“Sometimes you have to kill your darlings” is a phrase used by designers to justify the removal of elements that they personally find exciting but add no value.
The last time I heard it was in April 2022 when I was riding pre-production versions of VanMoof’s new full-size S5 and smaller A5 electric bikes. The phrase was uttered by co-founder and CEO Taco Carlier to call for the removal of VanMoof’s iconic matrix display for a new “Halo Ring” interface.
A year later, both e-bikes are now – finally – being delivered to customers, well past their original target of July 2022. The price has also been increased to $3,998 / €3,498 from an early pre-order price of $2,998 / €2,498, which was already much more expensive than what you would pay for VanMoof’s previous generation of e-bikes – the VanMoof S3 / X3 – when they were introduced in 2020 for a rather remarkable price of $1,998 / €1,998.
Look, everything is more expensive in 2023, e-bikes included. But in terms of value for money, the $4,000 VanMoof S5 has to be twice as good as the $2,000 S3, right? Otherwise, this former investment darling’s latest flagship e-bike could be dead on arrival.
If only it were that simple.
While the S5 and A5 pedal-assist e-bikes still look like VanMoofs with that extended top tube with front and rear lights, everything has been redesigned from the frame to the chips and sensors. The company says only a “handful of parts” have been carried over from the previous models.
Here are some of the most notable changes:
- New visual LED Halo Ring interfaces flanking both grips.
- An integrated SPConnect phone holder (you provide the case) with USB-C charging port.
- New almost completely silent Gen 5 front hub motor with torque sensing and 3-speed automatic e-shifter (the S3/X3 had 4-speed e-shifters).
- New multifunction buttons have been added below the bell (next to the left grip) and boost buttons (next to the right grip).
- The boost button now offers more power with torque rising from 59 Nm to 68 Nm.
- The S5 frame, which was criticized for being too long, has been lowered by 5 cm (2 inches) to better accommodate riders up to 165 cm (5 feet, 5 inches), while the A5 can accommodate riders up to 155 cm (5 feet, 5 feet, 1 inch) and allows easier entry than the X3 it replaces.
These join a very long list of standard features found on VanMoof e-bikes, such as a well-designed and useful app, integrated Kick Lock on the rear wheel, baked-in Apple Find My support, hydraulic disc brakes, muscular city tires, bright integrated lighting, mudguards and a sturdy stand. And because it’s VanMoof, you can also subscribe to three years of anti-theft protection ($398 / €348) with a two-week repair or replacement guarantee, and three years of maintenance ($348 / €298) in select cities.
I picked up my dark gray (also in light gray) VanMoof S5 loaner lens at the end of March, but ran into a few issues that delayed this review. These included intermittent connection failures between the app and the bike, a Kick Lock that didn’t always turn off, and an alarm that went off momentarily for no apparent reason. Those issues were all fixed by an over-the-air firmware update (v1.20) released in mid-April before I could even report them to VanMoof support.
I have mixed feelings about this. Back in March, the S5 and A5 started shipping in bulk – albeit eight months late – so you’d think they’d have had time to fix any issues in VanMoof’s new test labs. That’s annoying given VanMoof’s history of initial quality issues and the company’s assurances that they wouldn’t be repeated. On the other hand, premium e-bikes from companies like VanMoof are increasingly complex machines, and it’s commendable to see the company fix problems so quickly.
One issue that hasn’t been fixed is the battery draining on idle, but VanMoof tells me a firmware update is coming to fix this in “two weeks”. In my case, the issue caused the idle S5’s battery to drain from 86 percent to 65 percent in a 10-day period. I generally lose about two percent charge every day whether I’m riding it or not.
Oh, and since I’ve installed several firmware updates over the past month (I’m currently on v1.2.4), I should mention this: the S5 plays a happy tune the all the time the firmware is being installed. It was cute at first, my daughter even offered a little dance. But it lasts five to ten minutes, and after the first time you hear it, it’s just annoying and there’s no way to turn it off.
In terms of new features, next to each grip, the Halo Rings are the most visible change from previous VanMoofs. At least until you hit sunlight and almost completely wash out those dim LEDs. The Halo Rings are intended to display speed, remaining charge, current pedal assist power level, and more through a series of light bars and animations. Overall they’re fine, albeit gimmicky, but I don’t feel much of a need for status information while cycling. I also did not miss the old matrix display on the top tube.
Riding a 23 kg / 50.7 lbs VanMoof S5 feels like an S3, albeit with fewer shifts and a boost button that gives more torque when trying to pass someone or get an early jump off the line. The fifth generation 250W motor of VanMoof design is absolutely silent, even at its top speed of 25 km/h in Europe (which goes up to 20 mph in the US). And the new three-speed e-shifter can find the right gear more precisely than the S3’s four-speed e-shifter. I still felt a few sounds and spinning pedals, especially if you’re pounding hard on the cranks in a hurry. But overall, the S5’s predictive shifting is much improved, especially if you’re rolling along at a leisurely pace. Still, it doesn’t go as smoothly as the automatic shifters from the likes of Enviolo, so there’s still work to be done.
It’s a shame VanMoof doesn’t offer a simple belt-drive option for its e-bikes. That combined with the S5’s torque boost button would eliminate the need for gears when driving in all but the most hilly environments. That’s why I’m a big fan of the belt-driven premium pedal-assist e-bikes sold by Ampler and Cowboy. They cost less than the S5, but are also more fun to ride thanks to their lighter front end (both brands use rear hub motors).
As for range, VanMoof says I should be able to get 60km on full power. However, I was only able to get 48.6 km (30.2 miles) out of the S5’s 487 Wh battery when running at full power and frequently hitting the boost button, in temperatures ranging from freezing to 15C (59F). That’s about the same range I got when testing the VanMoof S3 – 47 km (29.2 miles) – and its larger 504 Wh battery. The problem that is currently causing the battery to lose power at night certainly hasn’t helped my range. The battery can be charged from zero to 100 percent in a very slow 6 hours and 30 minutes via the included charger.
I had wondered how VanMoof would use the new multi-function buttons just below the call and boost buttons. The small button on the right (below the boost) lets you change your engine power on the fly, while the button on the left (below the bell) flashes your lights, sort of like a warning to those around you. Both features tick boxes on marketing magazines, but aren’t very useful in day-to-day use.
And since this is a VanMoof, the battery is integrated and can only be removed during service. The company does have a new “click-on” version (no Velcro!) of its extended battery for the S5 and A5 that you can charge indoors.
I’ve had a nagging concern about VanMoof e-bikes for the past few years that I even mentioned in the S3 review. Are they getting too complicated for their own good?
Electric bikes – especially commuter e-bikes like the S5 — are subject to daily wear and tear in all kinds of weather. Even basic bikes are difficult to maintain in everyday use, and VanMoof’s e-bikes are expensive rolling computers.
Honestly, I could do without the fancy three-speed automatic chain-driven shifter, superfluous multi-function buttons, programmable electronic bell, Halo Ring interface, Apple tracking, and perky sounds for startup, shutdown, and firmware updates. Give me one gear and a maintenance-free belt drive alongside that torsional boost button on a pedal-assist e-bike that gets me back and forth to my office every day, come what may, in style and without fail. But that’s not the S5.
Don’t get me wrong, the VanMoof S5 is a very good electric bike with a longer list of features than any other e-bike I can name. It also has one of the best service center networks available in cities around the world. That’s important because most S5/A5 parts are only available from VanMoof, so make sure you have a service center nearby if you’re interested in buying.
Too many darlings, not enough kills.
For all of its early covid successes, VanMoof ran into financial trouble in late 2022 when it was forced investors to emergency injection of capital just to pay the bills. But the entire e-bike industry struggled post-covid as sales plummeted and supply chains faltered. Competitors like Cowboy and industry giant Stella also had to raise money to deal with overstock after stocks of e-bikes skyrocketed.
As good as the S5 is, the feature set tends to be gimmicky in my opinion, perhaps in an attempt to justify the new, higher $3,998/€3,498 price tag. They’re cute, entertaining, and definitely a little handy at first. But many are simply not necessary for ordinary commuters. The S5 has too many darlings and not enough kills.
For the context of that price, the VanMoof S5 is currently $500 more expensive than the comparable Cowboy 4 Series and $1,000 more than the more basic Ampler Axel. Viewed in those terms, VanMoof’s pricing seems about right.
Is the S5 worth it? I leave that to you to decide in this uncertain and inflationary world. While it’s certainly an improvement over the S3, it’s not twice the bike.
All photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge