VanMoof’s S3 e-bike is better, cheaper and just as stylish

Nick Summers
Senior Editor
VanMoof S3

VanMoof is like the Allbirds of e-bikes. The upstart has struck a chord with technology-loving people who care deeply about design and sustainable living. That niche, though, is only so large. To grow even further, the company has to move a little more mainstream and make its premium bikes a tad cheaper. That’s where the S3 and X3 come in. Both models — which are practically the same, save for the frame shape and wheel size — are visually similar to their second-gen predecessors. They have familiar features, too, such as integrated frame lights and a special kick lock.

A VanMoof designer told me, however, that “90 percent of the parts are different” this time around. That’s led to a bunch of small improvements and, more importantly, a drop in price. The S3 and X3 are being sold for $1,998, while the previous models launched for $2,598 — and that was with a special $800 early-bird discount. It’s still a premium price-tag, but one that doesn’t feel out of place in the e-bike industry. After all, it’s possible to spend over $8,000 on a top-end Riese & Müller these days.

So how do the S3 and X3 stack up against the competition? And how far do they move the needle for e-bike adoption? Very well, and marginally so, in short. VanMoof’s third generation has a few frustrating flaws, but it’s still one of the most impressive pedal-assist bikes that money can buy, provided you’re okay with something that occasionally puts design and simplicity over flexibility.

Design

The S3 is also available in a stealthier 'Dark' color scheme.

The S3, which I tested for this review, is available in black (Dark) and a brand-new seafoam blue (Light) color. Both colorways use the alternate shade for an angled strip on the top tube that lists the new model number. It’s a small design element, but one that separates the bike from its already-stylish predecessor. (I suspect a few show-offs will appreciate this tiny calling card whenever they stop somewhere that’s popular with cyclists.) I rode the blue option, which I like but greedily wish was closer to Bianchi’s shade of minty green, if only so I could close my eyes and pretend to be cycling icon Marco Pantani for a moment.

The cruiser-style handlebars bend toward you, encouraging a more relaxed and upright riding style. They’re slim and utterly gorgeous, with matching grips, brake levers and VanMoof-branded oil reservoir compartments. The company claims it’s the “first bike on the market with a fully integrated handlebar and brake assembly.” The brake cables aren’t invisible, though — each one is exposed for a short distance before threading back inside the frame. Other e-bikes, including the Gocycle GXi I reviewed last week, have found ways to conceal these wires entirely. VanMoof’s solution still looks clean and thoughtfully designed, though.

Unfortunately, the understated handlebars compromise comfort. The grips widen at the end, providing some extra wrist support, but I still wish the material was a little thicker and spongier. If you’re going to ride this bike for long periods, I highly recommend wearing some gloves.

The shape isn’t groundbreaking in any way, but I love it all the same.

The frame itself is a classic diamond (or double-triangle, depending on your perspective) design with a straight top tube and slightly angled seat post. The shape isn’t groundbreaking in any way, but I love it all the same. According to VanMoof, the S3 has a new scratch-resistant finish that should protect it from unexpected bumps and debris. I didn’t purposefully scratch the bike, but after a week of testing I didn’t notice any glaring marks, either.

Just in case you forget which model you're riding.

The down tube, which hides the non-removable 504Wh battery, is chunkier than the average road bike but proportionate with the top tube and front forks. That means it’s not immediately obvious that you’re looking at an e-bike. The visual trickery is why so many consider VanMoof to be the industry’s style king. It also helps the S3 avoid detection by would-be thieves (I’ll talk more about bike security later.)

Like the S2, the bike has integrated front and rear lights. They help with night-time riding and dramatically increase your visibility on the road. The overall design of the lights has been “subtly changed,” according to a VanMoof spokesperson, and a future software update will allow you to switch between beam and halo illumination. For now, you just have a few basic options — always on, always off and automatic when the sun goes down — accessible through the companion app. The automatic setting can be a little overzealous, so to preserve battery life, I usually turned them on manually.

Beyond the app, the frame’s Matrix Display is your main window into the bike’s inner workings. The weatherproof panel has a broader range of animations and a louder companion speaker than the one that shipped with the S2. The white LEDs show your speed, battery level and gear while riding. They also spring to life whenever you turn the bike on, plug in the charger, cycle through power assist levels with the right handlebar button or accidentally set off the alarm. The animations are a refreshing change from traditional bike computers, which have functional but forgettable screens.

There’s just one problem: The Matrix Display is tough to read in bright sunlight. At first, I would lean forward and cup my hand around the LEDs to check the battery level. But the maneuvre was annoying — and potentially dangerous on city streets — so I soon stopped. Instead, I would simply review the companion app after my ride or accept that the display only worked while the sun was low or obscured by clouds. A VanMoof spokesperson said "the layers of coating were a little thick" on my pre-production model, and that the retail version "should be much easier to read." I’m skeptical because the Electrified S2 had the exact same issue, but will reserve judgment for now.

Performance

The updated motor is smaller and more powerful.


VanMoof’s latest e-bike has an updated 250-500W motor in the front wheel hub. The housing is smaller than before and, more importantly, everything inside now runs whisper-quiet. The lowered decibels make a massive difference at both low and high speeds. Cruising through the countryside, for instance, I could hear wildlife and the rustling of trees without stopping. (I couldn’t do that on the fast-folding Gocycle GXi, that’s for sure.) As a consequence, I found it easier to relax and spend a few moments alone with my thoughts. 

The near-silent operations also conceal the motor’s existence. I would occasionally overtake Lycra-clad cyclists who had no idea where my hill-climbing prowess was coming from. One rosy-faced rider was so taken aback that I felt compelled to turn around and mime the word “electric” before quietly sailing away.

The S3, like its predecessors, has a top speed of 25KMH (15.5MPH) in Europe and 32KMH (20MPH) in the US. These limits are set by local regulators and are, therefore, typical for commuter-style e-bikes that don’t require a license. (You can freely swap between the two regions in the app, though, so there isn’t much to stop Europeans from riding with the higher US restriction.) VanMoof says the motor has been fine-tuned “for maximum power and responsiveness,” which means better acceleration and an improved Turbo Boost that delivers 59 Nm of torque.

I would occasionally overtake Lycra-clad cyclists who had no idea where my hill-climbing prowess was coming from.

Both improve the ride experience dramatically. I appreciated the acceleration after exiting a tight turn or waiting patiently for some traffic lights to turn green. If you’re riding in the city — a start-and-stop environment crammed with traffic and junctions — it can make a huge difference to your journey time.

Unlike its predecessor, the S3 has hydraulic brakes.

The S3 automatically shifts between four gears to ensure your feet never stop moving. You can’t change manually, but the companion app lets you tweak the exact speeds that will trigger an up or downshift. Most transitions were gloriously smooth but a few occurred with an unpleasant clunk. The experience was so jarring that my feet almost slipped off the admittedly not-final pedals once or twice. VanMoof said I was riding a production unit that "may have minor mechanical issues," so hopefully these are ironed out before the first bikes ship to consumers.

On a flat surface, the bike soared. But to my surprise, the motor’s assistance dropped off dramatically as soon as I reached a difficult slope. That reduction, coupled with the bike’s substantial weight, meant my speed quickly halved. It wasn’t difficult to complete the climb — the motor made sure of that — but I didn’t feel particularly powerful, either. Reading VanMoof’s subreddit, it appears the Electrified S2 had the same issue. (I previewed that bike in London’s Covent Garden, which has zero hills.) Pedal-assisted motors are always proportionate — faster pedaling means more assistance, and vice versa — but I wish the system was a little more proactive on hills.

It’s not that the motor isn’t capable of delivering more power. As soon as I pressed the boost button, for instance, the bike would accelerate and quickly reach the top of the hill. VanMoof’s boost has always been excellent, and the S3’s implementation is no exception. Want to overtake another cyclist? Boost. Battling tough headwinds? Boost. Desperate to reach your local supermarket before it closes? Boost. You sacrifice some battery, of course, but the satisfaction is always worth it.

Unlike Gocycle’s e-bikes, though, you can’t tweak the motor’s behavior or create custom rider profiles inside the companion app. That means you have to make do with the four pre-programmed assist levels. I started on the highest setting (it’s an e-bike, after all) but, in the interest of testing, dropped to level three for the occasional neighborhood circuit. The difference was immediate. Despite my furious pedaling, I found it virtually impossible to reach the bike’s normal top speed, even on a flat and recently relaid surface. It wasn’t the biggest drop-off — roughly 3MPH (5KMH) at most — but I was still surprised that my legs could plug the motorized power gap. Anything below level three, meanwhile, was a surprising workout that offered little benefit over a carbon road bike.

The included kickstand means you never have to lay the bike down on its side.

It’s not a big deal, though, because I was more than happy with the performance and range on level four. The S3 promises 60 to 150 kilometers (37 to 93 miles) on a single charge — just like its predecessor — and I found that to be accurate, racking up roughly 80 kilometers (50 miles) before hitting the red. That means if your commute is 8 kilometers (5 miles) each way, you shouldn’t have to recharge the bike until the weekend. Your experience will vary, of course, depending on where you ride, how often you press the boost button, whether the lights are turned on and a number of other factors. I think the S3’s range should be fine for most people. If it weren’t, the battery implementation would soon irritate.

VanMoof bikes have always featured non-removable batteries, and the S3 is no different. To top it up, you have to plug the included charger straight into the port on the underside of the frame’s top tube. There’s no other option. If you have a garage or shed with power, that likely won’t be a problem. Similarly, if you live in a house or ground-floor apartment, you might not mind lugging the bike — which weighs 19 kilos (42 pounds) — indoors for a quick top-up. But if you live at the top of a sky rise, that could potentially be a deal breaker. It also means that there’s no way to hot-swap a fresh battery.

VanMoof stands by the decision. Job Stehmann, Chief Product Designer at VanMoof, told Engadget that the constraint is why the company has been able to produce such unique and good-looking bikes. If the team had followed the rest of the industry, the original Electrified S and X would have had a tougher time standing out. I understand and respect the company’s position. If you want a better balance between design and convenience, it’s worth considering the Cowboy, which has a removable battery behind the seat post, and manufacturers like Riese and Müller, which have perfected panels that allow an otherwise hidden battery to be removed and charged separately.

The S3’s range should be fine for most people.

The S3 takes four hours to fully recharge, which is competitive with most commuter e-bikes, including the Cowboy. If you’re in a rush, the included charger — which is a hundred times sleeker than the Gocycle equivalent I tested last week — can take you to 50 percent in just 80 minutes, which is super useful.

Security

The rear hub lock makes a welcome return.

In July 2018, I wrote that VanMoof’s original Electrified X had cured my fear of bike thieves. I was smitten with the smart security features, which included built-in location tracking — activated once you had reported the bike stolen — and a special chain lock that could be disarmed through the VanMoof app or by tapping a touchscreen panel on the bike. The system wasn’t perfect — far from it — but I was encouraged by the company’s fresh thinking. A few months later, while previewing the Electrified S2 in London, I was introduced to the rear-wheel ‘stealth lock,’ which is activated using a small metal nub on the rear wheel hub.

The S3 uses a near-identical system. First, you have to line up two white Iines on the chain guard and rear hub. There’s a bunch of markings on the latter, so you never have to roll the bike too far to line everything up. You can then kick the metal nub — which seems extremely durable — to activate the lock and trigger a corresponding sound from the frame’s integrated speaker. If a stranger tries to move the bike, an eyebrow-raising screech will emanate from the frame. It’s a strong deterrent, though there’s nothing to stop someone from simply lifting the (admittedly heavy) bike into the back of a truck. I would, therefore, always use the system in tandem with a conventional D-lock in public places.

If your S3 is stolen, fear not: You can track the bike’s location through an integrated GSM module. You can notify the police or, if you have a Peace of Mind subscription, rely on VanMoof’s Bike Hunter team to track it down on your behalf. The specialist squad will return it within two weeks or give you a replacement that’s a similar or better age and condition. At the time of writing, a three-year Peace of Mind policy costs $290/£255, which is competitive with dedicated bike insurance companies, including Laka.

To unlock the bike, you have a variety of options. With an active Bluetooth connection, for instance, you can press the padlock icon on the VanMoof app’s home screen. Alternatively, you can use Bluetooth as a proximity-based Touch to Unlock key. It means you can keep your phone in your pocket and simply press the left handlebar button once to disarm the stealth lock. Both methods will trigger a five-second timer — roll the bike forward and the rear hub lock releases, otherwise the system will rearm itself once the countdown has completed.

The lock won't engage unless you line up these two white marks.

If you don’t like the app, you can enter a three-digit passcode instead. The process is a little slow — you have to rhythmically tap the left handlebar button (say, twice to enter the number two), then wait for a beep that indicates you can move on to the next digit. Still, it’s a nice option to have, and ensures the bike doesn’t become a useless lump if your phone is stolen or runs out of battery. It sounds obvious, but some VanMoof rivals, including the Cowboy, don’t give you this phone-free unlock option.

VanMoof’s app has a few other features to justify its existence. You can check the bike’s remaining charge, review recent trips — which includes your distance, average and maximum speed, battery usage and mid-trip stops — and change a bunch of settings, including the assist level, integrated lights, digital bell sound and regional speed restriction. VanMoof also has a help section that includes some helpful tutorials and a shortcut to the support section of its website. In general, the app is clean and thoughtfully designed, though I do wish it offered a tool like Gocycle for creating custom motor profiles.

Wrap-up

With a starting price of $1,998/€1,998/£1,750, the bike is dramatically cheaper than the S2. The sticker price is almost identical to the Cowboy, which currently costs €1,990/£1,790 (roughly $2,198), and substantially cheaper than the Coboc One, another design-focused two-wheeler. Still, it’s hard to call the S3 “cheap” or “affordable.” But good value? Yes, provided you embrace it as a car and public transport replacement. The S3 is also a great deal compared to other e-bikes. The Cowboy doesn’t have a kick lock, for instance, that stops the back wheel from moving. The basic Coboc One, meanwhile, ships without a kickstand or integrated front and rear lights.

VanMoof’s bikes are feature rich. But they’re also designed with simplicity and elegance in mind. That’s why you can’t change gears manually or set up a custom motor profile in the app. It’s also the reason why the battery can’t be charged separately. For some, that lack of flexibility will be irritating. And if you fall into that camp, I totally understand. But for those who want a no nonsense, get-on-and-go experience, the S3 is hard to beat.

The circular lights match the rest of the bike's design.

When VanMoof first announced the bike, I said the company was agonizingly close to its ‘Model 3 moment.’ I stand by that assessment: With the S3, the company is on the precipice of developing a truly mass-market e-bike. The S3 is another step in the right direction, and I have no doubt that it will sell well online. But I don’t think it’s quite cheap enough to trigger a cultural sea change in the West. Could its inevitable successor be that bike? I can’t wait to find out.