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Common Tread

2018 Motus MST and MST-R first ride review

Apr 10, 2018

A Motus is, at its core, a complete conundrum.

From a financial perspective, a Motus is a completely reckless purchase, able to make severe dents in most standard wallets, your bones, and your spawn’s post-secondary educational plans. However, it’s chock full of pragmatic design choices seen and unseen. It’s a motorcycle your best riding buddy has not even heard of, and yet it is also a machine that many (present company included) would commit unspeakable acts to possess. It is senseless and sensible all at once.

Motus: The company

Two guys (Lee Conn and Brian Case) wanted to build motorcycles they wanted to ride. They designed their own engine, got help figuring out a chassis, picked choice parts from a myriad of suppliers, built some prototypes, tested the shit out of their bikes, refined things a few gajillion times, jumped through NHTSA and EPA hoops, and began selling bikes in under a decade. That is the really, really fast version of what they accomplished.

Lee and Lem
The Motus dudes were very inviting. President and Co-founder Lee Conn took me out for a ride. We had a hoot! Motus photo.

I could wax on and on about this, because these guys put in lots of work, learning how to go from “I like bikes!” to “We need dealers.” Instead, I’m going to move on to a synonym for Motus: their engine, the MV4 1650. It is the core of their motorcycles and it is the crown jewel of their business. (So I’m going to yammer about it for a while before I talk about riding the MST and MST-R. If tech stuff makes your eyes glaze over, scroll past it!)

Motus is a motor company

Motus is, at its core, a motor company. It’s important to remember this, because that fact helps to explain many of the things they’ve done.

A head. Note the valve cant and splay. Note also the single valve spring with no damper; I was suprised to see that. There are also special rocker contact caps that fit over the keeper to protect the valve from the rocker arm pads. (There are not roller rockers in this engine, which also surprised me — there's a nice simple way for a tinkerin' owner to free up some power!) RevZilla photo.

The MV4 “Baby Block” is a liquid-cooled, 100 ci (1,650 cc) 90-degree V-4 engine. It’s a two-valve, cam-in-block, oversquare engine, with a 75-degree offset between the crankshaft journals. The valves on this engine are both canted (“tipped” to offer a steeper valve angle relative to the bore centerline) and splayed (“rotated” around the bore axis). Canting provides increased flow if teamed up with a suitable intake port design. Splaying the valves allows the head to be packaged more compactly front-to-back, allows for slightly larger valves to be used (just two per cylinder, remember?), and also permits less aggressive pushrod geometry (or cams with more aggressive lift values). Rockers are plain-tipped units, not rollers, which not coincidentally have the same specs as a General Motors rocker. The pushrods get their ride from lifters which have the same specifications as some hi-po GM units. (The same can be said for the fuel injectors, timing gears, alternator belt tensioner, and ignition coils.)

This valvetrain ain’t the only part that bears remarkable similarity to a Chevy LS motor. The splayed valves, the pushrod 90-degree architecture, even the quaint little spark plug wires… if you ever worked on Pop-pop’s pickup truck, this layout should feel reeeeeal familiar, even moreso if your Pop-pop maybe had an LS-powered ‘Vette. And why not? The venerable pushrod V engine is as American as... as... well, Chevy. It’s almost surprising Motus is the first company to utilize both the spirit and layout of an American V8 automobile and heavily adapt it to smaller scale for motorcycle use. And the ‘Vette technology makes sense, too, because the motor’s development was helped by Katech, an engine builder producing, among other things, crate race motors built on the LS pattern.

Every Motus drivetrain is assembled, run-in on an engine dyno, put into a bike, then run on a chassis dyno, and finally turns a few street miles. I don't want to speak for Motus, but I'd imagine you can break your bike in any way you want, because it's damn near already done by the time it hits a customer's hands. RevZilla photo.

A flexible engine design with lots of testing on other vehicles and R&D that’s been proven years ago by those with thicker wallets makes good, good sense. Lee Conn, Motus’ president and co-founder, put it succinctly, “When selecting parts to build the engine, we looked for parts that can do their job better than you’d expect. It turns out some automotive parts are a fantastic match for that requirement, because even average use for most automotive parts would be suitable for severe or heavy-duty usage for a motorcycle.”

Power is pounded onto the tops of forged aluminum 11.5:1 CR pistons, which are joined to a forged crank that runs in plain bearings via 4340 forged steel I-beam conrods. The Motus is a wet-sump bike and is fuel-injected, and has a ride-by-wire throttle. The whole shootin’ match weighs 150 pounds. With an output of either 165 horsepower (MST) or 180 horsepower (MST-R), the power-to-weight ratio is intoxicating. (The bikes weigh 580 or 589 pounds, ready to roll.) And for those of you wondering about the power output difference? The MST-R gets a higher lift cam, different mapping (ignition and fuel), and titanium valves.

The Motus transmission. That, friends, is one unique unit. And a very neat piece of tech to have backing up that engine. RevZilla photo.

Now for one of the nifty parts: The Baby Block uses a divorced transmission with an automotive-style bellhousing. The transmission, however, turns all that power 90 degrees with a set of spiral bevel gears; it’s a crazy-lookin’ transmission! This motorcycle has a crankshaft that runs parallel to the direction of travel yet uses a final-drive chain, much as an Indian or Henderson Four did years ago.

Bevel gears
Bevel gears from the transmission enable the use of a motorcycle-style clutch, in spite of the crankshaft's orientation. RevZilla photo.

The transmission, though divorced, still utilizes a cartridge-style gearset, making for fairly quick repairs. RevZilla photo.
Why does this matter? Well, Motus is a motor company. It allows this mill to be used in a number of applications that are not moto-specific. Think sprint cars, side-by-sides, and marine applications, where Motus has found great interest recently.

“But Lem, I don’t care!” you say. You should. By the third or fourth quarter of this year, Motus will be selling more motors than they will complete motorcycles. That subsidizes their R&D and stabilizes their business with regular sales, making this engine a viable option for us, the goobers who enjoy riding.

Maybe you’re not altruistic, though. You want to know what this does for you, a rider who might buy one of these bikes. Excellent question. Because these powerplants need to be “configurable,” this engine is unbelievably easy to live with. That crazy transmission means no automotive-style clutch, as is common with most engines mounted with a crank in this orientation. Instead, a standard motorcycle clutch is fitted. You can remove the clutch in literally minutes. Nice for a wear item.

Power ports
Dual rear power ports are optional on the MST-R. A single power port up front on the dash is standard on all Motus motorcycles. RevZilla photo.

Normally, too, stators are a real pain to get at. This uses a stand-alone alternator run with a belt, and you can pop that off in minutes, too. And because it’s a super-common automotive item, you can buy a rebuilt or new charging system at most car-parts joints and pop it in with standard hand tools in well under an hour. That’s nice to know on the road. You won’t need to do that, though, because of the next factoid, gathered just for loyal reader Piglet: this alternator, being made for a car, makes 60 amps. At idle. It maxes at 93 amps. Run heated gear. Run your pillion’s heated gear. Hell, run a full set of baseboard heaters. For comparison’s sake, a full-dress Harley with a Milwaukee-Eight makes 46 to 50 amps at highway speed.

Its oil filter is one of the most common automotive units — it’s used by Kawi and Indian, but you can find it at your local auto parts store because it’s been used on eleventy-billion cars over the years. (A Purolator L14610, for those of you who are like me and have changed way more oil than you care to remember and have part numbers stuck in your head.)

The Chevy lifters? Those are hydraulic. There are no valve adjustments; that all happens auto-magically. The battery? Right under the seat. About the only thing you need to do is change some fluids and lube the chain… and even the chain carries a 20,000-mile warranty. Their maintenance schedule mostly has a lot of “I’s” in it, standing for “Inspect,” mechanical code for “make sure this thing isn’t like falling off the bike, otherwise don’t touch it and let it continue to work.”

Riding Motus
2018 Motus MST-R. Motus photo.

At this point, I’ll point out something, and offer a caution. First, the item I’d like you think about for just a moment. Consider what a mammoth undertaking it is to start a company, design an engine, get it through all of the EPA red tape, and be confident you have a product that will be unique, usable, and competitive in a few years when it can be installed in a bike. Think about how much labor, loot, and love goes into that task. “We are monetizing our greatest asset,” Case said.

Now the caution: if this powerplant, layout, philosophy, and output do not excite you at this point in the article, I understand totally. But I have one bullet left in my chamber to convince you this is cool: listen to one, ideally uncorked. Here’s their prototype naked bike on the dyno. (Yes, that’s coming soon. Yes, it is lighter, supposedly by about 130 pounds. No, I didn’t get to ride it. Yes, I asked. Very politely, in fact.)

See why I asked to ride it? If that doesn’t get you interested, there is no way anything I type will. In any event, “motor” is only half of my favorite word. I didn’t come to Alabama to ride an engine.

Riding the Motus

Lee had me sit on a bike before I went anywhere — he wanted his assembly tech to tailor-fit an MST to me. (It was pretty close, I am not picky, and I’m a setup junkie and I’m also not shy to ask for tools if something doesn’t fit me.) It was a good call, though, because the handlebar setup is very, very adjustable on the MST. It uses a custom-to-Motus system made by the famous HeliBars folks.

While sitting on the bike, I felt like my knees were super-close together. This motorcycle is seriously wasp-waisted. I’ve never experienced a bike so narrow in the spot where your knees naturally lock into the tank. “Well, there’s no engine back there, so we don’t have to have a really wide frame, and that’s how we’re able to do that,” laughed Brian, Motus’ Design Director (and co-founder.)

I stuck a lid on and parked my camera in one of the panniers. I gingerly followed Brian and Lee out of their factory parking lot. (Their factory is actually the old digs of the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum.) These guys can both ride, and obviously they know their bikes well. They also knew the roads very well. Me? I was trying to keep up. I familiarized myself with the bike, and loved the riding position, and began feeding the bike more power as I got comfortable with it. They weren’t waxing my ass, but I certainly wouldn’t have put any money on who was going to be out in front.

I’m an experienced rider and try not to rely on anything other than my own riding ability, but let’s call a spade a spade here: this bike has 165 ponies and makes 123 foot-pounds of torque. There is no traction control, no wheelie control, no ABS… nothing. I don’t ride scared, but these super-nice guys running an operation that has to be very mindful of expenditures just lent me a bike I could afford to replace... if I gave up on paying my mortgage for a few years. Binning it seemed like a bad idea.

However, 20 or 30 miles later, we were eating barbecue and talking bikes. I mentioned that although comfortable, I’d prefer to be in a bit more of an “attack” position. Lee asked me if I wanted to ride the MST-R, which offers a few more choice bits and pieces on it. (Carbon fiber fairings, BST carbon fiber wheels, and a few other pieces I’ll get to.) It also ups the ante 15 horsepower and another three foot-pounds of torque. We swapped bikes, and I settled in, and the lower handlebar on this machine was much more to my liking.

More riding.
You can't take it with you. Motus photo.

Review summary: This bike is a rip-shit riot. I was finally comfortable with the power these bikes made, and started hammering on the throttle. We were running what I would call a three-quarter pace: normally if I am on the backroads and they’re fun and cop-free, I am running a little over double the posted limits, with the occasional excursion up into The Land Of The Ton. I lofted the front wheel as far as I dared, which is pretty easy on a bike with that kind of motivation and a 58-inch wheelbase.

Gold suspension looks as nice in the Motus factory as it does on a Motus motorcycle. RevZilla photo.

The suspension was sublime. I adjusted nothing, and when I asked if anything had been pre-adjusted for your favorite rotund writer, I was told the bike ships as I was riding it. The R version of the bike receives an Öhlins rear shock as compared with the MST’s Progressive unit. I simply pointed the bike and it went.

Preload adjuster
Rational external preload adjuster placement. Sweet! RevZilla photo.

I didn’t have time to do a setup, not even a quick-and-dirty sag adjustment, but it didn’t matter. Would I like to dial it in further? Sure. But even out of the box, I was flying on this bike.

The chassis also comes into play with such a nice ride. The CroMoly steel trellis frame was developed with Pratt & Miller, an engineering firm known for their four-wheel prowess, but well equipped to tackle a motorcycle. The frames are gorgeous, and utilize the engine as a stressed component. And they’re handbuilt, which makes a lot of sense; I’d think that even with wonderful fit-up, a robot would struggle with some of the joints.

Brembo monoblocs, waiting to be assigned to a Motus MST-R. RevZilla photo.

Braking is another area where the MST was very good; it uses two-piece Brembo calipers. The MST-R, however, is in a league of its own. The Brembo Monoblocs couple strength and feel with such intensity that each slowdown becomes this sublime conversation between your fingertips and the hydraulic system. It’s hard to describe how good this brake setup is. Note that they’ve actually paired those calipers up with a Magura master cylinder, a combination I had not experienced, but was plenty happy to try.

Pirelli Angel GT tires. Motus tested a number of tires, and a big part of their testing was testing for weight. I knew Angels were a wonderful tire. I had no idea they were very light tires, too. I guess rotating weight matters when the standard wheels are carbon fiber! RevZilla photo.

The tires, of course, play a large part in braking efficacy, and the tires on the MST-R are one of my favs: Pirelli Angel GTs. I can’t seem to overwork or overwhelm these tires on the street in dry weather, even when I’m pushing pretty hard, and their profile always feels very natural to me when I’m on a bike wearing a set. Their grip makes the brakes better — a brake is only as good as the rubber on the road, and these tires are the tops for this bike. If I was pushing it harder, I might want a softer tire, but for a balance of grip and reasonable (read: they can put a warranty on the bike) mileage, Angels are hard to beat.

Where I appreciated them most, however, was on the drive side of the go/stop equation. The MV4 is a powerful animal, and the tires held up like a champ through Lem-lem-induced fits of rage. The engine is surprising; I expected it to be loaded with creamy bottom end, but I suppose the oversquare bore mitigates that some. I soon learned that the meat of the engine’s power was produced in the middle of the rev range. (It’s easy to find. The TFT display shows an “analog” tach encircling a digi readout on speed. If you see the tacky-mometer pointing to the sky, you’re in A Very Good Place.)

The engine is ridiculous. The most fun place to use it, for me, was on corner exit. You could simply rocket out of a turn. It shakes, it rattles, it makes delightful noises that frighten most people out of their minds, and it's more satisfying than taking a roadside leak. You buy this bike for its motor, and its motor is the part of the bike you walk away from wanting another hit of. Do you think I want to try to find a way to buy one of these? No. But I’m seriously thinking about what liquor stores I could knock over to fund this thing, Richard Thompson-style.

I can tell you about a bunch of other things, like Brian Case’s reworked Givi mounts that give the bike a clean look when it’s rolling around sans bags, or I can tell you that the 5.5 gallon-tank is a decidedly smart addition to a bike that bills itself as an ST bike that’s heavy on the S. (“Capital S, lowercase t," Case reminded me.)

What if something does go wrong? “We’re not out to get anybody on warranty, especially the techs. We’ll make it right,” Lee assured me.

I can tell you all those things, but this motorcycle all boils down to two questions: Do you want it (you do), and can you afford it (probably not.)

The elephants in the room

I sound gushy. I should. The bike is one of the best I’ve ridden, and it far outclasses any slowpoke chopper I’ve ever stuck together in the garage. It satisfies my rational side, and it satisfies the emotional little kid in me, too. But there are two huge obstacles that I will mention.

The TFT dash looks far better than I could capture with my camera. Hell, all the TFT dashes look nice these days, it seems. RevZilla photo.

The first is rider aids. Even with EFI, a TFT dash, nifty cable-operated ride-by-wire throttle (I know, it sounds weird, but it provides cable-like feel), and a CAN bus electrical system, this bike has no rider aids. Not even ABS. Lee flatly said, “We don’t have ABS.” I asked 87 ways why, and they just don’t offer it. Why doesn’t Harley make a dirt bike? Why doesn’t KTM offer green motorcycles? Why do birds suddenly appear? They’re not opposed to it, but they haven’t rushed to implement it. Hell, some of our very own readers here have visited the factory to ask about ABS in person.

I’m sure it’s partially philosophical, and partially rooted in cost. When I asked if they’d need it to conquer Europe, Case told me that they hadn’t yet captured all of the American market, a very valid point. I pointed out that it might be easier to lock down America if the bike had at least anti-lock brakes, and both men conceded that point. After an awkward silence, we were at the same place as where we started: These bikes do not have ABS.

For the record, I could personally give two hoots. I’d gladly part with a few appendages to obtain one of these bikes, ABS be damned. I wouldn’t pull it off the bike if it had it, but I don’t need it. I am ambivalent to it. However, I am not Common Tread — you all are. And I expect at least a few comments will mention this glaring lack of rider help on a machine that is irresponsibly, ludicrously, feloniously fast, especially considering other players in the market.

If you flip your Motus saddle over, you'll see the signatures of each of the employees. That should give you an idea of the volume they're doing. These bikes are not one-off, but they're close. RevZilla photo.

The next elephant we must address is the cost. $30,975 gets you an MST. Fork over another six grand, and you may have an MST-R. It’s expensive. The cost is horrifically malignant to all but the strongest bank accounts. But it’s not surprising. First, they can’t compete with “normally” priced bikes. Do you really think Motus meets the MOQ (minimum order quantities) Honda does in order to get sweet price breaks? No way. That hurts the price for the end user. Second, “We build the best and it costs what it costs” is a lot more defensible than “We built to a price point, but it still costs 20K.”

Let’s also compare the spec sheet. This bike still has a power-to-weight ratio that’s right up there with other hyperbikes. However, the list of components on this bike is nothing short of amazing. Let’s use the MST-R for example.

Trick bits
A perfect example of the trick bits you'll find on a Motus. Optional Clearwater LED driving lights and Brembo monobloc calipers are mounted to an Öhlins front end grabbing Galfer rotors which are bolted to a set of full-carbon BST wheels, encircled by those Pirellis I mentioned earlier. That has got to be the most name-dropping ever tossed into a Common Tread photo caption. RevZilla photo.

BST wheels, Öhlins suspension, Akrapovic mufflers, Sargent saddle, Rizoma bar, Magura master, Brembo calipers, Galfer rotors, SuperSprox sprockets, K&N air filters, Andrews cam, Cloyes timing components, FAG and Timken bearings, SKF seals, Givi luggage… the bike comes “pre-farkled.” If you remove almost anything from this bike, you’ll have a tough time finding a higher-quality replacement part. Aftermarket upgrade parts on other motorcycles are the OEM pieces on a Motus.

OEM parts on the Motus are like the aftermarket parts you buy as upgrades on other motorcycles, like this SuperSprox rear sprocket. It's made like their Twinring series, in two pieces. There's an aluminum core for lightness, with a hardened steel outer ring for durability. RevZilla photo.

Oh yeah, and the bike even comes with a tool-kit — a made-in-America CruzTools kit.

Take your average hyperbike and add all that stuff, and see what the cost is, even if you install it yourself, less whatever you can get for the parts you remove. The difference is closer than you think. I’m not saying the bike is cheap or affordable for most people; I’m just saying there is a difference between cost and value. High cost does not mean low value.

Also in their corner is the fact their prices have remained constant since they sold their first bike deep in 2015. I know, it’s little consolation, but still… Look, the world is filled with nice things that I can’t have. Not everyone gets everything they desire. I probably won’t get a Motus.

But I want one, and you probably do, too. Put a tie on, find a dealer, and convince them you’re not a turd and they should let you abuse one for a few miles. Then you will have gotten the same experience with these that I have, which isn’t enough time at all to understand this conundrum, but plenty of time to ponder it.