Choosing an e-bike – Buyers Guide
Your first e-bike is a big investment. Someone will probably say: “But you could have bought a car for that money!” So it’s worth getting it right. Also see “You get what you pay for, it is that simple“.
Step 1 – Understand what you will use it for
If you don’t really know, then you probably shouldn’t buy one.
This will help you narrow your choices substantially and add some criteria into your decision tree. This guide is mostly for people who will use their e-bikes for commuting, going to the shops or light touring (eg rail trails). For those who would prefer to buy a “real” eMTB that involves a different set of criteria.
Knowing how you will use the bike will tell us how much range you need the bike to do.
Set a budget too – from >$2,500 to >$10,000. You typically get what you pay for (but more is not necessarily right for your needs).
Step 2 – The basics
You want something comfortable that can carry you and your gear in a variety of conditions and last a few years. You probably want some biggish tyres, a rack on the back, built-in lights and mudguards. I can’t stress how much you want mudguards, because it sometimes rains and you don’t want your feet, bum and face to get soaked. Generally, the e-MTB frames don’t allow you to easily and properly retrofit mudguards and racks, or lights that are powered by the battery (although Lezyne has a $125 retrofit option now). (For light commuting you can adapt a eMTB but it might not be ideal).
Decide on the frame type – do you need a step-through style? More upright or more racey? Do looks matter to you, because some of the best bikes are ugly ducklings? What about the bike will spark joy?
Do you need to put your bike in the car, carry it up stairs? In which case a folding e-bike like the Onya might suit.
Bigger wheels are better for most purposes, so only go for a small-wheel bike if it meets a particular need. Smaller wheels may help you feel more confident at lower speeds as your centre of gravity is lower. For smaller riders this is a benefit.
Step 3 – The battery
The battery is likely the most expensive component on an e-bike, so it’s precisely where the ‘shaving’ might come from to reach a price point. So how much do you need?
Speed, headwinds, hills, and your weight (plus your gear), play a major part in determining how far you will go (in descending order of impact). Batteries deteriorate with age too, so make sure you have a contingency in mind. Mid-drive motors tend to be a bit more efficient than hub drive motors (because they can use your gears and make you pedal a bit) so you will likely get a little bit more range.
The only true way to tell is to use your intended bike on your intended route.
11Ah (~400Wh) battery will take you around 20-75km in a full charge.
13.8Ah (~500Wh) battery will go 30-90km.
Manufacturers post ludicrous ‘high’ numbers assuming you are using a very low assist level. Why not just say ‘infinite’ assuming the motor is off? It’s about as useful.
Many Euro bikes seem to go a long way which is often ascribed to the ‘more efficient’ mid drive motors. There is only a tiny bit of truth in it, mostly it is because these bikes are typically speed limited to 32km/h. At 35km/h most motors and motor types are similar in their power use as wind resistance becomes the major factor.
Step 4 – The motor
For on-road purposes, it doesn’t really matter too much where the motor is (front, rear or middle). What does matter is how the bike feels – more about that later.
The main types of motors are as follows:
- Geared rear hub. These are the most common on sub-$4000 bikes in NZ (eg Smartmotion eCity/Pacer, Magnum, Onya, Pedego, Hiko). They are relatively cheap and can be made quite ‘powerful’ for their size and weight. They tend to make a little bit of noise as there are internal gears and some electrically induced noise from cheaper controllers. Since you have a rear hub motor, you are restricted to derailleur gears. Punctures are nightmare with a rear hub motor, so be sure to get good puncture-resistant tyres.
- Geared front hub. eZee bikes use this configuration for Sprint and Torq, as do some cheaper imports, kits and Faraday. It enables internal hub gears and creates better balance when you are loaded up with panniers, child seats.
- Direct drive hub. Can be front or rear (Specialized Turbo up to 2016, Stromer, Grace). They are totally silent and can be fast but are heavy. That puncture comment again…
- Mid drive. This is the typical configuration for European bikes powered by Bosch (Haibike XDuro, Scott, Moustache, some Trek), Impulse (Kalkhoff, Focus), Yamaha (Haibike Sduro, Giant, Lapierre), Shimano Steps (Avanti, some Merida, some Trek) or Brose (Specialized Vado/Como, some Scott, Bulls). Bafang/Dapu/Shengyi also make mid drive units including units popular for aftermarket conversions and increasingly in full bikes too including newer Smartmotions (although they are different than the aftermarket drives). Mid-drive is arguably the best location as it allows for a balanced bike and it uses your gears, so you have a choice of gear types (eg hub gears, derailleur). However because it drives through your chain it requires more diligent maintenance and more frequent drive train changes. They are more complex so might also require engine maintenance or repair.
What we mostly care about, is if the motor can make it up our hills, and can it go fast enough for us? Almost all the mid-drive Euro bikes are speed limited to 30-32. Most NZ geared rear hub bikes can do around 32-38km/h. A few can go faster (Specialized Turbo and Vado at 42-45km/h, Giant Quick-e, Trek Allante). You want to try the bike on your route especially if you live near steep hills like in Wellington, Dunedin, Port Hills or West Auckland.
On watts: We have a 300W power restriction in NZ, and the way it gets interpreted is inconsistent. Bottom line is, don’t pay too much attention to Watts, try the bike for yourself. The controller (ie the ability to supply lots of current) is more important to power than the motor itself, and generally it is an invisible component. Same thing for Volts, though 48V is likely to give more grunt than the more common 36V. If you are interested in the history of ebikes and a discussion on watts and volts and batteries and more… read my interview with Wai Won Ching.
Step 5 – The feel and ride
You have to like the fit and ride if you are going to enjoy your e-bike. Assuming the bike fits, the feel of the ride is a combination of many factors including geometry, saddle and other contact points, quality of the frame/wheels/tyres/gears, the motor, its controller and sensors.
There are two main types of sensors:
- Cadence sensor – also known as ‘level set’. This detects if you are turning the pedals and gives power according to the setting on the controller. It typically comes in a bit of a rush, and the controller setting determines the assist level and hence speed. Most geared rear-hub bikes have cadence sensors, though that is changing slowly.
- Torque sensor – this detects how much effort you are putting in and effectively multiplies that. So the harder you pedal, the more assist the motor gives and the faster you go. Most mid-drive bikes have torque sensors.
The Smartmotion Catalyst and Pacer allow you to select between cadence and torque sensing. A nice feature.
Step 6 – Component Quality
The more you pay, the better quality componentry you can expect. If you intend to do high mileage, ensure the wheels are good quality (they will have eyelets around the spokes), especially if it is a rear hub drive. Rebuilding a bent or broken wheel will cost a few hundred dollars. Not such an issue for mid-drive bikes with regular hubs, you can buy new wheels off-the-shelf.
Hydraulic disk brakes are nice especially if you intend to ride fast or down steep hills. Bear in mind that you could go through a set of disk pads in 1000-2000km so make sure replacements are readily available. Most ebikes have Tektro brakes which are good and pads are readily available. Rim brakes are typically best avoided.
Tyres cost $30-70 to replace, so your major consideration is puncture resistance. Repairing a puncture on the road with a rear or front hub bike might not be practically possible for most mortals. Schwalbe Marathon/Plus/GT/Energizer are among the best out there. Think about this carefully if you are considering a rear-hub eMTB.
Gears don’t matter as much as you might think, especially with hub drives. Most of them will work just fine. More (up to 12) is a sign of quality of componentry while being vaguely useful (different story for eMTB).
Lights need to be up to the task. It is hard to change them out for something better. This is an area where cheaper bikes will suffer. Less of a problem if you only ride in the day time. If you are converting an eMTB to be a commuter you will likely need to add separately powered lights which is a bit of an extra hassle. It is possible to retrofit to Bosch motors
The saddle choice is personal – you could always ask your retailer to swap it out if you don’t like the one on the bike. Many bikes have sales that are just plain wrong so don’t feel embarrassed if the saddle doesn’t suit your geometry and anatomy. Some have a suspension seatpost which is a nice-to-have.
If you have a rack, it might limit the choice of pannier or top pack that you use. Pannier bags are convenient and can be bought as 100% waterproof. You might also want to consider a front basket. They are really convenient for small items.
Locks are another important thought. Built-in frame locks are great, better if you get the add-on chain and best if the same key works for lock and battery. Cable locks are useless so don’t bother.
An ebike represents a substantial financial investment – often cost justified over a few years use. Serviceability and ongoing support are vital. Do ask some questions of the supplier and retailer and their ability to provide spare parts on an ongoing basis – in a timely manner – which means spares available in NZ. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where an electrical component has failed a year out and is unrepairable, or the battery is not holding charge and you can’t buy a new one. There are lots of little bits to an ebike that you may not even think about.
Our market is being flooded by bikes imported directly by all-and-sundry, this is easy to do thanks to alibaba.com – heck you can even get them branded and customised with whatever you like. Don’t be fooled by ‘designed in NZ’ – it may not mean what you think. As far as I am aware, only Smartmotion and Onya are actually designed in NZ (and even then it’s mostly based on pre-existing frames and parts). If you want NZ to have a strong bike culture and industry, consider supporting local bike businesses that are here for the long haul.
Caveat emptor – buyer beware
We should also be honest, looks count too. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You want to love your bike and ride it daily, so please pick something you can see yourself using daily.
How long will it last?
Great question… In general, cheap bikes will not last as long as the more expensive bikes. This applies to major items like the battery, motor, electronics, wiring and bike componentry. There are tons of bits that you might not even think about including wires, connectors, MOSFETS, Hall Sensors… With cheaper bikes, expect a 2-3 year ownership cycle. For top-end, more likely 3-5 years. So perhaps $1k per year plus servicing as a total cost of ownership. Your mileage may vary…
Of course if you buy something direct from an importer who can’t support you, then maybe less.
What is a reasonable price?
As a rule-of-thumb, think of how much you would pay for a similar unpowered bike, with similar features and component quality. You’d be surprised at how much the electrics add to the cost (local costs being higher because there is a much higher likelihood of warranty support required for the electrics than the base bicycle). To this ‘base bike’ add the following: (list under development – feedback welcome)
- Basic hub motor (250W) and low-spec battery (<12Ah): $1500
- Better hub motor/higher spec battery: $1600-2000
- Basic mid-drive (Shimano STePS E6000, Bafang 500-750W conversions): $2000-2500
- Bosch Active Line (400Wh), Bafang OEM: $2200-2700
- Bosch Performance Line (500Wh), Yamaha, Impulse 2.0/Evo (>14Ah): $2500-3500
- Bosch Performance CX, Brose, Shimano Steps E8000: $2700+ depending on battery config