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Currie's electric beach-cruiser bicycle is priced right, goes the distance

December 3, 2009 | 12:18 pm

Currieizipurbancruiser It was with a certain amount of glee that I passed a guy on his Cannondale riding uphill on the IZip Urban Cruiser – he in a sweaty T-shirt gasping for breath, me in my usual work clothes, breathing only slightly faster than my usual rate.

"Is that," he panted, when he caught up to me at the light, "one of those," he continued, "bikes with a motor?"

"Mm hmmm," is all I answered, prompting the following relieved reply: "Good. I thought, ‘Wow, she’s in great shape.' "

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. If I were in shape, I probably would have been on the non-motorized bicycle I bought three years ago with the idea I’d use it to commute and run errands. Suffice to say, that bike spends most of its time in my living room.

I’m not the only person who feels this way. Electric-powered bicycles are one of the few bicycle categories that’s growing in this protracted and difficult-to-read recession. E-bicycles may be more expensive than many regular bikes, but the benefits are numerous. The electricity they require is minuscule, so their carbon footprint is small. There’s no need for registration or insurance. Repairs can be done at a bicycle shop. And their operation is, quite assuredly, no sweat.

The Urban Cruiser I was riding is a power-assist model, meaning riders aren’t entirely off the hook for exercise. They need to pedal for the motor to kick in, but, if they’re on flat ground, they don’t have to pedal that hard. There are five levels of assist to compliment the bike’s eight gears, all of which are modulated by Currie’s proprietary torque measurement method – a sensor built in to the rear of the frame that detects how much force the rider is putting on the chain so it can direct the level of assistance from the motor. The bike’s maximum speed: about 15 miles per hour. Its range: about 20 miles per charge.

The DC brushless motor is, like most electric two-wheelers, embedded in the rear wheel hub. The 24-volt lithium-ion battery pack is stuffed into the down tube of the aluminum frame. Both provide a level of stealth designed to lure potential bicycle commuters who want the boost of an electric motor but not the attention. There’s no look-at-how-eco-I-am Prius styling here. As its name indicates, the IZip Urban Cruiser looks like a garden-variety beach cruiser, with its pull-back handlebars, wide-tread tires and chunky tattooed frame. The only indication that it’s electric is the thickness of the frame, the width of the rear wheel hub, the electronic controls on the left grip – and the fact that riders are moving a lot faster than they should considering the speed at which their pedals are turning.

The real name for this cruiser is the inelegant and absurdly long IZip Urban Cruiser Enlightened Low Step. That gives it more names than a native Spaniard, but there is a reason. In combination, they reveal the specific intent of this particular bike. "IZip" because that’s the name of Currie’s higher-end line, "urban" because it’s for city use, "cruiser" because it’s best on slowish, flattish roads, "enlightened" due to its aluminum frame and relative light weight compared with other e-bikes and "low step" for its step-through, i.e. women’s, frame design.

Such a specific title has another point: It distinguishes this model from the other 19 e-bikes in Currie’s extensive lineup. Chatsworth-based Currie Technologies, founded in 1998, is one of the oldest and largest U.S. manufacturers of electric-powered bicycles. Priced at $1,899, the Urban Cruiser is in the middle of the company’s price range. The rest of its bikes range from $499 to $3,499.

I really enjoyed the Urban Cruiser in the few weeks I had it, using it to chase my daredevil of a 6-year-old, who just mastered control of his BMX bike without training wheels and is now an Evel Knievel in the making, and also to commute the six miles from my home to The Times, which took me even less time than it does in my car due to traffic.

What I liked is that it was intuitive and easy to operate, just like a bicycle. There isn’t a throttle, just grips, a gear shift, pedals and a left-grip control pad with buttons to moderate the power assist. The bicycle components -- the gear shifter and front disc brake -- worked well.

The power-assist worked as intended about 95% of the time; sometimes, there was a one-second lag between the time I pushed the button to request more or less and when it actually kicked in, but I didn’t consider that a deal breaker.

Personally, I wish the motor had more juice to help me up even steeper hills and a bit more speed to get out my ya-yas, but that’s not the purpose of the IZip Urban Cruiser Enlightened Low Step. E-riders who regularly tackle bigger hills will want to check out the 24-speed Trailz Enlightened – or wait until next spring when Currie introduces an e-bike with a more powerful motor.

But for $1,899, it works well. In fact, I’d say it’s a serious contender for my business since I’m actually in the market for an electric bike. I recently had solar panels installed at my house and hope to eventually buy a plug-in car. I just need to make sure my premillennial Volvo with 213,000 miles on the odometer will last me until a decent, i.e. affordable, electric car comes on the market, and I’m thinking an economical electric bicycle can help extend my car’s life until that happens. Like a lot of people these days, I’m looking for low-cost, low-impact transportation, and this electric bicycle is a good option.

2009 Currie Technologies IZip Urban Cruiser Enlightened Low Step
Base price: $1,899
Powertrain: DC brushless geared hub motor with power assist, 24-volt / 10-amp-hour lithium ion battery pack, 8 speed
Range per charge: 23-30 miles
Time required to fully recharge: four to six hours
Expected life of battery pack: 600-1,200 charges
Weight: 51 pounds

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Currie Technologies

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