BIKE TEST: KARMIC Koben V2
A bike with a different philosophy
Karmic is a company that has roots unlike those of any other bike company. Company founder Hong Quan started in the Bay Area tech world. Wanting to make a difference, he wanted to use his technology knowledge to start a car company. His first project was starting Prong Motors, whose first vehicle was a three-wheeled motorcycle with performance approaching that of a Lotus Seven but at a cost of less than half of that, focusing on powerful, light and fun.
He ultimately sold that company to Polaris, and the project became what is now known as the Slingshot. He took that experience and started a bike company. As an avid cyclist for the past two decades, he set out to create an electric bike that created a great user experience and was fun to ride. “FCC” was his acronym for “fun, comfortable and capable.”
The Koben started with a Kickstarter campaign that was very successful, but unlike many electric bike companies started by individuals on crowdfunding sites, Hong and his designers are avid cyclists who spend a lot of time riding and testing to create bikes they themselves want to ride.
After having started through crowdfunding, Karmic now produces batches of bikes that are sold direct to customers and delivered with surprisingly personal service. They believe that when a customer receives a box they will then be more engaged with the bike from the start by doing a little simple assembly from the box, with plenty of instructions from Karmic.
The Koben’s name is meant as an homage to a place where cycling is a way of life—Copenhagen, Denmark. Quan has a definite love of cycling and wants to get more people into it, and a good electric bike can be a great start.
The bike is fairly basic at first glance, but it’s filled with details that make it potentially better than the sum of its parts and its price. Starting with the diamond-shaped frame with a sloping top tube, it allows for a low standover height without having to go to a low, step-through frame.
A Bafang 350-watt mid-drive powers the bike in conjunction with a SRAM NX 1×11 drivetrain. Previous versions of the Koben have featured either a single-speed gearing or a Nuvinci CVT internally geared hub, but this more conventional solution allows for weight savings and more familiar and traditional rider controls.
The battery on the bike is one of the biggest things you’ll see on it. It’s a 450-watt-hour beast that’s bolted onto the ample, tapered downtube.
Braking is provided via SRAM Level brakes without motor cutoff switches. Their braking power is helped by the 27.5×2.8-inch WTB Ranger tires with a knobby tread that’s more off-road-oriented. The tires are mounted on American Classic 27.5-inch x 30mm wheels with thru-axles to make the bike easily compatible with other wheels and even suspension forks.
They went with higher-end AC wheels for the great ride quality and the 30mm size to allow customers to customize their bikes with other tires for a different ride (e.g., as the WTB Byline) with a smoother tread and more supple ride, which can even be installed tubeless. The wheels are tubeless-ready, already taped and the bikes come with valves. The Ranger tires aren’t set up to run tubeless, but the bike is ready for those that are.
WHO IT’S MADE FOR?
The Koben is a not-quite-so bare-bones, Class 1 electric bike (i.e., it will go up to 20 mph with electric assist). It’s a fun daily rider that can be used as a commuter bike for everyone from beginners to avid cyclists. Owing to the impressive battery range, the Koben would work as a touring bike if you don’t mind the stiff ride.
If your ride to work is normally a slow grind in heavy traffic, this is right up your alley. For more serious daily commuters, they’ve made the Koben S, which is a speed pedelec that provides assist up to 28mph.
The Bafang mid-drive motor is a great choice. It’s a solid performer on many bikes we’ve ridden, and this bike is no exception. At 350 watts, it’s on par with the specs of other mid-drives out there from Bosch, Shimano and Yamaha. There are five levels of power assist. In level 3, which we found worked best most of the time, acceleration was quick. The power comes on right away via a torque sensor, and loves to climb to 16–18 mph and stay there. It drops off abruptly at 20 mph. This is great if you’re not in fast-moving traffic where a 28-mph bike like the Koben’s relative, the Koben S, will be safer as well as quicker.
The motor is relatively quiet and pretty smooth in power delivery. We’ve not ridden one of these motors long-term, but we’ve not heard any bad reports from people who have had them for a few years.
We put in miles and miles on this bike, and the battery just kept us going. While the 450-watt-hour rating isn’t huge, the size of the battery actually is, but we did a lot of riding one weekend and never needed to recharge it.
The WTB Ranger tires are big and provide the only suspension on the bike. If this bike is used on the street exclusively, these knobby tires are too aggressive. If you ride on a mix of paved and unpaved, they’re a great choice. Varying the air pressure in these high-volume plus tires can have a massive effect on the handling of the bike. More pressure means lower rolling resistance, but also a harder ride over bumps and lower braking performance. Lower pressure gives massive grip and takes some of the jarring feeling out of bumps, but can also feel draggy on smooth pavement. Finding the sweet spot for the ride you’re going on is the ticket. Slightly harder on-road and less on off-roads worked very well for us.
The SRAM Level brakes worked great, and coupled with the plus tires, they never let us down. We could actually ride faster and safer because we knew we could count on them to control speed or stop completely and very quickly.
Shifting was mostly smooth, but since there’s no shift-sensing in the system, you have to be careful to let off your own leg power a bit while shifting. We noticed loud shifting and likely a lot of strain on the chain when we forgot this. Shifting down on the 1×11 SRAM setup was easy, and we could drop a few gears in one push, but shifting up was one gear at a time. That’s probably best for this setup.
Being able to tell your speed, power level and battery life are available at a glance on the high-contrast, easy-to-read Bafang LCD mounted above the stem. It isn’t backlit, so it’s harder to read at night, unless you’re near a streetlight.
The Koben is set up to be customizable, so you can add front suspension, different wheels, etc. easily. A suspension fork with a modicum of travel for street use and a suspension seatpost are the first things we’d consider with this bike to use it as a daily commuter or grocery-getter. There are bosses on the seat stays for a rack. The bike we had is pre-production, but the production fork will have a 3-pack of bosses on the fork for mounting a water bottle or packs. The ability to change to a variety of tires on the wheelset is a great asset.
If you want a spare battery, it’s only $499, and a spare charger (e.g., if you want to keep one at work) is $99.
The Koben is a basic but very fun bike with a lot of potential. It has plenty of power, great range, but a harsh ride sans suspension. At a dollar under $2500, it’s a good bike for the money and is sold direct to consumer. The spec and the price have increased since the original version, but the addition of the Boost setup to allow for more and better wheelsets makes it a very attractive bike to customize. The company’s goal to make fun bikes and keep working with the technology to future-proof their products while working on lowering the price makes it a very compelling bike.
SPECS: KARMIC KOBEN
MSRP: $2499 (consumer direct)
Motor: Bafang 43V 350W Mid-drive
Battery: 43V 450Wh
Charge time: 4.5 hours
Top speed: 20 mph (with assist)
Range: 25–45 miles (tested)
Drive: SRAM NX 1×11, 11-42t cassette
Brakes: SRAM Level hydraulic disc with Centerline 180mm/160mm rotor
Fork: Karmic 6061 aluminum with fender mounts
Frame: Karmic 6061 aluminum, replaceable hanger
Tires: WTB Ranger Plus, 27.5×2.8”
Weight: 45 lb.
Color Choices: Eddy Current Orange, Forest Spark Green
Sizes: 16”, 18”, 20”