First Ride: The New Focus JAM² Trail Bike

by
October 11, 2016

It wasn’t all that long ago when Focus dropped its latest 140mm travel full suspension bike on us. In fact, it was only back in June of this year when the German brand unveiled the brand new JAM trail bike. With slackened geometry inspired by the Focus SAM, and the new F.O.L.D single pivot suspension design, the new JAM looked to have successfully filled the gap between the enduro-styled SAM and the shorter travel Spine. So why introduce another new JAM barely a couple of months later?

The answer lies inside the downtube of the new Focus JAM², and it is here where I’ll spoil the surprise: the JAM² is an e-MTB.

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The JAM² is a new model from Focus based on the existing 140mm travel JAM platform. Photo: Christoph Laue.

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to an incredible part of the world and test ride the new JAM². As you’ll gather, it’s no secret why Focus chose the south coast of France to show off their new trail bike; the scenery is spectacular, the trails are rocky and technical, and for this British journalist, the weather is positively splendid. Located just an hour south of Nice, Frejus is home to the Roc D’Azur, and for a couple of days last week, this gorgeous coastline also played host to a bunch of spoilt journalists on a press trip for the JAM². How were we not going to say good things about their new bike?

Firstly, it must be said that Focus is incredibly proud of what it has achieved with the new JAM², and it’s partly why the company chose such a location to show it off. Of course Focus has already been involved in the e-bike and e-MTB market for some time already, with various hardtail and full suspension models on offer that has shown its commitment to the segment. But the announcement of the groundbreaking Project Y e-MTB from earlier this year signalled a change in direction for the company, and a change towards high-performance e-MTBs. The new JAM² highlights this change in direction, and based on my first experience riding one, perhaps it even signals what we can expect in the future from the next-generation of e-MTBs.

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E-MTB’s often look hideous. The Focus JAM² does not. Photo: Christoph Laue.

From Focus:

“In 2017, the moment we’ve all been waiting for will arrive. As it’s the first mountain bike with the SQUARED EXPERIENCE, JAM2 is set to revolutionise the bike world. The all-mountain 27,5” and 29” E-Mountainbike is the latest young sprog to join the successful FOCUS trail family as a bike that’s made for a never-ending off-road adventures on technical terrain. Equally at ease on hard-as-nails home trails as well as burly mountainous turf, it’s a mesmerising all-rounder with numerous standout traits: the FOCUS typical design language, aggressive all-mountain geometry, the all-new F.O.L.D. rear suspension design and the patented T.E.C. for your best choice of energy. While the JAM2 certainly captures the thrill of an E-Mountainbike, it feels like a real mountain bike!”

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With 140mm of front & rear travel and the option of 29in or 27.5+ wheels, the Focus JAM² is a versatile trail bike. Photo: Christoph Laue.

The Focus JAM² features:

  • Available in 27.5+ and 29in wheel platforms
  • 140mm front & rear travel
  • F.O.L.D linkage-activated single pivot rear suspension design
  • 66.5-degree head angle
  • 457mm chainstay length (27.5+ model)
  • 470mm chainstay length (29in model)
  • Shimano STEPS E8000 system
  • 250W pedal-assist motor
  • Custom integrated 378Wh Li-Ion battery
  • Walk assist, Eco, Trail & Boost settings
  • Claimed weight: 20.9kg (JAM² Pro 29 Model)
  • Sizes: Small, Medium, Large, X-Large
  • RRP: £3199 – £5199
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Hidden battery aboard the Focus JAM². Photo: Christoph Laue.

Where’s the battery?

Perhaps the biggest distinguishing aspect of the new Focus JAM² is its battery. Most e-MTB’s locate their bulky Lithium-Ion battery packs on the top side of the downtube, or at best, in a sort of cradle further down towards the bottom bracket. Of course a battery is a necessary evil of an e-MTB. It’s heavy and bulky, but you need juice to push the motor right? The recent trend amongst e-bike motor companies is to build bigger and bigger batteries in order to offer more range. After all, that’s a selling feature. But it means bike companies have a challenge on their hands when it comes to attempting to conceal that massive, and hideous-looking battery.

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The battery inside the JAM² is Focus’ own design. It’s a large cylinder-shaped stick that slides into the downtube, and bolts in place with two M12 bolts. It is very snug and secure, with no rattling whatsoever. Photo: Christoph Laue.

What Focus decided to do with the JAM² however, was to go the other way. Rather than building a bigger battery for more range, Focus decided to build a lighter and sleeker battery that would offer slightly less capacity, but at a drastically lighter weight. To do this, Focus’s engineers worked alongside Shimano to produce a custom Lithium-Ion battery that slides into the downtube of the frame, before being bolted in place via two large M12 bolts. The battery itself has a capacity of 378Wh and weighs just 2kg. In comparison, the latest Bosch systems are pushing 500Wh and 600Wh battery sizes, and weigh nearly double that.

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Large cable entry points at the top of the downtube also serve as air intakes to help keep the battery cool and to dry any residue water that may pool inside the frame. Oh, and everything is watertight; you could wade through an armpit-deep river crossing, and the motor, battery and all the electrics will be a-ok. Photo: Christophe Laue.

The downside of the smaller battery is of course a reduced range for the pedal-assist motor. Focus stated that during its testing on the JAM² however, it was able to get between 90-95% of the range of its competitors, even with the smaller battery. How? Efficiency. There’s less weight for the motor to be pushing around in the first place, but the new Shimano STEPS E8000 system also has a lot to do with it.

I spoke with Focus’ E-MTB Product Manager, Alex Glink, about the reduced battery capacity. It seems that Focus was willing to take the compromise of a slightly reduced range in favour of a lighter and nimbler riding package, which is why they elected for the smaller integrated battery. Worried if you’ll have enough range? Then the JAM² will also take a piggy-back battery that has the ability to double the range for those riders looking for an all-day solution. But if most of your rides are under 3-hours long, then it’s unlikely you’ll have any worries with the stock setup. And you’ll be able to enjoy an e-MTB that comes in 2-3kg lighter than its full suspension competitors.

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The Go-button. Photo: Christophe Laue.

During the JAM² product launch, the point was repeatedly hammered home that Focus wanted to produce a fun, nimble and agile trail bike, and not just an electric bike that you could throttle round on all-day long on. And that’s a big reason why Focus committed to the integrated design that would use a lighter and smaller battery. In Glink’s words; “This should be a mountain bike driven by motor power, and not a motorbike driven by pedal power”.

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The STEPS system plugs into a Di2 head unit. The display indicates battery life, your current gear selection, and your power mode. Photo: Christophe Laue.

Shimano STEPS E8000 System

In April of this year (I know – it seems like such a long time ago!), Shimano introduced it’s XT-level e-bike motor system, called Steps E8000. Designed to go head-to-head with the likes of Bosch, Yamaha and Brose, the STEPS system brings with it the Japanese company’s attention to detail and faultless quest for efficiency. When Focus began development of the JAM² two years ago, the engineers quickly decided it would be built around the Shimano driveline. It offers a compact overall design, a much narrower Q-factor, excellent efficiency and very smooth power delivery.

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Like a front shifter, the Shimano Firebolt trigger allows you to select one of three power modes. Photo: Christophe Laue.

It’s also easy to control. The STEPS E8000 system is controlled by a left-hand Firebolt shifter that looks identical to a Shimano Di2 shifter. While your right hand controls the rear derailleur, your left hand uses the Firebolt shifter to access the three power modes in the STEPS system; Eco, Trail and Boost. Basically, it’s like operating a triple front derailleur, with Eco being your lower-power mode granny ring for really steep climbs, Trail being your middle ring that you use most of the time, and Boost being your big ring for powering along fireroad sections.

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The 175 Q-factor on the Shimano STEPS E8000 drivetrain is the same as what you’ll find on the regular Deore XT cranks. Photo: Christophe Laue.

The Motor

Inside the bottom bracket of the STEPS E8000 system is a 250W motor that delivers up to 70nM of torque. The package itself is compact and features a narrower stance than comparable e-bike cranks. In fact, its Q-factor is identical to a regular Deore XT crankset, so it doesn’t feel any different pedalling the JAM² compared to the regular JAM. For riders with short legs like me, the wide Q-factor of other e-MTBs can make you feel like you’re learning to ride a horse. That foreign feeling takes some getting used to, and you’re also more likely to clip the pedals as they sit out further away from the frame. With the Shimano STEPS E8000 crankset however, it just feels exactly the same as riding a regular mountain bike, so there’s no adapting required.

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The more you put into the pedals, the more the 250W motor puts out. Photo: Christophe Laue.

The way the 250W motor works is simple: you pedal, and the motor kicks in. The more effort you put into the pedals, the more the motor puts out. The power curve is very smooth and progressive, and overall it has a surprisingly natural feel on the trail that means it doesn’t take long to forget its working away underneath you. But making use of the three power modes is paramount to getting the most out of the STEPS E8000 system. I found I rode the JAM² in the Trail setting for about 90% of the time, but for steep and loose climbs, backing it off into the Eco setting helped to ease off the power delivery to avoid rear-tyre slip when traction was at a premium.

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The compact F.O.L.D suspension linkage is tidy and very effective on the trail. Photo: Christophe Laue.

Suspension

Out back, the F.O.L.D suspension design of the regular JAM carries on for the JAM². It delivers 140mm of rear wheel travel, with the solid one-piece rear triangle activating a compact dual-linkage that drives the RockShox Deluxe rear shock. The anti-squat is slightly higher on the JAM² compared to the regular JAM, given the different pedalling dynamics required between the two bikes. Compared to other brand’s suspension designs, the F.O.L.D arrangement affords masses of clearance inside the front triangle for the JAM², so there’s plenty of space for a water bottle.

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The outside linkage that connects the rear triangle is the Guidelink, and the inside linkage is the Mainlink that drives the rear shock. Photo: Christophe Laue.

Otherwise as with the regular JAM, the two-stage suspension curve is present on the JAM², with the first 1/3rd of the stroke offering a digressive rate towards the sag point for supple small-bump compliance, and the final 2/3rd of the stroke switching to a progressive rate to help ramp up the suspension towards the end of the travel. It’s an elegantly simple solution that works really well on the trail. The Focus JAM² is plush and controlled on a wide variety of hits, and it offers excellent climbing traction too.

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The combination of the compact Shimano STEPS E8000 system and the F.O.L.D suspension design has offered plenty of flexibility for geometry of the JAM². Photo: Christophe Laue.

Geometry

To maintain the handling present on the regular JAM, Focus made some ever-so-slight tweaks to the JAM². The main change being a slightly slacker 66.5-degree head angle. The other change being that theJAM² is available in both 27.5+ and 29in versions. The mainframe is the same between the two bikes, but the rear triangle is slightly different, with the 27.5+ swingarm being slightly shorter overall. While the JAM² is a little longer in the chainstays to accommodate the Shimano STEPS motor, it has one of the most compact rear-ends for an e-MTB, coming in at 457mm long for the 27.5+ model. That might not sound particularly short, but it is very compact for an e-MTB.

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Overall geometry on the JAM² is very much on the trail bike side of things. There’s a steep 74.5-degree seat tube angle that’s designed to get your weight forward over the cranks for scaling up really steep climbs, while roomy front-centre lengths are designed to offer lots of stability for when the trail turns back down the other direction.

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The JAM² is the first e-MTB I’ve ridden that doesn’t feel like a lurchy tank. It’s smooth, agile, and bucketloads of fun. Photo: Christoph Laue.

The Ride

Now I’m not going to lie. The trails around Frejus were so good, that riding a zimmer frame over them would have still been a barrel of laughs. The singletrack is narrow, rocky, and technical, and it has a very natural and rugged feel to it. With very little rain in the region over the summer season, the trails we rode were also very dusty and loose, meaning that our tyres were working overtime to keep us glued to the trail surface. It was hella fun, and Focus did well to choose such a spot to show off their latest pride and joy.

The other point I want to establish up front is that I am no e-MTB expert. I’ve ridden a handful of e-MTBs for testing, but I don’t have exhaustive experience with every brand and every motor system. But while I have enjoyed certain aspects about the e-MTBs I have ridden, there are other aspects that leave a lot to be desired. The weight is of course one factor, but it’s the ‘lurchiness’ of most e-MTBs that I’ve ridden that I have found to be most off-putting, and a real disruptor to trail flow. That said, I can see why many people enjoy riding them, and if those people are having fun and riding bikes, then that’s a-ok with me.

I also understand that many people absolutely hate e-MTBs. And it’s true that they’ve certainly proven to be a controversial topic of late. There are a few reasons why, but rather than attempt to explain them all, I decided to get the low-down by speaking with the guy who spends each and every one of his working days on e-MTBs at Focus. You’ll be able to watch my Q&A video with Alex Glink of Focus Bikes, where I ask some of the questions about e-MTBs that our Facebook followers submitted to us last week. Stay tuned to Singletrackworld.com for that video soon…

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Dare I say, technical climbing becomes ‘fun’ on the Focus JAM²?? Photo: Christophe Laue.

Arriving in Frejus with my sceptical hat on, I was very eager to find out how the Focus JAM² actually rode. And in short, it rode like a trail bike. And that’s a very big complement indeed. Thanks to its supple suspension and capable geometry, the JAM² is a flat-out surprise. It’s a fun, flickable and agile trail bike that lapped up the chunky singletrack terrain. With its narrow Q-factor, relatively low weight and smooth power delivery, it doesn’t feel like you’re riding an e-MTB when you’re aboard the JAM².

With the assistance of the Shimano motor, gaining altitude becomes incredibly efficient. Within no time at all, we found ourselves at the top of the mountain, with coastal views and various descending trails around us. Technical climbing is where I really enjoyed the STEPS E8000 motor system the most, as I was able to ride up some ridiculously steep and gnarly trails that I would have never even considered attempting on a regular bike. Aboard the JAM², singletrack climbs certainly become part of the fun. That said, I must say I put myself in the box on multiple occasions while trying to ride up some particularly nasty trails. The JAM² eggs you on, and all of a sudden you’re at max heart rate trying to push yourself up harder and harder inclines. While many critics suggest that e-MTBs make climbing too easy, I would have to firmly disagree. I was just as knackered climbing on the JAM² as I would be with my regular go-to bike at home, but the difference was I had climbed up much further, much faster and on more technical trails.

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With modern geometry and 140mm of plush suspension, the JAM² feels planted and stable on high-speed descents. Photo: Christophe Laue.

Of course I was expecting the JAM² to be impressive on the climbs (with a 250W pedal-assist motor, it should be impressive), but I didn’t expect it to be so good on the descents. I rode the 29in verison of the JAM², and while I did get a chance to play around with the 27.5+ version, I did prefer the big-wheeler. The 2.4in wide Continental Mountain King treads are equipped with the burlier ProTection casing, which gave good stability and traction on the sharp rocky trail surface around Frejus. The 29in JAM² also offers a more direct feel to its handling that allows for a more point-and-shoot riding style compared to the monster-trucking ability of the plus bike.

Combined with the capable geometry and plush suspension, the JAM² is a really fun trail bike to pummel down rocky chutes and into loose corners. Its centralised weight sits low down in the chassis, and that plays a significant role in the stability and overall cornering traits of the JAM². When the trail flattened out and became more undulating in its profile, the smoothness of the Shimano STEPS drive system also impressed. The JAM² doesn’t lurch forwards harshly as you engage the pedals, and it doesn’t decelerate heavily when you get off the pedals. Instead, it provides a smooth and predictable power transfer that feels seamless. If it weren’t for the whine from the motor, it would be easy to forget you even have a motor beneath you – it’s that good.

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Need more range? Focus offer an additional piggy-back battery that can double the range. Photo: Christophe Laue.

T.E.C Pack

In addition to the new bike, Focus also had a range of accessories and add-ons for the JAM². The T.E.C pack (Tailored Energy Concept), basically refers to the ability to kit out the JAM² with whatever setup you need for your riding. You can (as we did), run the stock internal battery, with a single water bottle cage on the downtube. Or you can fit a supplementary ‘Smart Rack’ to the downtube that’ll allow you to fit a bottle cage and a tool box with CO2 canisters. Or you forgo the bottle cage, and instead fit an extra battery pack that mounts externally to double the capacity of the JAM². That’ll give you 760Wh of juice in total, and it’ll add 2.1kg to the total weight.

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The BOLD² is the hardtail version of the JAM², and also comes in 27.5+ and 29in options. Photo: Christophe Laue.

The Focus BOLD²

Also new for Focus is the brand new BOLD². Basically the hardtail equivalent to the JAM², the BOLD² also features the integrated battery design and the sleek Shimano STEPS E8000 system. Unfortunately we didn’t get a chance to ride one of the new hardtails during the press launch, but it will likely appeal to riders who aren’t frequenting quite as technical terrain.

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The JAM² has significantly raised the performance bar for e-MTBs. Photo: Christophe Laue.

Overall

One day of riding a new mountain bike on unfamiliar trails in a postcard-perfect setting is hardly going to constitute a thorough dressing-down, and I’m not going to conclude otherwise. What I will say is that I would love to get some more ride time aboard the new JAM², because motor or not, it is a really fun bike to ride. Compared to other e-MTBs out there, it is without doubt lighter, smoother to pedal and better handling, and I can see it winning over many sceptics who haven’t been sold on the whole e-MTB thing. I’m interested to see how the battery life fairs on our steep Calderdale terrain around the Singletrack office, and how the Shimano STEPS E8000 system copes with a season of proper British mud.

As to the whole “e-bike debate”? Personally, I still remain ambivalent about them, but then I’m also ambivalent about downhill bikes, slopestyle bikes and triathlon bikes. Having had the chance to ride and experience e-MTBs, I see that it’s just another way to go mountain biking. And if that floats your boat, then cool. If it doesn’t, then no sweat.

However, I can see why the Focus crew are so excited by their new bike. Because if the JAM² is a sign of what we can expect from next-generation e-MTBs, then the pre-conceived notion that pedal-assist mountain bikes should only be for those less physically able riders is about to be very seriously challenged.

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