BIKE TEST: KARMIC KOBEN S
The Koben S’s range is good with this 460-watt-hour battery. Finding the right battery delayed the production of this bike, but we think they found the right one.
The bike that almost wasn’t
Avid cyclist Hong Quan had never ridden an electric bike before a couple of years ago. He had no interest in electric bikes. Then, one day, he was at a bike shop and tried a Specialized Turbo. He was instantly hooked. Selling his wife on the price, however, was a different story.
“Currently, Karmic sells bikes direct, not through dealers. You can order via their website. The Koben is available in two colors: Electron Blue and the stunning Eddy Current Orange.”
As an entrepreneur, he thought it would be interesting to check out the market and see if he could put together a less expensive bike that would offer a similar thrill. He partnered with a friend who was a veteran of the electric bike world and had an innovative new battery solution. Together they began an adventure that eventually led to the arrival of a new e-bike brand.
THE WINDING ROAD
The road to making the bike a reality wasn’t easy, but what worthwhile thing is? The prototype was a simple version of the bike, with an externally installed Bafang mid-drive on a stock Chinese aluminum frame. It was put on crowdfunding site Kickstarter.com to allow them to cover the cost of their first order from China.
Crowdfunding is an amazing way to gauge interest in a product and raise the capital needed for bringing a product to market. There’s almost no risk, other than creating the campaign and perhaps creating a prototype. If the project gets funded, then the pledges from the people behind the campaign get collected, and they know there’s plenty of interest in the project. If it doesn’t get funded, nobody is charged a dime, not even the people who started the campaign. Electric bikes seem to capture the imagination of crowdfunders, as some have raised millions of dollars to start the company.
The Karmic project needed $250,000 to start the first order. Unfortunately, Quan’s friend left the project early, leaving Quan scrambling to find another good battery solution. He found one in HT Energy, Inc., but they lost momentum with the Kickstarter campaign because it was in limbo. When he restarted the campaign, it still beat its goal by over $9000. The new e-bike adventure was still alive.
Even with the delays, the bike debuted at Interbike in 2015, and in December the production order was finalized. By April 2016 the bikes were shipped to the States and eventually delivered in June.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Karmic’s first bike is named the Koben for Copenhagen, where 56 percent of the population commutes to work, compared to the U.S., where less than 4 percent do. Actually, it’s around 1.1 percent for New York City, 1.3 percent for Los Angeles and 7.2 percent for bicycle-friendly Portland, Oregon. That’s pretty low in comparison to Copenhagen, but with more people discovering electric bikes, those numbers should rise.
Currently, Karmic sells bikes direct, not through dealers. You can order via their website. The Koben is available in two colors: Electron Blue and the stunning Eddy Current Orange. The sturdy aluminum frame is built for the rigors of riding with an electric motor. The regular Koben has an aluminum fork, while the higher-end S version we tested has a carbon fork to make it even lighter. The regular version is a single-speed bike. The S version adds a Nuvinci 380 CVT rear hub, a 350-watt mid-drive motor instead of 250, and hydraulic disc brakes instead of mechanical disc brakes. The Koben provides assist to 20 mph, while the Koben S provides pedal assist up to 28 mph (California Class 3).
The 27.5-inch wheels were mounted with Panaracer Gravel King tires. These are made for higher pressure and lower rolling resistance. Since there’s no tread on the tires, we were initially concerned about their cornering traction. What we found was that they’re very well designed, and the rubber is nice and sticky and didn’t slip. The bike has a very planted feel, which is a good thing, because it gets over 20 mph very easily.
The motor is really quiet, and since it’s a mid-drive mounted behind the sprocket, the only thing that gives the bike away as electric is the large battery mounted on the downtube. With the black accents everywhere else on the bike, it blends in pretty well. The tires make very little noise, and you’ll never hear a shift with the NuVinci hub.
NuVinci’s CVT is a marvel of engineering—quiet and truly continuously variable shifting is easy and effortless. There’s never any skipping or an abrupt feeling of change. The control is a twist-grip on the right-hand side, and the user interface shows a person on a bike. As you twist the grip, the hill profile goes from flat to steep, allowing a visual reference as to where you are in the range of “gears.” It’s an absolute joy to ride, and if it gets too hard, you merely change the position in any amount you want to make it easier. Likewise, if you’re spinning too fast, a twist brings that down to earth and speeds you up at the same time.
There are bosses set up for optional fenders and possibly a rack. Platform pedals provide good grip with any kind of shoe save for high heels (those are better in your bag for when you get to work).
FASTER IS BETTER
With some bikes we often find that 20 miles per hour isn’t always fast enough to keep up with the flow of traffic. On many electric bikes you’re providing all the power with your legs to ride above 20 mph. With the Koben S, having the extra 8 mph is a huge plus if you’re commuting and like riding fast like we do.
We put this to the test in Los Angeles traffic, racing a friend who was driving from one point to another, a distance of a little over five miles. Our bicycle route wasn’t direct to avoid some places that have no bike lanes. Traffic was light for Los Angeles that day, so we arrived just two minutes apart. Had there been rush-hour traffic, we’d have beaten the van by quite a bit.
Properly sized, it’s a comfortable bike to ride for longer distances, and it’s tuned to deliver power in a fun, almost thrilling way without feeling like it might take off from you. The T4 disc brakes provide ample stopping power; you never feel like you’ll need to start braking early. One-finger braking is all it takes and is easy to modulate.
The Bafang display is centered on the handlebars. It has a backlit monochrome LCD with contrast that works for any and all lighting conditions—from bright sunlight to night rides. It’s great for an easy reference on battery power, speed, etc.
We used about 10 percent of the battery (one bar) in the first five miles, on par with their real-world estimate of 45 miles out of the battery. After that we climbed hills and raced it as close to top speed as possible, often in higher power settings (especially during the race), as well as encountering plenty of traffic lights and stop signs typical of city riding. Additional rides showed the range being close to their claimed estimate, even with riders who were above average in weight.
The original Koben, aimed at college students and commuters who want a simple, single-speed electric bike, is available direct for $1899. If you need more range or a replacement, Karmic sells spare batteries for $599. There’s also a new Kickstarter campaign for their next bike, which is a low, step-through-framed bike called the Kyoto.
The Koben S delivers a fun ride at speeds fast enough to make your commute shorter than one in your car. Proving its commuting credentials, the Koben provides a confidence-inspiring ride, even at high speeds. Being on the lighter side of the e-bike scale, it’s much easier to carry up stairs if you need to compared to many of its competitors. Overall, the bike represents good value for the price with quality components and good range.
Motor: Bafang 43V 350W mid-drive
Battery: Li-Ion 44V 10.4Ah/460Wh
Charge time: 5 hours
Top speed: 28mph
Range: Up to 45 miles, depending on riding style, load and terrain
Drive: NuVinci N380 CVT
Brakes: TRP Slate 4-piston hydraulic discs (180mm f/r)
Weight: 37 lb.
Sizes: Small (15), medium (17), large (19)
Color choices: Electron Blue, Eddy Current Orange