Napier Lopez is a writer based in New York City. He's interested in all things tech, science, and photography related, and likes to yo-yo in Napier Lopez is a writer based in New York City. He's interested in all things tech, science, and photography related, and likes to yo-yo in his free time. Follow him on Twitter.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: there’s no reason why bikes, even full-sized ones, need to take up so much space. Bikes are mostly super-thin devices — except for those pesky handlebars.
Charge, a respected bike company that ironically only began selling electric bikes a few months ago, seems to feel the same way. The company’s svelte lineup of three quite-different ebikes maintains one crucial feature: the handlebars and pedals fold, allowing the bikes to occupy a footprint just a few inches wide.
To illustrate, here’s how much space the bike takes up normally:
And here is in ‘folded’ mode:
I have no idea why more bike companies don’t do this, but it’s just one of the ways Charge tries to tackle its goals of making cycling more accessible and getting more people riding.
I’ve been able to test drive the Charge XC, the company’s most expensive (but still reasonably priced) model, over the past couple of months. With knobby tires and relatively beefy suspension, the bike is built to handle “gravel roads and dusty trails all day long.”
Instead, I opted to review the XC in normal city streets because, at $2,299, it’s actually one of the cheapest bikes you can buy with a high-end mid-drive motor and a decently large battery — in this case, a Shimano Steps E5000 with a 504 Wh of lithium juice. The Shimano Steps in particular system is known to provide some of the most efficient power delivery on ebikes, and getting a motor from any of the big four — Bosch, Shimano, Yamaha, and Brose — often means spending upwards of $3,000, especially if you want a decent set of accessories and components.
And yet a decent set of accessories and components is what you get. Bright lights, full fenders, a beefy rear rack, hydraulic disk brakes, and Goodyear tires with puncture protection are included. The 100mm Suntour coil suspension is nothing fancy, but it has a fair bit more travel than typical suspension forks on ebikes. Perhaps more importantly, it offers both preload adjustment and lockout options to allow you to tweak comfort to your preference.
Speaking of comfortable, the XC’s stock saddle is amazing. Bike seats can be much like shoes, but this one’s the first I haven’t swapped for my trusty Brooks Cambium. And in another thoughtful touch, the company even throws in some pressure indicator caps for your tires to let you know when you need to top up. It’s a small freebie that can add a lot of peace of mind for first-time ebike buyers.
Of course, the main selling point is those folding handlebars again. The two-step process is intuitive while feeling completely sturdy; I never felt like my ride quality suffered for the folding handlebars. The folding pedals are the plasticky kind you might find on folding bikes, but they get the job done while cutting down the size even more. The bike isn’t the lightest around at 55 lb, but I’ve seen similarly equipped bikes cross 65lbs.
The XC is a package that feels carefully considered every step to minimize the pain point first-time ebike buyers might have, many of them who may be buying their first bike ever. In fact, one of the best things about the bike might actually be the packaging. I mean, just watch the peppy assembly video.
Charge goes out of its way to make assembly ridiculously easy, even if you have no experience. Thanks to the pre-assembled folding handlebars and pedals, you only need a single tool for assembly — an included 5mm torque wrench — and the process literally took me less than 10 minutes to complete. Better yet, the packaging is completely recyclable and involved no annoying styrofoam or zip ties. Even opening the box is made easy, thanks to a couple of pull-tabs that slice open the box rather than forcing you to deal with the usual copious amounts of glue and staples.
That said, if this is your first bike, you might still want to ask your local bike shop to give the bike a check. My first unit arrived with the pedals assembled incorrectly, though Charge assured me this was a pre-release error that won’t happen again. My review unit, having been shipped to me early, didn’t go through the extensive checks production units go through. Unsurprisingly, my second bike arrived without a hitch.
All this thoughtfulness wouldn’t mean much if the bike rode poorly, but the XC is a blast– so long as you’re not expecting a motorcycle-with-pedals experience.
Unlike Charge’s other two models, which have Bafang hub motors, the XC doesn’t offer a throttle (few mid-drive bikes do). Instead, this is an ebike for people who want a ride akin to a regular bike — except one that gives you super legs. Shimano claims the 40 Nm of torque can provide up to 200% assistance, and being a mid-drive motor, it can leverage your gears for more efficient power delivery.
One of the things that make the XC a joy to ride is that Shimano Steps E5000 is perhaps the most discrete-feeling motor I’ve ridden yet. While it is perhaps a touch less responsive than Specialized’s custom motor in the Vado SL, the Shimano is even quieter when working at its max. One hardly even notices the motor other than the extra power.
Once I adjust the pre-load of the suspension fork, the suspension ate up NYC’s speed bumps and potholes. The relatively beefy fork may be a bit of overkill, but combined with the comfortable saddle, it made for a cozy ride through city streets — made even better when paired with Redshift’s excellent suspension seatpost.
Granted, the XC is nowhere near as powerful as the torquey Ariel Rider M-Class I recently reviewed, or perhaps even the hub motor in the Juiced CCX, but I was rewarded with one of the smoothest, most natural feeling ebike rides I’ve tried.
Another pleasant surprise is the range. Charge claims 50 miles on a, ahem, charge, but this figure is, refreshingly, quite conservative. I weigh over 250 lb, and I was able to achieve over 50 miles on single charge riding mostly in the ‘normal’ mode; I’m used to ebikes and scooters yielding about half their claimed range, not exceeding them.
In fact, the Shimano display claims that one could get over 100 miles on a single charge in eco mode. You’ll have to put in the work, but I have no doubt lighter riders could achieve such mileage. It’s also worth noting you can customize the motors power and battery performance further via Shimano’s E-Tube app, though I did not get to try this.
I do have nitpicks here and there:
- The Shimano Altus shifter is tried and trusted, but not the smoothest around. I got my pants dirty once, so a chainguard would be nice.
- I wish the bike were set to a 28mph limit rather than 20mph — the extra bit of speed helps me feel safer in city streets.
- Given the emphasis on out-of-the-box practicality, I’m a little surprised the bike doesn’t come with a bell (though that’s an opportunity to experience the heavenly chime of a Spurcycle).
- Charging the battery off the bike requires an unnecessarily cumbersome adapter. And some might complain about the small Shimano display, though I personally prefer the having less crowded handlebars.
But these are truly nitpicking. The Charge XC is a thoughtfully designed, good-looking, and reasonably-priced ebike. For riders looking for a comfortable, practical ride at a price that is easier to swallow than other ebikes with comparable mid-drive setups, there is nothing else quite like it. And did I mention it folds flat?
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