FORTUNE Small Business

Plug in that bike

Electric motorcycles hit the road.

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The Enertia boasts custom-designed, four-spoke aluminum hubs.

(FORTUNE Small Business) Ashland, Ore. -- Craig Bramscher wasn't thinking about electric motorcycles when he founded Oregon-based Brammo Motorsports. The 6-foot 4-inch serial entrepreneur and gearhead wanted to create a high-performance car that would accommodate taller drivers.

"I couldn't fit into any of the supercars that were out there, and I knew there was a market," he says.

Bramscher, 46, funded himself with the proceeds from the sale of his Web consulting company, DreamMedia, based in Malibu, Calif. He moved up to Ashland, Ore., and began designing a roomier high-performance car called the Brammo GT. But the entrepreneur needed a product that he could bring to market faster. So he secured manufacturing rights to the Aerial Atom, a British-originated sports car, and introduced it to the American market in 2005.

It became a hit among car cognoscenti: Comedian and auto buff Jay Leno snapped up the first one.

Now the 35-employee firm, which had 2007 revenues of $5.5 million, is preparing to launch a groundbreaking vehicle of its own. The Enertia is a zero-emission, battery-powered, plug-in electric motorcycle with a base pricetag of $11,995. When it ships later this year, the Enertia will zoom to the front of a line of new electric bikes that promise to be every bit as game-changing as their four-wheeled brethren (see "Putting the Zoom Into Electric Cars").

It may seem a strange downshift after selling high-octane autos, but there is a connection: performance.

"Electric power has a ton of torque," Bramscher says. "It gives you an exhilarating feeling."

Early tinkering with electric batteries suggested that their power and density were better suited to a lightweight bike than a hefty car, thanks to the all-important power to weight ratio. Bikes offered financial advantages too.

"As a small company," he says, "we can compete without raising the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to develop a car."

More than 100 customers placed advance orders in the 90 days after Brammo announced the Enertia in July 2007. A limited-edition version, priced at $14,995, should be available in the second quarter. The standard version is expected to ship in the third quarter. According to Brammo, the bike goes from zero to 30 mph in a superfast 3.8 seconds. You get to go up to 45 miles per charge, at a speed of 50 mph. The battery charges fully in three hours from any regular outlet.

Electric scooters and custom-built electric motorcycles (such as the $100,000 KillaCycle, the world's fastest electric motorcycle, at 168 mph over a quarter mile) are nothing new. But the Enertia will be the first mass-produced, road-legal motorcycle running on electricity.

"As with cars, there's been a lot of noise about motorcycles going electric," says Sean Daily, CEO of greenlivingideas.com, a website that focuses on environmentally sustainable living. "Brammo is bringing the concept to market."

The company doesn't lack competitors. Zero Motorcycles, a startup based in Scotts Valley, Calif., began shipping a smaller, dirt-bike-like electric motorcycle in January 2008.

The Zero X ($7,450) is intended for off-road use. An eight-employee company founded by former NASA project manager Neal Saiki, Zero will soon offer the Zero S, a hybrid road/off-road dirt bike, which should be available in the next few months. A scooter called the Zero Way is also in the works, with an expected 2009 ship date. Saiki, 41, plans to compete with Brammo on technology as well as price. Zero's patent-pending lithium ion batteries are three times as powerful and 31% lighter than those in the Enertia, while offering the same running time.

Waiting in the wings: a hydrogen-powered bike, the ENV, from British company Intelligent Energy. It does not yet have a release date.

Then there's the Vectrix scooter, billed as "the world's first high-powered all-electric two-wheel zero-emission vehicle." The $11,000 scooters are manufactured in Poland and were launched on the U.S. market in July 2007. Vectrix, a public company based in Middletown, R.I., says its scooter has enough acceleration to keep up with gas-powered motorcycles - as long as they stay below 30 mph. But critics argue that the Vectrix isn't in the same league as Brammo's electric bike.

"The Vectrix resembles a Vespa," says Daily. "It's more for the urban scooter crowd."

Given the Enertia's performance limitations - it lacks the range for long trips and has no clutch or gear shift - Brammo is targeting first-time bikers in urban areas.

"We want people to view it as their second car," says Bramscher. "If you can ride a bicycle, you can ride the Enertia."

Despite the Enertia's carlike pricetag, rising gas prices may make it a good investment for consumers. Even though he didn't set out to save the world, Bramscher admits his bikes offer a certain moral satisfaction.

"Our market," he says, "is everyone who wants to help solve the environmental problem." To top of page

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