First Ride

2017 Urb-E Sport GT First Ride | Charging through the last mile

An optimistic futurist’s electric runabout.

  • Engine
    36V Electric Motor
  • Power
  • Transmission
  • 0-60 Time
    Maybe if you drive off a cliff
  • Top Speed
    14 mph
  • Drivetrain
  • Engine Placement
    Front Hub
  • Curb Weight
    30 LBS
  • Seating
    1, uncomfortably.
  • Cargo
    Put a basket on it
  • As Tested Price
It's not how I expected to be cruising on Woodward Avenue, boulevard of traditional Detroit muscle, on a gorgeous fall day. I was on the sidewalk, going about 8 or 9 miles an hour, headed for a restaurant miles away but laser-focused on an area about 20 feet in front of the Urb-E Sport GT's eight-inch solid rubber tires. That's exactly how far ahead I needed to see in order to avoid any imperfection in the concrete bigger than a quarter, for fear of being bucked off. With no give in the tires, no suspension save a tiny coilover nestled under the rear seat, a wheelbase shorter than a child's stride, and no gyroscopic effect keeping things shiny side up, it takes concentration to ride the Urb-E. And then I saw the bricks.

Let's back up a bit. We first saw the Urb-E at CES. Smitten by its unusual, space-efficient design, range, and the obvious craftsmanship, we ordered one. So this Sport GT is ours, to give us an opportunity to fully explore the "last mile" concept. In a futurist's urban utopia, mass transit drops you off on the outskirts of a carless, walkable downtown core. It's some portable conveyance like this Urb-E that takes you the final bit to your destination. Since you're not sparring with semi trucks and phone-addled crossover drivers, it's safe. And since the Urb-E is electric, it's green, too. So, what better place to try one out than Detroit, a city where mass transit means more cars, and the last mile is what you spend circling around Comerica Park looking for parking?

To frame it a different way: You can easily imagine how the Urb-E and similar EV scooters make sense in, say, San Francisco — unfolding one, getting off a BART train and cruising a mile or so to your office. But if it has utility in a place like Detroit, a place where having a car is basically a necessity outside of a few neighborhoods, maybe there's a chance for the last-mile concept in America.

honda motocompo scooter

The portable scooter is not a new idea. We're fairly obsessed with the Honda Motocompo, a little folding gas scooter sold as an accessory for the Honda City hatchback back in the early 1980s. It wasn't nearly as light as the Urb-E, at 100 pounds full of fuel versus a bantam 30 pounds for our Sport GT, but it oozed nerdy Japanese coolness. Two-stroke engines aren't very 2017, so the Urb-E's a better fit for our more eco-conscious worldview these days. It's 8.25aH, 36v lithium ion battery doesn't spew anything during our drive, but who knows what it took to make it?

Perhaps you've heard of the concept of mechanical sympathy, a human's ability to be kind to machinery, and incidentally a phrase apparently coined by Sir Jackie Stewart. The Urb-E, at least in the configuration we bought, needs a lesson in being sympathetic to living things. The tiny, hard tires turn every sidewalk seam into a donkey kick to your backside. Only on the smoothest patches can I work up the gumption to go flat out. There's zero trail in the front wheel relationship to the solid forks, so doing this is entering a low-torque wrestling match with the handlebars, fighting the castering effect. You could certainly call it communicative steering: every surface is telegraphed up the solid forks, which carry the battery, and any twitch of your hands is telegraphed down. It's as frenetic and stressful as it is involving — and yes, fun.

Realizing I've hit something faster than 10 mph on what amounts to half a shopping cart with a motor is actually exhilarating, for a moment, until I see those bricks. Cranking on the single handbrake actuates a tiny caliper, which grabs an equally tiny disk. Stopping power is really limited only by the mediocre traction afforded by an ant-sized contact patch. The solid tires just don't have a lot of grip. They squirm and spin under acceleration, partly because it seems natural to put more weight over the rear puck when the hub-mounted motor is actually up front. We've eaten up a lot of the tread simply riding it around on the office carpet. There's a tiny rubber patch right by my desk. (If the facilities manager asks, it was already there.)

The bricks turn the Urb-E into a paint-shaker, but somehow I stay on. It doesn't fold in half, it doesn't send me over the bars. It's not comfortable, but the Urb-E and I muddle through together. I look down for a split second at an Urb-E-branded RAM Mount holding my iPhone, which somehow hasn't jittered off. (A good test for the RAM Mount, which it passed.) 2.6 miles to go, down Woodward Avenue's sidewalks, and I've got what appears to be half a charge left. I'm glad I'm not there yet. Wrangling this mess of contradictions is a fun challenge, but lose concentration for a second and risk an endo.

It should be mentioned that Urb-E makes a different, (much) more expensive version of this scooter that looks to address some of the instability and roughness endemic to our Sport GT. The Pro and Pro GT weigh 5 pounds more, but gain a whopping 4 miles of claimed range. They also feature pneumatic tires and rear drive. Urb-E claims the Pros are better for rough, uneven terrain like grass and dirt, but given how the standard Urb-E rides, it might be wise to fit some pneumatic tires to the standard versions as well. There's a reason we don't roll around on solid rubber tires on anything more substantial than a skateboard anymore. Solid tires suck.

The Urb-E, for all its faults, fulfills its brief pretty well. To wit: The Urb-E made it to the restaurant right on time, having left about 10 minutes before the rest of the party (in cars) to go about 3 miles. Not shabby. And, at the restaurant, it was folded in half and tossed in the trunk of our long-term F-Pace. Even with that SUV's awkward load-floor hump to clear its full-size spare, the Urb-E fit OK. Folded, it's 39.5 inches tall and 15.5 inches deep at the wheels, and 11.5 inches wide. Think: smaller than a golf bag, larger than a briefcase. Back at the office, unfolding it takes just a moment. Turn the key, hit the red button and twist the throttle. I rode it through the front door, right into the elevator, and then into a cubicle to plug in for the night. Last mile, indeed.

One thing worth mentioning is the cost. To set the stage, a good folding bicycle is well under $1k. A Razor A scooter is about $30; its electric cousins are about $200 and will go about 10 miles on a charge in ideal conditions. The Urb-E Sport GT, which is made in California and is clearly derives some value from being a desirable tech gadget rather than a purely utilitarian conveyance, starts at $1,099. To be fair, it folds up into a tidier space than a folding bike and has a lot more range than a typical EV scooter. The battery unclicks and can be hauled inside, or swapped out – it can also charge your device on the go through it's USB port, if you can route the cables in a way that won't hamper the steering. It's also beautifully built – the frame is a lovely thing, solid and imposing like a railway bridge. But cheap, it's not. And the versions with pneumatic tires are even more expensive. Any purchase decision must balance the cost and imperfect ride quality with the cool factor and utility. There's also, of course, just walking. That's free, but less fun.

On the way to dinner, I thought of the perfect use case for the Urb-E in Detroit and its suburbs, about as far away from the West Coast techtropolises this thing was designed for as you can get. The Woodward Dream Cruise stretches for most of the distance between Pontiac and Detroit, a traffic jam of shiny muscle. It's tough to drive through and a long way on foot. A bicycle is a good way to get around, but if it's really hot, something like this Urb-E might be just the ticket. Park off the route, unfold it, and ride in. Just don't gawk on the move.

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