[NOTE: I originally posted this article on June 15, 2010. In mid-August, Kona officially added the Electric Ute to its 2011 catalog (here). I've re-edited the article to incorporate new information and correct a few mistaken assumptions on my part. I compare the Ute to the latest version of the Yuba elMundo and the upcoming Trek Transport+ here.]
One of our local bike shops (Alki Bike and Board) received its first Kona Electric Ute on Saturday. The owner knew that I was keenly interested in taking this bike for a test drive, and he immediately notified me of its arrival. I got to the shop while they were putting the final touches on the bike assembly.
The Kona Electric Ute will have a chapter in the history of cargo biking, because it is one of the first cargo bikes from a well-known manufacturer that includes an electric motor as an integrated option. Most of the electric-assisted cargo bikes currently on the road are after-market builds, which makes them more complicated and expensive for the average consumer. With a retail price of $2599, the Ute is considerably less expensive than my Rans Hammer Truck / BionX motor combination. The question is, did Kona skimp on anything to hit that price target? Does it still feel like a quality ride? Could I use this bike to do the same chores I do on my bike?
The Ute is a good-looking bike, with golden paint (but not too flashy) and a nice, thick wooden cargo deck mounted on top of the long, thin battery. It’s not an Xtracycle, and it hardly looks like a long-tail bike. It’s not just nicely-proportioned; the weight is well distributed between the front and rear (by contrast, my bike is quite tail-heavy if you try to pick it up). The Ute is also quite light for an electric cargo bike. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a scale to get an accurate measurement, but I estimate it weighs about 45 pounds.
Despite the Ute’s pleasing proportions, the cargo deck is quite long. It provided ample room to seat both my children during our test ride. However, it’s several inches narrower than mine, and the kids complained that it wasn’t as comfortable to ride on.
The owner of the shop was surprised that the Ute came with a triple chain ring on the cranking end, including a large top gear that should take you up to 30 mph if you feel the need for speed. A handsome seat, dual kickstand, front and rear fenders, and a handlebar-mounted warning bell are other nice touches that enhance a general impression of a bike that hasn’t been nickled-and-dimed to hit a price target. The bike comes with one pannier bag (not shown here). A second will cost $80. Of course, you’ll still need to buy lights, but it’s possible you could hit the road with this bike for under $3000. That’s a few hundred more than the Yuba elMundo, but that’s a very different bike.
On the question of quality, my first concern was the brakes: a rim brake on the front and disc brake on the back. It appears the front rim brake is necessary to make room for the hub motor. It’s not obvious how you could install a disc brake without changing the motor as well.
How critical is a front disc brake? That depends on your situation. If you intend to carry big loads down steep hills, the rim brake will be an issue. The rim on the Ute looks pretty durable, but it’s hard to know how it would wear under heavy use. In my opinion, Kona wasn’t trying to build the ultimate hill-hauling machine with the Ute. If that’s what you’re looking for, there are other bikes to consider.
The Ute’s 250-watt front hub motor looked tiny compared to the 350-watt BionX motor I use. Could a motor this small really help with big loads and big hills? I took it on a ride around the neighborhood to find out.
On flat terrain, the motor behaves much like mine. With these motors assisting your legs, it’s not always clear what gear you should use. Many times you can shift into a higher gear than normal, and the motor makes up the difference in effort. You don’t even have to down-shift when coming to a stop, because the motor will help you start again.
But there were some differences too. Unlike the unusually quiet BionX, the Kona motor always lets you know it’s there. It emits a sound that I can best describe as a moistened finger rubbing across glass – sort of a cat-like mewling. It’s not an unpleasant electric whine, but it’s a noise you probably wouldn’t miss if you turned the motor off and pedaled along without it.
Like my bike, the Kona motor is activated by pedaling, not by a handlebar throttle. There’s always some debate about whether a throttle or pedal activation is better. Since I’m used to pedal activation, I’ll admit being partial to it. Kona says they use a “Dutch design TMM torque sensor” to determine how hard you’re pedaling and how much additional assistance to kick in with the motor. During my ride it worked pretty smoothly, but wasn’t quite as responsive as the BionX system. In some cases, the motor continued to pull for several seconds after I had stopped pedaling. When you apply the brakes, the motor stops immediately, but I’m not sure how it knows to do that.
Another difference is motor vibration. With the motor directly under the handlebars, I felt small vibrations from this motor more distinctly than I do from mine. Is this a showstopper? Not at all. But does it diminish the illusion of bionic legs propelling me smoothly and quietly down the road? Well, yeah.
To test the bike’s hill-climbing abilities, I found a pretty steep section of road – several hundred yards at maybe 15% grade. My first attempt was successful, and the motor provided welcome help on the steep incline. I had to pedal a little harder than my bike, but in hindsight I realize I had the motor set on the middle assistance level. Changing to the highest assistance level might have provided more help. However, a fist-sized hub motor isn’t going to perform miracles. I decided to repeat the experiment so my wife could take some video of it. On my second ascent, the motor suddenly shut off about half-way up the hill. This was disconcerting — I’ve never experienced anything like that with the BionX motor. Thinking I had done something wrong, I made another attempt in a lower gear, but this time the motor was comatose during the entire effort.
Now I was worried that I had damaged something. Fortunately, the motor came back to life on the flat roads back to the bike shop. I am now pretty sure that the controller was purposely shutting down the motor to prevent damage from overheating. Unfortunately, there is no indicator on the Ute’s display that the motor is in an overheated state. Because of that, you’ll worry if it ever happens to you (which it may not). After a little cooling break, everything should return to normal.
Battery / controller
I’m pretty excited about the Ute’s battery. It is nicely integrated in the bike, and it’s big enough to provide ample range. The battery can be removed and taken to your office for charging, or it can be charged on the bike.
Although I didn’t have time to test it, the combination of a big battery and a small-ish motor should theoretically give the Ute good range on a single battery charge. The rider can adjust the assistance level by quick taps of the power switch behind the handlebar display. Obviously, range will increase with a lighter level of assistance.
The system uses a separate controller box mounted on the main stem above the crank, but it’s smaller and more refined than the Stoke Monkey controller. The handlebar display shows battery status, speed, mileage, and assistance level.
Due to the battery cut-out issue, I didn’t have the opportunity to haul a load up a hill. For my purposes, that would have been the most interesting (and most strenuous) part of my test drive. In lieu of that, I put both kids on the cargo deck (about 140 pounds total) and rode some laps around the parking lot. The bike handled this test well — no squeaks, no noticeable flexing, and no balance issues with the heavy load and high center of gravity.
Of course, cruising on this bike is the easy part. Starting and stopping was a slight challenge for me, because I’m accustomed to the low step-down of my Hammer Truck. With the Ute, I have to jump off the seat, tip the bike slightly (not a good idea with kids on the deck), or reach a tip-toe down. Despite a few wobbly moments, I felt pretty stable with the kids on the back.
But I probably wouldn’t make a habit of transporting more than one child on this bike. I carry both kids down our hill on my Hammer Truck, but I keep it slow — around 10 mph. Even with regenerative braking engaged, the brakes can get pretty hot. Attempting that trip with the Ute’s brakes would cause too much anxiety.
Although it has been helpful for me to structure this review using comparisons to my own bike, it’s not entirely fair given the Ute’s significantly lower price. I am personally excited by the Ute’s value and the potential to expand the cargo biking market.
If you want to see some clips of the bike in action, check out the video version of my review: