It took a while, but component giant Shimano finally entered the rapidly growing e-MTB market with their E8000 STEPS system earlier this year. Consisting of a new, more powerful drive unit (and longer lasting battery than their commuting/touring E6000 setup), paired to a component groupset designed for the rigours of riding off-road, it’s obviously designed to steal back market share from dominant rival Bosch.
We’ve had the opportunity to take a pre-production version of the system for a proper test ride in the Swiss Alps.
On paper, the E8000 STEPS system is a match for anything out there. The motor puts out a maximum of 250W of power and a peak of 70Nm of torque, while the battery is a 500Wh Lithium Ion design that’s mounted to the frame, though Shimano is working with manufacturers to develop integrated designs.
There are three assistance modes: Eco, Trail and Boost, with the latter giving a maximum of 300% assistance. You also get a walk assist function to help deal with the mass on the machine when you’re off it.
The display unit and controller will be instantly familiar to anyone that’s used Shimano’s Di2 electronic shifting system, with the assistance setting being controlled via a Firebolt switch and a small colour display to show settings such as speed, range, assistance mode and more. It’s extremely neat and sleek, much more so than any other system on the market today.
Thanks to the E-Tube interface, you can adjust any number of settings in the system should you wish to via a Bluetooth connection. As you’d expect, it’s fully compatible with Di2 gearing and when used like that the derailleur takes its power from the main battery.
The drive unit is designed to allow for short chainstays for better handlingIrmo Keizer / Shimano
While all that is very clever, Shimano is claiming a number of benefits for the E8000 over its competitors. The first is that the system has a Q-factor (the distance between the tips of the crank arms) that’s identical to a standard chainset. This means a much more natural feeling pedalling position, something that’s immediately noticeable when setting off.
The drive unit is also said to allow for a shorter chainstay length, comparable to a normal bike. The test bike on offer was an unbranded prototype, but the rear end felt usefully short and relatively nimble.
A lightweight motor and battery aim to keep a playful feelIrmo Keizer / Shimano
Shimano E8000 STEPS vs the competition
At 2.8kg, the claimed weight of the drive unit is also a fair amount less than that of the Bosch system, which is said to be under 4kg. While the Bosch unit uses a small driver cog that’s geared up from the crank, the Shimano is directly driven by a larger chainring, with 34T or 38T options.
This, in conjunction with some clever gear design and special coatings inside the motor, means it’s much quieter in operation than most other designs. It’s not quite silent, but it’s certainly not intrusive, allowing you to get on with deluding yourself that the speed you’re going uphill might be down to you in some way.
The drive unit puts out 250W and 70Nm of torque, but it’s tuned to give a more subtle power deliveryIrmo Keizer / Shimano
Shimano says that a big part of what they bring to an e-system that others struggle with is their in-depth knowledge of cycling. To that end, the system is designed to give an assistance feeling that’s less artificial than its rivals. It certainly feeds the power in much more smoothly than the Bosch system and the assistance shut off is also much faster. Even in the Boost setting it’s a whole load more controllable in technical riding situations, but it lacks the manic excitement that the Bosch motor’s boot-up the backside provides.
Which you’ll prefer may well be a case of better the devil you know, as there are benefits to each approach. Though the Bosch unit has a 5Nm power advantage on paper, there were a few climbs where the Shimano unit started to struggle. Not having ridden both back-to-back on the same climb makes it hard to draw any solid conclusions, but I’d be tempted to say that the Bosch unit has felt more muscular when confronted with similar terrain.
Shimano E8000 STEPS teething issues
The units we rode weren’t production and there were some definite teething issues. One of the bikes was suffering from an intermittent power cut out, which Shimano engineers said was down to water ingress in the non-production spec battery and mount.
When that happens to you halfway up a rather long mountain climb you’ll be sorry you were born, as pedalling a 20-plus kilo bike up a 20% gradient is no fun at all. In our case, harnessing the working e-MTBs to provide a tow to the top averted the tragedy of someone trying to pedal a 20-ish kilo bike up a very steep fireroad.
The Firebolt mode switch integrates perfectly onto the handlebarIrmo Keizer / Shimano
While the power delivery was smooth for the most part, there was some very odd surging feedback through the cranks when soft-pedalling or just under the 25kph speed limit. For some reason, the system would cut in and out in a fairly jerky manner, usually as you rotated the cranks through the dead spot. It’s likely to be an issue easily fixed through software updates, but it was definitely at odds with how smooth the system was elsewhere.
The display unit is borrowed from Shimano’s Di2 parts binIrmo Keizer / Shimano
Hopefully the issues we had will be sorted out before STEPS equipped bikes hit the shops, because there’s a huge amount of promise in the system for e-MTBers. There were moments when it definitely felt more prototype than production, but it certainly hits Shimano’s stated goal of providing an experience that feels just like pedalling a normal bike, just with the legs and lungs of a Tour de France rider instead of your own.
The display and control gear is a step above anything else when it comes to ergonomics and integration, especially if you happen to be running a Di2 shifter setup.
Initial impressions are that it doesn’t feel quite as powerful as the latest Bosch CX Performance unit, but we’d need to test both back-to-back to say for sure.
Even so, it doesn’t lack power and while the muted power delivery makes it less of an intense experience than its main rival, it’s more than enough to keep you entertained while powering up and over some quite ridiculous terrain.