Smart electric bike review
Pedalling through London on the Smart electric bike doesn't feel like riding a bicycle, it's more like gliding along on a two-wheeled spaceship. There's something almost more European about this ride: German-engineered, a little Dutch in appearance, the eBike is a virtual melting pot.
And it sure is a magnet for the eyes too; a head-turner of alien appeal, whether for better or worse. We weren't able to cycle anywhere without being approached about the eBike. From middle-aged observers querying what it was all about, to teens keen to ask a bunch of questions, the eBike broke down usually reserved Londoners' curiosity barriers. Must be the Merc appeal, Smart being a subsidiary of Mercedez-Benz.
But curiosity is one thing, being a viable commuter bicycle is another. After Smart laid on a guided eBike tour of London our interest was captured, but we wanted more: to know what it was to "own" and live with the eBike in our Zone 2 London pad; to get a feel as to how practical it truly was in a city setting key to its target audience.
After an extended weekend of barely pedal-powered excursions, forgoing the usual lightweight roadster, we've got mixed feelings about the eBike. Is it as smart as its brand name would suggest or does it feel like a rebadged Boris bike concept with a giant price tag?
Weighing up the options
A power-assisted pedal around town is one thing, taking the eBike back home is another altogether. Like many Londoners, we don't live in a full-size house, we live at the top of one - a Victorian one, no less - in a flat conversion. And that means three winding flights of stairs to tackle.
It's at this point the Smart eBike's 26.1kg weight really, really hits home. Literally: the walls are forever scarred from the battle to carry it upstairs. This isn't just elephant in the room kind of stuff, it's like trying to hoist an elephant up the stairs. There's no escaping it, that is heavy - 57lbs of heavy.
Put simply: don't buy the Smart eBike if you don't live on the ground floor, your lower back muscles probably won't appreciate it - even if, after a casual power-assisted ride, it's the only exercise you might get from an eBike outing.
The price is just as heavyweight. We've not got out the equivalent in £5 notes and put them on weighing scales to check, but £2,500 is a serious wedge of cash. That's pushing to the level of multiple road bike purchases and even touches upon second-hand scooter territory. It's a Smart with Merc-like pricing, no mercy.
But then it is gloriously built. In addition to being an eye-catcher, the Grace-made aluminium frame is full of curves and bends that provide an individual style. It's like someone took a Boris bike and turned the style dial up to 11.
You might not believe that the frame is aluminium though, considering the eBike's weight, but much of that mass comes from elsewhere. The addition of the motor, battery, awesomely responsive disc brakes, broad 26-inch wheels and other what-have-yous all add up.
But we can't bring into question the capabilities of those components. German engineering is a fine thing, and the eBike carries with it that sensibility.
The brushless BionX electric rear-wheel hub motor delivers 200W of power (it's 250W in every other EU country and 300W in the US and Canada) and can propel the eBike forward with up to 15mph of assist.
Oddly, however, we easily got to 16mph before the weight became apparent, and putting feet to the floor managed to muscle in at around 21mph at best - but the effort required for that is like doing leg curls on a gym machine. Believe us, as daily road cyclists this is a whole other experience. It goes from almost nothing to a tonne of bricks around that speed limit - but it's no surprise, if the motor power-assisted beyond 15mph then it wouldn't be considered or taxed as a bicycle.
From A to B
Which is kind of the point. The Smart eBike isn't really for cyclists. Not the hardcore types anyway. It's for those who dread the Tube commute, who aspire to cycle but don't want to turn up at the office with sweat streaming through the suit jacket. For those who are cooler than a Boris bike.
There's no question of ability or fitness with the eBike, it's the means to an end - getting from A to B without cashing out for yet another black cab, or renewing that £x-thousand annual rail fare. Plus you get some benefit out of actually moving your legs and keeping your mind alert to the roads around, and that's more engaging than the zombiefied commute of many.
And in that sort of light it's an escapist bit of kit. A modern-day gadget that's rather good fun from a commuter point of view.
Conversely, it's not a bike you'd take out for fun. It's to get from A to B, no doubt about it. As road cyclists that feels kind of strange, as there's not the same joy of invested physical movement, but then for the target audience that's entirely befitting.
Grind those gears
To keep things simple the eBike comes with a three-speed gear set. It's an electronic SRAM I-Motion 3, to be exact, and it's particularly interesting as it controls a carbon belt system rather than the chains typical of normal bikes.
But the eBike is no normal bike. A toothed carbon belt means little maintenance, no rust, no grime, excellent longevity and no slip-ups between gear changes.
At first we were confounded as to how Smart had managed to deliver a geared carbon system. That's the stuff of racecars (and the odd single-speed bicycle). But even if the eBike doesn't feel like a racecar, it delivers some essence of it without your so much as knowing. The carbon belt doesn't physically shift like a chain on a derailleur system would, instead the gear shifting occurs internally to the system that's central to the rear wheel. Cool.
Go, go Gadget bike
If you're unfamiliar with electric bicycles then don't let the concept strike fear in your heart. They're just like normal ones in many respects, except that after a couple of pedal rotations there's this "lift" from the motor. It feels a little floaty - and that side of things was enough to bring a smile to our faces.
You remain in control at all times, there's no doubt about that. There's nothing scooteresque about this experience - it's an assisted bicycle because your legs have to push those pedals. It's a responsive, smooth and easy ride, but the weight makes it a little tricky to manoeuvre through steep angles, such as in tight traffic.
But you do get some cool controls that feel rather Inspector Gadget. For the eBike to run there's a detachable computer-meets-LCD-screen controller that clips in to the centre of the handlebars. As well as displaying what's going on - current speed, distance covered, battery remaining, range and so forth - it also houses the speed controls, ranging from -4 to +4.
Set to level zero and you'll get a little assistance to keep you bobbing along, set to +4 and you can more or less go up a hill with no hands. Believe us, we went up Highgate Hill - it's a steep incline, and about the only one in London that will truly challenge even proper cyclists - and were gleefully smiling in the back of our minds, a sweat barely broken.
At the opposite end of the scale -4 feels like absolute torture if you're on flat ground. It's as if you're trying to break your own legs for no good reason. But it has its place: the reverse journey back downhill kept the pace sensible, it's like putting the brakes on without using them. Speaking of which, those front and rear disc brakes are incredibly responsive. Having this "negative" speed control means you needn't feel pant-wettingly scared at any moment however inexperienced you are - whether uphill or downhill the eBike can keep you in a fixed "sensible speed" zone so long as your hands tap to adjust the assisted speed.
Our one issue with this method of control is the central placement of the controller. At the base curvature of a hill, for example, you'll want to tap to up the speed to ensure you've got the assistance you need. That means removing your hands from the handlebars and, don't forget, this is a heavy bike. It feels a little daunting - why no handlebar-positioned controls like the gears? [Update from Smart: "The motor assist controls have been moved to a lift thumb shift on all new retail versions of the bike," so buy in the UK from new and you'll gain this benefit.]
It's not all just about speed though: the built-in front and rear LED lights can also be controlled from the centre controller. But not the bell, nope, that's a traditional "ding-dinger" mounted on the left handlebar. Ours was a fetching green. It's the choice of that with a white frame, or a dark grey frame with orange trim.
Smart claims the eBike can deliver up to a 62-mile range on a single charge. It also lobs in a trio of asterisks to ensure every caveat is covered: depends on cyclist (weight), "cycling style" (whatever that means), topography of the route, and generator level.
Let's conduct that in English: it means you'll rarely to never get 62-miles out of the eBike. Estimates are tough but we were probably achieving half of that because, like pretty much everyone, you'll spend much of your time on the +4 setting to make everything that much easier.
While that's a definite criticism, the more accurate 35-ish miles we got out of the eBike does translate well enough to cover the majority of return commutes. Go a bit easier on the juice and you might get 45-miles or more. We didn't, however.
But what you absolutely, completely and utterly cannot let happen is to run out of battery power mid-cycle. We avoided letting it run dead because if you get stuck in the sticks without the power assistance you'll feel every single one of those 26.1kgs. It'd be a bit like cutting the floor out of a Hummer and trying to ride it like the Flintstones. And you don't want that to happen.
When it comes to recharging, the eBike has a battery port that plugs into the mains like any camera, phone or other gadget. A glowing orange circle shows that you're charging, a green light shows charge is complete. Thing is, it takes 5-hours from dead, which isn't that short really. Get home late and if you forget to plug in then your commute the next day could be in a bit of trouble. Some sort of boosted speed charge to ensure it's always ready to roll would be a help.
The Smart electric bike is an exciting product. The general public told us so with their eyes and their words.
But it feels like a first go at an interesting idea. The sheer weight of the eBike will rule it out for most urban commuters, while the heavyweight near-£2,500 price further marginalises it. We get it's of Mercedes blood - buy the accessory lock, which straps on to the rear of the frame, and you'll get a cool Mercedes key - but to demand a Merc price just won't fly for most.
In a practical sense the ease of the ride, the sensitive brakes, the concept of not breaking a sweat, the "look at me" head-turning and that floaty spaceship feeling all come up as positives. And we always advocate getting more non-cyclists into cycling.
But after carrying the eBike up even just one flight of stairs a couple of times you'll be taking it back to the dealer thinking the season ticket looks like a better deal after all.
We've wanted to love the Smart eBike but it just doesn't quite connect with us, and that's considered not from the point of view as cyclists - we threw that hobby out the window for the purpose of this review - but that, despite its positives, the eBike is destined only for a financially sound few who happen to live on the ground floor of a swanky pad. But it's way cooler than one of London's Boris bikes.