance should be sliiiiightly cheaper, too, and then there is the obvious gas savings, so over the long haul, it's not as extravagant a purchase as it might appear.

Testing the Empulse TT

The Empulse felt welcoming to me when I got on it because of its diminutive nature. I’m pretty sure I looked like one of those circus bears on a bike riding it, but this ain’t a beauty contest. Riding position was slightly forward from neutral; sportier than a standard bike, but by no means a full tuck. I let my left hand just hang out and twisted the throttle. The Empulse began to creep. I’ll be honest, at first I thought I was riding some jumped-up version of a Power Wheels. The quiet whirring of this bike is nearly dangerous. I simply assumed it was toy-like because it sounded like it was. That was quite wrong! Maybe it sounds silly, but I had to get on this bike and ride it to understand that it’s really not just a novelty or a plaything.

I’m going to focus a bit of the riding section on the powerplant, because that’s probably the thing most people want to know about. I know I did! I wheeled the Empulse onto the highway and was impressed with how fast the bike was. Now let me qualify that statement: I was impressed for how fast this electric bike was. If this was an ICE-powered scooter, I would have been neither overwhelmed or underwhelmed. But, it’s not. It’s an electric bike.

The power delivery felt to me very much like a parallel twin or a V-twin. I think it would probably shake an older 500 twin like a Kawasaki Ninja 500 off its tail, but I think a Ninja 650 or a Suzuki SVF650 would walk all over this bike in a hurry. That power delivery is interesting. The tach sort of does this stepped “dance” into place, rather than sweeping the dial, so it’s hard to know exactly what speed the engine’s running at. It’s also notable that immediately prior to the redline, there is a “green zone” on the tach face. You’re actually shooting to keep the bike in that area. Lugging it is supposedly very hard on the batteries, so spinning the bike’s motor is the order of the day.

Another curiosity is the throttle response. So first, let’s clarify something: this bike features regenerative braking. That’s a fancy way of saying that upon deceleration, power is returned to the battery. This accomplishes two tasks: First, it saves energy as opposed to squandering it, helping with range. Secondly, it gives rider a familiar feel: Back off the throttle, and the bike brakes as though it was fighting compression. The Empulse allows some control over this with two modes, switchable by holding the (soft) start button when the bike is at a stop. The modes are “Eco” and “Sport.” Victory claims the main difference between the modes is how much “engine braking” the bike delivers and how smooth the transition is. Between the hanging tach and the abrupt transition between on and off throttle, I had a fairly jarring ride. For me, it was analogous to adding maintenance throttle on a bike with a hair-trigger twist grip. I found Eco mode to be less jarring and generally more pleasant to ride than Sport.

Related to the throttle issue was shifting. Rev-matching is nearly impossible on this Empulse, due to that weird tach and the unbelievably quick-spinning engine. After a billion and a half herky-jerk shifts, I gave up and just started unloading the drivetrain and “floating” the gears. Surprisingly, this actually gave much smoother, more consistent shifts, so I employed that method most of the time.

Now, in re-reading what I have just wrote, you might get the impression that I’m sour on the Empulse, and that’s not the case. I really just had to learn what worked with this drivetrain. It was new and different, but still exciting in a non-threatening way. Call it "mechanical risibility." I was laughing half from the fun I was having riding, and half from thinking about how kooky I must have looked making that pod noise to people who heard me zip by.

Performance-wise, I felt very satisfied on this bike. Would I have liked to have gone faster? Sure. But as it stood, I could play windshield-wiper with the tach needle and not flagrantly attract the attention of the local constabulary. For what it’s worth, it was very hard for me to judge how fast I was going at highway speed because the sounds the bike made were totally overwhelmed by wind noise. It was very, very quiet, and really threw off my sense of how fast I was moving.

The final question is one of range. Victory (optimistically) claims 140 miles to a charge. I couldn’t believe that, so I even double-checked with our contact at Victory, and he confirmed it. Maybe in some sort of hyper-miling scenario you could pull off 140, but I think even 100 is probably a stretch. With mixed riding, encompassing everything from relaxed to ultra-aggressive, we saw about 80 miles on a “tank,” give or take. Victory's claim of about nine hours to recharge using the included 120V accessory charger was in line with our experience. Victory also claims a 3.9-hour charge time from a flat battery when using the optional 240V charger. In our test facility in California, we had neither 240V power nor the charger, so we couldn't test that.

Victory Empulse highlights

I’m going to come back to my point about the Empulse being a rider’s bike. There’s not much clutter in terms of instrumentation. The bike is outfitted with very good brakes, suspension, and tires. And hey, I’ll be straight with you — it ought to for its price. So the number one highlight for me was the quality of the components. They showcased, rather than obfuscated, what it’s like to ride an electric motorcycle. Don't get me wrong, this bike is spartan, but I liked it. Not for nothing, though, I also like chopped-up junk, so it would not surprise me if some of our faithful readers are underwhelmed by the Vic.

The riding position was great — low enough to have some fun, but upright enough to be comfortable. The transmission made this bike feel familiar, rather than foreign, to me, but I also enjoyed throwing it in third gear and mindlessly zipping around. The Empulse TT is ultra-nimble, purpose-driven and fun. Not in-your-face-fun, like you get with a superbike, but playful, usable and dare I say responsible fun?

And the seat was damn comfy, too. Firm. Not wimpy and soft.

Victory Empulse lowlights

I’d be a liar if I said some things didn’t turn me off, though. For starts, let’s examine my notes. “Day two observations: Holy shit this bike needs a damned parking brake or something.” That probably sounds a bit extreme, but it’s a huge pain not being able to park anywhere hilly! Because the Empulse has no compression to fight, the bike almost always seems to be wanting to roll away when you lean ‘er on the stand. I spent a lot of my six days with this motorcycle wheeling it this way and that to make sure it didn't decide to go an an adventure without me.

Let’s move into the “little quirks” section. First, Victory calls for 42 psi in the tires. I am assuming this is an easy way to pick up a little more range, but we all know nobody’s gonna be running that kind of pressure if they want to actually stick to the road, not on a bike of this weight.

Another slight downer is the need to remove the handlebars to adjust preload and compression damping.

The throttle was pretty snatchy, too. Lance tells me when he rode the LiveWire, the throttle was very smooth — but that’s also not a production bike. I don’t know if an abrupt throttle is part-and-parcel with an electric engine, but I would have liked a smoother throttle by a lot.

And let’s talk about the bike’s cooling fans. The electric motor is liquid-cooled, but the battery also is cooled separately by fans when charging. That makes sense, because charging a battery heats it up. The problem is the volume of those fans. Ours was charging in an attached garage and I could hear it nearly anywhere on the first floor of the house! This isn’t a major flaw, but it’s certainly noticeable.

Which leads me to another bummer: maintenance. Electric bikes are supposed to offer vastly reduced maintenance. Goodbye oil changes and valve adjustments, amirite? That part is good, but because the Victory is liquid-cooled, the manual calls for a coolant change every 18,000 miles. Because it’s rocking a conventional transmission, you’ll be replacing that fluid from time to time, as well. It’s not the end of the world, but the Empulse is not going to be the totally maintenance-free steed I was half-hoping for.

There’s also one spot one can tap for 12V power, but it is switched, not a constant hot 12V source. I did not trace it back to find what amperage fuse was governing the circuit, but the wiring does not look particularly robust. Running heated gear, auxiliary lights, or some of the other baubles we all love might be a bit difficult on the Empulse TT.

Speaking of power, if you want to charge on the road or even at work, the charger needs to come along, and that's kind of a big deal. The charging unit looks like a large power strip with a hair dryer plugged into it. It's not small at all. Sounds silly, but if you assume most commuters are going to charge at home and "top off" while at work, the solution is either buying another charger or buying a backpack. Both suck. By comparison, the Zero motorcycles just use a regular power cord.

My final gripe? The bars that light up to show you when you're not being an ass with the throttle are completely invisible on a sunny day. Doesn't anyone test ride these things? I imagine a test rider at some point in a bike's creation process gets on a prototype and comes back saying "Jeez, Jim, you can't see doodlysquat on the dash. You guys really oughta change that up." But what do I know? I'm just a beardy bike-tester.

The range and charge time are disappointing, but it seems unfair to heap that on my list of cons here. Everyone who buys this bike will be well aware of what they are buying into, and the pros will outweigh this for that purchaser.

Competition

Well, there’s really only one competitor here, and that’s the Zero SR. On paper, the SR seems to be the winner; it boasts greater range, greater peak horsepower, similar specs, and a lower price tag. Other testers who have compared the two bikes head-to-head say the Zero also has smoother throttle response. With an air-cooled motor, no transmission and belt drive, the Zero is also much closer to the maintenance-free bike I was dreaming of.

But I haven’t ridden the Zero, so I really can’t compare. I don’t think I want to ride a bike without a manual transmission, irrespective of how Lance feels, but I will agree with him that six speeds are too many. No gears would stink, but three might be a nice compromise. That big price tag also comes with the backing of every Victory dealer in the land. Just for grins, I hopped onto Zero’s website to see how many dealers were in my state.

None.

Personally, a high price tag on a bike scares me a bit when there is no one to take it to for parts or wrenching, especially considering the drivetrain effectively renders this bike an “exotic.” There’s something to be said for shelling out a few simoleons upfront for the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing a nearby dealer can and will fix your motorcycle.

Conclusion

This bike’s a peach to ride. There’s no denying that. In a way, it’s like Victory cruisers: its price is wholly unrelated to its spec-sheet performance. Buyers of an Empulse TT are prioritizing early adoption of a new and not yet dominant technology. This bike showcases the fact that Victory is listening and they are willing to try something new, even in the face of a lack of economic success. Heck, even in the face of downright economic failure. That takes balls.

The importance of this bike can’t be understated for two reasons. First, Victory has thrown down the gauntlet. They are no longer makers of only motorcycles as we have known them. By selling something that's electrically powered and sport-based, they have expanded into providing two-wheeled fun solutions. It may take a quarter of a century, but mark my words: This bike will be as important as a 1936 EL or a 1969 CB750: it’s the first of its breed.

The second reason this is important is more important to me personally. (Yet again, I’m going to indulge my selfishness.) This bike is sporting. It is sure as hell not a big cruiser. Now consider the Gunner Victory’s been racing in the Pro Stock classes. Think about the Project 156 bike. Victory’s actually competing. What’s more American than getting out there and racing hard? Even my beloved H-D hasn’t raced seriously in decades. I think (hope!) we’re going to see two things: Victory is making a push to become a full-line manufacturer, and Victory is also going to start making some bikes that actually kick a little bit of ass performance-wise.

I’ve never owned a Vic, and I’m not buying an Empulse. But I love American bikes, and if this is the sporting path Victory is going to take, I’m dying to be a customer. Because if the Empulse gets a guy like me to walk into a showroom — even it it's to buy something else — they can sell but a handful and consider it a raging success.

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