Alta’s street bike hints at Harley’s electric future

Hannah Elliott
Bloomberg News

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-60 mph sprint time, count it as relatively equal to what you’d expect in a BMW M3.

Charging time takes up to four hours on a 240-volt socket, or six hours on a 120-volt.

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.

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.