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VanMoof X3: five months later

A great e-bike, with caveats

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Five months ago yesterday, I took delivery of a VanMoof X3 e-bike. It’s up there as one of the more expensive personal purchases I’ve ever made, living as I do in Tokyo without any need for a car. But like a lot of other people this year, I felt moved to avoid public transport as the coronavirus pandemic intensified, and VanMoof’s latest models came at the right time.

I was pretty sure I’d like the X3. I’d test-ridden the original Electrified X three years prior, when it was first released as a bike designed with Tokyo in mind, and I’d wanted one ever since. The $1,998 X3 is more powerful and more affordable, with a bunch of new features that sealed the deal.

Five months on, I’m happy to report that I do indeed like the X3. But that’s not the same as being able to give a wholesale recommendation to everyone. More than maybe any other product I’ve ever ordered and owned, the X3 has made me feel like an extreme early adopter — even though this is the third version. 

The X3 is essentially a smaller version of the S3 that Thomas Ricker reviewed back in April, with 24-inch wheels versus the 28-inch S3. The unremovable 504Wh battery is integrated into the frame, meaning you get a sleeker design than many competitors but have to plug the bike directly into an outlet to charge. Some of the key features include an automatic four-speed gearbox, a turbo boost button for a quick jolt of speed, and a kick lock on the rear wheel that secures the bike and activates its motion-sensitive alarm.

The smaller size makes much more sense for Tokyo

As far as the general riding experience goes, I mostly agree with Thomas’ impressions of the S3. I really like the design, including the integrated lights and lock. I’ve found the gear shifting to be smooth far more often than not, albeit with the very occasional clunk. The idea of an automatic gear box for a bicycle is sort of odd to me, as someone who prefers to drive manual cars, but you mostly forget about it when riding. While there are definitely times when you’ll find yourself in the “wrong” gear for your intended speed or level of exertion, you can normally force a shift up with a quick burst of the turbo button, or a shift down by just stopping pedaling for a few seconds. 

I am glad I got the X3 over the S3, and I say that as a six-foot-four guy who would probably look and feel more natural riding the larger model. It takes living with the X3 to realize how much more sense the smaller size makes for Tokyo. I appreciate it every time I park in a tiny alleyway squeezed between two Shinjuku buildings, or whenever I wheel it into my apartment’s elevator — which happens to be the exact length of the X3.

Wheeling the X3 into my elevator is a pretty important use case, because I’d have no way to charge the thing otherwise. I live in a sixth-floor apartment that fortunately has a power outlet directly outside the front door, which is invaluable as a VanMoof bike owner. It would be much less convenient to have to wheel the bike inside every time I needed to charge it. Of course, it would also be much more convenient if I could just remove the battery myself and leave the bike downstairs.

I haven’t attempted to carry out measured range testing because in practice, it isn’t really something I think about. I charge the bike once or twice a week and that’s fine for what I use it for. VanMoof claims between 60 km (37 miles) and 150 km (93 miles) of range depending on how hard you push the electric motor. I can say I’ve ridden a little more than 60km in a single day, using the turbo boost a lot to get to the other side of the city and return home quickly with about 12 percent battery remaining. But this is a bike designed for everyday use, and I think the point is really that it’s not going to unexpectedly die on you once you’ve worked out your charging routine. The caveat is how easy that will be for you and your personal living situation.

I truly love riding the X3

I do have a few nits to pick. I found the Android app consistently more reliable than the iOS version, which I occasionally had to force-quit in order to get it to unlock the bike. The optional front-mounted metal basket (10,000 yen, or $89) looks good but functionally kind of sucks, with huge gaps between each “wire” in its “mesh.” (It did at least make me swear off plastic shopping bags once and for all, since all my groceries would just fall through the holes.) The dot-matrix display is also very much form over function, since it’s near-impossible to see in sunlight — especially set against the lighter paint option I went for on the bike.

The most important thing to say about the X3 is that I truly love riding it. It’s by far my favorite way to get around Tokyo and I use it whenever practical, including on journeys that I otherwise would never have considered a bicycle for. It’s often faster than driving or taking the subway, and it’s always a whole lot more fun than either option. It’s liberating to ride a vehicle that feels equally suited to roads and side streets, taking in the city at ground level as you travel. I’ve learned so much about my neighborhood and beyond this year just because it’s trivial to get anywhere within a 5-mile radius. 

Overall, I’m happy with my purchase. Owning a bike like this has honestly made a huge difference to my quality of life, which is not something I would often say about the things that I buy. But I also feel lucky that things worked out for me, because that hasn’t been the case for everyone.

I ordered my X3 on April 22nd, the day preorders went live. I was given a delivery date of June 27th, which wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t mind waiting for something that I knew I wanted. (I spent that period riding around Tokyo on Docomo share bikes that almost invariably turned out to have nearly depleted batteries upon unlocking, which did make me further anticipate owning a bike I could charge myself.)

While I was waiting for the bike to ship, I joined a Facebook group of other VanMoof customers, many of whom had also preordered an S3 or an X3. Alarmingly, a lot of people seemed to be receiving S3s in poor condition, with the boxes and bikes having been damaged in transit. It’s hard to know what proportion of people were affected by this, but VanMoof’s co-founders Taco and Ties Carlier confirmed the issue in a September interview with The Verge, saying that the cheaper, smaller boxes initially didn’t offer enough protection. The company expected around 1 percent of bikes to have issues “important enough for a customer to give us a call,” according to Ties, but the actual figure ended up being “closer to 10 percent.”

I was a little worried about what state my X3 would eventually arrive in, because it’s no small inconvenience to return something that large for repair or replacement. S3 bikes were being sent out ahead of the X3, and no-one in the Facebook group had reported receiving their X3 yet. Fortunately, I had no problems at all when my bike did show up. It was covered in protective foam, an additional measure VanMoof took to protect the bikes inside the box, and I couldn’t fault the condition it arrived in.

It was, however, delayed from the initial June 27th date I’d been given. I got in touch with VanMoof in May to confirm the date, since I noticed my card had been charged, and I was told the June 27th date still held. On June 25th I got an automated email saying my order was “still on track and scheduled to ship within your delivery window,” but two days later I hadn’t received any shipping notification. VanMoof responded to another email on June 29th saying that they would “start shipping tomorrow,” and I got a shipping confirmation on July 4th. The bike ultimately showed up on July 7th.

This wasn’t a huge deal to me. There’s an unprecedented pandemic going on. Things happen. But I saw lots of online reports of far more extensive delays, and it’s clear that VanMoof didn’t have its supply chain and customer support altogether in place at launch. The company told us as much. It’s something to bear in mind if you’re considering ordering a bike and need it to arrive on time.

Once mine did arrive, all was good. The packaging was well-designed, if only for a bike protected in additional foam, and setup was easy barring one fiddly cable cover that took a lot of effort to attach. The X3 quickly became an important part of my daily life.

Then in October I got a worrying email titled “Action needed on your VanMoof X3 bike.” I’ll just reproduce the body here for full clarity:

Hi Sam

We’re getting in touch because you own (or have owned) a VanMoof X3 bike.

Recently we’ve had some riders report that the bolts on the rear fender of their VanMoofS3 or X3 bike came loose in use. Upon further analysis we’ve ascertained that these incidents are linked to an early batch of bikes – where it appears that on some bikes, the rear fender bolts were not tight enough. This issue does not exist on later batches of bikes. Our initial analysis did not show that loose fender bolts could cause a safety risk to our riders. We are however now investigating what caused a serious accident involving a VanMoof S3. We have not determined what caused that accident to occur, but while we conduct that investigation we want to take further precautionary measures now.

Unfortunately, your bike with *frame number XXXXXXXXXX* came from that early batch (around 1,600 bikes). As an extra safety precaution, we’re asking you to have your rear fender bolts checked before your next ride.

The email recommended that I go to a VanMoof brand store to have the fender bolts tightened, or take it to a regular bike mechanic. There was a link to a video showing what to do, and VanMoof offered to reimburse any repair costs. Not wanting to get involved in a “serious accident,” I took my bike to the Tokyo store, where the helpful staff took it to the back and gave everything a checkup. 15 minutes later I was back on the streets.

I should say here that I definitely would not have bought this bike if there wasn’t an official VanMoof store nearby. This fender issue was relatively simple to fix, if a little scary to find out about, but I don’t think many local bike shops here would have much idea what to do with the X3’s battery or automatic gears. This is a complicated enough product that I would never have risked the possibility of needing to ship it back. On the other hand, I appreciate that VanMoof stores in cities around the globe are even a thing in the first place. It made the X3 a much more viable option for me than some of the cheaper e-bikes you can find for sale online.

Life with my X3 and its newly-tightened fender bolts continued. In November, however, I got another email from VanMoof alerting me to an upcoming change to its mobile apps that would remove the ability to change region settings. The default top assisted speed is 25kph, but there’s an option in line with US regulations that lets you boost up to 32kph. The email didn’t mention what the settings actually do, but a note on VanMoof’s support site says that the move was made in response to some owners in the EU being stopped by authorities for being able to exceed the speed limit.

I’m not going to litigate the ins and outs of regional e-bike speed limits here, but this whole situation really struck me as an amateur move on the company’s part. The bikes should have just been sold with the appropriate speed settings for each region. You would probably not be very happy if you bought a car that the manufacturer unilaterally decided to restrict to your local highway speed limit after you bought it. VanMoof isn’t accepting returns over the matter.

The whole reason I’m writing this story is because it’s hard to get a sense of real ownership in a short review period, particularly when it comes to a product with the potential to have a major impact on your day-to-day life. Most of what Thomas wrote about the S3 applies to my experience with the X3, which is to say I think it’s a great bike and I don’t regret the purchase. 

But that’s not the whole story. It’s also the first $2,000-plus purchase I’ve made that involved shipping delays, feature removals, and warnings about potential bodily harm. I’m used to being an early adopter of technology — it comes with the territory in this job. However, I would have preferred a smoother onboarding experience with a product that I ride on actual roads next to real cars.

VanMoof does have a great product on its hands, and the company has been open about the changes it’s making to the customer experience. I love my own X3 and can’t imagine a time when I won’t own a similar e-bike in the future. But I would just strongly advise potential buyers to work out which e-bike company is the right one for their own situation, bearing long-term service and safety in mind. While I’ve had an overall positive experience with my X3, it’s shown me that it may not be the right fit for you.