The type of e-bike motor plays an important role in determining performance, handling, and general ride quality.
Modern electric bikes use one of two motor designs; hub drive or mid-drive. The hub motor vs. mid-drive debate is complicated, involving factors like price, usability, ride quality, and durability.
Both motors work differently and have unique pros and cons, so it’s important to understand what they are before you commit to one.
This article will explain how each type of motor works, compare their benefits and drawbacks, and finish with a short guide to help you choose the right one.
What Are Mid-Drive Motor E-Bikes?
Mid-drive electric bikes get their name from the motor’s position on the bike, between the cranks at the bottom bracket.
Inside the motor are two sets of magnets, one static and one free. The fixed set has coils attached, which are energized in sequence to create a magnetic field that spins the free ones. The fixed magnets connect to a shaft that connects to and drives the cranks.
This design allows a high torque-to-power ratio; you’ll find 250W mid-drives with 70Nm of torque, whereas many 750W hub motors only have 70 or 80Nm.
Connecting the motor to the cranks and the drivetrain gives you a natural ride feel that a hub system can’t replicate. However, this connection to the drivetrain means you must utilize the full range of gears to get the most out of the motor.
- Related guide: How Do Electric Bikes Work?
Another reason mid-drives have a smooth and natural feel when you pedal is because of their torque sensors. Torque sensors measure the power you push into the pedals up to 1,000 times per second, resulting in a dynamic and proportionate response from the motor. Harder pedaling=more power.
The low and central position of the motor means it has little to no effect on handling, as the bike’s center of gravity isn’t affected. Unfortunately, this design makes it difficult and costly to install a throttle, so very few mid-drive e-bikes have them.
Pricing and Brands
Mid-drives are significantly more expensive than hub motor ebikes, so they’re generally not used on cheap e-bikes. The lowest price mid-drive e-bike we’ve seen is the Co-op Cycles CTY e2.1, at $1,799, but most models cost over $2,000, such as Kona E-Bikes.
The most popular mid-drive-specific motor brands are Bosch and Shimano. Fazua, Brose, and Yamaha also specialize in mid-drive motors for different brands, while Specialized and Giant have proprietary motors. Finally, Bafang has a range of powerful 750W and 1000W options.
What Are Hub Motor E-Bikes?
There are two types of hub motors, geared or gearless. Either one can go in the front or rear hub.
Direct-drive (gearless) motors were the earliest design. In these motors, the shaft is the wheel axle, so the torque generated in the motor drives the wheel directly, and because the shaft can only turn as fast as the wheel, max torque is limited.
In contrast, the shaft in a geared hub connects indirectly to the axle via a set of gears. Driving the gearset instead of the wheel allows the shaft to turn faster and generate more torque.
Regardless of the design, driving the wheel directly results in an unnatural ride quality and poorer traction. However, disconnection from the drivetrain means installing a throttle is easy, and you don’t need to change gears to get the most from the motor. The extra weight at the wheel axle may impact handling, depending on the bike.
- Read more: Direct Drive vs. Geared Hub Motors
Most hub-drive e-bikes use cadence sensors to activate the motor. These act like an on-off switch, engaging the motor when you begin pedaling and stopping when you stop (faster pedaling=more power).
Unfortunately, the amount of power delivered doesn’t change based on how much force you apply, which can make riding feel clunky and unnatural. As a result, many manufacturers (such as Juiced Bikes and Aventon) are adding torque sensors to hub-drive e-bikes to improve ride quality. Learn more about this in our comprehensive torque vs cadence sensors guide.
Front vs. Rear Hub Motor Differences
Front hub motors are uncommon, but some brands like Brompton and GoCycle use them. The motor operates the same regardless of position.
Front hubs have poorer traction than rear ones because the front wheel doesn’t have as much weight over it as the rear. Likewise, steering is slower due to the extra weight in the front. These wheels also look bulkier than the rear hubs disguised by the drivetrain. However, changing a flat on a front hub wheel is easier.
Pricing and Brands
Because hub motors are cheap, hub-drive e-bikes can cost as little as $500, with dozens of options available in the sub-$2,000 category. Check out our buying guide on the best electric bikes under $2,000 to see the most popular options.
The biggest hub motor manufacturer is Bafang. Other popular brands include Mahle, Shengyi, and TDCM.
Hub Motor vs. Mid-Drive E-Bikes Compared
This section will provide a comparison of an eBike hub motor vs. a mid-drive on seven metrics. Decide which ones are most relevant to you before searching for a new e-bike.
Mid-drive vs. Hub Motor Price
Electric bikes are expensive, especially when compared to standard bikes. However, the growth of the budget and entry-level market has made them more accessible, and hub motors are one of the main reasons e-bike companies can offer low prices. As mentioned, you can find dozens of hub-drive models between $500 and $2,000.
Mid-drive systems are expensive. Yes, they are superior in many ways, but if you’re not concerned with high performance or having a premium ride quality, the lower price of a hub system is perfectly adequate.
The most notable difference when comparing hub drive vs. mid-drive eBike motor systems is the smoothness of the power transfer. Direct connection to the drivetrain and torque sensing make mid-drives feel more natural. In addition, the motors respond faster to input and accelerate smoothly.
Riding with a hub motor doesn’t feel natural because the power comes from the rear or front of the bike and frequently has a slight lag. Adding torque sensors to hub systems helps bridge the gap in performance between the two.
Hub Motor vs. Mid Drive Efficiency and Range
A major benefit of mid-drives is greater efficiency, which has two effects. First, you get more range from the battery relative to a hub drive. Secondly, because you get more range, manufacturers can use smaller batteries, which lowers the total weight of the e-bike.
One point worth noting is that you must utilize the full range of gearing to maximize a mid-drive’s efficiency, making them less user-friendly. But, as a rule of thumb, the majority of longest-range ebikes come with mid-drive motors.
As stated above, mid-drives aren’t as user-friendly as hub drives due to their connection to the drivetrain and dependency on effective gearing. You must change gears regularly in response to changes in gradient, maintaining a smooth and regular cadence of around 70-90 rpm.
In contrast, hub motors perform the same regardless of the gear selected, making them easier to use if you aren’t an experienced rider. For this reason, they can be used with single-speed drivetrains and are best suited to throttles.
A downside of hub systems is it’s trickier to change a flat on whichever wheel the motor is installed.
Relative Torque Rating
A mid-drive motor will have significantly more torque than a hub drive of equal power. This higher relative torque means better acceleration from a stop and an improved ability to climb steep gradients and pull heavy cargo loads without dropping speed. For these reasons, you’ll usually see high-torque mid-drives used on electric cargo bikes and mountain bikes.
One trade-off of high torque is a slightly clunkier ride quality, which is why many electric road bikes have low to moderate ratings (40-60 Nm).
Handling and Traction
Comparing the handling and traction of a rear hub motor vs. a mid-drive e-bike is complex. It depends on the style of the bike, the battery position, and the motor’s torque rating.
For example, a rear hub motor with a rack-mounted battery puts a lot of weight over the rear wheel, making handling sluggish. Likewise, having lots of torque at the wheel can lead to traction issues on steep gradients or wet or loose surfaces.
The low and central placing of a mid-drive and downtube-mounted battery is superior to any hub motor arrangement because of the reduced effect on handling.
Mid-Drive Motor vs. Hub Motor Durability
There’s minimal difference in the durability of these two systems. However, all of the power mid-drives generate must go through the drivetrain, which results in the faster wearing of the components and more frequent maintenance and replacement of parts.
How to Choose the Right Type for Your Needs?
As you can see from the seven variables outlined above, choosing the most suitable electric bike motor isn’t straightforward. However, by asking yourself the following questions, you should be able to identify the best one for your budget and preferences.
Your budget is the first thing to figure out when you compare an eBike rear hub motor vs. a mid-drive.
If you can only spend $2,000, we recommend choosing a hub motor e-bike. There are limited mid-drive options below this price (the lowest we’ve seen is $1,799), but there are dozens of hub motor choices. In addition, the cost of accessories, gear, and maintenance tools will likely take you over budget if you choose a sub-$2,000 mid-drive e-bike. If price isn’t an issue, consider the type of riding you do.
What Type of Riding Do You Do?
How you ride will determine the style of bike you choose and narrow down the best motor for the job. Mid-drives are great for performance-focused electric bikes because of their efficiency, torque, traction, and smooth ride quality. For these categories, low pricing and user-friendliness aren’t as important:
Hub motors are adequate for categories where cost, practicality, and usability trump high performance. The exception is some e-road bikes. For example, some manufacturers (Cannondale, Orbea, GT, Merida) prefer the ultra-light Mahle eBikemotion X35 hub motor to keep the weight as low as possible when torque and efficiency aren’t as important.
However, most hub motor e-bikes are used for daily riding and general transport.
- Fat tire
Riding Style, Experience, and Journey Length
If you’re an e-bike rider who likes to sit back and relax on your daily commute or leisurely weekend ride, you will appreciate a hub motor with a throttle. However, a mid-drive’s extra range and smooth ride quality are favorable if you want to cover long distances and get a good workout.
If you’re an inexperienced rider, the simplicity of a hub motor system will take the stress out of riding, especially in urban environments, as you don’t need to focus on staying in the appropriate gear, and you can use the throttle to get going from a stop.