Gears & Gadgets

VanMoof X3 ebike review: At $2,000, it’s automatic for (some of) the people

For some people, a review of the VanMoof S3 electric bicycle can begin and end with its stunning design. The same goes for its eyebrow-raising $ 1,999 price tag. Both seem to go hand in hand: this is a pricey electric bike, and it sure looks like one.

Honestly, I’ve never tested a bike that has garnered so much universal drool, and I emphasize that at the top of this review because everything else about the VanMoof X3 ranges from serviceable to questionable. My month-long testing period was never interrupted with serious issues in terms of reliability or battery life, thankfully. Instead, I kept wondering what, exactly, this company was charging a whopping $ 1,999 for. Usually, each time I had that thought, I’d see yet another passerby make a face, like I was a bikini model in an ’80s beach-romp comedy, and think, “Right. It’s the looks.”

Starting with the automatic gear shifter

The VanMoof caught our eye for reasons other than its aesthetics (though those didn’t hurt). We accepted VanMoof’s offer of a tester bike primarily because of its unique, automatic gear-shifting feature. The bike’s basic sales pitch appeared to be: set it up via an Internet-connected app, then comfortably ride with adjustable, motor-powered pedal assists, made all the niftier by not needing to click your bike’s gear up or down.

Otherwise, VanMoof’s X3 (for heights of 5 feet to 6 feet, 5 inches), much like its slightly larger S3 sibling (for heights of 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet, 8 inches), largely resembles other ebikes in terms of features, with enough key differences to merit a full review. Let’s start with that automatic gear-shifting system, which will lead us through various other X3 features and quirks.

How does it work? Though the X3 comes packed with an electric motor, a built-in battery, and even a GSM tracker, its actual sensing of your bike motion begins and ends with a speedometer. This factors hugely into the automatic gear-shifting feature, since it only kicks into gear when you reach various velocity thresholds. The VanMoof app (which isn’t required to use the bike, but highly urged by its manufacturer) lets you pick from three gear-shifting presets: flat, hilly, and custom. Open the “custom” tab, and you’ll get to pick the exact speeds at which the X3 shifts up when accelerating, and a separate list of speeds that will trigger a down-shift when decelerating.

When riding on a flat road using the app’s “flat” preset, this system works exactly as advertised—and in impressive fashion. Gear shifting clicks into place while pedaling with nary a noticeable lurch or noticeably slow reactions by the gear-shifting system. Again, you’re riding a pedal-assist ebike, not a ride that offers automatic throttle—riders still should expect to exert, but the effort needed on a flat road is minimal and steady.

However, I live in a hilly neighborhood of Seattle, where an average ride—either running errands or commuting—includes a mix of steady inclines and declines, along with occasional extreme elevation changes. Before riding, I poked around the VanMoof app in search of any settings that might auto-respond to elevation conditions. I found none. The X3 does not include any sensors like accelerometers or gyroscopes to determine elevation changes. As a result, this velocity-based system struggles to quickly aid riders with the kind of downshifting I’d want the instant I hit a monstrous incline—or a combination of a maintained higher shift and supercharged electric boost.

Instead, before approaching a hill, I found myself needing to park, pull out my phone, wait for the VanMoof app to sync with the bike, and then switch my riding profile from “flat” to “hilly.” Users must deal with the same obnoxious stop-and-refresh requirement whenever adjusting the amount of pedal-assist boost the bike’s motor offers (offered in a number range, from 1 to 4). I’ve never tested an ebike that makes users park to adjust a pedal-assist system, and this particularly annoyed me with the VanMoof.

I’m a relatively athletic rider who likes to mix up pedal assistance on ebikes: I start with less assist, while I’m feeling fresh and wanting some exercise, then crank up the assist to either tackle major hills or ease the final leg of a ride. The VanMoof takes me out of that use case, and between that and its stupidity about hills, I found myself leaving it at its maximum-assist setting at all times, lest I be caught in a pickle.

Honk and boost

The handlebars include two buttons, though neither offers a shortcut to adjust the gear-shifting system or pedal-assist level. While riding, the left-hand button activates a “horn,” which plays a digital sound effect from a built-in speaker, and the right-hand button toggles “boost” mode. This delivers an extra jolt of battery-boosted pedaling strength in a pinch—like, say, when you need to climb a hill. While this button is held down, the engine will drive additional pedal assistance.

Both of these buttons underwhelm, however. The horn can be customized with one of three prebuilt sound effects available in the VanMoof app, but there’s no getting around how weakly this sound effect carries in an average ride through traffic. Should safety be a priority for your commute, you’ll want to attach a physical higher-frequency bell as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the boost button seems to offer a predefined boost above your current pedal-assist level, as opposed to a universal maximum. Meaning: if you’re riding with a mild pedal-assist level (2 out of 4) and approach an extreme hill, the boost button will effectively get your pedal-assist level to a 3. For some of the extreme Seattle hills I’ve faced, that’s not enough boost. In this case, you’ll need to get the app out, switch the pedal-assist to the max of 4, then use the boost button to throttle your pedaling up to a “5”-ranked boost.

To be clear: that boost button is not an automatic, engine-driven throttle. You can’t press the button and expect the bike to surge forward automatically. Worse, holding the boost button does not immediately up-shift the gear system. When I wanted to rapidly accelerate from a dead stop to cross a busy traffic intersection, the VanMoof could feel dangerously sleepy, even with the boost button held.

Battery and lock

After coming to terms with those issues, I settled on an ideal VanMoof X3 riding setup: the “flat” gear-shifting preset, the maximum “4” pedal-assist setting, and a serious reliance on that boost button whenever I reached a moderate hill. (I still had to switch the gear-shifting preset whenever I reached a particularly steep hill, then switched it back to “flat” once I returned to reasonable inclines and declines.)

With those settings straightened out, I found that the bike primarily worked as advertised. You can expect an ample amount of pedal assistance with either the “3” or “4” preset enabled, and between those and the boost button, I never found myself needing to stand up and exert in order to smoothly accelerate to a speed of roughly 20mph.

I never ran into issues with battery life dramatically depleting, and VanMoof’s estimate of 37 miles on a full 504Wh battery (at level-4 assistance, with daytime running lights) comes close to matching my own testing experience, maxing out at roughly 32 miles. In good news, should the bike’s battery entirely deplete, its 41-pound body doesn’t feel quite that heavy to ride with zero assistance—which I learned after riding for two blocks with the motor off.

Yes, you’ll feel the difference without power, but it’s good to know that the bike doesn’t lock up without power. The system will seize up if the built-in lock is engaged, of course. And if you’re particularly protective about your pricey bike, you’ll appreciate the almost feather-touch sensitivity of the X3 when its built-in lock is enabled (which can either be engaged through the app or by tapping the “lock” button on the side of the back wheel). Move the bike at all, and a loud, high-frequency speaker will aggressively chirp; keep trying to move the bike, and that noise will get louder and more consistent. Personally, I seriously wish the settings menu included a toggle for a much softer initial chirp—like, say, when you have the bike parked at a busy rack, where it will likely be innocently jostled. Like, count to five before freaking out, VanMoof.

The built-in GSM tracker offers all of the built-in overkill tracking you might want for a pricey bike, should someone decide to lift your screeching bike off the ground and load it into the back of a van. Burglars would apparently need to saw the bike in half to pick that tracker out of it. You can also pay VanMoof an additional theft-proof fee to get a 100-percent free bike from the company ($ 350 for a three-year guarantee), should some scofflaw successfully steal yours.

Sadly, the built-in battery is just as wedged into the bike’s body as the GSM tracker is. Any X3 recharging requires running a cord from a wall outlet to the bike itself—plus, you can’t stash and swap a backup battery for a particularly long ride. The included power brick’s cables max out at around 108 inches, which isn’t long enough to run from my front door’s nearest power outlet to the safest place that I can park my bike outside. A full charge takes about four hours, while a single hour will recharge to about 50 percent.

Looks, tires, and hills

If for any reason you don’t like how the X3 looks, my anecdotal experience says you’re in a whopping minority.

The X3’s frame revolves around bold, matte-black aluminum pipes, built into an asymmetric, sharp-angled hourglass. The center bar pulls off a neat trick by running parallel to the ground while somehow not being its thickest pipe, at a 6.5-cm diameter, and it’s the bike’s secret aesthetic sauce. It juts out mildly from the rest of the frame in an attractive fashion, and each end is buttressed with a perfectly recessed headlight and tail light, with both offering impressive brightness and visibility. And the motor blends tidily into the chain mechanism on the rear tire, which itself is hidden by a nifty plastic casing.

There’s just something about the thickness and boldness of that construction that catches eyes whether the X3 is parked or in motion, though VanMoof won’t say what it’s made out of. Carbon fiber? Aluminum? Finely painted unobtainium? The Dutch company won’t clarify. But the frame sure looks heavier than its 41lb weight, yet it runs smoothly over bumpy city roads while keeping its motor noise down to a tolerable purr.

Speaking of riding comfort: VanMoof opts for some seriously wide tires, measuring roughly 3-inches wide. This led me to believe the X3 might easily double as a trail-riding bike. However, while testing the X3 on a mildly rain-soaked forest path, I felt my weight begin to teeter backward—a tiny amount, but I sure felt it—while going up a noticeable incline. I immediately dismounted and walked the rig up the rest of that hill.

The bike’s construction simply doesn’t emphasize enough weight on its front tires to guarantee a safe trail-riding experience, at least when your riding surface doesn’t guarantee optimal traction. Yet on normal Seattle roads, whether wet or dry, I never felt a similarly slippy or insecure sensation—which is possibly where those particularly wide tires come into play. Which is to say: I’m confident in calling this bike “road-tested,” but maybe not “trail-tested.”

Living the Dutch dream?

I get the feeling VanMoof designed the X3, and its larger S3 sibling, to be the ultimate ebike options in the company’s home turf of Amsterdam. Commute to and from work in a dense city, on flat roads that are regularly filled with bicyclists and bike-friendly car drivers, with extra style and all of the smoothness that automatic gear shifting might imply. And while the ebike industry is evolving toward more elegant designs, there’s really no getting around VanMoof’s serious lead in the style-sans-bulk department. You won’t find a sleeker ebike in 2020.

Should your biking life resemble that Dutch dream, the X3 should check just enough boxes to command its high asking price—which is $ 1,000 cheaper than the relatively recent X2/S2 generation. But its automatic gear-shifting system is, quite frankly, disappointing outside of those ideal riding conditions, while the unremovable battery and weight distribution make epic cross-country rides hairier than I’d like in a bike this expensive.

Listing image by Sam Machkovech

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Tech – Ars Technica

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