Editorial Note: Apologies for the delay in this review, earlier this year I was in a bike accident – not with this bike, I should add – that left me with a months-long concussion.
I am a proud townie. I don’t mind the odd nature walk, but I’m far happier striding for hours at a time through cities, coffee in hand. I loved walking from law school in the center of London back to my apartment, six miles away, through the hustle and bustle. That’s possibly why I feel such a kinship with Honbike’s Uni4. It’s an elegant, efficient and beautifully-designed city e-bike of the future that is a joy to ride, just so long as you never think about taking it out of its comfort zone.
I won’t lean too hard into the “unique design” angle because plenty of bikes eschew the usual diamond frame template. It’s undeniably eye-catching, with a crossbar running from the headset / head tube down to the rear wheel, which then appears to bleed into the chain stay. I quite like the commitment to making it look as if it’s one continuous structural unit, even if it is divided by a wheel. The chunky crossbar gets much of its strength from the 432Wh worth of battery inside, which promises a top range of 100 km or 62 miles. The squared-off tube ends and built-in front light gives it a look and feel best described as “VanMoof-y.”
The Uni4 costs $1,699 in the US and £1,799 here in the UK, less than the £2,000 you can pay for a half-decent e-bike. Honbike hasn’t scrimped too obviously, with a Gates carbon belt drive with a quoted life of 10,000 km. There are Tektro Aries disc brakes on custom, six-spoke wheels that make it look like you’re riding a sport bike. The front and rear fenders are included although the instructions do tell you to put the front fender on backwards. There’s an integrated front light but only an aftermarket, battery-powered rear light bolted onto the seat. It’s less than ideal, but the logic for why it’s there is obvious: With no top tube, there’s nowhere to install an integrated rear light that’s high enough to be visible at night.
Integrated into the headset is a dot matrix display that’s supremely bright and perfectly visible in bright sunshine. There’s a small control unit on the left hand grip where you’ll turn it on, run the lights and set your power level. On the right, a built-in throttle will activate walking assist mode and give you a tiny shot of power from a standing start.
There are plenty of e-bikes costing around two grand that often feel a little phoned in, and no, I won’t name names. But for every standout like the gorgeous Raleigh Trace, there are plenty that look like their manufacturer took an old road bike, added a rear wheel motor, bolted a battery onto the downtube, and called it a day. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect the industry to up its game – and the big brands are getting better – in the face of better-designed competition. The Uni4 is a better-looking bike than lots of those in its price bracket and, I’d say, looks like it costs a little bit more than you’ll actually pay.
The bike is hewn from 7,000-series aluminum and weighs about 20 kg or 44 pounds, which is a little heftier than it may look. It's a two-handed job to lug it about, and so you probably wouldn’t want to carry this up several flights of stairs on a regular basis.
I often wonder to what extent we should judge a bike upon the merits the company itself sets for it versus a more general-purpose view. The Uni4 is marketed as a city bike, engineered to eat up the long, flat stretches of asphalt between us and our destination. It’s no surprise – because I already tipped my hand here – that it’s ideally-suited to that environment, comfortably cruising along the road whenever and wherever I chose to go. In fact, judged on that merit alone, if you’re only ever riding this on the road (or a dedicated cycle lane) you can just order one right now. When the electric assist is off, the Uni4’s essentially the world’s most overbuilt single speed, and it works in that configuration, too. If you’re on flat, well-paved roads, then you should feel very comfortable that you’ll get where you need to go quickly and easily.
It’s only when we take a more general-purpose view and test the Uni4 out of its comfort zone do you see its weaknesses. Like many townies, it starts to struggle the further from civilization you get, even if you’re well within the boundaries of a city. Not far from where I live, there’s a path through a small wood that you can use to cut the distance between two major roads. It’s a well worn path, and on sunny days it’s a (mostly) flat and dry stretch that’ll save you 10 minutes or more. Sadly, even the gentlest of terrain will pose a problem because there’s no suspension or shock absorption, shaking your bones to a fine powder. Afterward, I took the bike to some tree-lined residential avenues, the sort where the roads are only relaid once every three or four decades. The trees have had time and opportunity to burrow across the road and make the terrain less than smooth as a consequence. Your municipality may be fine with potholes and uneven roads, but take it as read that the Uni4 is not.
You’ve noticed, too, I’ve mentioned flat roads a few times, because you’re not going to get too much help up hills. There are only three acceleration modes, and no fine-grain control beyond to help you get more power where you need it. Here in Norwich, there’s a daily savage hill that, up one side, has an incline of between 11 and 14 degrees, while its opposite hits 22.4. It’s so steep that it’s the site of an annual endurance cycling competition, and seemed an ideal place to test the Uni 4’s gyroscopic uphill assistance. Essentially, the bike is meant to know the gradient you are cycling up, and automatically adjust the power to suit your needs. Yeah.
For the gentler side, it’s doable, but you can expect far less help from the bike than you might expect. The company says it’ll run between nine and 12 mph on a 18 degree incline, but only if the rider’s maximum weight is 90kg. Sadly, I’m a few kilos over that figure, and so I really had to work for every little bit of help, leaving me fairly sweaty by the time I’d reached the summit. For the latter, however, you’ll struggle to go more than halfway up before the bike simply refuses to continue. During my testing, a pair of dudes in a panel van were hooting with sadistic glee as I tried, and failed, to motivate the Uni4 to climb any further. This isn’t a dealbreaker, since there aren’t too many really nasty hills in the center of most towns and cities. But you might need to plan your route to avoid anything too extreme during your morning commute.
While I’m piling on, the bike is designed to look like a single piece of metal that curls into itself. The lack of a second tube means there’s less of an obvious mounting point around the frame when you need to lock it to a public rack. Instead, you’re forced to wrap the chain around the wheel mount and then back again to try and create something that feels secure enough to leave. You can also electronically “lock” the electric assist, but that won’t stop the wheels from turning, leaving an enterprising thief with at least something usable. Given the cost of one of these things, the fact so little thought had been given about safely storing one is a bugbear.
Honbike says the 432Wh battery will squeeze out around 62 miles, or 100km in range via that 250W motor. Naturally, that’s in the best possible conditions with the lightest rider and the least amount of electric assist available. Here, in the real world, you can expect that figure to fall by a fair amount, and the company has tuned the motor to emphasize a smooth, gentle ride over world-beating power. You’ll pretty much find that the bike will just keep you gently cantering around at 10 mph in all but the highest power setting. You can push things to the current legal limit of 15 mph if you want, but you’d rarely need that sort of power unless you’re going hard in heavy traffic and need to work your legs. But I found that – as a heavier, more power-hungry rider – that my range would be closer to 30 miles on a single charge.
And here’s a nice thing: Honbike may have a perfectly fine app, it’s also completely inessential. The built-in display will give you most of all the information you’d need to access, including your speed and a basic battery monitor. If you want, and you splash out for a smartphone mount, then the app can show you a local map, your speed, distance and trip duration. At the end of each trip, it’ll also tell you how much carbon dioxide you’ve saved by cycling, if you really need the boost to your eco credentials.
If I have one other concern, it’s about how riders will be able to keep this bike running for a very long time. An end user can buy replacement tyres and inner tubes, brake pads, pedals, fenders and the front and rear lights, from the company’s online store. While brake cables that are run through the frame are an annoyance, it’s a common issue on high-end bikes, and most repair stores can handle it with little bother. But, for the other key parts, including the wheels, the motor and the battery, it appears that Honbike recommends you send it in to its service center. I don’t necessarily blame the company for getting nervous about user-repairs to power units, since the risk is fairly significant.
It’s worth saying that more of this piece has been focusing on the Honbike’s flaws rather than its strengths. Which is a bit of an irony, really, since riding around on this thing has been pretty much a joy from start to finish. It’s just that it’s very much designed to be the apex predator in a single environment, and so you need to be aware of that before you buy. But if what you want and what you need is a bike that’ll get you from one end of the city to another, in an elegant and painless manner, then there’s plenty of reasons to buy one. Especially when you look at other bikes in this sub-two-grand bracket and realize that, as limited as it may be, it’s also a real looker.