The VanMoof S3 Makes Riding Electric Easy & Invisible (CleanTechnica Review)
Published on January 14th, 2021 | by Kyle Field
January 14th, 2021 by Kyle Field
At first glance, the VanMoof S3 looks like any other singlespeed bike on the market. Its clean lines and matte black paint contribute to its innocent looks, but the truth is the VanMoof S3 is a stealth e-bike set to take the industry by storm.
E-bikes leverage modern electric motors and compact lithium-ion batteries to transform the experience of riding a traditional bike. With many e-bikes, the new technology comes with a learning curve as riders struggle to balance traditional gears with different pedal assist levels, a throttle, and the state of charge of the battery. VanMoof wiped the complexity off the table and replaced it with a modern e-bike that’s as simple to ride as traditional bikes but with all the power and benefits of the electric powertrain.
Disclaimer: VanMoof sent us the S3 free of charge to use for a few weeks for the purposes of this review.
You Never Forget How To Ride A Bike
The classic bicycle is a thing of beauty. Crowned one of the most efficient machines in history, bicycles transform the inelegant form of a walking human into a sleek transportation machine. Electrification is the next logical iteration of the experience, further amplifying the input power from a pair of feeble legs. The transition to electric bikes has moved in fits and starts, with legacy bicycle manufacturers, innovators, college roommates, and garage tinkerers all crafting their interpretation of the evolution of bicycles in parallel.
Results are understandably mixed, with a wide range of experiences, user interfaces, assist levels, and functionality often unceremoniously blended into the familiar two-wheeled form factor. Often lost in the translation is the simplicity of the bicycle. Before e-bikes, the experience of mounting a saddle and pedaling away very little from manufacturer to manufacturer, from country to country.
The simplicity of bicycles was part of the allure and until now, that thing of beauty was in jeopardy of being lost. In the varied, chaotic design landscape of electric bikes, VanMoof’s S3 is a breath of fresh air. It does away with the need to shift mechanical gears, pedal assist levels, and just lets you focus on the ride. Its integrated, automatic mechanical gear shifting happens automagically, integrated with the onboard electrification system for a seamless, beautiful bicycling experience.
An E-Bike That Doesn’t Ride Like an E-Bike
On the surface, the VanMoof S3 looks like many of the popular single speed bikes on the market. All of the electric bits and bobs and even much of the mechanical gearing is fully integrated into the frame, hub, and handlebars. Its signature look comes from the oversized top tube.
VanMoof’s designers made the top tube the heart and soul of the S3, packing in an immense amount of invisible functionality inside the frame. At the front of the top tube, an integrated headlight pokes out just beyond the head tube. Out back, the top tube extends just behind the seat tube to make room for a seamlessly integrated tail light.
Stepping onto the bike, a fully integrated dot matrix display emerges from the top of the tube itself, leveraging pinhole-sized LEDs embedded in the top tube to produce a hidden, yet effective display. The display enables casual communication of high level messages about charging status, assist level, alarm status, and more with the rider. It elegantly solves the need for the bike to communicate with the rider without the need to unceremoniously bolt a display to the handlebars.
Up front, the handlebars have been married to the stem for a clean package that gets the job done without any mess. A pair of brake levers engage the hydraulic disc brake system that enable the bike to stop on a dime. Unlike the drilled rotors that typically live downstairs, VanMoof opted for a pair of solid rotors on the wheels for a clean, streamlined look. The brake levers are flanked by a pair of black rubber grips and two stealth buttons. The buttons are the sole physical interface with the bike while riding. One of the buttons serves as the throttle for the bike while the other rings a customizable bell.
VanMoof tossed out messy shifters altogether in favor of a slick automatic shifting setup that makes riding a breeze. Gone is the external derailleur, and handlebar shifters in favor of an integrated gearing system. The four-gear system utilizes the software brain of the bike to magically shift up and down at predefined speeds. Combined with the four levels of pedal assist, the result is a bike that feels like it can read your mind. No need to think about what gear or pedal assist mode you’re in. Just get on and ride.
Riding really is the focus of the S3. It is a bike that’s meant to take the focus off of the bike and puts it squarely back on the simple, pure enjoyment of riding. Whether it’s purely for utilitarian purposes to get to and from work or for a beautiful ride up the river to scenic Ojai, California from the beach, the VanMoof S3 is up to the task.
The secret to the bike’s success is a relentless pursuit of design perfection. They set a clear goal of designing an electric bicycle that leveraged modern technology not to transform the riding experience, but to augment it. This underlying philosophy plays out in the simple, clean lines of the S3 itself, in an effective and beautiful package that’s not only satisfying to look at, but easy and fun to ride. Riders don’t need any complicated instructions about gear shifting, pedal assist, throttle, or battery indicators to ride. Just get on and go.
Riding the VanMoof S3
The masterful execution of the beautiful physical package importantly carries over to the riding experience. Walking up to the bike, it detects the app on your phone, powering on and unlocking the physical lock on the rear hub. Riding the S3 really is as simple as getting on and pedaling. The rider can select from one of four levels of pedal assist and from there, the bike does the rest.
The reliance on the app as the sole means of unlocking the bike is a bit of a weakness as it requires the owner to always have their (working, powered on, charged) phone when riding.
The bike emits a chime as it powers on and the integrated LED display wakes up. The sleek rubber-coated pedals provide a firm grip for your feet as the bike does all the heavy lifting. Our test route is filled with all manner of uphill, downhill, curves, and long straightaways and the S3 proved adept at adapting to them all.
Heading downhill from our home base, the S3 kicks into a high gear to enable maximum pedal power, cutting the electric assist to save the battery for later. Down in the flatlands, the gearing shifted to a more balanced split of pedaling, with the electric assist kicking in to support small inclines for an overall ride that we found very pleasant.
VanMoof achieves what many other e-bike companies have struggled to achieve by pushing the envelope with new tech. The automatic e-shifter in the S3 can be fine tuned to rider preferences from within the app. Gears change automatically based on incrementally higher setpoints based on speed. It isn’t a perfect solution, as speed can be a factor of more input from the rider, the terrain, wind, and other factors, but it is a huge improvement over traditional manual shifting just the same.
When pumping up hills leading back to our home base, the gearing on the S3 automatically stepped down, bolstered by a nice boost of power from the motor. At 250 watts, the motor isn’t enough to catapult my oversized frame up the hill by itself, but instead provided just enough of a boost to keep me from blowing any blood vessels.
One App to Rule Them All
Owners can customize the S3 in a number of ways with the bundled app. The pedal assist level can be set, lights can be set to auto, always on, always off, and more, but that’s just the start. The real magic is in the profiles and tuning of the shifting.
Three profiles can be chosen. The hilly and flat profiles are tuned to optimize performance of the S3 in different terrain and a third custom profile lets owners tune the shifting behavior to their liking. Want to stay in a lower gear until the bike is up to a higher speed? Want to put your legs to work in a higher gear for longer? No problem! The custom profile is an absolute game changer for e-bikes and leverages VanMoof’s unique e-shifter to completely upend the way gears are used on bikes.
VanMoof S3 Specs
- Price: $1,998
- Colors: Dark (a silky grey-black), Light (a subtle sky blue)
- Motor: 250 watt average, 350 watt peak, 59 Nm front wheel hub motor
- Battery: 504Wh integrated LG battery system
- Charger: 36V, 4A charger delivers 50% charge in 80 minutes, full charge in 4 hours
- Range: 37-93 miles / 60-150 kilometers
- Mechanical gearing: 4-speed automatic E-shifter system
- Brakes: Front and rear hydraulic disc brakes
- Lights: 40 Lux automatic LED lighting system
- Alarm: Integrated motion sensing alarm with GPS & GSM-based tracking
- Lock: Integrated keyless rear wheel kick lock with app-enabled touch unlock
- Weight: 46.3 pounds
- Wheels: 28″
- Tires: puncture resistant Schwalbe Big Ben
- Frame: Aluminum
- Recommended rider height: 5 ft 0 in – 6 ft 5 in
- Factory accessories: rear rack, child seat, pannier bag for rear carrier
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