Smart Electric Bike Review – Art of Smart bought to two-wheels
No-one can have failed to have noticed that things are afoot in the world of Big Auto. The wind of change that electrification has set blowing through personal transport is being felt in corporate office headquarters, from Frankfurt to Detroit. And it’s no longer just the four-wheeled world being jolted by the potential of electric drive-trains. Audi, VW, Toyota, Ford: the list of purpose-built e-bikes fluttering off the drawing-board, and onto the auto show-stand, just keeps on growing.
The reason is simple. The e-bike market promises a veritable tornado of growth – and the auto-manufacturers want to be ready to catch a sail-full of that breeze. But for all the high-concept e-bike chic being paraded at the shows, it’s taken nimble niche-player Smart to be the first auto company to bring a serious e-bike offering to the masses. Since May in the UK and Germany (and from 2013 in the US and Canada) the Smart e-bike has been pushed as the next big step in the electric bike revolution. The question asked by some, though, is – just how clever have Smart really been here?
New synergy for the ‘third way’
There is certainly an interesting new synergy at play. Up until now, most of the serious unit-shifting for e-bikes has been through bicycle manufacturers, shoe-horning their models into the electric way of doing things. Auto companies, like Smart, however, are tackling the e-bike solution from the other direction – seeing the electric bike as a point of entry for a new mass personalized transport market – one entirely separate from pedal bikes, or indeed automobiles.
They have a point. And because of their gargantuan marketing power – and deep pockets – it’s one that they can make quite forcefully. The Smart e-bike is now in a position to test the hyped ‘third way’ for personal transport, to see if it can be made to stand tall. It has the force of a major auto- manufacturer standing behind it – in this case Germany’s Daimler, Smart’s owner. And it has the reputation for intelligent – if quirky – design, earned from Smart’s range of eponymous two-seaters.
Uber-excitement for the urbanite?
But for all of Smart’s cleverness in design – of which there is plenty on display with the Smart e-bike – the project will fly-or-fall on whether the bike meshes properly with its intended new market. Because make no mistake, the Smart e-bike is looking for a new market: seeking to hook up with the urban mainstream. Smart are happy to leave the envelope-pushing to the e-bike specialists and backroom hobbyists. As Smart CEO Dr. Annette Walker said at the launch: “We at smart have been gathering experience of electric drives and the mobility needs of city dwellers around the world for years. The smart e-bike is the logical product of this experience.”
Which isn’t to say that the Smart e-bike is staid, or simply evolutionary. It is packed nicely with subtle innovation. But this isn’t a bike for the sports-fan or the speed-freak. It is the everyday journeys of the bolder urbanite-set that figures in Smart’s plan for this e-bike. So exactly what sort of smarts does the Smart e-bike have to offer them? Well, let’s start with the gloss.
Visually the Smart e-bike has plenty of appeal – it maybe even be a design classic-in-waiting – one that manages to look futuristic, without falling off the cliff into sci-fi silliness. A lot of that has to do with a handful of bold clean lines, bought to the fore by a lack of clutter: no wires, no gangling gears, minimal spoking and tight razor tires. And lot of it has to do with a handful of bold colours: the designers have made a clever brand tie-in to the Smart electric car visuals, with its distinctive neon-green-on-white marking. Everyone will know you’re riding a Smart, when you’re zipping past at the traffic light queue.
So there’s plenty to catch the eye of potential buyers. But at around US$3,800 a bike (£2,495 in the UK, or €2,849 in Europe), there has to be plenty of function behind the form. So what sort of a transport experience does the Smart e-bike have to offer? More to the point, will you even be able to zip past anything much more than stationary traffic, when pushing on the pedals of the Smart e-bike?
Motor, Gears and Drive
As pedelec drive technology goes, Smart has decided to bend a middle course between innovator and journeyman. The motor is a decidedly underwhelming 250W BionX rear-wheel hub unit (200W in the UK, though this will be 350W for the US and Canada), pushing out a maximum of 35 Nm of torque. The motor’s assist is limited to just 15mph (24kph), before it cuts out. So far, so pedestrian.
But remember, Smart’s e-bike is aiming to ease the commute and shopping trips of city-dwellers, to provide a viable alternative to expensive car journeys or erratic public transport. Many of its riders will be new to e-biking. Ease of use and reliability will trump raw performance for them. And their motor supplier – the Canadian firm BionX – has proven popular, putting out some 40,000 units a
year. They help provide a measure of confidence that the heart of the Smart’s power will be prove to be steadfast.
The motor can be flipped between 4 levels of assistance, going all the way from zero to heroic, through an integrated SRAM I-Motion 3-speed hub gear system. But it is with the drive-belt itself that Smart starts to get really clever. Out goes a gnarly metal-linked chain, and in comes a sleek Gates carbon-toothed belt, which – with its 118 high-strength teeth – weighs in a little less than 3 ounces (80 grams). A straight-as-a-die chain-line, with no lubricant, no maintenance, and no trouser rips. What more could the style-conscious, time-constrained commuter ask for?
Brakes, Batteries and Charging
Braking comes courtesy of a pair of hydraulic Magura MT4 perforated disc brakes, which Smart claim will provide excellent performance even in wet weather. And that loss of kinetic energy on braking isn’t wasted – a recuperative braking system flips the motor into generator-mode, pushing power back into the battery as you slow. That extra fillip of efficiency is probably needed; the battery itself is on the sufficient side, rather than the stellar.
Weighing in at 6.6 pounds (3 kg), the 48V/10amp lithium-ion battery is loaded with 423W of electric energy, when fully-charged. Smart believes that its e-bike users can squeeze 62 miles from this battery, using the lowest-assist mode. No doubt their range estimate relies on a gradient-free route, along sweetly-paved roads. But with most commutes and shopping trips likely to be safely
under 20 miles all-round, the ‘Smart-set’ are pretty unlikely to find themselves on an unassisted ride, pedalling the flat-battery back home. In fact, riders can even switch the motor into generator mode, and recharge the battery as they cycle, if they’re feeling energetic.
Getting charge back into the battery from the mains grid is hassle-free. The battery is detachable, and can be topped up independently of the e-bike itself. Getting from flat-to-full should take 5 hours, whilst a partial recharge, from 20% to 80%, can be achieved in as few as 3 hours. Smart has pegged the battery to 500 charging cycles, factoring in an 80% residual capacity.
Gadgets and Options
So the Smart e-bike brings plenty of style, and a measure of technical innovation – but what else do Smart offer to win over the city crowd? One of the more attention-grabbing features is a USB socket on the integrated control panel. This allows for ‘charging in motion’ for whatever device you happen to plug in (smartphones and sat-nav immediately spring to mind). It will also, no doubt, please those umbilically connected to their personal e-device of choice.
The control panel itself is slick, if functionally basic, showing battery status, the current assist mode and basic bike computer outputs. It is also easily removed from the e-bike, adding another layer of security – the motor will fail to start without the correctly installed control panel. The forks are suspension free – presumably because this is not an e-bike destined for off-the-road shenanigans – and the overall package weighs in at sturdy (26.1 kg) 51 pounds. Optional extras include a smartphone cradle, luggage rack, and a choice of handlebar and seat designs.
The ultimate extra?
Of course, one way of looking at Smart’s e-bike is as a giant optional extra in itself. As we’ve already said, there is a symbiotic branding tie-in to the electric Smart car; plenty of marketing shots showing Smart-car-plus-Smart-ebike, a wonderfully cosy coupling. That may lead many to dismiss the Smart e-bike as more of a promotional gimmick for the Smart car brand, than a stand-alone e-bike in and of itself. Undoubtedly there’s some truth in that, but such synergy is, naturally enough, a two-way thing.
The Smart car-brand appeals to an audience that is already prepared to think – and travel – out of the box. That may allow Smart to be the first auto-maker to seriously tap – and grow – the e-bike audience beyond early adopters and hobbyists. If so, be prepared to see Big Auto breaking out of their ‘concept bike’ mind-set, and starting to hit the cycle lane in force. After all, the wind will be behind them.