BROMPTON ELECTRIC BIKE REVIEW: REMARKABLY PRACTICAL

Brompton makes divisive bikes. The aesthetic of the company’s miniature folding bicycles is best defined as Raspberry Pi meets Google Cardboard, appealing to a sense of nerdy utility, not emotion. Bromptons are revered and reviled with equal vigor, and the company’s first electric bike — launching in the US this week — will only intensify that.

Every e-bike designer struggles with where to put those massive batteries, and whether to make them removable for easy charging. Some of the most attractive electric bikes hide the battery inside the tubing. Others bolt it onto the frame or the rear carrier like a hostile tumor. Brompton went an entirely different route.

Consistent with the nature of this 44-year-old British company, Brompton’s solution is incredibly practical: the battery fits inside a small shoulder bag that clicks conspicuously onto the front of the bike. How you feel about that says everything you need to know about whether the $3,499 / €2,995 / £2,595 Brompton Electric folding bike is for you.

The Brompton name is synonymous with folding bikes the world over. The bicycles manufactured in London today remain true to the same iconic design established in the 70s. For decades, Bromptons have been carried onto subways, buses, and cars by multimodal commuters needing a solution for the first and last mile. Adding a 250W electric motor to supplement your pedaling greatly extends that range, with the added promise of a no-sweat arrival at your destination.

Brompton’s small bikes can be taken onto public transportation for free and then stored under your desk at the office. In Amsterdam, for example, regular non-folding bikes can only be carried onto a train during off-peak hours, at a cost of €7 for each leg of the journey, and only in special bicycle cars that can quickly become overcrowded.

I’ve been testing a Brompton Electric (model M2L) in the Dutch capital for the past few weeks on rides as long as 15 km (9 miles). I learned a lot along the way. But first, let’s talk a little bit more about that bag.

The battery, motor, and control module are all up front, while the backside remains a traditional Brompton.

The 1.5-liter Essential bag is required equipment meant to “aid portability,” according to the company. It houses the bike’s 300Wh removable battery, good for between 30 to 70km (about 19 to 43 miles) depending how and where you ride. I was regularly in the 40km (25 miles) range while riding at full power on flat roads. The bag has a small outer pocket for the bike’s charger, keys, and a phone which can be charged by snaking a cable back to a USB port on the battery. The battery cannot be plugged into the bike without the bag.

There are two buttons on top of the battery for toggling the power-assist modes and the front and rear LED lights. You can access these while riding the bike. Indicator lights show the battery remaining (1 to 5 dots), power mode (off, 1, 2, or 3), and the lighting status (off, on, or automatic). The battery can be extracted from the bag by its integrated handle (which folds flat when in the bag). The bag itself also has a handle, on which you’ll find a button you press to release the bag from the bike. The aforementioned shoulder strap tucks securely into a side pocket.

This commitment to feature replication extends to the wheels as well.

As a bicycle, the Brompton already has two 16-inch wheels. Nevertheless, the company added three additional small wheels (two behind the seatpost and one on top of the rear fender) that allow the bike to be pulled like a piece of luggage by the handlebar when the rear-wheel is folded. The bicycle wobbles a lot on those tiny plastic wheels and can easily tip over if you’re not careful. It works in a pinch, I guess, but boy is it inelegant. This kind of brute-force design is also apparent in the bike’s mess of exposed cabling bound together with tie-wraps, as well as the two protruding wing nuts with swiveling latches you have to manipulate when folding the bike.

Admittedly, not everyone will be bothered by these foibles of design, but anyone who’s ever fretted about display notches or camera bumps most assuredly will.

Riding a Brompton can be twitchy at first until you get used to the narrow handlebar and small wheels. The Brompton Electric is perhaps worse with all that extra weight over the front wheel and the front-hub motor pulling you forward. Nevertheless, I adapted quickly and found the ride to be fine over short to medium distances, but less than ideal for longer commutes.

I should start by noting that the battery bag flitted about noisily while riding on some of Amsterdam’s brick roads. The rather ingenious latching system that allows the bag (and battery) to be easily inserted and removed from the bike just isn’t secure enough to keep the heavy combination from rattling about on uneven surfaces. On flat pavement it was still.

One time I hit a bump — not small, but also not anything worth aggressively steering away from — causing the motor to cut out. I looked down and saw two lights flashing on the battery (I later learned this was an “Error A” motor fault after consulting the manual). I was able to reach down while still riding to cycle the power and restore operation. Brompton says it’s aware of the issue, and already released a software update to address it. Nevertheless, it can still happen infrequently, caused by “micro-interruptions of the power” due to “heavy luggage and/or big shocks.” I only experienced it once over a few hundred kilometers of regular use, so I’m not overly concerned. The motor is covered by a two-year warranty, and the battery for two years or 500 charges, whichever comes first. Brompton says it’s monitoring the issue and looking into further solutions. A good place to start would be stabilizing the bag.

In my opinion, the Brompton saddle is too firm and the standard grips are too thin and rigid for the longest commutes enabled by that electric motor. They’re fine over short and even medium distances. My issue with the grips was exasperated by my test bike being fitted with the shorter M-type handlebar. This placed me in a slightly forward riding position that put more pressure onto my hands, causing the steel frame to transfer every bump up my arms and into my skull. It’s important to size your Brompton properly when ordering. You can order a bike with your preferred handlebar height (two sizes) and seatpost length (three sizes). At 6 feet 0 inches (183 cm), I’m fairly certain I would have been better served by the longer H-type handlebar for a more upright riding position. The saddle and grips can be replaced with aftermarket accessories.

My ride was especially uncomfortable when wearing a backpack loaded down with a laptop and other supplies needed for the daily commute. Good thing that Brompton offers a $200 / €165 / £130 City Bag with large 20-liter capacity that holds the battery, your laptop, chargers, and other gear. It made the longer rides much more comfortable, even if the oversized bag attached to the front of the tiny bike looked ridiculous and weighed down the front wheel even more.

While Brompton likes to brag about its front-hub motor being built in collaboration with the Formula 1 engineers from Williams, I can’t say I was especially impressed. The motor is noisy, emitting a high-pitched whine while cruising at the European maximum output of 25 km/h (16 mph). There’s also a slight delay before it kicks in after you’re already pedaling, and then keeps driving the bike forward for a split second after the cranking stops, despite being fitted with both torque and cadence sensors. Relatively speaking, the power delivery on the Brompton is much less intuitive than the near-silent Cowboy, and about the same as GM’s equally noisy Ariv folding e-bike. The mid-motor Ariv is fun to ride, however, whereas the front-loaded Brompton’s ride is undeniably stodgy.

I tested a manual-shifting two-speed model on flat terrain exclusively, and only had to shift into first when starting from a dead stop under a heavy load, or when the motor was turned off. A heavier and more costly 6-speed option is available for those of you who regularly contend with hills.

For all my gripes, the Brompton Electric does fold into a remarkably small package. It’s small enough to fit in the hatch of subcompact car or next to your seat on the train. For many multimodal commuters, I suspect that’s what matters most.

The Brompton Electric folds in thirds just like the company’s regular folding bike. While it’s possible to fold it with the battery attached, it’s much easier to just remove the 2.9kg (6.4 pound) battery / bag combo, leaving you with a 14kg (31 pound) bike to wrestle with. That’s very lightweight for a folding bike, but it’s not the lightest.

The bike collapses and assembles in five choreographed steps. Two of the steps require the clumsy manipulation of those fiddly wing nuts and hinges. Pulling a trigger and then flipping the rear-wheel under the bike is, however, very satisfying, as is the effortless clamping of the handlebar to the frame as gravity guides it into place. It’s a tried and true folding method that has served Brompton well for decades. Nevertheless, newcomers like GM and Gocycle have already improved upon it in sleek and intuitive ways, but at the cost of heavier bikes.

After two weeks I’m able to consistently fold and unfold the bike in about 20 to 30 seconds. The Brompton Electric is small enough that I can usually unfold it while still inside the train as it approaches the station, allowing me to roll it off for a quick getaway once the doors open. I just have to be careful not to leave the battery bag on the train (I almost forgot it twice).

The Brompton Electric with the rear wheel folded.

Other notes:

  • The bike doesn’t include a kickstand, but the rear wheel can be quickly folded allowing the bike to stand on its own. Fenders, integrated lighting, and a bell all come standard.
  • Brompton Electrics are fitted with dual pivot brakes, not hydraulic, but I never felt like I needed more stopping power.
  • I didn’t notice any additional resistance when riding with the motor turned off.
  • The 300Wh battery charges in about 4 hours with the included charger, or about 2 hours with the optional (€130 / £115) 4-amp fast charger. A 110V fast charger is not currently available for the US.
  • Although the Brompton Electric fits inside your checked luggage, its large lithium-ion battery is classified as dangerous goods and therefore can’t be transported on passenger planes.
  • The pedal on the left-side of the Brompton can be folded up making it easy to push without risking injury to your shin.
  • An adorable hand pump is integrated into the bike frame.
  • Brompton says the bike is suitable for riders ranging from 140 cm to 203 cm (4 feet 6 inches to 6 feet 8 inches).
  • An app is coming before the end of the year. It will initially record and display data such as speed, trip, and total distance traveled, track your service history and send service reminders, and let you change riding modes. It will communicate with the bike over Bluetooth, which can be enabled via a software update at a Brompton Electric dealer.
  • The Brompton Electric does not contain GSM or GPS radios for location tracking or theft recovery.

The Brompton Electric is a very good electric folding bike. While it’s my opinion that certain elements of the industrial design lack finesse, its extraordinary adaptability makes it suitable for all but the longest bicycle commutes. Yes, it’s nerdy — unashamedly so. But there’s something deeply alluring about a pedal-assisted e-bike that can replace a car for many urban commutes, be carried onto public transportation at rush hour for free, and is small enough to be tucked out of sight. And when you’re spending thousands on an electric bike, you’ll want to use it every chance you get.

In the US, the Brompton Electric is available to buy from select dealers starting this week. It’s priced at $3,499 for the two-speed model or $3,649 for the six speed, and available in black and white, exactly as you’d expect.

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