With apparently 50% of the UK population considering buying an electric bike – admittedly I got that figure from Bosch, which makes motors and batteries for electric bikes – the rush is on to supply great e-bikes at an affordable price. The latest contender that I've been able to trial is the Xiaomi Mi Smart electric folding bike – exclusive to Halfords in the UK, but available worldwide. And it is superb value for money.
Sure, the upcoming Pure Electric Pure Flux One – another great example of an affordable electric bike – looks considerably funkier and has a slightly sillier name. However the Xiaomi Mi Smart costs only a little more and is a folding electric bike.
Xiaomi's target market here is people who want an electric Brompton, but don't have the necessary cash. The Mi Smart folding electric bike is less than half the price of a Brompton and yet, if you look at it from the side of your eye and squint, it looks kind of like one. I took the Mi Smart for a spin around the mean streets of London's Elephant and Castle to see what it could do, and whether it deserves a spot in our Best electric bike top 10.
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Okay, let's get this out of the way right now. This is not the most stylish electric bike. It looks like several lengths of metal drainpipe, welded together. It looks like a child's drawing of a bike. It looks like someone studied the Brompton folding bike and said, 'how can we make this look even less sexy?'
However, we can also say that the Xiaomi Mi Smart looks very distinctive. People will not forget the image of you blurring past them on a shrunken, angular bicycle with teeny tiny wheels. 'There goes a true individual,' they will say.
More importantly, the sacrifices Xiaomi has made in terms of aesthetics mean that its electric folding bike is very compact and folds down very effectively. The riding position is not bad at all. It's a little cramped perhaps, but I'm 6ft1 and I didn't find I was kneeing myself in the face on every upstroke of the pedals, or anything like that.
In terms of looks, the Xiaomi Mi Smart folding electric bike is distinctly odd – I'm being as diplomatic as I can here. However in terms of practicality, it's great, especially given the relatively paltry sum of money it costs.
Electric bikes are eco-friendly and a form of outdoor exercise. Of course, their real winning feature is that if you don't feel like exerting yourself too much, they have an electric motor to help you along.
That motor means e-bikes can be rather bulky, but the most important thing to note about the Mi Smart is it folds up remarkably small and is light by e-bike standards at about 15kg. That means you can take it on public transport, and when you reach your office or home, you can fold it up and hide it away, rather than leaving it chained outside to face theft and/or damage.
I found this bike very easy to fold up. I didn't even read the instructions first; that's the kind of devil-may-care libertine I am. Admittedly, that's because I've used a Brompton and this folds up in very much the same way. First the back wheel flips under and up, to clip to the front wheel, and then the handlebars flap down to join their circular buddies.
You then drop the saddle down, which holds everything in place. You can also use it as a kind of saddle-shaped handle, to wheel your folded-down steed along. This doesn't work anything like as well as with a Brompton as this doesn't have Brompton's patented stabilising wheels on the back. But, you get what you pay for.
To test both the Xiaomi's practicality and my own cardio vascular system, I carried the Mi Smart up the steep and massive staircase of the Jubilee Bridge in London's embankment, and then attempted to wheel it around the buskers, beggars and graffiti artists who congregate on said bridge. Wheeling the folded bike in a straight line is not the easiest thing, so it ended up being more of a combined carry-and-wheel. But hey, I made it across without serous injury or inconvenience.
What's the Xiaomi Mi Smart folding electric bike like to ride though? Well again, my answer is, 'surprisingly good'. You can't compare it with something like a GoCycle G4i in terms of riding pleasure but again, you have to consider how affordable this is in comparison to that. The main thing is that Xiaomi's powertrain gets you from 0-15.5mph – the legal assisted speed limit for all electric bikes, regardless of price – without any fuss and then lets you cruise along like a boss.
There's the usual choice of three power levels. All e-bikes have this, and yet I have never heard of anyone ever using any setting other than the top one. The maximum range is 25 miles.
There are some slightly crap things about the Mi Smart. It has a torque sensor, which Halfords says means the power output of the Mi Smart should intelligently match your pedalling. However, I have to say that power actually surged up and down, pretty much regardless of what my legs were doing. Given that the top speed is only 15.5mph these were fairly gentle surges, mind you.
As well as the electrical power settings, there are also three mechanical gears. These range from 'slow' to 'barely moving'; they're for getting you moving at the lights, or for an easier ride on hills, rather than powering on past 15.5mph. I soon gave up trying to go fast on the Mi Smart. Instead I just chilled the fudge out and enjoyed the mid-paced ride. Ooh yeah.
The bike whirrs along in near silence and one positive side effect of small-wheeled bikes is that they always feel nippier than they actually are. Also, since the brakes are calliper rather than disk, you probably wouldn't want to go too fast anyway.
The bike's design does throw up some initial challenges when riding it. The tiny wheels and low bottom tube meant hopping up on to curbs seemed more or less impossible. I also wouldn't want to hit a pothole on this bicycle – but then again, I wouldn't want to hit a pothole on any bicycle.
There are some lights built very neatly into the bottom tube of the Mi Smart, which is great, but they are unusually near to the ground as a result of that placement. I think I'd probably add a pair of additional lights rather than using them on their own.
These are all fairly minor quibbles given the bike's low price and folding powers, though. With hub gears, built-in lights and a quiet but powerful-enough, brushless motor, you really are getting a lot of bike for your money here.
Overall, if you're looking for a cheap, folding electric bike, I don't think you can go wrong with the Xiaomi Mi Smart. Halfords offers up to 12 months interest-free credit on it, lifetime safety checks at its numerous stores, various care plans and can also sort out purchase via the Cycle To Work scheme, saving you up to 42% on the Mi Smart's already low price.
The bike has certain flaws in terms of looks and comfort, but they're unavoidable on this kind of folding bicycle, and an acceptable compromise given the Mi Smart's value and convenience.