How do you begin to talk about riding the Mission Motors Mission R electric superbike? Without question, this machine is unlike anything else. It is drop-dead sexy in that completely unobtainable sort of way, it has more neck-snapping torque than a 1000cc sport bike, and it is electric…just like your toaster oven.
I suppose we could frame our discussion about the Mission R in the same tone that we would talk about other ultra-exclusive motorcycles, like for instance the Moto2-only Bimota HB4 or the connoisseur’s NCR M4 ONE SHOT. That kind of analysis would in essence read more like an art critique, since the closest any real motorcyclist would get to one these bikes is via a computer screen (perhaps the pages of a magazine, if that is your thing) or on display at some sort of public event, no doubt inside a corral of faux-velvet ropes. In that case, I could wax-on some of the best hyperbole possible, building the dream of riding such fantasy machine as far as possible. After all, the Mission R at the moment is complete unobtainium, and that only serves to fuel our product-lust further.
Just as equally, we could have a nitty-gritty discussion about the weights and measures of the Mission R. We could explore every technical detail that Mission Motors has available, and extrapolate everything else that the San Franciscan company would rather not disclose to the general public. We could talk lap times, lean angles, and wheelies per second. At its heart, Asphalt & Rubber is sport bike blog, and sport bikers are a very metric driven group. How much power does it have? And how much does it weigh? Ok, and maybe there should be an inquiry into the chances of the bike getting you laid on a Friday night. That being said, the only real metric you need to know is that in the hands of Steve Rapp, the Mission R could give any AMA Supersport rider and machine a serious run for their money at Laguna Seca, for about eight laps.
Simply the best electric motorcycle with a license plate, I suppose when pressed we could talk about the future of motorcycling, how electrics are coming of age, and how the Mission R is the embodiment of what performance parity looks like in a two-wheeled electric vehicle. Make like the Pope, get out the holy water, and let us convert some petrol-loving heathens, right? I think there is about as much of a Mormons-on-your-doorstop chance in hell of convincing any internal-combustion riding motorcyclist to see the light when it comes to electrons being the fuel of the future, so why don’t we just spare ourselves that sermon as well. So where does that leave us?
Instead, let us play an exercise in mental cognition. Close your eyes and imagine your ideal motorcycle. The design is fresh and edgy, but also refined and timeless. The motorcycle has all the right go-fast parts and brands: Öhlins WSBK-spec suspension, Brembo beryllium brake calipers, 10-spoke Marchesini forged-magnesium wheels, custom carbon fiber bodywork, and a bevy of other top-shelf components and accents. On the dynamometer, the torque curve on this mythical machine is shaped like a plateau, and the power comes on immediately, but is still smooth and linear. The motor has no flat spots, and there are no pits or falls on its dyno graph; and best of all, at the end of the day, this exercise in fantasy packs twice as much torque as your typical liter-bike. The cost for a day’s worth of fuel? About one dollar.
Hold all these elements in your mind for a moment, and then open your eyes. The motorcycle I just described to you is the Mission R pictured in the photo at the top of this article, and recently we had the chance to ride the pride of Mission Motors through the streets of San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mt. Tamalpais, and out past Stinson Beach & Bolinas Bay, before eventually returning home along the cliffs of the Pacific Coast Highway. Click past the jump for our account about riding San Francisco’s motorcycle playground on the Mission R electric superbike.
The Streets of San Francisco
Riding the Mission R on the city streets of San Francisco, we begin our day near downtown, where the Mission Motors office resides. Just missing peak rush hour traffic, downtown San Francisco is still a bustling place at 10am, especially when it comes to the pedestrian foot-traffic that is comprised of office zombies, who are scavenging the terrain for their next caffeine fix. Normally I would bomb through these roads on my daily-rider, a Ducati Streetfighter, whose excessively loud exhaust note can just barely be heard over its even more excessively loud dry clutch.
The Streetfighter makes an impression as you ride it, though not always the one you want to have made, especially when my mother or the CHP is involved. The foot traffic runs for cover when the big-displacement v-twin comes barreling through town — I imagine the scene is vaguely similar to the sight of a WWI dive-bombing biplane, whose radial motors meant death from above for the soldiers below. That is hyperbole of course, but the picture is a stark contrast to today’s scene. Like the Ducati, the Mission R is striking, and visually you would have a hard time finding fault with any of the bike’s many sexy lines, regardless of which side of the electric motorcycle debate you hail from.
However, riding the Mission R through the bustling city streets of San Francisco, a different war cliché comes to mind: walking through a minefield. A larger issue with electrics in general, the relatively quiet nature of the Mission R, coupled with the Palovian idea that motorcycles make sounds (often very loud ones), and suddenly every intersection becomes a game of second-guessing the pedestrian. Right-hand turns through a crosswalk? You are pretty much guaranteed to startle an unsuspecting biped whose cranium is churning away on a life trapped inside its nine-to-five cubical-clad world.
At 550 lbs in curb weight, the heft of the Mission R can be felt when walking the bike around the shop, or traveling at low-speeds, so it was readily apparently as we scooted around the city for our first photo shoot (Scott Jones swinging a lens, like a boss). However with no crankshaft, camshaft, transmission, and other mechanical parts rotating at thousands of rounds per minute (besides the rotor inside the motor itself, of course), the force required to flick the Mission R from side-to-side at higher speeds becomes far less than you would think given that massive weight figure. So at speed, the Mission R gives the appearance of a bike that weighs the same as any other sport bike, though its internal-combustion equivalents tout nearly 75-100 lbs less left in curb weight — more on that later, of course.
There is an element of riding an electric motorcycle that really needs to be witnessed first-hand in order to be fully appreciated, especially when the electric motorcycle in question is one like the Mission R, i.e. one that has some serious power available for the twist of your wrist. These bikes shine at lower speeds, where throttle control is king. Sans a clutch to feather, and an instant amount of teeth-grinning torque, one begins to relish stop-and-go traffic, especially when it involves tight cornering obstacles. Think for a minute, how often does someone say that?
The experience is a welcomed diversion from the usual clutch-clutching endeavor that San Franciscan traffic can become, and the only real complaint I have about the Mission R in this regard is the lack of hand clearance when the motorcycle’s handlebars are at full-lock. Perhaps an oversight by Tim Prentice at Motonium, or a trade-off to keep some of the Mission R’s visual lines intact, you only have to pinch a finger a couple of times before you start coming up with some creative hand positions — especially when you are reenacting an scene from Austin Powers, which happens far too often, as the Mission R’s turning radius leaves something to be desired as well.
These are of course trivial complaints, which you barely spend time thinking about. In fact, while on the bike you spend more time contemplating its strengths, as invariably people vie for your attention with a bevy of questions that they shout at you from their car windows. Unsurprisingly, San Francisco is a savvy crowd when it comes to the EV scene, with one looky-loo even taking the time to ask me about Mission’s current state of funding. California, you crack me up sometimes.
It would be unfair to say that the Mission R is at home in an urban environment. Despite the company using the electric superbike as its resident grocery-getter, the Mission R was designed with one purpose in mind: kicking ass and taking names on the track…and it shines in that regard. That being said, as expected the electric drivetrain on the Mission R makes for a fairly enjoyable ride, even when you have traded apexes for potholes. Mission would want to refine the steering components, and maybe provide a more comfortable seat, if it ever made another unit besides the one we were riding. But considering that most sport bikes are like fish out of water when it comes to around-town riding, we feel comfortable with the trade-offs that Mission Motors made here with the Mission R.
Devoting 20% of our 14 kWh battery charge to our time downtown, which included several photo stops, the “proper” portion of our ride commenced as we headed out of the city and merged onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Once past our iconic 45 mph tourist trap, we charged through the highway traffic. Officer, I am not saying that we broke the speed limit at this point in our journey, but the motor response from 65 mph and onward was palpable, to say the least. This is where the Mission R’s 163 hp figure for the motor is a bit misleading, as it is the 133 lbs•ft of torque @ 6,400 rpm’s that really gets your attention as you twist the throttle.
With great power comes great responsibility, and when you put that powertrain package together with a single-speed gearbox, passing slower-moving vehicles really does become just as easy as moving your wrist.This in turn also means that the ability to break a plethora of California Vehicle Codes is an equally effortless task. While my license is safe for another day, I cannot underline more the shocking amount of torque that the Mission R produces as your ride it. The machine is entirely capable of lifting the front of its mass off the ground, as well as slamming your ass against the back of its monoposto seat…all from a 70 mph roll-on.
This concept underlines how when it comes to electric motorcycles, the vernacular for spec-sheet racing will have to change with the times. In the horsepower obsessed world of sport bikes, we rarely look at a bike’s peak torque figure, let alone at what rpm that metric is produced. Just the same, we put a tremendous amount of weight (no pun intended) on the dry/curb weights of these machines, with nary a thought given to the weight figures of the rotating mass involved.
The instant and linear torque of an electric motorcycle is certain to change our thoughts about how we measure the potency of the motorcycles of the future, just as less emphasis should be placed on an electric motorcycle’s curb weight, at least in regard to an apples-to-apples comparison with internal-combustion motorcycles (more like apples-to-pears if you ask us). All it takes to highlight this coming change in perception is a quick ride up the highway on the Mission R.
The electric engine has virtually no meaningful rotating mass at its core (the wheels, tires, and chain are the Mission R’s most cumbersome rotating pieces of mass, from a physics point-of-view), so the force necessary to overcome the bike’s moment of inertia is considerably less than what would be required on a traditional internal-combustion machines. This means changing directions, both in large maneuvers like a chicane, or in short maneuvers, like a line adjustment, are relatively effortless endeavors.
Mt. Tamalpais & the Pacific Coast Highway
Getting off the freeway, I witnessed this phenomenon first-hand as we got into the switchback route up Mt. Tam. The advantages of a motorcycle that is sans flywheel, crankshaft, camshafts, and transmission becomes readily apparent here, and it is hard for our sport bike brains to wrap around the idea that a 550 lbs motorcycle can be flickable in slow first & second gear turns. Yet, the Mission R feels barely heavier, if even at all, than any liter bike I have ever taken across these roads.
Adding to the enjoyment is again the flawlessly smooth throttle response that electric motorcycles provide, which means you carve each corner with a single hand, and with a level of precision you did not think was possible. I am sadly not equipped to truly do this experience justice in words, but every sport biker should be afforded the chance to rail a road on an electric motorcycle, especially one that is this well-refined and well-endowed.
Ultimately, it is the “seeing is believing” moment that bikes like the Mission R provide that will sway the die-hards. Take them down their favorite twisty road, and watch them go quicker with less effort than ever before, and the pithy discussions about baseball cards in the spokes will cease, I assure you. For that same reason then, it is important to remember that the conversation about electrics, especially for the hold-outs in the motorcycle industry, should not center saving the manatees, or some argument that is equally obtuse. Instead, the discussion should center around a better motorcycle.
Reaching the summit of Mt. Tamalpais, we could see that the fog was whisking over the coast below us. The descent into the clouds again highlights that the Mission R is a better motorcycle. The roads here are tight, mostly blind, and can have some challenges with adhesion (both from tarmac conditions and fallen rocks). If I had to pick a weapon of choice for these “first-gear” turns, I would probably opt for the much lighter BRD RedShift SM that I tested in Sonoma earlier this year, instead of the Mission R, but of course I would regret that decision once I got to the bottom of the mountain, where the turns in the road open up again.
The takeaway from that thought process though is that again it is that a well-built electric drivetrain wins out over an internal combustion one when it comes to technical turns, and riding the Mission R is an infinitely more enjoyable motorcycle on these somewhat technical curves, especially when compared to my much lighter, but evermore cumbersome Ducati.
Passing again through the fog, and coming into Stinson Beach. We briefly tackled the freshly paved stretch of road along the Bolinas Lagoon. It is only a few miles in length, but the turns are roughly twice as fast as the ones on Mt. Tam, with the fresh asphalt begging to be ridden hard. The Mission R abides.
My favorite stretch of road in the Bay Area, the water to the west is a welcomed sight and change from the clouds on Mt. Tam, whose condition I was less-than-confident about, and have far less experience riding on. Getting now another chance to crack the throttle, the short straights here become even shorter than before, though it is not an issue. The Mission R is very neutral on its turn-in, not diving into the turn like a short-raked R6, but also not understeering with Italian vagueness like my Streetfighter.
The feeling from the bike is very planted, and course adjustments mid-apex are easily achieved. With each turn, the bike becomes even more confidence inspiring, and it doesn’t take long for the voice in the back of your head to remind you that this isn’t the race track, and getting a knee down isn’t the order of the day. Unlike the electrics that are currently on the market, the Mission R rides with a substantial amount of regenerative-breaking programed into the machine. This setting is of course adjustable, but for our purposes enough re-gen was programmed into the Mission R as to simulate a four-stroke machine of comparable size.
The effect not only serves to liken the Mission R to its gas-breathing brethren, but also puts some extra energy back into the battery pack. Mission told me before we set off that allowing the bike to re-gen would trigger the rear brake light, a safety precaution that struck me as a bit strange. It would be one thing if electric motorcycles relied entirely, or at least predominantly, on the regenerative-braking to slow the machine, but in this case, where the effect is similar to coasting, it doesn’t make as much sense. Safety first we suppose, though for my tastes I could have done with a bit more drag from the rear of the bike. Of course, the holy grail is still a proper front-wheel re-gen system, but don’t hold you breath for too long on that one.
Later down the road, we would come to find out that we needed everyone of those electrons we produced coming down Mt. Tam, and while braking for each corner. Coming to our lunch spot in Stinson Beach, the café we were eating at informed us that their outside plug had been removed, thus eliminating our chance for an hour’s worth of charging. With roughly a quarter charge left on the Mission R, some guerrilla math indicated that we wouldn’t be able to make it back into the city, that is assuming that I continued to abuse the Mission R with my heavy-handed throttle use (our photo sessions probably didn’t help either). With a fun section of the PCH still between us and San Francisco, we decided to ride hard and pack the bike up in the truck when it ran out of gas, rather than scoot around at a more modest, but uninspiring pace.
Though I am sure the Mission Motors crew would rather not have the fact that the Mission R ultimately ran out of battery at the start of the Golden Gate Bridge, I am glad that we choose our plan to continue riding hard along the coast. The stretch of road between Stinson Beach and Muir Woods has a considerable amount of elevation, and several of its sections have some serious ruts, where the road continues to try and dump itself into the Pacific Ocean.
Slaloming through Prius after Prius, the PCH gave a testament to James Parker’s chassis. The feedback from the Mission R, again, was crisp and confidence inspiring, even as we ascended and descended through the winding road. Sure-footed over the bumps, the Mission R gave nary a twitch as I pointed it into the nastiest of PCH’s ruts. Just as the lack of rotating mass on the Mission R helps it shed the appearance of weight in the corners, that same lack of mass could have proven a disadvantage in stabilizing the Mission R over this uneven terrain, but Parker’s work easily rose to the challenge.
Coming to the final ascent from the coast, and we invariably got stuck behind an inconsiderate motorist. Trolling along at 15 mph through turns that you cannot see through, this is probably the only time I wish the Mission R had a guttural bark from its non-existent exhaust. Maybe that would have snapped our moseying motorist into letting us by, instead of turn-after-turn being wasted behind the SUV. Finally breaking free, we had only a short route to the freeway, and back into city life.
With the Mission R just about ready to call it a day, one quick wide-open throttle blast up Hwy 101 was enough to reconfirm the existence of the power I had been tempering on the climb earlier behind the SUV. I don’t think I have ever been surprised by the response of a bike quite like this before, but as the 133 lbs•ft of torque hooked up with Californian highway, I was jolted back into the seat, with my hands hanging onto the clip-ons of the Mission R for dear life. It is nice when a motorcycle surprises you like that.
Our trip was just over 50 miles in length for the day, which is not a terribly long jaunt. Even if we had made the round-trip journey from the Mission Motors HQ (something that would have likely been doable, had we not made several detours, and looked a bit harder for a re-charge during lunch), our total trip would have been just a shade under 70 miles. Here of course is the Achilles heel of electric motorcycles, and while battery technology continues to improve, it still is the limiting factor for bikes like the Mission R. The motor, controller, and software is all there, but the batteries and the range they provide are still limiting enough that complete usage parity with gas-powered bikes is still lacking.
For some, this makes exercises like the Mission R a bit of a moot point, but there is an ample amount of evidence to prove that train of thought to be incorrect. Battery energy density continues to improve, even on the consumer side of things, I think we will see much larger packs from electric motorcycle manufacturers in 2012 and 2013; and with that, the viability curve for electric motorcycles will approach a more acceptable zenith.
If I said I hated the current offering of electric motorcycles available for purchase, I might be using kind words. However, it is important to realize that despite the failures that are currently on the market, the initial idea, a motorcycle that runs off electricity, is ultimately a very good one. The work being done at Mission Motors embodies the sophistication necessary to build a motorcycle that will appeal to even the most hardened two-wheel fan — the Mission R is proof of this.
The downside of course is that the Mission R is not for sale, even for Hollywood movie stars. In its current state, if it was available, you would not even be able to afford the Mission R, not with all its premium parts still on it at least. Even in a stripped down state, the bike would command a pretty penny…and then there is the whole dealer network, customer support, financing, etc side of things, which is the main reason Mission Motors got out of the motorcycle business in the first place (much to our chagrin, by the way).
Still I know plenty of people who upon seeing the Mission R have had some serious issues sleeping at night, and for the select few who have ridden the Mission R, it is hard to get back on a conventional motorcycle, and suddenly realize what is lacking from the experience. It is funny, for how much talk there is about how electric motorcycles will always lack the soul of a gas-powered motorcycle, the connection between rider and machine is surprisingly more entrenched on the Mission R than any other motorcycle I have ridden. Chew on that.
Photos: © 2012 Scott Jones / Scott Jones Photography – All Rights Reserved