Electric Ute official debut, Trek coming

Finally! It has been months – even years – since rumors of an electrically-assisted Ute cargo bike first surfaced on the web.  Kona recently posted its 2011 catalog online, and there it was: the Electric Ute in all its beauty.  At $2599, Kona has allowed the Yuba elMundo to keep its low-price crown ($2297 including tax and shipping).  However, the Ute and the elMundo are such different bikes, price should be among the last factors to consider if you’re choosing between them.  There have also been changes in the elMundo since I last wrote about it, so there are good reasons to take another look at both these bikes.

Kona Electric Ute

Kona Electric Ute - Click for larger image

Despite its workman-like name, the Ute gets my nomination for most beautiful cargo bike.  Kona has paid attention to the details, and the electronics are nicely integrated.  The Ute approaches my ideal of a bike and motor that were designed together.  Unfortunately, Kona’s marketing is a little coy about what their design target really is.  For example, the website introduces the Ute with this sentence: “The Electric Ute is a battery-assisted version of our very popular Ute, a long wheel base bicycle designed to carry loads of up to 100kg-perfect for transporting goods in the urban environment.” [their emphasis]

This might be an accurate statement in a superficial sense, but it deserves some careful disection.  If you live in an urban environment that is relatively flat, and if you can fit your load into the comparatively small Ute side bag, the Ute will be perfect for you.  On the other hand, if you manage to load 100kg (over 200 pounds) of cargo on the bike (that might require some creativity), you’ll find the motor is not powerful enough to help much on even moderate inclines.  During my test drive (see my in-depth review here), the motor shut down while climbing a short, steep hill of about 15% grade – no load, medium assistance level.  At first, I thought the failure was a battery issue, but now I’m pretty sure the controller was temporarily disabling the motor to prevent overheating.  If you live in Seattle or San Francisco, you may have to pedal up the steep hills without assistance from the motor, just when you want it the most.  I also have concerns about the ability of the front rim brake and rear disc brake to safely stop a heavy load in an emergency.

Kona’s description of the Ute ends with this: “Serious power for carrying heavier loads. Ditch the truck, people.”

I’m not a marketer (and thankful for that), but is it really necessary to hype the bike past the point of reasonable expectations?  I mean, the Ute is a great bike for commuters who have some extra stuff to carry.  It feels more like a normal bike than its bigger and heavier competitors.  Maybe those facts aren’t sexy enough for the marketing department, but this is a bike that could satisfy many customers.  The big question is how it will compare to Trek’s bike which will be released late this fall.  I’ll talk about that shortly.

Yuba elMundo

Yuba elMundo - Click for larger image

The elMundo has quietly undergone some changes since I corresponded with a company representative in late spring (here).  The only clue that the bike has had another transformation is the addition of “v3.0” to the bike’s name.  Photos on the website have not been updated.

Yuba has ditched its 750W motor from Aoetema and now uses a 500W motor from eZee instead.  The fact that Yuba mentions the brand of the motor on its website is progress, but I still have a question.  The only motor I know of from eZee is rated for 400 watts nominally, and about 800 watts peak.  Is the 500W figure quoted by Yuba fudging a little?  Not that I’m focused exclusively on the wattage of the motor: even at 400W, the geared eZee motor might deliver more power when it’s needed than the Aoetema motor.  But the effort to be scrupulously accurate on these specs would be a welcome development in the cargo bike market.

I would love to know what inspired the motor change, but I have a couple of guesses.  First, the eZee motor uses internal planetary gears, which should help deliver higher torque at low speeds for climbing hills.  The elMundo is a big, heavy bike (due to its high-tension steel frame), and it really needs a high-torque motor.  Yuba is also calling attention to the disc brake mount on the motor.  Although the standard elMundo comes with a rim brake on the front wheel and a disc brake on the rear, I would encourage anyone who intends to descend hills with a loaded elMundo to invest in a front disc brake. 

Interestingly, Yuba has removed any mention of cargo weight capacity from its descriptions of both the Mundo and elMundo.  The company previously claimed an absurd figure of 400 pounds, plus rider.  Although the frame may be able to handle that, it was hard for me to imagine the brakes (and perhaps the tires) would be capable of stopping that load in a reasonable distance.  If my complaints helped motivate this change, I am pleased.

As before, I must add a huge caveat to my descriptions of the elMundo.  Although I’ve read blogs and emails from people who are very happy with their Mundo bikes, I’ve never ridden one or even seen the bike in person.  The scarcity of Yuba dealers in my area makes that challenging.

The elMundo is also likely to have a competitor in the upcoming Trek bike, so I’ll move on to that.

Trek Transport+

Trek Transport+ - Click for larger image

The entry of bicycle behemoth Trek into the electric cargo bike market is huge news.  Trek’s annual sales are at least 100 times those of Kona, and I couldn’t even find sales figures for Yuba.  If Trek decides to put any weight into the marketing and support of their bike, other cargo bike manufacturers are likely to become asterisks in the margins, at least in the U.S. for the next couple of years.  Besides my bike, I’ve never seen an electric cargo bike being ridden in my city.  At this point, I’ll bet the first one I see will be a Trek.

With an MSRP of $2679, the Transport+ has the Ute squarely in its sights.  Like the Ute, the Transport+ includes a bunch of accessories at the base price: folding rear load racks, front rack, Bontrager Transport cargo bag, fender, wide-stance kickstand, front and rear lights.  With the front rack, rear side racks, and bigger cargo bag, the Transport+ appears to be more serious about hauling cargo than the Ute.

These features alone could justify the extra $80 for the Transport+, but Trek’s choice of motor is an even more compelling reason.  It comes with a beefier 350W motor which is essentially the same direct drive BionX motor I have on my bike.  This motor offers superior load-carrying and hill-climbing capabilities compared to the Ute. It is quieter, the pedal activation system works a little more smoothly (in my opinion), and it offers regenerative braking which takes some of the load off your brakes.  The advantage of direct drive (as opposed to planetary gears) is that the BionX motor is very, very quiet.  The downside, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, is that motor assistance starts to fade at speeds below 6 mph, and this can be a challenge when hauling a heavy load up a steep hill.

BionX has incorporated additional features since I bought mine a year ago.  When you turn the console light on, the lights in the front and rear of the bike turn on too, powered by the same battery.  On my bike, I have to flip at least 4 switches to turn lights on and off, and I have to keep all those separate batteries refreshed.  This is a welcome advance!

Trek explains their “Ride+” motor technology in a series of videos available here.  One of the videos mentions a 250W motor, but that’s a less powerful version than the one Trek is using for the Transport+.

Another feature I like about the BionX system is the integrated battery/controller.  If you compare the photos of the Ute and the Transport+, you’ll see the latter doesn’t need the extra black box mounted near the cranks on the Ute.  The console for the BionX also gives better feedback about the level of assistance requested and received from the motor.

It’s always easy to get excited about a bike when it’s merely a photo and a set of specs, so I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm for the Transport+ until I can actually ride one.  There are still opportunities for Trek to misstep.  But with an attractive bike, good technology, a large dealer network, and marketing muscle, it seems like this is Trek’s game to lose.  But we’ll all be winners if this bike helps bring cargo biking into the mainstream.

Big year for cargo bikes

A year ago I was shopping for an electric-assisted cargo bike.  None were available pre-built from a manufacturer.  The state of the art was an XtraCycle like the Surly Big Dummy driven by a Stoke Monkey, but it wasn’t easy finding a bike shop that wanted to build one for me.

Today we have ready-made electric bikes from two manufacturers, and the biggest U.S. bicycle company is about to enter the market.  I’ve been riding my bike almost daily for 11 months.  There have been few problems and virtually no close encounters with cars.  My blog receives over 1,000 unique visitors per month from all parts of the world (but mostly U.S. and Canada), indicating an encouraging level of interest in this transportation alternative.

Sometimes the pace of change seems slow, but looking back, a lot has happened this year.  I wonder where we’ll be next year about this time?