September 17, 2007 It’s a special sort of road test when you get to try out not only a brand new bike, but one of the first viable examples of a whole different engine technology. Loz Blain and Noel McKeegan get their hands on the Vectrix Electric Maxi-Scooter, an Italian/American beauty with a 100kph top speed, a 110km commuting range, and a two-way throttle that engages a very handy regenerative braking system. It’s a promising early taste of what’s in store when electric motorcycles hit the market in force.
We’ve written a lot about electric motorcycles – as battery technology improves it seems almost certain that these clean, zero-maintenance machines will eventually become mainstream transport options. Incredibly cheap to run, almost silent and emissions-free, on paper they’ve got a lot going for them. But what’s it like to ride one of these next-gen machines? Can they genuinely tempt confirmed petrolheads as much as they interest environmentalists? If our first sight of the scooter is any indication, then yes; we arrive to find Two Wheels magazine journo Alec Simpson gleefully pulling an extended burnout in front of the showroom.
Vectrix is an American company, making electric two and three-wheelers using top-notch Italian componentry, assembled in Poland. The company’s flagship electric maxi-scooter has just received Australian homologation approval, and Vectrix Australia, operating out of Rouse St, Port Melbourne, are already taking deposits on pre-orders.
The Vectrix Maxi runs a 20.2kW direct drive brushless DC motor, mounted directly on the rear wheel. It powers the bike through a planetary CVT, also mounted on the rear wheel, and draws power from a bank of Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries mounted in a cradle between the rider’s legs.
Why the older NiMH batteries instead of more powerful Lithium-ion and Lithium-polymer batteries? “Nickel Metal Hydride is a well-understood and safe battery technology,” explains Sales Manager Frank Papa. “Current Lithium batteries have some potential safety issues. Vectrix is very experienced with Nickel Metal Hydride, there’s a lot of very sophisticated battery and thermal management technology in the Maxi to get the most out of it.”
Charging is simple: opening up the generous underseat storage compartment, you simply pull out a long power cord and plug it into a power point to recharge the battery, which takes around 2-3 hours from dead to full charge. A full charge will get you up to 110km at 40kmh city speeds, or half that if you boot it up to its maximum 100kmh speed on the freeway for any length of time. For a bike that’s built to be a viable commuter alternative, a single overnight charge will comfortably get most people to work and back with plenty in reserve.
Starting up the Maxi is a disconcerting affair – switch the key on, hold the left brake lever in, touch the right brake to start the bike and… Well, nothing happens. It’s completely silent. Only a large “Go!” on the well-designed instrument display gives away the fact that the power’s on. From here it’s a simple matter of rolling the throttle on and you’re away. At very low speeds the Vectrix is virtually silent, which takes some getting used to, but as it picks up speed it takes on an electric whine that helps you regulate your speed and stick to the limits.
The twistgrip’s a fascinating affair – the old biking adage “the throttle goes both ways, son” never applied so literally. From a stationary start, rolling the throttle forwards actually engages a walking-pace reverse gear that’s very handy when you’re parking in tight spots. I was surprised how much I used it. But it’s when you’re moving that it becomes really clever – rolling the throttle forwards at speed reverses the motor into a generator and engages a regenerative braking system that charges the battery with the energy of your momentum while slowing you down.
The re-gen braking system is a fantastic tool for city riding – despite the Maxi’s excellent Brembo front and rear disc brakes, Editor Noel and I found ourselves using the two-way action of the throttle to slow ourselves in 90% of situations. Used optimally, the system can add about 12% to the life of a battery charge – but more than that, it lets you completely control the scoot with one hand, leaving the other free to smoke a cigarette or sip your macchiato. It’s so effective I’m surprised the Maxi doesn’t come with a beverage holder, but then I guess you have to leave something for the aftermarket to supply when there’s no exhaust to replace!
The only drawback to the two-way throttle I found was that when my wrist was rolled fully forward in re-gen braking mode, it was hard to jump back onto the right-hand brake lever in an emergency – but that’s something I quickly learned to prepare for. Oh, and yes, engaging the re-gen brake does switch the brake light on – and you need to come to a complete stop and reset the throttle before it’ll start reversing on you, so there’s no safety issues there.
The engine’s fairly sluggish on takeoff, it’s fair to say, but develops a satisfying pull above about 25kmh that builds to an easy 100kmh top speed without much fuss. It’s certainly more than enough to dart in and out of traffic with, making the Vectrix a quick and zippy commuter.
Handling ranks right up there with some of the most fun city bikes I’ve ridden. The Maxi simply carves around corners with a nimble ease that belies its 200kg weight. Throwing the bike from side to side, the Marzocchi forks (standard fitment on Ducatis) and Sachs rear shock gave me such stability and confidence I was soon scraping the side fairings on the ground while staying in my lane, laughing my head off.
Slow-speed handling is also particularly impressive, the low-slung central weight of the batteries making the Maxi an exceptionally easy bike to do u-turns on. After a bit of practice I was using almost all the huge steering lock to pull feet-up u-turns in the width of a single lane.
Being among the first true plug-in electric bikes of a decent size to make it to Australia, the Vectrix turns a lot of heads on the road due to its unique engine whine and Italian good looks. Vectrix Australia’s Marketing Director Charlie Mann has taken to carrying a stack of business cards wherever he rides the Maxi to hand out to boggle-eyed pedestrians and drivers in traffic.
Although our test bikes were only fourth and sixth-generation prototypes, quality and finish seemed excellent, and the Maxi looked stunning in its deep burgundy red. Styling looks Italian despite its American origins, which is no bad thing, and the production models, which will arrive shortly in Australia, will come in five colours.
Downsides? Apart from being slow off the line, the engine’s performance fades noticeably as you reach the end of the battery’s charge. My top-speed run came towards the end of the ride, and midrange pickup after that was well down on what it was earlier. Charlie agrees: “You can feel it when the battery starts fading. Your top speed drops to 80, then to 60. It doesn’t actually stop running for a long time – worst I’ve had was it came down to about 20kmh, which lets you get it home if you’re not too far away. But it’s not an issue if you’ve got the confidence to ask the closest shop owner if you can borrow a power point for 20 minutes.”
It’s also an expensive bike – not surprisingly, given that it’s one of the first viable electric bikes we’ve seen that can do a genuine freeway speed. At AU$17,500 the Vectrix has early adopters paying a premium for the pleasure of going green – although this is offset by the fact that charging it is so cheap – about $45 a year if used for daily commuting – and the fact that it needs virtually no servicing. The battery will last around 10 years, says Frank, and after that it’s recycled and re-used. Other than that it’s pretty much just brake pads, and they’ll last forever since you spend most of your time on the re-gen brake anyway.
The price hasn’t deterred buyers in Charlie’s experience – the bike’s unique enough to have several people putting down deposits after 200-metre round-the-block test rides, and the quality finish and bagful of high performance Italian componentry is more than worthy of the price tag.
Noel and I agreed it was a great pleasure to ride one of the first of a new generation of vehicles. The Vectrix Maxi is a fun, well-built commuter bike with plenty of power and a riding experience unlike anything petrol-powered. As a commuter it does exactly what it says on the tin and is easy enough to ride to be a viable option for a wide range of riders. Its only drawbacks can be traced back to the battery – and battery technology is surging forward at a breakneck pace. Before too long we’ll be seeing genuine electric sportsbikes and tourers, and once the batteries are up to it these bikes will be as powerful and fast as you like. Make no mistake, these are the bikes of the future, and the future’s looking bright!
Readers in Melbourne can contact Charlie or Frank at Vectrix Australia for demo rides, and the company also has showrooms in Spain, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S.A.