At the Detroit Auto Show this month, there were a lot of interesting vehicles, and even more uninteresting ones. But my favorite machine there wasn’t even a car. As we kept running all over the Cobo Center, I kept occasionally seeing these little Urb-E electric bikes zipping around. I was intrigued for two main reasons. One: I’d never seen anything like it in person. Two: I have the stamina befitting a man who writes for the internet, so I’d prefer to ride instead of walk.
Finally, near the end of our last day, we ran into a whole pack of the little things. Using the mysterious and ancient technique of “asking for permission,” I wound up getting to do a few laps on one. I wound up on the high performance Pro GT model, identifiable by the rad fire truck red paint job. As we remember from Radio Flyer, red is the fastest color.
These are about as basic of transportation as you can get. You get a seat, a battery, a motor, and a pair of wheels. The whole thing weighs 30 to 35 pounds, depending on model. The controls are pretty similar to a motorcycle or scooter, in that the throttle is twisted by your right hand, and you’ve got a brake lever on the right handlebar. However, instead of the whole handgrip rotating for the throttle, there’s just a small section that turns. Basically where your kill switch would normally be is now the throttle.
The riding experience is almost more bicycle than motorcycle, just because of the light weight. (Aside from the whole “not pedaling” part, anyway.) That light weight means that if you start overthinking it, the whole thing can get a bit wobbly. It’s not that the machine is unstable, more that because it weighs so little, it turns much easier than a full fledged motorcycle, and I kept tensing up.
I have laughably poor balance for someone who writes about two wheeled vehicles. Now, the Urb-E folks were very adamant that this is not a scooter, but is in fact a “foldable electric vehicle”. Part of that is due to wanting to distinguish themselves from Chinese copycats (which sounds like a rad band name), and part of it is due to the fact that scooters are generally seen to be, well, kind of fucking lame.
A few laps of a carpeted area indoors is not really enough to get a good sensation for how it operates, but the Urb-E was simple and predictable. It even handled the ramp up into the FCA area with ease. It certainly dives less under braking than some bikes I’ve been on. I even saw a local newscaster lock up the brake hard enough that I could smell the burnt rubber from twenty feet away. So, that’s neat.
All of the marketing material out for these is about their abilities for urban transportation. There’s plenty of photos of people using them for grocery shopping, or showing how small it folds up for carrying on the subway. For you coastland people, that might be valuable. But I live in Missouri. In the suburbs. We don’t really have a “downtown,” per se, so it’s hard to gauge the usability there.
But one of their guys, George Jackson, had a different angle on it that struck a chord with me. He saw them as an alternative to pit bikes for racetracks. Now, for those of you who don’t know, it’s common for race teams to bring small displacement motorcycles and scooters to tracks for running around the paddock. There winds up being a lot of ground to cover, and walking a half mile to the toilet gets old real quick.
The teams I know tend to bring Honda Groms, which I absolutely adore. They’re like naked sportbikes, but at one third scale. That means you can load up a few in the bed of a pickup, and ride them around crowds of people without being too obnoxious. So, is the Urb-E a viable alternative in the paddock?
On the street, the lack of performance from the electric not-scooter might be an issue, but at the track, it doesn’t matter. The top speed of 15-18 mph would be sufficient, as much more than that tends to upset the officials. A Grom will do significantly more than that, but again, people get cranky if you’re ripping it up between the trailers. Riding in the paddock is a privilege, not a right.
Price is another area where the Urb-E holds its own. While Groms are cheap, they still cost around $3,000. The Urb-E, on the other hand, can be had for as little as $900 if you go with the base model. That climbs to $2,000 if you want the top of the line model that I rode. But if you pinch your pennies, you could have three of the Sport models for the price of one Grom. Squad goals, or whatever the fleek kids are saying.
Purchasing multiple Urb-Es is probably the way to go, as there’s only one seat, unlike the Grom. Yes, you can totally have a passenger on the Honda. In Louisiana, I once shared a very cozy ride with another adult male, and it was perfectly serviceable. The Urb-E does not allow this. That’s either a positive or a negative, depending on your views.
But the biggest selling point of the Urb-E is its portability. The whole machine collapses down, as seen above, and weighs around thirty five pounds, depending on specs. I wouldn’t necessarily want to walk around all day with it, but that is certainly light enough to unload by yourself. As small as a Grom is, it still weighs well over two hundred pounds. That means you’re probably going to use a set of ramps for loading and unloading, which is another thing to transport.
Being electric, as opposed to gas powered, you do get instant torque, which is always a plus. Also, because the Urb-E folks are tech savvy Silicon Valley types, it can also be used to charge your various personal electrical devices, which is a neat touch. However, that does come along with the standard electric vehicle downside of recharging. They’ve got a range of 15-20 miles, which is probably enough for a race weekend. But if it’s not, you’ll need to figure out how to recharge it.
My mother owns a Prius. I don’t particularly enjoy driving it, or even riding in it a lot of the time. It’s very bad at the type of driving that I enjoy. However, that doesn’t make it a bad machine. It is very, very good at what it was designed to do. Similarly, my Kindle is atrocious to type on, but is excellent for reading. In this same vein, the Urb-E is good at what it is meant to do, and poor at what it is not.
As a low speed, portable means of transportation, it checks all the boxes. Sure, it can’t carry passengers, or go too quickly, or go very far. But as a runaround, there might actually be something to it. Forget wheeling it through Whole Foods to pick up some free trade, shade grown, gluten free, organic gravel. I’m trying to figure out how many of them we can wedge into the back of the race trailer.