When Harley-Davidson Inc. announced earlier this year that it would make an electric motorcycle, many people in the independent motorcycle community lauded the move.
“This will only increase the respect that the brand gets,” Alan Stulberg, founder of custom-build shop Revival Motorcycles, said at the time. “At least finally, they can say that Harley does low-tech heritage and it does cutting-edge technology.”
But the brand didn’t say it would make the e-bike from scratch. So it was interesting to note which company Harley announced in March would help usher it into the new millennium, as it were: Alta Motors, the California-based manufacturer founded in 2010.
This made sense. Harley has suffered for years from declining sales as its rider base enters retirement. Alta’s average customer age is younger, and the company undoubtedly faces the needs intrinsic to any startup—help with infrastructure and funding.
Those who have followed closely may have been able to predict such a marriage. Over the past year, Alta has increased the range and power of its four-bike portfolio while decreasing prices. For instance, the price on the SM supermoto I rode in Los Angeles went down from $15,500 to $13,495; the forthcoming SMR will add horsepower and torque. (“Supermoto” is the style of motorcycle racing that combines handling hard-packed dirt, jumps, other obstacles, and paved tarmac in a single race.)
Domestic sales at Alta, meanwhile, have risen year over year, increasing 18 times from 2016 to 2017. The company does not yet sell motorcycles outside the United States.
I looked forward to riding the off-road style bikes Harley-Davidson deemed so promising. I tried out the Alta Redshift SM, the most street-focused model, rather than the dirt-, rocks- and sand-focused ones. I call it that because of its sleek, slick tires and shorter battery life.
The Redshift SM looks bare and clean, with a 35.5-inch ride height, smooth Pirelli Rosso II tires, high-placed handlebars, and the wide space between wheels and fenders on the front and back of the bike. It comes only in white, with broad swaths of red across the front, where the gas tank would be, and a flat, grippy black seat.
On top, you find the plug-in outlet and a single digital gauge monitoring mileage, speed, and motor-system vitals.
It weighs just 283 pounds, with a motor that comes in at a feathery 15 pounds. That means the bike is lighter than pretty much anything on the market today. With a 42-horsepower motor, super-spongy shocks, and Brembo brakes that bite, riding one feels like sitting on an eager puppy: Everything is about bounding forward, being playful and feeling energetic. Back and forth on the wide avenues from Beverly Hills to Downtown L.A., the Redshift SM proved easy to maneuver and fun—especially as it handled the infamously slanted far right lane of Beverly Drive, which trips up antsy drivers and bikers coming down the slope.
Top speed here is 80 miles per hour; although Alta doesn’t release an official zero-60mph sprint time, count it as relatively equal to what you’d expect in a BMW M3.
That brings up the main challenge you’ll face on the Alta Redshift SM: its lackluster battery range. When I speak with Alta’s co-founder Marc Fenigstein in L.A., he says the average rider gets roughly 50 miles or so to a charge, though it’s closer to 40 miles per charge if you tend to ride aggressively. It’ll last 20 minutes if you’re racing.
Charging time takes up to four hours on a 240-volt socket, or six hours on a 120-volt. This means that I hypothetically would not be able to ride the Redshift SM up Highway 2 to Newcomb’s Ranch restaurant and back, or up and down the Pacific Coast Highway if I were to start anywhere other than Malibu.
I suppose you could put the bike on a trailer and take it to someplace pretty to ride. Many do, but that can kill the entire vibe of motorcycle riding, which is often to ride on a whim, anywhere, and feel ultimate freedom.
And the Redshift SM could ride smoother, have better power and range, and feel less creaky in general. (The body built around its monocoque chassis and aluminum bulkhead whines like plastic as you dodge and weave, accelerate and brake.) It would be great if it felt just a hair more tightly put together, on the whole.
There Is No Ugly
Alta has produced a good-looking, functional, fun electric motorcycle that well-deserves praise, if not quite the moniker of “the Tesla of motorcycles” that executives tend to repeat like a mantra.
The Redshift SM does at least live up to Alta’s claim that it’s a useful urban commuter for those with relatively short travels. With no throttle, a single-speed transmission (read: no gears), instant acceleration, and a forgiving suspension, you can literally jump on and go with one push of a button. And as an electric motorcycle, it never needs oil changes or maintenance intervals, saving money and time.
I take it as a great sign that the motorcycles are sold at more than 50 U.S. dealerships across 27 states, and is selling out of the same storefronts as Ducati and KTM. And Alta has started to win important motocross races in a way that mainstream racing federations won’t long be able to ignore.
Alta’s electric Redshift SM may not save the world for motorcycles yet, but it’s a good start.