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  • Flywheel: Ebike motors 101 | Vehicles from NIU, CUBE, Tern, VanMoof, & Yamaha

Flywheel: Ebike motors 101 | Vehicles from NIU, CUBE, Tern, VanMoof, & Yamaha

Exploring the world of ebike motors and featuring the top 5 vehicles of the week


Welcome to Flywheel, a weekly exploration of the used side of owned micromobility. Each newsletter will highlight an observation of trends emerging in the industry and feature five of the most interesting used vehicles being sold in the secondary market.

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The observation of the week explores different types of ebike motors and their suppliers. This week’s featured vehicles are an ebike-emotorcycle hybrid, two types of cargo bikes, and two commuters.

Observation of the Week

Ebike motors 101

Motors are typically the second most expensive component on an ebike and have the greatest impact on drive experience. However, the variation in motors across brands, and sometimes even between models of the same brand, can make it difficult for new riders to understand what type of ride experience they’re paying for. Let’s break down the pros and cons of different types of ebike motors and explore the motor suppliers that are most commonly seen in the sector.

The two most commonly used motors for ebikes are mid-drives and hubs. On Craigslist since the beginning of 2022 across major US regions, 38.55% of listings are ebikes with a mid-drive motor while 61.45% are ebikes with a hub motor. 

Mid-drives directly drive a bike’s crank (where the pedals connect), and give that very fluid, intuitive body-to-bike connection that makes the vehicle feel like an extension of your legs. They are typically more efficient than hub motors and have higher torques, but tend to be much more expensive. Since they are directly integrated with the drivetrain, their efficiency is highly dependent on riders (or auto-shifters) setting the gears properly. This connection to the drivetrain places more strain on the chain/belt and transmission, so vehicles with mid-drives tend to require more maintenance. It’s also rare to find mid-drive ebikes with a throttle because the direct drivetrain connection makes it difficult and expensive to install a throttle. While mid-drives make sense for sport riding or other performance-sensitive applications, they can be a bit overkill for urban riding. They’re most commonly found on premium, dealer-brand ebikes.

Hub motors directly drive the wheel, and are often cited as less natural feeling powertrains. Because they’re not driving the crank, the electric pedal assistance can feel a bit disconnected from the actual pedaling motion. The primary reason hub motors are so popular is because they’re significantly cheaper and give manufacturers much more design freedom around the frame and drivetrain (since they’re fully self-contained within a wheel). While they are less efficient and weaker than mid-drives, hub motors actually have a number of benefits for the manner in which urban riders drive an ebike. Because the motor drives the wheel vs. the crank, hub motors can drive the wheels quickly even when the pedals aren’t moving as fast and provide faster acceleration. This not only means that hub motor ebikes require less effort to get up to or maintain top speed, they’re also much better candidates for throttles. Additionally, because the motor and drivetrain are disconnected for hub motor ebikes, there’s a redundancy that allows you to just pedal if the motor/battery dies or, conversely, use just the throttle if the drivetrain fails. Hub motors are most commonly found on D2C brands due to their pricing constraints, but are quickly becoming popular even with incumbent brands (i.e. Specialized’s Globe vehicles).

The assistance an ebike motor provides is based on how a rider is pedaling. This pedaling is typically measured by either a cadence sensor (how fast you’re pedaling) or a torque sensor (how much force you’re applying to the pedals). Cadence sensors result in a less intuitive pedal assistance since rider effort doesn’t translate directly into motor power (i.e. when you’re pedaling slow but really hard because you’re going up a hill). Mid-drives use a combination of both, whereas hub motors have traditionally only used cadence sensors. However, many ebikes with hub motors are starting to deploy torque sensors as well, which, with smart motor controls, will start to replicate the intuitive feel of mid-drives.

Some D2C brands and other high-end luxury brands build their own custom motors, but most brands in the market integrate off-the-shelf motors into their vehicles. These are some of the most popular motor suppliers:

  • Bosch: Bosch is the 800lb gorilla in the industry. ~15.9% of used listings on Craigslist have a Bosch powertrain. While their powertrains are some of the most expensive on the market, they are extremely popular with premium dealer-brands because of their massive servicing network. Most bike shops today sell ebikes with Bosch motors, and most technicians are certified to repair Bosch systems. In fact, one CEO of a major ebike OEM mentioned that “most of my bike shops don’t even want one of our ebikes with another motor, even though it’s $1K+ cheaper, because of how invested they are in the Bosch ecosystem.”

  • Bafang: The second most prominent ebike motor supplier is Bafang, who is the best bang for your buck” option in the industry. Their maintenance network is not quite as vast as that of Bosch, but it’s definitely still quite expansive. They are best known for their hub motors (and make some mid-drives primarily for the EU market), and are commonly found on D2C or budget brands.

  • Yamaha: Yamaha is the main motor supplier for Giant and Haibike ebikes, but has recently started to incorporate their motors into their own in-house ebike line. They obviously have a long heritage in motor sports and electronics more broadly. While they’re not quite as common as Bosch or Bafang, many bike shops say Yamaha makes the most reliable motors despite costing a fraction of its more expensive competitors.

  • Shimano: Shimano has long been one of the largest bicycle parts suppliers, and has a significant presence with its STEPS mid-drive offering. Their motors are primarly electric mountain bike oriented.

  • Shengyi: Shengyi is another hub motor specialist, with similar price points to Bafang but a smaller servicing network. They’ve done quite a bit of work with other MM form factors as well.

  • Fazua: A premium german mid-drive brand, focused on electric road bikes.

  • Brose: Brose has a bit more of a niche offering, specializing in weaker but ultra-lightweight mid-drive motors. They’re popular with performance electric road bikes. In fact, many of Specialized’s custom motors are actually rebranded Broses.

  • Mahle: Similar to Brose, Mahle also sells ultra-lightweight motors. However, they specialize in hub motors, and supply the highest end off-the-shelf hub motors.

  • Valeo: A new entrant in the ebike powertrains space is Valeo, who’s looking to apply their automotive and light mobility EV expertise to micromobility. They recently announced a mid-drive motor platform with an integrated 7-speed automatic transmission.

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Top 5 Vehicles of the Week

The NIU SQi is a recently released class-2 ebike-emotorcycle hybrid. It’s currently only being launched in China, but an overseas launch is expected over the coming 12-18 months. The SQi has an aggressive Tron aesthetic. Its frame is made of a strong magnesium-aluminum alloy, and the halo headlight is an ode to NIU’s typical vehicle designs. The powertrain features a 400W rear hub motor and is available either with a 960Wh or 1150Wh battery pack. Given Chinese ebike regulations, the vehicle’s max speed is capped at 15mph. However, many reporters are suggesting that the overseas model will likely be extended to a max speed of 28mph. The vehicle technically has pedals, which may frankly seem a bit silly from a functional perspective, but is required for the SQi to fall under the classification of an ebike in most major markets. While NIU does sell an emotorcycle called the RQi, the SQi gives you the style of an emotorcycle with the regulatory convenience of an ebike (no license or registration required). This listing is for two brand new SQis currently being flown into the US from China by the seller, and is a rare find for a vehicle that will be very hard to get your hands on in the US for quite some time. Listing can be found here.

The CUBE Cargo Sport Hybrid is a sporty class-1 bakfiet/box cargo bike. Featuring an 85Nm Bosch Cargo Line mid-drive motor and a 500Wh Bosch PowerPack 500, the Cargo Sport is more than powerful enough to haul its maximum payload capacity of 495lbs. There’s even a second battery mount for riders that want to upgrade their range with another PowerPack. The Cargo Sport’s shift detection helps protect the 10-speed Shimano transmission, which is particularly important when you’re trying to shift with what will likely be a heavily loaded vehicle. CUBE is known for their mountain bikes, so a lot of the Cargo Sport’s finishings (i.e. mid-step frame, handlebars, and saddle) have a mountain bike style to them. Additionally, the Cargo Sport’s handling is also as agile as you’d expect for a vehicle from a sporty mountain bike manufacturer. Its larger rear wheel (27.5”) than front (20”) wheel set up helps improve maneuverability and keeps cargo center of gravity low, and a front suspension fork helps cushion payload or kids in the front cargo box. The vehicle’s weight is also very well distributed, so the Cargo Sport ultimately feels more stable than most bakfiets or even longtail cargo bikes. The Urban Arrow Family is the closest competitor to the Cargo Sport. While it has a much richer accessory ecosystem and a higher cargo capacity, the UA Family also costs $1K+ more than the Cargo Sport. This listing is sold by a Santa Barbara bike shop and has only been lightly used as a demo bike. Listing can be found here.

The Tern HSD S8i is a premium class-1 compact long-tail cargo bike and a “small powerhouse” for urban cargo haulers. As part of Tern’s HSD line, the S8i is a lighter and more affordable sister vehicle of their flagship GSD models. Its powertrain features a 50Nm Bosch Active Line mid-drive motor and a 400Wh Bosh Powerpack, which is paired with a Gates Carbon belt drive and an 8-speed Nexus internally geared hub to make the S8i ultra-smooth and intuitive to ride. The vehicle’s 20” tires and custom front suspension fork also give it exceptional handling and agile maneuverability for even the bumpiest or busiest roads. The HSD S8i is the ultimate cargo bike for urban riders. Not only does it weigh less than most commuter ebikes (55.9lbs) and come with both an integrated frame lock and an integrated rear rack, it also has folding handlebars and can be stood up vertically to minimize storage space. Tern also has an excellent reputation for reliability, and can be serviced at most bike shops in the country. This listing has a mileage of less than <1000mi, and comes kitted out with a suspension seat post, front rack, panniers, and phone mount. Listing can be found here.

The VanMoof S2 is a class-1 commuter, and VanMoof’s first ebike model that brought them into the spotlight as one of the leaders in the commuter ebike category. Featuring a 20Nm, 250W front hub motor and a 504Wh custom LG battery pack, the S2’s powertrain is quite modest, particularly in comparison to newer VM models. However, what made the S2 ever-popular is its vertically integrated design that unlocked a series of state-of-the-art software features. With an automatic transmission for its 2-speed drivetrain, anti-theft alarms and tracking, theft protection via bike hunters, a fun boost button to help with acceleration from a stop, over-the-air updates, and remote diagnostics, the S2 pioneered software functionality critical for urban riding. VanMoofs are great ebikes to buy in the secondary market. Not only can sellers request a diagnostics report from VanMoof, they can also transfer verified ownership, warranty, and any Peace of Mind subscriptions (maintenance or theft protection) to new buyers. This listing is in like-new condition (Flywheel estimated mileage of 192.80mi) and has one year remaining in its Peace of Mind subscription. While the S2 is two models old now, this listing for a $1,200 VM is a super reasonable price for what is still one of the best commuters in the market. Listing can be found here.

The Yamaha Cross Core is a simple class-1 commuter that is both affordable and reliable. Based on their learnings from supplying powertrains to the likes of Haibike and Giant, Yamaha began releasing their own in-house offerings in 2019. The Cross Core is the entry-level, budget commuter option within their vehicle lineup. Its powertrain features a 70Nm Yamaha PWseries SE mid-drive motor and a 500Wh Yamaha pack. Unsurprisingly given Yamaha’s heritage, the PWseries SE is often cited as being one of the most reliable powertrains out there despite costing a fraction of its more expensive competitors. While the frame and accessories are quite minimal, they help bring the vehicle down to a weight of 45lbs and make it extremely easy to both ride and transport. The Cross Core’s sister vehicle Cross Connect offers a few more accessories (suspension fork, rear rack, fenders, and lighting), but costs $600 more. For a 70Nm mid-drive from a reputable powertrain supplier like Yamaha, a new Cross Core is already an extremely well priced option. A used Cross Core selling for ~$600 less than retail with only 290mi usage and a transferable warranty (valid until Apr 10, 2024) is an absolute steal. Listing can be found here.

That’s it for this edition. Thanks again for joining, see you next week!

- Puneeth Meruva

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