(Pocket-lint) - The sun is shining and we're sitting astride the Rayvolt Cruzer on the edge of one of London's parks. There's no hiding from the attention: heads swivel, hushed conversations between passers-by, children pointing.
For those who want a bit of attention, the Rayvolt Cruzer is for you. It's the sort of bike that will see drivers slowing to peer out of the window. It's the sort of bike that stops pedestrians in their tracks. "That's a cool bike," a pair of joggers say.
Exuberant retro design
Attention is par for course. This over-sized, low-slung electric bike is dripping in retro charm, from its long wheel base to the leather trim and accessories. It's the sort of bike that sunny days where made for.
Rolling on fat tyres - with a big central (optional, £130) headlight - it's a lot more like a motorbike in its design. The giveaway is that the Cruzer comes with pedals and a chain - which is also really long - but you'd be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at some sort of vintage motorbike.
With a rear hub-mounted motor and a leather-clad battery pack sitting in the centre of the frame, all it seems to be missing are the exhaust pipes. But in this eco-friendly world, exhaust pipes are no longer the epitome of cool - electric power is.
The Rayvolt, then, is a unique electric bike. It's big, it's exuberant and, although it's not going to be to all tastes, those we showed were taken by its charms. Sitting astride this Cruzer you feel like a star; bland suburban streets are stripped away as you feel like you're rolling along a Californian highway, one of the beautiful people, an extra from Sons of Anarchy.
But this design has its downsides. This bike is tremendously heavy. It comes in two sizes and various configurations, but the larger size with 26-inch wheels is 34kg. Most of the weight is toward the rear thanks to the battery and the motor and you'll feel that when you try to lift the bike. It's awkwardly cumbersome.
That size will also have an impact on how practical it is to live with the bike. The length means it's hard to get through tight spaces and where you might lift a regular bike onto its rear wheel to walk through the house, that's not possible with the Rayvolt - because it would then be too tall to fit through a standard door frame.
That leaves the Cruzer as the preserve of those who have somewhere nicely accessible to store it, like a garage.
Life on the road
The geometry of the Cruzer's frame means that it's a relaxed riding position, much more like a low-rider than a conventional bicycle. That means it's easy to sit astride this bike with both feet on the ground, but the pedals are forward, meaning you have to grip the handlebars nice and tight to put any force through them.
It reminded us of a pedalo at the beach, which in some ways means form over function: it's hard to see that anyone ever really thought you'd have to pedal this bike with any seriousness. That's because it's electric, with the controller in the crank sensing when you're pedalling and then swinging in to offer assistance from the motor.
The result is that the Rayvolt Cruzer takes itself up to legal limits with barely a rotation of the pedals. Riding it around London's suburbs, up and down the odd hill, our heart rate never exceeded 100bpm. Essentially, that means we weren't really putting in any effort at all.
Philosophically, that dictates what the Cruzer is: it doesn't feel like a bike because you don't really ride it like a bike. And given its weight, it would be exhausting to ride it any distance without that power assistance.
Parking that to one side, the setup of the Rayvolt - despite its retro looks - is very sophisticated. Firstly, there's the sensors in the crank detecting and activating the motor assistance, then there's the motor applying that power smoothly. It's the power that you really feel on the Cruzer - it's not like the Brompton Electric or Gocycle that offer subtle assistance - as you'll feel like you're riding the motor.
That's where the second part of the package swings in. The motor comes in two sizes (we had the larger, which costs £100 more) and it will detect and adapt the power it provides to keep you at the legal speed limit for power assistance. Thanks to a gyroscope and constant monitoring, it can adapt to mean that you power up the hills with barely any drop off in speed - and very little increase in the work the rider has to do.
So does this system work?
Most of the time it works really well. A dab of rotation on the pedals and you feel the bike take-off underneath you. You can then ride on a slow rotation of the pedals at the speed limit you're allowed in the country (for the UK that limit is 15.5mph/25kmph). Sometimes you might slip and find yourself pedalling a little harder, but backing off and doing less usually results in much the same result - depending on how strong you've set the pedal assistance, of course.
Where things come a little unstuck is pulling away from the lights, or away from a roundabout. You have to get the pedals turning over before the motor will kick in: you can't sprint away from the lights like you can on a conventional pedal bike - it's just not the right position to do that. That means that stop-start riding isn't especially smooth, so this isn't a great commuter bike for London.
But when you're underway, you're almost a passenger, along for the ride, very much out for a leisurely cruise. With a range of 25 miles for the standard battery or 50 miles for the extended battery (with a £500 price bump), this is a bike that will get you most places you'll want to go.
There's fast-charging too. Rayvolt doesn't use cheap batteries - they come from Panasonic and Samsung - which is part of the reason why the asking price is so high.
There's another neat trick that Rayvolt offers: regenerative braking. When you grip the brakes you'll feel the regen start, using the motor to reverse charge the battery, before the hydraulic brakes clamp. That will mean that some of your braking will recharge the batteries rather than losing that energy through friction. It might also mean your brake pads last longer.
We did find, on occasion, that we seemed to be dropping off speed, and that the regen seemed to have started on its own. A dab of the brakes released this, seeing a return to smooth riding again.
The other thing you won't find on this frame is suspension. Although the front forks look like shocks they aren't, so on the UK's rutted roads, it's a bit of a rough ride. We had the front accessory satchel on the handlebars initially, but it flapped around so much that we removed it. The chain length also isn't great for rough roads, as it bounces around making a fair amount of noise - which is a downside if you venture offroad.
A little bit better connected
We mention the offroad side of things, because there's an accompanying app that goes with the Rayvolt which can change the control of the bike. It uses Bluetooth low energy (BTLE) to connect and thanks to sensors across the bike the app know what's happening. It knows, for example, when you pull the brake.
One of the main functions of the app - aside from giving you reports on the speed - is governing the Cruzer's riding mode. This slips into a slightly grey area, with Rayvolt suggesting that the UK legal road limits needn't apply if you were offroad or on private land - so you can change the settings. We also imagine that this then allows Rayvolt to sell in different regions and just change the setup.
Offroad removes the limits, giving you the full power of the motor. And if you've elected for the more powerful motor, that will give you a lot more speed. As we said previously this is primarily designed to help you maintain speed uphill, but you can deploy it on the flat too - observing legal restrictions of course.
The app is a little unconventional in its design and not really very clear - having "save" and "send" as the confirmation options doesn't really help and with Android we did struggle to maintain a connection (although we've seen it working more smoothly on iPhone).
There's also the option to have a phone charger, so you can charge your phone from the bike as you ride. And while we're talking about optional extras there's a range to choose from. Because the Rayvolt is unique in its design, some conventional accessories might not fit - but there are panniers, mirrors, mudguards, and, for taller riders, there's a saddle extension to lift the seat a little higher.
You probably know whether you want a Rayvolt Cruzer or not as soon as you see it. It's unlike other electric bikes, it's a statement of individuality and for some people it won't do what they want - it's more electric and less bike when compared to many conventional rivals.
From a practicality point of view there are limitations too. You're not going to be able to lug this up the stairs into your flat or keep it in the hallway of your shared London house - it's just too big - and it's an expensive beast too.
But for all the Cruzer's retro looks and quirky design, it's surprisingly sophisticated from a technology point of view. It might not be a e-bike for the masses, but it will win the hearts of the few.
Alternatives to consider
The Gocycle is also packed with technology and offers a sophisticated design. Being able to say that the Gocycle is rather more conventional than Rayvolt in its design is quite something, considering it is a custom designed monocoque. While both offer power assistance, the Gocycle offers compact commuter practicality with its CleanDrive system and quick release hubs.
The daddy of handmade folding bikes, the Brompton Electric puts power into the package making commuter lives even easier. This Brommie sits the battery on the front, so if you don't want that power, you can just remove it and ride the bike as normal.